Jeanne: More on Using YouTube for Research

The Demon Wore Stilettos, my work-in-progress, begins with a courtroom scene–Lilith, the protagonist, is on trial for murdering her ex-husband and the love of her life, Samael. I knew where I wanted the scene to go, but I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough about courtroom behavior to really nail the scene.

So I went scouting for information about courtroom procedures and found this:

(You may not want to spend a half an hour watching this very nice lady deconstruct all the ways TV and movies misrepresent what happens in courtrooms, but by the time I finished it, I knew exactly what to do with my scene.)

The inner part of the story, the story of how Lilith came to push Samael into the Lake of Fire in the first place, revolves around a trade summit that takes place between Heaven and Hell. After thinking about neutral ground where Heaven and Hell might meet to hammer out an agreement, the United Nations seemed like an obvious choice. Unfortunately, despite numerous trips to the Big Apple, I’ve never visited the United Nations.

YouTube to the rescue: There a several tours of the buildings available. This is the one I found most useful:

Again, you may not want to spend a lot of time on this, but it was helpful in allowing me to get a sense of what my characters will see.

And yes, I know this if the fourth location I’ve chosen for this story. Writing is a process, people! Which reminds me: I’m going to reward myself for finishing my blog post by going back to YouTube and watching our professor, Jenny Crusie’s inteview at the Australian RRA.

Jeanne: Writing Wisdom from Lee Martin

9781496202024-Perfect.inddOne of my favorite teachers of the craft of writing is Lee Martin, Pulitzer finalist for The Bright Forever and author of a number of other novels and short story collections.

Lee teaches in the MFA program for creative writing at the Ohio State University. I’m not in that program, but he also occasionally teaches at regional workshops, and I’ve had the good fortune to see him at a couple. At one of them that I attended in the early 2000’s, he read a passage from “The Open Boat,” a short story by Stephen Crane. With his voice and Crane’s words, he recreated the rocking motion of that lifeboat so clearly I wound up feeling a little motion sick. That was an epiphany for me: that the cadence of words (not their meanings but just the sounds of them) can generate sensation.

I just discovered that Lee has a craft book out: Telling Stories, the Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life.  I’m just started working my way through it, but here’s a tiny example of the wonderful stuff you’ll find within its pages. These are the highlights of a deeper discussion on how to intensify the trouble your character encounters.

  1. Increase the pressure from a source outside the realm of the original trouble.
  2. Make the character’s choices lead her into deeper trouble.
  3. Make the character’s troubles worse by having her let people believe something is true when it isn’t.
  4. Have the character create trouble for herself by trying to run away from what she’s done, or us afraid she’ll do.

As I was reading through these suggestions, I realized I tend to rely very heavily on #2. Having the character’s choices lead her into deeper trouble creates a really strong cause-and-effect linkage.

I also use #1. Sources outside the trouble are great for throwing a wrench into the best laid plans, making your character scurry.

I’m not sure I’ve ever used (or even thought about using) #3 and #4.

Numbers 3 and 4 are less confrontational than the first two. Number 3 is less about action than inaction–failing to step in and set the record straight when the opportunity presents itself. And #4 is the opposite of confrontational. These seem like believable actions for a character with a gentle, non-confrontational personality.

Hmm. I’m starting planning work on a series about five siblings who inherit their parent’s tour company and I’ve been thinking about how to differentiate them. Their level of willingness to confront others is a definite category for exploration.

Which of these intensifiers do you use? Which do you enjoy reading?

 

Jeanne: Back to Basics: Acts and Turning Points

brain vector cartoon

Since throwing away a (really awful) 60,000 word draft of for my current work-in-progress back in mid-April, I’ve been struggling with the updated story line. I’ve got a lot of ideas about what could happen, but I need a framework to ensure that those incidents escalate, and that the external story mirrors the internal character arc so we understand why the character is changing.

This quest led me back to an assignment we completed at McDaniel that was designed for exactly that purpose. Jenny gave us a template that looked at the function of each of the five turning points in a four-act story.

  1. Inciting Incident
    • Introduce main character(s)
    • Get the action rolling
  2. Change of Plans
    • Surprise to protagonist and reader
    • Things are worse than he thought
    • Forces him to change his plans
    • Pushes past an internal limit he’d set for himself
    • Forces him into an action so strong it turns the story around into a new story
  3. Point of No Return
    • Surprises the reader and the protagonist
    • Forces him to change his plans
    • Pushes past an internal limit he set for himself
    • He can no longer return to his stable life, even if he wants to
  4. The Dark Moment
    • The going-to-hell moment in the story when all seems lost and the protagonist is in crisis.
    • Moment when protagonist hits bottom, forcing him to rise again.
    • Reader is on her feet, cheering him on for that last push.
    • Revelation through action so strong it turns the story around and makes it a new story
  5. Climax, aka Obligatory Scene
    • Protagonist and antagonist meet in a final battle for all the marbles
    • Catharsis for reader, release from all the tension
    • Answers all the question, end of the journey
    • Revelation through action so strong it satisfies the reader completely and makes her want to read the story all over again.

