Saturday, July 5, 2014

Writing in Shock Mode



My family and I are in shock mode right now. My granddaughter had major back surgery several days ago and is now in a world of pain – a world we inhabit with her in our own way.

At first I told myself I couldn’t write. It seemed almost insensitive to do the work that gives me satisfaction and makes me feel good. My darling girl was struggling. How could I do anything but grieve and pray?

I always carry a notebook with me now. A small flexible notebook from a 99 cent store that fits in my purse or pocket. It has a black and blue cover that seems appropriate at this time when we’re all feeling pretty bruised.

I used to have the notebook carrying habit. Actually I carried 5”x8” cards then. I took them everywhere and whenever I had a spare moment or two I would write. Then came a long hiatus from writing fiction and I forgot that good habit. Now it’s back.

So I was sitting in the hospital swallowing the tears I felt I shouldn’t shed in front of my already stunned family. Suddenly the black and blue notebook was in my hands and I was scribbling away with a pen I’d picked up somewhere.

I jumped straight into the next scene in my story. It was an emotionally fraught scene and that suited me fine. I was pretty emotionally fraught myself at the moment. I poured all of those feelings into that scene. Because – as I keep harping at here – strong stories are all about strong feelings.

When I got home later and started copying my notebook scribbles into my computer I was pleased but not surprised to see how raw that scene had turned out to be. My character was on her ragged edge just as I had been when I put her on the page struggling struggling struggling.

Our family crisis continues and I have kept on scribbling. I slip into a corner of my granddaughter’s hospital room while nurses and techs are bustling about and it’s best for me to be out of the way. I pull out the notebook and put my head down and write.

The hospital cafeteria is another writing haven. The loved ones of patients sit in near catatonia and stare into the middle distance. The medical pros actively avoid those stares. I eat whatever bad comfort food I’ve slapped on my tray and I write.

I drop onto the ground of the scene. I dig down into it. I bury myself there in these people born of my imagination and the terrifying trouble and wrenching choices I’ve created for them. I lose my own pain for a moment by crawling inside of their pain.

I understand that moments other may be coming when I won’t be able to manage the depth of focus that scene writing requires. I already know what I’ll do then. I will pull out the notebook and write what I am feeling myself.

I will describe the scene. What the cafeteria smells like. How the muted conversations strike my ear. The way the artificial air settles on my skin. The taste of the hockey puck cheeseburger I should have known better than to buy. The vista before me of devastated loved ones and nurses in comfortable shoes.

I will ask myself “What am I feeling right now?” Not just in my emotions but also in my body? Where is tension most taut? Is it in my ankles or my throat or the inch between my eyes? What can I compare this feeling to from my past history and from my imagination?

I will imagine one of these strangers walking up to me and saying “How are you?” I will hear myself blurting out the real answer to that absurd question. I will write down what I say in all its angry/shattered/dazed-but-lucid truth.

Meanwhile I wander in shock mode through this experience of personal torture. The kind of experience we unfortunately have all experienced and probably will experience again. I clutch my notebook to my pummeled heart. We are all still black and blue.



Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Truth About Emotional Truth


Emotional truth is what’s really going on in your story. The real truth of what is happening to your characters. The surface of things – what your characters allow to be seen and heard – can be manipulated to conceal what they are feeling. But great stories are all about feelings revealed.

This is exactly like real life and real life is the mother lode from which you mine your own emotional truth and refine it into storytelling treasure. The deeply felt emotions that are the beating heart of your story. The deeply felt emotions that make your reader feel deeply too.

I write romantic suspense novels. Scary things happen in my stories. The main character of the story I’m currently writing is assaulted and strangled. That happened to me once. My character and I both survived. Now we both benefit from my emotional truth of that awful experience.

The powerlessness while it was happening. The shock and numbness after it was over. The way others might have seen me at that moment had there been anyone present to see. I didn’t need to take notes. All of that was branded on my psyche in indelible emotional ink.

Unfortunately we have all had similarly indelible experiences. We have been changed by them – traumatized by them – sometimes stopped in our tracks by them. Now we get to convert them into the very raw material of intense and dramatic and powerful storytelling.

