Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Printed Word and Impressions

Words, once they are printed, have a life of their own.

Carol Burnett

Do you ever judge an author by what was written by them? Attribute beliefs or personality traits? In non-fiction, we do all the time. For example, Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson, the subject of an earlier blog, has to be wonderful to be around. She couldn’t be a black hole of negativity gobbling up your positive soul. She is an expert on positive thinking, so she would be easy to be with, right?

One thing I did love about writing informational text for so many years was that I could do another edition and correct stupid ideas, add in new understandings, or fix grammar errors that made it past me, my co-authors, and all the publisher’s editors who had their fingers on it.

Not so in fiction. What is writ is it! Jean Auel couldn’t re-write Clan of the Cave Bear after archaeologists found new information on Neanderthals. When secret government documents are declassified, you won’t find espionage thriller authors calling their books back in for a do-over.

So, making a judgment about an author’s knowledge base and expertise is par for the course in informational writing. We read a book because that author’s life experiences and training lead us to believe the veracity of the work.

That is not the case in novels. We get a pass because we are “imaginative”, “creative”, “artistes.” No one expects me to have been a prostitute in order to have written Streetwalker. No one thinks I am a slut because I wrote about a couple of them. (Hmm! Well, maybe they do. How do I know for sure?)

For the most part, novel readers are forgiving about errors of fact (or perceived errors) they find in fiction. Oh, sure, I’ve heard authors say to do your research because someone will be sure to note that that wine couldn’t come from that region of France. The point is, however, that fiction readers mainly read for the characters and how they interact with the plot and one another. If they really wanted to know about French wines, they’d buy French Wine for Dummies—by an expert!

Monday, November 29, 2010


Have you read this book by Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson? It’s whole title is Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strengths of Positive Emotion, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive (2009, Crown). Whew! That’s a mouthful! A fiction writer would shorten that title and punch it up a bit, but this is not a work of fiction.

Fredrickson’s book describes a short list—ten only—of attributes you can access and control that can reshape your brain and change your thinking patterns. Transforming lives is quite a claim.

Nevertheless, there is the smell of truth to her work. Her academic training and mentors were pioneer researchers in the field of negative thinking and its effects on human behavior. She was curious about the other end of the spectrum. Why are some people upbeat and positive in the face of the same adversities that seem to dog the negative thinkers?

In her research she identified two key components that touched me. There are ten behaviors you can teach yourself to consciously implement daily, and if you maintain a 3:1 positivity ratio of positive thoughts to negative emotions, you can actually change how your brain functions. It is the tipping point.

Isn’t that amazing? You can change your brain patterns, thereby, altering your life! You can be in charge of your attitudes. You can go from being a victim to being in control. Wow!

So what are the ten, you ask? How hard will this be to do? Is it possible for people not in a study to implement the conditions required to re-wire the brain?

Judge for yourself. Every day aim to have at least three positive thoughts for every negative one. Does that mean for you that you should journal your emotions? Maybe. But just maybe you can post the ten and remind yourself that way to engage in positive thinking. The ten are commonplace, but since the human brain remembers seven things, plus or minus two, I came up with a mnemonic I’ll share at the end of the next paragraph.

Can you do this? Every day, consciously experience joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love. Find ways to experience them, remember experiences with them, and counter negative thoughts that come into your head with three or more consciously chosen positive thoughts. If you don’t have your list with you, here is my mnemonic: a jig has lip.

Repeat the mnemonic a few times, then repeat the associated positivity features in that order a few times: awe, joy, interest, gratitude, hope, amusement, serenity, love, inspiration, pride. Check yourself throughout the day if you are trying to change your brain patterns.

I highly recommend this book even if you are already a positive personality as I am. Her explanations, examples, and elaborations help you to understand more fully what it means to be a positive thinking person. Put it on your list for some upcoming gift-giving occasion.

According to Fredrickson, 80% of us have more negative thoughts daily than positive ones. That can’t be good. What if we used these ten traits to “Pay It Forward” and tried to change the world for someone we know by giving him the book and talking about how to implement the changes? What if it worked?

Back to writing. What if you used the tenets in this book in your fiction writing? What if you create a character who consciously decides to change herself. Maybe her friends call her a negative Nelly, so she decides to take charge and become a different person. She follows Fredrickson’s guidelines and through the course of the book she does change. Is the change good or bad? It could be a comedy or tragedy, right?

