It’s Complicated

“It’s Complicated” is easily my favorite relationship status descriptor. The implication is some kind of wonderful mystery with messiness and possible mayhem thrown in. Imperfection. Confusion. Humanness. Honesty.

For writers, it’s story material. I read those words and my imagination is engaged.

Loss mixed with hope. Vulnerability tossed with trust. Heartache pressed up against triumph. Assurance balanced with insecurity.

I dare you to name one relationship in your life (that matters) where “It’s Complicated” doesn’t apply to some degree.

There’s no one on this planet who makes my life better than the man I’ve been with for more than half of it. He’s my rock and my rudder. He also has the power to throw me into the middle of a storm should he choose to do so. He’s my soft place to land or the provider of a swift kick to my butt—often at the same time—because one or both is perfect. While our relationship is strong without question, it has its complicated moments.

Then there’s my mother. My sister. My dad. My mother-in-law. My bonus kids and granddaughters. My bonus mom and added siblings. Friends who hold pieces of my heart and pets who staked pieces of it out when they died.

If not complicated, what?

This past Sunday I sent my manuscript to my editor. I had tears in my eyes. I love my continuing characters, but I’d also come to love the three young girls whose turning points were within the confines of this story. In the future Jayla, Alexis and Livvy will only come up in passing, if at all.

I made them up.

They’re real.

It’s complicated.

What about you? Do you enjoy reading about complicated relationships or do you like them laid out and easy? How does that contrast with your own life?

 

It’s better with friends (even when it’s complicated).

Fresh Beginnings

After successful endings, there’s almost nothing more exciting than fresh beginnings. A new book to sink your teeth into, the tingling that comes with creative inspiration for a new story, meeting someone who you know is going to be a great friend and turning the page from one calendar year to the next.

I love beginnings. It’s goals that tend to freak me out. They make me feel challenged and perhaps inadequate. If I don’t set them high enough, I’m a slacker. If I set them too high, I prove I’m a failure.

Serendipitously, I came across an article that suggests while goals are good for planning, they’re not actually beneficial for achieving. Instead, focusing on your system, or process, is the key.

Here’s what James Clear (isn’t that the perfect name?) says about the difference between goals and systems:

  • If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
  • If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.
  • If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.
  • If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process.

And then he asks the question:

If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still get results?

Cool, or what? Anxiety and tension flew from my psyche when I read this. It’s really another way of checking the steps you take to reach your goals, but he makes one more point that really hit home for me:

Goals are strangely at odds with long-term progress.

I used to be a Weight Watchers leader. One thing that became abundently clear is that when a member set a goal of losing weight to attend and event (usually it was a reunion or a wedding), once that event was over they stopped losing weight.

Clear says the solution is to release the need for immediate results and focus instead on long-term.

I want to write stories readers want to read. While I have a small tribe waiting for my next book, I want a bigger tribe. That takes more well-written books (each better than the last) and more marketing. But it’s my daily system, my ongoing process, that’s key… and always will be.

Then I came across this (the “serendipitousness” continued):

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This lovely gem arrived on my doorstep yesterday. It includes pages for writing and publishing goals in general, and specific goals related to words written, books written, books released, social media, newsletter, website, income, etc.

It doesn’t forget personal goals or even shopping lists. There are weekly plans and quarterly assessments, but beneath it all there’s the feeling that a system, a process, is key.

Here’s the link to James Clear’s article, Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on  This Instead.

And here’s the link to find out more about the Author Essentials 2017 Planner.

That brings me to something I’ve wanted to say for a long time. Our community of writers and readers is special. While we write or read alone, we gather in bookstores and libraries and blogs like this one. We lift each other up and we push each other forward.

Here’s to 2017. We’ve got this.

 

It’s all better with friends.

 

 

 

 

The Pretty Package

I love wrapping presents. Once a year I take out my glue gun, find all kinds of three-dimensional objects to affix and go to town. If I did my job right, the inside of the package will meet the expectations the outside created.

But honestly, once I jazz up the outside I lose interest (a little) in what’s on the inside. Will my husband appreciate the golf shirt as much as he appreciated the awesome ribbon and pinecones glued to the perfect wrapping paper? Suddenly what’s inside doesn’t seem as important as what’s on the outside.

