Friday, January 22, 2016

Guest author Lesley A. Diehl: Writing What You Know: Five Pitfalls to Avoid

Lesley A Diehl 
Author of cozy mysteries
featuring sassy country
gals who enjoy snooping
The first piece of advice I was given as a novice mystery writer was to write what I knew. I suppose that’s good literary advice in general regardless of the genre you write. How persuasive can your writing be when constructing a romance about nineteenth century Spain if you don’t know the period, the country or the dress and customs of the people? Similarly, I would never attempt to write other than a cozy mystery or perhaps a traditional mystery. Police procedurals require some knowledge of police work, whether it’s information you’ve gotten through direct experience or through reading extensively, interviewing police authorities or perhaps you were an police officer yourself or are close with someone who is.

However, writing a story based upon your own work background or even a hobby you’re familiar with doesn’t guarantee you a book or short story your reader will find enticing. There are some problems with writing what you know. I’ve identified five of them.

1. There is no distance between you and elements in your story.

I was a retired college professor, so I decided to be safe in my first mystery manuscript. I wrote about a college professor who helped local authorities solve murders, especially those occurring on the college campus. Aside from my very real problem of still writing like an academic rather than a mystery author, I was so close to my subject matter than it sounded as if I had an ax to grind. Well, I did, of course, but all those juicy little details about academe came across not as texture in my story, but as insults I had not yet gotten beyond.  I needed to remind myself I was writing fiction, not true life adventures of a wronged professor.

I recently read a manuscript written by someone with a medical background. It was filled with details that should have given a reader insight into the profession. Instead it read like a diatribe against certain aspects of the profession. The story was lost.

How to get beyond this? Well, it took me almost ten years until I came to understand my story should not be mine, but my protagonist’s story. The juicy details now became embellishments in her life, not mine.

2. You know too much.

You have an extensive background in some profession or hobby or have researched an aspect of your protagonist’s life that you find interesting, and, by golly, you’re going to put all of this into your story. You believe it provides the detail necessary to flesh out the life of your protagonist, or so you say. But your reader yawns halfway through your account of how to make Origami Christmas decorations and decides he/she doesn’t have the time for a protagonist that thinks crafting is as important as her love life or solving her best friend’s murder. You’re just showing off.

There’s a delicate balance between providing enough detail to make a scene feel real and creating nausea in your reader by over burdening her with particulars that lead to boredom. A good critique group or a critique partner may help you establish this balance.

3. You read and read and read.

You know you want to include information about your protagonist’s life that you do not have knowledge about. You do this because you want your reader to understand that your protagonist has a multifaceted life. She likes camping, backpacking to be exact, but you are afraid of bugs, so you use the internet to find out all you can on backpacking. And you hope your reader will not discover how little experience you have. You’ll be found out, if not by gaping holes in the breadth and depth of your camping research, but by the rather tiresome tone you use to describe your heroine’s recent camping trip.

It’s fine to bolster your understanding of some area with research, but, if you limit it to what you read and not what you experience, your writing will suffer for your lack of intimacy with the subject matter. I find that experience in the form of tours, interviews or partaking in some event can be fun for the author and, by extension, that fun finds its way into your writing. I’ve done things like touring numerous microbreweries to find out about the process of brewing, taking an airboat ride, or, my favorite, shopping, shopping, shopping yard sales, consignment shops, secondhand stores and junk yards. The feel of places where your protagonist travels or lives makes your story come to life.

So, use a lot of bug spray or choose another activity for your protagonist.

4. You learn about something no one else is interested in.

When I decided I need to create a protagonist with a career in some field other than the ones often found in cozies, e.g., quilt shops, catering services, crafts, bookshop owners, I thought about occupations that were unusual for a woman. The two that came to mind were taxidermist and microbrewer. The first seemed exotic, to say the least, but I knew I’d have to learn firsthand about the business, and the thought of sinking my arms elbow deep in squirrel entrails did not appeal. I’m sure it wouldn’t have appealed to readers either. I chose microbrewer for my protagonist’s work and spent many happy hours in breweries talking with brew masters, sampling their wares (that was fun) and learning directly about making beer. I couldn’t brew a batch myself, but I have a better appreciation for the art than before I did my research, and I think it shows up in my mysteries set in a brew barn in Upstate New York.

