Character Arc

In three weeks, Al, my husband, is retiring from his career of 40+ years in the same building, with the same company. We’ve been married 35 years, so as long as I’ve known him, he has gone to his job every day. In that time, I’ve changed jobs six times. What this means is that I am not good at working for others. I dislike anyone having authority over me. Al is the opposite. He thrives in his work community and the bosses love him.

How will this play out in real life for us when he is finally home and does not have a place to go to that makes him feel secure, special, important and needed? His job does all of that, because he’s made himself valuable to the company through the years. Now I’m going to have to help him find similar rewards in retirement. I know it’s really up to him, but what’s a spouse for if not support and love? I gotta be there for him.

Books demand the same thing. You gotta be there for the book every day for many days, many hours of every day. Unlike Al, I take a day off writing once or twice a week, but it’s kind of like eating sugar. If you eat sugar one day, the next day you’ll want it again. If I take a break from writing one day, the next day it’s easier to take another break. Then another. So for me, I need to write (almost) every day or I lose the flow of the novel.

I have only recently realized the full extent of what a big deal this is, for both of us. Before this realization, I assumed Al would be like me, happy to be away from the grind, better as the boss of his own life, a better life having fun (finally!) with me. And he still might surprise me. He has so many projects he’s put off over the years, begging for him to start. Being together as a couple is the biggest project of all. Al has more often than not worked six or seven days a week.

We are in for a major adjustment. Ironically, my main character is in the midst of an even bigger adjustment. Her husband died unexpectedly and she went off the rails a bit, retiring from a job she loved, selling her house, moving from Detroit to Florida. She’s really not dealing with any of it, because, well, there’s a murder she has to help solve.

I set my deadline to finish this book as December 31, 2019. That’s Al’s retirement date. Three weeks. And I just finished my final chapter. Should be perfect timing. Except. I just chopped 20K from my manuscript. Why? Because they were boring. They didn’t move the plot forward or build character arc. In fact, my character’s arc is flat. I have not yet gotten to the heart of my character’s inner story, which has a major effect on her outer world.

How can an arc be flat, you may wonder. Well, it’s called avoidance. My character has some difficult changes to adjust to, kinda like I do in my own life. Many of them involve dismantling her former idea of what her life had been. She got some things wrong and now she needs to fix them so that her life can go on, better than before. That’s character arc. For a book to be satisfying (at least to me) a character has to grow, change, and learn something about herself during the course of the novel.

I pretty much skipped those parts. I write crime novels and my focus has been on the murder and whodunnit. I’m not sure I’ll write another 20K words in three weeks. I’m not even sure my character’s arc plus the subplot around it (which I also gave short shrift) needs to be 20K. I won’t know until I write it. The book will be as long as it needs to be for me to get that satisfaction of my character gaining wisdom and being happier for it.

Maybe writing my character’s arc will help me with my own major life change. Wish me luck! And have a happy holiday season.

Writer, Are You Reading?

Sometimes, certain kinds of readers become writers. They are the type of reader who walks through the snow to read every book in their local library’s young adult section before begging the librarian to let them check out adult books. They do this while devouring the Nancy Drew mysteries their mom buys them and also dipping into Mom’s Taylor Caldwell family sagas and Dad’s Mickey Spillane. Okay, that’s just me.

It wasn’t that I loved school. I couldn’t wait to graduate and start living my real life. But in that real life, I continued to read. A lot. I read many of the classics before I finally decided to go to college and get a couple of degrees in literature. I mostly read fiction. Short stories and novels. Anything I could get my hands on. Even while the babies napped and my husband thought I should be cleaning house.

We’re divorced now. Are you surprised? He didn’t like me writing, either, something I’d done since junior high. Poetry and diaries for a long time but finally when I got up my courage I tried fiction. I even got some short stories published, back when print ruled and magazines still paid good money (my early stories earned $500) for fiction.

I wrote a few practice novels before I finally felt like I had one I could send to New York. In between all that I got married to a guy who thought my being a writer was one of the most interesting things about me. 35 years later, I’m still married to him. And I’m still reading instead of cleaning house.

True confession time: I read more than I write. Way more. My writing schedule, when I’m working on a novel, is five or six days a week for as many hours as I can go. I get up, make a cup of tea, and start writing. I warm up with morning pages, and can tell when my story juices start flowing because I tear the page out of my notebook and open my current WIP document. Sometimes I have other things to do, but I usually write for at least a few hours and try for four. Six writing hours is a really good day.

This type of full-out writing only fits into my schedule sometimes, but I really try to string as many days together as possible so I stay in the flow of my story and I keep getting ideas to make it better. Life (and laundry) often intervene and occasionally I take a day off to read. I also read every night. Novels, biographies, Buddhist philosophy, blogs, even a little light science. (I love astrophysics.) I still read short stories, too, and book reviews and the Washington Post. But mostly, I read novels.

