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Friday, September 22, 2017

Turning Book Research into a Slide Show by Sarah Wisseman

Recently I was asked to speak at a local Pecha Kucha, a Japanese-inspired public forum for artists and writers. Each speaker talks about her passion for exactly 6 minutes, 40 seconds, with slides advancing every 20 seconds. You have to plan carefully; once the slides start, there’s no pausing or going back.

My topic is “Toxic Brews in 1920s Illinois,” or a seriously condensed version of the research I did several years ago for my local mystery, The Bootlegger’s Nephew. In this mystery, my physician protagonist can’t figure out whether his friend was poisoned deliberately or just consumed a mixture of bad booze, prescription medicine, and homemade tonics.



His flapper daughter, Anna, helps him investigate, and together they trap a murderer and shut down a local gang of bootleggers. This story was supposed to be about 1920s archaeology, when it was a still a just a gentleman’s hobby. But the fascinating story of Prohibition took over.

The novel has several themes: the dangers of consuming liquor made from toxic substances (industrial-grade alcohol, kerosene, or embalming fluid) or heating corn mash in lead-lined radiators; the difficulties of practicing medicine before the advent of antibiotics; and the enhanced freedoms of young women during Prohibition.

The research was fascinating. Not only were there multiple ways to make and transport illegal booze, there were all kinds of “concealed carry.” Women fashioned deep pockets in their slinky dresses and long coats for flasks of illicit booze.



Our local newspaper, then called the Champaign Daily, reported on a raid in my hometown: “There were bottles of liquor hidden inside boxing gloves and stuffed inside a phonograph. There was wood alcohol, Jamaican ginger, liquor made from kerosene and furniture polish, booze that would make a rabbit expectorate in a bulldog’s face, squirrel whiskey that would make a man climb a tree.”

I stole another tidbit from a true account of Prohibition in Cincinnati: There was an enterprising family who ran a speak-easy in their home. Their under-age son dispensed liquor through tubes from the second floor. When there was a raid, he just threw a rug over the floor tubes and spread out his homework.

Revisiting this fascinating research led me to publish a short story that features the flapper daughter, Anna Junker, and her boyfriend Ben:



The result of all this activity made me appreciate east central Illinois in a whole new way. Now, when I travel around downtown, I notice the older buildings that erected before my stories took place. And I remember that one local establishment, once the store where I purchased my son’s soccer shoes, had a speakeasy on the second floor in the 1920s. It boasted a hidden stairway down to the street so patrons could escape quickly when federal agents showed up. On the same block, there was an underground steam tunnel used to exit a bootlegger’s distillery during raids. I asked around town if I could visit this tunnel—alas, it was closed down years ago.





Friday, September 15, 2017

Falling down the Rabbit hole?

As an author do you sometimes feel like Alice in Wonderland? 

Have you fallen down the Rabbit hole of your story? 

Is your manuscript taking you on a ride that makes no sense with characters that confuse you? 






If so, welcome to the club. Many authors work from an outline and use it to guide the story. I am not one of them. Story ideas come to me, characters appear and I just follow them along for awhile to see what happens next. The story doesn't always follow the path I thought it would and that is not always a bad thing.

If you truly allow the main characters in your story to guide you, the story can evolve in surprising and unusal ways. I'm not saying we should all try writing truly fantastic characters in a wonderland world, but you can if you're compelled to do so.

I've found with all of my books that once I truly knew my character inside and out, they showed me what happens next. I've been pleasantly surprised, shocked, and even happy to see a scene develop in my minds eye. What a magical experience it can be.

What I'd like to share with all you authors out there is this:
  • It's okay to write nonsense - sometimes that's what it takes to get to the heart of the scene.  
  • It's okay to write weird characters - humans are all unique in their own strange way. 
  • It's okay to let the story grow organically - sometimes the best things happen when you allow it to just tumble down the direction it wants to go.
  • It's okay to be surprised where the story leads - it is usually a wonderful gift.
You can always edit out the parts that don't fit, but keep them in a "rambling thoughts & ideas" folder - you might need them for the next story.

