Tag Archives: novels

Well, I thought Spring was here….

Bloodroot in blossom

…and I may have been right, looking at the calendar, but when the temperature drops from a very pleasant 72F to barely 50F overnight and you have to turn the furnace back on, then you start asking if winter is having trouble leaving us.

Yes it was very nice last week. I was happy to be out in the warm weather with no sweater or jacket, even happy to be able to scrape the mud off the soles of my hiking boots, and looking forward to more days like that, and then – WHAM!! Back we went to the low to mid-50s. And I see by looking at the weather map that it’s still snowing in many places.  That’s fine. I like wearing sweaters.

So that brings up attention to detail. It isn’t necessary to overwhelm anyone with details, but if you read detective novels, they are the people who notice the small things. Something out of place. A sweater not neatly folded but thrown on top of a pile of stuff. The dirt marks on a clean floor. Tiny bits of gravel where they shouldn’t be. Pens scattered instead of in a collecting cup.  Basically, show us the unexpected things.

All people have certain habits, things they do that they aren’t aware of but other people are. There are people who will complain if there is no rain and also if there is too much. Never ever happy. Too hot. Too cold. Too bitter. Too sweet.  Too many cars. Buses never on time. These are things that go into building characters, things that can be repeated until they are unconsciously recognized by your readers as habits or characteristics, such as a very sensitive sense of smell, that give your characters a small touch of reality.

There are other things. Butterflies, for instance, will flock to a place that provides salt and other minerals. In a mystery novel, this might be a clue to where the body is buried if there has been a lot of rain and the soil covering the corpse has been leaching away.

It isn’t necessary to cram the details in all at once. Distribute them through the story, and for Pete’s sake, make notes about it! It’s easy to lose track of who is who and what is what.

Have a nice Spring weekend, even if it rains!




The End of Summer…

It really is the end of summer now.  In the Pagan/Wiccan calendar, Lunasagh marks the beginning of the harvest of foodstuffs to be stored and used through the fall and winter into Spring.  In the old days, when icehouses stored winter ice cut out of ponds, lakes and rivers for use in the summer, people would find themselves coming to the end of their supply of ice.  In truly hot, humid weather, that could become a burden.

If you pay attention to the rising and setting of the Sun and the Moon, then you will mark the Moon’s position in her relationship to the Sun through the seasons.  Why bring this up?  Partly because most of my life until I was an adult was spent on a farm or in farming country. I’m still conscious of the seasonal changes. The Farmer’s Almanac and the Old Farmer’s Almanac (two separate publications) have online presences as well as published print editions that give weather forecasts, tidal changes, the phases of the Moon, the planets in their various constellations, and all the other things that people who work in a ‘natural’ setting will notice more than those working indoors in an office.  There is an article in my local newspaper noting that fewer and fewer people, adults and children alike, are spending time outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine for various reasons, and it does have a very real affect on their emotional state when they shut themselves up in buildings.  They become more fractious, contentious and sometimes aggressive.

I love fantasy stories. Good fantasy storytelling is always something I look for.  The things I’ve already mentioned – seasonal awareness, the effects of being outdoors versus indoors all the time, noticing changes in the sky in daytime and at night – are essential to making your people believable to your readers.  This is what Tolkien did when he created the Universe of Middle-Earth.

I also love good science fiction.  When Anne McCaffrey invented the world of PERN, she paid attention to those very things. Her people had to do so, or suffer the consequences.  It’s as necessary to fantasy as it is to science fiction, both of which I grew up reading, and wondering if I could come close to telling tales that resonated with people the way the stories of J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Robert Heinlein did.

If you are going to invent a Universe to populate with dragons and sea nymphs and Sea Kobolds (look that one up, it’s interesting), then I encourage you to fully understand that Universe yourselves.  If you are going to write fantastical tales of Knights lost in a wilderness, find out why they are there in the first place, and then tell us what happened and how they’ll get out of this dilemma.  How many will survive? What are they facing?

I have a good friend working on his first novel, trying to make it as good as he can, so my part in it is to ask him questions.  What? Who? Where? When? How? Why?  He will send me his chapters and I will send him mine. His is a world that is unique and has not been done before – or if it has been done, it did not last because it was not done very well by someone else and he’s found his stride in creating it.

I apologize for taking so long to write another post, but this is part of what happens when you do want to take your story from start to finish.  Your blog posts become unintentionally sporadic. You forget to fix lunch and you drink ice tea (when it’s hot) instead of having breakfast, and find that you’ve shrunk a full dress size without trying.  No harm in that. Just take your vitamins, get a ham and cheese sandwich and some grapes, and keep pecking the keys.  And if you get stuck, don’t worry about it.  Have something else you can turn to. And get outside in the fresh air occasionally. It will do you a world of good.


A long walk in the woods provides… clues

A hike along the river....

