Monday, September 29, 2014

Writing Rituals, Order and Routine

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Over the last couple of months I witnessed first hand the power of order and ritual in my writing - or, more correctly, I witnessed what happens when order turns to disorder and the ritual of planning and creating disappears. All this because I agreed to step up and volunteer to be president of my sons' elementary school parent teacher organization and in a giant 'poof!' of hot air all my creative order and energy disappeared with it. 

Taking stock after a couple of months I now realize just how important order, routine (and time!) is to my creativity - and how I have to reclaim them all, in order to re-establish the balance we all struggle to maintain between our writing life and our 'other life'.

This fact was solidified when I read David Brooks' op-ed in the New York Times entitled 'The Good Order' - though this opinion piece veers into politics - it was the idea that creative people need to build and maintain their own order and routine that resonated with me - as well as the fact that doing so can be surprisingly hard (which the last few months have certainly demonstrated!). This op-ed piece also referenced a book entitled 'Daily Rituals: How Artists Work" complied by Mason Currey (whose website on creative people's daily routines I encourage you all to visit - if only to read first hand how many artists face their work with deliberation, ritual and routine). 

Many writers establish very strict routines in order to get their writing done. Anthony Trollope was at his writing desk by 5:30am and insisted on completing 250 words every fifteen minutes for the few hours he had before his day job started at the post office. Trollope produced a staggering 49 novels in 35 years writing this way. Stephen King gets up at the same time each day, has a glass of water and his vitamins, and sits at the same seat at his desk, where his papers are arranged in the same way each day, before he starts to write. King says this helps tell his mind this is time to start dreaming (a sentiment I love by the way!).  When John Grisham was first starting out, he would arrive at his legal office by 5:30am each weekday to write with a goal of completing a page a day. He says his rituals then were "silly and brutal but very important".

Since volunteering my time and seeing it evaporate just as quickly, I now need to reestablish a new set of writing rituals and routines. I've never been one to have any real ritual beyond what I call the art of showing up with my bum in the seat and my fingers on the keyboard each day - but now I need to establish a new order and a renewed sense of discipline. I'm even contemplating setting my alarm clock so I won't be able to let my volunteer time bleed into my creative time. 

So I'm turning to you my TKZers - how do you set your writing routine? Have you had to 'reset' that routine when circumstances changed and you suddenly found your writing time being eroded? If so, how have you gone about establishing a new routine or order?  

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Creating Characters We Care About

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


Today's post is brought to you by:



I mention the book today because it's the story of the bond between two brothers. Chuck Samson, an ex-Navy chaplain who served with a Marine unit in Afghanistan; and his adult, autistic brother, Stan, who has a heart as big as the Pacific. And what happens when killers come after them both.

This bond is something I call the Care Package, a story element that greatly enhances reader connection to the Lead.

The Care Package is a relationship the Lead has with someone else, in which he shows his concern, through word or deed, for that character's well being.

This humanizes the Lead and engenders sympathy in the reader, even if the Lead happens to be a louse.

Let me give you a few examples.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is not just some lone rogue. She is the protector of and provider for her mother and sister, Prim. What she does in taking Prim's place in the Games is the ultimate sacrifice of love. When she makes it, we are so much on her side that we will follow her anywhere, rooting for her all the way.

In Star Wars, the only reason Luke will not leave with Obi-Wan Kenobe is that his aunt and uncle need him on the farm. Here's a boy who dreams of becoming a knight, but he can't just leave his family. We like that in him. It shows nobility. Shortly thereafter, of course, his aunt and uncle are murdered…and Luke is off to fight the evil Empire.

Dorothy Gale cares about Toto in The Wizard of Oz. She'll do anything to protect her innocent dog from the clutches of Miss Gulch.

Having a Care Package relationship keeps a character from being completely selfish. We don't like such folk. We hope that we are not that way.

Scarlett O'Hara, for all her dithering selfishness, cares about her mother and father.

Mike Hammer, not the softest of PIs, cares about Velma.

Even the bitter and bigoted Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) in Gran Torino cares…about his dead wife. It is only because of her final wishes that he even tolerates the young priest who keeps showing up to check on him.

The Care Package is one of the reasons we watched Breaking Bad. Walter White engages in a truly despicable act — cooking super crystal meth for sale on the street. Yet he holds some degree of sympathy. He gets into the trade
because he's dying of cancer and wants to provide for his wife and handicapped son.

But as the story progresses, Walt becomes more ruthless and drags his former student, Jesse, into this dark world.

