Boys

A powerful snippet of writing from a master of prose.

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Ordinary Handsome

Our pale naked chests caught the moonlight. We were primitive mammals, drinking from her pool. Unsentimental, there were no aftermaths to consider, no consequences to chasten our arousals. Freely belligerent, we scraped the raw off mountains and ran roughshod over untidy hearts. We did not care. We were boys.

We cured ourselves with thought and shame, and retreated from Pan’s doom. But not all; some joined his legion and drink still from the pool, naked boys in aged skin.

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I love THAT

that

For the past few months, I’ve been engaged in the writerly task of editing four books. I do this full-time for about 14 hours a day, divvying the tasks up into four categories: 1) borderline boring, 2) terribly tedious, 3) downright dreary, and 4) mega mind-numbing. That way I can mix them up for a little variety.

One of the editing passes that I undertake is the arduous process of “enlivening my words.” I use the search function on Word to look up dull words and one by one swap them out for more interesting ones. At the tippity-top of the humdrum list is “was.” An exceedingly handy verb but not a writer’s best friend. I allow myself an average of one “wuz” per page. This means looking up about 600 wuzzes and switching 300 of them out. For 4 books, I’ll comb through approximately 2,400 wuzzes.  Ack!

I have 33 wimpy, weak, crutch words that I put through this process, none as dreadful as “was” though “had” ranks right up there in second place. It takes forever.

I’ve completed all my swaps except for the last – Word #33: THAT.

For some reason that I can’t explain, I just love that word. I could write that word in every sentence that I write. And that’s a problem. Plus that’s a word that’s hard to replace without completely changing the way that a sentence is written. I know that other writers can figure that out without that much trouble, but that’s easier said than done. For me, that’s an editing step that takes tons of time that I could use to make other changes that would improve my work.

Good Grief. Ha ha.

Okay, I gotta cut this out so I can cut that out. Wish me luck – only about 3,000 to go.

Why Books are Living Things

Pixabay image - Arthur Rackham

Pixabay image – Arthur Rackham

In contemplating what to write about today, I’ve decided to go a little off the deep end for the bewilderment of my readers. We writers can be a touch eccentric, and in order to perpetuate the characterization, I thought I’d chat about stuff I don’t know. That’s the fun of fantasy after all.

Those who’ve browsed my website know I love the idea of myths. To me, they’re the stories that define who we are and form the narratives of our lives. In my experience, perceptions alter our reality. We use perceptual narratives to filter our experiences, to guide our decisions, and create meaning in our lives. In essence, who we are, beyond our physical presence, is created based on our values and choices, how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. In a way, we are the embodiment of stories; our lifetimes expressed in epic myth.

So, where am I going with this? Hang on, I’m getting there. One more piece of information and you’ll see.

While studying for a degree in a pastoral counselor, I took this great class called “The Spirituality of Relationship.” In essence, it described a relationship as a new entity, a created presence with a life of its own that requires nurturing and an investment of time to thrive. The discussion provided a new way of looking at loss posed by divorce. For, although children may retain healthy connections with both parents individually, they grieve the loss of this third presence, the un-tangible creation, the relationship.

Now my point comes together…

I believe, on an energetic level, that books are more than paper and ink or digital symbols. On some level, our creations are new entities with the ability to enter into relationship with others on a personal and emotional level, just as we do. Books and the people who inhabit them can open eyes, stir the heart, elicit a deep sense of longing or grief, outrage or fear. I’ve fallen madly in love with protagonists, profoundly altered the path of my life, made new choices, expanded my understanding of the world, all through my relationships with books. Some have stayed with me since the day I read them, hovering like spirits over my head.

What if, when we create worlds and characters, we create something that exists? How do we know that the myths we fashion in our heads don’t coalesce into something real and measurable? Simply because we lack the brain capacity and technology to perceive and quantify, doesn’t mean something can’t be. History chuckles at the folly of those shortsighted assumptions.

I’m intrigued by paradigms, the perceptual boundaries we cobble together to rationalize our experience. I love the idea of not knowing. I bask in the notion that we scarcely use a fraction of our brains and possess only the tiniest inkling of how the universe works. Our perceptions are so small, so limited, that to me anything is possible.

Other than a photo and a bio (based entirely on my myth of myself) you have no idea whether I’m a real person, right? In a way, I’m a manifestation of our combined imaginations. It’s possible that my characters are just as present in the fiber of creation as I am. I think so. I know them better than I know most people; I’ve interacted with them, lived with them, learned from them, laughed and wept with them. They will likely outlive me too. Cool, huh?

Well, I’m a fantasy writer after all. I can imagine you nodding your head sagely at this bit of information or muttering under your breath, “This woman is three tines short of a fork.”

All I can say is, “Welcome to my world.”

