Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

When Lack of Sympathy is a Good Thing

February 9, 2013

Here’s an excerpt from Sue Bradford Edward’s recent blog post at Women on Writing:

For about two months, I’ve been playing around with a rewrite. I’ll work on it a bit and then set it aside because it hasn’t jelled. Every now and again, I figure out a problem and get some writing done, but after two months I have 10 pages. Ten. Can you say discouraged?

Fortunately, I had a critique group meeting last weekend. This was the perfect chance to trot out my problem manuscript. These writing friends would be able to point out a few more problems for me to fix, but they would also commiserate. Or so I thought.

They refused.

That’s right. Refused.

I confess to being a member of this critique group. What did we tell her?


Some thoughts on writing from Donna Jo Napoli

October 4, 2011

I’ve been collecting quotes from writers and editors for the past 18 years or so.   In fact, I just delivered a talk at the Michigan SCBWI’s fall conference on Mackinac Island that shared the quotes that I’ve been collecting for the past 18 years.  I had about two pages worth of them from various events in Nebraska, Missouri, France, Arkansas and Michigan.  Each of them has become a part of my writer’s toolbox.  Within a few hours, I had several more from noted author Donna Jo Napoli.  She was one of our headliners.

On first drafts:

“The amorphous blob–that’s the emotion. That’s the blood. Your readers is bloodthirsty.”

On switching from the writer’s hat to the self-editing.

Writers are psychopaths.
Writers are a mess.

Editors are neat.
Editors are tidy.

On carving out time to write:

My kitchen floor was so clean you could eat off of it…for a month!

Characters Who Are Too Dumb to Live

August 22, 2011

As I might have mentioned before, one of the tricky things about writing in the suspense/mystery/thriller genre is ensuring that your characters aren’t too dumb to live.  There has to be a reason for them to keep their deadly secrets or roam through dangerous places.  In fact, there was one series of books by a mystery writer that I finally had to give up on because I couldn’t believe that the main character would keep endangering herself with no good reason whereas she had a serious and deeply personal reason to do this in the first two novels.

Today, I had a mini-breakthrough for my character. Since she was supposed to know quite a bit about art, at least for a high school student, she needed to consider an alternative. I didn’t have the first idea of how to slip it in until I was living in the moment with her. Bang.  There it was at what Jack Sparrow would call “the opportune moment.”

I have found that a lot of logical problems will sort themselves out when you get to them as long as you’re conscious of them and let the backbrain work.

Writing Novels

February 10, 2011

Some writers don’t know what’s going to happen next when they sit down at their computers.  Others follow their outlines religiously.  Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the Disc World books, compared his process of writing novels to wood carving on his website:

You find the lump of tree (the big central theme that gets you started) and you start cutting the shape that you think you want it to be. But you find, if you do it right, that the wood has a grain of its own (characters develop and present new insights, concentrated thinking about the story opens new avenues). If you’re sensible, you work with the grain and, if you come across a knot hole, you incorporate that into the design. This is not the same as “making it up as you go along”; it’s a very careful process of control.

I really like this idea of working with the grain and incorporating knotholes into the design.  On more than one occasion I’ve come to a surprising realization at the same moment as my main character.  In my soccer novel Defending Irene, for example, I realized that the rather goofy keeper was the son of the strict coach.  That opened up all sorts of things to me.  In an unpublished manuscript, my main character and I literally ran into a new character at the exact some moment.  Sofia definitely qualified as a knot.  I thought that I might have to cut her out completely as she tried to take over the story.  Instead, I found ways to incorporate her into the design in a way that echoed to my main theme.

That Which Does Not Kill Us…

November 5, 2010

Writers have co-opted an old expression for their own use:

That which does not kill us, gives us something to write about.

Right now I’m in the process of editing Calyn’s darkest moment.  As I work through it, I’m keeping in mind a couple of experiences that I had.  The first was being bitten by a husky on my paper route.  I was pretty experienced with dogs at that time.  I knew when to leave a paper undelivered.  This dog watched me calmly as I moved slowly up the walk.  It didn’t lower its head or growl.  Slowly, carefully, I slide the paper through the railing.  The dog stood up and walked slowly down the steps to meet me. Then suddenly it lunged forward, bit my forearm three times, and then went to sit back down. 

While I was grateful that it decided against continuing to bite me, it was pretty unnerving to see that dog calmly looking down on me from the top step.  I backed away slowly and then tried to continue my route.  I felt wobbly, but not too bad for the next two houses.  At the third house, I sank down on the doorstep. From what I’d learned in Mr. Zoeller’s fifth grade first aid class, I was pretty confident that I was going into shock.  I rang the doorbell of the house.  No one was home, so I sat their for awhile.  I was pretty confident that I wasn’t going to make it the three or four blocks back to my house any time soon.  I remembered one of the houses further back on my route had the front door open to let in a breeze through the screen door.  

I managed to walk back there and scare the heck out of the older lady who lived there.  Fortunately, her daughter was there.  I remember the rather odd sensation of one part of me listening to the other part of me explain what had happened. 

This part of my story isn’t necessarily about a girl getting bit by something, but it definitely how people react when going into shock and the utter frustration of not necessarily being in charge of your own body.

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.

Mowing the Lawn II

July 16, 2010

Today as I was mowing the lawn, I thought of a way to bring all of plot lines together for the darkest moment.  And I figured out when to have my character come to a truly horrible realization.  There’s a reason I don’t have my kids mow and why I shovel by hand instead of investing in a snowblower.   There’s something about mindless , intense physical labor. 

So what, you might ask, is “the darkest moment.”  This is something from what my Peachtree editor calls the step outline. I’m not sure how much she adapted and how much she created. 

Step Outline. 

Act I:

Turning point/story takes new direction/challenge revealed. 