Stephen King said "For me, there have been times when the act of writing has been an act of faith, a spit in the eye of despair. Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life."

I say despair can be a way back to the act of writing at its most vivid and vital center. I’m not talking about memoir writing though digging for emotional truth is crucial there also. I’m talking about re-imagining real-life experience into the spit in the eye that is a riveting piece of original art.

Our emotional truth is not necessarily what we show on the surface of ourselves. It is more true than what we show on the surface. Our stories can be the expression of that subterranean truth brought to the light and wrought in words. The result can be the best writing we have ever done.

You know what these stories are for you. Write them the way your heart feels them to be true which may differ from factual truth. Facts are verifiable. Feelings are not. Someone else’s emotional truth may vary from yours. That doesn’t make your truth any less valid.

Emotional Truth is individual. Your characters’ truth is what they honestly feel. That honesty gives your story authenticity. That inner authentic truth is what really matters. It’s what will make your story really matter – to you as you write it and to your readers as they read it.


So dig down and dig deep. You’ll know when you hit the mother lode because it will zing straight to your heart – just before you zing it straight to the page.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Long Scar of Insensitivity



Last week at the WWAMatrix Conference I did the second public reading of my work ever. Given that I’ve been publishing for decades this is a scant performance record. There’s a reason for that.

Granted I’ve never been fond of readings. I’ve lectured to auditoriums and led workshops in classrooms filled with writers. But presenting my own writing – word for word – has always been something I preferred to avoid.

Then in the mid-nineties the offer came that I couldn’t refuse. Any instructor at an Upstate New York conference who’d been published in the past year was given what amounted to an ultimatum to read.

I was reluctant to say the least but resigned. I prepared a highly emotional piece based on real life experience – the night my grandmother died and my mother suffered a psychotic break when she found out – all while I at seven years old listened in terror upstairs.

Audience response was enthusiastic. I was elated and floated back to my seat on that ecstasy – until the next reader approached the dais. She was a popular instructor with a coterie of disciples. She announced her poetry reading in a mocking and acerbic tone.

“This is also about my mother but very different from what you just heard. I had a dearest mommy not a mommy dearest.”

Her coterie applauded and I was shattered. I never read my work to an audience – other than a few lines in a classroom for teaching purposes – from that night until a week ago when my friend Dorothy Randall Gray the Queen of WWAM convinced me it was time for a healing moment.

We all know how deftly a cruel criticism can stop us in our writing tracks – send us quaking into self-doubt and insecurity. In other words – silence us. That night in the nineties was my silencing. I didn’t stop writing but an aspect of my voice had been stilled all the same.

We must be careful of one another. We recognize the fragility in ourselves. We must recognize it in others also. Commenting on each other’s work must begin with honoring its strengths. The rest must be couched as suggestions for further strengthening.

Always we must temper our words with kindness. Because cutting words have the power to amputate a creative limb that may not grow back for decades – if ever at all.




Sunday, March 9, 2014

Celebrating the Next Thing


 
I made a start on my next novel yesterday. Not because I’m finished with the last one. Just because I knew how good it would feel. And how encouraging it would be – and is.

I’ll finish revising the predecessor but I’m on to the next too because I’m into this writing thing for the long haul. I’m also now over the hump of dreading where the next one will come from. Or if there will be a next one at all.

There's a typical writer’s experience – a dark night of the writerly soul – where the next book is a source of dread. It starts happening for me a few chapters before the end of the story I’m currently working on.

This dread has actually been niggling at me for some time by that point but I haven’t yet truly acknowledged it. The general substance goes something like this. “Do I have another book in me? Is there another full long story I can get through all the way to the end?”

I already know the beginning of an answer to this because I have already taken notes and collected research – bits and pieces stashed in a file somewhere that attest to the bare bones at least of the dread next thing. So “Do I have it in me?” isn’t the real niggler here.

I do anticipate some separation anxiety. A deep relationship has grown and flourished between my writer self and the characters I’ve created and the world  I’ve summoned into existence in the thing I’ve been working on for what feels like a very long time.

My writer’s heart doesn’t really want to leave all of that behind. But I’ve said goodbye to beloved story people and scenarios before and the creative spark hasn’t guttered inside me. So that’s not the true dread either.