I wish for you today and every day to experience awe, joy, interest, gratitude, hope, amusement, serenity, love, inspiration, and pride in your own life and to spread those traits among all you know.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Big Four Plus a G: Family, Food, Friends, and Fun Plus Gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving!

This is my favorite holiday. It is less commercialized (thus it gets squeezed out by Halloween candy and Christmas decorations), but that is only one reason I love it.

Thanksgiving is, at core, all about family, food, friends, and fun. It is a renowned connection time. The meal is so huge it requires cooperating cooks and cleaners. “Together we can” is a Thanksgiving mantra.

But beyond the Big Four is the center of the core, gratitude. Be grateful tomorrow. Be grateful all week. Be grateful forever. Even if you have little, there are those in the world with less.

When we are truly grateful, it is easier to reflect on how we can give back. We recently watched “Pay It Forward”. I KNOW! The whole world saw it before we did. That’s not the point. We finally did see it. Now, I don’t know about you, but it did have it saccharine moments. But even if you found the movie sappy, the premise could occasion some discussion. In my home for example we talked about “Pass It On” and “Pay It Forward,” related concepts.

Hubby: “Pass it On” has been around for a long time. This movie didn’t start the idea, so why such a big deal about the movie?”

Sage Wife: Ah, Confucius say not to confuse one with other.

I am a fan of “Pass it On”. I have offered my spot in the grocery store line to someone behind me with few items. I’ve paid for someone else’s meal. “Pass It On” is spontaneous and situational. I hope the recipient will “Pass it On”, spread the good will, create a climate of caring support in all the little ways that make up our days. But there is no way to know if the person even got the message you were sending.

However, “Pay It Forward” is a whole other level of giving. It is not anonymous giving. It is planful giving with the recipient known and the single most important change to be made in that person identified.

The point is to make sure that the person being helped knows you are helping and why and what their responsibility is for receiving the help. It also has to be grand scale, something life-changing, or it is not eligible for “Pay It Forward” status. Being a recipient of “Pay It Forward” obligates the recipient to find three others and affect their lives in a major way. And those three will affect three more lives. Exponentially, ”Pay It Forward” has the potential to change the entire world, one life at a time. What a wonderful vision that is!

I am taking a break for the holiday. See you again on Monday. Enjoy your time with friends and family. And maybe dinner conversation could include a small discussion of how each of us can “Pay It Forward” to change the world.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Naughty and Nice

The reaction I get from men and women when I admit that I write “naughty” as well as “nice” books is very interesting to one who studies human nature.

Some women kind of titter and express more interest in my “nice” novels. Some women, but more likely men, are quite curious. Let’s just say I have had more offers to read and give me feedback on the “naughty” ones than the “nice” ones. Isn’t that funny?

What is it about the prurient that brings out our darker side? Not that I am being critical. After all, I’m the one who started the conversation by writing erotica in the first place and then telling about it to whoever will listen. And, I am hopeful that a whole bunch of dark-side people will buy my book when it’s published.

Still, the reaction I get at birthday parties, neighborhood barbecues, and dinner table conversations is interesting. Nice normal middle-class venues with lots of people interested in sex.

Recently I got a “good rejection” from an agent even though she said my “sex scenes were well-done (very!).” I shared that at a recent birthday party. Peoples’ ears perked up when they heard that. And two men volunteered to help me figure out why it was rejected.

The other reaction I get is that I must have walked in the shoes of a character who has hot and regular sex. Not necessarily. I am a novelist, after all. I have a vivid imagination. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

In a recent meeting with an editor, she asked where the story of my prostitute in Streetwalker came from. I honestly don’t know, and I told her that. It was as if I were channeling Carrie. I told the editor that to my knowledge, I don’t even know any prostitutes, though one never knows for sure, does one?

But they are interesting human beings, aren’t they? They choose (or are forced into) a life where their bodies are their currency. Why do people choose that life? How does one get forced into a sexual life? What are their struggles with the morality of that lifestyle, or if no struggles, why not? That is the stuff of many novels already written and yet to come.

Because the sex drive is so elemental, so human, it makes sense we would want to read about the variety of sexual experiences possible. Vicarious living is a lot safer than the reality in these days of deadly sexually-transmitted diseases.

So I will continue to write “naughty” and “nice”. We’ll see which of my books hits the bookstores first!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Playwrighting? Oh, the arrogance!

