Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Save The Tigers

Today's blog is personal.  A few weeks ago, David passed on something he'd heard on the radio -- that the Times Picayune had announced that in order to try to avoid being forced to shut down completely, it would be publishing newspapers only three times a week.  The news filled me with such sadness I couldn't work the rest of the day.

The strange thing is, I no longer live in New Orleans, and - as much as it disappoints my mom - I have never been a newspaper reader.  I've always had the vague idea it was a kind of backlash of almost growing up in the newspaper business, or it could be that I was just the 'first wave' of new times.  The bottom line was a newspaper company two-thousand miles away 'down-sizing' had no real effect on me.

This morning, David forwarded the article that announced that thirty-two percent of their current employees are to be laid off as of September 30th, 2012.  Half of the newsroom staff had received layoffs, while remaining newsroom employees received offered to move to Nola Media Group - a new company formed to operate the newspaper using a 'digital strategy'.

I am sitting at my computer fighting back tears.  Three generations of my family worked at the Times Picayune.  My uncle managed the advertising department, my father's first job after getting out of the army following World War II was there, and a number of years later, he met my mother there.

While I didn't run wild in the place, I grew up there.  I can remember the smell of the ink, the noise of the presses, and the hot lead type coming out backwards.  It was a fascinating place, bustling with activity--with life.  And now it's dying.

The Times Picayune was founded in 1837, making it one-hundred and seventy-five years old, this year.  It is a historic institution.  It is one of the oldest papers in the country.  But soon it will only publish on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.  And even then, they make no promises about how long that will keep them operating in print.

The fate of newspapers (as well as traditional publishing houses) has been on the horizon as far back as the seventies.  As with so many other things in our world, computers changed everything.  I took fewer people to actual run the presses.  Paper costs sky-rocketed.  However, the coup de grace came with the new millennium and tablets, smart phones and apps. 

Now, I'm about to have my first book 'e-published' next week, so how can feel like this?  I can't give the answer.  I only know I feel as though the last tiger is dying.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Redefining Freytag's Pyramid for the New Millennium

Remember old Freytag and his pyramid?  He designed a diagram to help writers visualize how their story lines need to progress.  It's just a simple triangle that illustrates how we should move from the beginning of our tales . . . all the way to the end.

See - it's very simple and straightforward.

It can really help writers working on sharpening their skills, to see how to structure their stories (or novels).  The problem I've been finding is that people seem to be taking it too literally. 

Think back to when we first learned about the pyramids of ancient Egypt.  That's how we pictured them - with straight sides.  It wasn't until somewhere in high school or college, when we found out they were really built out of large squares of stone - and looked more 'chunky'.

It's not quite a stack of square blocks.  Instead, it shows how the plot builds; then there's a bit of resolution; before the plot continues to intensify.  The reader needs little breaks - little respites - sprinkled in the mounting tension.  Equally, once the main obstacle has been met and conquered, you want to gently present resolutions to all the subplots; and perhaps, throw in one or two new obstructions.  Otherwise, you let the reader down too quickly and that leaves them unsatisfied. 

Leaving your readers hungry is not the same as leaving them wanting more.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Winners - One and All

What makes one editor turn down a manuscript and another accept it? We all know everyone has their own likes and dislikes, so we really shouldn't be surprised at rejections. Yet, with each rejection, we feel wounded, discouraged, and confused. Moreover, we're left with the unanswered question - why.

We're supposed to be bolstered up by the fact that all writers are rejected - and most writers - often.  But, seriously, it gives no solace!

Sometimes we're lucky and get a line or two about why that particular editor didn't think our baby was right for them. But, most of the time it's just a form letter - sterile, cold, and impersonal. And that letter leaves us not only asking the universe 'Why?'; it leaves us questioning our own self-worth.

I've seen several responses to another blog about this. And yes, I've done it all: the angry rant to no one; had tears streaming down my face, and the thoughts that maybe I should just take up knitting (or whatever).

