On writing

I’m doing ‘housekeeping’ on some stories — writing down characters’ names in order to keep their activities straight, charting story arc developments, stuff like that.  I’m skimming each short story so that I can note the characters mentioned in it and, in one story, I obviously hit a speed bump in getting the main character from point A to point B.

The background is that Barb, the main character, has been looking at apartments all day and the places on the list given to her by the clerk at the military housing referral office have either been rented or were unacceptable.  It’s the end of the day, she’s tired, and she skipped looking at the last apartment because the bad guys in the story unexpectedly caught her eye.  She stopped to see what they were up to (just a bit of shady business that she can’t handle on her own, but that she reported) and she’s now hotfooting it back to the apartment.  The silly part, something added just to keep writing, is between the strings of periods I put in so I wouldn’t accidentally send the story out with that part in it.

          While she was contemplating whether or not to go in at this relatively late hour, a man and a woman came through the building’s front door, the man with a short un-German haircut, and the woman wearing blue jeans and sneakers.  Americans.  They were holding hands and their faces wore happy-couple expressions.

          As they walked down the sidewalk, Barb stopped them

          “Excuse me.  Before I make a fool of myself, did you just rent an apartment?”


            The man said, “Why yes, we just rented that absolutely smashing flat from the most charming little fairytale grandmother you could ever hope to meet.”

            “Drat and blast,” exclaimed Barb.  “This is the third apartment I’ve been done out of. I swear, I’m never going to get out of that damned office and I’ll have Novak around my neck like a bloated albatross from now until Gabriel sounds his horn.  I’m doomed!”

         “Fret not, fair maiden,” spoke the man as he doffed his baseball cap and bowed deeply before her.  “I know it seems as if you’ll never find your heart’s desire, but persist!  Soldier on!  You will triumph!”

            The man took his companion’s arm and they marched off, as if Sousa himself had written the fanfare for their departure.”

            Seized by their happiness, Barb herself straightened her shoulders, squared her jaw and strode to her magic steed, the invincible Duck.  She engaged its motor and they flew down the strasse, to return to their lair in the heart of the Rhoen.


          Rush hour traffic is much the same the world around, slow.  Barb reached the office to see only one vehicle in the office parking area – Novak’s motorcycle.  Did he volunteer to stay in or was he just holding down the fort until the duty agent ate supper?  Barb thanked goodness she wasn’t on call tonight.

End of short, silly excerpt.

Finding that bit of silliness made me laugh, and I now remember typing it.  It was probably the most easily written part of the entire story.  I wish the actual story elements flowed as easily as did that bit of keep-the-typing-going filler.

In almost any type of how-to article or book, readers will find lists of what to do and what to avoid.  If you want to succeed at whatever the expert is advising you about, do this and don’t do that.

  • runners must wear the correct shoes
  • painters need the right brushes
  • cooks should use thick, solid pans
  • gardeners ought to test their soil

Writing instruction comes with similar guidance.

In a new article from Writer’s Digest, ten writers examine ten well-known rules. I was pleased to see I own books from three of the experts, James Scott Bell, Natalie Goldberg and Donald Maass.

The rules they analyze, and give both pro and con opinions about, are:

  1. Write What You Know.
  2. Hook Your Readers on Page 1.
  3. Show, Don’t Tell.
  4. Write “Shitty First Drafts.” (Really, do you have a choice?)
  5. Write EVERY DAY.
  6. Kill Your Darlings.
  7. Develop a Thick Skin.
  8. Silence Your Inner Critic.
  9. Read What you Like to Write.
  10. If You Want to Get Rich, Do Something Else.

My own short viewpoints on the rules are:

  1. Write about what captures your attention.
  2. Make page 1 as interesting as possible.
  3. Show for depth, and tell for speed.
  4. Don’t allow foolish errors in your first draft; you may overlook them in revision.
  5. Increase your word count every day you’re able.
  6. Write your best, but don’t make one section gorgeous at the expense of other parts.
  7. Use your sensitivity to improve your writing, but remember it’s only writing.
  8. Make an appointment with your inner critic.  Later, let her do her best to improve the piece.
  9. Read.
  10. I already didn’t amass riches doing “something else,” so you’ll have to look elsewhere for advice about #10.

Without guidelines, projects wouldn’t be well-built.  Houses aren’t constructed without blueprints for the builders.  Appliances aren’t assembled without schematics for the machinists. Creatures don’t grow without DNA to guide the cells.  That said, there’s always room for evolution and innovation, so use the “rules” as guidelines, then experiment and evolve.

Click on over to the article to read what the Real Experts say.

