Tag Archives: writing

Plotting a Thriller

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I’ve had the idea for a psychological thriller for almost a year now. The minute I finished my latest novel (on my editor’s desk as I type this) I started planning the new one. I quickly realized there would be a LOT more research than usual. I had a new genre, a new setting, a new profession, which has since turned into several new professions. I almost said “maybe not.”

But my critique group meets next week, and a month ago I’d promised them a first chapter of the new book. I’d already done quite a bit of research on the setting and I knew the character since I’d written about her in two previous novels. Also, I had read How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey when I wrote Sweet Melissa, so I knew some stuff. Enough for a first chapter.

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I had also done “research” of a sort when I attended Sleuthfest in Miami last month. I picked up a few books, read a couple of them, skimmed the reference text I knew I’d wear out before the WIP is finished. I’d attended workshops and even had an enlightening talk with an editor who gave me some names of agents who might be interested in the type of story I was planning to write.

Sometimes writing gets interrupted by social media. Occupational hazard. I “somehow” saw a post by Tim Baker yesterday, a writer I follow on Twitter.

Tim’s guest post had the word “research” in the heading. Because I finished my first chapter and realized I had a lot more research to do, I clicked the link. And learned a lot. Inspired, I got out James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Thriller and started taking notes. It turns out that a thriller does not have to be a mystery! It ONLY has to be “nonstop action, plot twists that surprise and excite, settings both exotic and vibrant, and an intense pace that never lets up until the adrenaline-packed climax.”

I sort of knew I wanted to write an action packed page turner. I wanted to challenge myself to write at that intense pace. I have the exotic and vibrant setting (just hope I can bring it to life). I didn’t know I’d need a high concept that can be contained in one sentence, not more than thirteen words. So I thought about all that and got some ideas. I actually wrote my high concept sentence! And then outlined a few of the twists coming up.

I found out that some high concepts are cliches. Like 9/11 terrorist stories. Oh. That was one of my first ideas…because of my setting. But I had another idea, so I went with it. James N. Frey says the goal of a mystery is to catch a killer, but the goal of a thriller is to stop evil. Makes sense; the page-turning thing would be easier to execute if the stakes are higher than just “catch a killer.”

So thanks for giving me some timely reminders to do my research, Tim, as it is already paying off. And thanks to Sonya for hosting Tim on her blog. It takes a village (of authors) to write a book.

Sauntering Into 60

Every day as I sit at my desk, I high five this guy. His arm swings. He’s my good luck charm. I need him because change is scary and the only thing that doesn’t change is that everything changes.

The internet changed publishing so fast people in the book biz still find it difficult to catch their breath, find a rhythm, secure a spot at the table. Me, I’ve given up on all that. Well, today anyway. Taking it day by day for a while until I get myself sorted. April is revision month and after that I’m just not sure. I know I have a book due, an editor waiting and a publisher willing today.

But then the world could turn upside down tomorrow.  There’s an eclipse coming April 4 that is sure to shake up everyone’s life in out-of-the-blue unexpected ways big or small. People born on or close to that day will feel the effects more than others, according to Susan Miller at Astrology Zone.

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Social media changes even faster than the internet. I do my best to keep up but I’m done running. I’m 60 and sauntering. You’ll see some changes here on the blog soon, and maybe notice a difference if you follow me on Twitter or are a Facebook friend. I’m getting rid of the Fan page. I’m the last to know but the Facebook Fan page has outlived its usefulness as a free site. The latest thing is to let everyone be your friend, which was what I did before, but everything old is new again.

So…my FB updates will change as I seek to guard my friend and family’s privacy a little better than before. I am so open online, and it has never hurt me, or not much anyway, but not everybody is like me. Also, you might not know this, but there are private pieces of me. No really! Also, some of my friends who are not on Facebook have asked me not to post pictures or updates that include them on the site. I have to respect their wishes.

I’m slowly evolving into my “Fourth Twenty” in other ways too. Taking better care of my health. This is a scary thing because if I lose all the weight my doctor says I need to, my face is gonna be trashed. I mean, more than it already is. I like being a little plump because it means less wrinkles and sag. But I’m 60. Vanity is not going to take me to the plastic surgeon or even an injectable party, thank you very much. I look to letting that go. I think it will be interesting not to be interested in my looks.

The other thing is my blood sugar, which I have battled for years. It looks like giving up sweets is not going to be enough to bring my numbers down. I cut carbs and calories, but it looks like grains are going to have to go, at least until I’m stabilized. So how exactly does a vegetarian get her complete protein, the full amino acid chain, without combining beans and rice or pasta and pine nuts? Could a bigger change than I ever anticipated be afoot?

