Convicts in my Front Yard

Literature Blogs

There were orange suited convicts in my yard this morning… They are minimal security prisoners on work release to help with the storm debris clean up piled shoulder-high along the streets of my neighborhood. My husband’s gone. I am curious. There are a few city workers using the machinery out there, too. I must admit, for some reason, it was a bit thrilling. I mean, I know no murderers were released to do the work. Still…

Now comes the awkward part.

For about a half an hour after they had moved down the street, one of the vans with blue-suited prison guard drivers, sat in our driveway. We have no sidewalks, nor curbs and gutters. There’s just grass to the edge of our narrow little street. I was trapped. It wasn’t like I needed to go anyplace, either, but I had this irresistible urge to run.

About the van in our drive. The last I’d seen anyone around it, he was an orange-suited guy, taking an awfully long time to get something from the back. (Okay. We all know by this that I would never make a very good witness, but there’s nothing wrong with my imagination.) So I started thinking… why? Why was that van there when the convicts had moved down the road and no longer in sight?

The fantasy writer in me played with magic, and the fact that our baby red-tailed hawk never moved from its dead branch for the entire time the trucks and shovels and asphalt scraping and raking and beeps went on. What, exactly, did that hawk chick have to do with the person in the unmoving van? Or orange?

The SF writer in me wondered about abduction of the driver-guard… Boring!

The thriller writer in me knew someone in orange had slipped away from the crew, and was climbing through my opened three-season room windows. Didn’t you hear the small sound coming from that part of the house?

The romance writer in me thought of an unwed mother going into labor because of all the activity out front, but who was unable to get out of the driveway because it was blocked, so HE comes to the rescue… okay… I’m not romance writer.

The crime-writer part, figured the guard was dead in the back of the van. His jacket and trousers missing… along with one of the inmates. Oooo.

The picture book writer in me was thinking about community helpers, like nice police people and smiling city workers who help keep our streets clean.

As I was typing these scenarios, a blue-suited guard walked up to driver’s side of the van, got in, and pulled away after the rest of the activity. The reasoning side of me figured he’d parked there because it was out-of-the-way, plus our driveway faces the corner, and so had a good vantage point for prisoners working either street.

I have no trouble coming up with ideas for stories. And I honestly like writing for hours at a time. And when a day or – shiver – two go past when I do not write, I go into withdrawal and become grouchity and not very nice to live with.

So here is my writing challenge to you today: find one situation and come up with several alternative solutions to it, then run with the best idea. This can be a scene from your story, or it can be just a fun exercise to get your creative juices flowing, like looking outside your window to find your yard crawling with orange-suited convicts.

More Tornado Stuff

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We’re still without internet — 11 days and counting. This is killing me. It’s difficult not to be able to communicate in my normal, daily way, using my normal, daily workspace. Right now, I’m using my husband’s work computer while he is off on a staff retreat. Which reminds me, thanks to the many people who have offered their homes for my internet communication addiction.

Before I speak about yesterday’s events, I want to say how furious I feel towards thieves, especially thieves who take advantage of tragedy victims. Strangers are canvasing our storm damaged neighborhoods, asking for down-payments for tree removal ($500 to $2,000), and then never returning. I knew of things happening like this from after Hurricane Katrina. I thought everyone knew that. Maybe not. Maybe it was just because I’d helped out down in Mississippi, and therefore heard lots and lots and lots of stories. But this I know, if any stranger comes to our door asking for a down-payment before work, he’d better have his cell phone ready for a 911 call because I’ll be all over that guy! (Actually, our trees are now off the house, and the rest in process of being removed, so these thieves probably won’t bother knocking on our door. Oooo. But if one does…)

Yesterday (Tuesday), three major things happened.

1) Our official insurance claims agent came out and spent three hours assessing our damaged property.

2) Garbage. I need to back up this story two days, to Monday. I called first the disconnected number in the phone book, let City Hall’s number ring 15 times, then called the number to ask for a dumpster, figuring they could direct my call. I was dead-set on speaking to someone about our missed garbage collection. I learned for the first time in living here seven years, that this job is outsourced, out-of-town. I was put on hold  for 45 minutes (not letting that wiggling fish at the end of the line get away this time), waiting, waiting, waiting, with no speaker phone. Four days previous, half of our street was collected. I can only assume tree removal and construction trucks blocked their way on our regular garbage collection morning. But with homes in our neighborhood having cleaned out our refrigerators, and after four days in 90 degree heat (visualize waves of stink rising from each driveway end), and animals starting to dig into the bags, not only did the 8′ piles of tree debris on our lawns block our view of the pavement, but  the garbage piles made it tricky to pull out. 45 minutes later, and then grilled for details, like my waste management number (didn’t even know we had one) and exactly how many bags did I have out there, I was told they would pick it up the next day. They did. My neighbors call me “The Garbage Police.”  I call me desperate.

