A Mysterious Character

For years, more people than I can count, people close to us, friends and family, have told me my husband Al is a workaholic. That’s how they view him, but I never thought they were right. I didn’t reply to these remarks, maybe a short laugh or a shrug, but I never wanted to argue the point. I was certain I knew my husband better than anyone, and we were just fine, thanks.

In my current novel, Jane is a recent widow who is not mourning her loss. She’s not evil. She didn’t kill him. She just hadn’t loved him in a long time. Jane is one of those wives who stay “for the children.” I’ve always been curious about those women. How could they do it? I know I couldn’t.

What kind of marriage did they have? I thought I’d sorted these smallish pieces of character very early on. I knew everything about the dead husband that Jane knew. He was still one part mystery, even dead. In fact, his death meant she’d never know one crucial thing about him. And not knowing that affected everything about her behavior.

The NEVER KNOWING part really bothered me. I had to give her some justification for staying with this man who suddenly without explanation, cut off all marital relations when they were still quite a young couple. This behavior is not unheard of, but just uncommon enough, I thought, to be fresh.

Then I read Three Women by Lisa Taddeo and one of the women has just such a husband. He claims he doesn’t need or even much like sex. Three Women is reportage; it’s non-fiction. It’s also very, very good. I wasn’t going to lift that reason, which still makes me ask the question WHY anyway. Why doesn’t he like sex? Why does he refuse to kiss his wife? How can this marriage be saved?

You’ll have to read Lisa Taddeo for those answers because I am not going to use that reason. Still, I really wanted to do a version of “they stayed together for the children” because I am interested in people who are able to do that. I sure couldn’t. Curiosity about people who are unlike me fuels my fiction. I want to know what drives them, so I write to learn answers.

The problem I came up against quite quickly after discarding the Taddeo solution is Jane needing a new reason not to mourn. I thought a few minutes until the idea of a workaholic husband presented itself. I didn’t know much about workaholics except they worked all the time. I took a day for research yesterday and after ten pages of juicy notes, I knew everything there is to know about workaholics. I also knew that my dear Al is one of them.

The facts don’t lie. If it was just one Wikipedia article, or one of the “Top Workaholic Traits” I might have kept that open secret from myself a little longer. As it is, I have accepted that yes, I’m married to a workaholic. But he’s not the shade of workaholic I’m writing about. I found a treasure trove of disturbing workaholic behavior that will make Jane a merry widow, but my own worker bee is happily alive and wearying of his frantic pace. He’s ready to get out of the rat race and we have a date set in the very near future for unlocking those golden handcuffs.

Pitch Wars!

“Nobody wants to read women over thirty.” So Becky Masterman learned when she sent her first Brigid Quinn novel out to agents. That changed a few years later, at least for Masterman. She’s now published four Brigid Quinn crime novels, and I am hooked. Also, Masterman inspired me to try to write my own older character.

My current publisher has never said no to any of the six books I’ve published with them. I’m not sure how they will like Jane’s age (55). I would sure like to read more smart and strong older female characters like Brigid. I can’t find any. I wrote Jane as much for myself as I did for anyone. Since I’m almost finished with her story, I’ve decided on a pain-free way to show the manuscript to agents and editors.

Pitch Wars is new to me. Another member of Michigan Sisters in Crime sent out a call for someone to partner up with for this competition and I responded. It’s been a long time since I wrote a book proposal, which is what you do for Pitch Wars. I want to know, for better or worse, what the reaction will be to my older heroine. Is there still resistance to older female characters?

If so, I don’t get it. Baby boomer’s average age is 57. Many boomers are retired. More time for reading. We already know women out-read men by a wide margin. So the target audience for older female characters with grit and grace seems to be ready and waiting. I know I am. If you have any favorite older female characters (I already know about Miss Marple :)) please let me know in the comments.

Am I just quirky and out there? Or are other baby boomer readers also longing for main characters closer to their own age?

I’ll let you know what I hear about my older heroine from the publishing sector after Pitch Wars ends in late September. I’m interested in what they have to say about Jane. Interested and a little nervous.

Family Time

I am eating M&Ms smushed into a blob of peanut butter. This is my lunch. For anyone following my Quit Sugar mission, this is not part of the plan. But there are absolutely times when you have to drop the plan and pay attention to more basic needs, like chocolate. I have M&Ms in my house because I hosted a family barbecue on Sunday. My three grandkids were there! Hence, leftover M&Ms.

In the midst of celebration and connection, we had some tragic news about someone we all love. As much as I dislike teasers of this sort, I’m trying to protect the privacy of those involved. I’ll just say, we were thrilled to be together and crushed by this nightmare news. We kept it from the little ones, of course.

Still, people must be fed. Coffee must be perked. Wine glasses filled. I loved this weekend with my kids and grandkids and parents and my brother Bill. I’m trying to accommodate the more painful parts of events mixed in with the overflowing joy.

I don’t mean to trivialize tragedy by suggesting sweet treats help. They don’t. So I’m going to leave the leftover pie and ice cream alone and try to cope with this clash of opposites in more productive ways. For me, that means writing. No matter what the hard thing is, writing will ease the ache, at least for me.

Help!

