The Power of a Makeover

One of my friends recently told me she felt she was in need of a makeover. She cut and colored her hair, sprung for the foundation for a new wardrobe, and even renovated her office. When she showed me a picture of herself post-changes, my reaction was, “you look completely different!” Which, I’m guessing, was the point.

My friend’s personal renovation got me thinking about our collective love of the makeover. Why is the concept of changing our appearance so attractive? Because when we change our appearance, we see something different in the mirror. We no longer see yesterday’s failures, but we can imagine tomorrow’s successes. For the briefest of moments, when we are literally faced with the shock of change, we are shaken out of our comfort zone into a world of possibilities.

Last year I left the company where I’ve worked for 17 years. A generous discount, a clothing allowance, and first choice of new sale items left me with the appropriate wardrobe for the job I was doing. But while leaving that career was an ending, it also represented the beginning of the rest of my life. Does that mean it’s time for me to makeover/renovate/shed my skin in order to embrace this new start? When I look in the mirror, I see the same person I saw 6 months ago. Is that who I am now?

Yes and no. Yes, I’m me. I’m the same person who loves the Go-Gos, owns all the Trixie Beldens, and is drawn to bright colors. But I’m not the person who was tied to the rules of a company anymore. If I wanted to, I could dye my hair blue, drink champagne with breakfast, and wear Moon Boots every day. But just because I can, does that mean I should?

So many of us are looking for our own new beginnings. Some of us are starting a new career. Some of us are retiring from one. Some of us are getting married/ divorced/ having children. Some of us are writing “Chapter One,” and some of us are writing “The End.” But wherever we are in life, we have a chance to look in the mirror and see the possibilities of the future.

And that is the power of a makeover.

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Figuring out the Beginning in Your Novel

Sometimes as a writer, I don’t know the beginning of my novel until I’ve written the entire shebang.

That means that the first words I put down on paper are really only a place holder — a spot to put the thoughts in my head that will help me make my way to the novel’s true beginning.

My debut book is the perfect example of that.

My very first draft of my book, Blessed are the Dead, began with my character, Gabriella Giovanni, shopping at a colorful Bay Area Farmer’s Market, picking out basil and heirloom tomatoes and fresh bread so she could make a birthday dinner for her boyfriend that night.

She’s chatting with the local baker, practicing her Italian, when her cell phone rings. It’s her editor at the newspaper. There’s just been a murder-suicide and she needs to get on it, like, yesterday.

The next chapter shows Gabriella at this lovely Oakland Hills house overlooking a spectacular sunset falling on the San Francisco skyline below.  She’s eager for the story and is jostling with other reporters to get the scoop. Meanwhile, she’s had to call her boyfriend to cancel his birthday day. He’s ticked off.

Third chapter shows her running into the newsroom on deadline and scrambling to get the story when she hears something on the police scanner that changes her whole life.

So, where does my final version of my book (to be published this June by HarperCollins) start?

Chapter three. Right in the heart of the action.

The first chapter was easy to cut. It was a bit of a snore fest. I love to wander the local farmer’s market and pick out my dinner for that night. To me that environment is magical, but let’s face it, unless a car ploughs through the market striking bystanders and knocking out booths, that scene totally lacked any tension. There’s a bit of tension when the editor calls, but not much.

So, goodbye chapter one.

In my next version, I started with Gabriella trying to get the scoop on the murder-suicide. There’s more tension. My character has a goal, a want, a need, and an obstacle in her way. In addition, there is an added layer of tension because boyfriend is ticked off he’ll be eating his birthday dinner alone.

So, starting here was better — but still not right.

For fun, I decided to ditch this chapter completely. I didn’t know this until I was at the end of the novel. It wasn’t that the chapter was bad, it was just that by opening on that scene — the murder suicide — readers automatically expected it to be of importance in my novel. And it’s not.

So, good bye chapter two. Deleting this one was a bit more difficult than getting rid of the first chapter. I mean, I was really attached to that blazing sunset over the San Francisco Bay Area. Also, that meant I had to get rid of this great part where Giovanni’s badass photographer partner, Chris Lopez, climbed a pine tree to get a good shot.

But once I gave them the ax, I never looked back.

The novel starts at the beginning. Where it should start. It just took me a while to figure out where that was.

 

The Distraction of the Beginning

I love beginnings. Opening a new book, waking up to a new day (DISCLAIMER: this is not the same as “morning” for me–I’m a night owl!), welcoming a new year, and one of my very favorites things: getting a brand-new notebook with nothing but blank pages. Beginning new research, a new class, a new hobby. . .there are so many interesting and fun things out there to begin!

This is one of the reasons that I love writing. My favorite part is–wait for it–starting a new story. There are all these lovely stories in my head, begging to come out. And then I’ll read a news article, and I get lost in the “what-ifs.” What if Dennis Rodman is a secret agent. For Canada. And what if he’s stealing secrets between bad renditions of “Happy Birthday.” Suddenly, I have another a new story idea and I can’t wait to begin writing and researching and exploring (just kidding about the Rodman one, though). Oh, new story=new notebook! A double-win!

