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.

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.

Character Building

Still in Florida. Had a lovely visit with family and will be heading back to Michigan in a day or two. Don’t want to go. But don’t want to be without Al at Christmas more. All the while down here I have been thinking about my story and especially my main character. It’s like an old-fashioned flash bulb going off: click, click, click.

Each click, another part of her personality fits into place. Or a plot point. Or an important setting, like where the murderer came from and how he got into a secure gated community with a 24 hour guard. All this is happening like it always does at the start of a new project, without effort. Effort will come later. There’s so much to writing novels that requires work. I love this part, when things are first taking shape.

It feels like anything can happen. The story is wide open.

Those story clicks happen in all sorts of places. Having coffee at the clubhouse, sitting watching a sunset, strolling through the Dali. While the guys were off on a pirate ship, my daughter-in-law, Jessica, liked the museum option. My main character is involved in the art world, so going to the museum with Jessica and Julia produced a whole slew of clicks. Jessica was an art major in college, so I explained a little about the character and said “I may be calling you with questions.” She’s fine with that.

Meanwhile, I listened to the docent for the entire Dali experience for the first time. When I couldn’t quite see what she meant, Jessica helped me see those double exposures and things. Third trip to the museum, first time really getting into Dali’s art. (Those other times I was just consumed with Frida. I still am.)

Dali’s paintings remind me of tarot cards in the way that they are dense with symbolic images that a casual observer might miss. The docent and Jessica were there to answer questions and point out all the stuff I hadn’t really seen before. Dali’s an interesting artist and the museum is lovely but I’m not particularly drawn to his work. That’s okay. He’s inspiring to me for so many other reasons. Click.

Away From the Fray

IMG_3635Sometimes I get in trouble. I never mean to, because I dislike conflict. So I try to get along with people, but I am a liberal, so if someone tells a racist joke or utters a homophobic remark, I might say something. Sometimes I just walk away, other times I’ll say, “you might not know you’re telling a racist joke” or “I support the LTBGQ community.” I don’t hide my ethics or values, and I very much dislike when bullies gang up on good people.

I am the program director for Detroit Working Writers, an organization I’ve served since 2008 in many different capacities. I’m currently program director: I find seasoned, well-published people within the organization (or they find me) who want to give workshops to the membership. I’ve been doing this since being appointed by President Carl Anthony in late 2015. Naturally now that I live in Florida part of the year, I’ve had to resign.



Meanwhile, I’m trying to finish out the workshops and other events I’ve scheduled. I also have had lots of interest in others who want to give workshops. Really talented people who have won awards for their writing, been nominated for Pushcarts, and just really good folks who want to help our members reach their dreams. But I’m not planning any workshops for 2018.

So. Dilemma. Then I met with our president and said “Can we utilize this talent with a conference?” DWW has had an annual conference for several years, but the board had not been enthusiast. Nobody wanted to chair an event that takes a lot of work to pull off. So President Carl and I decided we’d do the work required and Carl got two other members who are not on the board to help. We have a conference committee. This 2017 conference will be the last event I’ll participate in for DWW. Because I love Florida so much I’m going to be here even longer next year.

But also because our board has become divided, which is normal. Despite my once held belief that all writers are liberal, that’s not actually true. You have your liberals and conservations in writing circles too. So the board is currently at odds which is awkward for me. I’m in Florida, away from the fray for the moment. I wish I could stay here forever.



Artist by Accident

PicMonkey CollageLooking familiar, hey? In accidental artist mode, trying to create a beautiful postcard with limited tools.  Okay, tools are adequate, skills limited. Have other side, too, all my book covers, but I could not get them down to thumbnail size so I’m just going to throw myself on the mercy of Speedy Printing, who does my friend Iris’s beautiful cards.

Noticed with alarm that my supply of print books to sell at conference next Saturday (Still time to register; would love to see you there!)  has dwindled alarmingly. So I will hand out the postcards if I sell out of books. Big IF …

Because I am not a salesperson. Or an artist. Not even the kind who can make a cool collage on PicMonkey. But I am learning a few things about promotion and how to sell without spamming. I’m taking courses and workshops and yesterday did a “join me” session online with Rachel at BadRedHead Media. That was fun!

I love learning and being a student comes far before being the teacher, which is also pretty cool. Aries here! We like to strut. When we are not crippled with social anxiety. Notice how I went from “I” to “we”? Distancing technique. Like the movie stars who answer questions with “you” instead of “I” ~

Anyway, this is what I’ve been working on the last few days in my moments when I am not falling over from half moon pose or thinking deeply about my newest characters between scribbles. Lots of pages this morning. Writing first thing is best for me. And writing is the first thing every author should do. Write the best book you can. Then you’ll have something you’ll be proud to take to market.