I guess playwrights are pretty entrenched in the spelling of those who practice the craft of writing scripts for the stage. Or at least, that’s what I gathered from the numerous websites I visited last summer in my quest to learn more about writing scripts for live theater.

I happened into this new avenue of fiction serendipitously. After nearly 45 years out from my last theater experience, I auditioned for a community theater production in northern Arizona. To my delight (and fear), the director picked me for a role. I was thrilled that I might still have some of that acting spark I displayed decades ago, but I had crushing fear that I would no longer be able to learn lines. I did learn my lines, entry and exit cues, and increased my vocabulary with stage craft terms like downstage, stage right, and proscenium.

However, I was cast as a 24 year-old nurse. I have seen 24 for four decades! Still, in community theater, who shows up for auditions is who gets cast. One of my writing group partners (also cast in a show—as a 20 year-old) and I realized there must be a niche for plays with older cast members. Relatively few of these plays are available to community theater groups in age-restricted areas. So, Annie Weissman (www.annieweissman.com) and I decided we would write plays with older characters.

“How hard can it be?”, I wondered aloud to any and all who would listen to me blather on about my writing efforts. After all, I had several completed novels under my belt. Plays are a bunch shorter than a novel! Pshaw! Bring it on.

I had planned last summer to be the summer to finish, finally, a novel I had begun years ago. But, that didn’t happen. The play consumed my summer as surely as a whale dining on krill.

I read about scriptwriting. I learned proper play formatting, and that it is different from screenplay formatting. But the thing I learned best, the most humbling thing, was that writing a play is darned hard work. And I didn’t just dash it off in a week or two as I had thought, in my arrogance, I would.

In my novels, I have paragraphs explaining the setting or character motivation or revelations that lead to plot points. I have words, lots and lots of words.

In a play, other than the set design and some stage directions that a director may or may not attend to, all you have is dialogue. The dialogue carries the story. Dialogue can’t be paragraphs long. It has to sound like real people speak since Shakespearean soliloquies are out of fashion and the Greek chorus disappeared long before Shakespeare.

I am delighted that I learned so many new things while completing my play, Ghost in the Pines. And, now that the fourth draft is done, I am shopping it around to various community theater groups to see if I can get it produced. Whether or not it is ever performed, I think I learned a lot about writing dialogue that I can transfer to novel writing.

Additionally, I watch plays now to see how it was put together so that I can be a better playwright. What would the stage directions look like? Why is it important that the door open out? Oh, yes. The bug bit me. I am now working on three one-act linked plays based on my short story anthology, Land’s End.

These plays could come to a theater near you!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Author vs. Writer--What's the Difference?

Thoreau - "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you've imagined."

I was talking with my friend, Pat, as I have almost every Sunday for 3 decades, and she was comforting me about my most recent agent rejection. She reassured me about my creativity and that I will reach my publication goals. Well, that’s what friends are for, eh?

I told her that I have a wonderful life. I am living my dream. I get to sit at my computer every day for hours and let the stories pour onto the virtual pages in front of me. I get to spend hours every week in the company of really smart women in my two critique groups, Desert Flowers and Pens Afire.

Unlike many writers, I don’t HAVE to make a living doing this. That would be the proverbial cherry on the top.

So what if I never publish? Does that matter? Am I still an author? And what is the difference between saying you are a “writer” and saying you are an “author”?

I was having this conversation with a couple of my critique partners from my writing groups, Desert Flowers and Pens Afire, while returning from the Society of Southwestern Authors “Wrangling with Writing” Conference in Tucson this September. Are we “writers” or are we “authors”?

I posited that a writer is someone who writes without publishing aspirations. The purposes for writers can vary from personal satisfaction and revelation to creating stories for family and friends. Writers can be as serious as authors in working on pieces.

But, in my definition, an author is someone who takes the extra steps toward a commitment to publishing. Whether or not a work is ever published, the author positions herself so that efforts lead toward publication and marketing of her work. Like me doing this blog, for instance.

What do you think? What is the difference, if any, between a writer and an author?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Am I still having fun???

A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view, a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.

Junot Diaz, O Magazine, November 2009

My husband asked me, after I received my third rejection in two weeks, if I was still having fun. It was a curious question for me to consider. Was I still having fun?

“Why did you ask me that?” I responded.

“I just don’t want you to get all stressed about writing and discouraged.” What a sweetheart!