I can’t tell you what topic would send your work off track, but perhaps asking friends and relatives, even strangers if they’d be interested in reading a mystery about a woman who worked in a factory that made peanut butter might give you some insight. If you put her in a mobile home and made someone in the factory responsible for intentionally contaminating the product, you might have a winner, but it’s a stretch. Avoiding this pitfall might be where common sense prevails.

5. You feel trapped by your boring life.

Well, let’s face it. Most of us have pretty mundane lives. If you are a writer, you are a storyteller, and the story you tell will not be about your life, the vocation you chose or even events you have experienced. To make a story sing, you will select feelings, perspectives, attitudes, and judgments about people and events in your life. Then, as a good story teller, you embellish what you know to create a world you never lived in but one you fashioned out of the important aspects (anguish, joy, loss, love, anger) of the one you did experience.

I had a truly crazy family, but I’d never write that story. I mean, I became a psychologist, and that should say enough about my family. Instead, I have chosen to take an aunt I was fond of and make her bigger than life. The love and admiration I had for this woman helped me create a character she would never recognize as herself, but I think I have distilled the essence of her flamboyant nature into a person who dominates the story. You can make a story from the central kernel of people you know.

How does a writer use a boring life and create memorable characters and stories? Your life may be boring, but you are a writer because you have an imagination. Few of us want to write about our own lives. Most of us are interested in writing a story.

The key to avoiding all these pitfalls is your own imagination, fashioned from your own experience, of course, but honed into a writer’s imagination by writing, reading and talking with other writers. And, oh yes, getting out of your own way so you can write.

Have you experienced these difficulties in writing what you know? Are there other pitfalls you’ve run into in your own writing or that of others?


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Living on Dirt

So. I have news. I waited until after the last second – sixteen hours after the last second, to be precise – to post this column because I was hoping something scheduled to happen sometime this week would happen before I did. It hasn't. (But when it does, I'll edit to add a link.) First, four bits of context. (And no, I'm not burying the lede. When the link is up it'll be at the top of the column and all this framing information will be a footnote.) First, as somewhere between 42% and 63% of you know, the many-faceted relationships between differing races and cultures – in general, of course, but more often the interactions between individuals of different races and cultures as each copes with the mysterious "other" – is a subject that fascinates me. I have been half of an interracial partnership for thirty-four years and the father of people proud of their blended heritage for thirty-two to twenty-four years, depending on the individual. (And, for a bit over two years, grandfather of a dynamic young lady whose self image has not yet expanded beyond certainty she's the center of a loving universe.) I first met Liane and the other founders of Novel Spaces in a romance writers' group because my wife wanted (still wants) me to write interracial romances. If nothing else were going on, I'd have written this month's column about Conrad's Heart of Darkness , which I taught decades ago, and the recent what-in-God's-name-were-they-thinking travesty of A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Second, science fiction is my core genre. I love mystery, historical, fantasy, and enjoy sweet-to-'R'-romances, westerns, and contemporary, but my reader's heart imprinted on science fiction before I understood the concept of genres. More specifically, while I love Golden Age raygun-and-tentacle scifi and what are probably more properly called science fantasies (like Star Trek), alternate histories are at the center of my scifi addiction. What would have happened if: ...there had been no pandemic to wipe out 92% of North America's population two years before the Pilgrims arrived? ...Emperor Constantine had never converted to Christianity? ...Alexander the Great had lived another thirty years? Many years ago I posited a world in which FDR decided against federal funding for research into the atom bomb and chose not to run for a third term (both of which almost happened). As an exercise in world building I tracked the consequences of FDR's third and fourth term decisions, as well as those of his VP and successor Harry Truman, and explored how events would have unfolded differently. In my alternate world James Byrnes is elected President and the Dixiecrats – the 1940s Democratic progenitors of today's Republican Tea Party – become the dominant political party. Without nuclear weapons WWII in the Pacific would have lasted at least a year longer, with much of Japan razed by the Allied invasion. And the economically pragmatic Byrnes, not distracted by the idea of weapons, would have funded nuclear research that led to the cheap, clean nuclear power plants envisioned by writers of the 1940s and the Golden Age mainstay of planetary exploration, "fusion rockets" (the warp drive of their era). Everyday reality would include practically free energy, efficient nationwide mass transit, and colonies on the Moon and Mars by 1980. But the politically paranoid Dixiecrats and their successors would also have instituted tighter government control over communications, information, and technology as a defense against communism and other anti-American forces. Jim Crow laws would have lasted for decades longer and the Civil Rights Movement would not have made significant progress until the 1990s. Through all of this I had an amorphous idea for a novel about that delayed struggle for equality that never quite crystallized into a solid plot. I'm a fan of young adult fiction and a big believer in the power of the genre. (As evidenced by this column from 2012: Juvenile Fiction.) Not only is YA the gateway through which most young people become readers, the clarity with which they (the good ones) address complex personal and social issues make them accessible to adults who are not normally readers (i.e. Harry Potter and Hunger Games). From Ann of Green Gables to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, YA is my go-to genre for relaxation. A few years ago I was invited to submit a story to young adult sf anthology on pretty short notice. I floundered for nearly thirty seconds before thinking of my alternative history continually in progress. I wrote a story about a girl born and raised on a space station being required to visit her cousins on 'dirt' – which is what the hyper-elitist white folk in the Space Service called Earth (the Earth folk are 'dirts'). Things are worse, better, and generally completely different from what she'd been raised to expect. The story wasn't accepted, but the YA approach to my civil rights in the twenty-first century concept felt right. Over the next year I developed the narrative outline for a novel about a hyper elitist teen space girl so freaked out by being on dirt she's afraid to touch anything, her egalitarian dirt cousin, and her dirt cousin's best friend, a young woman who is gifted, black, and determined to break the Space Service's color barrier. It took me another year to actually write the novel. (Actually, the writing was impossible until I let go of the idea that everyone's problems could be solved in one novel and set 2/3 of what I had aside for later volumes.) Finally, I am not a publisher. I did want to be, did intend to be. I attended every training and webinar on publishing I could find. With the help of a SCORE mentor, I work out a solid business model. I did, in fact, form Kvaad Press in 2011. But, as evidenced by a forty-year career in human services, including education, personal care, and mental health, I do not have the heart of a business person. Nor did I know any business-minded people who were willing and able to invest the knowledge, time, and money to keep Kvaad Press going. I've been writing professionally for a decade and a half. I have novels, anthologies, websites, even a coffee table book to my credit. But all of my work has been in media tie-in. Everything I've sold has been linked to a television show, movie, or game – intellectual properties that I do not own. Figuring out what to do with something that was mine, that I wholly owned, was uncharted territory for me. I knew I didn't want to go with a major house, where I'd be an anonymous cog, and I knew I had neither the skills nor the temperament to succeed as a total indie, which left.... what? I began searching for a small press that treated writers like partners, or at least team members. Found a lot of predators but found a remarkable number of good people, too. One such outfit is Evolved Publishing. With whom I've signed a three book contract. The first volume in my Dirt and Stars series will be hitting the streets in July.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The 7 Phases of Almost Any Writing Project.

