Lesson re-learned

When my first two non-fiction books were published, I was elated. A real publisher had accepted my submissions. It was a small, indie press, but to me it was a first step. Never mind that the company went out of business a few years later and I had to re-publish the books on my own. The experience was invaluable in that I realized I was no longer a wannabe, but a professional writer.

The second lesson I learned was during the editing process. Each book (Angels Unaware and The Lunch Club) elicited the same directive from the editor: Lose the first chapter.

It’s good advice. Many writers, including me, think that everything has to be explained in the first pages. We throw in too much back story, we put in too much detail about the characters and their lives, and we never get to the point of the story until chapter two. It’s not until then that the action begins to gain momentum.

I tried to follow that advice with my next books, published by a different small press. I started out with the problem and the story accelerated from there.

But I must have forgotten with my current work in progress. Like the tablecloth I mentioned in my last post, I kept starting and stopping, knowing something was wrong, but just not getting it. The first chapter limped along like a dog with a sand spur in his paw. Aggravating and painful.

Then one evening the answer came to me. The first chapter is boring because it doesn’t state the problem in the first page. It drones on until about mid-chapter, and then we discover the dilemma the protagonist faces. By then, most readers would have yawned and tossed the book aside.

Yep, I needed to lose that first chapter. So I highlighted and deleted the whole thing  and rewrote the second chapter (now first) so that the reader knows immediately what the heroine faces.

The lesson here is that we continue learning, but sometimes we forget what we learned. That’s why it’s so important to keep reading craft books and magazines, to attend workshops, and to work with a critique group.  I submitted that now-gone first chapter to a critique partner who said succinctly that she wasn’t sure if the protagonist was 13 or 30. I re-read it and realized in an effort to make the heroine young, I had essentially made her a teenager. More cuts and revisions.

But now that I’m aware of the red flags that I’d ignored in my blithe assumption that as a published author I knew what I was doing, I am eager to tackle the story again.

And I’m still eager to learn. On October 28, Joseph Bathanti will lead an intensive short story workshop in Wadesboro. I don’t write short stories very often, but I believe that what I  learn from a master writer can be applied to longer works.

If you live in the Charlotte area, check it out at Carolinas Writers Conference. Maybe I’ll see you there!

 

 

 

 

 

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Feeling validated

Well, whoop-de-do! My latest book, “Riverbend,” got a 5-star review in the September issue of Ind’Tale magazine. Naturally, I want to exploit this in the nicest way possible, which is to say putting it on Facebook.

But Facebook reaches only so many people. I’m sure that you (if you are a serious author) are always seeking ways to promote your book because frankly, we are the only ones who will.

I wanted the world (or those who don’t subscribe to Ind’Tale, which is a great on-line magazine, by the way) or follow me on Facebook to see the good news. But how?

I have often wondered how authors get those glowing editorial reviews on their Amazon book pages. Did the magazines and newspapers submit them? Common sense told me the New York Times has better things to do.

So like all curious people the world over, I Googled my question. And duh, you can do it yourself. Go to Author Central, click on the book page you want the review to appear on, and lo, there is a form you can fill out.  Look on the left side where it says “editorial” and click on “add.” You have to do it for both Kindle and print editions.

I didn’t copy-past the entire review as it was too long, and the rules say if you are copying another’s words, you should limit it to two sentences. So I picked the most glowing.

If you are not on Author Central at Amazon, why on Earth are you not? It’s another tool in your kit. Maybe not everybody visiting your book page will click on your link, but those who do get to see every book you’ve written, links to your bio, blogs, videos, or anything else you want to add.

I promised long ago to share any insights I have into the writing game, and sadly to say, promotion is a big part of it. Some of us are not good at self-promotion as we think it is tantamount to the bragging or parents scolded us for. We need to get over that notion.

You wrote a book. Now get out there and sell it.

 

 

Disaster preparedness

I love Nature as much as anybody: sunsets, beaches, mountain vistas …

But lately, Nature has been a little too upclose and personal. Ask anyone from Texas. Or Mexico.

If I had to pick between a hurricane and an earthquake, I’d pick neither, thank you very much.

It looks as if we’re getting something, though. A full-fledged hurricane or maybe some strong wind and rain. Not sure of Irma’s path. At one time predicted to roll over us, now maybe to the west, but wait, that could change.

