Useful Advice for AtoZ Challenge

http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/

If you’re doing the Blogging from A to Z Challenge in April, I encourage you to read this excellent post at Tasha’s Thinking:

3 Top Tips for the AtoZChallenge 

A challenge veteran, Tasha offers suggestions for newbies and returnees to the challenge alike. The comments section of the post provided even more useful tips.

Speaking of tips, if you aren’t already reading the Blogging from A to Z Challenge blog, you should be! I picked up tips there this week for finding images, creating a signature for my comments, and keeping organized when responding to posts during the challenge.

I can’t wait until April! Are you ready for the challenge? Have you found any other A-Z Challenge tips you’ve found useful? I can use all the help I can get!

 

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An Epic Michigan Life: Character Profiles

Grandma pic

I got the call this past Saturday morning that my grandmother had passed away. I was actually in the car, driving from my house on the west side of Michigan to the east side, the “Thumb,” because Grandma was suffering the effects of a stroke and wasn’t likely to last much longer. When the phone rang, I knew it would be my mom, giving me the news we’d been waiting for.

Grandma died at 99. Or maybe, to be more accurate, I should say she *lived* 99 years, because she would be the first to tell you that she had lived a full life.

With family and friends together, we shared a lot of tears and memories. We talked about what we’d miss. We wouldn’t get any more of Grandma’s famous homemade yeast donuts or cinnamon bread. We’d never again be the recipients of her amazing backrubs. We’d have to find other card players to join our games of euchre.

However, what stood out throughout the conversations I had with family and friends this week wasn’t the things that we’d miss about Grandma. Instead, we talked a lot about what she’d seen in her 99 years. Although I can’t even begin to cover all the significant events of the past almost-century, here’s a handful of events (courtesy of The World Atlas, Wikipedia, and MI Legislature) that happened just here in our state of Michigan during the time my grandmother lived:

  • 1928 – Ford Rouge Plant Opened (the largest plant in the world at the time)
  • 1929 – Ambassador Bridge Connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario Opened (largest bridge in the world at the time)
  • 1941-1945 – Detroit Automakers transform into “Arsenal of Democracy”
  • 1950 – Detroit is 4th largest city in US
  • 1957 – Mackinac Bridge Opened
  • 1959 – Motown Records Founded by Barry Gordy
  • 1967 – Race Riots in Detroit Result in 43 Deaths
  • 1975 – Ore Freighter Edmund Fitzgerald Sunk in Lake Superior
  • 2002 – Jennifer Granholm Elected First Female Michigan Governor
  • 2009 – Detroit Automakers in Crisis
  • 2006-2010 – Michigan has highest unemployment rates in country
  • 2012 – General Motors reports record profits
  • 2014 – Detroit is 18th largest city in US
  • 2015 – Tourism brings about $17 billion annually into the state

I’m leaving out so much here, but the point is that a lot happens during a lifetime.

As a writer, I’m constantly trying to balance how much of a character’s history to include in a story or novel. My grandmother had a high school diploma and spent her entire life working on the family farm. She raised a family, she sewed, she baked, she drove tractors, she went to church, she hoed beans, and she milked cows. She never met Barry Gordy or Jennifer Granholm, yet I know these individuals—and so much of the events of the state, nation, and world—influenced who she was. It was all these people, places, events, and experiences that shaped her.

In order for characters to be real—to be authentic—they need to be products of their world. That takes some research and careful consideration. Sure, most of that “backstory” never has to make it into the story itself, but in order to write a believable character, those details matter.

Here are links to my favorite character profile resources. Spending time getting to know your character’s wants, needs, and wounds is always time well spent.

My grandmother lived an epic life. I can only hope that the characters I write live lives half as full.

What resources do you use to develop your character profiles?

5 Tips for Integrating Research Into Fiction

Image-1

So I took some time this evening to catch up with a little blog reading, including an email newsletter I get monthly from K.M. Weiland (2014) of Helping Writers Become Authors.  There were a few lines in an article titled “Research is Great! Now Keep It to Yourself” that leapt off the page at me tonight, including this first gem:

Fortunately for us, research is usually fun, especially since we’re often going to be reading about subjects that already interest us personally.

