Archive for September, 2010

Letting Your Characters Talk

September 29, 2010

I wrote up a writing prompt for My Word Playground.  It shares my technique for putting two or more characters together and letting them interact without worrying about trying to build a scene complete with action and dialogue.   I enjoyed checking out writer Lynne Marie’s playground while I tried to figure out what I wanted to write about.  This September, she featured writers like Jean Reidy, Arthur Slade and Lisa Wheeler have also contributed some interesting ways of coming at fiction this fall.

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Mix and Mingle

September 25, 2010

You’re invited to the launch party for SUSPECT at Literary Life!

WHEN: Thursday, October 7 from 6:00 to 8:00
WHERE: 758 Wealthy Street SE   Grand Rapids, MI

Things should be lively since the Wealthy Street Autumn Stroll will also be going on.  I’m hoping to have coloring pages available from SAVING THE GRIFFIN as well.  A few copies of DEFENDING IRENE will be available as well.  Fall is the perfect time for a girls’ soccer story.

Chapter 23…Done!

September 20, 2010

Well, I just finished the dramatic section of “the darkest moment.”  In Chapter 24, the horror will settle in and Calyn will have to make a decision.  Handily enough, that’s the next section of the step outline.  I’m currently on page 210 out of 237, but I know that it will take at least twenty pages of new material and some serious recasting of the 27 that I already have for me to reach the end.

Researching SUSPECT

September 18, 2010

Writers of historical fiction often spend months researching the various settings of their novels before they begin to write.  While I enjoy reading historical fiction, I’ve never really thought about writing it because I know how every detail needs to be supported. Writers of contemporary fiction often need to spend some time researching, but it varies from project to project.  For DEFENDING IRENE, I attended Italian club soccer games.  For SAVING THE GRIFFIN, I had to develop the Italian estate where my main characters were living. For SUSPECT, I started with reading about bed and breakfasts. 

My first window into the running of a bed and breakfast came from  Barbara Michaels’ novel,  HERE I STAY.  Even better, my writer friend Jeanie Franz Ransom had spent some time reviewing bed and breakfasts for a magazine.  She loaned me her clips and I made copies.   The initial furnishings, wallpaper and breakfast menus from the Schoenhaus came from her articles.  One of the places she stayed even had a mystery weekend, so I was able to read about how the owners ran the event.  These days, I could have probably done a quick search on the web to check out the pictures from various establishments around the nation.  But I wrote my first draft back in the late 1990’s before many people set up lovely websites with lots of pictures. 

During the first three months that we lived in Italy, my family lived at something called a Residence Hotel in a small apartment.  That gave me some exposure to the rhythms of a comparatively small place.   

I had some ideas about how Jen would need to go about cleaning the rooms in my earliest drafts, but I really lucked out when my oldest daughter got a job in housekeeping up at Boyne’s Mountain Grand Lodge and Spa in the summer of 2009It’s an extreme nice place where everthing has to be just right.  As I noted on the SUSPECT dedication page, I learned all about how and where to use the blue and pink cleaning supplies from her.   It also helped me fill in details with respect to cleanng: 

I stood up and did a final sweep of the bathroom.  No dirt.  No streaks.  No spots.  I pulled off my laterx gloves and ran my hand lightly over the marble countertops and white porcelain sink.  Smooth.  That meant clean.  The toilet paper had its special pointed fold.  Even Grandma Kay would be impressed. 

And I think it also helped me nail the attitudes in housekeeping such as in this advice from Jen to Bri: “Don’t forget to look under the beds. You never know what you’re going to find.”

Sit, Stay, Write!

September 15, 2010

I did an interview  for Luke and Nemo at Biscuit Break for their “Sit, Stay, Write!” series.  These two shelties belong to Jeanie Franz Ransom.  They love hanging out with her on the front porch in her outdoor office when she works.

Luke and Nemo in Jeanie Franz Ransom's outdoor office

The Clues that Whisper

September 14, 2010

Everything I ever needed to know about writing I learned at an SCBWI conference. 

Okay.  That’s a bit of an exaggeration.  I’ve read some very good books on writing like Natalie Goldberg’s WRITING DOWN THE BONES and Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S  JOURNEY.  But I tended to get these recommendations from people that I met at writer’s conferences. 