Well, yeah, not only did I have the rejection letters (e-mails, actually), but I had just dumped 200 pages of my novel to start all over again. I could see why he might be worried about me. But I have beau coups persistence and resilience. This is the life path I chose (Or did it choose me?), and I am just fine.

Sure, I wish I had snagged an agent or book contract from that last conference I attended. But I have another conference coming up, and I have some specific feedback via my rejections that should help me shape better stories.

And starting that novel all over again . . . well, what a great chance to reconceptualize my book and to get to know another character better.

Am I a “glass half-full” kinda gal? Not really. I’m more of a let me fill up another glass and then I have this one half-full and another one full up! I’ll be able to use some of those 200 pages in this new book. So this book, Pastabilities, should be quicker to pen than the dumped one, right?

I can’t not write. It is part of my identity. It took me years to claim fiction author as an identity because people think that must mean you are published. But I claim fiction author as firmly as I claim non-fiction author (my published works). I tell people I am an unpublished-as-yet author of fiction and a playwright.

I know all about the odds of breaking into print with a novel. Debut authors are harder and harder to come by as the publishing houses tighten belts and go with established authors. But, it is not impossible. And I will defy the odds. And you will be buying my books and wondering what took me so long to make it to your bookstore.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Alli Wesson: Guest Blogger and Caterer from "Dinner is Served"

Sharon: Hello, Readers. Today I have Alli Wesson with me. Alli is a caterer for “Dinner is Served” and an amateur detective in Pastabilities. Welcome, Alli, to Write Away.

Alli: Hello, Sharon. A big shout-out to all my blog followers who are finding your site today.

Sharon: Alli, I know you are experiencing some success with your catering business now that you got out from under that police investigation. What happened there?

Alli: Well, when Gina, my business partner, when Gina’s boss was poisoned, we were the prime suspects since we cooked for her family. I had to clear our names with the police, or our business would have been cooked before it was even put in the oven. The theft of a jade dragon just added in complications we didn’t need!

Sharon: (laughs) You and Gina are pretty different. How does that work when you are planning your menus for your catering business?

Alli: We’re a good counterbalance. Oh, sure, I’m not a measurer, but Gina is, and if I tell her my recipe ideas and we taste it together, we’re pretty able to come up with a recipe we can replicate. It just takes longer than I like to spend on the dreary part of cooking. Inventing, creating, experimenting, that’s the fun part. And sometimes it even tastes great!

Sharon: I know you are a busy girl, so I won’t keep you long, but what’s up next for the “Dinner is Served” culinary mystery series?

Alli: Our second book is Cooks in the Can. Gina and I cook for the county sheriff’s jail when his regular cooking crew are out. We clear some family friends of wrongful accusations and have to solve a murder at the jail. You know, just another day in the life of Alli and Gina!

Sharon: And that book will be filled with good recipes, too, I’ll bet. Before you go, any cooking tips for our readers? Or a quick recipe maybe?

Alli: Sure. In Pastabilities, I described a really easy appetizer. You can whip this one up in five minutes with a couple of minutes leftover. The sweet-sour of the chutney is a nice counterpoint to the sour-creamy of the cream cheese.

Alli's Super-Easy-but-Elegant,

Never-Fails-to-Impress Cream Cheese Cracker Spread

8 oz. cream cheese

4 T best-quality chutney

Carr’s Water Crackers or other expensive cracker

Unwrap the block of cream cheese and place on an elegant plate with a silver butter spreader to the side. Place the chutney in tablespoons equidistant from one another down the middle of the cream cheese. With the spoon, arrange the chutney so it artistically drips down the sides of the cheese.

Serve with a small basket of crackers.

Sharon: Thanks to Alli Wesson, visiting from Pastabilities in the “Dinner is Served” culinary mystery series by Sharon Arthur Moore.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"What's Your Sign?" Developing Characters from the Cosmos

The classic pick up line from the 70’s has become not so much an icon as a punchline. Sleazy guys in sleazy movies think it a cool way to show the girl at the bar they are interested in her. They often follow it with a line like, “Mine is penis rising.” Har-de-har-har. What a laugh, eh? NOT!

Like any of the sleaze bag guys have ever done any research into the character traits associated with each sign! Now, whether or not you believe in astrology matters not a whit. A LOT of your readers do. Otherwise, the daily paper wouldn’t print your horoscope and you couldn’t get horoscopes delivered daily to your e-ddress.

