The cat ate my homework

I don’t have a dog. I’d like to have one, but I travel too much. You can leave a cat alone for a few days, but not a dog.  And cats don’t demand to be taken for a walk when you are deep into your story and your head is in another world and the words are coming together…

Your cat may try to tromp across your keyboard while you are working, but after being put down firmly ten or fifteen times they will give up and go off to do what cats do best: take a nap. And you can get back to your story.

I have been sticking to my plan and doing my daily word count, modest as it is. The story is coming together according the my “beat sheet.” I even politely told a caller during my work time that this was my writing time and I couldn’t do whatever it was they wanted me to do. First time ever I drew a boundary line.

Then came the cat. Or rather, cats. I volunteer at the animal shelter one morning a week. A friend and I clean the cat cages. It’s a  nasty and paradoxically rewarding job. We pet and talk to the cats and reassure them. Someone once asked if we got paid and I said, “In purrs.”

Last week I talked with the director, complaining that my two cats don’t get along. Both are rescues, but they are equally ungrateful. Then came Sydney, a cat I  fostered until I could take her to her forever home. Jack played with Sydney and seemed to miss her after she was gone. He tries to play with Spooky, who will have none of it. Huge fights involving spitting and growling ensue (no one actually gets hurt).

She suggested I replace Sydney with another cat. I demurred, but then she said I could take one home on a trial basis. If it didn’t work out, I could bring it back. So I chose a kitten that was playful and friendly.

I thought I would have it back in a few days. Both Jack and Spooky were terrified of the little gray ball of fluff. I don’t think she weighs a pound, but she might have been a lion for the terror she instilled.

Now for a backstory. The  week before, I got a call from a friend who had adopted one of Spooky’s kittens (she was pregnant when we adopted her, unknown to us). The woman was moving to a senior facility and couldn’t take the cat. Did I want him back?

I had to say no. But I did, with the help of my son and daughter-in-law, find him a home. It came time to transport him to his new owner and I had to leave my three cats alone.

I drove the two and a half hours, stayed overnight, and set out the next morning, all the while worrying about what I might find when I got home.

I needn’t have fretted a minute. I was entertained that afternoon by watching Jack and Frenchy play together. ( I didn’t name her, but if you don’t recognize the name it is from a character in Grease.) Jack, three times her size, was so gentle and sweet that I almost cried.

Spooky, of course, was hiding under the bed. But at least Jack wasn’t tormenting her. I really think she needs a little Xanax.

So no writing got done for three days. I will get back on schedule. These things happen and we learn to roll with them.

Oh, and I guess Frenchy isn’t going back to the shelter.










Flash versus drizzle

I was talking to a woman who is beginning her first book. She’s thought about writing for years, but never had a good enough springboard to set her on her way. She recently had an inspiration and is ready to sit down and write.

“Do you get your ideas in a flash?” she asked.

I knew what she meant. Sometimes a story comes, like hers, in a sudden burst, as if her muse waved a magic wand and handed her, ready-made, the plot, conflict, motive, character arc, and every other building block she needs to construct a story.

I admitted while an  idea might come to me in that way, it was usually a little muddied and out of focus. It is up to me to define it, refine, and shape it.

I do have a good idea of my characters, who they are, their strengths and weaknesses, their backstory. I don’t write it all down in a chart or look for pictures that match my imagination and post them on Pinterest. They are alive in my mind and that’s enough.

So I have a plot and my characters. I start writing. I’m writing while at my computer, and also writing while I’m washing dishes, vacuuming, raking leaves or brushing the cats.  Hmm, I think, what if I had him do this? What if she does that? Suppose I have this happen, how would they react?

When I work it out in my head, I sit down and write the scene.

Lately, my main character is acting up a little. I had him figured out, but now he is saying things I never meant him to say. He’s showing me he isn’t who I thought he was, and I’m a little put out.  But I’ll work with it, see where he’s leading me.

So I told her no, I don’t get the story in a flash. I know how it starts and how it ends, but the in-between comes in drizzles, dibs and dabs.

But that’s what makes it fun. If I knew how everything was supposed to happen when I started, it would be work.

I’m happy she has her story fully fleshed in her mind. But some sneaky part of me wonders if, when she starts writing, she’ll find her characters have opinions of their own.



We are the light

I have not said anything about politics, feeling that no  matter what I posted, someone would be upset, disagree, or wonder if I had lost my frickin’ mind.