As I go through the mystery-list, I see more entries I’d have liked to have responded to in real time, such as this recommendation from my friend MaryG:

Hat tip to K.d. McCrite:


As for the ‘writing,’ (I’m supposing that’s what you’d call it, although Researcher Who Won’t Stop is more like it), I discovered I put my people in the wrong place by about five kilometers (for me, the 5K make a difference).  Since I first settled on the location, I thought I’d got the borderline-in-question correct, but in looking at Google maps, I see I was off.    If I wasn’t writing slowly enough already (1/4 of  the first story and 2 short stories), finding out the people were on the wrong side of the ‘tracks’ was like a tree in the road — I could get around it, but it would take work.  Luckily, the Google map exercise reminded me of Google Earth, and I’m pretty sure my people are now in an appropriate place.

So, now to be like a brick, and stay on task, not get discouraged*, not be perfect but be OK with it, and stop wasting time.

* In Duchess of Death, I learned that Agatha Christie wrote a play in 6 weeks.

Marja McGraw guest-writes at the blog, Buried Under Books.  Maria’s topic is setting in novels, and how popular authors use this to their advantage.

  • Listen To Your Reader

    Interestingly, I’d just been on a panel at a conference where we discussed settings. The general consensus of the authors on the panel was that setting is paramount to the story in most cases. Readers want to feel like they’re the fly on the wall while they read, and that’s difficult to do if the setting isn’t described in the story.

Read more at the blog

In my writing, the situations of the characters I’ve come up with are all dependent on place.  The characters’ situations aren’t generic troubles that could happen anywhere, but are woven into the scenes of the crimes.  For me, setting is almost a character itself.

With luck (practice and patience), someday you’ll be able to see what I feel.

I finished the ‘nonfiction project’ (see previous entry), the month-plus typing work that reignited the weird feelings in my wrists that the doctor informed me is not carpal tunnel syndrome.  OK, it’s not a carpal tunnel problem, she’s the doctor and I’m not, but I’d like to know what I can do to minimize the problem, given my compulsion to type.

Buzzy wrists, aside, and with that real-life typing task finished, I’m looking forward to re-immersing myself in my fictional world.  It’s a journey for me to leave one world, enter another, and then go back.  Making these shifts isn’t immediate and I feel as if I’m moving from one country to another, sorting and packing the paraphernalia of the world I’m leaving, then reacquainting myself with the people, language, and culture of the world I’m reentering.  Making a blog entry here is one of the steps in making the change.

I’m stashing the link here so that I’ll know where to find it later.  It’s easier for me to click a category link and scroll through my online notetaking than it is for me to read through lists of “favorites” in my bookmarks.  Those link titles seem to run together.

  • Word count by genre, Jacqui Murray’s WordDreams…
    — cozy mysteries = 65k to 90k
    — mysteries, thrillers and crime fiction = A newer category of light paranormal mysteries and hobby mysteries clock in at about 75k to 90k. Historical mysteries and noir can be a bit shorter, at 80k to 100k. Most other mystery/thriller/crime fiction falls right around the 90k to 100k mark.

Those numbers are the ones that interest me most, but even if your number-concern is the same, click over to the link.  Jacqui Murray has information about other genres, as well as word counts of well-known and influential works.

I’m going to have to try this Word function to keep track of  story developments.  I took a quick look at it (View –> Document map in Word 2003), and the display  reminds me of the bookmarks in a PDF file.  Because I find the the PDF bookmarks useful, I don’t see why this wouldn’t be, too.  I also like playing with functions like this.  I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a previous life, I was a typesetter — that’s when I wasn’t moonlighting as a tea-swilling cook.

Document Map, Microsoft Office

How to use the Document Map in Microsoft Word, Shauna Kelly

Organizing Your Story Using Document Map, Paula Roe

and, in case it messes up …

My usual style is to work with separate Word.docs for individual chapters.  The thought of scrolling through enough pages to make a book made me cross-eyed, even without having tried an entire novel in one document.

Writers of writing self-help books, please stop giving out the advice to eavesdrop on those around us when we’re out in public in order to form a good model for writing dialogue.  Eavesdropping doesn’t work.

I have tried eavesdropping multiple times when I’ve been out at restaurants or in stores.  Not only is there almost always music playing, and very loud music at that, but the rumble of ambient noise fills in all the quiet spaces between the words my target subjects are saying.  In restaurants, add the ting, crash and clink of glassware, dishes, and tableware.  The only place I’ve found that I can reliably eavesdrop on people is listening to the characters in television programs and movies, and that’s already dialogue.

In future, admit that eavesdropping is impossible.  It will save those of us trying to develop dialogue a lot of trouble, and we won’t think the rest of your advice is as valid as the recommendation to eavesdrop.

It would make me happy if I could submit manuscripts to publishers again. I don’t need instant success, I  just want to be in the game and fulfill the dream I had at 15 while singing along to my favorite Beatles song, “Paperback Writer.”  I’d be a part of publishing.  All I need to do is get those stories on (virtual) paper, and submit them.  Rejections are part of the process, so even receiving rejection slips would show I was officially working at writing.  Before I do this, though, the computer daemon also demands submission, but submission of a different kind:  apparently as a rite of passage, the word processing program wants me to suffer before it gives up the secret for applying headers on the pages I create.