To a reader who follows astrology even a little, you can send a message about a character in your story by identifying the sign. For example, in Pastabilities, one of my books-in-progress, Rita is a Cancer. In-the-know readers will figure she is moody and mercurial. They expect her to be very emotional and prickly. She is a clinger who has trouble letting go. I now have a blueprint for how Rita will respond in situations I place her in. See how easy that is.

I have a file in my novels folder on astrological signs, what they mean, who the signs are compatible with, and who they are incompatible with.

I refer to the sign charts to find traits for my characters to build consistency of actions and motivations. For example, Cancer is a “personal” sign, meaning she is more aware of and interested in herself than in others. She is always seeking reassurance and secretly wants to feel safe financially, emotionally, and romantically. That segues beautifully into her role and how it plays out in the book.

One question on one of the character interview forms I use is, “What’s your astrological sign?” This is a great question. How well do you know your characters?

Read the zodiacal descriptors and pick the one closest to your character, then tighten up the character by explicitly including more of those traits in the story action. Be consistent with the trait building and your characters should have interesting interactions with others.

Another way to use astrological charts is to read the descriptors and start doing character sketches without a book in mind. Getting some great master characters developed could lead to a book problem. What happens when an emotional Cancer and a cool, collected Taurus meet? Can they fall in love? Will they complement one another’s strengths or will they tear one another apart? Are their odds so at cross-purposes they cannot work together?

It’s your book. What will happen? Can’t wait to read it!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Can I deduct my slot machine losses?

‘Tis the season! No, not that season.

This time of year always gets me thinking about springtime, and not just because I live in Arizona where winter is like spring in the rest of the country.

No, this time of year signals that the time for accumulating tax deductions for your writing business is coming to an end. Better hurry! Buy while you can! Stimulate that economy and keep your receipts.

I am fortunate that my professional writing from my educator years continues to generate royalties. I have had a Schedule C for my own business of writing and consulting for many decades. But, if you don’t, this should be the year to start. You need to treat your writing business like a business. That means taxes.

I bought a new computer this tax year. Deduction. I bought a new printer this tax year. Deduction. I bought lots of paper and ink cartridges for that printer. Deduction. I lost some money in the slot machines while I did some research for my culinary mystery, Pastabilities, at a local Indian casino. Deduction?

Well, no. I mean, you could try, but really! What would you tell an agent of the federal government that could possibly justify claiming $20 in losses? I asked questions of a security guard about a character of mine taking pictures and what would happen. I studied the “eye in the sky” cameras from the floor of the casino to note their frequency. I quizzed the two women gatekeepers at the poker room about whether or not there is a secret, high rollers room.

Playing the slots (and losing) is pretty straightforward. No background knowledge needed.

But Keno is impossible to understand. Only in the interest of research, I sat in the Keno ball-picking area to observe. If I had my amateur sleuth, Alli, lose at Keno, could I deduct those losses? Nah.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Critique Group How-To's

In my last blog, I described, from my experiences with critique groups, some basic organizational patterns. Today, I take on the structures of the meetings.

Whether Vanilla or Chocolate (see Nov. 11, 2010 for a description), the groups I have been in run the meetings similarly. Either materials are sent in advance for members to respond to at the meeting or they are read aloud at the meeting by the author or another person.

Vanilla groups tend to have everyone present manuscript pages at each meeting, but they can also alternate with half the group at one meeting and half at another. If Vanilla groups alternate, it is likely because they are meeting more often.

The size of the group determines whether Chocolate groups have each person on deck each meeting or whether members alternate who is discussed at meetings. In groups where each member has to have materials for weekly meetings, the structure challenges the members to keep actively writing, but that is what Chocolates are about.

Because we all read more slowly aloud than silently, the number of pages that can be responded to varies with the format chosen. With my groups that use materials sent in advance, we each send 20-25 pages for others to read and mark up. The marks might include the grammar and punctuation errors found, but the focus for the markings is on the content. What works/doesn’t work and why. Questions about the focus or character motivation. The authenticity of the dialogue. Stuff like that.

In groups where pieces are read aloud at the meeting, the focus is on how the piece sounds to the ear. Authors get little if any help with errors, and the deep processing that comes with having read the piece before the meeting is harder to come by. Not impossible, however. In read-aloud groups, the author will often be asked to re-read a section so that deep structure topics can be dealt with.

