Writing Awards & Rewards

I lost it. It is nowhere in my office. Not in my hundred or so paper files. Not in the cabinet where I store my business cards,  stationary, printer paper. Not in my pre-internet writing portfolio where I keep all my early successes, clips and awards. All those early accolades except the book award, the one that matters most.

Or does it? I’m pretty sure I won’t mention being an award-winning author when The Weam Namou Show tapes my interview with Weam. (That’s Weam and me in pic first time we met; we were seated next to each other at a book event.) Not even if that piece of parchment paper shows up. I’ll be on television to talk about my upcoming release, not walk down memory lane amidst the little victories of the past that led me to where I am today. I do have stories about the highlights of my writing journey and that first book is among them, but not because of the award.

While searching out the certificate, I decided to purge my files. It had been several years since I’d done it, back when I stopped teaching and threw away all that mess. For unknown reasons, in the last purge, I held onto all the print copies of my manuscripts, revisions, and notes. Now I pitched them all as I have the actual books on my shelves, which was the aim when writing those thousands of pages in the first place.

I spent the day going through old papers and listening to other interviews Weam has conducted via YouTube. I’ve never been on TV before and wanted to know what I was getting into. As for cleaning out my writing files, I didn’t get any of that magic feeling Marie Kondo talks about in her book on tidying up the Japanese way. I did get three large garbage bags, the kind you use in the fall after you rake leaves, crammed full of pages and pages of stuff I didn’t need anymore but had to look through to make sure the certificate wasn’t there.

One of Weam’s guests talked about vision boards. I do those for my work and for personal goals. I knew I had a photo from the vision board I did for Lily White in Detroit. Maybe she’d want to use it as a visual on her show. So I sent that and some other photos to her. We are taping Tuesday and the show will air on my book’s release day in two weeks. I asked for that day, and Weam somehow magically made it happen. She’s much better at magic than Marie Kondo, in my opinion.

After searching my house high and low, I decided to give up on the certificate. It was important to me as a personal achievement, but I’d just ditched thousands of sheets of paper. I could let that one more piece of paper go. I put a line about winning a MIPA in my new author CV  and that would be that. My publicist will use it in the press kit she’s putting together for me.

I was curious about the award though. What place had I won? Not first, I’d remember that. Had I won any place or was I relegated to “finalist” like so many other competitions I’d entered back then? I kept an eye out for the certificate in little nooks and crannies. A basement drawer, a high shelf in my bedroom closet.

During the search, I came across my vision notebook, like the one Weam’s guest had talked about.  It was synchronistic how we both had done the large cardboard posters and then did smaller, many page versions. I like the big cardboard posters for my books. But my personal vision book is for other goals, be it a new sofa, a publishing contract, or a trip to somewhere sunny in winter.

I hadn’t looked through my personal vision book for awhile. It’s always fun to see how many of the goals I wish to manifest come true. Each time I revise this book, it is because almost everything I wanted to happen has come to pass. That’s how I found my publisher, how my office came together and how I got a home in Florida. So, I pulled the book off the shelf and opened it to the first page, where the certificate I’d been searching for floated out and into my hands. Magic!

Connecting to Characters

IMG_0022Building a new character from the ground up starts with a name that may or may not change. Or maybe an occupation. Not sure which came first for me with the work in progress, but I had those two things very early on. There was no reason I chose my main character’s occupation other than I thought it would be a great job and it would fit into my plot. I knew there’d be research, but it would be research I’d enjoy.

I don’t know much about art, but my character does. How I made that relevant to the plot is that the murder victim is an artist. One thing I do know about art is that I like it. Not all of it, but I feel a strong connection to some artists and their work. The art world and the literary world are similar in that both disciplines require the pupil to separate the artist from the art. I’ve never been able to do that. I am as fascinated by writer’s lives as I am their works. Also musicians and their music. I want the whole picture. It’s a way to connect on a deeper level.

Writers need to connect to their characters in a similar way. A main character who has depth is always preferred to a stereotype. The way you give your character depth is to inhabit their space, physical, mental, and emotional. The new character grows and gains depth as you add to her store of knowledge and her way of navigating in the world. Sometimes, the writer must search this out and sometimes it drops into our laps like good luck.

That happened to me today when I watched Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up comedy show “Nanette.” Hannah, like my character, is an art history major. She jokes in her show that she wants to quit comedy because her self-deprecating comedy feels safe, like she’s keeping her self-hatred in a box. Hannah has a whole fascinating and tragic backstory she slowly reveals in her show through jokes. And sometimes passionate angry shouting. She deconstructs comedy by illuminating its two-part system. First, there’s the tension (the set up) and then there’s the relief (the laugh). She says this is connection. Her way of connecting to other human beings. She does it very well.