It is not that way with books.

Right now I’m working through manuscript revisions based on feedback from beta readers. For this story I have seven readers: four successful authors in my genre; one who could be an editor if she didn’t manage a small real estate empire; and two readers who practically begged me to allow them to participate in this process. As of now, I’ve completed just one set of revisions. That means I have six potential revisions to go before I send it to my editor… and get involved on an even larger scale.

Soon it will be time to get on the schedule for my cover designer. I’ll give her a couple of highlights about the story and she’ll get out her glue gun. We’ll go back and forth until I have a cover I love.  With luck it will fairly depict the story and be good enough to attract readers who aren’t already supporters.

With books it’s what’s behind the wrapping that counts. But the wrapping can make the discovery of the gift easier.

Readers, what attracts you to a cover? Have you been disappointed because the “wrapping” was better than the “gift”? Have you read a book you liked that had a so-so cover? If so, what in the world made you read it in the first place?

It’s all better with friends.

Pushin’ It

There have been a lot of fantastic ideas on atmosphere this month. We’ve all pushed it around and come up with some great thoughts and images. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the posts of my “blogglings”, I encourage you to get another cup of coffee, or whatever you’re drinking at the moment, and check them out.

Here’s what I came up with when I pushed the idea of atmosphere around in my head:

Sure, atmosphere can be setting. Are we in the Sonoran Desert or the Colorado Rockies or the jungle in Peru? It’s gonna look and feel different. It can be era—is the story set in the 1700’s the 2000’s or the 2300’s? It’s gonna look and feel different. It can be weather, that whole “dark and gloomy night” trope. You get it, it’s gonna look and feel different.

Three guesses where I’m going.

I think at its core, atmosphere is emotion. What is pushing through the skin of the character? Is it fear? Lust? Happiness? If I write the scene right, I can change a sunny day at a backyard birthday party into an atmosphere that’s heavy and painful and foreboding… through emotion.

Recently I finished the first draft of my new manuscript centered around three young girls who’ve been trafficked. It’s a subject that carries its own atmosphere, but when I begin the initial editing/revision process (later today after I schedule this post) one of the things I’ll be looking for is some kind of atmosphere on every page.

Atmosphere is that ethereal element that puts a reader right inside the story. They might be observers (it’s often safer that way) but they’re at that backyard birthday party when things go south and everything changes.

Yeah, the wind might come up and the balloons might come loose, but it’s the emotion that took place just before and the emotional reaction the wind creates that fully builds the atmosphere.

Agree? Disagree?

It’s all better with friends.

 

 

The Texture of Language and Character

(Note: I wrote this post for our September theme of texture. Due to scheduling confusion, it didn’t appear but I kind a like it so here it is… a little late.)

 

Awhile ago I discovered the awesomeness of streaming through the power of my Prime membership. There are a lot of plusses: watching commercial-free episodes on my own schedule is huge; the ability to see and feel character arcs; then of course there’s the pause feature, and the ability to go back and see a certain scene again.

Over time I’ve noticed something else.

When I first started watching Deadwood I was shocked. It’s set in the late 1800’s, and I know for a fact no one ever dropped the f-bomb on Gunsmoke. It felt course. Raw. Unfinished. 

Then I began to get used to it. I got past the language and began to see the characters. Care about them. Feel their struggles, their failures and their triumphs. The characters were course. Raw. Unfinished.

And then I began dropping the f-bomb more frequently myself. In my writing and in conversation. The first couple of times I said the word aloud I’m pretty sure I surprised the people I was with. I know I surprised myself. If that’s a word you’re not used to, it’s impossible to unhear it.

I had managed to not fall into the Downton Abbey folderol. (Get that last word? Definitely not a Deadwood word.) I streamed that series and slipped into a pattern of thinking and speaking that was smooth. Refined. Polished. 

As were the characters. (Granny had some of the best lines!)

We often hear about sharp dialogue. My memory may be off, but I think Gilmore Girls was known for it.