And yet…and yet…whenever Jesse gets in real trouble, Walt tries to get him out of it. He cares about Jesse in spite of all that happens. And Jesse cares about Mr. White. They forget about this caring at various times when they want to kill each other, but it always comes back when the chips are down.

Now that is good writing, and a great lesson. You can have a criminal as your Lead, and if you give him a Care Package, you'll still hook the reader. 

In short, the Care Package shows that even the worst characters have some shred of humanity in them which gives the readers hope they might, if circumstances are just so, be redeemed.

In my workshops on structure I stress the difference between the Care Package and a later beat called Pet the Dog. The latter is something that happens in Act 2, when the Lead takes a moment out of her own troubles to help someone weaker than herself. In The Hunger Games, for instance, Katniss helps the weakest of the players in the Games, little Rue.

The Care Package, by contrast, is a relationship the Lead has before the story begins. Thus, sometime early in Act 1, we are given a glimpse of this bond.

A word to you plotters/outliners. Consider using a Care Package as the emotional starting point for your developing story. That's what I did with Don't Leave Me. I got the initial idea of writing about a former military chaplain. I started to think about his backstory, and almost immediately came up with the idea of his having an autistic brother he has protected all of their lives, and now must do again when killers arrive on the scene.

It was such a strong emotional tie for me that it incentivized my wanting to write the entire novel, just to vindicate this relationship.

And now you pantsers, as you are writing along, maybe 10,000 words into that wonderful mess you love, why not pause for a moment and consider the lead character who is starting to come to life? You don't have to worry about structure here, just ask yourself what kind of relationship can this Lead have with someone else that shows a caring spirit?

Heck, you're a panster! Go ahead and write a scene like that. The benefit to you is the greater emotional connection you'll have with your Lead. And that's going to make for a better book.

And just to complete today's commercial, please note that Don't Leave Me is currently on sale at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.

So what character in recent fiction have you been drawn to, and why? 


Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Dispute Continues...



The author debate over the Amazon vs. Hachette business disagreement proceeds apace. The latest volley is an impassioned though civil discussion between J.A. Konrath, a staunch supporter of Amazon, and Lee Child, a very visible signatory of Authors United, and which was featured as an entry on Konrath’s blog on Thursday, September 25. It is worth reading, if you are at all interested.

I see strengths and weaknesses with the positions of both sides. Where I am having a problem, however, is the proposition that Amazon is doing something wrong or evil by refusing in some cases to sell Hachette books by pre-order (or at all). Permit me to draw a comparison with another product: there is a type of breakfast food that my wife likes; let’s call it “Flavored Cardboard to Go.” Six-count boxes of multiple flavors of this product were readily available at all of the supermarkets within a three mile radius of our home. I would buy a box or two during the course of my weekly shopping trip with the result being happy wife, happy home. That is, until one day when...it wasn’t available. I asked at each supermarket and was told that the item had been discontinued. But that wasn’t exactly accurate. The grocery supplier that serviced the supermarkets locally to me was no longer carrying it because...well, they just were no longer carrying it. Being the resourceful type, I checked the website of the company which manufactures the product and discovered that a certain national chain which I normally don’t patronize (let’s call it “Bullseye”) carried the item. They don’t have a store near us, but there is one I pass occasionally while out and about causing trouble. I will accordingly stop in every six weeks or so, stock up on Flavored Cardboard to Go, and all is well in the House of Hartlaub. Have I been a bit inconvenienced? Yes. But big whoop. There was no evil involved, however. A company and a distributor stopped doing business with each other and another company filled the vacuum. Nothing more or less was involved. 

I don’t see any difference between my experience in my role as hunter-gatherer and the current dispute between Amazon and Hachette. One can go to Barnes & Noble (or visit its fine, sparkling website which leaps to one’s command at a keystroke or two) or Wal-Mart, or, as they say, wherever books are sold (including Hachette's own website) and buy or order any Hachette book you want, so long as it’s in print. Amazon hasn’t choked off the supply. You just can’t purchase certain Hachette books there at the moment. There was actually a similar dispute between Simon & Schuster and Barnes & Noble last year --- bet you forgot about that, didn’t you? --- where Barnes & Noble was cast as Simon Legree because they stopped selling S & S books when the two entities couldn’t come to terms. Again, Barnes & Noble didn’t shut off the supply. One could buy from other outlets. One DID buy from other outlets. The dispute was ultimately settled and things rolled on, until now.