One of her recurring jokes is about quitting comedy (tension). That’s always the first line, but she changes the rest of it with each bit. Once after she says she has to quit comedy she then ponders how she’ll make a living if she’s not a comic (more tension) because she’s an art history major and there are no jobs in that (laughs). Then she goes on to joke about Van Gogh and Picasso in a witty resonating way.  She’s not just witty. She’s deep. She goes into her history of “soaking in self-hatred” and takes her audience with her as witness, summing up by saying “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”

Suddenly I had new questions to ask myself about my character. How had she been broken? Had her career dried up? Had she decided that her career required too much swallowing of bile? How would my character rebuild herself? Would I show her brokenness in flashback? I tend to not like flashback, so how could I insert this breaking and healing into the smooth linear narrative I prefer? I’ve just given myself quite a bit of homework. Quite a few chapters begging to be written. Depth to be added.

Isn’t it funny how books are a smooth narrative and life is a bumpy ride? That’s probably why I almost prefer books, both reading and writing them, to my actual life. Character driven writing is the straightest line of connection for me. Hannah talks a lot about connection, too. About her need to connect and how she found that for a time through comedy. The biggest part of life, for most of us, is about finding ways to connect. And for writers, connecting to a  character in a deeply meaningful way leads to connecting to readers who are also searching for connection, thus completing the circle.

Anxious Characters

modestas-urbonas-14752-unsplashAfter ten novels or so, I imagine writers begin to worry about repetition. Did I use this plot device before? Have I named a minor character this before? I have always been careful not to repeat myself. Or so I thought. Last week I found out different. I was listening to the audio file of Love and Death in Blue Lake. The main character suffers from anxiety. Really? I was mad at myself. Anxiety is too close to PTSD, which is what my current main character in Lily White in Detroit is in recovery from. There’s only one book between these two novels. I should have remembered.

Looking back, anxiety wasn’t even relevant to Courtney’s character. The plot didn’t need it, there was so much else going on. I could have taken it right out of the book; my editor even mentioned that. Smart woman. My editor is extremely kind. So she probably said something like “Does Courtney need to be anxious? Where is this coming from? Maybe delete it or fill it out more so the reader understands.” So I dug in deeper, at least enough to please my editor, but now, looking back I realize I gave Courtney anxiety because I was going through a terrible phase of acute anxiety and having regular panic attacks during the time I wrote that book.

I had a good source for Courtney’s profession–she was a psychologist. Yes, a mental health expert with a mental health problem. But this happens in real life. The first time I knew I had panic disorder, my husband had about gotten fed up with my weird behavior in the car. Basically I freaked out every time the road wasn’t straight and dry. Curves, cliffs, bad weather (snow or rain or the dreaded black ice) even sharp turns all made me so fearful I’d beg him to slow down or stop the car or whatever. We hadn’t been married much more than a year and it had been clear to him for a while that I had this problem. I had no idea why I was so afraid sometimes when he was driving. Why sometimes I couldn’t drive.

He wasn’t super patient with me as it rattled his nerves to have a nervous passenger. One time he said “What do you think is going to happen? Do you think we’re going to crash and die?” And I said “Yes! I do!” He suggested I go to a psychiatrist, actually he said “You’re nuts. You need to see someone.”  The psychiatrist knew right away what was wrong with me. I was having anxiety attacks, later upgraded to panic attacks, probably because I’d been in one too many very scary car accidents and then there was my family history in phobias and panic. Basically I inherited my illness and it was exacerbated by experience. Anyway, this psychiatrist put me on medication that gradually erased my symptoms. It was like a miracle.

No amount of talk therapy can cure what I have. But she had to see me once a month for an hour in order to dispense the drugs. We used to swap stories of driving while anxious. She admitted to me she was also afraid to drive in certain conditions. Her way of coping with snow was to turn on her emergency lights and drive very slowly despite people honking at her and passing her. She didn’t care. If driving 30 mph on the freeway would make her feel safe, that’s what she’d do. She seemed to enjoy telling me these stories, but they made me a little anxious. Then one day I was cured. We said our goodbyes and I went on my merry way.

What I didn’t know then was that I would probably never be cured. But at least I knew what I had and how to deal with it. I’ve had a lot of therapy but I am not willing to drive over the Ambassador Bridge several times a day every day or lock myself into a small space, so aversion therapy is not for me. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is of minimal help when anxiety mounts and turns into panic, but nothing stops panic in its tracks like my particular cocktail of prescription medications.

As it turns out the character of Courtney came from an experience with my real life therapist while also being a therapeutic tool for me at that time in my real life. Because writing (for me) is therapy and always has been. I’m not sure this is true for all writers, but for me, writing is a terrific coping mechanism. Still, note to self: no more fictional character who suffer from any type of anxiety disorder.

