How To Get Unstuck Part I

DSC03289Once upon a time there was an ambitious young executive—we’ll call him Lance. He was doing all he could to climb the corporate ladder: he’d work late and volunteer for special projects. The one thing he was missing was face time with the CEO. Lance well understood that the political game was just as important as what he actually contributed to the company.

One evening he had his opportunity. He was working late one night and saw the CEO standing in front of the shredder with a piece of paper in his hand.

“Listen,” said the CEO, “this is a very sensitive and important document here, and my secretary has already gone for the night. Do you know how to make this thing work?”

Lance was thrilled at his opportunity to be perceived as helpful, knowledgeable, and competent. He put the paper into the shredder and hit the start button.

“Wonderful!” said the CEO as his document disappeared into the shredder. “I only need one copy.”

I’ve seen this story floating around the internet in various forms for years. But it resonates with me, and I’m sure many others, because we’ve all been there.

We try so very hard to achieve something, and disaster strikes. Or maybe we just get stuck. No matter what we do, we can’t make the progress we want to.

I’ve been in that same place with my writing. So instead of letting myself stay in the rut, I thought about ways to get out of it.

The first is to understand the task. What I am trying to accomplish? Our friend Lance assumed he know what his task was. And while I can’t fault him for assuming that the CEO knew the difference between a shredder and a copy machine, Lance could have avoided the catastrophe by simply articulating his understanding of the task.

“I’ll be happy to shred that for you,” would have made all the difference.

As I edit, I get bogged down because I’m trying to do too many things at once. I’d make far better progress by focusing on just one aspect, like character arcs, and making sure they work before moving on.

Second, going back to basics helps. Many pro athletes who end up in a slump will spend some time just on basic drills, the same ones they spent time on when they were just starting out. This is often all they need to get their performance back where it should be.

I know I’ve found that by just reviewing a good article on whatever I’m working on, whether it’s dialogue or setting can help me focus my thinking. I then can make my edits easier and end up with a better result.

That’s just two ways to get unstuck. Next week we’ll look at three more.

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The Story in the Picture

DSC01449If one picture tells a thousand words, then what does my collection of photos tell?

Thousands of stories, if I can only unleash them.

What stories could this Indian tree tell? We were told that the Indians used these trees to mark their trails. They’d bend the sapling the way they wanted, and the tree would grow with permanent angles.

This particular tree points the way to get from the bluff to the water. What if a government whistle-blower knew of the tree, and used it to hide stolen documents that could bring down a corrupt president? After the whistle blower is found dead (along with four other people who had come forward), it’s up to the last surviving member of the group to find the documents. All that’s left are vague clues and a blurred photograph. Will he find the hiding place in time to save his own life and bring a criminal official to justice?

And then sticking with the tree theme…

DSC01500A hiker in the mountains stumbles on these trees growing out of the side of a mountain. A sudden storm causes him to seek shelter under the roots of the tree. There he stumbles into…what?

Could it be a portal back in time, where he emerges just in time to get caught up in an earthquake that changes the course of a nearby river? Or could it be a cave that holds treasure? Or an air vent that leads to a secret underground lab, where scientists are splicing human and animal genes to create enhanced capabilities. In one experiment, they merge human genes with a cheetah’s, to try to create muscles that will allow men to run as fast as the animal.

The hiker overhears enough of what’s going on that he begins to investigate. Then the corporation behind these experiments finds out someone is asking questions, and the hiker finds himself in mortal peril.

162 cemetaryA cemetery holds a story for every death. This cemetery in Zambia tells a thousand variations on one melancholy theme: deaths from AIDS. So many die each day that it’s hard to keep up with the need for fresh graves. And many leave young children behind. How a pair of orphaned siblings build a new life for themselves and many other in the face of overwhelming odds leave a challenge and inspiration for the rest of us who haven’t suffered as much.

And then there’s the cat.

DSC02420What if a stray cat slipped into a hospital, and hid in the radiology department. Over time, the radiation builds up, and the cat somehow learns to read. A maintenance man finds the cat and takes it home. Then strange things start happening.

Stay tuned. Maybe someday I’ll turn one of these into a novel.

 

 

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A Mixed Bag of Summer Reading

afghanistan-60641_640Usually when I read for pleasure, I’m looking for entertainment. While fantasy and historical fiction are two of my favorite genres, I’m not stuck on them. This week I read books in three different genres: fantasy, mystery and non-fiction.