Enjoy the writing journey, it can be quite a ride.

http://bdtharp.com
Author of the "feisty family series" and a nove of romantic suspense: "Your Every Move."



Friday, September 8, 2017

What Happens to Creativity as We Age? By Jacqueline Seewald

Alison Gopnik and Tom Griffiths are professors of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley who wrote an interesting opinion piece for The New York Times. In the article they discuss how “young children’s creativity seems to outstrip that of even the most imaginative adults.” The authors explain their experiments to better understand this.

So why does creativity tend to decline as we age? The authors observe as we grow older, we know more. This is both good and bad. Bad because it may lead us to ignore evidence that contradicts what we already think. In other words, we may become too set in our ways to change.
The authors observe that there is “a tension between two kinds of thinking: what computer scientists call exploration and exploitation.” When we face a new problem, adults tend to exploit acquired knowledge. Exploration — trying something new — may lead to something different, a less obvious solution, a new piece of knowledge. But it can also mean wasting time considering absurd possibilities, something both preschoolers and teenagers do on occasion.
Not long ago, my husband and I had the pleasure of spending time with two of our grandchildren, taking them to one of the swimming pools in our complex. Leah, who is nine, energetically swam around like a fish. I told her that I would nickname her Ariel for the Disney mermaid since she too has long red hair. Leah was also protective of her younger brother and worked tirelessly with him on throwing a basketball in the hoop in the pool until he succeeded. Her energy and high spirits are all the more remarkable because she suffers from serious allergy problems yet manages to take them in stride. I myself felt energized by spending time with her.
It occurs to me that we adults can learn as much from children as they can from us. Time spent with children encourages our creativity. A child’s outlook on the world is filled with possibilities. Perhaps we adults should cultivate that in ourselves, the marriage of experience, knowledge and childlike wonder.
For writers, I think it means we should never throw out our past writing, even those pieces of works that failed to gain recognition. Possibly we can reread and improve upon them or try a new venue. Why not develop a short story into a play or poem? Why not take characters from a novel and develop a short story or play for them?
My soon to be published novella THE BURNING is based on an award-winning play I wrote some years ago. I took a play and adapted it into a novella--but more about that at another time.
Do children ever inspire you to write original work? Can you cultivate your inner child to think in a unique way? Your thoughts and opinions valued here.






Friday, September 1, 2017

Narrative Hook by Susan Oleksiw

Every writer learns the importance of the “narrative hook” as soon as she begins writing. “You can’t begin a story without a strong first line,” is the standard advice. I’ve heard writers say that until they have the opening line, they can’t write the story or essay. The narrative hook is what opens the door to whatever is supposed to come next, and nothing flows without it. I feel that way sometimes too.

A 1940s guide to creative writing described the narrative hook as “anything that would, on a public highway, cause a crowd to gather.” The sentence had been underlined in pencil, and the pages forgotten, until recently unearthed in an abandoned box of papers. I haven’t heard the opening line described in such terms, and I wouldn’t use that sentence today. Nor am I convinced that starting with a bang, as crime novels often do today, is the only way to write the opening. Lately I’ve read a number of excellent opening lines on First Line Monday, a FB page where readers post the first lines of the books or stories they’re reading. You’re guaranteed to find variety here.

The best first lines, in my view, are those that pull us into the character and his or her world. This can be simple, quiet, but nevertheless compelling. I collected a number of first lines from different genres to illustrate what I think is the key to a solid opening line, a dip into another person’s life that holds us.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle opens A Study in Scarlet (1887) with this famous line: “In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the Army.” The narrator has a tone of confidence but also lack of pretention, and the reader trusts him.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman opens “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) with this: “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.” The narrator’s contrast with herself as ordinary and their summer residence as an ancestral hall hints at the conflict to come and the risk to herself.

The short story “Araby” by James Joyce (1914) begins with “North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free.” At once we hear the quiet shattered by dozens of boys running and screaming into the street, free of constrictions of the Catholic school.