 

Ways to be Wicked

The current writing project is gathering steam. It will be my third mystery and I hope to have an easier time with it than the last two. They say third time’s the charm, right? To that end, I have been doing a lot of plotting and planning. I’m finding Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron a blessing, particularly when it comes to fleshing out my killer.

I wanted this killer to be unique to St. Pete, where the book is set, and where I’m lucky enough to be currently holed up alone while my husband works in Detroit. Al should be here soon, but I want to nail down this bad guy (and it usually always is a guy, in books and in real life) before my good guy gets here.

My main character and her sidekick have been fleshed out for ages. I know almost everything about them. I know all about the murder victim, too. But I only have the slightest inkling of what makes my villain tick. I know the motivation for the murder, what drove him to do it. I’m fairly new to writing crime fiction, but it seems to me there  are so many ways to be wicked.

Acting out violently when experiencing negative emotions like hatred or jealousy is one way. Covering up a lesser crime by getting rid of a witness is another, more cold-blooded way. Revenge is an evil motive for killing if ever there was one. It brings me to the mind of the killer: sometimes the bad guy is psychologically damaged. Sometimes he’s without empathy, a sociopath. Not all sociopaths go psycho. Many sociopaths get along just fine in the world without murdering anyone, but everyone has to be a little crazy, at least in the moment, unless it’s self-defense or in the line of duty, to kill.

I’ve heard it said that we all have it in us: the ability to kill. Is that true? I’m not sure. A mother might kill if someone is harming her child. As a mom, I would not hesitate. A soldier will kill in war. A society may deem some crimes punishable by death. There’s the crime of passion. That one got a lot of men pardoned for murdering their cheating wives, and not so long ago. Here in Florida, “Old Sparky” is itching to get the Parkland school shooter in his electric chair.

If our president has his way, teachers would get “little bonuses” for carrying guns and shooting domestic terrorists who prey on schoolchildren. I’m a former teacher and find that a chilling idea. But it might make a good story. Think of all the ways arming teachers and paying them bonuses to kill could go wrong. Two teachers having an affair, one or both are married to other people. One, let’s say the guy, pressures the woman to leave her spouse and she refuses. She breaks up with him, even. He pulls the fire alarm and says he saw a woman wearing a red sweater and carrying a semi-automatic weapon heading to his ex-lover’s classroom. He shoots his ex, who’s wearing a red sweater and is also armed, because that’s what teachers do in this new world when the fire alarm goes off. Spurned lover claims he believed she was the intruder intent on harming kids.

That’s a pretty lousy plot and I won’t be writing it. I’ve got my own murderer to try to understand. Peeling back the layers of a killer’s life, dwelling on the evil within, is not exactly my favorite part of mystery writing. I like everything else better: pulling the plot together, fleshing out the other characters, getting the setting just right, having a theme or two humming under the surface. All of these are cake compared to writing a killer. But having a believable murderer, one who is exactly right for the book, who feels real, is high priority. He needs to scare the crap out of me. And readers, if I get lucky and get it right.

The Character Who Never Leaves

blueheaven175

I should have known from the minute she elbowed her way into Blue Heaven, acting like she owned the joint, that Lily would be trouble. She was 17 and secretive, a minor character who thought she should have a bigger part. I gave her a love interest, but it turned out she had issues with boys.

I thought I ended Lily’s story at the end of that first book in my Blue Lake series. She was safely away at college in book two, but came barreling back with vengeance on her mind in book three. I had a hard time deciding which of my two female characters would take the lead. I hadn’t meant it to be Lily, but damn that messed up woman was fun to write.

unnamed-1

By the fourth book, even though she left town, her name and her story stole a few scenes. I’d promised her her own book–I even tried to write it–but it was so dark I had to take a mental health break and write a light fun Christmas story. I thought about dumping the Lily chapters I’d started before my most recent release, but my critique group, who have more influence on me than I’d like to admit, would not hear of it.

I’d set myself a challenge with Lily’s story and I needed to see it through. It’s about done now, well at least a workable draft is almost there. But I keep thinking about where and how I want Lily to end up. I want to do right by her. I want to give her the peace she’s been seeking for so long. So I’m taking my time with the denouement. Not that it will be a lot of pages, but it will be the right way to leave this woman, now in  her mid-30s, who I’ve been following for most of her adult life.

It might seem strange to say I’m following a character I created. But that’s what I do. I know some writers would roll their eyes at that. Who’s writing the story, anyway? Well, here’s the truth: it’s me and then it’s not me. It’s a part of myself I only access when I’m writing. It’s where my imagination goes when I get quiet inside and try to keep up with characters like Lily.