No, I’m not happy about how it turned out. I would have liked to have seen a woman president. Okay, maybe not this particular woman, who is after all, ultimately a career politician. I would have liked to have seen a newcomer who would look out for the rapidly disappearing middle class. But that’s not who we got.

No matter. We survived Grant, an alcoholic, Harding (remember the  Teapot Dome scandal?), and two Bushes. We will survive this.

So what can I do during the next four years to combat the wave of negativism, racism, white supremacy (whatever that is) and other ugly stuff that has come crawling out of the sewer and found its way to social media?

If I can, I’d like to paraphrase something written by St. Francis many years ago:

Lord, make my writing become an instrument  of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me write of love; where there is injury, let me write words that heal; where there is doubt, let me write stories of faith; where there is despair, let me write of hope; where there is darkness, let  my words let the light in; where there is sadness, let me speak of joy.

We writers can moan and groan and join the darkness. Or we can seek out the cracks and use our God-given talents to let the light in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.

(From “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen)




The other side of the story

We talk a lot about the nuts and bolts of writing — goal, motivation and conflict; dialogue; scene setting and world building and even the use of the Oxford comma.

But there’s another side we don’t talk about so much. It’s the thing inside us that spurs us to put words on a page. You can call it a muse or even complain that the story (or characters) won’t let you alone until you write it.

What if that elusive “thing” sputters out and comes to a halt?

I experienced that this year. It started when Jim fell and I was spending all my time with him, trying to get him to eat, to walk.  No time to write. After he passed on, it seemed as if I had all the time in the world, but I couldn’t get my mind to that place where I could let go of the immediate world and enter my make-believe one.

Yes, I edited and re-wrote my work in progress, which took most of the summer. But that was like tuning an engine. The basics were there.

Then I got an idea for a story. Not a deep, thought-provoking story, but a light read, something fun for me to write and I hoped fun for someone to read. I wrote an outline so I’d know where I was going and even scheduled events to occur according to a beat sheet. Yep, I was ready to go. I set a daily word count.

You know how that goes. Sometimes whole days slip away without your noticing and the words don’t get written. But I can say t

Jack, one of my rescue cats

Jack, one of my rescue cats

hat most days I did write my 1,000 words and some days double that. On a roll. I am now up to 13,000 words.

But now family problems are coming at me. Again. And again, I feel helpless to do anything but hope and pray.

I find writing now is an escape. While I can’t control what is going on in my life, I can control what is going on with my story. I can’t convince anyone in real life to do what I think they should do, but my characters happily oblige me. Instead of circumstances stifling my creativity, I am using my creativity to avoid, for a little while, my circumstances.

So that’s the other side of the story. People read to escape into a different world.

Sometimes we write for the same reason.

A room of her own

I admire the young wives who write while juggling a full-time job and managing a home. Throw in a couple of children, and I marvel that they get any writing done at all. But they do, and do it well.

A woman called me the other day and asked for some advice. She has retired and has no children at home. She thought she would have all the time in the world to write and was discouraged to find out it just wasn’t so.

In her case, she is caregiver to both her  mother and husband. And both, since she is “retired,” think she has all the time in the world to do whatever they want her to do and whenever they  want it done. When she does find a few minutes to write, she finds sharing the computer room is a  distraction no matter how quiet her husband, who is also a writer, tries to be.

I thought of mothers with children and decided her case wasn’t so different. “You need to set boundaries,” I told her.

I asked when was her best time to write and she sounded like me when she said, “After my morning walk, cup of coffee, and reading the newspaper.” That’s my routine now that I have decided housework and correspondence can be put off until I have achieved my word count. (I wrote about this earlier, and yes, it is working.)

“So you tell them that the computer room is yours and no one is come in and disturb you from 10 a.m. until lunchtime,” I suggested. I wanted to tell her to get a laptop and find another space somewhere in the house if her husband objected to being banished for two hours. Maybe I will if, when I ask her how everything is going, she says he needs to work on his computer at the same time. It takes cooperation and compromise to set a writing schedule even when the other folks involved are grownups and not toddlers or teenagers.

I hope it works out for her because I think she has a story to tell.

And, I think her need to tell that story is strong enough that she will work out finding room and time.






Synopsis first?

For years, I thought you wrote the synopsis after your book was written. It’s then that you want to start submitting to agents/editors/publishers. So you sit down and struggle to tell your 300-page novel in five pages or less.

For me, the word struggle doesn’t begin to cover it. What do  you include and what do you leave out? Is the sub-plot important? What about the secondary characters?  It almost takes me longer to come up with a synopsis than it did to write the story.