When I was neck deep in Corporate America, it was common to share a newspaper clipping or e-Mail offering a bit of humorous if not cynical insight into our little world. This went double within the realm of corporate information technology, in which many of the everyday practices still make me scratch my head in befuddlement.

One that I’ve always remembered, mostly because for years a copy of it occupied a space on the small tack board above my desk, was “The 6 Phases of Any Project,” which consisted of the following:

  1. Enthusiasm
  2. Disillusionment
  3. Panic
  4. Search for the guilty
  5. Punishment of the innocent
  6. Praise and honors for the non-participants
After nearly thirty years spent in the arena of software development, be it for the government or the private sector, let me tell you that this list is so on point that it’s painful.

As I am currently in the grips of a Writing Project That Will Not Die, my brain somehow jumped to thinking about how I had started it with such exhilaration, and then all of that initial energy began to fade as time wore on, the book wasn’t coming together the way I wanted it to, and now there’s pressure to Just Get It Done so I can move on to Other Things, because deadlines and bills to pay and I’m really just so very tired of staring at this same manuscript for so long.

The result of all that thinking? My own list: “The 7 Phases of Almost Any Writing Project.”

1. Enthusiasm - Hey! It’s a new story! You’re excited to get started! Perhaps you’ve spent weeks if not months developing an outline and character back stories, or maybe you’ve just settled into a brand new pair of comfortable sweats which are ideal for writing by the seat of your pants and seeing what springs forth from your imagination and your fingers. Regardless, it’s time to get going! Those words aren’t going to push themselves, after all. Chapter 1, and away we go!