My writing method is somewhere between plotting and pantsing. I need to have these five turning points defined or I wander around aimlessly. But once I have them, I’m comfortable winging it.

How much structure do you need before you start writing? Or, as a reader, how important is a well thought-out plot to you?

Jeanne: (Your Writing) Life Begins at 40

Depositphotos_153459928_s-2019Or 50, or 60, or 70—or even older.

One of the great things about writing is that there’s no cutoff to when you can start. If as a child you dreamed of being a professional baseball player or a prima ballerina, you’ve probably already missed your window of opportunity. The ability to write, on the other hand, stays with us as long was we can conjure thoughts. If fact, it can be argued that there are distinct advantages to waiting till you’re a little older to start writing.

Here are five reasons why writing may actually get easier with age:

1) You know a lot more about life when you’re older than you do when you’re young. As we age, we collect experiences. As we go through life, we constantly revise our understanding of how the world works, based on new experience and new evidence. You have never before been as wise as you are right now. Continue reading

Jeanne: Sitting with Your Setting

Animal figures carved on steleSettings play a huge role in my demon novels. All of the books spend some time in my take on Hell, which is a cross between the fire-and-brimstone Hell described by the terrifying Baptist preachers of my childhood and the equally terrifying large corporations I worked for during my career as a software engineer, but each of them also has a more mundane setting here Aboveworld.

The first book, The Demon Always Wins, is set in northern Florida, near the ocean along the Georgia border. My eldest sister lives there, so I’ve spent several vacations in that area over the years. Much of the book takes place in a free clinic staffed by paid staff and volunteer doctors, similar to one I worked in as the office manager for eighteen months.

The second book, The Demon’s in the Details is set in Sedona, AZ. I’ve never had the joy of living in that beautiful place, but I did spend a wonderful week there in January, 2016, getting the lay of the land and soaking up atmosphere, before setting pen to paper (or fingertips to keys). Continue reading

Jeanne: Writing through Coronabrain

Digital illustration of macro Covid-19 cells floating over a human brain and a web of connection. Coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic concept digital compositeWhen I was a child, my mother sent me to the local YWCA for swimming lessons. Although I took lessons for what I remember as an entire winter, I never really mastered the art of moving horizontally through water.

There were two issues I couldn’t seem to overcome:

  1. I never got to where I could put my face in the water and turn my head for breath every few strokes. Putting my face in the water engendered a feeling of panic I could never conquer–not even after spending a week faithfully practicing dunking my face in the tub when I took my bath each night.
  2. The frustration that came from furiously flailing my skinny little arms and legs until the whistle blew, only to discover that I hadn’t progressed forward to any appreciable degree, left me unenthusiastic about continuing.

Lately, I’ve had much the same feeling when I sit down to work on my manuscript. I work away industriously, face in the water for what feels like hours, only to surface and find that I’m still in the same spot I was when I jumped in (though without that gasping sense of panic that I can’t breathe, so that’s good).

Part of that is the Coronabrain mentioned in the title of this post–difficulties in focusing brought on by the stress of living through (and watching my kids and other loved ones struggle through) a global public health crisis whose long-term impacts are impossible to predict and there are no guarantees we’ll all make it out alive and solvent.

But with cases back on the rise and no relief in the near-term future, it feels like it’s time to figure out how to propel myself forward, despite the situation.

One of the problems is that I’ve let myself wander away from my trusty schedule of writing from eight to noon. I’ve been staying up later at nights and therefore getting up later in the morning, making it difficult to work out, shower and breakfast before eight a.m. And since I am not at my desk by eight, I go ahead and prioritize other things (grocery shopping, laundry, cleaning) ahead of writing.

This week I’m going to try to return to my schedule, putting writing at the top of my list again. I’m going to try giving myself a reward (watching an episode of Gilmore Girls, which I recently discovered on Netflix and LOVE) each day that I complete one thousand words. So we’ll see how that goes.

If you’re having any luck with productivity, what magic spell are you casting?

Jeanne: Finding Your Beginning in Your Ending

jen-malone-425423679Last week I attended an online workshop presented by Middle Grade and YA author Jen Malone on the topic of Show Don’t Tell.

The class focused on opening scenes, and how to write them in a way that provides enough information for your readers to understand what’s going on without drowning them in backstory. Following are a couple of gems I gleaned from the class.

First, a handy little rule of thumb for gauging the balance between showing and telling in your first scene. If you’re not sure if it’s too heavy on the telling, try visualizing it as a movie opening. If you need a voice-over to get through the scene, you’re telling too much.

The other thing she said that really struck me was to envision your main character the way you want them to be at the end of the story and then create a first scene that portrays the character as the opposite of that.

That was fairly easy to do for Lilith, my protagonist, because she’s a familiar character from my previous two books. The character I’ve been struggling with is Samael, Lilith’s ex-husband and the head of Hell’s legal department (i.e. the devil’s advocate).