A hike along the river….

I spent about an hour yesterday taking a long hike on a path along
a river not too far from my house. The hike started on a cloudy afternoon, with the very possible prospect of rain. I needed to get out and get some fresh air. There is nothing worse than being cooped up indoors. Even if the promise of rain is likely to be kept, getting out for a walk, however brief it might be, is better than no walk at all. So I went.

...continuing along the path

…continuing along the path

I am not sorry I did, that I spent the time on it, that the sun finally came out of hiding or that when I got back to my car I was quite warm, tired and happy to have done a mere 3.5 miles roundtrip in a little under an hour. For me, that’s a slow pace but I took my camera along, as always, and disregarded the distance.
Showy trillium on DP river trail

The point is that we all have a very real need to step away from the short-range, close focus on our creative endeavors and get some fresh air, on a regular basis. We need to put down the electronic stuff occasionally and look around at the real world, the tangible world that we live in if we expect the worlds we create out of whole cloth to be believable. It’s the small things which need to be noticed, not the illuminated screen in front of you.

Showy trilliums on the hiking path

Showy trilliums on the hiking path

Paying attention to those little things, to something as small as a frog on a log in the sunshine, makes your worlds more real to your readers. There are pollinating insects as small as the head of a pin that most people don’t notice, but they inhabit their own tiny world. If a detective in a mystery novel notices these things, shouldn’t you, the person who created the detective, notice those small things, too?

Clearing the cobwebs….

Showy trilliums

Showy trilliums

Okay, no excuses. There are times when life simply gets in the way. It isn’t neglect that kept me away, I was actually cranking out copy for several books. Yes – several. And while it seems vainglorious to me to say “I busted my butt to get this done”, well, frankly, I did just that. I neglected my blog here unintentionally while I focused on my stories.

So I’ll give you all a pump-up about yourselves and what you do, if I can.

In fiction, any writer’s desire and responsiblity are to create and firmly establish the characters and events in those stories which he or she is creating for you, the readers, to enjoy.

I do know people who want desperately to write something – anything – and have a good start, but come to a grinding halt because they asked someone to read the starts they’ve made and are – well, disappointed, maybe even a little hurt, maybe even a teensy bit teary-eyed that the incomplete piece which they wrote, they labored over, they gave life to isn’t viewed as Pulitzer material. So, they quit before they even get a start.

Don’t do that.

If someone says ‘you got typos!’, deal with it. Fix them. Fix the punctuation mistakes. Get a spelling dictionary or find one online. Make yourself look as smart as you are. Most of the time, when people say ‘you got booboos’, it’s merely pointing out simple errors that you didn’t catch in your draft. No one is trying to hurt your feelings.

There are people who like to engage in flamewars toward everyone, because it makes them feel good about themselves. That is not the same thing as being told ‘you got typos’. Not remotely. It is just bad manners.

These are your steps in writing a piece of fiction.
1 – Decide if it’s a short/long story or a novel.
2 – Ask yourself if there is more than one story for this idea, i.e., can this become a series of stories?
3 – Are you serious enough to finish what you wrote, or are you just dabbling with ideas? If it is just ideas, keep them for later use.
4 – Write the first draft, set it aside, write a brief draft or even a long summary of another story, set it aside and go back to your first story.
5 – Make notes. Make a LOT of notes. Keep them with your story. Review them regularly. You’ll find your original idea has wandered off in a new direction.

You will be pleasantly surprised to find that, not only has your story taken on a life and will of its own, but your original idea may show distinct signs of growing larger than you had thought it would, and may even start splitting into various parts on its own.

For example, that hot chick who cast her eye on the hero might just be a spy looking for easy prey. Not finding it, she just may ditch that resource and start looking again. In other words, the guy she thought was the ship’s engineer turns out to the the guy who serves baked beans in the mess line, and the only thing he’s good for is relieving the tension in her… uh, her shoulders. Yeah, that’s it! Her shoulders. Got it. So is she a spy? Or is she up to something else?

I posted the picture of the trilliums partly because it’s spring at long last, and partly because that wildflower has a brief period of above-ground existence, putting out a floral head to attract pollinators until the rhizomes at its roots have started to grow and it can split off into new plants. When it’s done for the season, it dies back and disappears to gestate underground until next spring.

Consider the trillium as an analogy to writing. You have great ideas. They need to grow into mature and complete stories. That dieback to prepare for next spring is the same thing that you do when you come up with an idea for a story. You make notes about it, you do some research on the subject, and you start the first draft.

The ideas are what you record and expand on with notes, research to support your storyline, and possibly discovering that maybe your subject really has not had much attention because everyone else is following a different trend. And this is why I say don’t ask someone to review a partially-written draft. The wrong words, a misunderstood comment, a snort of derisive laughter and ‘no one writes about this’ may stop you before you even get started.