So I went to Walmart yesterday to fill my gas tank, and get a few staples just in case. I remember Hurricane Hugo and the ensuing week without power. At that time we had a generator and lots of propane goodies like a lantern and stove. I no longer have any of those because I didn’t know how to use them and since Jim isn’t here to do it (or show me) I got rid of them, congratulating myself on the storage space I was saving.

I wish he were here now, not necessarily to fire up a propane lantern, but to talk me out of my misgivings about this storm. He was always  calm, but methodical. He knew how to get ready for an emergency without scaring me to death.

So anyway, I got the car gassed up and started looking for a battery for my heavy-duty lantern-type flashlight. I went to just about every store I could think of and finally went to an auto parts store. The clerk there told me they used to carry lantern batteries (the big, square 6-V kind) but now everyone had gone to LED lights.

So I bought one. And two packs of AAA batteries to back up the ones that came with it.

I also bought lamp oil for the two antique oil lamps in the den. I fired one up and it still works, so it’ll be all right if the smoke doesn’t drive me out of the house.

Food? Breakfast bars, some tinned meat, another loaf of bread, a big jar of peanut butter and a box of crackers. I figure I can pop up some corn ahead of time and put it in a bag. Won’t be able to brew coffee, but I can make cold-brewed tea.

And of course, wine. And books. Which I will read by the light of the new LED lamp or kerosene lamp or my flashlight. Because how else do you pass the time with no TV?

Of course, I am figuring some days without power if the wind is strong enough. If it is stronger than knocking down a few trees and takes my roof with it, all of the above is moot.

Maybe none of this will happen, but I’d rather be prepared. In 1999, Jim prepared for Y2K by stocking up on all the aforementioned things that I just got rid of. No electronic meltdown happened as predicted, but we did get 16 inches of snow New Year’s Day, almost unheard of in the N.C. Piedmont. And the power was out for a week. So it all came in handy and he couldn’t wipe the smirk off his face for a month.

So wherever Irma heads, be careful out there. And be prepared.

 

 

 

 

To this point, I’ve considered historical fiction as beginning with Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear and ending with All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. I read all of Auel’s books, but confess I never read the World War I classic.

However, I notice a change creeping up on me like gray hair and arthritic knees. The big thing now is World War II novels, such as All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Kristin Hanna’s The Nightingale. If you haven’t read these two novels, stop right now and get them from your library, download them on your Kindle, or do whatever you have to do. I’ll wait.

These are both marvelous books that take you right into the war and its effects on those who lived through it … or didn’t. But as I read them, I wondered, “How is it that these are labeled historical fiction?”

Isn’t history events that happened before you were born?

I haven’t been coy about my age, but evidently I am older than I thought. You see, I remember World War II. Not as a historian would view it, but through a child’s eyes. I knew there was a war going on, I just didn’t exactly know what a war was.

Thank God for that.

To me, war meant Victory gardens, and a scarcity of certain commodities like sugar. I knew sugar was scarce because my mother complained bitterly when she was ready to make jam from the berries she grew along the side of our vegetable garden and couldn’t buy any, even with her ration book.

War meant saving bacon grease in a tin can, and rolling string into balls. It meant carefully peeling the tin foil from its paper backing after unwrapping a stick of chewing gum and saving it.

War meant seeing beautiful wrought iron fences disappear from the lawns of stately homes and drawing the shades down at night so not one glimmer of light could escape.

These were minor and forgettable things compared to what others went through. But we didn’t know about the others. Not then. We didn’t know how blessedly safe we were.

But war  touched many other children: children shot, starved, gassed. The novels I mentioned brought this home to me. We know war is evil, but until a skilled writer brings our emotions to the fore, we can’t really understand what it is like. Hanna and Doerr put us in the picture, and after reading their novels, we can’t say we don’t understand any longer.

And still it goes on. And on. Korea, Vietnam, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria…

I would love some day to know that all wars belong in the historical category. I know I won’t live to see it, but I hope my great-grandchildren will.

And they will read the stories and thank God such madness has ended.

 

 

 

 

How am I doing?

I have been a widow now for a year and a half. I’m not sure if this means I should be “used to it” by now or if I should be still actively grieving. There aren’t any rules to follow, so I’m not sure what is normal. People say I’m “handling it well” so I guess I’m doing all right.

I’m reading On Second Thought by Kristin Higgins. One of the characters, Kate, is suddenly widowed when her husband of less than a year trips and hits his head. Her reactions are funny and poignant, and I see myself in her, even to the morbid humor when she thinks at least now she has more closet space. I never went to the store and realized I’d forgotten to put on shoes, but I did do some very strange things that first year. I look back now and wonder what I was thinking.