Edith Wharton gives us a classic opening in “Roman Fever” (1936). “From the table at which they had been lunching two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age moved across the lofty terrace of the Roman restaurant and, leaning on its parapet, looked first at each other, and then down on the outspread glories of the Palatine and the Forum, with the same expression of vague but benevolent approval.” The vanity of class is captured perfectly as the two American women acknowledge their complicity in their attitudes as they look down on the scene below.

“Did You Ever Dream Lucky” by Ralph Ellison (1954) opens with a vivid scene: “After the hurried good-bys the door had closed and they sat at the table with the tragic wreck of the Thanksgiving turkey before them, their heads turned regretfully toward the young folks’ laughter in the hall.” Ellison’s scene isn’t merely the aftermath of a traditional holiday dinner; we are in the midst of a tragic wreck and the folks remaining are regretful. Now we have to know what has happened, and what comes after.

Joyce Carol Oates captures the vulnerable teenager in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” (1970). “Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.” Oates takes the normal teenage vanity and turns it into deep insecurity and foreboding.

In my most recent Mellingham mystery, Come About for Murder (2016), I open with this. “In his last will and testament, Commodore Charles Jeremiah Winslow, one of the greatest yachting enthusiasts in the history of Mellingham Yacht Club, asked to be wrapped in a mainsail and cremated, with his ashes left to sink into Mellingham Bay.” With this opening, the reader finds herself inside the rarefied world of people who can obsess about sailing and other sports, and the high cost of that life.

Each opening works because the lines are spare entrances into the life of another person. There is no bombast, no crash, no physical violence, only the promise of knowing intimately another world and its residents.

To read some of my opening lines, go here:

https://www.amazon.com/Susan-Oleksiw/e/B001JS3P7C

https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/SusanOleksiw

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/susan+oleksiw?_requestid=1017995

Friday, August 25, 2017

Self-editing a short story by Sarah Wisseman

Self-editing is hard, no two ways about it. I remember a workshop led by Nancy Pickard years ago that I found especially useful. She called her method CASTS (Conflict, Action, Senses, Turn, and Surprise) and encouraged all of us to evaluate each scene or chapter using these five criteria. The trickiest for us to understand was the difference between "turn" and "surprise." If memory serves me, a "turn" could be a shift in mood for the protagonist/narrator, e.g. start the scene excited and end up hopeless. "Surprise" could be an "aha" moment for either the protagonist or the reader, as in, "I never thought of that!"

I recently sent in a short story for an anthology contest that required intense self-editing. As I accepted feedback from friends and colleagues, I had to sort out what to incorporate and what to discard (my rule is: if two or more critics say something needs fixing, pay attention).

Here are some of the guidelines I developed. All of these apply to novels too, but were especially helpful to me as I refined my short story and tried to make every word count.

What is the story logic? Does it work for readers? Review major plot points and how they unfold.
I made an outline and read it out loud to myself. Sometimes the logic is obvious to me, but not to my readers because I have left out some portion of my reasoning.

Where are the red herrings? Are they inserted in the best possible way?
I want some misdirection, but not too much. There’s less space in a short story, and you have to balance misdirection with keeping up the pace of the story.

Follow each character: How do you reveal character? Is each character distinct, and do they interact with others consistently?
 One of my characters was a bit wooden, so I fixed that by adding phrases or action words as dialogue tags.

Do you have the right balance between dialogue and description?
This was especially difficult for me since I discovered halfway through that I was writing my first police procedural, with crucial dialogue between two detectives!  I added a little more description.

Is there tension on each page? How is it revealed?
I made my characters argue with each other, disagreeing on how to proceed. I increased their physical discomfort as well.

Is there a twist at the end?
This is crucial, since most short stories want an “aha!” moment at the end.

I find critique groups immensely valuable; the members are readers as much as they are fellow writers. Although I attend one group that has 15-20 participants, I prefer a much smaller group so we can each read longer sections and receive more detailed feedback.