Wow, did that strike a chord with me! I’ve been researching for my next book, a story that takes place along the same historical arc as the sinking of the ship S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald in Michigan. I’ve become an Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck fact junkie! For those of you who aren’t from Michigan or who didn’t grow up in the folk music scene of the 70s, the sinking of the Fitz may be an unknown event. However, the disappearance of this giant ore carrier in the frigid waters of Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, and its immortalization in Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad have made this tragedy stick in the hearts and minds of many.

That being said, such a tragedy has been discussed, researched, argued over, and written about countless times. While my book has little to do with the story of the Fitz (my story sort of happens in the shadow of the historical event), I wanted to be sure I knew the story well and did my research accordingly—a LOT of research! I can’t help but worry, though, that there will be those who know a great deal more than I do who will find fault with my efforts. Thankfully, I’m not alone in this worry, as Weiland (2014) notes:

No matter what subject we’re writing about, we have to assume we’ll find some pretty smart readers out there who will know more about it than we do.

This is a fact of reality: There will always be someone out there who knows more about the topic than I do. Although I can’t solve that problem, I can make some effort to ensure that I’ve done my due diligence on the research and writing end. To that end, here are goals for researching and integrating that work into my own WIP:

  1. Read a LOT: To research a topic effectively, a writer should read whatever is available on the topic. And I’m not talking about sitting down and typing the topic into Wikipedia, although that could be a good first step. The bibliographic materials on Wikipedia articles can often be very useful “next steps.” The point, though, is to read widely on the topic, to be sure to see it from as many angles as possible—otherwise readers will gladly point out missed perspectives.
  2. Seek out Experts: While I realize that few of us have the budgets to allow for research trips, I’ve found that email is a great way to connect to the experts who have already spent countless hours researching the same topic. The best part is that many of them are happy to answer a few questions on their favorite subject—as long as their time is valued and respected. There’s no substitute for going to the source when it comes to authenticating research.
  3. Take notes: This sounds a bit obvious, but most of us aren’t very good at remembering things. How many times have you had that moment when you know you heard something somewhere—but just can’t remember where or when? While it may not be necessary to write down each detail from many sources—especially where the ideas from those sources overlap—it can be incredibly helpful to note where the sources differ. What are the causes for those differences?
  4. Give credit ethically: Okay, so I should out myself here and admit that I teach English, so I’m constantly lecturing my students about citing their sources. To not do that myself would just be hypocritical—and maybe downright criminal since I know better. However, it’s hard to give credit in the usual sense in fiction. There are opportunities in an acknowledgments section and in a works consulted section to give credit to the original researchers whose work has informed my way of thinking about the topic. That can also give the writer a bit of protection if a fact is challenged. Readers have some idea where the idea originated—if it wasn’t something that came from the author’s imagination. (By the way, since I’m talking about citation in this post, I felt it absolutely necessary to roll out the formal APA citation for this blog entry—don’t be alarmed!)
  5. Contribute to the Ongoing Conversation: Imagine walking into an ongoing conversation and just repeating what everyone else is saying. How well would that go over? The participants in the conversation would likely just ignore what we say entirely. Likewise, when writing about a topic that is already being discussed, we need to take in what’s being discussed, synthesize it with what we know, and add something valuable to the conversation—some new knowledge or insight. Fiction allows writers the opportunity to “see” a topic in an entirely new light. It’s important not to simply regurgitate the facts from our research; instead, we should aim to build on those ideas to create a fresh take on the topic.

I know I will never know everything there is to know about the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald no matter how much research I do. But that isn’t my goal. My goal is to use the research as a scaffold on which to build my own story. What research tips have you found most helpful in building your own story scaffold?

References

Weiland, K.M. (2014, February 1). Research is great! Now keep it to yourself. Helping Writers Become Authors. Retrieved from http://penforasword.createsend1.com/t/ViewEmail/j/FCA55A97ECE39E8C/A4C28CA257A89AFBC9C291422E3DE149

(In case you’re interested, the books in the photo are Frederick Stonehouse’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and Michael Schumacher’s Mighty Fitz.)