But, this is where we separate ourselves from so many people who 'write'. Because we pick ourselves up and regroup. Some of us eat pints of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, and others get a good bottle of single malt Scotch. We tell ourselves 'They'll be sorry . . .' and then, with a plaintive sigh and a deep breath, we start all over again.

Here's the thing to remember: We are all winners - because we've put ourselves out there. My mother used to write poetry. She must have been pretty good, because she got a scholarship to the University of Mexico City for a summer semester.

Why am I boring you with this? Because, of what she said to me last autumn. If you’ve read some of my earlier blogs (say Thanksgiving to Christmas), you know that for a while it didn't look like Gail and I were going to reach an agreement. I was very upset at the thought that I would come so close - and still never get published. That I would never succeed.

However, Mom insisted that I had already succeeded, because I had done what she could never bring herself to do - submit herself to the possibility rejection. And, by doing that - or not doing that - she had never given herself the possibility to succeed.

So, the next time you get a rejection, eat a pan of brownies, treat yourself to a mani-pedi, and start all over again.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The View From Here

The task of maintaining a consistent POV (point of view) can be a challenging one. It can be a vague, non-tangible object; and to handle it can often be like grabbing hold of smoke. Even seasoned writers with a name and following lose hold of it at times. Don't believe me? Pick up a copy of Larry McMurtry's 'Lonesome Dove'. In one of the opening paragraphs - the one where they're sitting around the table eating breakfast - McMurtry hops from one character's head to the other; working his way around the table.

Anyway, maintaining POV was a concept I'd think I had 'gotten'; and then poof! I'd lost it. I got more and more frustrated. And then I came up with my 'brilliant idea'. (Hey! It's been known to happen.)

I chose a scene with four characters in it, and then I wrote it four times - one from each character's perspective. It wasn't easy. Not only did it take time and effort, but if forced me to manipulate the scene to maintain that character's POV and still cover everything I still needed to happen. But it was worth it! After that, things just kind of .clicked' into place.

Now, do I have the odd slip? Yes, without a doubt. But they are few and far between; and usually, they are very minor.

And if I ever do have a total brain-freeze (which, since my sixtieth birthday last month, seems to be happening more and more) I have those four versions of the scene safely tucked away to use as a refresher course.

Happy Writing!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Fact or Fiction

I'm sure anyone who has ever done research on any subject - for a personal interest, a college paper, or for a book you're working on - has come across bias information. And, I'm sure you've found it as frustrating as I do.

As fiction writers, we expect to put our own 'spin' on the information we dig up. It's what we do. It's call writing 'fiction'! What I'm having a problem is reference material supposedly written by journalists, but tainted by the authors own prejudices.

There is a distinct difference between reporting information and editorializing about it. At least there should be. Unfortunately, in this age of video magazines, electronic journalism and YouTube, the line - which has been eroding over the last several decades - seems to have evaporated completely.

A journalist's job is to report the facts. They are not supposed to comment on them. They aren't supposed to include undocumented things. Equally, they aren't supposed to leave out facts.

It's what Joe Friday said in Dragnet, 'All we want is the facts, ma'am.'

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Plotter, Pantster or Both?

There's been lots of chatter on the Desert Breeze Authors' site this weekend about whether our members are 'Plotters' - those that carefully plan out there plots in detailed outlines; or 'Pantsters' - those that start with an idea and run with it - therefore, writing by the seat of their pants, ergo 'Pantsters'. There is also a group that uses a combination of both techniques, called 'Plotsters'.

Now, on occasion I've used them all. In fact, I bet we all have. The one year I participated in NaNo (NaNo is the nickname for National Novel Month. Each November, people all around the world accept the challenge of writing a a fifty-thousand word novel in the thirty days of November.) I did use a detailed outline. It proved to be an absolute life-saver, because I was away the first five days of November; my brother died unexpectedly, so I was busy filing papers for custody of my nephew and my computer refused to boot. But even with all that, I finished.