I learned two very important things about writing mysteries at conferences in Missouri before our move to Italy.   The first piece of advice came from Mark Sumner.  His alternate history, DEVIL’S TOWER,  had just been nominated for a fantasy/science fiction award.  I’m going to have to paraphrase, but I’m close. 

Suspense doesn’t come from something jumping out from behind a closed door.  It comes from knowing that something truly terrifying is behind the door and having to open it anyway. 

The second important theory of writing mysteries came from Constance Hiser.  She’d  written a number of very popular lower middle grade mysteries.  During her talk, she discussed the importance of laying down “the clues that whisper” in a manuscript.  These need to be seamlessly woven into the dialogue, action, description, and observations of the main character.  It’s important for the revelation of the villain  to be a surprise and to make complete sense at the same time as the main character.

So this was something that I studied as I read and reread my favorite mysteries  by authors like Elizabeth Peters, Barbara Michaels, Lindsey Davis, Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, Dorothy Sayers, Charlotte MacLeod and Sharyn McCrumb.

The First Draft of SUSPECT

September 10, 2010

Sometimes it can take a long time for an idea to become a book.  I remember that the initial idea for SUSPECT came to me in 1997 when I was reading about a winery in either Hermann or Augusta, Missouri. It was reopening some of its old cellars after years of disuse.  I remember thinking “What if they found a body down there?”   That gruesome thought probably came from years of being addicted to the books of Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels.  (They’re actually the same person writing in two slightly different genres.)  Instead of letting it drop, I found myself thinking about whose body this could be and why it would be there.   After about of a week of this, it became clear that this idea had taken root and was turning into a story. Eventually, I decided to move the setting to a bed and breakfast. 

I’m not sure when I decided to have the mystery weekend.  But that wasn’t an especially big leap.  There was a bed and breakfast in Hermann that put them on.  I knew what fun they could be because I attended one back at SubBase Bangor in Washington State when my husband was serving on the U.S.S. Alaska. My group quickly and correctly identified the victim, a talkative, extremely dynamic, larger-than-life writer who was clearly impressed with his own abilities.  We trailed after him like a bunch of groupies in order to catch clues.  Our table won.  

One of the odd moments for me that evening was when I was making a trip to the bathroom after the murder and before the interrogation of the suspects.  A serious-looking marine was sitting quietly in a corner of the lobby.  He looked slightly familiar, but I couldn’t  place him.  On the way back into the dining room, I looked at him again and belatedly recognized the victim.  He must have been able to tell by the widening of my eyes that I’d just realized who he was because he smiled and gave me a quick nod. I’m sure that moment had echoes in SUSPECT.

Chapter 22…Done

September 8, 2010

Things are looking terrible for my characters at the end of Chapter 22.  So naturally, that’s a very good thing for the book.  Again, things are pretty rough, but I did some smoothing of Chapter 21 along the way.

The Missouri Mentorship

September 8, 2010

I don’t remember how I heard about the Missouri Mentorship for the first time.  It could have been a mass email.  Or the announcement could have just come in an article for MO SCRIBBLES, Missouri’s newsletter for the local chapter of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).  But when I found out about the opportunity to spend a year working with noted author Gary L. Blackwood on a project, I knew that I wanted to apply.  All Missouri members of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) could send in a writing sample and an essay describing what the mentorship would mean to them.  

There was just one problem.  I wasn’t living in Missouri anymore.  My mail still went to a Missouri address, a P.O. box with my husband’s company.  But our letters and magazines were sent through company mail to Merano, Italy.  I read through the announcement again.  Even though I wasn’t living in Missouri anymore, I was still active in the chapter as a regular columnist for their quarterly newsletter.  So I finally wrote to Sue Bradford Edwards, our RA.  She said she’d discuss my status with a few other regional advisers and then get back to me.  Eventually, she let me know that I could apply.  

I was almost finished with the book that was to become SUSPECT for the first time, so I sent in the first ten pages or so of that as my writing sample.  In my essay, I shared my frustration about getting plenty of rejections that let me know that my projects were well-written.  What else could I do but write well? 

On January 21, 1999, I received an email from Sue that Gary had picked me out of the top manuscripts that had been forwarded to him.  Later that day, Gary sent an email that contained my first professional feedback for SUSPECT:

First, of course, the quality of your writing. Your prose is lucid and kid-friendly; you’re good at dramatizing through detail and action and dialogue instead of just relying on narration; your dialogue is snappy and believable; your premise is a clever and compelling one.

