Category Archives: Writing

Let’s hear it for the girls

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Catas-TrophyToday I found a fun and inspiring story about publishing, and I always like those. It’s about a book. Here’s the opening:

“Miss Peacock felt the warm tears welling up in her eyes…. It had been Miss Peacock’s lifelong ambition to hoist the trophy aloft with two victorious arms. Apart from basketball, Miss Peacock’s two more modest pastimes were knitting and the regular manufacturing and drinking of hot chocolate in the staff canteen.”

Thus begins The Catas-Trophy, a 140-page mystery about the theft of a prestigious basketball trophy from a school in London. The author(s): 29 girls, students in Class 5 at the Teresian School in Donnybrook, Co Dublin, ages 11-12. Each student wrote and illustrated a chapter.

Caoimhe Ní Fhaoláin, the girls’ teacher, assigned the project to develop the students’ writing and teamwork skills. The girls voted regularly to decide the direction the story should take.

“It was a great lesson in diplomacy,” said Ní Fhaoláin. “They worked together to develop the characters and ensure that the plots are flawless throughout.” The students were responsible for the front and back cover design and illustration, blurb, and title.

Printed volumes of The Catas-Trophy are sold locally, and it’s also available on Amazon. Proceeds go to the Irish Cancer Society and Down Syndrome Ireland. Because that’s how the girls voted to do it.

So, excuses for not writing and publishing, anyone? I didn’t think so.

 

Flash fiction challenge: The car chase

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Chuck Wendig issued a flash fiction challenge: write a car chase in 2,000 words. I’m cheating a bit, because while my antagonist leads the chase in a car, the scene is about the chaser, not the chasee. And the chaser is a food truck. But, hey. There’s a car in there. Somewhere. Comments welcome!

When the Eklunds broke away from the race and sped across town, Karen Renfrew turned from the orange and blue paisley–painted, Indian-themed food truck and stared as the small cavalcade—the electric sports cars driven by the investors, and then the electric support vehicle—bashed their way through the traffic cones that marked the route and peeled off in the wrong direction.

“Well, that’s really weird,” she said to Uncle Boo-boo, who had taken her to his sister’s startup food truck and was introducing her to the tasty miracle that was chicken tikka masala. “Why are those cars going off the track? Why is Phoebe following them?”

“Perhaps it is secret CIA business!” Uncle Boo-boo said, beaming.

“What are you talking about?” Sanjay asked, sticking his head out of the food truck’s order window. “What CIA business? What’s Phoebe up to now?”

“We don’t know!” Karen said, frowning after the cars. “It’s very odd.”

“I think it’s secret CIA business!” Uncle Boo-boo said.

“Maybe we should follow them,” Sanjay said. “Phoebe has a exhibited a distressing habit of taking risks. Perhaps she could use our help.”

“An excellent suggestion!” Uncle Boo-boo said. “Let’s go!” He unhooked the chalkboard menu that hung from the side of the truck and stashed it on the counter. Sanjay disappeared inside, and in seconds, a cloud of black smoke erupted from the tailpipe as the truck roared to life.

“We’re chasing them in the food truck?” Karen didn’t think they could catch them in the food truck. Or even keep them in sight, no matter how bright those ghastly yellow cars were and how tall the cones stood out on the vehicles’ roofs.

“With what else do we have to chase them? By all means, in the food truck!” Uncle Boo-boo clipped the menu securely to the counter and then nudged her toward a small door in the side of the truck. “You do not see any other vehicles here, do you? The food truck is what we have. The food truck is what we’ll take.”

Karen heard a shout from inside the truck, and a skinny teenaged boy started slamming down the window covers. In seconds, the truck was secured and ready to go.

“No time to lose!” Uncle Boo-boo beamed and opened the side door.

In for a penny, Karen thought, and tripped up the steps in her killer heels. At the top she bumped into the teenager. “Oh, sorry!” she said.

“This is the nephew of my nephew Sanjay,” Uncle Boo-boo said. “Justin.”

“Justin?” The teenager, a beautiful younger replica of Sanjay with dark brown, almond-shaped eyes, dark hair, and pants at least four sizes too big, shrugged.

“Don’t ask me.”

“Better sit!” Sanjay yelled from the driver’s seat. He ground the gears into first and stepped on the gas. The truck was heavy and slow, but even so, the lurch sent Karen flying into Uncle Boo-boo.

“Here, we have seats in the back,” he said, holding onto her firmly. “With belts. Better than an airplane.”

They staggered to the back of the truck, where Uncle Boo-boo pulled down a jump seat for the two of them, and Justin braced himself in a crevice between two built-in cupboards.