Writers often say (and it always surprises me!) that they “can’t read much” when they’re writing. What??? I don’t understand that. I can’t give up reading for even a day without feeling something in my life has gone amiss.

I’m writing a crime novel right now. I just finished the last chapter today, and there’s still much still to do with the third revision, so I’m not doing a happy dance yet, but at least I can read crime novels again. Because when I’m in the thick of a book, and the writing is humming along, I do tend to stay away from reading books too much like what I’m writing.

My friend Jaye Marie recently published a crime novel, Silent Payback, and I really want to read it, but worried I’d inadvertently lift a plot point or some clever little clue, so I have been waiting to read it until I finalized the plot in my last chapter. Meanwhile, I’ve been going through Christmas romance novels like crazy and another friend writes dystopian fiction, so I’m reading her new one. It’s so good. Blackthorn. You should read it!!!

This is JMO but I think writers, especially newer writers, need to read. A lot. And it shouldn’t feel like a chore. Writers should love reading so much that they have to take a day off from writing once in awhile just to read. Writers who say silly things like “I don’t have time to read” puzzle me. I don’t get it. I don’t know how I’d ever have gotten here (12 books published) without having been somewhere else first reading a good book. Reading, I one hundred percent believe, makes me (and YOU too) a better writer.

Author Mission Statement

I wrote my author mission statement awhile ago, as suggested by Colleen Story. It’s good to know what you really want from writing because it saves time and trouble. Your journey as a writer in the world will become less about the shiny next thing and more about what will serve the unique writer you are and want to become.

“I am motivated by creative fulfillment. The tougher the work, the more diligently I seek transcendence. I’ve gained emotional resilience by traveling into the world, observing all I see and distilling the essence into story. My writing features strong women tested by tough circumstances.”

Since writing out this statement, I’ve looked at it often, and it always centers me and settles me back into what is most important, in writing and in life. Every writer will have a different mission statement. It feels like I always intuitively knew this about my writing self, but I couldn’t quite put it into words until now.

Thanks, Colleen!

Christmas Reading

So far this holiday season (I started before Halloween this year) I’ve read ten Christmas novels. My very favorites are the classic “sweet” Regency romance novellas of Mary Balogh. She’s been reissuing these and I’m collecting them all over again on my Kindle. My top pick for holiday reading so far is A Christmas Bride, which is paired with A Christmas Beau. All Balogh’s books are excellent, well written and poignant. A Christmas Bride reached inside and grabbed my heart.

Balogh only writes historical romance, and she used to bring out a Christmas title every year, but this year she didn’t. Her newer books are not “sweet” (meaning they have sex scenes) and they are longer novels, not novellas, but they’re still delicious. Also re-read (so far) this year: A Christmas Promise and Under the Mistletoe.

Another favorite author, Anne Perry, also does a Christmas book every year. She’s another historical author. Her books are set in the Victorian era. This year she published A Christmas Gathering, which featured a wonderful minor character from the Charlotte Pitt series. Perry’s themes are often centered around forgiveness and loneliness. In this novella, a gentleman cannot forgive himself for a past failure and because he keeps this secret from his wife, they both feel that essential loneliness that somehow bites sharper during the holidays. But these are romances, so the endings are always happy.

Happily ever after is not just for historical fiction. I’m really fussy about what romance novels I read these days, but I always enjoy Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, especially the humor. Thus, I had to read the newest title Shopaholic Christmas. At first I was a bit worried. She’s married and rich now, so she won’t be having the debt dilemma of that first (and best) book in the series. It was a bit slow to warm up, but when it did, I laughed on almost every page. For sure a feel-good holiday book.

Brenda Novak is another go-to contemporary romance author (she writes mystery too) when I’m in the mood for a HEA. Her Christmas at Silver Springs was lovely. An ex-con and a rock star’s almost ex-wife seem like an unlikely couple–I was curious to see how Novak handled the ex-con character–but this prolific author skillfully navigated a tricky romance that includes kids who are missing their rock star dad.

I love books set in Nantucket and Nancy Thayer’s An Island Christmas gives readers a peek at this summer haven in the off-season. There was a hint of Scrooge in the ailing and elderly curmudgeon, but the island native heroine manages to capture his heart along with his more age-appropriate son.

I’ve read and enjoyed a few more Christmas titles, including the funny contemporary The 12 Daves of Christmas by K.L. Brady (fiancee leaves her at altar, the rat!) and Invitation to a Cornish Christmas, two historical novellas by Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Scott. All three of these authors are new to me. I loved Brady’s humor. Kaye surprised me with the sensual aspect of her lonely hearts characters–I think because I was raised on the sweet Regencies which are truer to the era IMO.