In all honesty, I am using a skeleton outline for a new series I'm ruminating on. However, it truly is a bare-bones thing. I've made a beginning premise, and then listed out the main character's names and where they'll end up - but that’s all.

The thing is I'm not at all sure that my method actually qualifies as the traditional 'Pantster' technique - or even the blended 'Plotster' way. My favorite procedure is one I refer to as 'Anarchy'. You see, I let my characters develop on their own.

I block out the two or three main characters - age, height, weight, hair and eye color, etc.; and then I let them stew. Along the way, secondary characters will emerged and defined themselves, as well. It is true that often, the name I choose for the characters helps shape their personalities - sometimes it might even 'point' them in a certain plot direction. After giving them some time to mature, I kind of interview them.

There are people who recommend for us to actually interview each of our character. You can find several lists of suggested interview questions on the internet. However, I do a bullet list. I just think about them and list what comes to mind. If a questions pops into my head, I will usually find I know how that character will answer.

Now, I'm not talking about basic questions like you'd find on a survey. I'm talking about personal and sometimes silly questions. For example: What was their favorite subject in grammar school? What food won't they eat? What are their secret fears and/or desires? How do they drink their coffee? How much sleep do they need?

As foolish as it may sound, if you think about these things, the answers will just be there for you. All you need to do is to note them down for future reference. As this information accumulates the character's personality forms. It will tell you how they speak, dress and interact with others. It will reveal their personal ideologies, ethics and values.

But wait . . . that's not the anarchy part.

Here is comes . . .

Then I ask them what they want to do. Remember that old Microsoft Windows ad - 'Where do you want to go today?' That's what I ask my characters. Then I let do it. That's how I do the first draft. I just let them run amuck. That's the anarchy!

The really funny and interesting thing is it's led to some very unexpected and fabulous plot twists. Even when things need revising to smooth them out, it makes for a better plot. And that can only make for a better book.

Monday, April 23, 2012

My Muse

            There's a string going around the Desert Breeze Author Group asking 'Where do your ideas come from?'.  It seems that we all have our own inspirations and thought processes. But I can only speak for myself . . .

            That imp, Muse, can be playful, encouraging or illusive - and I have no control of her. She often acts like a petulant child. She does not present herself when called.  There are times when she doesn't even bother to answer.

            Even when she does honor me with her presence, she can be miserly and give me only the briefest glimpses of an idea.  It's like that 'thing' you've been trying to remember--the one that's always just out of reach.

            Case in point . . . I've spent the last several years polishing my book and sending it out into the cold, cruel world.  Yes, I know you get a lot of rejections before someone sees that you have something.  Believe me, I've have a lovely collection - both email and snail mail - rejection letters; some nicer than others. 

            And, then a true Christmas miracle!  Desert Breeze sent me a contract - not for just the first book in my series - but all five.  I was ecstatic and then terrified.  I worked hard to get everything required finished in good time. In fact, I beat my February first deadline by three days. Then I kind of drifted.  I wasn't sure what to do next.

            I had an idea in one of the plethora of steno notebooks that litter my house - something I'd actually thought about almost thirty-five years ago.  (Writing with a computer really is a God-send for someone just a teensy bit obsessive/compulsive--but that's another blog.)  And, to be honest, I touched on the idea in an earlier blog. I was 'playing' with it, but not really working.

            Then, something my wonderful mentor said lit a fire in me.  I jumped on the work train.  I like working with images in front of me - so, I made a big bulletin board and starting pinning things up. I got out my ancient white and chalk boards, ordered two mew ones and starting scribbling. 