But as we were discussing the project that we were going to pursue together, he made a few points about the marketibility of my mystery at that time.  He wound up being fairly prophetic and pretty much explains why the project eventually went into hibernation on my hard drive:

“Young adult books just plain don’t sell as well, on average, as middle readers, and so publishers are extremely choosy about what they take on. They tend to want either very “literary”, perhaps controversial, books or else flat out genre books, mostly horror and romance, it looks like, to be published in paperback.

There’s very little room, it seems,for “midlist” books (I hate that term, but it’s a favorite designation of publishers). This is true of all areas of publishing, of course, to some extent, but because there are more middle reader books published, there’s more room for variety.

THE WINE ROAD is a genre book of sorts, since it’s a mystery, but as far as I can tell from scouting the bookstores, YA mysteries lean heavily toward the gritty, even the sensational, more like Christopher Pike than like Nancy Drew. Not that yours is Nancy Drewish, but, judging from the chapter you sent, neither is it especially hard-edged. And yet at the same time it’s not likely to work as a title for middle readers. Even if you made the protagonist younger, the romance element and the mother’s murder make it too grown up for that age level.”

Gary and I agreed to start a new project from the ground up so that I could learn about developing plot and character.  My softball novel that we worked on together never did sell.  But it helped me learn a process.  The next two books that I wrote became DEFENDING IRENE and SAVING THE GRIFFIN.  The ones after that haven’t sold yet, but they did attract the interest of an agent. 

I can never, ever pay Gary back for what he did for me.  As noted science fiction writer Robert Heinlein pointed out decades ago, you can only pay forward.  Eventually, I was able to serve as the Missouri Mentor.  And most of my students at the Institute of Children’s Literature appreciate the way I’m willing to go the extra mile with them to get a marketable manuscript.  (My rather idiosyncratic approach isn’t right for everyone, but I reall do try my best.)

“Don’t treat your characters like marionettes!”

September 4, 2010

The driver of the shuttle van rolled down the window and spoke rapidly in French.  Shortly after the answering squawk from the speaker phone, the gate swung open slowly, untouched by human hands.  Intellectually, I knew that a small motor was performing the work, but the grounds of the Abbaye de Royoument had already begun to work their magic.  The charm only increased as I reached my corner room with its three feet thick walls.  But I confess, the anachronism of a late 1990’s bathroom made me smile.  

When I reached the salon for the opening cocktails, I surreptitiously confirmed that the Lynne who had taken the shuttle van from the train station with me was indeed Lynne Reid Banks, author of “The Indian in the Cupboard.” She had only given her first name while we were waiting.  I can’t remember when I learned that she was going to be the one giving me a critique of the first chapter of my YA mystery.  At that time, its working title was THE WINE ROAD.  

I confess that I found Ms. Banks to be a tad intimidating with her long publishing record and her theatrical style.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that she’d been part of some prestigious British acting company.  She projected so beautifully that I think that she could have filled the main meeting room with sound without the microphone.  

Eventually, it was my turn to slip away from one of the presentations for my meeting.  Ms. Banks opened by saying something along these lines: “I read a lot of manuscripts for events like these, but this was one of the few times that I wanted to keep reading.”  Now maybe she was just being kind and said that to every writer as a way to calm that person down at the beginning of a twenty-minute meeting.  But she liked that there was something at stake.  Indeed, for all she knew, my main character’s father could have murdered her mother many, many years ago.  

I knew that the opening scene was pretty static with two people talking across a table.  But this didn’t upset Ms. Banks.  In fact, she said that she liked the way that my two characters discussed a third character.  This was a technique that she was often used in the theater to indicate the importance of someone.  

I always bring at least one important piece of writing advice back from a conference with me.  In this case it was the following: “Don’t treat your characters like marionettes, Kristin!  Feel what they’re feeling when they feel it.”   

And really, this is truly excellent advice.  My failures as a writer have usually come when I didn’t really think about what my character was going through on an emotional level.  Some of my breakthroughs have come when I was really putting myself in the moment.  And yes, sometimes this triggers intense stress and even crying.  But if I can’t move myself to tears, what makes me think that I’m going to be able to engage a reader’s emotions?