Writing Description

The murder victim in my current WIP is an artist. And his art leads to the capture of his killer. So, art is key. My longtime critique group (not my new mystery group, or my Florida group) had a difficult time with a critical passage of mine last time we met. They couldn’t understand what I was describing, which was a simple thing, like a badly painted still life. This is not what I described but for example it could have been a blue bowl on a yellow table holding red apples. Maybe a slice of sunlight beamed across the table. The object was that simple. And it was an important clue. I was quite frustrated. The most straightforward words about an uncomplicated object and the way I described it seemed obscure to them.

They must have quizzed me for fifteen minutes on that paragraph. It was distressing to me that they could not picture what I had described. Reading this, you may form the idea, and you would be correct, that it still bothers me. What was so unclear to them about my straightforward and simple description? I had no idea how else to describe it. And I thought I’d done a good job. I still think that.

My best friend is a painter. In fact, several of my friends are painters. One of them bought me a watercolor set for my birthday. I’ve always wanted to try watercolors, but I’m a writer. I paint pictures with words. Or I try to. Somehow, with my recent work, I’d not been able to convey through words a picture so clear in my mind. It bothered me for weeks. It still bothers me.

A new idea began to take shape about a week ago. Not about the paragraph that stymied my writing group. I’m leaving that alone for now. But slowly my mind has turned to the other descriptions of art in the book. I describe this artist’s work several times. I wanted to open those watercolors and paint the life’s work of my doomed artist. For my book, for my own reference. Maybe it would help to put everything I see in my mind’s eye down onto paper. The watercolors were just sitting there. So was the art paper.

After a few crucial tips from my artist friend, I began by sketching and then watercoloring. The hours flew by. Nobody will ever see this watercolor. Nobody will have to try to understand it. Nobody will have any opinion on it. It need not be critiqued. It is just for me.

So, did I solve my description problem? Maybe not. But I feel better just for having, for once, taken what is in my head and put it to paper without words. It is exactly as I imagined it.

Spring Cleaning for Writers

My kitchen counters are cluttered with the contents of my pantry. This is good news for a couple reasons. One ~ If I’m cleaning, I must be over the flu that hit our house just before the holiday weekend. Two ~ If I’m ready to tackle my pantry, my WIP revision will be a piece of cake.

Not that I’m eating cake. The flu helped me get through a week without sugar. I must continue to resist sweets if I want my blood sugar results to come back clean at end of June. I want to stay off diabetes medication. I fear it may be too little too late, nevertheless I will abide by these new rules my body demands. I need to be healthy as possible to write this book.

I had flu, but I wrote anyway. It feels as if I am rewriting the book from scratch, that’s how much this second draft is changing. But in truth, I’m only rearranging the words on the pages like food on my pantry shelves. I’m getting rid of expired items and building a new and better structure to support the parts I keep.

My house, my health and my book are coming together. It’s springtime and my worlds, both fictive and real, are beginning to bloom.

Writing Native American Characters

There’s an author interview I read every Sunday in the New York Times Book Review. It’s a pretty much set in stone list of questions. One question, about what these writers read, gives me glimpses into writing practices of wildly successful writers. All writers read widely in several genres. They have their quirky likes and dislikes. One thing mentioned often is if the Famous Writer reads in the genre they are writing in while working on a book.

Some do, some don’t. I will read mysteries when I write a mystery, so I was relieved to be in good company there. My problem has never been answered in these interviews, but that’s fine, I have a mind of my own and I can figure out that there is one book–There There by Tommy Orange– I should not read while writing the current WIP. At first I thought it was essential I read it, but now I’ve changed my mind.

In my WIP, I have a sprinkling of Native American characters. I don’t have any other reason for this decision other than I see urban Indians in the town I live in. They are lives off the reservation. They are just neighbors. Well, on the surface. Their lives, their grief, their heritage and the prejudices against them go deeper than that, as did the beyond my scope of experience black characters in Lily White in Detroit. With the characters in Lily White, at least I had some knowledge of black culture from my years as a white student at a black college.  

The only truly American Indian person I know is a good friend from my pre-college days. I never thought of Jesse as Indian and he never talked about it. He was just one of us, part of the gang of friends from high school. Then years later he began to embrace his heritage and it came out in subtle (and sometimes blunt) ways. The pow wow he was attending. The regalia he’d wear. His rage over the pipeline that was meant to be built over a sacred burial site. His mixing in Indian words from his tribe in Facebook posts. Reading Tommy Orange’s book right now would certainly give me a much wider perspective of how it feels to be Native in America today. But the question is–why do I need to know for my work in progress?

When I began this book, I was sure I wouldn’t have to deal with race. It’s a tightrope for a white woman to understand what life feels like to any other person, especially if they are from another segment of society, like black or Indian. I finally figured out as I was writing this brand new book that needs so much revising that this writing experience is not the same as writing about a black cop working with a white private detective. I had to know something about black culture just to make my black police detective live on the page. For the Native Americans, things are more removed.

At first I thought I’d do a lot more with the Indian community. I read up on the natives of Florida and the 100 year war fought in Florida over the territory. I still want to visit some of their museums. I have a scene set at a casino and on a reservation in Tampa, where the powerful Seminole tribe thrives to this day. And I can still do all that, do the research and field trips required. But I’m afraid to read Tommy Orange’s book until I finish my own because I don’t want to inadvertently use any of his characterizations. There are 12 Indians and each has his or her own story in Orange’s novel. It seems like I could, without knowing, easily take something from them.

And that would make me no better than my ancestors who took much more from a people who were here in America far longer than my white ancestors had been.