The added advantage of works read in advance and marked up is that the author takes away the comments for later review to refresh the memory of the discussion of the piece. I know that I treasure those marked manuscript pages. There is never enough time to do it all, no matter what the structure, so being able to refer to the responders’ comments and error corrections is very helpful.

In almost all the groups I have been part of, we have response rules:

1) Keep the focus on the piece not the author. You can ask, “Why would Alli (the character) do that?”; but don’t ask “Did that happen to you?”

2) The author must keep silent during the responses from others and can only speak after all group members have responded to the piece. Then the author can respond to questions or explain something the readers missed.

3) Don’t get defensive and try to talk the responder into understanding what you meant. You will not be there when someone buys your book and is reading it at home. If readers don’t get what you are trying to do, you have to make changes. I typically say, “Help me fix this. Here’s what I meant. What can I do to make it clearer in the manuscript?”

I hope this helps some of you who want to form writing groups or who are in groups that aren’t working well. The most important thing is honesty with one another. Have a discussion about what each wants and needs from a writing group. Set a mission for your group and establish guidelines for how you want your group to function.

And have fun. If you don’t look forward to your group meetings, it’s not working for you. Make it work or find another group.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Vanilla or Chocolate? What are Critique Groups?

An interjection before the blog: Veterans and active military, thank you on the day we remember your service.

I know a lot of writers. Most of them are in some sort of writing support group. Over the last couple of years, since I have been devoting myself full-time to my writing, I have been in six different groups, some of which I am still in. Over the years prior to retiring, I was in three other groups. Does that make me a groupie of another stripe? Probably so.

I am a social critter. My husband hates group exercise classes; he wants to do it on his own. I would never exercise were it not for the motivation I get from a group. (And I can show you my virginal home DVD exercise collection to prove it!)

Same concept. While I will happily write in isolation (the easy part for me), I would probably not work much on revisions (the hard part for me) did I not receive feedback from critique group members.

So, let’s say you’re convinced. You are not currently in a group and want to be in one. Where do you find critique partners? What are these groups like? How are they organized? What should be the purpose for the group? How do you run the meetings? What if it doesn’t meet your needs?

If you are curious, this blog and the next one will describe the experiences I have had. Maybe one of them will resonate with you.

To begin, for group dynamics, the experts tell us the largest a group should be is 6-8 people. This allows sharing time for all and provides for a range of writing styles and genres. Some critique groups have only two people, typically called “critique partners.”

How do you find these folks? One group I’m in ran an ad in the local paper of the small town asking for people wanting to write. In another group, a pair of us splintered off from a Vanilla group (explained below). Tell people you are an author. You’ll be surprised how often someone says, “Oh, talk to Susie. They have a writing group you could join.” I joined one group after meeting someone at a writing workshop put on by a writing association. Like-minded, like-focused authors are everywhere. Reach out and you will find a critique group. If it isn’t happening in your neighborhood, attend workshops where writers hang out.

Once you have found a compatible group, you need to decide on logistics like meeting times and mission.

Most critique group meetings last two hours. Some go longer with the agreement of its members. When 6-8 people share, the time per piece is less; groups of two get more in-depth analyses.

There are several “flavors” of critique groups, just like ice cream. Additionally, each flavor can have add-ins or toppings. So, for purposes of beginning the sorting, we’ll call the two major group categories “vanilla” and “chocolate”.

A Vanilla group meets regularly, but not often. They likely meet once a month, like a book club, or, in a few cases, weekly. For members, there is likely a strong social reason for the meetings as well as a professional one. The raison d’etre of a Vanilla group is to support writers, whether they have publishing goals or not. Often these groups include a workshop, presentation, or other writing craft segment into the meeting. Some Vanilla members attend writing conferences or take on-line courses and share what they learned. Also, some read writing craft books and get professional magazines which they tell other members about.

A Chocolate group meets weekly. Socialization is not a focus. Their mission is to support one another in their publishing goals since every writer is focused on publication. These groups never include a workshop. Typically, all members of a Chocolate group attend at least one writing conference a year. Chocolates belong to professional writing associations. They probably take on-line writing courses or attend workshops sponsored by professional writing associations. All members have a professional library of books on writing and likely subscribe to writing magazines. Chocolates are the most likely to be focused on the tax implications of being writers, with receipts collected for lunches with other members if writing was discussed.