            I'd had an idea in the middle of the night - and I wrote it down - because, I turned sixty last week - enough said there. BTW:  You should always have notebooks in your purse and car, along with writing implements. I recommend mechanical pencils - erasable and no sharpener required.  I also sleep with a notebook with a mechanical pencil clipped on.  I used to have one of those tiny book lights--but since it died, I just scribble in the dark.  As long as you transcribe it in the morning, you'll get the gist of it.

               So, anyway, I'd blocked out the basic idea - pinned it up and kept looking at it.  (I also try and think about things as I fall asleep.)  Later, I expanded the idea into a bulleted list and started surfing the internet for some research information.

            Then Muse showed up; and now all bets are off.  She's sign-posted several possible plot paths for that original idea.  She's also given me an idea for a brand new series - which may or may not be 'romance based'. 

            The bottom line is that if you're patient, your muse will appear.  The trick is to not try and lead her--follow her.  Because, when she is in a generous and communicative mood, she can be a bountiful spirit.

            You see, that old adage is true - 'When it rains, it pours.'



Friday, February 17, 2012

The Life of a Keyboard Warrior

            I don't remember where I saw the term 'Keyboard Warrior', but I liked it.  That's what it feels like so much of the time - like I'm fighting: with technology, some snafu in the plotline or with just arguing with myself.  I'd adjusted to the solitude and isolation.  I put my shoulder to the proverbial wheel, and pushed forward. 
            Then Santa brought me a wonderful Christmas present - a publishing contract.  And not for just one book, but a series of five!  After years of rejection letters and emails, I had done it.  I had shown promise to an editor.  So now all I had to do, I thought in my innocence, was work with an editor to tweak the first book, and wait until it was released.
            Silly me! 
            I wrestled with technology and won the reformatting battle.  The CAIS (Cover Art Information Sheet - it took me about a day and a half to figure that out) and I skirmished for a week or so.  However, I beat it.  I filled out the author's information questionnaire and even managed to get one or two pretty good pictures.  Of course, I took over a hundred - so there was bound to be one or two . . .
            Then I joined the authors' group, when I turned tail and bid a hasty retreat.  There were so many of them.  I've been living in a virtual vacuum for years, and now I felt like I was in Grand Central Station at rush hour.  The first week I worried my brain would implode!
            True story - a pilot spotted a lone Japanese soldier while flying over a remote Indonesian island - in 1974.  The soldier was taken in custody on December 18th, 1974. He came out without a fight when a specially trained group of Indonesian soldiers surrounded his hut and sang the Japanese anthem. 
            The trouble was he was he'd been raised in Taiwan when it was a Japanese dependency, so he identified with Japan.  After several weeks of debate over where he belonged, he was returned to Taiwan, where he died lonely and confused, five years later. 
            I know just how he must have felt being sent to a country no longer under Japan rule, to a wife who'd remarried twenty years before and a son he didn't know he had.  I've been plunged into a new world of technology, instant gratification and 'social networking', and I'm barely treading water.
            Thankful goodness, my editor threw me a life preserver in the form of another author.  Slowly, kicking and screaming, he's dragging me into the deep end of the pool.  The thing is I trust him not to let me drown.
            And for that, I thank them both, but especially Bill. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A New Hope

            Last night I did something I'd never done before -- I watched a video on Facebook.  And I got quite an eyeful!
            In case you haven't seen it, it's a guy - early to mid forties; an ordinary guy, in jeans and a cowboy hat.  He's calm and well-spoken, and is sitting on a chair in the middle of a large yard holding a paper.  He then says that this is his response to his fifteen-year-old daughter, Hannah's tirade of her parents and how they treat her.  Apparently, she'd already been grounded for three months for a similar incident.   So this time she'd post this 'secretly' (or whatever the term is - I think it's clear I am not a Face book aficionado), under the foolish belief that she was slicker than her father - the IT specialist.      
            He reads her letter and responds to her accusations and then pulls out a forty-five automatic and empties the clip into the laptop, lying on the ground near him.  He ends by telling her that she'll have another laptop when she buys herself one. 
            Now, I admit it - I was pleasantly shocked.  Finally, a parent taking some control back.   At last, an adult drew his imaginary line in the sand.  After this video ended, there were video comments made by viewers.  However, here's what got me - the four or five I watched were all teenagers; and every one of them was behind the dad's actions.   They applauded his showing this ungrateful child the facts of life.
            Perhaps there is hope for the up-and-coming generation after all.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Hurry Up And Wait...