And then there’s the logline, which is another subject. To be honest, I wrote  and published several books before I knew what a tagline or logline were. In case you are wondering, here is one definition:  A “tagline” is a short, clever sentence or phrase somewhere on the book’s cover thatmm-blog should pique a potential reader’s interest enough to flip the book over and read the blurb (a one or two paragraph description of the books’ contents). For example, the tagline for A Question of Time is “In time, there are infinite places to hide a king.” A “logline” is a two-sentence plot summary. Readers don’t see loglines; your write them for agents or publishers to give them a quick idea of what your book is about. So they need to be carefully constructed, too. 

So many ways to condense your book!

But now I have learned you should write your summary first. And before you do that, you should sit down and  write an outline. As a pantser, or one who starts writing with only a vague notion of the book’s plot,  this was a revelation.

Oops, doesn’t that make me a plotter?

Maybe not. It doesn’t mean I have to fill three binders with notes or put sticky notes all over the wall behind my computer, or create a story board with pictures and descriptions. It’s more like a road map. We all download directions from MapQuest or type in our destination in the GPS before starting a trip. It doesn’t mean you can’t take a side road or detour if you are so inclined. (If you use a GPS, you will be reminded constantly how to get back on the main road.)

In the article, “Plotting Boot Camp” by Amanda Renee (Romance Writers Report, May 2016) the author outlines the steps you need to take to arrange goal, motivation, and conflict in your story. Renee states that she takes her cues from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat when she creates her “beat sheet.”

You can find numerous references to beat sheets, but simply put, there are specific places in your story where certain things must happen.  Must is the keyword, because to miss one beat is to have things begin to fall apart.

I decided I would try this method, mainly because it works so well for others. I’m already almost 6,000 words into the story, so I may have to backtrack a little. It’s worth it if I reach the end and everything fits, there’s a happy ever after, and no loose threads or plot holes.

So by looking at the synopsis as a kind of literary GPS, I can take up my story and go forward, hopefully on the right road. And, I may just take a side road or two to see what it’s like.

Because at heart, I’m a pantser.


Ah, the giddy excitement

After procrastinating all summer, making excuse after whining excuse, I have done what I  promised my friends, family, and all five of my fans what I would do. I sat down at my computer, opened a blank Word document, and wrote:

Work in Progress

by Sandy Bruney

Chapter One

And I kept on writing for a couple of hours. Moreover, I have sat down every single day and written something, even if it was only a correction or adjustment to what I had written the day before.

And I’m excited. I’m not sure if this story is any good (I think it is) or if I will be able to maintain the pace. (I hope I can). The point is, I am writing again after a long dry spell. I feel like someone who has given up chocolate for some obscure reason and decided to try it once more, only to be reminded at the first taste how good it is, even better than she remembered. And savors the melting sweetness on her tongue, wondering why she ever gave it up in the first place.

Yep, that’s how I feel. I’m excited and energized. I’m falling in love with my characters. I’m at the point where I need to create a cheat sheet so I can keep them straight. I’ve already called one character by two different names, but I caught it before I went too far.

I am not a writer who sits down and draws up a list of characters and their descriptions, personality quirks and so on; My characters wander into the story and tell me who they are.  Sometimes they arrive fully fleshed out. Other times, I have to wait while they reveal themselves piece by piece. It’s always fun, either way.

As for the plot, I have a good idea where it’s going, but I love being surprised by the little twists and turns that pop up while I’m thinking about something else.

There’s a little added quirk to this story. I made myself a promise that I would not get sidetracked and I would not tell myself I can write as soon as I complete this or that chore around the house and yard. I know from experience that once I start raking or cleaning or whatever, I will be too exhausted to write. So my new order of business is write first and then I give myself permission to haul out the rake or dust mop.

To my  amazement, it doesn’t work in reverse order. Instead of feeling too tired to tackle the waiting chores, I finish writing and am eager to do something physical. I’ve written a couple thousand words this week and also trimmed the hedge, scrubbed the bedroom carpet, and washed the hall and kitchen floors–all chores I have been putting off for lack of energy.

I don’t know why this works, but I’m really happy it does. Moreover, my mood is better because–ta da–my guilty conscience has slunk away.

I’m not saying what the new book is about yet, but I met a woman in the library today who, being told I was a writer, asked if I wrote romance.

“There’s romance in every story,” I told her. “What’s life without it?”

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