 

White Hart

White Hart is a fun twist on the idea of mistaken identity. Mae is one of the last few magic wielders in Aegunland. She’s kept her secret closely, not wanting anyone to know of her abilities. The king scours the land, looking for a suitable craft-born girl to marry to his son. When the searchers arrive in Mae’s village, the social climbing miller pushes his daughter forward, claiming she has the powers the king is seeking in a bride for the prince.

When the village is attacked and many killed by villains who kidnap the miller’s daughter is kidnapped in order to exploit the talents they think she has, Mae and the spoiled prince set out on a quest to rescue her, and to avenge the dead. Little did Mae know what a wild ride she’d started, and what dangers lay ahead.

Dear Zari

Turning to non-fiction, I found the compelling story of Zari, who was born in Afghanistan and grew up in Kabul during the endless wars that have plagued her native country. She moved to London, and there produced a radio program for Afghan women. Dear Zari is a collection of the letter she received through the years, telling the difficulties, struggles and victories of the women who survive through heroic efforts and perseverance.

Some of the stories, especially those told by women forced into marriage at a very young age, are heartbreaking. Much of their suffering is due to long-held traditions, and the women share some unimaginable horrors: being given as a child bride to repay a debt, to a life spent in a dark room, weaving carpets, to widows, shunned by society. Worst of all was the story of a girl brought up as a boy.

The bravery of the women to speak out and share their stories gave the author courage to face her own past nightmare. While difficult reading, the courage and resilience of the women is an inspiration to anyone struggling.

Last Writes

Switching genres yet again, Last Writes is a mystery featuring Claudia, a handwriting expert. When her friend Kelly’s estranged half-sister shows up with a story that her husband has kidnapped their daughter. The couple had been living in a secluded compound belonging to the Temple of the Brighter Light. Claudia uses an opportunity to put her forensic handwriting skills to use while searching for the missing child. She uncovers disturbing hints about the cult and its leaders. Meanwhile, the time for an ancient prophecy to be fulfilled draws near, making Claudia wonder is the missing girl—and others—are in mortal peril.

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More Fun Than Facebook

texting-1490691_640See all those kids with their noses glued to their phones? That’s what my mother used to say about me. Except my nose was stuck in a book.

People scoff at those who seem glued to their devices. I’m feeling a bit more tolerant these days. Somehow I’m finding myself surfing the net or reading Facebook or playing Sudoku more than I used to, rather than picking up my kindle (or an actual book). I guess I’m just getting lazy. Or is it that the mindless posts or games are more intriguing than the books I’ve been reading?

Sadly, I think it’s a combination of both. But the good news is that I have found a few books I found compelling, enjoyable and memorable.

Poison Study

Some books just reach out and grab you from the start, and this is one of them. Yelena is rotting in prison, waiting to be executed for murder. Instead, she’s given a second chance. Only the condition is she has to accept the position of food taster for the Commander, the ruler of Ixia. Slowly, as she studies poisons and grows into her new position, she realizes she may have a bigger role to play in the political dramas that surround her. I loved this book so much I bought the rest in the series.

King Peggy

Peggy is working as a secretary in the Embassy of Ghana in Washington DC when she gets a phone call from a relative. Her Uncle Joseph, king of the village of Otuam, has died. The village elders have selected Peggy to be the next king.

So begins the true story of Peggy’s life changing from ordinary secretary to king of a village. She arrives to find a truly sad state of affairs. The royal palace is nearly in ruins. Tradition demands that her uncle’s funeral be held at the palace, which is in no state for a major event. A series of events teach Peggy that she was chosen to be king because the elders thought a woman, long-distance king would never find out how they were stealing the village funds. How Peggy managed to overcome the ingrained corruption and bring wells, ambulances and better schools to the village made for an entertaining read.

What was especially interesting was how the traditional beliefs and customs were presented. I felt like I got a fascinating glimpse into traditional Ghanaian thinking.

Evensong

We’ve all wanted to find ourselves in the world of our favorite books. That’s exactly what happened to author Jeff Powell. He wakes up to find himself in the world he created for his series of fantasy novels. His characters, however, aren’t happy with him at all. They complain about the drought and dragons he’s sent to plague them, and want some of the evils he’s conjured up erased. The problem is that enemies he didn’t write are on the prowl, and no one can figure out how to send him back to our world so he can rewrite the end of the story. A clever and engrossing read.

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Making Characters Grow Emotionally

image-698390_640Last week I looked at a few novels to discover how the protagonists grew emotionally.

Now I’m trying to think of the ways my main characters grow and change, and how the events of the novel change them emotionally.

Iskra, my protagonist starts out as a kind-hearted person who wants to do the right thing. She’s also a bit timid, fearful of criticism, but has an uncomfortable habit of asking questions. She’s too smart to blindly accept what’s she’s been taught, when the facts are telling her something isn’t right. But her horror of not being accepted or criticized keeps her silent.

