Confessions of an ex-multi-tasker

I used to be a multi-tasker.  I remember being able to:  

  • watch television, do homework, and carry on a phone conversation all at once
  • track 3 different conversations at parties
  • write 2 or 3 different projects at once (and keep them all straight)

I can’t do that anymore.  Heck, I can’t even knit while watching television without either dropping a stitch or dropping the action of the show.  I suspect multitasking is a function of a younger brain.  

I haven’t given up trying, though.  Now I’m reading 3 different books (1 for the exercise bike, 1 for book club, and 1 of my choice), and I can’t keep the characters and plots straight.  It’s eery when I’m reading along in one book and I ask myself, “but what about Martha?” and then realize she’s in another book.  Oops.  

So, what’s a writer to do about multitasking?  There are plots and subplots and different viewpoint characters to track.  We have to keep them straight, weaving them in and out of the story in all the right places.  We can’t drop a single one of them, like my dropped stitches.  

Here’s what I’ve done to help keep some of this straight:  

  1. Write a 1-2 sentence summary of each chapter or section.  Being a pantser, this summary comes after the chapter has magically appeared.  
  2. Use a different font (in the growing outline) for each viewpoint character.  This makes it easy to scan through and see where that character is in the story, and who to juggle next.  
  3. Different colored index cards track the different subplots as they grow.  I lay them out on my table and intersperse them where they appear in the book.  I can easily see where one subplot has been neglected too long.  This is an especially handy tool for the revision process, after a complete draft is written.  

Right now I’m facing a huge challenge with my Work-in-Progress.  Doesn’t it always seem like the current book is the hardest book you’ve ever written?  My WIP has (so far) 3 different viewpoint characters, 2 time-lines, and 3 settings.  So I’m looking for more ideas of how to multi-task this mess!  

What tips do you have for keeping track of different plots and characters?  

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Superstitions, Quirks, and Rituals, oh my!

Recently, I accompanied Hubby on a business trip to Atlanta and was reminded once again of his travel superstitions.  He travels a lot for his job, and never goes anyplace without his St. Christopher’s medal.  He observes a few other quirks, too, but I couldn’t call him out on them, because the truth is that I’m just as guilty.  

In Turkey, where I spent most of my childhood, there’s a belief that Evil Eyes–or the color blue–protect you from evil.  The idea is essentially that the charm (it looks like an eyeball) stares down evil, eye to eye, thereby deflecting evil away from the person wearing the charm.  Children are especially vulnerable to evil, so they often wear Evil Eyes in the form of jewelry.  Blue beads are also very common in children’s jewelry.   

At least, that’s how it used to be.  Perhaps today, people are not as superstitious.  

But I keep my Evil Eye hanging above my writing desk.  

Just in case.  

And so far, it’s working!  It feels safe there, at my desk.  My desk is where I retreat from the real world into my world of make-believe.  I can control my world any way that I want to.  

Well, that is, until a character hijacks my book.  

Okay, so maybe all that I really control is the ritual surrounding writing.  Some writers that I know start their writing session by lighting a candle.  I do keep a candle on my desk for that purpose, but I never think to light it.

I guess that ritual is not for me. 

For me, it’s a particular coffee mug.  I have to write each morning with my coffee in this mug, and no other.  I’ve used other mugs, of course, but when I do, the daily words just don’t flow as well.  I can’t explain why this particular mug is magically right–but only for writing. I have other mugs that I actually “like” even more.  I don’t even remember where my writing mug came from.  Heaven help me if my special mug ever breaks!  

Do you have a superstition or quirk that you can’t explain but feels right for your writing or reading?  

Writing Surprises

One of the most fun things about writing is the way surprises happen.  Each time it’s different.  

Sometimes the surprise is the whole book itself!  The last book I wrote turned out to be entirely different from the one I meant to write.  When I was unlocking the back story to my character, she teased me so much with her history that I had to write that story instead.  The book I’d planned to write just evaporated, although I might still write it (if she lets me!)  

I’m in better control of my karate mom character in my Nell Letterly books.  Although the characters still surprise me, they haven’t yet hijacked an entire book.  