“Hang on!” Uncle Boo-boo called gaily as Sanjay ground the gears into second and the truck lurched again. Uncle Boo-boo grabbed Karen’s leg for emphasis, which was a lot less irritating than she thought it would be. She looked into his twinkling eyes and smiled.

“Where are we going?” she asked. “Can we still see them?”

“We will catch them,” Sanjay called, glaring into the traffic, his eyes focused on the road. “They will not get away.” With one hand on the wheel, he dug his phone out of his pocket, and hit the speed dial.

“Phoebe!” he said. “What are you doing?” He listened for a minute, swerving around traffic with one hand, leaning on the horn when he had to. “We’re right behind you! Alert the hotel!” He disconnected and shoved the phone back in his pocket.

“The Swedish-Korean terrorists are making their move!” he said to his passengers. “We have to step on it!”

“Terrorists?” Karen said. “What terrorists? I never heard anything about terrorists.” She’d never really been positive that Phoebe had worked for the CIA. Her daughter just seemed to have a boring desk job at some gray agency in Washington where she sat all day and pushed paper around. She was a spy? When did that happen? And—chasing after terrorists like this, somebody was bound to get hurt.

“The Swedish-Koreans! I told you! They have guns! They are on the move! We must stop them!” Sanjay stamped on the accelerator. Hungry pedestrians, seeing the food truck barreling down the street, tried to flag him down, but he gestured wildly to get them to move out of the way. Then he turned on the truck’s exterior speakers and hit a button. Music from a Bollywood musical blared out into the Las Vegas desert.

“Ah,” Uncle Boo-boo said. “That is Lat Lag Gayee. Very nice tune.”

“What?” Karen said, hanging on to Uncle Boo-boo for dear life as Sanjay careened around a corner.

“From Race 2,” Uncle Boo-boo said, holding Karen firmly. “Not my favorite film, but I do like the music, don’t you?”

“Ah, sure,” Karen said. The truck sped down the street, music streaming out to the public. Several other vehicles honked. Sanjay honked back. From her position on the jump seat, Karen could see only a tiny sliver of the front-facing windshield. Buildings sped by, but she had a hard time orienting herself to where they were. And then Sanjay slammed on the brakes, and they all lurched forward.

“We’re here!” Sanjay threw open the driver-side door and leaped out of the truck. Uncle Boo-boo helped Karen to her feet and she, feeling unexpectedly hampered by her stilettos, followed him out the side door, gratefully taking his helpful hand. Justin jumped down and hiked up his pants with one hand after he landed. Karen looked up at the imposing façade of the Desert Dunes casino and the yellow electric SUV parked in front. What was Phoebe doing here? What was happening?

“Hey!” the liveried valet parking guy said. “You can’t park here!”

“CIA!” Sanjay flashed his food vendor’s permit for less than a second.

The valet parking guy grabbed Uncle Boo-boo’s arm. “Stop right there!”

“They’re with me,” Sanjay said. “National security!”

“At least turn off that music!”

“CIA!” Uncle Boo-boo said, shaking his arm loose and flashing his realtor’s license. “It’s most urgent.”

“I’m the cocktail waitress,” Karen said, wondering if the valet parking guy might actually hold her back. She thought that might be a good idea. He was kind of cute, and her feet were killing her. When she’d accepted the date with Uncle Boo-boo to see the race, she hadn’t expected to do so much running herself.

“Hey! Wait!” The valet guy said, but Sanjay ran to the revolving doors without looking back. Uncle Boo-boo towed Karen, who tripped along as fast as she could, and Justin slouched behind.

“We’re in,” Sanjay said, looking around the lobby for Phoebe, or alternatively, any sign of trouble. “Now let’s go save us a Secretary of State.”

Happy birthday today

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Like lots of people, I like to stroll through the internet, and today while looking up some biographical material, I got caught up in what happened on April 4. Among other things, many cool writerly type people were born.

Robert_Downey_JrFor those who like action films, Robert Downey, Jr., an actor, singer, producer, and screenwriter, was born in 1965.

For those who like television shows (Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, Boston Legal, and Harry’s Law), writer David E. Kelley was born in 1956.

Kitty_Kelley_Photo_by_Raymond_BoydIf you like to read about scandal, another Kelley, this time Kitty Kelley, was born in 1942. She’s the author of many best-selling, unauthorized biographies of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Oprah Winfrey, and Nancy Reagan, among others. Called “the consummate gossip monger,” she claimed to be an “unabashed admirer of transparency.” However, when critics scrutinized her work more carefully, many of her “facts” were found to be unsubstantiated. Readers might not have cared.