3) At noon, with the temperature hovering at 90 degrees, one of the many still-leaning trees around here took out a transformer box, leaving hundreds of homes and businesses in my area without power. The lights flickered on and off about eight times before they went off entirely.

It got me thinking about different people (and therefore character) reactions. (This IS supposed to be a writing blog, after all.) My sister would have said, “Let’s get out the flashlights.” My father would have said, “What the &%#@!” and then gone to check our fuze box. My mother would have sighed, then looked disgusted. Another may have stared at the light, blinked, and then waited for his spouse to tell him what to do. Others may have said, “Oh, well,” or “Here we go again.” (This is a great writing exercise, by the way: take any situation, and then have each of your characters respond/react to it in their own way.) My reaction to the this incident? I know it was still daylight. I knew we had gallons of tap water for flushing, and bottled water for drinking. We’d just gone through six days without power, and knew all the what-to-dos. But, actually, that was the point. We’d JUST gone through six days without power, and only had it on for three days. While the light in our hallway flickered, I went from ut-oh mode to hope each time it flashed back on. But then, when it went off for good, I tried not to burst into tears in front of our insurance claims agent, continuing business as usual. It was only off for four and a half hours, but somehow, I was still rattled — cool, calm, collected me, rattled at a daylight loss of electricity.

Well… I may not be doing the novel revision work I’d planned on doing this week, or this month, but I sure am gathering writing fodder for future stories. I have 71 journal pages (mostly random thoughts and facts) and counting, and that doesn’t even count my blog words.

I hear rain and wind storms are coming the next couple days. Why do I feel shaky when I think about that?

Wordsmithing in Verse

 Literature Blogs

At first I thought this goal of writing a poem a day during National Poetry Month was just another writing challenge. Then, I thought writing them was lofty, poetic, oh so literary. Then, I panicked, because I know I’m no poet and couldn’t tell good from bad. I can’t even rhyme. I craved to give up this challenge after the first few days. After all, I didn’t even have a Poetry Month Partner to encourage me along the rocky way.

I’ve found writing poetry HARD. Writing good poetry takes talent. But if I fail in this challenge, then I fail as a writer. Why? Because if I am unable to pick my words well in short focused pieces, how can I choose my words well in larger works? Word detail is vital. Accent, tone, and each syllable is important. What an awareness! I’m thinking that every novelist needs to engage in poetry writing for a time.

My Tools of the Poetry Trade: Usually I write with keyboard beneath my fingertips. But in this month-long experiment (well, only a week so far), I’m finding myself using pencil and paper more than any other time. I write down snatches of ideas for poems. I use the eraser a lot. Revisions take on an entirely new dimension. I also use a printed Thesaurus. I haven’t done that in decades. Lately, I’ve lazily depended upon computer-generated words. Soon, though, I may come to the thinking that even using a Thesaurus is lazy.

The very interesting thing I’ve concluded now is that I’ve also found that writing poetry is FUN. There are so many venues. I’ve written sentimental pieces, silly ones from a child’s point of view, love songs, nature and gardening prose, couplets, snatches of ideas. The variety of possibilities is nearly endless, and best yet, I am not limited. I am no longer scared to try wordsmithing in verse. I’m thinking next time National Poetry Month rolls around, I may focus more, like write 30 limericks about nature. Surely, just for the sheer weight of my words, there will have to be one or two which is audience readable.

Onward to engage in my poem of the day.

August Writing Challenge

 Literature Blogs

Here it is.. With three and a half weeks left in the month, the challenge I charge to you is to write 10,000 RAW (i.e., new) words by September 1. No, I do not mean for you to write out a list of words like erity, makeabee, xabertous, and bbbbletah. I mean, 10,000 raw writing words, put together into a rough draft stage of a new story or part of a story. Simple dimple, right?

Need a starter word? How about starfish? Or xabertous?