When I was working with the idea for book #1, Murder in the Dojo, I saw a woman walk out of the grocery store.  I didn’t know her, but I recognized her as my protagonist, probably in her body language.  I almost ran after the poor woman so that I could interview her.  Nell was born at that moment, and she turned out to be completely different from the way I’d originally envisioned her.  

Endings surprise me, too.  Although I’m mostly a pantser writer, I always have a general idea of the ending.  I don’t necessarily know the identity of whodunnit, but I have to know the gist of how the crime is solved.  The fun usually comes in finding my writer way to that destination, but in book #3, Murder for a Cash Crop, I got stalled in the middle.  When I assessed what the reader had learned so far, I was surprised to discover that I was already in the ending.  That was such a nice surprise!  

Surprises can also happen anytime later in the series.  In the second Nell book, Murder with Altitude, one of my critique partners kept asking why the detective was behaving the way he did.  I had a superficial answer, but it wasn’t complete.  Two books later, in #4, Murder by Moose, the detective surprised me with his entire story.  It was a big enough surprise that it’s led me off-track for book #5.  I am still working on that and hope to be surprised any day now.  

Surprises keep me interested.  I can’t wait to get back to my desk and find out what’s next!  

What kind of surprises, writing or otherwise, have you experienced? 

Getting to Know Characters–Part 2

When characters waltz into your story and you start with zero information about them, it’s hard to use the tools I mentioned last week in Part 1.  How on earth could we possibly know what their favorite TV shows were while in high school??  

As Kait said, “it’s blood, sweat, and tears!”  We’re lucky when characters come fully formed, but that doesn’t always happen.  Usually we start with minimal information, as most everyone commented last week.  The more we struggle, learning about the characters, the more they build, leading us to new insights about them.  

It’s such fun when they surprise us!  A recent protagonist surprised me when I wrote out her back story and she demanded I write that book instead of the book I’d intended.  

But mysteries benefit from a little control.  Mysteries come with a familiar cast of characters.  I start with this cast and arbitrarily assign to each one information in three basic categories.  All this goes into my series bible:  

  1.  What is the purpose of this character in this story?  He/she could be:  
  • protagonist sleuth (what type of sleuth–professional or amateur?)
  • supporting cast (includes roles such as sidekick, mentor, romantic interest, antagonist)
  • victim
  • suspect (includes innocents and the villain–although, I don’t always know whodunnit)

2.  Thumbnail sketch.  This will likely change and grow as I get to know the character, but it starts with: 

  • occupation
  • main character traits
  • greatest strength (to get character out of trouble) & weakness (i.e., flaw)

3.   Aside from the sleuth, what is this character’s connection to the crime?  

  • if a victim, then why did he become a victim? 
  • if a witness to the crime, then what exactly did he see?
  • if a suspect, then what is his alleged motive for the crime?
  • if an informant, then what does he choose to tell?  (Or not tell.  And why doesn’t he?)

Such questions are just the beginning.  Once the basic information is in place, it gets easier to use the tools to find out more detailed information.  When we do our jobs thoroughly enough, then the characters come alive and start talking to us.  Hopefully (or not) we could even meet them in the grocery store one day!  

Getting to Know Characters–Part 1

How do characters pop into existence, and then become so real?  

Whether we’re reading or writing, by the time we get to the end of a book, we know characters so well that they seem like real, living, breathing people.  Characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple are so vivid and memorable, they live through history.  We know them as intimately as they’ll let us into their lives.  You can even visit 221 B Baker St. in London.  Don’t all writers dream that our made-up characters could end up so everlasting?  

I’m at the beginning of a project right now, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of creating characters.  Recently, we’ve had a couple of wonderful, guest posts here on Mysteristas that have added timely information, giving me something to strive for.  Joanne Guidoccio wrote about how the series bible helps keep characters straight, and LS Hawker wrote about websites and playlists to help make these characters feel real.  

Before we can do all that, the character has to come from somewhere.  In the very beginning, we don’t usually know much about them.  

That’s where tools come in handy, helping us figure them out.  

Every writer works differently, and luckily there are lots of various tools.  I’ve used some of these:  

  1. filling out character questionnaires, which include questions such as “what’s their political view?” or “what’s their life plan?”  
  2. listing character traits, such as:  anxious, industrious, perceptive, etc.  
  3. digging into a character’s dimensions–what kind of depth is there to a character beneath his/her outward appearance?  This includes how he walks, talks, and behaves–and why.    
  4. taking personality tests— is the character an extravert or introvert?  A thinker or a feeler?  
  5. writing character bios and back story–the writer makes this up, and sometimes we find additional stories here!  