Today focused on group composition of membership. Tomorrow I’ll discuss the nuts and bolts of how meetings run. See you then.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Good Rejection Letters

Always think of the WHY not the WHAT in a rejection. (Bottom of rejection letter from Natalie Fischer, Sandra Dijkstra Agency)

I’m on a roll with letters from agents and editors.

Mind you, none of them want my books, but they are so encouraging. Do they do that from some basic sense of human kindness to others less fortunate or am I really getting better at this writing stuff?

My friends love what I write—of course! But none of my friends is an agent or editor. Would that they were!

But, back to the rejections.

One of the members of my Desert Flowers writing group asked just what the agent’s letter-tail meant. She thought it obscure enough to be taken in multiple ways.

My first reaction to a rejection is like Snoopy’s when he gets back a rejection letter for his “It was a dark and stormy night” story. In one strip many years ago, Snoopy goes out to the mailbox and finds a letter from an editor. It reads something like, “Thank you for the opportunity to consider your story, but it does not fit our present publication needs.”

Snoopy is distressed. He yowls. He stamps his feet. He kicks the mailbox. After his tantrum has passed, he returns to the letter which reads: “P.S. Don’t take it out on your mailbox.”

Yep! I get that. I took her motto at the bottom of the letter to mean that it is pretty easy to focus on being rejected, the “what.” But the “why” is where the work is. The “what” is passive. It happened to me. Nothing I can do about it now, as that agent has closed the door on this manuscript.

The “why”, however, requires action from me. When she identified that I need “more sensory details in every scene” and “there was not enough set-up for the plot” and after the well-done sex scenes “the rest of the story breezed, and I didn’t get a chance to really savor and appreciate it”, well, that just plain spells out work. She has given me a template for re-writing that I hope will get the next agent or editor to want my book.

That’s what I thought the agent meant. But maybe not.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Calliope (I think), visit yourself upon me

Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time... The wait is simply too long. Leonard Bernstein

I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” Peter De Vries

Ah, the Muse. When she is upon me, life is soooo good! I know that the number of muses varies depending upon which ancient writer you read, but nine appears to be the standard most accepted. That allows in Calliope, the muse for epic poetry, who carried a writing tablet. Since fiction was not a form when the old ones formulated the concept of muses, I guess she is the closest to what we fiction writers could claim as our muse.

But she can be darn slow in showing up some days. Have you noticed that?

The two quotes I selected for today’s blog speak to that absence. Remember my writing rules from an earlier blog? Three of the six speak to the same issue. You just gotta do it whether you are inspired or not.

That’s not normally a problem for me. It has always worked to try some of my tools and strategies with the book that isn’t cooperating (move to another scene in the blocked book or have my blocked book characters journal about themselves so I know them better).

But if that doesn’t work pretty quickly—I get impatient and only give it a half hour—I just switch over to another book. Changing genres, characters, and plot lines has always jarred my muse into wakefulness. I always kind of wondered if she just gets bored sometimes and wants to strike out in another direction.

I have so many different books going all the time that if that one book is being recalcitrant, I just open the computer file for another and write away, Or I start a new book. Or I write a future blog entry. That stirs up the jelly beans I call brains so I can get back to my blocking book the next day.

Whatever. The result was that I never had been crippled by what other’s call “writer’s block”. Until this summer.

This time the problem I was stuck on in my novel wouldn’t allow me to move on to another piece, nor could I move forward with that book. I couldn’t shake it with my usual tools and strategies. I obsessed about the book that wouldn’t play with me nicely.

A part of me stepped back dispassionately and marveled at the experience I was having while at the same time I felt this paralysis and abandonment and terror that the ride was over before I had crested the first hill on the roller coaster.

My critique partner talked me down. She helped me break through to the next level, and then it started to flow again.

So what happens next time I block? I’ll still start with the old tools and strategies I have used before. Then I’ll try to move to another book. If it still doesn’t work, right away I will call in my Pens Afire critique or Desert Flowers writing group members to pull me from the bog. Then I will set that bog on fire!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Color Wheel Relations

All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites.

Marc Chagall

Not to get too political, but it’s the season, eh?

I have always been struck by Chagall’s work. He touches me deep in my soul. I resonate to the richness of his palate and the magnitude of his vision. Have you seen his mosaics in downtown Chicago? Amazing!

When I happened across this quote somewhere, it too struck a chord. Of course, on the surface the quote is about the color wheel we all learned about in school. Shades can be together in a room thus blues, purples, greens—they all harmonize. But for energy, we put red and green together, opposites on the color wheel, and magic happens.