*** This post originally appeared on Chris Graham’s blog: The Story Reading Ape. ❤ ***

A Writer goes to the Dump

images (1)From the Archives:

I’m a proponent of the belief that every experience contributes priceless raw material to a writer’s treasure chest. I’m a hoarder, cramming the niches of my brain with sensory inputs, emotional extremes, and reams of interesting and often useless information. No detail is too small, especially if it is painful or gross.

My husband’s back is on the fritz, so this morning I made my first solo trek to the town dump. Not a chore I anticipated with delight, I adjusted my mindset and used it as an experience-gathering expedition, adding several disgusting sensory inputs to my writing stockpile.

There are a few things you should know in order to fully appreciate this literary endeavor:

  1. It’s January in Oregon. That means it’s raining.
  2. Due to a series of unplanned mix-ups and timing obstacles, my husband hasn’t been to the dump in six months.
  3. Our trashcans are missing lids, having blown away during his previous dump trips (no comment).
  4. The back of our pick-up truck is full of logs.

After two cups of coffee, I don my wool hat, an old pair of mittens, a ratty coat, and my sneakers (a mistake). I clamber into the back of the pick-up, and start pitching logs over the side. My mittens are soaked within thirty seconds, and though I try to lift with my legs, my back is now whining like a teenager. Despite my freezing fingers, I’ve worked up a sweat and my wool hat is itchy on my forehead. As I kick a forty-pound log off the tailgate, I contemplate all the miserable discomfort I’ll subject my characters to and conjure up a few choice words for husbands that I stash away for future literary reference.

With the truck empty, I skirt the log pile and slog over to the trashcans. They’re lined up against a tall retaining wall with a mountain of trash bags piled on top of them. This was hubby’s solution to critters, which was not entirely effective, I might add. The top bags aren’t overly nasty, and half of them are bulging with stuff for recycling. I sling the lighter recycling into the truck bed and then lug the rest like a yoked peasant with no hope for a better life. Such is the back-breaking toil my villagers will endure for their cruel masters.  The conditions will be dismal—wet, filthy, and cold.

Now, I’ve unearthed the cans and, of course, the bags of rotted garbage are submerged (no lids, remember). They’ve been stewing in a fetid swill for months. I tip the cans over and the brown water pours out with a ripe stench that makes my head spin. It’s swamp water with half-decomposed bodies, the reek of a medieval midden heap. Thank goodness, it’s not summer or everything would be crawling with maggots and swarming with flies. I gag and breathe through my mouth.

The water-logged bags are bloated pigs and weigh a ton. I stab them with a pointed stick. Putrid water bursts out, drenching my sneakers. Lacking a choice, I heave them up with my soaked mittens.  They leak and dribble on my jeans. Not caring anymore, my brain numb to the horror, I grunt as I heft them to the tailgate. I’m a slave in the dank sewers outside the castle walls. I reek of death and drowning. Foul water splatters and pools in the truck bed. My poor characters are going to despise me.

The F350 is our chore truck, driven far less than our cars. I climb in and the distinctive odor of mouse shit assaults my nose.  Somewhere—in the seat cushion probably—a comfy little mouse family is waiting out the winter. To my core, I know the turds are lethal, but I make the ultimate sacrifice for the king of the castle and head to the dump. The truck smells so gross I roll down the windows for the ten-mile ride to town. Rain blows in with a stinging wind, but I bravely endure it over the stink. And I’ll remember this for when my protagonists hunker down in an old lean-to, thankful to suffer the icy drafts over the reek of vermin as they labor to rid the realm of evil.

Then, I arrive at the dump…

Are you Book Club ready?

book-club

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have your book selected by a book club?

Well, yeah.

The main thing that makes a book “book club ready” is the presence of questions that invite discussion. For each of my books, I have 10 questions that I compiled specifically around the themes, characters, and reader experience of the book.

Book club questions (also called Discussion Guides) are common in many academic books and are often located at the ends of chapters or in the back matter. When it comes to general fiction, placing your book club questions in the back matter is the best way to get them noticed, but not the only way. You can also direct readers to your website where a separate page or pretty pdf is linked to your book’s info.

At the end of this post is a list of potential book club questions that you can customize for your book. I collected these over the years from multiple sources and separated them by topic (ie. characters, setting, themes). When compiling my lists, I try to mix it up so that book club participants have a variety of topics to choose from.

For example, here are the 10 questions for The Bone Wall. Some questions were altered to specifically fit the book, but they’re all derived from the generic list.