Word: what is happening is a business dispute. It will get resolved at some point. It’s not a hero vs. villain issue, and casting it as such is a diversion, pure and simple. My questions for you, however, is...have you had trouble buying books published by Hachette? Has the dispute, and its fallout, changed your book buying habits? Other than in the abstract, do you even care?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Reader Friday: Short Short Fiction


Using the above picture as a prompt, write a story in 100 words or less. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A page-turner? You decide.

Today, we have an untitled first page submission by another brave writer. I'll get the ball rolling with a few comments after the page, but then I'd like you to put on your reader's cap and give us your first gut reaction in the Comments. After reading this opening, would you turn to page two? Why, or why not? 

***

He lay still in a prone firing position looking through the scope of his rifle with his finger curled around the trigger. In the center of the crosshairs he watched the sinister eyes of his target. Even from a distance of eight hundred yards Max thought the man appeared to be smug. He was responsible for the planning of a terrorist attack in the United States that claimed the lives of thirteen innocent children. He was basking in the glory he was receiving from his fellow tribesmen. To them he was a king, a God among mortal men. He had attacked the great Satan in the name of Allah and they were all rejoicing.  The man looked around, smiling and waving to those around him. Without warning the man suddenly buckled at the knees and collapsed in a heap. There was no sound, other than him hitting the ground violently. Blood spewed three hundred and sixty degrees, splattering the crowd with blood and brain matter. Max couldn’t hear the screams of the crowd and didn’t take the time to see the fear on their faces. But he knew by the way they quickly scattered they were fearful and screaming. He wished the families of the thirteen victims could see what he was seeing. Perhaps it would bring some closure to some of them.

***

My comments: 

Perhaps because terrorism is dominating the news this week, I was grabbed by this premise of taking revenge on an evil-doer. The writer opens the story with a promising action scene.

Suggestions:

* I was distracted by the juxtaposition by the use of "sinister" and "smug" to describe the terrorist's eyes, as seen by Max. I would suggest revising to convey "sinister" in a more specific way. Something like "flat, cold eyes," perhaps?

* I was distracted in places by the point of view, by the middle of the paragraph in particular. The sentences beginning with "He was responsible..."; "He was basking in the glory..."; "To them he was a king..."; and "He had attacked..." seemed written in an omniscient point of view. Then we switch to the terrorist's point of view, as he turns and waves. The next sentences, which begin with "Without warning..."; and "There was no sound..." seem to be from the crowd's point of view. It would just take a little tweaking to show all of this action taking place from Max's perspective. 

* Later in the page, there is a repetition of "screams and fear." 

* There was a disconnect to me between "Max...didn't take the time to see the fear on their faces," and "He wished the families of the thirteen victims could see what he was seeing." Again, a little tweaking could strengthen this section.

Overall:

I think this page simply needs a bit of tweaking to address the issues I've mentioned. I would definitely turn to page two to see what happens next in this story. Thank you, Writer, for your submission!

What about you? Would you turn the page? Why or why not?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Real Life Characters

Nancy J. Cohen

She looked like a witch straight out of the Harry Potter series. Wild curly blond hair. All black outfit including a jacket with unusual cuffs and an odd pendant necklace. Black boots. I did a double take when I saw her. Had a Harry Potter store opened in the Mall at Millenia where I was shopping? Or had she come from work at Universal Studios, still in her costume?

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This strange apparition strolled through the mall to the apparent indifference of anyone except myself. And this reaction brought home the claim I’d made in Warrior Prince, my first Drift Lords adventure that takes place in Orlando. People are so used to seeing themed characters in this city that they don’t think twice about someone striding around in costume. Thus when my space-faring warriors show up in their uniforms and bearing arms in this story, no one reacts to their unusual attire.

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I am still curious about this person I saw in the mall. Was this the way she normally dressed? Did she believe herself to be a witch like in the Potter saga? Or was she an employee who needed to stop off at the mall before going home to change? That mass of blond hair could easily be a wig. The only thing missing was a magic wand. Or is this my imagination taking flight?

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It’s not the first time I’ve been inspired by a random character. This happened to me once before on a cruise. I noticed a beautifully dressed older woman with a head of white hair and designer duds. I turned her into a countess in my cruise ship mystery, Killer Knots. It’s just so exciting to see someone who can inspire one’s creativity. Our writer’s voice whispers in our ear: “What if…?” What if this costumed character is an evil superhero from another universe? Or a nutty theme park employee who believes herself to be her fictional character? Or…the possibilities dazzle me.

When have you been inspired by a real life character you’ve encountered?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Writing Novels in a Minor Key:
Where Are All the Good Tear-Jerkers?