Then a horrifying event happens, which is partly Iskra’s fault. She sets herself to discover the truth. Her timidity causes her to go about this in a roundabout way, but in the end she learns she can’t live a double life. The only way to happiness and peace is to choose.

This goes against all she’s been brought up to believe, along with the idea that safety is the highest good. Anything dangerous is evil. Eventually she learns that there are worse things than taking a risk.

Tarkio is a much braver soul, as he faces it daily along the trade routes he follows from town to town. In the beginning, he believes (with some justification) that his smarts will get him out of every tough spot.

He learns, to his shame, that he just because he’s smart it doesn’t mean he can’t make a mistake. The mistake he made sets up many of the tragic events that follow. His efforts to fix things only make them worse. He has to accept that he’s like the rest of us, muddling along as best we can. Being the person he is, he claims responsibility for his folly and vows to make things right.

Kaberco is the bravest of them all. As Ephor in charge of the village’s safety, he confronts bandits, wild animals and the occasional drunk with ease. He’s driven by the fear of failure, of being seen as incompetent. The antagonist in the story is mostly the government/king. Kaberco, as his agent, starts out relatively benign, but to Iskra’s dismay, he becomes the face of the oppressor and the keeper of the lies.

And then there’s Mazat. I originally conceived him to be a villain, but after a beta reader said he was a stereotype and too evil to be believed, I decided to change him up. He’ll keep some of his crude and gruff ways.  But he and Iskra develop an uneasy alliance.

It’s Mazat’s son Udbash who takes on the villain role, with Mazat selfishly refusing to help Iskra out of her dilemma. He’s almost like the opposite of Iskra, who learns to take the risk to defy the system, where Mazat prefers to keep his opposition to it under wraps. Udbash, who knows all of Mazat’s secrets, can betray his father. Mazat knows it, and allows Udbash to have his own way.

And I’m just getting started with these people…

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Books You Can’t Forget

woman-1323576_640What makes a novel memorable? Is it the plot or the action?

Or is it the characters?

I think, even in fantasy and action genres, that the characters are the aspect that stick in our minds and make us want to keep reading. It’s because of them that we want to enjoy more of their adventures, to re-enter the world in which they live.

And one way characters become memorable is the way they grow emotionally. Many people could endure the same horror, face the same trial, but only that character will respond and change in their own unique way.

To get an idea of how this works, I thought back to some of my favorite novels.

Lord Peter Wimsey comes to mind. He stars in entire series of detective novels. In the first one, he’s more concerned with his clothes and wine than anything else. He’s convinced that he can have anything he wants, simply by working for it.

By the end of the series, he’s learned to be more concerned with the feelings of others than simply his own. He gets over his past romantic pains and learns to not just commit to one woman, but to open up to her.

Jane Austen’s Emma is another character who assumed life would go her way. She was a bit more arrogant than Lord Peter, and even tried to manipulate many around her by playing match maker. By the end of the novel, she’s learned how badly she over-estimated her own powers and ability to read people.

In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam both grow emotionally. They learn that they have strength of their own. They also come to grips with the fact that doing the right thing may have very bad consequences. In the case of Frodo, it meant he would never be able to enjoy the way of life he labored so hard to preserve.

Then there are examples of what not to do.

I’ve read lot of young adult fantasy lately, and in the process, read a lot of stories about a headstrong, well-meaning young person. In trying to solve whatever crisis she is facing, her impulsive actions make everything worse. Or her thinking that she, and she acting alone, is the only person who can save the day. Both of these scenarios have been done so often, they feel like clichés.

So writing a flawed young person needs to go beyond their own unwillingness to listen to advice that causes problems. Maybe it’s because they did try to follow someone else’s counsel, and some unforeseen calamity occurred. Or maybe they tried their best and just weren’t good enough.

Either way, it creates lots of room for growth.

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Raising the Stakes

crocodile-594305_640As I slog through editing Raising Fear, I realize that there is a series of scenes where things happen, but not very much. There is tension, but it’s fairly level. A lot lurking under the surface, but it doesn’t rear up often enough.

While in real life, most of us would prefer to muddle along at a reasonably even keel, with a few ups. And we’d all prefer to skip the downs, thank you.

But that’s not what we look for in a novel. We want to get caught up in the adventures of someone we start to care about. Adventures, as the old saying goes, are bad things that happen to other people.

If the protagonist is put through all kinds of life-threatening perils, great. If emotionally she’s twisted and pummeled and otherwise beat up along the way, even better. We live vicariously through the characters we like, and keep turning the pages to see what happens to them and how they surmount whatever the author has thrown at them.