Revision & Research

 

My favorite part of writing is the first draft. It’s like flying on a magic carpet inside my mind. I do not bring my inner critic along. I know she’ll be back for revision, when I need her. I finished that fun first draft in November. December I took a month off to enjoy the holidays. It’s difficult to be a friend when I’m in writer mode. My closest friends understand, but many people don’t get why I am out of touch. Here’s why: I shut myself off for hours every day and come out exhausted, my mind spent. I can do mindless things like cook dinner, sip a glass of wine, and maybe watch an episode Madam Secretary. But I do need time for the magic carpet to land before I’m worth much more than that. Lucky for me, my husband understands.

In November, I saw very few of my friends, as I worked to finish a first draft of new novel. I did take Thanksgiving Day off, but I worked harder than usual the rest of the month. It’s joyful work. I really love that first draft where a story unfolds itself onto the screen from my willing fingers dancing on the keyboard. It’s a party for one, that first draft. But, like all parties, it leaves a bit of a mess to clean up. In December I avoided my messy first draft and saw all my friends, some more than once. I went out to dinner, to parties, to lunch. I shopped and gabbed on the phone. I was the social version of Cindy. I didn’t miss writing because I still got up every day and wrote morning pages which is pen to paper and a habit I love. I do those pages while having tea. It’s a wake up ritual where I sometimes plan my day, sometimes complain, sometimes make a gratitude list. 

Come January, I was ready to revise. I take revision in steps. First there’s the big picture. Is my plot tight with just the right amount of digression to make it quirky but not too much to bog it down? Are my characters fully realized? Is there conflict? Does my murderer have motivation, means and opportunity? Do a few other characters have some of that too? Are any important characters stereotypes without their own personality and flair? Yes to all the above. It happens every time. That’s okay. I figure out which characters need work and the rest of it, too. 

With bad guys, they need to be really bad and their motivation has to be more than “he’s a psyco” ~ Motivation needs to be personal and complicated, like people are complicated. Murder is seldom random. Seldom committed by a stranger to the victim. It happens. But not in my books. I want the killer there in the midst of the characters, hiding in plain sight. The other thing I do with my murderer is write his story of “why” and “how” in his own words. That doesn’t show up in the book, but it helps make the book better, just because I know exactly what the killer knows. I like research, so I bought a few books to help me with the two characters I knew needed work in the new book. The first was my villain who really is not “superbad” as he needs to be. So Sasha Black, I’m counting on you to clue me in.

img_5102The second character I knew I’d glossed over because the reader only sees her once. She’s an FBI agent involved with a main character and I kind of wanted to keep her hidden because I did so much research on police detectives and procedures plus everything about being a PI in my last novel. So I felt like hell no I don’t want to research the FBI. But really I couldn’t have the book I wanted without doing the work. I didn’t have an easy time tracking down any FBI books. I was ready for FBI for Dummies but found this instead. I’ll be reading both of these books and fleshing out these characters as the next step in my revision process.

Funny how a first draft flies for me. I can literally write one in a month. But it takes a year or more to revise that first draft. That wonderfully chaotic and rushing world will change, gain depth, but still keeps its boyant fervor. First drafts take a month, finished drafts take a year. Or more. I love every single part of the process. Even fully rounding a previously flat FBI agent.  

What’s Next?

The writers sit around a kitchen table. There are four of us and we take turns hosting. The host provides breakfast and then we get to work. We are all novelists and have been together for 7 or 8 years. In that time, all our members have published, most of us several times over. And as Bob remarked at Saturday mornings’ meeting, we’ve all become better writers in the process.

Luck played a part in the four of us coming together, because we each have different strengths. It’s helpful that we are two women and two men. Also helpful that our spouses all encourage us in our meetings. Indeed, Tom at one point was working long hours, didn’t have much time to write, and considered quitting the group. His wife would not allow it, telling him he needed us. We are grateful because we need him too.

We have a routine with the coffee and chat at 9 am, then breakfast, then work (we go through a chapter or scene received a week prior page by page). After we’ve finished the critiques, which include side discussions of plot or other big picture things, it’s noon or later. This past Saturday we got into a writerly conversation after the critiques. Basically we went around the table with the question “What’s next?”

When we started only Bob was retired, now everybody is except Tom. We write books, yes, but that’s our pleasure. We are doing what we couldn’t wait to get to. But things have changed through the years and we’re each facing new challenges. Vernie is on the last of her four book fantasy series and she’s near the end. Tom has begun a promising novella, but work stops him from writing as much as he’d like. Still, with each session, he moves the plot forward an inch. Bob is revising an old manuscript we’ve all read before, and I’m revising my St Pete novel. None of have any idea of what we’ll do next.

I know a few things. 2019 will be the last year I’m able to meet regularly with my group. In 2020, Al and I hope to spend six months in Florida and travel, too. We have two houses: one too big and one too small. So we’ll be looking to sell both and buy something just right.To my surprise, I am fine with ending my book writing career, if it proves too difficult to continue in this next chapter of real life. Writing a novel takes several hours a day for several months in a quiet place. I’m not sure I’ll have that when Al retires. He’s worked at the same place for 47 years, so retirement will be a big adjustment for him, too.

I’ve been writing novels for a long time too. Several practice novels and then the published ones. I feel like it’s okay to stop now. I’ve written my share of books. If I include my poetry chapbook and the writing manual, plus this novel I’m going to polish before Al retires, it will be an even dozen. I’m satisfied, ready to move onto the next chapter of my real life. I know writing will always be there, even novel writing, if I want it. I plan to keep blogging and the website will be here. I may write flash fiction and just publish on the website. That’s my idea for “what’s next?” right now.

Anything can happen, and it will. Life is an adventure. Everything I think I know, every plan I ever make, shifts in some ways before it ends. Adventures, like novels, are always unpredictable. That’s the fun of it all.