Act II:

Problem Intensifies
Temporary Triumph
Darkest Moment
Decision Time

 Act III

Final Obstacle

Research all Finished?

December 20, 2009

I had left open our last day in Egypt just in case I needed to go back and do any additional research, but it looked like it was complete.  I had visited all the places that my characters had: Giza, Abusir, Ma’adi, the Metro, the Khan al-Khalili, and Al Ahzar park.  My husband, the man in charge of handling the digital camera, had taken hundreds of pictures.   So my sister Liz suggested that we go out to visit her friend Margaret, who had a house on the west bank of the Nile not too far from Abusir.  In addition to meeting one of Liz’s best friends, I knew that I’d get a chance to drive by the pyramids again.

I was still wondering just a little about one of my major scenes, so I asked Margaret about some of my travel choices for my characters.  She set me straight on what my three young characters would do.  I was horrifed because this pretty much destroyed my original plan.  Plus, I didn’t have good visuals and wasn’t sure how I could get them.  But Margaret also had a solution, which entailed paying to get into the Saqqara country club and then buying some drinks before we sauntered out to my real destination: the desert.   You can’t just get on it just anywhere–at least not between Giza and Saqqara.  Private property lies between the desert and the public roads. 

This was the first time that I actually beat my characters to a location.  They had been everywhere else first.

A wall of packed sand holds back the Western Desert. A wire fence on top of deters any trespassers.

There's a narrow line separating the the cultivation from the desert. From left to right: Margaret, Liz, Kristin. Neferirkare's 5th dynasty pyramid of Abusir is above Margaret's head.

We walked out through the gate and headed south towards Abusir.  We walked for a little while, but it was really too late in the afternoon to go any farther, especially since Margaret was recovering from surgery. But I had what I needed. 

Kurt and I did take a quick climb up the extremely steep hill shown in the first picture.   And here’s a better view of power lines and pyramids.  I knew that juxtaposition would make it into the book. 

Abusir seen from the South. Pyramids from left to right: Sahure, Nyuserra, Neferikare

While I tweaked a lot of scenes based on my experiences in Egypt and the photographs that Kurt took, I would say that this Friday afternoon triggered the biggest changes.  In fact, I would say that more than six chapters were heavily impacted.  I knew it would take a lot of work to make the changes.  What I had before would have technically worked, but my expat character was a savvy kid who knew how to work his local system.  I might have been able to fool most people, but I wanted to also make the expats in Maadi nod their heads and say, “It could have happened just like that.”  

So here’s a big thanks to Kurt, Liz and Margaret!

Prospecting for Gold Nuggets

November 19, 2009

My article Prospecting for Gold Nuggets is now up on the Institute for Children’s Literature’s website.  It discusses how important it is to come up with a strong premise for your writing projects.

Behind the Scenes of Saving the Griffin: Working with an Editor

October 17, 2009

Back in early 2002, I was one of the volunteers for the Missouri SCBWI and had the assignment of picking Lisa Banim (now Mathews) up from the airport for our fall conference.  At the time, she’d had the manuscript for DEFENDING IRENE for a little over a month.  (The history of that is another story altogether that I may post at some point.)  I was really hoping that she’d have some feedback for me on my story about a girl playing on an Italian boys’ soccer team even she decided against acquiring the manuscript.  Naturally, she’d be quite busy on the day of the conference, so I invited her to dinner on the Friday night that she flew in.  I gave her an “out” in my email by letting her know that I’d completely understand if she wanted to go straight to her hotel and crash.

But she agreed to dinner.  After we chatted for awhile, she let me know that she was taking DEFENDING IRENE to the acquisitions meeting on the following week.  Frequently, she doesn’t let authors know that because she knows how stressful it can be for them to know when the fateful day will be. Well, that was exciting and it clearly demonstrated where the old cliche of “breath-taking” came from. 

A little later, I told her the story of how I found  my stone griffin in Siena.   It was one of my standard tales that friends, relatives and even  strangers usually found a bit amusing.  When I finished it, I mentioned how I’d actually written a novel about the griffin. 

I had been babbling on about all this without the least degree of self-consciousness because I knew that Peachtree didn’t publish fantasy novels.  So I wasn’t trying to pitch the project. 

“Why don’t you send it along?” Lisa asked. 

Well, for the second time in one evening I was well and truly breathless.  For a hard-working writer with no published novels to her credit, the idea of having an editor interested in not just one but two of my novels was amazing.  And I’m sure that I couldn’t stop myself from saying something like, “But I didn’t think Peachtree did fantasy.”    But I think that Lisa had recognized that this project was a contemporary fantasy with the accent on sibling relationships.   Plus, it had a mystery going on inside of it and Lisa had edited numerous mysteries. 

I wrote about the long, difficult editorial road for Darcy Pattison on her revision blog, which is now Fiction Notes under the title of Revising the Griffin.  But it was certainly worth all the hard work.  My name might be on the spine, but Lisa was the one who pushed me to produce the book that’s now in print because of her knowledge of what mysterious adventures needed. 

Often writers are asked to write something for the “about the author” section on the back flap of a book.  Lisa remembered my story about discovering the griffin in Siena and asked me to put it in.  My first version was a bit long.  Lisa recommended a few cuts and this is what came out:

KRISTIN WOLDEN NITZ first spotted a griffin while visiting a stonemason’s shop in Siena, Italy.  How much for that griffin in the window? she wondered.  Too much, she feared.  But her husband, who usually specializes in rude remarks about “dust catchers,” said, “You’ll never know unless you ask.  So she did.

Ms. Nitz, who is also the author of DEFENDING IRENE currently lives with her husband, three children and one stone griffin in southwest Michigan. 

One stone griffin

One stone griffin