Sometimes, though, it seems that the writer doesn’t give his characters a minute to take a breath. Or at least a bathroom break. No sooner does his hero deal with one crisis, the next one is looming. Not just on the horizon, but knocking on the front door.

So back to Raising Fear. (Which, incidentally, could end being called something else altogether.) What can I do to raise the tension and mix it up so the reader doesn’t know if she can relax or brace herself for the next trial?

One thing is to make sure the stakes are clear. Early on I establish that people are punished by disappearing. One day they’re there, the next not. While that’s a vague threat that hangs over everyone’s head, I could make it clear that for my heroine, the threat is becoming more real.

Maybe I can have some kind of process, whereby someone is called in to see the Ephor, the official in charge of law and order. Or they receive a notice from the questor, the official in charge of the courts.

Or one morning a mark is put on their front door. This would have the advantage of letting all the neighbors know someone’s in trouble. On the other hand, this method would take away the element of surprise, at least as far as the neighbors are concerned.

The stakes could be raised by the threats extending to her mother, her friend’s mother, and some that couldn’t possibly be realized, but she doesn’t know that.

Another way to raise the tension is to make clear the or-else. If she doesn’t succeed, what will happen? My heroine’s major goal is to discover why her friend disappeared. As she tries to find out, she needs to realize that it could easily happen to her. All I need to do is drop some clues along the way so she understands this.

Now I’ve got some direction for my editing. Can’t see what trials and tribulations I can come up with for my characters…and how they succeed or fail.

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Soft versus Hard Magic

fantasy-1481591_640

 

One thing that sets the fantasy genre apart from the others is its use of magic. Many reviewers say that the better thought out the system of magic in the story, the better the book.

This holds true for hard magic, others say, but what about soft magic?

 

 

I have to confess I was forced to do a little research to understand that one. I knew about high and epic fantasy, and various sub genres. Hard and soft magic were new ideas to me.

Here’s what I found out.

Probably the best known example of soft magic is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He never explains exactly how Gandalf, the other wizards, or Sauron himself uses their magic. They are just able to do things ordinary mortals cannot.

Hard magic is a system of magic with very clear rules that the reader knows about. One great example is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. Certain individuals, given the right talent and training, can manipulate power that is released when they swallow certain metals. Each metal has a different property. One enables the wielder of the power to pull objects to himself, another, to push them away.

So which to use?

In my own novel, I haven’t come up with a concrete set of rules. But the soft magic will work as long as I don’t use the magic to come up with a contrived ending. The magic is there to add a sense of wonder. As Sanderson himself says:

Books that focus on this use of magic tend to want to indicate that men are a small, small part of the eternal and mystical workings of the universe. This gives the reader a sense of tension as they’re never certain what dangers—or wonders—the characters will encounter. Indeed, the characters themselves never truly know what can happen and what can’t.

He goes on to say that as long as the characters can’t use the magic to solve their problems (by which I mean the big story problems), soft magic works by creating a sense of uncertainty. The users of the magic aren’t always sure what’s going to happen when they try it, and it could create more problems for them.

What I have written is some kind of hybrid system. The magical amulets have certain properties, but it’s not always certain that the user will be able to tap into them. I don’t explain how they work, and the users aren’t sure themselves. I hadn’t thought of the idea of using an amulet and it causes more problems. That could add an interesting plot twist all its own.

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Hates, Loves and Fears

thunder-953118_640Creating characters who seem to leap off the page and think for themselves is no easy task. It’s far too easy to allow characters, especially minor ones, remain one dimensional and flat.

Thinking through the emotional make up of characters can fix this problem, and provide fodder for subplots and twists along the way. It also can help with foreshadowing and believability.

I’ve read too many books where a character suddenly does something for no other reason than to move the plot along. Certainly that character wouldn’t behave that way on their own.

So I’ve been thinking through the emotional make up of my cast of characters, especially some of the minor ones. This involves thinking about what they love, hate and fear, as well as their goals, obstacles in their way, and secrets.

Tarkio is one of my major characters. He’s a trader whose goal is to be successful in his marriage and his profession. At the beginning of the story, his only obstacles are bandits who threaten to rob him, and his borderline bi polar wife.

As the story unfolds, he wants to protect his friend Xico from a foolish marriage, and Iskra, the girl Xico’s in love with. They wouldn’t have become involved had Tarkio not thrown them together, and he feels responsible. Guilty, in fact, which leads him to handle the situation badly. He’s afraid of thunder and lightening, a fear that delays him from providing vital help to Xico and Iskra.