Book Club Questions – The Bone Wall

  1. the-bone-wall-ebookSeveral cultures occur in the book – Heaven, the Riverwalkers, the Colony, and the Fortress. Did the cultures feel authentic? Could you see such cultures rising in a post-apocalyptic world?
  2. What specific themes did the author emphasize throughout the novel? What do you think he or she is trying to get across to the reader?
  3. Why do you think the author wrote this? What is this book’s message?
  4. Two characters tell the story alternating chapters. How did this structure work for you? Were both narrators interesting to read or did you prefer one over the other?
  5. How realistic was the characterization? Did the actions of the characters seem plausible? Why? Why not?
  6. What moral/ethical choices did the characters make? What did you think of those choices? How would you have chosen?
  7. Rimma and Angel see themselves as twins. What do you think about their relationship? What was the real relationship between them?
  8. Rimma made a number of choices, good and bad. What choices were the most significant in bringing about the conclusion? Would you have made some of the same choices as she?
  9. How did the book affect you? Did certain parts of the book make you uncomfortable? If so, why did you feel that way?
  10. Are you satisfied with the ending? Why or why not?

Book Club Generic Questions

Setting

  • What was unique about the setting of the book and how did it enhance or detract from the story?
  • How does the setting figure as a character in the story?
  • How authentic is the culture or era represented in the book?
  • How would the book have been different if it had taken place in a different time or place?
  • Is the setting of the story important to the book? In what ways?
  • If it’s set in the past, is this a period you know anything about? Would you have liked to live in this time? What would be the advantages/disadvantages?
  • If set in the future – do you think it’s a credible view of the future? Is it one that you’d wish on future generations?
  • If it’s set in the current time, what current events, if any, color the story?
  • Do the location and environment of the book color the telling of the story or are they merely a backdrop? Does the location change during the book or stay the same? If it changes, does this have any effect on the central characters?

Themes

  • What specific themes did the author emphasize throughout the novel? What do you think he or she is trying to get across to the reader?
  • In what ways do the events in the books reveal evidence of the author’s worldview?
  • Why do you think the author wrote this? What is this book’s message?
  • What are some of the book’s themes? How important were they?

Character Realism

  • Who are the key characters? Do one or more of the characters tell the story? If so, how do their own circumstances color the telling?
  • How realistic was the characterization? Did the actions of the characters seem plausible? Why? Why not?
  • Can you relate to their predicaments? To what extent do they remind you of yourself or someone you know?
  • Who was your favorite character? Why? Would you want to meet him or her?
  • Who was your least favorite character?
  • If questions…e.g. If the characters had done this instead, how would the story have changed?
  • Think about one of the minor characters in the story. Why did the author include him/her?
  • What effects do the events  (crisis, nationality, culture) have on the character’s self or personality?

Character Choices

  • What moral/ethical choices did the characters make? What did you think of those choices? How would you have chosen?
  • How do characters change or evolve throughout the course of the story? What events trigger such changes?
  • Are any of the characters’ actions troubling? How would you act in a similar situation? Do their experiences cause them to grow? If so, how?
  • Are the characters’ actions the result of free will or of destiny?
  • Is there any moral responsibility that was abdicated?

Construction

  • What did you think of the plot line development? How credible did the author make it?
  • Are there any symbols that may have cultural, political, or religious reference?
  • How are the book’s images symbolically significant? Do the images help to develop the plot, or help to define characters?
  • What type of tone does the author create with his or her world choices? Is it optimistic, pessimistic, prophetic, cautionary, humorous, satirical, venomous, cathartic?
  • Did the author seem to appear in the book? How? Why? Was the presence of the author disruptive? Or did it seem appropriate/fitting?

Reactions to the Book

  • How did the book affect you? Did certain parts of the book make you uncomfortable? If so, why did you feel that way?
  • Did the book lead to a new understanding or awareness of some aspect of your life you might not have thought about before?
  • Did the book expand your range of experience or challenge your assumptions?
  • Did you feel that the book fulfilled your expectations?
  • Are you satisfied with the ending? Why or why not?

Other Questions

  • If this book was made into a movie, who would you cast in the title roles?
  • What do you think will happen to the characters beyond the end of the book?
  • Have you read other similar books? Perhaps books by the same author or with a similar theme, or set in the same time period?

I hope these are helpful. Have fun getting your books ready for the next Book Club.

250 Words per Hour

words-per-hour

pixabay

Not long ago, my muse gave me an ultimatum (here) – Write or Else!

So I’ve been writing, keeping up my end of the bargain and then some, writing 6-10 hours a day, 5 days a week. I start at 5 a.m. and write until about 3. Then 3-4 hours of blogging. It’s been a challenge especially when the holidays started revving up.

For me, writing that many hours means letting other things slide like getting dressed, showering, brushing teeth, eating, cooking, laundry, holiday shopping, dishes, and vacuuming. Coffee is about all that gets accomplished with religious fervency.

This morning, a couple of people stopped by unexpectedly to have me sign some paperwork (our area is getting high-speed internet in 2017!). We stood outside in the sleet because I just couldn’t bear to usher them into my disaster area. When I went back inside, I walked by a mirror and noticed that my clothes were on backwards and inside out. Seams showing and the tag of my shirt flapping at my throat like a teeny white necktie. Ha ha. Yeesh.