Why Write?

People write books for mysterious reasons. They think they “have an idea.” But for me, it turns out to be a bit more complex than that. My latest release, at least in part, was written as a do-over. I was once a single mom. I keep the true story of that time here. It won a local award and was published in a national anthology because being a single mom is not easy and overcoming hardship makes good story.

I got the idea to write a novel about divorce and how difficult it can be on children (and the adults who are supposedly the mature ones). It would have a happy ending like my own story did, but it wouldn’t sugarcoat the devastation of divorce. When I added an addiction subplot, my publisher wisely decided to market the book as “contemporary fiction” and not romance like my other books.

Divorce is not romantic. Neither is addiction.

Before I embarked on this project I asked permission from the men in life: my husband and two sons. Not because there would be one true detail in this novel but because there would be an eventual husband and two little boys figured prominently in the single mom’s life. That is where reality stopped and imagination took over.

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The relief of writing a better journey than my own was immediate and lasting. Healing, even. Of course fiction needs conflict and the small problems of the lovers were supplemented by an equally fictional ex-husband, who I made a terrible addict. That was not something I’d wish on my own ex-husband, who hardly takes a drink of alcohol let alone any other substances. Sure, the real guy, the father of my children, might not like the fictional ex-husband’s role in my book, but it had to be done for the sake of the story.

I’m pretty sure my ex does not read my books anyway. And no, I didn’t ask his permission. This is fiction I’m writing, although in the thick of it, it feels very real. I used real feelings. My own and and those I could clearly read on my sons’ sad faces those many years ago. Writers use emotion the way actors do. It’s a tool and we manipulate it.

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That doesn’t sound very nice, but then there are zillions of articles that talk about how writers aren’t good people, that they’ll use anyone and anything if it serves their story. I take exception to that idea. It’s because I don’t want to hurt the real people in my actual life that I don’t write memoir. I make up the people in my novels.

So why write? For the pleasure of a do-over. For revenge. For absolution. To right wrongs, to dive deep into my peculiar fascination with the human psyche, to create order from chaos, to control the actions on the page so I can let go in real life, where there is no such thing as control, or anyway very little of it. And maybe, to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes and learn, through this exercise in empathy, how to love a little better.

What about money and fame and glory?

Nah. I wouldn’t bet on those things if I were a young writer. They may come, but the odds are not in your favor. The odds of becoming a happier person, content in a world of your own building, now that is a distinct possibility.

Something(s) New!

I’m so excited about my writing life right now. Bubbling over, actually. Vacation helped me wipe the slate clean as I transition from teaching college to doing other things. Mostly writing things. I’ve got plans in the works and have made a new page listing my writing-related public and social media appearances, all which have come about through serendipity and no work at all on my part. The new page is called, what else, “news” — check it out here. Of course it’s always in the header, too, now.

When it flows, go. When it blocks, stop.

Not sure where I read that…I’ve been reading a ton of psychology and neuroscience lately as I prep for a new book and a new genre. In addition to Unrequited, Letting Go, mindset, The Power of Habit and Mindwise, I am also reading 400 Things Cops Know and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating. Also Detroit: An American Autopsy. And those are just the non-fiction titles I’ve finished, am in the middle of, or have stacked in my TBR pile. I also read several novels on vacation, and I’m savoring Charles Baxter’s new book of short stories There’s Something I Want You To Do. Baxter is one of my favorite authors and I’ve read everything he’s published because he is brilliant, funny and a role model.

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While I do read a fair amount of non-fiction, novels remain my favorite reading form with short stories a close second. I’ve read thousands of novels and story collections in my life and yes, I know that’s a little bit strange. Sometimes I feel like I don’t inhabit the real world as much as I should because I’m so wrapped up in the world of books. Other times I feel so very comforted by the way novels and stories help me make sense of a sometimes senseless world.

I owe a huge debt to authors. I’m only a writer because I read hundreds and hundreds of books growing up. And then as an adult (and having been a professional book reviewer for a number of years) I’ve read thousands of novels. Eventually, if you read as much as I do, you tend to want to see if you can do it, too. So I owe my own writing career to my love of the written word and the people who made me fall in love with their stories.

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This is a perhaps long-winded way of saying that I am about to embark on a new adventure with a favorite friend. As mentioned, I’ve been a professional book reviewer in the past, staff writer for a couple of trade magazines, and I still post reviews on Amazon and Goodreads once in awhile. I used to review informally here on the blog, too, but I’ve never officially been a book blogger before…until Ali asked me if I wanted to write a weekly review for her. Because I love books and her fabulous book blogging on her awesome website, A Woman’s Wisdom, I said YES.