Politically, I fear that we are in for more of the same bitterness and divisiveness that has dominated both Arizona and national politics for decades. Why can’t we all just get along? As an educator, I couldn’t choose not to teach certain children because they were unlike me. I couldn’t choose to disregard the opinions of other teachers who disagreed with me. We all had to work together, because it was about the children. Not about me. Not about you. Not about a philosophy. We came together around a common goal and found common ground so we could move forward.

The issues confronting our states and nation are mammoth. So call me na├»ve, but isn’t it the legislators’ job to solve the problems not focus on how they can begin campaigning now for the next election? Do the work you are being paid for, and do it not because of the pay, but do the work because anything else should be unacceptable. Legislators, find common ground and the solutions we desperately need to get out of this mess. Be the red and green and make magic happen.

Compromise is not a four-letter word!

Benjamin Franklin said, “Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies.” Yep!

Considering the Chagall quote in writing terms, think of how the quest for this quote could be the theme of your next novel. People similar to one another get along just great, but the opposites-attract scenarios spice up the action. It is one thing to tolerate one so different from you. To love that person, well, that takes some work. Think of the plot points you can exploit! Write Away, Reader!

Friday, November 5, 2010

When one door closes (or isn't there) . . .

A new beginning. Pastablilities.

Maybe changing the name of the book will make it easier to re-think how I am going to write a murder mystery that is mysterious.

I only had about a third of the book to finish. My red herrings were being cleared and others were deepening so I could conceal my killer’s identity. I knew who was doing what when. I wrote almost all the ending chapter so I’d know for sure where I was headed in the ones leading up to it.

When I got back to the killer and started to reveal his involvement, it hit me. He wouldn’t kill his boss over the motive I had identified. He is a grifter and a poser. He would simply melt away as he had in all his previous lives. Killing his boss was not his M.O.

I sent a chapter to Sandy and Annie, members of Pens Afire, my critique group. “This is the last chapter of Impastable I am sending you. I am abandoning this book and moving on to another one. My killer’s motive isn’t one. Talk me down, Ladies!”

Aren’t critique partners amazing? Sandy and Annie seriously confronted my problem as if it were their own. I felt trapped in a room with no exit, and they found a trap door that can very possibly salvage the book. All I have to do is write it!

I am changing the book title, the killer, and the motivation.

Piece of cake, as we in the culinary mystery book biz say.

Writing Rules--Polysemously!

“There are three rules for writing the novel.
Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
W. Somerset Maugham

I heard Maugham’s quote in San Diego at the Southern California Writing Conference last February on more than one occasion, with some broad extensions like writing query letters and synopses (the topic of a blog to come). I’d attend one session, taking copious notes on writing tips and insights, only to find myself sometimes writing contradictory information in another session.

At the “Wrangling with Writing” Conference in Tucson in September, we had a luncheon speaker, Bob Mayer, who told us he posted his writing rules in his office so he sees them every day.I listened hard, but he didn’t tell us what they were so we could all make matching posters. A real entrepreneur would have sold the posters to us were he so inclined. You like the speaker, you want his rules.

From the conflicting perspectives I encountered, the conclusion I drew was that writing is so highly individualized that one author’s “three rules” might vary widely from another’s. Which is what Maugham meant. Oh, of course there are commonalities. Character drives the good novel, not plot. You will revise until you can’t revise anymore, and then you will do it again. Stuff like that.

I set out to figure out my rules. I wanted to post something, too. It gave me something to do, something tangible to show for my time after applying the “bum glue” to my chair. And it looks impressive to have rules you adhere to. It seems to professionalize me, especially on days when I struggle with revisions or plot points that don’t point very straight.

So, not to be coy, here is what my set of “rules”/ guidelines/foci, etc. look like:

Writing is your job. It comes first. Don’t allow anything else to interfere or “call in sick”.

Writing is no different than any other profession. The more you write, the better you become, so write every day.

Set daily writing goals (pages, hours, or words) and meet them even when you don’t want to. Apply a liberal dose of Bryce Courtenay’s “bum glue”; glue self to seat and write.

Have a single sentence that tells about your current project and post it to keep your focus.

Do a lot of prep before writing (outline, journal, scene sets, etc.) and then enhance as you write.

Learn something about the craft of writing every day and blog about it.