Finishing, on the other hand, is a little more challenging. It’s not that I don’t love finishing, too. That feeling of success and completion is lovely, it truly is. It’s also a lot of hard work, usually, and focus, patience, perseverance, and tenacity. Which doesn’t sound like nearly as much fun as uncapping a wonderful new pen (purple ink!) and flipping open that notebook (hard cover) to reveal all those crisp blank pages, pages just waiting for my lists and notes and sketches and stories.

Go ahead, ask me how many stories I’m working on. Don’t be shy! (Two novels and three short stories.) Now, ask me how many I’ve finished. (Um, one short story.) You see my issue, right? So, what’s a beginning-loving girl to do? What would happen if my favorite writers, or all writers, never finished their stories? (Shivers!)  It’s a new year, and therefore time to set some new goals. I think I’m going to add things like “begin writing agent pitch for novel,” which requires me to finish a chapter, and “begin to work with an agent,” which requires me to finish a manuscript. Those sound like lovely beginnings I can look forward to. (I just might be on to something.)

What’s your favorite thing to begin? Any unfinished projects hiding in your closet?

Wishing you all a lovely year of exciting beginnings and many successful finishes, too!

 

Guest Post: Susan Koefod

Giving It a Rest

One of the hardest parts about being a writer, at least for me, is not the actual process of getting down to the business of writing. Though of course much can get in the way of writing. For me, those obstacles include a full-time job, children, a husband –- you know –- real life!

I’ve been blessed with a supportive husband who patiently lets me hide out and write when I like. My kids are in their late teens and creating on their own. And my job, well, that continues but I’m thankful I have it.

And I’ve been fortunate enough to never have writer’s block. I can pretty much always come up with something –- flash fiction, poetry, a piece of a novel –- when I set out to do some writing. In fact, I can put out a lot of words. During a two-week stint last summer I wrote over 50,000 words: most of one novel and parts of another. I’ve also managed to draft most of my debut novel, “Washed Up,” during National Novel Writing Month one year.

So output hasn’t been a problem.

The stickier issue for me has been forcing myself to NOT write. You see, I tend to jump from an early draft directly to submitting pieces. My revisions may consist of copy-editing, and that’s about it. And the reason it doesn’t go beyond copy-editing is that I haven’t paid attention to the important and complex ingredient of letting my doughy first draft rest.

I think this neglected phase of writing deserves more attention. That is, the phase of not-writing. Of letting the creative output rest, by filing the work (and making that all important back-up copy) and then just being okay with walking away from a story, poem, or novel and almost forgetting about it.

The layering of the passive activity of NOT paying any attention to the work does many things:

  • provides that essential layer of time away that clears the cobwebs
  • offers the space for your brain to still subconsciously work in deeper, more complex ideas
  • opens up time to start the next poem, story, novel, maybe an even better one than you thought you just wrote.
  • allows you to do other important creation-building work, like reading, learning from the masters of the trade.

Maybe we need a new writing related activity that involves, well, not writing. How about a National Not Writing Month (NaNotWriMo)? It would involve lots of reading, lots of long walks, lots of naps. Lots of rest from writing. Can you imagine how refreshed and raring to go you’d be after a month of letting your work sit, reading, clearing away the creative cobwebs?

I know I’m in!

***

Susan Koefod is the author of the Arvo Thorson mystery series. Burnt Out - cover cropHer debut, Washed Up, was praised for its “gorgeous prose” by Library Journal. Other books in the series include Broken Down (2012) and Burnt Out (2013). She has also widely published prose and poetry, including her short story “Boys will be Boys,” which appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. She is a recipient of a 2013 McKnight Artist Fellowship for Writers.

For the many different ways of contacting Susan, please check out her about.me page.

Planning a New Novel

Yeah, I said planning, not writing, because I’m a plotter. Those doubts have crept in, though.

“Just write it already.”

“Write what?”

“You know, the story you know you’re going to write anyway after you’ve thought about it for too long.”

I look at my notes. I turn on the computer. I create a new file. Then stop.

Reading Craig Johnson’s latest and Catriona McPherson’s first have convinced me to keep planning. I don’t know if either of these writers is a plotter or a pantser, but I stand in awe of their careful attention to detail in each scene. So finely drawn, but never too much. I never get bogged down in those details, but I do sometimes stop just to admire such excellent craftsmanship. (Or is it just raw talent that I don’t have that critical voice interjects?)

Then there’s that extra touch of the theme strung so carefully all through. Just touches. Probably not all readers even notice it. Take Spirit of Steamboat for example. It’s a Christmas story. Our hero, Walt Longmire, is reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in the first scene. Johnson uses brief allusions to the story throughout his piece, like a sardonic thought from the sheriff. After a long list of difficulties he’s facing, he adds, “God bless us, every one.” The novella is full of these little touches. They don’t call attention to themselves, but they do elicit a laugh, a feeling of wholeness. They add that extra something.