 

 

 

Using Word Choice to Establish Place

imageI love writing about my home state of Michigan. Although I’m new at writing fiction, I’ve been very consciously trying to place my writing in the places I know best. As far as I’m concerned, it’s some of the most amazing scenery this country has to offer, and I’m proud to call myself a Michigan writer.
True though that may be, I find one of my biggest challenges as a Michigan writer to be word choice. Now, don’t misunderstand me; I’m great at using a thesaurus judiciously and have a vast vocabulary (just ask my dad who spent years trying to make me talk a little less). My problem lies in trying to come up with original ways to describe the things I love best about my state—namely the weather these days.
The old joke used to be that Eskimos had a thousand (or whatever number your version of the saying included) words for snow. Well, I wish I had that kind of vocabulary when trying to describe the different ways the snow has appeared outside my office window just this winter alone. Right now, for example, there’s a fine but persistent snow coming down, making the sky appear more gray than clear. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a word for that kind of snow—something like “smist”?  I’d also take a great new word for the kind of snow that comes down in big feathery flakes, twisting and twirling on the wind—maybe “sheathery” would work for that. Then I could just write, “What had begun as a sheathery afternoon soon turned smisty” and dig on into the plot of my story. Instead, I have to puzzle over words, searching for the perfect accretion of adjectives to convey just the right atmosphere. Words can be so confining!
Or can they be? As any who have suffered through a high school English class might remember, Shakespeare had a knack for inventing new words. Scholars pore over his works, marveling at the ways he changed grammatical structures, added prefixes or suffixes where they hadn’t been before, and even created words no one had ever used before. Did you know, for example, that Shakespeare created the word “friended” long before Facebook made it popular? And I think Shakespeare may have met my husband a time or two before he crafted the word “forgetive.”
Similarly, who can question the preeminent word creator Dr.Seuss’s use of words like “zizzer-zazzer-zuzz” and “fiffer-feffer-feff”? Where would the world be if we didn’t have the lorax and the grinch? Seuss certainly never let words constrain him.
Perhaps the lesson here is that if the sky is looking smisty, then that’s what I need to write. I’m not Shakespeare or Seuss (or Geisel either), but I know my setting better than anyone else. If I own the word, maybe someday my readers will be looking up at the sky remarking on the lovely sheathery snow.
What are your favorite new words from things you’ve read or written? What is your greatest challenge when it comes to word choice?

How SHORT is Short? Navigating the Literary Journal Marketplace

waded paper

condesign @ pixabay.com

It is a blustery Saturday here in Michigan, and I’m supposed to be preparing some short stories for submission to literary magazines. Getting a piece published in a mag is one of my writing goals for the year, along with starting Novel #3, which hasn’t gotten off to a speedy start. At the moment, both of those goals seem fairly insurmountable, but even Everest looked that way once upon a time.

Since I’m a newbie at this fiction writing thing, I’m learning all about literary magazines as I go. My husband has much more experience with this topic than I do, so he’s been schooling me on the important elements. First, literary magazines can be divided into tiers. Of course, upon hearing this, I immediately tried to Google what mags fell into which tier. No such luck. My dear husband then enlightened me that the tiers were more theoretical—the bottom of the list (mags with dubious credibility in the publishing world), the middle-of-the road publications, and the cream-of-the-crop reviews. Back to researching.  It didn’t take me long to discover that any magazine willing to pay for submission was probably out of my league.  I’ll save The New Yorker for the “in my dreams” submission list!

The most pressing issue I’ve been trying to figure out is what exactly “short” fiction is. That is, I understand the “fiction” part just fine. It’s the “short” part that has me puzzled. My research has made it pretty clear that no one else knows how short short fiction is either. Some magazines put a cap on the number of words—say 3,000—while others focus on page length. One magazine’s submission page mentioned short short fiction, which sent me on another hunt for a definition. Is what I write too short? Not short enough? Am I writing short fiction or short short fiction or is it flash fiction—is there a difference?  Writer’s Digest, one of my favorite writing resources these days, holds a “short short story” competition where the rules stipulate no more than 1500 words. That’s pretty short, I suppose, but then I found an NPR contest where the story must be able to be read aloud within three minutes. So now I have to time myself, too? This is getting complicated!