Ready? Set? Go!

How To Write When There Are Others Around, Part IV — 1 More from Darcy Pattison

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In Darcy Pattison’s “Fiction Notes,” she addressed this very topic this week. There are too many other people to list who have also given suggestions. Gee. Sounds like a book idea! Wait. There are probably lots of books concerning how to write when there are others around.

One of Darcy’s suggestions is to use pen and paper. I do this so much — even journaling daily in marble notebooks — that I think about this suggestion about as much as I think about being a woman, i.e., it just is a part of me. So, thank you, Darcy, for rattling my brain a bit.

Not long after Hurricane Katrina struck, I headed south on a mission trip with PDA (Presbyterian Disaster Assistance). For the first few days, I helped cut trees and drag branches to the roadside for later pickup and became spotty with gnat and mosquito bites. During our shade-and-drink breaks, I’d whip the small notebook and pen from my back jeans pocket, and write furiously until we started up again. Then, during the leaders meeting, the director of the camp asked if anyone had a writer in their group — to work on the website, write down stories, etc. My fearless leader’s hand shot up, indicating that I was the only one in the group of 90-some volunteers there at that time who was “a writer.” One man from NJ who’d worked with me and the trees that week, confessed he wondered why I hid behind tree trunks scribbling all the time.

The next day, I was left alone in the tent camp, except for my gnat and mosquito friends, staring at the computer. The wall-canvases were pulled to the poles so I could look over my lonely territory. I stared at the screen, tried to organize my notebook thoughts, feeling lonely and deserted and wondering how I could stand the pressure of being the lone writer, and what I would write about first, when who wandered into the shade of my tent, but the big honcho in charge of all PDA camps in the area. Interview time!

I had lots to share with him from my scribbles to bring him up to current speed of the camp, and he gave me lots more to write about, dealing with the camp’s short history.

Robert Louis Stevenson (one of my literary heros) always carried pencil and pad with him and scribbled away notes and snatched bits of conversation. Of course, this was pre-notebook (computer) days. But there are many times when technology is unavailable even today. So… keep those notebooks and journals and a couple of pens (in case one runs out of ink on you) handy.

How To Write When There Are Others Around, Part I — The Problem

 Literature Blogs

I am not your sit-in-a-cafe-and-write type of person. If I do, I start eavesdropping on conversations, or watch kids wrap their parents around their desires, or figure out why this one lady is sitting all alone at a table with a drink and a laptop but not even looking at her screen. However, I know for some writers, the more noise and people, the better for writing. Not me. I crave quiet.

But besides being distracted in public, what about those distractions at home? Take my on-line critique group… One has five children and spent a month visiting relatives on the way to their new home several states away. One practically runs her boys’ Cub Scout Troop, and is active in school events — even all summer long. One owns her own very active (pun?) drama school — need I say more? One has a daughter who just left for boot camp and a son who is an autistic adult. One has four children she homeschools and a whole bunch of farm animals. My husband works out of our house, on the computer, for half of his work time.

When just six of us writers start listing the distractions caused by home and work life, the pile of excuses start adding up. Okay. Let’s just admit it… every writer has excuses. That’s the problem.

Next post: what are some solutions?

Writing Sensory Images

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Today may prove to be a record-breaking heat day for this area. I’ve closed all the windows to keep in the early morning coolness, but haven’t yet turned on the air. It just seems too early in the year to do so. Besides, I find a bit of perspiration and being uncomfortable helpful to me as a writer.

Once, I was writing a chapter about kids traveling through a desert. The more I typed, the hotter and more thirsty I became. There I was, typing on the computer, while sweat dripped off of me. I kept thinking, “Wow! I must be one terrific writer to imagine things so vividly that I’m physically getting hotter and hotter.” I’d been typing for a few hours, closed up in the den, when I finally got up to take a break and get a drink of water. It was only then that I realized it was 100 degrees outside, and I hadn’t turned on the air conditioner.

Did I turn on the air conditioner at that moment, you ask? No, I did not. I finished the chapter first, taking note of all my hotness and putting it into words.

Speaking of Manuscript Rejections…

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Yesterday I received a form rejection letter from an editor. I’d like to say that’s never happened before, but if I tried to actually say that aloud, you couldn’t be able to make out my words through my laughter. Yes, I received a form letter, even down to the signature, which was typed out. Surprise! (Not really.)
 