Romance readers know that these days even historical authors often go “all in” on the sex scenes. Kaye took her time with these lovers in Cornwall, so the sex is more a simmering slow boil. I really liked how she played with the ocean and swimming and incorporated them into the storyline. Makes me want to watch the series finale of Poldark, which I taped last night! Have not read Scott’s novella yet, but anticipate another hit of Cornwall after Poldark.

I know it’s a bit early, but here I am already reading for Christmas spirit and so want to say happy holidays to lovers of Christmas. ❤

Bad Mood Rising

Things were tense around here the other day. And by “things” I mean Al, my husband, was tense. And I do not make it easier on him, because when he gets tense, I get tenser. When he gets angry, I get angrier. When he’s in a bad mood, I catch it like a cold. If I could change just one thing about our relationship, I would change the way we interact in tense times.

It’s not even like those fights (some might say “disagreements” but at our house it’s louder than that) are about anything important. What’s happening underneath the surface tension is not even evident to us. We just get locked in battle and both end up defending our side and things just snowball.

It’s ridiculous. I hate it. I want to change the way we are with each other when things are not perfect. So of course I googled it. “What to do when my husband starts fight” or some such pithy search term.

I found out some interesting things. First, Al didn’t start the fight. I did! Because he was tense, I could tell by the way he was acting and the things he was saying and finally I was just sick of it and yelled at him to stop being so mean.

“I’m not being mean, you are!” Al said. Yes, at 64 years of age, this is the level of our discourse when we are upset.

Note that I “yelled” and Al “said” ~ he might have said it in a fed-up tone. We have been here before. All too often. I’m so tired of it. But I’ve also grown used to it. I had just about given up hope for change. I’d just have to “put up” with him when he was in a bad mood.

Then an article from Psychology Today gave me a much needed new perspective. And a way to fix the way we fight. It is true that I can’t change Al’s bad mood. It’s in the house, and I have to deal with it. Because I easily “catch” other people’s moods (and this is true for many people, not just me) it’s almost as difficult for me to change the way I deal with Al’s moods as it is to make it like his bad mood never happened.

But hey, I love learning, so I read on. We can’t control that another person has a bad mood and we can’t control that we catch that bad mood. What we CAN do, although it’s tricky, is to temper our reaction to that mood. For example, I yell. What I can learn to do instead is to take a breath and think about how I want to yell in the moment, but remind myself that that’s what I always do, and it makes things worse, not better.

So I can feel the way I’m catching Al’s mood, feel the emotion of it, and, instead of yelling, think about a better way to respond. I did start out responding better. Yelling was not my first response. First I tried to be compassionate. “I know how you feel.” I reminded him of a specific instance that had happened to me (losing track of important paperwork) which was exactly what he was irritated and upset about. I think I said “I know how you feel” three times in response to his irritated “Where is it?” His bad mood wasn’t soothed by my empathy. So I got out my journal and vented a little bit in it. That always helps me. His bad mood didn’t like that, either.

So then I yelled. What I could have done was just say “I need some space for a little while” and take my journal into my sweet little writing room. That would have solved everything. Al wouldn’t have said anything to that. He would have been okay with me leaving the room, dignity intact.

Part of what I begin to feel when the yelling and swearing starts is embarrassed and sad. I do not like yelling and swearing at my husband. I want to act mature and loving at all times at my age. But because my emotions are so many and so huge at these times, some get buried under other ones, which makes me even angrier. Because anger is the top emotion for me when we fight.

Al is calm and I am excitable. One of the many things I loved about him from the first was how zen he is. I wanted to be like that! I still do! Al would have gotten over his bad mood fairly quickly had I not lost my temper. Instead, he dug in when I yelled, as he always does. A man has his pride, even a almost always calm man.

We both want to win. But I realize now that I want to win at more than who can yell the loudest (it is always me) and who can swear most creatively and fluently (again, always me). I want to win at taking my own emotions in hand. I want to learn to be excellent at controlling my reactions. I still want, after all these years, to be calm like Al. With disagreements and a lot of other things, too.

So yesterday I told Al that I am up for his bad moods and tense moments in future. And I really need to be as he is retiring soon and we will be together a lot. We will be together in our little Florida condo much longer than we’ve ever been before. So any moodiness on Al’s part (and there will be moodiness and even, occasionally, snark) will be good practice in taming my own angry responses.

I’d like to tame all kinds of my typical responses, and not just to Al. For example, my craving response to even the thought of sugar. I can think about my favorite bakery’s white chocolate cranberry scones for hours a day for several days. Not even kidding. What this does is set me up for failure, because the next time I am in any store that sells any type of sugary treat, I will buy a lot of it and eat it all.

If I could tame the beast that is my response to just those two things, it would be a big life win for me. Mental and physical. So, I’ll see how it goes. And I’ll keep you posted!