Writers, how do your characters come to life?  Readers, who are your most real-life characters?  

Finishing — 8 Little Questions

My previous post on Mysteristas was about abandoned projects, and as it turned out, several comments addressed the difficulty of finishing projects.  That made me wonder:  is there a difference between an abandoned project and an unfinished one?  

I think so.  And it’s more than a matter of semantics.  

Abandoning a project is like throwing it into a junkyard where some parts can be salvaged later.  Unfinished projects lose focus.  

We don’t toss out an unfinished project (let’s call it Murder in the Junkyard) if it has merit.  Merit determines whether or not this mess of a manuscript should be resurrected.  I’ve found that asking myself several hard questions really helps to finish a difficult project.  Starting with: 

 1.  Do I really care about this?  

We don’t have to know why, but if there’s a shred of passion about the project, then the next question becomes…

2.  Do I know what my protagonist wants, and why?  

 

The answer might not be on the page, but what the protagonist wants will determine the direction the story goes.  

 

There’s a bunch more questions to ask before tackling a revision, but that’s for another post.  Skipping ahead to the end, several more questions will help us finish this darned Junkyard project:  

3.  Are there logical obstacles keeping my protagonist from getting what she wants?  

 

4.  Does my protagonist use her special skills to overcome those obstacles?  (And by the way, what are those skills?)

 

5.  What has my protagonist learned by the end?  (If the answer is “nothing,” then remember that the writer is God.  What should my protagonist learn?  How has the character grown?  Even in a series, the character needs to change somewhat.)  

 

6.  What is the story question, and has it been resolved?  

 

7.  What outstanding questions are there? 

 

8.  Has the story fulfilled the promise made to the reader at the beginning?  

 

Once we figure out how to insert the scenes that will show the answers to such questions, then we can resurrect an abandoned project and finish it.  With a little passion!  

Abandoned Projects

My house is filling up with abandoned projects.  I have drawers of old manuscripts that went nowhere, closets full of fabric that never made it to the sewing machine, stacks of books that haven’t been read yet, boxes of photos that haven’t gone into albums yet, half-painted canvases, and…  Well, you get the idea.  

The collection keeps growing because of Shiny New Project, which sometimes tempts me away from Old Troublesome.  Does this ever happen to you?  

This is the year that I’ve decided to take control (or at least get the upper hand).  It’s the year of cleaning off my desk, as well as those closets and shelves.  Once upon a time, those abandoned projects were all shiny and new.  But then something happened to stop me.  Was it because:  

  1. the idea wasn’t good enough?
  2. the idea suddenly bored me?
  3. the idea presented a problem that I didn’t know how to work through–yet?  

Last month I dug into my file cabinet, and much to my surprise, I found a novel I’d written that I’d completely forgotten I’d written.  “Novel” is such a generous term for this manuscript.  It’s a total mess.  It’s a train wreck.  That’s probably why I’d filed it away and then forgot about it.  (What’s interesting is that I hadn’t forgotten about the two novels I wrote many years previously, before my first published one.  They were learning tools, nothing more.)  

But back to this train wreck.  It wasn’t a learning tool when I wrote it.  I’d simply abandoned it, probably because something easier and shinier happened along.  While I was digging in the file cabinet, I also found a few other unfinished stories.  I hadn’t forgotten about them; I’d just stopped working on them.  I never thought about why.  Maybe the time wasn’t right, and I didn’t know how to fix the mess.  Maybe because of category #3 above. 

Now I think I’ve figured out the problem that blocked me originally.  I hadn’t realized before, but it turns out that all of those various, unfinished pieces actually belong together.  My subconscious (aka “Fred”) had been working on the train wreck and kept trying to approach the problem in different ways–and failing.  

Good old Fred never gives up.  Now Fred has an answer and has been patiently waiting for me to catch up.  I can’t wait to see how it goes.  Old Troublesome has become the New Shiny!  

Do you have abandoned projects, and if so, what do you do with them?