By P.J. Parrish

Have you ever cried reading a novel?

No, I don't mean your first draft. I mean, has someone's work moved you to such a point that you shed real tears? Movies...that's easy. We all have our favorite cinematic tear-jerkers. Here's just a few of mine:

Breakfast At Tiffany's: Holly searches for Cat in the rain.
Roman Holiday: The Princess and the pauper Peck. Hopeless love.
The Vikings: Kirk Douglas gets his Viking funeral.
Field of Dreams: Costner plays catch with his father's ghost.
Sophie's Choice: Stingo reciting Dickinson over the death bed.
Spartacus: "Please die, my love... die, die now my darling!"  
The Incredible Journey: Yes, even the old dog makes it home.

But the number of books that have made me cry I can maybe count on one hand. I cried when Jack the dog, reaching old age, had to be put down by Pa in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Books. I cried when Charlotte the spider died (but her babies lived on!) I remember reading Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club on a plane and when I got to the scene where the mother explains why she abandoned her babies by the side of the road, I had to go hide in the bathroom and compose myself.

Are novelists more leery of the "cheap" reaction of tears? I think that is certainly true in crime fiction today. It is rare to find a novel, in these days of neo-noir aping and dick-lit posturing, that appeals to the emotions. We deal with the themes of death and loss all the time. We describe blood and guts with clinical accuracy. Why do we pull our punches when it comes to showing the emotional outfall of death?

I don't believe it is just because movies are visual. What is more powerful than the blank screens of our own imaginations? I think it might be because today's crime writers are leery of being labeled as soft when we go into matters of the heart. But to my mind, something very special happens when crime writers decide to write in a minor key.

Time out! Quick music lesson here. There are basically two ways you can compose something -- in major and minor keys. And they sound distinctly different. In the western musical tradition, major-key music is played at times of celebration (think of Mendelssohn's Wedding March or Happy Birthday), and fun times (Celebration by Kool And The Gang). Minor-key music is used to mark mourning (Chopin's Funeral March), heartache (Back To Black by Amy Winehouse) and despair (Gloomy Sunday by Billie Holiday).

That memorable score to The Godfather, the one that captures the despair, bloody history, horror and complicated family love? It was written in C Minor. Now here is how it sounds when rewritten in a MAJOR key (Listen to just a couple seconds and you'll be shocked.)

I'll make him an offer that he...aw heck, on second thought, buy the old man a new horsey. ((Sunshine, lollipops and tommyguns every day...)))

Excepting many cozies, the tone of most crime fiction is minor key. (Although I find it interesting that the haunting theme for Dennis Lehane's dark classic Mystic River is in C Major. Maybe because director Clint Eastwood wanted to go against grain and convey majesty and hope?) If you want to continue the music analogy, even romantic suspense doesn't shy away from a darker feel at times. Yet I have found few crime novels that had me reaching for the Kleenex, that elicited from me a genuinely earned emotional response. Here are a couple:

Silent Joe by T. Jefferson Parker. The hero, a victim of child abuse, hunts for a kidnapper but every path leads him right back to uncovering the secrets of his own childhood. Sparse as a haiku but powerful and haunting.

Sandrine's Case by Thomas H. Cook. Beautifully written like all his works but what starts out as a mundane murder trial with a semi-repulsive protag becomes a wonderfully humane love story. Think Gone Girl with a heart.

Lisey's Story by Stephen King. Not technically a crime novel but I'm including it anyway here. It took me a while to get into this book, which slides back and forth between the real and woo-woo worlds as it tells the story of a wife coping with the aftermath of her writer-husband's death. It is slow-building but powerful magic, King writing in B minor, about gently accepting one's fate.

A pretty short list.

I had a conversation with a high-placed editor at a New York cocktail party last year. She told me she has noticed two trends in crime fiction recently: the decline of hard-boiled "guy books." And the continued strength of romantic suspense. Now, let's not kid ourselves. There is some terrific hard-boiled stuff being written right now, books that don't turn up their noses at emotions. Likewise, there is some utterly putrid romance suspense on the shelves these days, stuff that gets everything about police procedure and forensics wrong and gets really treacly about the romance part. But where are the crime novels that hit you in the heart?

Maybe I am wrong. Or just reading the wrong stuff. What has gotten to you? What has made you cry? Movies are easy. But give me some books as well.

Or am I wrong in my belief that there is still room for well-wrought (as opposed to over-wrought) emotion in today's crime fiction?