MayaAngelouMaya Angelou was born on this day in 1928. To know her life story is to wonder what you’ve been doing with your own. She was a supper club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, journalist in Egypt and Ghana, and professor. She was friends with Malcolm X and Billie Holiday. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning more than 50 years. Her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), brought her international recognition and acclaim. Some cities have tried to ban her books from public libraries, but her works, based on themes such as racism, identity, family, and travel, are widely used in schools and universities worldwide.

Robert_E__SherwoodFinally, in 1896, Robert E. Sherwood, playwright and four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was born. One of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table, Sherwood was close friends with Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Edna Ferber, and at six feet eight inches, was the tallest among them. He co-wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for the film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

Best wishes to all.

 

The shoes make the character

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Christian Louboutin. "Printz," Spring/Summer 2013. Courtesy of Christian Louboutin. Photograph: Jay Zukerkorn. Displayed as part of the Brooklyn Museum "Killer Heels" exhibit.

Christian Louboutin. “Printz,” Spring/Summer 2013. Courtesy of Christian Louboutin. Photograph: Jay Zukerkorn. Displayed as part of the Brooklyn Museum “Killer Heels” exhibit.

Our characters should have an arc, starting in one place and changing as they resolve the conflicts they encounter along the way. One way we can show character change is to show behavioral changes. In the beginning, our hero is immature, at the end he has grown. In the beginning, our heroine was selfish. At the end, she thinks of others. Progress!

Recently I realized that one way I show how characters change is that I change their clothing choices. In one manuscript, my heroine starts out wearing overalls and steel-toed work boots, which, by the end of the book, she’s discarded for palazzo pants and high heels. In my current WIP, my heroine goes from suits and high heels to a poodle skirt and saddle shoes, and then to the skinny jeans and ballet flats that describe her new life.

What’s with the heels? I wondered. Besides that they’re consummate female attire. Except for cowboys.

Cowboys is right. Five hundred years ago, high heels were standard footwear for sixteenth-century Persian horsemen. Then the style moved from Persia to Western Europe, where aristocrats wore high heels to set themselves apart from the hoi polloi. But when Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor in 1804, he ended this high-heeled, high-powered fashion statement by wearing flats.

This information is included in a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum called Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe. The exhibit covers 500 years of high-heeled footwear, exploring the history of the shoes themselves, as well as the history of status, fantasy, innovation, beauty, and sex as told through shoes.

Did my heroines think about this when they either put on or kicked off their high-heeled shoes? You can bet your sweet Manolo Blahniks they did.

My heroine who forsook overalls and steel-toed boots for high heels? They were a special pair, bought for her by a problematic male character (okay, my hero) who thought every woman should have at least one thing that was frivolous. She wore them on her way out the door. (But she came back later. Much later)

My other heroine, who gave up heels for flats by way of saddle shoes—she’s a spy. And spies can’t go running after bad guys in heels.

At least somebody’s practical around here.

Becoming a professional writer

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The new cover!

The new cover!

A while ago, I decided that  one of my self-published books needed a new cover. I’d done the original, back in the days when I thought I could do it all. I have a little graphics experience. I thought I could make it work. But no. If my cover is anything to go by, I best leave cover design to the professionals.

So I commissioned a new cover, and then I thought—in for a penny, in for a pound. I’ll move it into print, too. Get it out onto more platforms. Go the whole nine yards. After all, I want to be a professional novelist, right? I have to act like a professional novelist.

To go into print, the cover needs a spine–the part of the cover that faces outward when the book is on the shelf. The spine width is determined by how many pages the book has. So then I thought, I should do a quick edit pass, take out one excerpt from the back, and make sure this book is as tight as it could be.

How much have I edited so far? Not counting the excerpt I deleted, I’ve cut 8,500 words from the original manuscript. I’m happy about it. The book is better, and readers will kill fewer trees when they buy it. Now I have a second edition, edited for conciseness and clarity. I feel that I’ve made a good professional decision in upgrading this book.

Not that my family gets it, exactly. What do you say when your friends and relations ask you what you do? Do you tell them you’re a writer? And if you say that you are a writer, how do you answer the follow-up questions? (Is there a lot of money in that? Where do you get your ideas? How do I get an agent? Can I give you this great idea, and then we can split the profits?)