I knew some of his character traits: ambitious, competitive (every lawyer I’ve ever met is over-the-top competitive) and a mind like a steel trap. But I couldn’t figure out what this would look like in my opening scene.

So, I tried out her method. At the end of the story, I want him to be:

  • Willing to give up being a power in Hell
  • Willing to lose if it will give him the life he wants
  • In touch with his emotions and able to recognize that not all choices can be made strictly via logic
  • Family-focused

Which means at the beginning I want to portray him as:

  • Ambitious
  • Competitive
  • Ruthlessly logical
  • Career-driven

This may not sound like much, but now that I know how to portray him in that opening scene, I feel like I have a much better handle on it.

What tricks do you use to help you get started?

Jeanne: Deep POV Takeaways

Depositphotos_18212529_l-2015Over the past month I took an online class on writing deep point-of-view with Linnea Sinclair.

I’ve taken several classes with Linnea and they are, hands down, the best online writing workshops I’ve ever found. If you’re looking to improve any area of your craft, you can do no better than one of her classes.

One of the things she does with her homework assignments is to ask each student to begin by mentioning any ah-ha! moment they from that particular lesson.  Here are a few of mine from the class.

  • Deep POV is like spice–you add in a little to intensify the flavor. You don’t have to create an entire dish from it.

This was news to me. I always felt like if I did any “telling” rather than “showing” I was being a lazy writer. Not true. Deep POV is most useful for moments of great impact. Telling, on the other hand, is good when you want to pick up the pace or for events that aren’t significant enough to belabor.

  • When writing a deep POV segment, consider using this formula:
    1. Action (i.e. stimulus)
    2. Decision (i.e. response)
    3. Thought
    4. Emotion

In this formula, you may think of Action as Stimulus and Decision as Response. So if you were writing a scene where a she-demon walks into her apartment to find it trashed, it might go something like this: Continue reading

Jeanne: If It Doesn’t Bring You Joy

USA - 2019 Primetime Emmy Creative Arts Awards - Los AngelesAfter twelve weeks of being cooped up in my house, I’ve been giving some thought to doing a Marie Kondo on my life: clearing out the things that don’t bring me joy. Although my house could probably use some de-cluttering (especially the basement and the kitchen junk drawers), I’ve been focusing more on streamlining my emotional life, asking myself what I want from this last quarter of my time on Earth and what is getting in the way of my achieving that.

So what do I want? Well, in no particular order:

  • I want to return to Europe another time or two. I’d like to see something of Spain and Italy, for sure, but those trips are on hold at least until there’s a vaccine that makes air travel safe again.
  • I want to tell more stories.
  • I want to continue learning to write better.
  • I want to learn more about local flora and fauna.
  • I want spend more time hiking, preferably with a canine buddy.
  • I want to read a bunch of books I never seem to have time for.
  • I want to see more movies (versus TV shows).
  • I want to see friends again. (I suspect that shortfall may be at the root of my malaise but there’s not much to be done about it for now.)

What would I like to do less of?

  • I’d like to cook less.
  • I’d like to spend less time doing book marketing related activities.
  • I’d like to spend less time on life administration–sending in claim forms and arguing with my insurance company about whether I need to do a telehealth well-visit. (Yes, I get that Medicare pays you to make me waste an hour chatting with someone about my perfectly fine health but I don’t want to.)

More than anything, I’d like to spend less time “channel surfing” available activities. When I do get some free time, I spend so much time dithering, trying to choose what to do next, that it all goes to waste.

Maybe if I’m clearer about which activities will leave me feeling satisfied instead of frustrated I can make better use of my time.

What about you? What brings you joy? And what would you like to do less of?

Jeanne: The First Scene

shutterstock_785583991In an interview in The Atlantic back in 2013, Stephen King said, “I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.”

I feel that way about first scenes.  Until I have a solid first scene to use as a springboard into a book, I can’t seem to get anywhere. I may have a ton of ideas about all the things that could/should happen in the story, but until that first scene gels, I can’t seem to take that anywhere.

I think that’s because first scenes, as well as being the springboard into the book, also  (usually) introduce the main character. And until I really understand that main character (and her antagonist) I just tread water.

“Get the first scene down solid” is an axiom I’ve lived by for the past fifteen years or so that I’ve been writing a lot.

Unfortunately, belief in the power of that first scene as a springboard to a workable novel recently bit me in the butt. I wrote what I think is a really strong opening scene for a book I titled The Demon Wore Stilettos, where the protagonist, who has signed a contract to trade her soul to Satan in exchange for making the NYT bestseller list, watches a friend who signed a similar contract get sucked down to Hell. She comes away determined to save herself from a similar fate.

It’s a really powerful scene, as are the next few that follow, but after that I wandered off into weeds that look a lot more like women’s fiction than romance. Eventually I wound up on the shores of This-Isn’t-Going-Anywhere.  Continue reading