2. Procrastination - What? It’s only the first week. You’ve got plenty of time to get this done. Meanwhile, there are whole new seasons of awesome shows dropping all over Netflix, or that stack of DVD or Blu-ray gift sets you just bought thanks to those gift cards you got for Christmas. What, doesn’t everybody binge watch The Bachelor or Deadliest Catch to relax after a hard day spent staring at that manuscript in progress? What’s the big deal? The story will still be there after the weekend.

3. Disillusionment – Well, this was a pretty stupid idea for a story, huh? The luster has worn off and all there is now is a lot of blank white page and a deadline. That outline you were so proud of? It made a nice sound going through the shredder, didn’t it? Writing by the seat of your pants sounds like an awesome plan right about now. Besides, whatever blob of incomprehensible gibberish you might conjure will still be more productive than the three hours you spent organizing your book shelves alphabetically by height, format, and subject. That was before you put everything back the way it was when you started, because what the hell were you thinking, anyway? When’s this damned story due?

4. Panic – The story’s due when? Are you kidding? That barely gives you enough time to post an ad to Craigslist hoping to hire a ghost writer and pay them with a Starbucks gift card and whatever loose change you find in your couch. Do ghost writers like Ramen noodles? You hope not, because you’re down to your last package. When is somebody going to option your last book for a movie and send you a check, for crying out loud? Wait. Who’s that talking in the other room? Your kid? Wait, when did you have a kid? Can they ghost write? Do they have a brother or sister who can help?

5. Self-Loathing – You’re starting to question your very existence by now. Nothing’s going right. Even the inconsequential things are conspiring against you, trying to trip you up any time you’re able to string together two coherent sentences that you don’t completely hate as you type them. How long have you been wearing those sweats, anyway? Are those Frito crumbs in your hair? You’re taking coffee intravenously at this point, and you’ve run out of milk for your cereal but hold on! Wine works just as well, if not better! Tell those other people to stop judging you. Tell those people to shut up. They’re not your mom!

6. Cramming – You can do this you can do this you can do this you can do this. There’s only twenty-five thousand words to go, and ten hours to get there. Your fingers are numb and bleeding, but the muscles in your hands haven’t given up the fight just yet even if you can’t remember the last time you had feeling in your butt. You’ve ingested enough caffeine that you can see sounds. Every time you look up at the clock thirty minutes have passed but you’ve only typed ten words, and three of those were “I HATE EVERYTHING.”’ve got this, right?

7. Coma – Congratulations! You’ve finally finished and delivered your manuscript, and you’re now entitled to collapse into an insensate heap across your bed or your favorite recliner, and give yourself a well-earned rest. Feel free to reacquaint yourself with any other denizens of your household, who to this point have been little more than ghostly apparitions in your peripheral vision whenever you paused to look away from your monitor. Might want to grab a shower and burn those sweat pants, too. However, you can’t spend too much time basking in the afterglow of this achievement because hey! You’ve got this new story, and you’re excited to get started....

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Success AFTER success

After going to see Creed with my cousin I was interested in re-watching the Rocky movies. I had seen them on TV when I was a wee little thing but I was too young to pay much attention. But I watched Rocky I and Rocky II and I was surprised at how resonant Rocky II is.

The theme of Rocky II is success after success. Rocky struggles to find a job after he can't make it in commercials. He sells his car, flails around, and finally decides to fight again after trying to retire.

It is NOT always easier to succeed after you have succeeded. If getting a book published in some form is considered a success, what do you do after that book? Mostly try to get another one out. Books come out fast these days. Whether traditionally or self published. And to stay on the radar more books have to come out. But getting more books out doesn't mean they will be a success.

One book published doesn't grow a career and that's what publishing is. Well, to be fair it's always been that. But few authors have the luxury of going seven years between books anymore. Now it's a book every year. Two years at the most. Maybe a little longer of you have an understanding traditional publisher and a back catalog.

One book is no longer a success. It's about the success after success.

Monday, January 4, 2016

To Outline or Not to Outline

At this point in my career, it is so important that I get to know my characters as best as I can right off the bat by creating resumes for each, and also, I must outline the story (using a 30 chapter outline) as kind of a road-map, a guide, so that I at least "think" I know where I'm going, and it allows me to concentrate on the matters of the plot as I go along. I see it as kind of a GPS system. And even though things change along the way, for me to have some type of a guide as I write each day, depending upon my mood, I can also decide whether to write the next sequential chapter, or I can skip to the church scene, the sex scene, the divorce scene, the wedding scene, etc., which makes my mission easier to accomplish, and it also helps to alleviate writer's block.

