A Writer’s Obsession(s)

Whether a writer or not, we all have our obsessions. Here are my top three:

  1. Striving to be a better writer
  2. Giving self-rewards
  3. Balancing writing with “real life”

The ways to strive to become a better writer is first of all read; read within the genre you write and read without. You may also watch; while watching shows, dissect plot or character inconsistences so you won’t. Watch Korean dramas (e.g., W – Two Worlds, or Goblin) to catch unexpected plot twists and characters who pull you out of this world and straight into theirs.

There are writers conferences, books, courses, webinars, writer support organizations (like SCBWI, RWA, NaNoWriMo, etc.), and critique groups. Go to them, join them. Learn, grow, read, make connections.

Of course, to become a better writer, the absolutely top thing to do is to write. A lot.

Giving self-rewards works for many writers. You may write to a word count or within a time frame or have a goal by a certain date. When you reach major goals (e.g., finished with first draft, or ready to send to agent, etc.), treat yourself to a rare and special treat for this milestone.

Balancing writing with “real life” is the trickiest. There may be obligatory events, which you do want to attend, but which take you away from writing, like with school or church or work. There may be children or aging relatives to attend to. Or when the grass climbs to knee-high, you run out of clean dishes to eat off of, or your editor returns your manuscript for edits the night before your vacation, saying she needs it back within the week (true story for me)…you need balance, and wisdom. Prioritize, but do not ignore the most important things to you. (For me, family trumps all, even writing.

Become a better writer. Reach for your goals. Balance your writing with real life.

“Thank you for being honest.”

I just returned from a shopping trip where I handed the clerk $20. I donated the coins change, but as I started out of the store, I realized I held a $20 bill in my hand.

I returned to the clerk serving the customer after me and said, “You gave me a $20 bill.” She looked confused, and then embarrassed. “I should have given you five.” She exchanged it and then said, “Thank you for being honest.”

It was my turn to feel embarrassed. She’d given me too much change. It wasn’t quite an unusual occurrence over my decades of shopping. But it got me thinking. I wondered why anyone should be thanked just for being honest? Shouldn’t honesty be the norm, the line below which ought to have repercussions and shame, the line above which ought to have respect and thanks?

I might have to wait another decade for the chance to “be honest” with another clerk, but as a writer, I can have my characters be honest – as the norm!

I see my books like society’s teeth braces, ever so slowly, over time, straightening out the line, the line of what should be normal. My characters go through difficult times and sometimes create trouble for themselves, but in the end, my good characters are better than the norm of good. (And my bad guys below that line, the farther down, the more interesting on my poor main characters.)

I know from my thousands of folk tales that other cultures honor and respect different virtues, like lies and trickery. In my fantasy or historical fiction worlds, goodness is expected. It’s the norm. Even so, there are some characters who prefer the lies and trickery, feeling that is the norm. For if my main characters didn’t have something to overcome, it would make for some awfully dull reading.

As far as the real world goes, all of us may make mistakes, like today’s clerk, but being honest is, and should be, the norm.

Thank you for listening/reading.

My Favorite Cemeteries – How and Where Do You Bury Your Characters?

A Facebook friend recently asked what my/our favorite cemetery was. Ooh. Cemeteries. There are too many to narrow down to just one. But here are my top five I’ve been to:

5. An unnamed cemetery on top of a hill in southern Ohio, where there are about twenty graves, all related. I nearly died myself getting to it, as a man in his 20’s agreed to drive my mother and me up there – to the spot near where the old still worried the children when Mom was little. We cleared the fence posts with about an inch on either side of the pickup, going about thirty miles per hour, through the fields and woods where if I’d stuck out my hand just past the side view mirrors, I wouldn’t have a hand as we whipped by. The wooded lot was on top of a hill, twined with poison ivy, “and keep an eye out for rattlers.”

4. Concord Quaker Cemetery near Colrain, Ohio, where numerous relatives and ancestors of mine are buried, including Josiah Fox, designer of the U.S.S. Constitution, and Julia Berry, who was born around the Civil War, but has an unmarked death date on her gravestone. Julia never married and was buried with other Berry relatives, under a very huge now and messy berry tree.

When our boys were young, Jeff and I took them here. Jeff was quiet and respectful, especially of seeing Josiah’s grave. The boys, on the other hand, were a little restless. There’s only so much of interest in a cemetery to little kids, after all. I pointed out that since Julia didn’t have a death date, she might still be alive at well over 100 years old. We then started joking around (not something I’d recommend in a cemetery), saying, “Juu-l-ia? Oh, Juu-l-ia? Where are you, Julia?” When suddenly the cemetery metal gate swung wide open. There was no breeze. Not in the least. The three of us scurried (quite disrespectfully) over the graves of the dead to reach the safety of Daddy-Hubby Jeff.

This cemetery also holds the unmarked graves of many runaway slaves, who had made it to the safety of the Ohio Quakers, only to die of sickness. I always say a prayer over them when I go there.

3. Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, SD, where sheriff Seth Bullock, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried. There is also the Chinese section with a stone oven. Not only is this cemetery a historic wild west resting place, but just getting to the cemetery is an adventure – driving up a nearly vertical road, then climbing up and up and up through the cemetery to reach the highest grave, that of Seth Bullock.