I’m not sure I think much about the length of what I’m writing when I’m writing it. My focus is on the characters and the story—not on word count or page length. I’m finding that I’m not liking this “administrative” part of writing—the work that goes into trying to get published. Perhaps that’s why I’m writing this post instead of deciding which magazine publishes my kind of short story.

Is it possible to love to write—and hate to publish? Is there a way to make the quest for publication feel less like work?

Postpartum: How to Go On After Completing a Novel

studying

ClkerFreeVectorImages from Pixabay.com

So it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here—but I’ve got good reason. I’ve been in the trenches finishing the first draft of Novel #2. I’m happy to announce the official birth of a 93,333 word manuscript on May 22. It may be sacrilegious to write this, but writing a novel really is quite a bit like the birth of a child for me (and I can say that since I’ve done both twice now).

Now, before you think I’m crazy, let me share the similarities. This second book has taken me somewhere near the nine-month timeframe to draft. During that time, I’ve faced plenty of discomfort, nervousness, paranoia, and complete lack of control—all words that I would have used to describe both my pregnancies. And just when I started to wrap my brain around this new little being inside of me, it was time for said being to pop into the world.

As excited as I’ve been to finish my second book, I’ve been going through an odd sort of separation anxiety this past week. First, it was my playlist that I had to say goodbye to. I’ve had the same Pandora channel playing while I wrote for nearly the duration of that recent project, but when I turned it on this week, it didn’t feel right anymore. The music seemed jarring, and I found myself distracted by it rather than inspired.

The loss of the music wasn’t as monumental as the loss of my characters. Over this past week, I’ve had to come to the realization that I won’t be spending the same amount of time with them ever again. It’s bizarre to admit it, but those characters are like good friends by now. I’ve spent nine months in their heads (or is it that they’ve spent nine months in mine?), and even though I have a great deal of editing left to go, our relationship is on the downslope. I know fully that soon I’ll be engrossed in a new project—and these characters will go back to just being what they are—figments of my imagination.

We recently celebrated the birthdays of my two kids, complete with cake, balloons, presents, and all the fanfare such events require. Yet, there is a piece of me that mourns another year of childhood behind them.  Just as I have to trust my children to go out into the world—to be who they are—I have faith that this new novel will do the same. Make Mama proud, Baby!

Okay, now tell me, do you experience separation anxiety after you’ve completed a major project? How do you let go?

Hearing a Novel: Creating a Novel Playlist

music note figure

Peggy_Marco @ pixabay.com

The book Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult has a line that simply reads, “Every life has a soundtrack.” In recent days, I’ve become a convert to the idea that every book has one, too.

I understand that this is by no means a new or original idea. I remember giving it some thought a while back when I wandered through Stephanie Meyer’s website. She actually posted a playlist for each novel, sort of a snapshot of the music she listened to while writing. At the time, I remember thinking that it was quite odd for her to post such a thing. Who would want to know what she listened to while she wrote? What difference did the music make since it wasn’t as if it was a movie (yes, I realize it would eventually become a movie, but this was way before that point). A novel is a visual experience rather than an auditory one, isn’t it?
I suppose I’ve betrayed myself as a reader in that last line. I am a visual person, so when I read, I don’t generally “hear” the book. I guess I’m a visual writer as well, focused on the words rather than the music that informs them. Maybe that’s why this soundtrack idea was really challenging for me to wrap my brain around. However, this playlist thing seems to be taking over the literary world. Erin Morgenstern and Jennifer Egan, both best-selling authors whose work I’ve enjoyed, even have playlists on Spotify to give context to their books.
In wandering some of my favorite writing blogs, I found out that the idea of a playlist, or soundtrack, for a novel has become fairly commonplace, but I was still a bit curious about why someone would go through the trouble to do this. After all, isn’t writing a novel about WORDS rather than music?!
After a good deal of research, I think I’m starting to get it. Young Adult writer Christina Farley says she creates a playlist to establish the mood of a piece and to maintain a consistent tone. I wasn’t conscious of this, but I have sort of accidentally done this in my first two novels. I am a devout Pandora listener, and I was rather perplexed when what I normally listened to—the songs that were the backdrop for Novel #1—were far from what I wanted to listen to as I wrote Novel #2. I’m not much of a country music fan, but somehow, I’m drawn to certain country artists as I write this time. I couldn’t have explained why if someone asked me… but I’m starting to understand now!
So, okay, maybe I have some background music in my head for my books, but a playlist? Really? Do I need to go that far? Rob Reid writes in Wired Magazine that he found each of his characters had a different playlist, which helped to define them—and some of this characters even have very different musical tastes than he does. Ink Out Loud has this incredible discussion of how to think about the playlist for a novel, including themes for specific scenes, characters, and even the places depicted in the book. When I really got thinking about it, one of my favorite novels from 2012, written by a former Miami University colleague of mine Jason Skipper, Hustle, was saturated with music references. I’m not sure if Jason has posted a playlist for the book somewhere, but I’m sure he easily could. I’ve even heard he’s been persuaded to sing during his readings to bring that playlist into the foreground.
Whoa…  my mind is reeling. Each character could have a song? Or maybe each scene? My book could be like a movie? This sounds a bit overwhelming—yet I’m really intrigued.
Suddenly I’m looking back at my first novel and hearing a solo piano playing behind Preston’s words, something feisty—and a bit sultry—blaring out of Tess’s radio as she drives to her photo shoot, and the strains of something a bit melancholy tinged with a bit of anger as Grace reads the letter from Jon’s lawyer. Suddenly, I’m HEARING my novel… and it sounds amazing!