Digging Into Revision

Back when I missed my deadline last October, I marked off the month of January as what one of my writer friends calls “writing cave” time. No distractions, appointments, or lunches. Just write. Every day. Except Saturday, which is my day with Al.

So six days, flat out, all day, until dinner or until I hit my page target (ten pages a day), or until I burned out. So how’d that turn out? Well, I think I’m going to make it before my trip to Seattle. But there were a few bumps along the road. Some days I struggled to enter the cave at all. I got a cold. Sniff. That was two days. I had burn out days. One or two. I had a problem, a psychological block, which Chuck Wendig (hilarious writer who blogs about writers and writing and other things) would call FAKE WRITER’S BLOCK but I know was just me working out a knotty problem with a character and her situation.

You might guess: it was the sex scene that wasn’t about sex. I finally got it right. But that took a few more days. Other than those things, I wrote most days. I also grocery shopped, cooked, cleaned the kitchen, did the laundry, and dusted and vacuumed the living room and my cave. I’m lucky. Al takes care of the bathrooms. We have three. And he also does a ton of other stuff around here.

When I’d made that January promise, I’d conveniently forgotten about Luke. My book. The one that came out in December that I have done hardly a thing to promote. I mean, really, I have a folder of ideas but that’s it. Everything else, other people did for me, without me asking. I’m lucky twice. Today I posted a picture of the “real Luke” family on Facebook for #TBT. That’s Throwback Thursday for non-FB people.

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It’s  not really promo because I didn’t put it on my author page, but my friend page. I didn’t add a “buy” link or anything. I didn’t even mention Luke or the book. I will get to promo, just not yet. It’s too cold out for one thing! And my Mac is busy doing other things, like writing this blog post. I have kept up my twice a week posting because it’s something I really love to do. But blog posts aren’t really promo…I don’t think social media really works as far as promotion. I like to tweet and sometimes I’ll (rare) throw up a link or quote a review of Luke, but mostly I make a few quick visits to tweeps (Twitter-speak for those of you not on that site) do some RTs (re-tweets) and follow links. Except for the blog, I have spent far less time on social media than usual. As I said, I don’t think it helps sell my books, but it relaxes me and I get to connect with other writers that way.

You know, we all work alone in caves so it’s nice to get out and wave hi every once in awhile. But the way to get the work done is to limit social media and defer all other activities until the pages for the day are done. My limit was ten pages a day but I always went over that. I’ve clocked several thirty-page days. But the thing is, this is revision of a first draft. So those thirty (or however many) pages get edited again the next day.

I remember Louise Erdrich saying that’s how she works from the first draft. She picks up the pages from the previous day and makes them as good as she can before moving forward. I’ve been doing that with this second draft, so it’s a combination of second draft and third round edits. Next I will let the manuscript rest while I’m in Seattle with Owen, then read it again when I return. If I can bring myself to ever leave this little sweetheart!

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Something occurred to me as I went through this month of intense revision. I realized that it was okay to go at a pace that felt natural to me. It was okay not to make my self-imposed deadline. (My editor said “take as long as you need.”) I only have this one life and maybe it’s about more than writing (gasp!) This is, after all, the first month of my formal retirement from teaching college. Writing is now my only job. For the rest of my life. I should enjoy it, not push myself because soon a new semester will be underway. So, I gave myself permission not to finish if it didn’t happen. Yet, it is happening. It was a goal, so I’m happy it’s looking like I’ll meet it, as I’d like to finish this book already and move on to what’s next.

Notice I didn’t say “the next book.” During this month in the cave I realized there’s a lot going on outside. And I want to be part of it. Even though it has a treasured place in my heart, writing has never ruled my world. It’s always been “people first, writing second.” When I was working the day job and wishing for the time of life when I could devote myself entirely to writing, I had no idea that when that day came, I might have other things on my mind. Like a new grandson coming in April. Let’s see, I have a trip to see my first grandson in February. Then in March, two weeks with Al in sunny Florida. New grandbaby in April. Maybe in May I can get focused on writing again. Meanwhile, I’ve got some living and loving to do.

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Sex and the Shadow

hawaii3Shadows are where danger lurks. Shame is in the shadow of every single life. And sex includes shame for so many of us. Makes sense, then, that one of my problems as a writer has always been with sex. Open the door or keep it closed?

Those who throw the door wide and step right through would argue that sex is the primal urge in life and drives most of our actions most of our lives. Why not just admit it and stir sex into the mix?

Those who would rather not say hey there are other basic human bodily functions we don’t feel the need to write about so why should sex be any different?