George Pelecanos is a best-selling author I don’t read. I tried one of his books, The Night Gardener, and while I thought some of his characterization strong, the language put me off. After Deadwood, I might give him another go.

There is texture to language. And character.

A character who is flat simply needs more texture. A history that gives them vernacular. A language of their own, of their times, and of their heart.

Can you tell? I just finished re-watching all of Downton Abbey. (The f-bomb is unlikely to drop any time soon.)

What about you? Have you felt the hard edges of words from characters who are on the edge and hide little? Or the silky feeling from those who are restrained and might hide volumes?

 

It’s all better with friends.

 

Working With a Harness

As crime fiction writers, imagination plays a huge role in finding our story. You know the one. The story that will keep readers up at night and leave them wanting more when they finish that last page. The story whose characters ride along with our reader for days after they’ve moved on, like ghosts of friends they want to stay in touch with.

 

The trick becomes to take what’s in that special Imagination Place in our heads (for me it’s a movie room) and transfer the images to words that make sense. Words that flow a lot better than that dream you had the other night.

 

And then, it gets tough. Unless you write fantasy you’re going to have to set your imagination aside and do some investigation into reality. While I thoroughly enjoy doing research (it’s sucked me in more than once), it can be a real trick to keep the magic in the story and make it factually correct.

 

When our project drags, there can be a lot of reasons (a character is acting in a way they never would, we’re repeating things the reader already knows, we’re including a scene that goes nowhere, blah blah blah), but I think one reason might also be that we’ve allowed fact to ride all over imagination. The harness has been put on and the reins pulled tight. Instead of the great imaginer, we’ve become the workhorse, plodding along through something that once made us want to leap.

 

So, what to do? If we’ve checked our characters and our scenes and everything seems good, we need to take a good hard look at our harness and imagine what it would take to soften it. Make it work with us for a change rather than the other way around. Come at it from a different angle. Shake things up. Turn them upside down. Then put the pieces back together in a unique and surprising way.

 

As a writer, what’s your Imagination Place? Do you have a way to get back to it if facts begin to bog you down?

 

As a reader, have you read books where you can identify the exact spot the imagination left and humdrum reality took over? Or on the other hand, a place where the author had something happen completely out of left field and should have been a little more true to reality?

 

It’s all better with friends.

 

 

Life Twists, a/k/a Turning Points

How we process what happens to us today depends largely on what has happened to us in the past.

Turning points.

They can be beautiful (when I met my husband for the second time—another story);

or shocking (learning that my dad was having an affair);

or excruciating (the death of my dog and then the death of my mom);

or so subtle you aren’t even aware of them at the time (learning that I didn’t quite like my ability to exert power over another human being without uttering a word);

but each turning point in my life, and yours, was perfect.

Each time my life has switched gears, I’ve grown and moved and well… gone on. And one day I realize that without that shift, I’d very likely not have learned as much, nor grown as a human being.

When my bonus son was thirty-nine he suffered a stroke (a huge turning point for him). Long-story short, we moved him in with us and I was closely involved in helping him with rehab. While my home-based business tanked (this one required my in-person presence at ceaseless events), after about a year-and-a-half I made a decision: I’d write a book.

How hard could it be? (Don’t answer that.)

Turning points.

Three books published and many more under my belt (read in the proverbial drawer), I regularly transfer my life twists (real or imagined) to my characters, often unconsciously.

I’m passionate about the people who live in my books. I love them. Not always right away, but when I learn about their turning points? It simply isn’t possible not to. I don’t want to delineate each character here because that’s not the purpose of this post, but each and every one of them has gone through things you and I, or a friend of ours, or someone else we care about, has gone through. I think turning points in the backgrounds of our characters are the very things that make them relatable, whether they’re the good guys or the bad guys.

The point I’m trying to make is this: I believe each one of us is in exactly the right place in our lives. And we got to that right place because of turning points—the ecstatic turning points, and maybe especially, the difficult ones—and the resulting choices we made.

If you’re going through a hard turning point right now, hang tough. In time (a month or a year, it doesn’t matter) there’s a good chance you’ll be able to look back on it and see that it propelled you forward, often in surprising ways.

And if you’re a writer, you can use it!