2. Author’s Row in the Concord, MA, Cemetery, where the likes of well-known authors have been laid to rest, like Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorn and Henry David Thoreau.

1. I realize there are numerous European cemeteries, like within the walls and floors of Westminster Cathedral, or under St. Martin’s on Trafalgar Square in London where you can eat lunch in their basement overtop of tombstones. Both very cool. But I made Jeff take me on a cemetery side trip not far from our hotel: Highgate. There is a wide paved path going through the center, but it’s the off-the-beaten-path ones I *liked* the best. The gravestones in these areas are generally overgrown. But more. You may even happen across statues of stone angels, who, if you blink, you’d swear they moved a step closer to you.  (If you know the answer to this spine-chilling-as-I-write-it reason, please dare to comment below.)

So where is your *favorite* cemetery or cemetery experience? Have you buried any of your characters in a similar place?

Where Do Your Characters Sleep?

With NaNoWriMo just a few days away, here is one thing you could mull over before you dive into your writing like a crazy person during November: Where do your characters sleep? Think of this as part of the setting category of your writing.

We all recall our own teenage rooms with pop-culture posters and such. We are familiar with our coordinated visually pleasing adult bedrooms. But perhaps you don’t write contemporary.

This week I was reading of ancient Icelanders who lived in long, narrow sod houses, with one way in or out. The “master bedroom” was the one furthest in mostly because it was warmest, but also most private. The children, workers, guests, etc., slept two per bed along the walls, and they slept head to foot because it conserved space. I tried to image it, and first only came up with cold feet on one hand, or stinky feet on the other.

In the book Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All, we read how 14-year-old Lucy’s 50-year-old husband was so large, he slept diagonally on the narrow bed. She curled up wherever she could.

Have babies always slept in cribs? Where do they sleep today in rural China? A village in Ethiopia? On a Pacific Island?

In one of my books, I have people camping for a few weeks. This is not difficult for me to imagine since we were tent-campers for about twenty years. Write what you know. But my characters don’t even have a tent! Oh, that’s right. I’ve slept many a night outside with no tent myself, which is lovely, or exciting, like when a big, fat raccoon walked over me in the night. However, tent-camping or tentless-camping, I could quickly get to civilization and any amenities in short order, where that is trickier for my characters.

I think of cowboys who herded cattle from TX to the railroads up north, sending the cattle on to the packing houses in Chicago. (BTW, most cowboys were black-skinned, which is neither here nor there, but just clarifying history from those western actors of the ’50s.) A cowboy on trail usually wore one set of clothing for the two-week drive. He slept in his clothes and had a single blanket as a bedroll. That’s it. Hard ground. Single blanket. No pillow. Oh, and he burned his clothing at the end of the ride. Go figure.

So I reiterate: Where do your characters sleep? If it’s in a building, what is the furniture in the room? Pictures on the walls? Air circulation? Others the room? If it’s in a tree, what sort of tree and what additions? Cave? Woods? Seaside? Picture it. What sounds are there?  Furnace humming? Wolves howling? Mosquitoes buzzing? Hold it. Visualize and listen to it 360 degrees.  Doing it now means next week you will be ready to write it all up during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

Whole Book Revisions

I have a book which is half done-ish at 50K. That is, I’ve completed the rough draft of one of the character’s POV, with lots of hours of revisions and rewrites already done to it, which also means the word count fluctuates as I add or delete. I was going to start in on the other character’s POV. I mean, I already have done that with 18K down, but decided to hold off until NaNoWriMo in November to completely rewrite it and add a bunch of twists and complications. It is so hard to wait when all I want to do is write. In the meantime, until November 1st, I am doing a whole book revision on the first guy’s story.

Some of my writer friends love revisions as the best part of the writing process. Perhaps that’s because the story line is done, the characters already developed, etc. Revision means delving into both the big picture and the micro (even down to a single word use) picture. To me, that’s like wading knee-deep in mud. That said, I really, really like my completed revised drafts. I just whine pitifully all the way there. And these are just my own personal revisions, not an agent’s or editor’s input.

I’ve got Darcy Pattison’s shrunken manuscript workbook next to my tiny-print manuscript and go back and forth and back and forth between them. I’ve done the “simple” tasks of marking strong chapters, boxing off scenes, etc., and can’t help but also do some micro editing. Sorry, Darcy. I know. I know. Big picture first. And so much think-time! They never teach you that in writing classes/books. There’s so-so much think-time to writing a book.

After I do this particular whole book revision, I’ll then print it off again and mark any major, medium, or detailed changes still needing attention. And then print it off again for another look-though.

You would think I would be content doing whole book revisions. I mean, it is writing, after all, isn’t it? Well, in fact, no, it isn’t. Revisions are a part of the writing process, the part to make your story stronger, to plug up those plot holes, to make your characters more loveable…or more hateable. Whether I particularly like this bit of writing or not, it sure will fill my time for the next five weeks. And then–hurray!–I can start in on a new story which has been teasing me ceaselessly to pay attention to it, which is actually the other side-of-the-coin story.

(All right, Sandy, quit writing all these fresh words and thoughts and get back to work already! Revisions-ho!)