As a lover of self-help, I’ve been on a lifetime improvement course. Body, mind and spirit have all been quieted, redirected and made new. Over and over again. And yet…I can’t give up my self-help habits. I don’t even want to, although I know that some efforts, especially those in the “body” have been fantastic fails. Like when I read Geneen Roth’s first book about stopping diets forever and just letting yourself eat what you want.

I gained thirty pounds on that one. This was many years ago but as I recall, her plan was that you had to ask yourself before you ate the ice cream “Do I really want this?” and as I shoveled cookies and chips into my mouth and poured wine down my throat, I was always sure I really, really wanted it.

I stopped going to Geneen for diet advice, but I kept reading her books because she was so engaging. She didn’t just write about food, but about her obese cat Blanche, and her husband, who she could not get in touch with when an earthquake (a very big one) hit San Francisco. I was riveted by her willingness to show herself in all her anxious glory, especially when she wrote about losing all her money to Bernie Madoff.

I expected more of the same from “This Messy Magnificant Life.” Another disaster story that ends when Geneen finally defeats that book’s particular demons. But she surprised me. Her latest is full of hope. It reminded me more of the Buddhist texts I like to read for spiritual growth. Spiritual growth is a tidy phrase. It doesn’t scare people as much as saying something like “Don’t believe your thoughts. The mind is crazy.”

I’ve been reading about and trying to grasp the idea that my monkey mind is not me. All those self-doubts, recriminations for past misdeeds, fears about the future. Who wouldn’t want a free pass to tell themselves “Hey these thoughts have nothing to do with me. Pay no attention. Don’t buy into them. You don’t need to feel guilty and sad.”

The first time I seriously tried to grasp this idea that we are not our thoughts, and that our thoughts often lead us down the path to suffering, was when Mark Epstein wrote “Thoughts Without a Thinker” in 1996. I remember how the title itself puzzled me and in fact was a little frightening. Who would I be without my thoughts? I needed them to get myself through life.

Right? Wrong. Most of our thoughts are better let go. I only finally really got this about twenty years after I read Epstein’s book. Buddhists have no time for ego. They don’t spend days and weeks in self-loathing mode. They start where they are and every day the mistakes of yesterday, or five minutes ago, get a clean slate.

This is not to say all thought should be ruthlessly abandoned. How would I write this post if I did that? What the Buddhists say, and what Geneen finally understands, is that most thoughts are unrelated to our present reality and many of our recursive thoughts will slow our progress toward understanding that, as the Dalai Lama says, our religion is love.

Love your thoughts, if you must, but in the end, you’ll be happier if you let most of them go. Try this. Try seeing how you feel when you give up the persistence idea that you should have protected your child more (I’ve been having that thought for 40 years) or you should never have tried cocaine (30 years) or that secretly you’re a failure because your career was a joke (20 years) or that your marriage just does not somehow make everything okay (10 years) or that your family members do not love you as much as they love other members (yesterday).

Yes, so I had that thought yesterday, and I had it every day for the past week or so and I’ve had it often in the past. I’ve had that thought longer than any other one. What’s great about having a thought like that now is it glides from my mind like a passing cloud in the sky. Silly thought, I think. Knowing 100% that it has nothing to do with me, with my family, with love, or with anything important at all.

Practical Plotting

Writing pal Bob is working on a new idea for a book, the first novel he’s written in awhile. Bob has published a bunch of funny and clever mysteries, but, as most writers find, every new book is another challenge. First you need an idea. Then you need to convince yourself it’s not boring. Bob sent a three or four sentence elevator pitch about the book in his head. It was not boring.

Bob moved on with a synopsis draft. Here he writes out exactly what the book will be about and who his characters will be and how the plot will turn. He has the story worked out in his head! Yes, Bob is a plotter. I find plotters fascinating. But this time, Bob has a problem.

“I’m writing a much longer summary than usual,” he said. I don’t see this as a bad thing, but being the helpful writing friend, I offered to send him a version of Jane Cleland’s Road Map, which I wrote more about here. I say “a version of” because after I diagramed the road map, and tried filling it in, I customized it to fit onto a notebook page. Here I’m simplifying it down to two lines of writer’s code.

Inciting Incident-SP1-SP2-SP1-Turning Point-SP2-SP1-Turning Point-SP2-Turning Point-All Plots Resolved

Inciting Incident: Where does the problem start? The point at which the story and character are headed into a mystery and there is no turning back. Start there.

SP stands for subplot. I like two. Introduce the first one about 30 pages in for a 300 page novel. (I write short novels). Another thing about subplots…if you don’t have, let’s say, a romance subplot, but an agent or your editor wants one, just write a love story for your character. Then you can piece it up and place it in 3 or 4 slots in the book. You can do both your subplots this way.

Turning Points need to escalate the drama, turn the heat higher. Lots of people call these Plot Twists. I think of them as going deeper into the mystery. There’s new information that changes everything the main character thinks they knew.

When the story hits the highest possible point of tension, the subplots braid together with the main plot. Each illuminates the other and all need to fit into the final resolution. I like to use one of the subplots to put a “sting in the tail” ~ just one final twist the reader never saw coming but also makes absolute sense.

Speaking of sense, I hope this made some. Questions or observations?