The best resources I’ve found so far for creating a playlist for a novel include Pandora, Playlist, and Spotify. Do you include a playlist on your website or blog for your books? What has worked best for creating and sharing that playlist?

It’s Research, Mom, Really! Tips for Writing Sex Scenes

couple kissing

moriador @ pixabay.com

I’ve set before myself an interesting task for this week—an interesting and awkward and blush-inducing task. It’s actually something that I’m sure most writers have to consider at some point in their careers—of course there are some obvious exceptions, but I’ll let you explore those on your own.

This week I’m researching how to write sex scenes.

Yes, you read that correctly. I muddled through a few sex scenes in my first novel, but the writing was achingly slow because I agonized over every word. No, I didn’t break out the thesaurus to find that perfect word for each body part, but it felt impossibly difficult to figure out how to describe what characters are feeling and doing in that very intimate moment. That’s the moment when I just want to say “…And the door closed” or “…And they woke up beside each other the next day.” As a reader, though, I know what a cop-out that is, so I’m doing my homework.

Dear readers: I solemnly swear that I won’t skip the good stuff.

To aid me in my quest to become better at writing sex scenes, I turned to the experts: the writers of Harlequin Romance novels! I went to my local used book store and picked up a selection of novels to get a feel for (oh gag) (double gag) (ugh!) the fine art of writing about sex. So far, I haven’t been disappointed. Truthfully, though, I’m not sure that I could reproduce much of what they include in their scenes without laughing hysterically. (Just ask my husband who had to listen to me read the over-the-top descriptions aloud because I couldn’t keep the hilarity to myself.)

Okay, so if Harlequin won’t give me all the answers, where do I go? I decided to peruse the internet. These writers are the founts of knowledge, right? Honestly, there were really only about two things all these sources agreed upon in their discussions (although I certainly hope I already knew these beforehand):

1.    Use all five senses if possible. Sex includes more than just what we see or feel they tell me.
2.  Don’t use words like “penis” and “vagina.”  (Sorry, I guess now I’m making you blush, too!) As one writer said so well, writing a sex scene shouldn’t be like a trip to the gynecologist!

So, while I’m not sure I’ve accomplished all I set out to discover about this topic, I did pick up some useful tidbits in my research:

1.    Sex isn’t about the sex; it’s about advancing the story & understanding the characters.
2.   Sex is as much about what comes before and after as during.
3.   The best sex scenes don’t include clichés or euphemisms.
4.   Reading the sex scene aloud should result in heat—not laughter.
5.    #4 above notwithstanding, sex is humorous. If everything goes perfectly in a sex scene, it’s probably not very realistic!

Now, armed with my new-found knowledge, it’s time to get back to Book 2. I’ve got some hot sex to write—sorry, Mom!