Then I thought about Tarkio’s trading buddies. They’re minor characters, not critical to the main story line. I hadn’t thought much about them before. But by giving them a secret, a love or a fear, they could become more than just sidekicks.

Poales, for example, had always been a bit of an intellectual, a problem solver. Then I thought to turn this into a love of tinkering, of inventing things, which he sells to the riskers. He gives a clever invention to Xico near the end of the story, one that helps Xico.

Waukomis, on the other hand, is an adventurer, always testing the limits and acting on impulse. What keeps him in line is his fear of losing his trading license and having to settle down in one place. Sometimes he fantasizes about running away to join the riskers, or even the pirates.

All this came from just a few moments of thought. But the story will be richer, and I hope, more satisfying, because of it.

 

 

 

 

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Mischief Part 2

Last week I shared Part 1 of “Mischief.” Read on for the conclusion:

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Karen’s roommate Judy was incensed over the way Jeff had treated Karen. He’d even been talking marriage, then came up with a lame reason to break things off. Judy felt Jeff needed to be taken down a peg or two.

She seized her opportunity by inviting Jeff and his buddy Bill over for lunch one day after church, along with four or five others. She and Karen made a good old southern brunch, with waffles and egg casserole and hash browns. Judy made sure she was in constant motion, first in the kitchen, then the dining room, or living room, or balcony, wafting in and out of the rooms as easily as the smell of sizzling bacon. With so many people squashed into the small apartment, it was hard to keep track of who was where.

I was helping them clean up after everyone had left. Both Karen and Judy had smug smiles on their faces. “We sure got them,” said Judy.

“What are you talking about?” I asked, wiping grease from the stove.

They looked from one to the other. “You have to promise not to tell.”

“OK. What?”

They told me. The guys had left their suit coat jackets in the bedroom. Judy had slipped in and placed certain objects in the inside breast pocket of both their coats.

“You didn’t.” I was horrified.

“Oh, yes. We did.” The two of them were so pleased with themselves you’d think they’d won the Nobel Prize. Then they came close to me, one on either side, with narrowed eyes and eyebrows pulled together. “Don’t tell them.”

I agreed. After all, I thought, they’ll probably notice there’s something in the pocket that shouldn’t be there. Or they’ll take their coats to the dry cleaner. Or something. No one will see but them.

I was wrong.

Monday morning, Bill was making his rounds as a sales rep for an agricultural supply company. He drove south into rural Missouri, stopping by small town hardware stores. He’d been working with one store for weeks, and they’d just made a deal for a large order. Bill produced the contract for the store’s owner to sign and reached into his suit coat pocket for a pen.

When he touched it, he noticed what he thought was his pen was covered with paper. “What’s this?” he asked as he pulled it out. He looked at the thin white object, eyes popping and gasped, dropping it on the floor.

His face flaming, he picked the slender Kotex tampon before it rolled under a display of garden tools. The store manager chuckled. “That doesn’t belong to you, son?”

Jeff fared not much better. He was a financial executive for a large Catholic health system. Monday morning he had a meeting with some of the nuns who ran the system. Needing a pen, he reached into his pocket. He pulled it out, saw what it was, and immediately replaced it and felt for another object he was sure was a pen. Feeling his face burning, he looked out of the corners of his eyes, hoping none of the nuns had noticed. All but one wore the serious looks of someone participating in an intense finance meeting. Sister Ruth’s face, however, wore a smirk that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the balance sheet her eyes were fixed on.

Within an hour, Jeff and Bill were on the phone to each other, comparing notes. “We know who it was,” said Jeff. “Who else would do such a thing?” They began to plot revenge.

Their chance came soon enough. Karen’s company transferred her to North Carolina. She threw a big party the night before the movers were to show up. Knowing that Jeff and Bill were most likely up to no good, she met them at the door and made them turn out their pockets.

They pretended to be hurt that she would even think such a thing.

She didn’t take into account the fact that those guys had other friends. One of them had stopped at the drugstore on the way to the party.

A few days later, when Karen unpacked, she found the little gifts Jeff and Bill had left her in retaliation. Hundreds of condoms, stashed all over. Some in the dishes. Some in the coffee. A few slipped between the tea bags. Tucked into books and in bags of clothes. Piles under the cushions of the couch. Handfuls stuffed into dresser drawers. Months later, she was still finding them.

I never did find out exactly what broke up Jeff and Karen. In some ways they seemed like a perfect match, both fun loving energetic people.

But one thing I did know. I was never going to get on Karen’s wrong side. Who knows what mischief she’d dream up at my expense?

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