That’s what I want to do. Have something so well crafted that I lace it with the extra touches that make it shine. McKee (Story) calls it an image system. Certain images, turns of phrase are associated with each character. In Johnson’s case, he always includes an overriding image system for his whole novel.

I love it and am planning to emulate this. I’m learning from you, Mr. Johnson. But for me, creating a sense of the whole through an overriding theme takes planning. So for now, that’s what I’m going to do.

When Beginnings Aren’t

I love Jeffery Deaver’s books. While he’s most famous for the Lincoln Rhymes series, I also adore his Katheryn Dance novels. A stand-alone, “The Bodies Left Behind,” was my first Deaver and is still one of my favorites. He’s one of the few authors whom I consider an “auto-buy.” So when “The October List” came on pre-order, I snapped it up. Didn’t even read the book description. Just clicked BUY and waited for it to pop up in my Kindle.

If I had taken the time to look at the blurb, I would have read, “The shocking end is only the beginning… #1 bestselling author Jeffery Deaver has created the most riveting and original novel of the year—a race-against-the-clock mystery, told in reverse. (Italics mine.)

The whole thing is told back to front. Omega to alpha. Climax to intro. Now, I like to consider myself relatively intelligent, but I could not get through this for the life of me. I started it three times and really only went back to it the last time so I could write this post. I kid you not–it was wicked hard to read. Not the actual writing, mind you. Or even the plot, once I understood the big picture. But the back-to-front construction of it defeated me.

For one thing, I couldn’t sustain enough concentration to make sense of the events. The unusual construction kept me from recognizing which clues or info I should be retaining, and I kept having to go back to the beginning (really, the ending) to look up names or events that I hadn’t realized I’d need to remember. Perhaps this would have been easier in a print book, but the e-version made it extremely frustrating.

Reading this book was work. I had to take notes! And, aside from this blog post idea, the only reason I kept at it was because this was an author I loved and I really wanted to like it.

Eventually, I realized I really didn’t care about the characters, either. Contrary to Deaver’s usual efforts, the main characters—Gabriella (a woman whose six-year-old daughter has been kidnapped for a ransom of a half-million bucks and the delivery of the mysterious October List) and Daniel (a rich and George Clooney-handsome man who first met Gabriella two days before the kidnapping and committed to helping her get her daughter back)—both came across simultaneously cardboard and melodramatic. The fact that Gabriella keeps getting distracted by moments of lust for sexy Daniel irritated me no end as well. Really? She’s gettin’ hot and distracted by “the heat of his touch on her thigh” in the midst of fleeing bad guys and trying to rescue her daughter from a crazed, ruthless kidnapper? (Italics, most assuredly, mine.)

Finally, after pushing through the first third, I gave up and, highly unusual for me, jumped to the end (beginning) and discovered—in true Deaver fashion—a twist that I would not have been able to have imagined. Although I still hated the structure, what I learned at least reassured me that Deaver hadn’t completely lost his mind. In fact, in its own way, this particular story was peculiarly right for being told in backwards progression. It didn’t make me like it anymore, though.

So, do I have a moral for all this? Not really. Except … maybe…while hindsight is 20-20, it’s not a great way to write a book. 

How NOT to Begin a Mystery Novel

  1. Wait until time is right: may involve anything from planets aligning to appearance of benefactor yearning to fund your writing endeavors.
  2. Start Pinterest board to keep inspirational writing quotes in one place.  Spend far too much time flailing about in sea of quotes and laughing at LOLcats.
  3. Delay action until confidence blossoms into bouquet of fearlessness.
  4. Browse shelves of local bookstore, vowing to figure out how those authors managed to do it.  End up spending $200 on novels to read immediately.
  5. Determine that you will begin novel when desk is perfectly organized.  Find self at Home Depot picking out shelving systems and paint colors for turning guest room into tranquil writing oasis.
  6. Center the words “Chapter One” on a blank page.  Type nothing else, ever.
  7. Be daunted by need for introduction so compelling that agents and publishers will instantly offer you a contract.
  8. Click every writing-related link posted on Facebook and Twitter.  Enter internet dimension where all other people seem to have just published a novel. Wonder if the world really needs another one, namely yours.
  9. Spend a few weeks researching forensic procedures.  Decide break is required because: gross.
  10. Watch many hours of reality TV.  Because those are some good story structures right there.

This public service announcement brought to you courtesy of my own epic failures.  Finally discovered that committing to the work of novel-writing itself was far more soul-satisfying than any of the things above.  Except reality TV.  Just kidding.  Mostly.

ps: For How to Keep Writing A Novel, please see Mr. Neil Gaiman’s wonderful pep talk.