I used to be firmly in the “keep the door shut” camp until I signed a contract that called for a consummation scene and my editor called me on it when I didn’t write one. I think now that part of my issue with writing sex was shame. I’ve got some of that, but then I think most people do, especially women, especially women who have had men take advantage of them sexually. We carry our scars and some of us think it might be our fault it happened. We bury all that and we certainly don’t want to stir it up by writing about it.

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But sex is why we are all here. Literally. We would not be walking this gorgeous earth, not one of us, if somebody didn’t have sex with somebody else, and yes, that would be our biological parents. Also sex is beautiful between loving couples (or whatever combination you are into). Orgasm is the closest we will ever get to completely letting go of our thinking mind and entering into a state of bliss on earth. So why the shame? Why the secrecy? Why the guilt heaped upon me by wrinkled noses, poked out tongues, and suggestions that I give out page numbers for sex scenes so they can be skipped over?

And that’s just my family. Also, yes someone did stick their tongue out at me when they saw the cover of my latest book and the inevitable question arose (ahem) and I answered that yes, this book had sex in it. It’s about a single mom. She falls in love with the man of her dreams. She’s not a virgin. She has two little humans walking around that are part of her deal and central to her identity who prove that. So, you know, sex is an important component of the love relationship. Sexual attraction is what, if you’re lucky, leads to love.

A rational single man, I have heard, will not want to marry a single mom. No way. Kids are baggage. The actual kind you can see and must feed and care for along with this woman. But sex is not rational and neither is love. Also, they go with one another. I can’t be “in love” with someone and not want to have sex with them. They go together like cookies and milk. So yeah, my novel is sorta The Brady Bunch meets Sex and the City. And I’m coming out of my shadow to say I like it like that. It’s supposed to be that way. That is the way the story goes.

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There’s more to love than sex. Of course there is. I once had an emotional affair. You know, that thing where you’re just friends and then one day there’s more? But you can’t have sex because the divorce isn’t final yet or the spouse just doesn’t understand? Only your “friend” who you now love beyond reason understands. There’s no sex there. Not yet. But if the emotional affair continues, there will be sex. And in my case, there was no sex, but only because we both knew the timing was wrong. We stayed friends, too, but it was difficult at first. Because emotion almost took me under. Sex is a healthy release of that emotion we call love, which is why it deserves to walk out of the shadow and onto the page.

I have admitted before that, for me, writing is therapeutic. I can say now that writing sex scenes helped me face my shadow and the shame I formerly, wrongly, sadly, associated with the most awesome act on earth.

7 Stages of a Writer

AYLI.1_1251Shakespeare had his “7 Ages of Man” and as I look toward the cusp of big change, I celebrate my own, happier (but not even close to as brilliant) version.

Stage 1: She opens a book full of words, reads. Then another, then hundreds of others. Next, alongside, in fact, she opens an empty book, one with a lock and key, and day after day she writes her secret heart out. She will continue these two endeavors for the rest of her life.

Stage 2: She meets her original mentor, Mrs. Grow, who will help her grow into her true destiny. She learns the thrilling joy, like nothing else ever, of seeing her words in print in the Cardinal, West Jr. High’s school newspaper. No “A”  on any report card can compare.

Stage 3: She follows her desire, a three chord progression, music-lyric-poetry. More publication, in literary magazines and a brief stop to fall in love. She doesn’t know yet that another love, her first love, the love of words, will win out after all.

Stage 4: She writes everything now: stories, poems, diary entries, book reviews, even (very bad) novels. Some things find publication until another romantic misadventure sends her off-track and into a new world entirely. Still, she holds fast to her pen and paper.

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Stage 5: She must teach and in teaching she learns the craft of writing. She writes a book for her students and in writing this book, her only full length non-fiction to see print, she fulfills a long-held dream: to hold her book in her hands. And she blogs, taking her diary public, but keeping a private one as well. The bad novels turn better as she teaches and learns and never ever stops reading. Now in fact she is paid to read and write about what she has read.

Stage 6: She finds a way to fold writing into her life, a summer here, a winter there, a five year sabbatical that led to an agent and — at last! — a few novels that are not terrible. A small publisher offers her a contract and now 7 novels in, she has realized all of her dreams and more. Who, in 1960, could dream up the internet? So as some modes of writing fall away, others replace it. Tweets instead of poems, blog posts instead of book reviews. Life is rich and rewarding if a tiny bit too full … until finally retirement from teaching opens a new door.

Stage 7: I am here. Still writing. And reading. My children are grown, my life is serene, and I sit in winter at my desk, revising my best book yet. The book I am writing is always the best book.

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