After writing the outline, I then write a one-liner, sometimes more, at the beginning of each heading/chapter number, based on the outline. Initially, I let dialogue energy drive my story, and that leads me through the first draft. I literally write what the characters are saying. After 2-3 more drafts/rewrites, when I'm done with the final story months later, I take a look at all of the alternate routes, off ramps, what was scribbled, emailed to myself, omitted, altered, added in, what morphed into something bigger and better, what was boring that was made exciting, and what was useless that was made purposeful, and I believe that even though it changed, it was easier to have those one-liners to go by. 

When I first started writing in 1997, I did not outline. I went by the seat of my pants. My characters were talking so fast, it was all I could do to keep up with them. Nowadays, I do transcribe, but it's different. Yes, I'm more seasoned, but also, it's more challenging in some ways because the newness and innocence of the process wears off, and it can become routine, basically since I've learned so much. And that's in some way good and bad.

One reason I started using outlines is that after my first book deal, I began submitting option titles by submitting three chapters and an outline, and I would get a book deal based on that. I still do that. And so then, I would use that outline to write the story. Another reason is that many writing courses and other authors have persuaded me that writing an outline is the best way to go. And so I went. 

But, this New Year, I plan to challenge myself and write my next title without an outline, just to see how it goes, as kind of an homage to when I was more of a novice. I hope I will have patience with myself, as I will surely need to be disciplined.

Stephen King says that knowing a story isn't necessary for him to begin his work. He believes that one can become enslaved to an outline, and that the story can become artificial and labored, as opposed to allowing it come into its own being. He feels you can be more creative and less stuck to a direction, if you simply sit down and write the story, and let the characters take you where they will. Just flail away!

Is an outline helpful to you in shaping a story? What's your opinion on outlining? I'm very interested in reading your replies.

Happy 2016 to all, and Happy Writing!!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Resolutions -- delusions or solutions?

Happy New Year! For this New Year I have no resolution. The last time I had a resolution was 2013 and I was able to stick with the resolution. That however was only because I made the resolution achievable by having set goals.

For years prior I had no resolution because I thought setting resolutions was setting oneself up for failure.  In 2013 I decided to give it a try. My resolution then was the very vague resolution of getting out of my comfort zone and trying somethings I had never tried before. It was a broad enough resolution that guaranteed failure, except for one thing: I had a plan.

I set goals. My first goal was to write and publish in a genre I had never before attempted. My second goal was to put myself out there and be more active in promoting my books. The third goal was to open my mind to alternative publishers. My books before had been published traditionally by large publishers. I stayed away from Indie publishing, vanity presses and small publishers with almost elitist disdain. 

The opportunity came for me to write and publish in a new genre when I was recruited for the launch of the Amazon Kindle Worlds and decided to write in the Pretty Little Liars universe. Before then, I hadn’t even heard of Pretty Little Liars. In one month I had to read a ton of books in the series, binge watch the television series and write and edit a 25 000 word novella using the existing characters. I did and published “Indiscretion” a YA mystery/suspense novella—a far cry from the romance I normally write. 

That gave me the courage to try my third goal: consider alternative publishers. I dusted off my children’s manuscript that my daughter Lynelle and I wrote when she was 8 and went into a partnership with CaribbeanReads publishing, a small publishing house. It was a partnership that gave me creative control over just about everything with the book. Before that I had never done anything illustrated. The result was “Zapped! Danger in the Cell” published in 2014. The experience was so good with the small publisher that I decided to stay on with them for my other romance “Hurricane of the Heart”, the first romance published by CaribbeanReads.

With the shift in publishing came the second goal and all the things I dreaded: putting myself out there. Since I made the resolution, I have done so many things I never thought I had the guts to do. I have held workshops at Port Discovery Children’s museum converting a room into a living cell. I raised funds via a gofundme page for it. I have done radio, blog talk radio and television interviews. I have done school presentations and launch parties. I have made contacts in the board of education curriculum development, I have gone to conferences, things I was afraid to do in my quest for anonymity as an author. I have done so many things outside my comfort zone all because of a resolution I made in 2013.

The take home message: don’t be skeptical about making resolutions.  Resolutions can work, if there are specific goals and a plan to achieve the resolution. And they can change your life.

So why didn’t I make a resolution this year? Well I’m still working on the one from 2013 because the resolution that I made was not a onetime resolution but a life time change. It’s still a work in progress.

So when you make your broad sweeping New Year’s resolution, do you have a plan of action?