I believe that the questions flummoxing us – or at least me – at this delicate juncture are as follows. “Will my next story – or article or book or whatever I’m planning – be good enough? Do I still have IT? And if I do – is my version of IT still adequate and relevant?”

For a novelist the fine tuning of these flummoxers may sound something like this. “Will I be able to fall in love again with another bunch of fictional folks and their predicament? In love deeply enough to spend several months and 300 or so pages with them?”

That is a deskful of doubt if I ever heard one. So what do we do? What do I do?

Some of you know me already. Feel free to shout out if you do. You’ve been in my classes or you’re a Facebook friend or a real world friend. If so you may be able to guess what’s coming. I’m about to make a favorite shout out of my own.

DO IT ANYWAY! This is my mantra forever. Hold your nose and leap right in. Do not listen to your doubts. Do not avoid the next piece of work by distracting yourself with – well uhh – distractions. We all have a cartload of those to trot out when we think we need them,

DO IT ANYWAY! The thing you dread. Do it because that is how you discover you have nothing to dread after all. Do it and there it will all be. The spark and the wonder and the quickening of your imagination – the high that makes writing the positive addiction it is.

I promise you that when you stop looking and leap the most beautiful vistas will appear to you. How can I promise this? Because I just did exactly that. And there isn’t a dread in sight. And I’m celebrating!


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Seven Deadly Sins of Suspense Writing



Do you write suspense novels or hope to write one? Then you need to be aware of the Seven Deadly Sins of Suspense Writing. Deadly – because they kill your chances of success.

Here they are. The seven biggest reasons agents and editors and readers could be left cold by your suspense novel.

1.         The terror in your story is not terrifying enough.

2.         That terror, or jeopardy to your protagonist hero or heroine, does not begin immediately, at the story opening – preferably page one, paragraph one.

3.         That terror does not escalate steadily and maddeningly to a bite-your-nails-to-the-bone climax.

4.         That climax is not a truly dramatic clash between good – your hero or heroine – and evil – your villain/antagonist.

5.         That villain/antagonist is not adequately formidable and plausible to make his defeat truly satisfying.

6.         This final confrontation is not drawn out sufficiently to let the reader savor the triumph of your hero.

7.         There is not enough story action and complication to sustain the length – approximately 80,000 to 100,000 words – of the novel.

Does your story avoid every single one of these deadly storytelling sins? Ask yourself this question. Be extremely hard-nosed and objective when you answer. Your future as a suspense novelist depends on it.

I’ll be talking about these seven deadly sins and much much more this coming Saturday February 22nd at my two-hour seminar workshop WRITE THE THRILLER-MYSTERY NOVEL TO DIE FOR: How to Make Your Story a Page Turner.


My presentation is sponsored by New Jersey Sisters in Crime and takes place in Monroe NJ. Contact Daria Ludas at dlludas@verizon.net to find out more. I’d love to see you there.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Idea from Heaven



I don’t know about you but I can get bogged down at this time of year. The weather is challenging where I am. It’s tax season where everybody is. The doldrums before spring have many of us waiting for the active part of life to catapult us into motion again.

For a writer that can mean the idea engine feels like it’s running on empty. Meanwhile there are lots of ways to avoid writing. We can simply not put our butts in our seats and write. We’re not only out of idea engine fuel – we are out of inclination too.

What we’re really out of is access to the idea from heaven. The flash of inspiration when a bolt comes straight out of what we think of as nowhere and knocks us flat with the force of its brilliance. The gift from the universe that says “You must write me right now!”

First of all let’s make one thing very clear. The heavenly universe that generates the perfect gift of the perfect writing idea is not out there somewhere. It is in here inside of each of us. It is your imagination – the most powerful idea engine of all ever. Please don't forget that.

But sometimes – like at the winter doldrums of the year – we feel like we don’t even have access to our own imaginations. That’s when the idea engine needs a kick start – a jolt in the pistons that will give us just enough boost to get up out of our down places and write.

My two favorite kick starts are eavesdropping and rubbernecking. My two favorite venues are coffee shops and public transportation. In coffee shops I listen in on conversations. On public transportation I watch everything both outside the windows and inside the conveyance.