Now, how will you know whether or not you can do this thing called writing unless you stop asking for permission to do it?

There is nothing wrong with establishing your own subject line of stories. People do it all the time. Have enough confidence in yourself to choose to follow your own path. You do not need permission to do that, any more than the trilliums need permission to poke their way above ground and blossom.

Well, what are you waiting for? You don’t need anyone’s permission to write!

Why you don’t need a class in writing….

Bee at work

Bee at work

This blog is about telling stories.

Everyone has stories to tell. The sea stories I heard in the Navy sometimes had me laughing so hard I squeaked. That’s when you push all that stale air out of your lungs and take a deep breath, and go right on laughing until your eyes water.

I did take a class in writing novels once upon a time. I found that, for the money I spent, I could have stocked up on typing paper (now printer paper), typewriter ribbons (printer ink) and pens and pencils, plus some notebooks and files to keep everything semi-organized. I’d have been better off taking a senior class in college-level English.

So instead of spending any more money on classes, I started building a small, but very useful, library of nonfiction books on writing. Some of them I’ve given away, because they were retreads of others, but those that I found to be the most useful are the following, with the reasons for why they are so useful included.

Here we go:
If You Want To Write – Brenda Ueland. I have the 2nd edition version of this. She taught writing classes in Minnesota for many years, and this book is to writers what “The Joy of Cooking” is to foodies. Why is this book so important, and considered to be a classic on the process of writing, long after the author has passed on? Ms. Ueland had two rules: tell the truth and don’t do anything you don’t want to do. ‘Tell the truth’ means keep it clear, simple and don’t use one superfluous word.

You see, it’s not the number of words in a sentence, nor the number of sentences in a paragraph, nor a massively impressive vocabulary that will make you a better writer.

There are people who are obssessed with counting words in a sentence, and sentences in a paragraph because they think that there is some rule, some hardline regulation, that says ‘only XXX words and XXX sentences are allowed’. I’ve met those people in person. I’ve asked them if they ever read ‘Green Hills of Africa’, in which Hemingway takes up two pages with one sentence, one extremely long sentence, that comprises an entire paragraph by itself, and it still makes sense. It is Hemingway’s understanding of phrasing and punctuation that make it work.

It is not the number of words or the length of your sentences that counts, nor is it the number of sentences you have in one paragraph. It is how you present them to your reader. When Ms. Ueland says ‘tell the truth’, she is nudging you to be true to yourself. Do what you expect of yourself, not what others expect of you.

‘How To Write a Damn Good Novel’ – James N. Frey. He teaches writing classes. He teaches structure and content in his classes. It’s a down-to-Earth, practical guide to getting your story or novel written, cranked out, and finished. And he points out, as Brend Ueland implies without saying it specifically, that the production of a finished piece of work has less to do with talent, equipment, software and taking classes, than it has to do with being a writer in your heart.

Writing is hard work. You get stale and annoyed and bogged down, but you soldier on, because you have to tell this story muddling around in your head and you want, desperately, to get that story to other people. If you do not have this nearly desperate need to get your stories written to completion, whether or not they ever get in front of people, then you aren’t really a writer. You only WANT to be a writer, and that’s the truth of it: you either are, or you are not. As Yoda said, “There is no try. There is only do… or do not.”

Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury. It starts with ‘The Joy of Writing’ and ends with ‘…on Creativity’. It is NOT about how to write a damn good novel.

It IS about jumping out of bed in the morning and stepping into a pile of icy slush, and wondering how on Earth that got there. It wasn’t there last night when your head hit the pillow and you found you couldn’t sleep because your brain was still cranking out copy. And then you had that argument: should I get up and go back to what I was working on? Or should I just let it go and tackle in the morning?

Bradbury’s point, and Jim Frey’s also, is that if you stay up FAR past your usual bedtime, never look at the clock, forget breakfast, lunch and dinner and don’t realize that you’re still in your pajamas and it’s now 2PM the next day, you’re a writer.

I’ve done this with just making notes about what/who/when/how/why; with paintings at an easel and a dog that needed walking; and with finishing the last additional chapter of the draft I’ve been working on for weeks, along with all those short stories off to the side.

The photo of the bee in the flowers at the top is the best illustration I could come up with. The bee doesn’t count the miles from the hive, the pollen grains in its leg baskets, or the amount of nectar it collects. It just does this work, because it is a bee.

You stop counting time and the cost of materials, and simply write. When you get that piece of writing done, the elation of finishing your story for better or for worse is almost like having really great sex: you just want to do that again.

I have other books that I found useful which I will add in the future, but in the meantime, to see what I mean (and Brenda Ueland meant) by simplicity, clarity, and truth, get a copy of Henry Beston’s ‘The Outermost House’. It’s his observations during a full year in 1928 on Cape Cod. You will be glad you did.