In order for a writer to successfully storm the transom and convince the publishers’ slush pile readers that a manuscript deserves a second look, any piece she sends them must conform to the standard format. Not using standard format will get your manuscript sent back to you far faster than it took you to write it. Part of the standard format is using headers on each page. Among other things, this allows publishing company minions to reassemble a story if the printed manuscript falls to the floor and the pages scatter.

When I was composing on a typewriter, putting in headers was easy, you typed them at the top of the page before carriage-returning your way down the paper.  Since processing words is now computerized, putting in a header isn’t managed through the simple task of typing.  Yes, in our complex word processing programs the “find and replace” function is marvelous.  Yes, spell- and grammar-check are amazing.  Voice recognition programs save, save, save my wrists.

Up until now I’ve been a successful word processing autodidact, but the basic header is about to do me in:  I can’t get it to work.  Multiple menus are involved; many boxes need clicking; and what you click affects the next action you humbly ask the program to perform.  Also, some buttons are located on ribbons, which has me baffled because the last ribbon I used was in a typewriter.  However, since I’ve made it this far — we didn’t have blogging classes in the 1960s — I’m sure I’ll catch on.

To get myself in gear, and because Word doesn’t come with the much wished for Abracadabra shortcut, I asked friends in one forum for a how-to on headers and received two separate instructions.  The first instruction mentioned the ribbon, and after later watching an online tutorial, I think the ribbon instruction is for Office 2010.  I have Word 2003 (hey, I’m not still using GeoPublish).

The second set of instructions almost worked, except they didn’t because clicking buttons that are supposed to separate the first page from all the others so that page 1 is its own section isn’t sticking. I click for the header to be activated “from this page forward” and with “first page different,” only to scroll back and find the header imprinted at the top of page 1, as still and obdurate as a rock.  The shouting had no effect and the curses aren’t working.

Using the hints my friends supplied, I played around — unfortunately, rather than sorting out my characters’ timings, manipulating the subtleties of scene decoration, or crafting a really brilliant twist — and I did manage to keep the header off the first page with the numbers starting on page 2.  I was so happy.  Then I scrolled down to page 3:  nothing.  Oh, my text was there but pages 3 and 4 of this trial document had no header. The only page displaying a header was page 2, the “from this page forward” page. I did have pages from that page forward, I just didn’t have any headers. The curses still aren’t working as I haven’t yet seen any reports about the programmers of Word 2003 spontaneously combusting.

Part of me figures it doesn’t matter whether I ever learn how to make Word’s headers. At the rate I’m flattening this learning curve, I won’t have to worry about making an incorrect submission because I’ll never again have time to write: I’ll spend the rest of my life figuring out headers. Problem solved.  No writing = no need to submit.

It’s at this point that self-publishing doesn’t sound so bad. I self-indulgently blog, I can self-indulgently publish.  Who cares if I have validation from the minions of a conglomerate whose main interest is the bottom line? Minions begone! If I don’t have to fight with a mute computer program that formats as it pleases, frustrating my desire to please minions, I’m happy.  I just hope that the self-publishing format doesn’t require headers.


Update:  Repeating the header insertion on page 3 after inserting it into page 2 kept the page 2 header and also inserted headers on pages 3 and beyond.  Odd, but if that’s what it takes …

The more I read about story theory, the less competent I feel I become.  Decades ago, I was confident I could tell a story; today, I’m not so sure.  Still, the trying of it keeps me off the streets and out of most trouble, so I don’t think I’ll chase off after Chicken #42,567,890.

I’m in the middle of creating new characters for an older story line because the characters I created years ago did not fit parts of the  story theory I’m now learning, and I still want to write about the main character.  The difficulties I had putting stories together for this group may have been because the characters were not as well-constructed as I’d hoped.  Luckily for me, not all of the characters were fatally flawed so I’m not in need of an entire cast.  The setting also stayed the same, so I don’t have to reinvent it as well.

To add to my slowness today in getting down to work making these new characters, I saw a reference to “character flowcharts” in an interview of Meg Waite Clayton, an online SheWrites colleague.  Using flowcharts seems like a natural addition to my notebook-upon-notebook style of composition, but I think flowcharts are more formal than the bubble maps I already use.  I’m not flowchart-trained so the research-junkie part of me went looking for more information.  My first search didn’t produce any links to a useful flowchart/storyline explanation, although I’m not done looking, but I did find a chart of stereotyped female characters.  Humor distracts me every time, and this example at least has one useful path to follow for any of the important women in the stories, and many more to avoid:

Female character flowchart from Overthinkingit.com

Can she carry her own story?  Yes  –> Is she three dimensional?   Yes –> Does she represent an idea?   No –>  Does she have any flaws?   Yes –> Is she killed before the third act?   No –>  Congratulations!  Strong female character

The up-side of of my chicken-chasing today is that the distractions gave me this blog post.  I can check that job off this week’s to do list for writing and get back to inventing people, their world, and the stories about the trouble they get into.

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