But I also finished the first draft of the fourth book in my next series. I write about 250 words per hour. A first draft takes me about 400 hours. Subsequent drafts, maybe another 400 for a total of 800 hours per book. Four books? That’s about 3,200 hours.

Now really? Tell me. What writer has time to worry about whether her clothes are on front forward and right-side out? What do you let slide?

Creating Rich Characters – Prompts

steampunk-1809590_640

While my days are spent grinding out my WIP, I thought I’d share an old post about writing character bios, specifically about using prompts to expedite the process.

The prompt-list below looks more complicated than it is (a result of explanations and examples). For some prompts, a word or two is sufficient, while others require some contemplation. Unsurprisingly, I force my main characters to endure the entire process; incidental players get a pass with a mere smattering of details, and everyone else falls somewhere in between.

Ultimately, I believe that this pre-work pays off, not only in rich characters. To me, the process of writing flows with greater ease. My characters are immensely cooperative in telling their own stories when they know who they are.

The External Character

woman-1801830_640Physical Description: Appearance goes without saying, but add at least one remarkable feature: glass eye, cleft chin, crooked teeth, chewed nails, scars, moles, beady eyes, or rumbling voice. Remember, even beautiful people are imperfect.

Gestures, Mannerisms:  A distinguishing physical habit not only defines a character but makes him memorable. A character may habitually pick his teeth, clear his throat, rub his jaw, trace an old scar, purse his lips, fidget with a button, wink, spit, raise one eyebrow, stroke a beard, belch…

Quirk: A distinctive behavior that goes beyond a gesture: Won’t eat anything green, corrects improper speech, loves bad puns, doesn’t like to be touched, is afraid of heights, always misses the bus. There are numerous lists of quirks on the web.

Attribute, Trait: People have a blend of traits. Pick one or two for your character that stand out. Maybe she’s stubborn, lucky, picky, impatient, naïve, or flippant. Lists of attributes are also readily available on the web.

Skills, Abilities, and Interests: No real person is great at everything, and neither is your well-rounded character. Does your character have an education or special training? In what skills does he excel? Where is he lacking? What does your character do for a living? What does he do during down time?

Mix it Up: People are multi-dimensional. Villains can have redeemable qualities. They may rescue animals, love old movies, grow roses, or play chess in the park. Likewise, heroes have their flaws. They drink too much, have hot tempers, always run late, get easily flustered, or are slobs.

Don’t Overdo It: Creating a one-eyed, belly-scratching, kind-hearted, hypochondriac swordsmen with a penchant for chocolate is fun, but most characters will require much more subtlety.

The Internal Character

woman-1596954_960_720Backstory: Each character has a formative life that shaped him. What was the character’s childhood like? How strong were/are his family ties? Where are his parents and/or siblings? What significant event of the past shaped who the character is today? What was the character doing before the first page opened?

Secrets: A secret impacts a character’s attitudes and behaviors. It adds interest to the story because it can create tension or mystery in interpersonal dynamics. What is the character’s secret that no one else knows?

Goals: What does your character desperately desire? A protagonist’s overarching goal will often drive the story, and conflicting goals between characters may be a major source of tension. Consider that the main characters will have goals related not only to the main plot but to subplots.

Obstacles: What is the main obstacle that stands in the way of the character reaching her goal. This may be a nemesis, a personal flaw, or a condition of the culture or world. Remember that villains aren’t the only ones that can stand in a character’s way. Obstacles can be large and small and there are usually lots of them in the protagonist’s path.

Active Pursuit of Goals: At some point in the story, the character moves into an active role in overcoming obstacles and achieving goals. What triggers the change for the character? How does the character take or attempt to take active control?

posing-1022162_640The Big Fear: This is the one that terrifies – betrayal, loss of control, inability to protect loved ones, failure, death, aloneness, disgrace, insignificance, poverty, aging. It may drive the character’s goal or be an obstacle he must overcome. Fears have a basis in experience – where did this fear come from?

The Mask: A character’s mask is directly related to his fear. The mask describes how a character compensates for the Big Fear, or hides it from the world. For example, a character fearful of betrayal, may act overly independent or refuse to get close to others. Often the mask comes undone during the course of a story and the character is forced to face and perhaps overcome her fear.

Cross-Character Relationships: Another way to add interest and tension is by creating similarities between conflicting characters, and differences between companionable characters. What might the protagonist and villain have in common? Perhaps they both love horses, appreciate fine wines, or fear water. Along the same lines, how might the protagonist and his cohorts clash? One curses constantly and the other finds it offensive; one might play an instrument poorly while his companions cover their ears.

There you have it – my prompts. I hope this is helpful. Let me know if there’s something I missed!

 

**Images from Pixabay**