The Social Side of Writing

Michigan Sisters (and a Mr) in Crime Critique Group

I’m still reading and journaling with Colleen Story’s book Writer Get Noticed. It’s been so enlightening. Light bulb after light bulb. Today I worked on identifying my strengths as a person and as a writer. I don’t focus on my strengths very often. I take them for granted. Maybe because they’ve hardly changed since I was a child: creative, organized, introspective. I’m social, too, but I’m always looking for the balance between being social and being alone for essential-to-me writing and reading time.

One way I combine being social with my need for writing time is in critique groups. I have two groups I meet with regularly plus another writing group I love in Florida. I’m a member of Michigan Sisters in Crime. Saw those folks Saturday (In photo, I’m sitting next the Mr–yes we have men in our group!) and will see them again on September 28 at Elizabeth Buzzelli’s workshop. Elizabeth always gives good workshop. This will be no exception. It’s open to the public, so if you’re a Michigan writer, you should come! We can be social together 🙂

About six months ago I felt like I was getting a little too social online. I quit Facebook (I talked about that decision here.) This morning I was texting a friend and, not for the first time, thought about getting on Facebook again in a very limited way. I have a few non-writing loyal friends and yes, being off FB meant we were more reliant on text and phone calls. We set up RL lunch or dinner dates. All good. But I was amazed when, after a few texts we spoke on the phone and I found out how much had happened in Donna’s life since we saw each other last, just a few weeks ago.

I thought about my strengths, the ones Colleen made me remember, especially being social. And I dipped my toes very carefully back into Facebook. I know better how to deal with FB this time. I’ve been on Instagram all along so I’ll reconnect those two accounts, post exactly the same and basically keep my friend list very short, as I have done on Instagram.

I follow thousands of people on Twitter, but interaction there is very different and I manage it just fine. You can tweet me anytime @cynthiaharriso1. Twitter is my favorite way to interact online. I met Colleen there! And so many other writers who are important to me. I’m very comfortable with the “super soft sell” approach I take to book marketing on Twitter. I’m not on social media to sell books. It’s nice if it happens, but I wouldn’t do any of it if I didn’t enjoy it.

Which brings me back to why I’m trying Facebook again. I want to see if I can be there in a way I enjoy more. I’m not going to open a new business page on Facebook, as that really never worked all that well for me. I didn’t have a huge following or sell a significant number of books. It’s difficult to interact with readers, there, too.

You might have noticed that Colleen’s book has the words GET NOTICED in the title. I won’t lie, this made me nervous at first. I don’t really want to get noticed. I like laying low, holing up, doing my own thing. That’s why I’m a writer. I work alone. Well, until I send a new book to my publisher and my editor comes on board. But sure I want to sell more books. I thought it was a dilemma but Colleen has made me realize it’s more of a fine line. Finding the best way for me to be comfortably noticed as a writer.

As I get older, and look toward my husband’s retirement, I’m less interested in teaching, public speaking or giving workshops. I don’t enjoy book signings unless they’re group signing with other writers. Some of this marketing stuff is important to do when I release a new book. It’s gratifying to connect with readers in real life, so that’s why I do some limited public appearances. Colleen helped me clarify all that. Her book helps writers figure out ways to work with their natural inclinations and strengths to measure and build the platform that is right for them.

Feeling Published

Remember flame wars? In 2002, this same week, I got torched on a Yahoo Fan Page. Which led me to leave a group I’d really loved. It was so hard, and so much on my mind, I told my son about it. I shocked myself when cried a little bit before wiping my tears away and laughing at myself.

My son Mike asked me what I’d liked so much about the group. I thought about it. I finally said I liked talking about writing. Which was something we did a lot in that group. I’d miss having that outlet. Mike said “Mom, you should start a blog.”

I sniffed and said I wouldn’t know how to do that, and anyway, weren’t blogs over? He replied that he’d set up the site for me and also, no, blogs were not over. They were only going to get bigger. He was in IT, so I figured he knew more about the internet than I did. I said yes, thank you, that sounds like fun.

I hadn’t published a book yet, just some poems, short stories and book reviews in magazines, but the minute I posted my first blog entry, I felt published. It was an incredible validation. All these years later, I still feel so good about my blog, which my son continued to help me with for more than ten years, until his first son was born.

I have such happy memories of this adventure. Choosing wallpaper for a custom template, learning to write a key lines of code, blogging every single day about the novel I was working on. In 2002 there wasn’t any software that did tech things for you, so Mike did them for me. He was so patient when I wanted to change my blue stars wallpaper to pink flowers. The blog was a joint project and my son was my teacher. What a gift.

Mike said he could still do the work on my blog after the baby came. By this time we had been through Blogger and Moveable Type and were firmly into Word Press. I’d met Barb of Bakerview Consulting online and was sure she could do the housekeeping chores. I was also sure Mike was about to be way busier than he could begin to imagine. Both of these things turned out to be true.

What started out as a way to talk about writing became my author platform and I didn’t even know it until I read Colleen Story’s “Writer Get Noticed!” I’m learning more about my writing self from Colleen’s book…like what specific things I want from this writing life I’m living. The answers will be different for everyone, but the discovery process is the same.

It starts with the question Mike asked me all those years ago: What do I like about doing this? Why do I like it? These days I’m revisiting those questions and so many more that Colleen poses. Doing the exercises in Colleen’s book is an illuminating way to fill my morning pages. Which is the way I always start my day. Why? Because I like it.