Tom Coyne, a published author and creative writing teacher at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, reminds us that writing is about process, not perfection. See what else he has to say about calling yourself a professional writer.

http://magazine.nd.edu/news/49016/

Dumping Helga

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scissorsI’ve been revising my WIP for some weeks now. I have a lot of work to do yet—my last chapter is 15,000 words. Bad! There’s no escalation whatsoever from my last turning point to the end. Also bad. I’ve got a Dark Night of the Soul that’s written essentially as “Gosh, bummer.” (That would be my inability to write conflict.) I’ve got a final climax and triumph that’s essentially “Gee, great.” (That would be my inability to write anything, evidently.)

And now, I’m pretty sure I have to delete Helga.

Helga is the girlfriend of my antagonist, and she gives him depth. He’s crazy about her (in a good and healthy way, I hope). He calls. He writes. He buys her little presents. He’s texting her when he should be thinking of villainous things to do to the protagonist.

Helga reciprocates. She’s so worried about my antagonist that when she’s sure he’s gone off and done something stupid and wrong and just plain dangerous (good head on her shoulders, that Helga), she goes after him to dissuade him from whatever dastardly course he’s set on.

I like Helga. She’s focused and determined, cynical and practical. My critique partner wrote in one paragraph, “Love Helga!”—but then just one paragraph later, “I’m losing interest in this scene, and I don’t know why.”

I had to agree with her—I’d lost interest in that scene, too, and all the other scenes with Helga. Where was my protagonist? Antagonist? My hero? When were my heroine and hero going to kiss, for pete’s sake?

Helga has to go.

I read a dumb-ish article the other day about the 10 elements a good movie must have. Number three was “sense of camaraderie.” I realized that’s the first reason Helga has to go. She’s not part of the community. She’s not central to the story. She doesn’t come in until half-way through (nor should she), and at that point it’s too late to become part of the Scooby gang.

The other reason, and it’s probably the same as the first reason—she’s just not that central to the plot. What she does is peripheral. That doesn’t have to be bad, but secondary characters should interact meaningfully with the major characters, or (and) they have to reflect the story ideas, themes, or motifs.

Helga doesn’t do any of that.

It’s hard to say goodbye. Besides that I like her, and she occupies a fair amount of space—in the 5K–7K word count, maybe more. I’ll have to make that up somewhere. Not to mention the transitions I’ll have to write to cover her tracks.

But revising Helga to be more relevant, useful, and major isn’t the answer. I think the way to go is to delete her (sorry, Helga! Maybe another time) and build the action and consequences of my major characters. (Note to self: we’ve got a really lousy Dark Night of the Soul to improve and expand.)

I could be wrong. I have a long road of revising ahead of me, and I might change my mind. But right now, I’m thinking that Helga has to get off the bus.

We have to make room for the passengers who really count.

 

 

 

It’s in the eyes

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Photo of an ancient Egyptian funerary mask from the Papyrus Museum, Vienna, by Diana Ringo. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Photo of an ancient Egyptian funerary mask from the Papyrus Museum, Vienna, by Diana Ringo. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

I write contemporary romance novels with a strong secondary plot, or contemporary novels with a strong romance plot, depending on which agent or editor you’re talking to. Although I like reading and writing romance, making the couple’s interest in each other believable is difficult. Escalating the romance with the action plot is complicated, and how do you show that these people are right for each other? As a writer, you have to get past looks. What makes readers know that these two will survive lust and hang in for the long haul? And how can I show that on the page?

As it (conveniently!) happens, two University of Chicago neuroscientists have studied how people look at each other when they’re in love—or lust. John and Stephanie Cacioppo examined whether people look at others differently if they perceive a long-term companion, or a temporary sexual partner.

They showed heterosexual college students photos of persons of the opposite sex. The researchers asked subjects whether an image elicited feelings of romance or lust, and tracking software recorded participants’ eye movements.

The results, published in Psychological Science, aren’t shocking, or even surprising. The researchers found that people interested in the long haul focus on the eyes and face of the other person. But those who want a fling focus on the rest of the body. Both men and women engage in this behavior, but women are less obvious about it. The scientists speculated that this might be because women have better peripheral vision.

This study corroborates their earlier findings. The Cacioppos had already conducted brain scans that proved that love and lust occupy different parts of the brain’s insula—true love activates its anterior region, but sexual desire lights up its posterior. Posterior regions are involved in current, concrete sensations, feelings, and responses, according to the researchers, “whereas anterior regions are more involved in abstract, integrative representations.”

The study results seem obvious, but still good to know. As the researchers say: “Reading other people’s eyes is a valuable skill during interpersonal interaction.” And that’s got to be a good skill for romance—and any other kind of—writer to understand. When your heroine reveals her deepest secrets—that’s when the hero has to look into her eyes. But when they’re dancing and she’s wearing a short skirt—it’s all about the legs.

The eyes have it!