            Well, although it doesn't seem possible, it's the last day of January already.  I've finished the pages of questions about the cover art, my bio and even taken a picture that didn't make me wince.  I've finished reformatting the manuscript; managing to weed out some passive voice in the process.  And so now, I am to sit and wait for my editor to contact me. 
            Have I mentioned I'm not a good waiter?  Don't get me wrong.  I try. I do my best to be patient.  I just don't succeed very well.  I get anxious and antsy.  Then, I'm afraid, I get cranky.  It's probably a good thing that a writer leads a lonely life, or I'd have alienated the elite few friends I have.
            I suppose I could start reformatting the second book in the series.  Or, I could work on finishing the fifth (and, I believe, the final) book in the series. Of course, I'm not sure if I want to work on that one, until I know there won't be many significant changes to my on-going plot line.
            I could work on a new idea I had last November; or work on polishing and revising Lizzie Borden novel. The thing is they both require research.  
            Now, I have all the Lizzie Borden research done.  However, the dogs have been entertaining themselves all winter by running through the pile of books and the basket of printed information.  This means, I'll have to allocate the dining room table for the research; after I've spent at least a day re-organizing the papers.
            The alternative would be researching Ante-Bellum and Creole plantation life.  I don't mind research and I've already starting pulling information together.  I spent several days 'blending' a number of actual plantation houses to create my 'Camellia Plantation' house. Then I sketched out the front view and the first floor.  I was working on the second-story floor plan of my mythical plantation home; and was already thinking about doing furniture plans, as well, when I got the reformatting info and cover art questionnaire.  
            I'd also started reading some of the vintage fashion magazines for clothing ideas. Yeah, I know.  I can get a bit obsessive.  However, in my own defense, I did stop myself from making paper dolls of the female characters and their wardrobes.
            And, I had the colored pencils out and everything…

Monday, January 16, 2012

Are You Missing Something, Or Am I?

            When Windows '95 and home computers came out, I was right there. I embraced the computer, the internet and email. It was great to be able to research all sorts of things - to see all kinds of things - all over the world. But there's too much 'social networking' going on now.
            I had a cell phone early on. And, I think that might be part of the problem.  I saw the cell phone as a convenience - for emergency situations. It was for calling, AAA or the police. It was to keep someone from worrying if I'm running really late. Not to chatter away with anyone willing to listen.
            Okay, I admit it, there were a few times when I threw caution to the wind and ordered Chinese food when I left the bank or hair dressers or vets, so I could just pick it up on the fly. But that was it!
            There was a time when I was going through the divorce and traveling a lot. The cell phone kept me in touch with people I wanted to talk to - and I loved that. However, it also kept me within reach of people (read my 'not-soon-enough-to-be-ex' husband here) I didn't particularly want to talk to.
            Now people 'Instant Message' and update their status on 'facebook' the entire time they're suppose to be working on the computer. And, they're phoning, texting and tweet people the rest of the time. When do they think, create and dream?
            There are times (many times) when we need to retreat into that personal bathysphere of ourselves: to contemplate an idea, expand a dream or just regroup. Never forget that.
            The bottom line is if you have to always be communicating with other people, checking on how they feel about things and what they think, you've got a problem. If you can't stand to be alone, there's something fundamentally wrong with you - with how YOU see yourself.
            Spend some time communicating with yourself. Learn how to like yourself - just as you are. And the great thing is you don't need high-speed internet or a good cellular plan - all you  need is a quiet place and you!