I don’t listen in for the whole story though sometimes that’s fascinating. I listen for a sentence or maybe just a phrase that catches my ear with a special sense or rhythm. I don’t rubberneck to take in the whole scene. I look for a detail that strikes my eye with special vividness.

The next absolutely imperative step is to make a record of this moment. Write it down – the phrase that caught you or the detail that struck you. I have too often firmly believed that one of these moments was so precious and particular I could not possibly forget it. Then I did.

What you do after that is up to you. You can write right there. Coffee shops are good for that. Or you can keep your idea note in reserve for the next time you get the empty tank feeling. Or you can simply let it rattle around in your writer's imagination for a while and see what idea gifts burst forth.

By the way – when you can’t get out into the world beyond your front door – eavesdrop on the worlds inside that door both real and virtual. First bug your family and  friends. Then tune the device of your choice to a talk or reality show. You’ll find catchy phrases and striking images by the carload. I guarantee it.

Wherever you are – in or outside your customary physical environment – in or outside your interior environment – inspiration is there. Lift your antennae just an inch and you will find it. When you do – be sure to give thanks – because it is always the idea from heaven.



Sunday, February 9, 2014

Finding Time to Write


When I first became a book editor at a New York City publishing house I faced a dilemma. I was also a publishing author and authors have deadlines. Now I had editorial  deadlines too. To tell you the truth I was about to lose my mind.
To make matters worse I was attending a lot of writers’ conferences. I’d be invited as a featured speaker but I was really there to troll for writers for the Regency Romance and Mystery Novel lines I edited. My plate was way past full.
I know this is a circumstance you recognize. The details of your situation may be different but the panic is the same. Like me back then you ask yourself. How do I find time for everything that is expected of me? For everything I expect of myself?
The only solution seems to be that something has to fall off your plate or at least be pushed way over to the side. For writers that sidelined something is too often their writing. Amidst the demands of what we generally think of as Real life our writing life feels least Real.
Yet – in terms of those things that keep us Really alive – writing is at the top of the list. Please excuse me if I speak out of turn but this is true for me and most of the writers I know. So how do we honor our need to satisfy our inner selves and find time to write?
The answer for me came back in those bifurcated author-editor days from a very impressive source – Nora Roberts. Nora is an author whose prolific output has always impressed me. She produces wonderfully engrossing stories one after the other year after year.
How does she do it? I asked her that question up close and personal at one of those writers’ conferences I mentioned. I’d taken a moment to hide in the lobby and catch my breath from the hectic pace of conference madness and there she was.
I knew Nora like so many of us did as a congenial person with a lively wit and generous spirit. With that generosity in mind I moved to the lobby seat next to her and asked the question that had been bedeviling me.
“How do you find time for events like this and all the rest you do and still write?”
Nora lived up to her generous reputation that day. As I recall we adjourned to the bar to continue our conversation. She may have recognized how panicked I was by my time crunch situation because she treated me to a surefire panic remedy – a shot of tequila or maybe it was two.
I might have calmed down some but I was still eager for her answer to my question. She didn’t disappoint. “You have to write wherever you are,” she said.
That flew flat in the face of everything I’d told myself was true about writing – especially fiction writing.  I believed I had to create a special atmosphere for writing and that atmosphere had certain requirements – components of what Virginia Woolf called “a room of one’s own.”
All of those elements were about consistency and stability – an environment I could depend on to be My Writing Space. Maybe not a room of my own but a corner of my own where everything was all about writing all the time. All of which went out the window that day with Nora.
I needed to write wherever I was – wherever I could manage even a little focus. Not several hours or even a single hour. Ten or fifteen minutes would do. On the subway between my home stop and the one near my office. In the moments between lunch and getting back to work.
Those were my personal situation details back then. They differ for me now. They will differ for you. The common ground is that we need to write and to accomplish that we must rethink our requirements and modify our writing behavior.
We must learn to duck our heads down over our screens or notepads – drop into the world of the piece we are writing – and Just Write. Thanks to Nora Roberts I learned to do that. I’m doing it now. I urge you to do it too. Do It Anyway.