Why do I like it? Any of it? Morning pages, blogging, writing novels, participating in a Twitter hashtag? It’s all one reason, really. It’s the best way, the perfect way for me, to communicate with the world. And I didn’t really put it all together quite like this until I read Colleen’s book, so thanks Colleen. And thanks to Mike, who set me off on this adventure. And most of all to you, whoever you are, wherever you are, reading this. ❤

Writing the Mystery Synopsis

It’s Labor Day here in the USA and any writer will tell you…writing a synopsis is hard labor. After checking multiple author websites, and my own writing manual (free PDF here) I have refreshed my memory on exactly how to organize one. These tricky summaries of plot are basically story outlines in sentence form.

No subplots. Few characters, just the main one (or two). Include all major plot twists and/or turning points and spell out the ending with a super spoiler. Also, make the first sentence a sensational hook. And, use the voice of your book, so if it’s comic, write a funny synopsis. If it’s dark, write a spooky one.

That’s my best advice plus a wing and a prayer. Why am I putting myself through this grueling process? I want to get eyes on my work and Pitch Wars! has agents, editors and authors looking at synopsis and first chapter near the end of September. The window is only open for a few days. There’s still time, but not a whole lot of it.

Today I’m working on the synopsis with an eye toward sending it to my Michigan Sister in Crime Pitch Wars! partner, Zoe. We have already vetted each other’s first chapters. 🙂 Believe it or not, writing the synopsis is harder. Particularly when you have to do it all on one page, which is what Pitch Wars! asks for.

Lucky for me, Al has the day off and he’s barbecuing dinner.

How to Fix a Book

Novels are easy to write if you turn off your thinking and dive into the story stream. They might be easy, but the results are not always pretty. Such was the case with my WIP, Jane. I got a first very bad extremely horrible draft done in a couple of months last year.

This year I am revising. Jane needs to be almost completely rewritten, despite the fact that I really kept the first plot I came up with and all the original characters. I had to lose one subplot, snip an annoying thread and significantly improve upon one character. Nobody who read my early draft liked her, they wondered why she was even in the book. I considered cutting her but I couldn’t do it.

I liked her even though I didn’t know her very well. She intrigued me. That was good news but also a problem. I’d written Barb into a short story I wrote after Lily White was finished and I needed something to bring my critique group. I caught a charming criminal and pinned him to the page. It felt effortless. And just as easy to sketch was his foil, an FBI agent who captures him and suggests he change his ways.

Short stories are fun. In and out. None of this hundreds of pages stuff. But novels propel themselves from the inside out and after a few short stories, I had one in me, begging to be let out. And it involved the reformed and relocated criminal. Also, the FBI agent, Barb. Also a few other people, but Barb is the one my critique group was hung up about, she felt like air. How right they were.

In the short story, I’d been able to do quick and dirty FBI research. After months of thinking about it, trying not to think about it, making excuses to myself, and continually running into walls with Barb, I sat down and did my homework. With revision, I have to stop rewriting and do some research, because I don’t do much research in the first draft. When it becomes apparent to me that I need to research, I’ll just take a day to read, jot notes, form a first scene and, most important, adjust my attitude.

When I started Jane, I promised myself it would be a lighter book than Lily White. More caper than crime. Amateur sleuth falls into murder mystery. Sure there was a cop because with murder there’s always a cop. But the FBI? I decided to let Barb be on vacation. No FBI business to attend to. No FBI rules to follow. What I concluded was that Barb’s vacation was in fact my own vacation. From research and the hard work of revising a weak first draft.

When I first begin a novel, I have some set ideas. I have a firm concept of the overall theme. I want this character of this age with this background in this setting. I want X point of view voices. Usually there are at least a few elements I’ve never tried before. I like to challenge myself to try new things with each book.

For this particular book, I was determined to write the whole thing in one point of view. One character tells the entire story. That would be Jane. The problem before me was Jane. She is a law abiding civilian. She knows nothing about the FBI. From Jane’s pov Barb is just a woman in love with her friend who has come to St Pete on vacation. Sure she’s in the FBI but that doesn’t impact the story from Jane’s pov.

You can see where the problem comes in. I had to decide if I wanted to keep trying to stay in one person’s head the entire book. I’d never done it before. I just wanted to see if I could do it. By the end of that excellent FBI book in the featured image photo above, I had a lot of ideas about Barb, none of which I could convincingly convey via Jane. That’s fine. I know enough about revision to stay open to new ideas, to be flexible with my first idea wish list.

So I wrote a scene starring Barb. I like it. I think I just solved several problems, one of the biggest being the book was way too short. It needed a substantial meaty subplot. I’d made a start before I gave Barb a primo role, and it was good. But she’s going to take things up a notch. Sure, now there’s a huge problem I didn’t know about before my research weekend.

But huge problems are conflict by another name and novels thrive on conflict. Almost the minute I cracked open the book, I read this FBI mantra “Never fall in love with your informant.” In fact, agents are not allowed to socialize in any way with informants. It apparently always leads to tears. The pages I’d written for Barb on vacation and in love with George blew up and scattered around me like gleeful confetti.

Fine. I already knew this was a major rewrite. Now I at least have an idea how to fix it. And more conflict. Always a good thing.

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.