I realize that editors are extremely busy folk. I know they receive thousands of queries each year, along with dozens of requested manuscripts. I know their time is valuable and their work is never, ever done, and that picking and choosing what to read and what and how to respond to each letter personally is difficult and time-consuming. I understand, because from this writer end, I certainly feel a similar time-crunch.
 
Lately, I’ve gotten to the point that when “Dear Author” letters come, I don’t keep them. I do usually glance over them before tossing them into the trash. Yesterday, after the toss, there was a line in the letter which kept coming back to me. The more I thought about it, the more I chuckled, so I dug it out. After the greeting of “Dear Author,” and thanking me for sending my manuscript — it was actually a query letter — came the line: “I’m sure there was something that appealed to me about your manuscript — perhaps it was a good idea, a strong character, or some lovely prose. However,…” and then came the reject with encouragement to try my story elsewhere. I’m wondering 1) if the query was even read (I know one conference editor admitted that during busy times, she’d tell her assistant to simply open the mail without reading the contents, and put in form reject letters); 2) if there was some good, strong or lovely part to my story (or query) which truly appealed to her, what was stopping her from pursuing working with me to make it better and stronger and lovelier?
 
(I must admit here, mostly I send things to editors or agents I’ve met at conferences, therefore, most of the reject letters I get are indeed personal. Thank you, kind editors and agents.)
 
I suppose honesty is a bad thing at times. I suppose one couldn’t have a form letter reading, “Dear Author, Man, has my life and work been crazy lately. Sorry. Can’t wade through the slush pile. Good luck in finding someone in a better position.  From, An Editor.” Or how about,  “Dear Author, I couldn’t get to your manuscript/ query/ proposal/ questions. Have you ever considered self-publishing?”
 
I’ve thought of composing a “Dear Editor” letter in response to form rejects, but by doing so, I’m afraid I’d be cutting off my arms at the elbows.
 
Enough procrastination by thinking and writing about this. Time to get back to my real writing, and turn my good ideas into great ones, my strong characters into memorable ones, and my lovely prose into… er… gooder stuff.

Need a Two-Week Writing Challenge?

 Literature Blogs

I do… need a writing challenge, that is, especially when the weather is lovely and I hear my needy yard whimpering at me to come outside and play.

I’ve found that when I put writing challenges on my blog, it is rather like an accountablity statement for me.

Here’s the writing challenge: 3,000 raw words, and at least one submission, by May Day.

Ready? Get set? Go!

Whole Novel Critiques– Rewriting and Revision Process

 Literature Blogs

I have just finished receiving my first group whole novel critique. The five others in my on-line critique group spent the past month reading and critiquing a novel they’d never seen before. This last week we’ve been discussing what everyone wrote about it.

The process: I submitted the whole novel on line, with an author-list of questions in four categories: 1) beginning and ending of book; 2) characters; 3) plot; and 4) theme. After three weeks, I received their responses, then compiled a new set of 7 or so questions stimulated from their comments. Now that I have those second responses back, I need to think how to proceed (in other words, comes the nitty-gritty bit of rewriting and revision).

In my past, I’ve had individuals read whole novels of mine. If editors or agents comment, they usually come back with just a line or two (e.g., “too quiet a story line for me”). Other writers’ comments vary in length, usually 1-2 pages of printed naration. What I found so fascinating about this group process, was that I had five different people in 4 different states and 1 other country, giving their thoughts on how to make it a better story. If one or two of them didn’t like something or was confused by some part or character, I could TOT it (take it or toss it). But if all 5 of them felt some part was needy, I would certainly see it as something needing to revise or rewrite.

One person in our critique group has revised one of her novels 17 times. She says it was a good story in the beginning, but now she really likes it. I don’t keep track of the number of times I rewrite or revise, since I often do it by chapters or scenes. I’d only do whole novel look through right before sending it out to an editor or agent. This time, I hope to do things differently before the professional submission.

I’ve compiled a list of things I need to address (e.g., the relationship between father and son). I plan on taking one of each of the things which need fixin’, and go through the entire story focusing on just that one concern. When I am done with that revision, I’ll move on to the next one and go through the entire story with only that concern in mind, and so on. THEN, I’ll do a whole book look to see how much I’ve messed things up or fixed things up.

Man! When I made up stories for my friends in junior high, it was never this hard.