Of course, I wasn’t thinking. I was on auto-pilot.

I still make  decisions and wonder if Jim would approve. (Or I make a decision knowing full well he wouldn’t approve, such as painting the living room walls, with a sense of defiance and yes, a little guilt.)  Or I accomplish something and exult aloud, “Look there! See what I did?” as if he would suddenly appear and give me that approving grin.

But, I did manage to finish two novels, one published in May and one looking for a home. People handle their grief in different ways  and mine was to lose myself in someone else’s world and someone else’s problems. Neither are not about being a widow. I’m not sure I could write about that, but then…

I already did. Long before Jim died, I wrote a story about a woman who is struggling after the death of her husband. I re-read it now and realize I didn’t know a thing. I’m going to re-write it and hope the story will reveal some true things that I have learned the hard way.

So we go on and the people we loved and lost are still a part of our lives. I pretend sometimes Jim is just in another room, or outside working and will come in and ask if I want to go get lunch.

I know it’s pretense, but that’s what I do. It helps get me through the day.

Maybe, just maybe, it will help me get through the next novel.

 

 

Start ’em early

One of the goals of our local writers’ club is to promote literacy.  I guess we’ve said this so loud and so often, it wasn’t a surprise when someone actually took us up on it.

A summer camp for kids needed someone to lead a class on story writing. Guess who they called?

So Kaye and I set out last Monday morning for the camp, which was held indoors. Given the 90+ temperatures we’ve had lately, I considered ‘camping’ in an air-conditioned room a perk.

How did it go? We had a blast. We had two groups of kids, the first from 4-8 years old and the second from 8 to about 14. Talk about enthusiasm! Once they grasped the idea of creating a story from scratch, the kids were falling over themselves to contribute their ideas.

They  knew the basics of story writing: Beginning, middle, end. They knew there had to be a problem and a solution. They knew a story was better when it contained details to set the scene. So our job was made easier because we just had to build on what they already had learned. We tried to steer them away from retelling Hansel and Gretel or The Parent Trap and get them to thinking on their own.

The first group’s story was imaginative even if it didn’t make a lot of sense. It didn’t have to follow a perfect story arc, it just had to entertain. And that it did.

The second group of older kids had a rocky start as the tweens and teens argued about the plot and where it was going. I had some doubts, but I needn’t have worried. They settled down and began backing up each other’s ideas, cooperating beautifully. Their story was heartfelt and had a satisfying conclusion.

I took my notes home and wrote down the stories they envisioned. I’ll print them out, a copy for each camper and a few extra, and take them back to camp next week.

I think the kids had a good time. I know Kaye and I did.

Who knew giving back could be so much fun?

 

 

 

 

the not-so-fun part of writing

I finally finished my WIP.

I can’t write that with a straight face. I keep tweaking my stories until I send off the final galley proofs. I never feel it’s done as well as it could be. But we all have to call quits at some point and get one with it.

Now comes the part I hate: writing the synopsis and query letter.Image result for finished meme

I wrote a synopsis and my critique partner told me gently it needed work and then lowered the boom: “I love the novel, but, sad to say, I would not have read it if I had to depend on this synopsis to learn what the story is about.”

Maybe I wasn’t sure what the story was about. I had to re-read it to see where it was going. So I spent several days re-writing the synopsis.

Then I started the query, and believe me, it has taken a LOT of time to come up with three paragraphs that set the hook, tell a little about the plot, and leave the reader panting for more. I honestly think I could write a whole new book in the time it’s taken me to write those paragraphs. And I’m still not satisfied.

Once I am, though, the next step is to start sending said query and synopsis to agents/editors/publishers (I’m not choosy). I decided not to self-publish this one, although Riverbend is doing better than I thought it would on Amazon. I checked today and there are two new 5-star reviews and one is not from a friend or relative, but a perfect stranger. I want to hug her.

And, I forgot to mention, it took me days to come with a title. I had a working title, but it didn’t work. I created a list of titles and then sat down and looked them up on Amazon. Some were taken, several times over. I know titles are copyrighted, but I didn’t want to duplicate another book. For example, there are several Riverbends out there, and quite a few Angels Unaware. I wanted one that no one else had taken. If you are are curious, the title is To Love a Liar.

So it’s going to be a busy summer as I try to find this book a home.

 

 

 

 

 

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