Finally, here's a great quote:

“A writer is, after all, only half his book. The other half is the reader and from the reader the writer learns."  (P.L. Travers, creator of the "Mary Poppins" series) 


Friday, August 18, 2017

Rituals & Creativity

We creative types often have little rituals we do in order to prepare ourselves for the muse. Early in my writing journey I would always light a candle and play soft instrumental music to get me into the writing "zone." Over time the rituals changed.

I went through several years of latte and bookstore noise. Then came the sunshine and noise of the wind in the trees. Lately, I've been in the "quiet" period with no candles or music, just me and my muse having a conversation about the story.

What are your favorite writing rituals? 



The latte is probably my personal favorite. Writing (or reading) and latte's just go together. 



But creativity can be fickle. And watch out for the inner critic. It'll stifle your creativity if it can. If possible do the rituals that allow your creative juices to flow and ignore the inner critic.  (They are only good for editing, in my personal opinion.)



When I was writing articles under deadline I sometimes I had to force the words to come. By the time I got through that first draft I was in a better place and able to mine the jewels from the garbage. Creativity doesn't always come on like a faucet. Sometimes we have to prime it, but don't wait for the muse to strike. It's more important to write badly than to not write at all.


If I'm really stuck and can't make the words appear on the page I'll take out my favorite pen and write in a notebook. When I transcribe it later onto the computer it blossoms and grows. Don't you love it when that happens? 

I used to paint pictures and I'd sketch for days until I got the layout I wanted. Now I paint with words. First drafts are our sketches. Whether on paper or canvas or computer we want the vision we see in our minds to be shared with others. How we get there is our own special journey. Never let anyone tell you "how to write." You will figure that out over time. Light insense or wear your favorite socks if that will help.

Just keep writing.


http://bdtharp.com
Amazon Author Page

Friday, August 11, 2017

Sex in Fiction: The Controversy Continues by Jacqueline Seewald

A recent New York Times opinion article was on a topic of interest to those of us who write novels, especially i YA.  The topic: “Want Teenage Boys to Read? Easy. Give Them Books About Sex”. The article was written by Daniel Handler. The author has a forthcoming novel “All the Dirty Parts.” He has written many children’s books under the pen name Lemony Snicket.

Handler states that his new novel has been classified as an adult book rather than a YA. He wrote it for teens and believes it should be classified this way. He has run into a common problem of censorship in YA fiction in regard to sex scenes. He asks why it is acceptable to allow books about teenagers slaughtering one another in a post-apocalyptic landscape” but not allow realism in regard to sex. He has a definite point.

Writing for teens has never been easy. Writers want to be honest. Yet sexual descriptions are frowned upon as unacceptable. It is often a questionable matter in adult novels as well. A lot depends on the classification of the book. That remains a matter of significance.

My own YA novels are “clean reads.” This is not to appease censors. It’s merely my personal preference. THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER and STACY’S SONG are classified as romances. However, they are also coming-of-age novels. They can be read by teenagers and their mothers alike without embarrassment. Adults can also enjoy these novels because they have depth. But they don’t require explicit sex scenes.


As to getting boys to read, I think many enjoy a good mystery or adventure story. Sex scenes are not a requirement. When my sons were teenagers, we wrote a mystery novel for teenage boys entitled WHERE IS ROBERT? It was based on a true story that happened to my older son, Andrew. The novel was well-received by teenage readers.

A few years ago, Andrew and I wrote a mystery entitled THE THIRD EYE: A PINE BARRENS MYSTERY published by Five Star/Cengage. It’s a crossover novel suited to both teen and adult readers. Again, no sex scenes, just a good story with realistic characters.


Black Opal will soon be publishing another of my YA novels—you guessed it--no explicit sex scenes, just a quality book for teen readers.

However, are sex scenes needed and appropriate in certain novels? Shouldn’t the author be allowed to express his or her artistic vision free from censorship?

Your thoughts and comments welcome here.