Frozen

No one ever talks about the smells. Not the smell of death – everyone knows that one and the human olfactory sense isn’t sensitive enough to pick it up until decomposition is well underway. 

No, I’m talking about the smell of fresh death. Sweat. Lots of it, if they knew it was coming. Just buckets. Piss. Most people die with a full bladder, isn’t that awful? It doesn’t stay that way. Sometimes you defecate when death is sudden enough. Or, you know, if you’re really unlucky.

What you don’t know about death could fill volumes. But what do you care? You won’t be around to see your own.

In most cases.

My case, well, it wasn’t one of those cases. 

The grease on the ball bearings coated the pads of my fingers, the little loop of bearings almost empty. All but a couple had escaped the wheels of my skateboard and rolled across the sidewalk. I heard them – tink, tink, tink – and they were gone. My wheel screeched across the pavement, sending chills through my teeth. 

I hate changing those stupid things.

After five minutes of struggling with them, sweat coating my brow, I took a break to stare at the deep red roses growing in the planter next to me. I inhaled their sweet scent deep into my nostrils, ran a finger over the silky petals. At least that calmed me.

But I’d disturbed a little worker bee, buzz buzz buzzing inside the velvety innards of the rose. Before I even had time to react, he stung me right on the fingertip. 

Like being impaled by a teeny little dagger, the pain shot under my nail. It hurt, sure, but it was just one tiny little sting.

When you’re allergic, the size of the sting doesn’t matter.

I stuck my finger in my mouth, the spot of blood coppery on my tongue, mingling with slick, tasteless bearing grease. My throat started closing almost right away. I tried, I tried to pull a breath in, but I couldn’t. And I’d left my epi pen at home because I hate skating with stuff in my pockets, all clanging against my leg every time I do a kickflip.

The heat of the sidewalk baked into my face as I lay there, wheezing. My head swam. I just needed a breath. Just one breath.

Please, god, let me breathe.

The smell of piss hit me, acrid in my nostrils. I pulled in just enough breath for that to be the last thing I smelled.

Before I woke up here. It’s cold.

I can’t feel my nose. But I can breathe, and the air tastes stale and putrid, like death. Little crystals of ice line the silver box I’m trapped in. 

In the eighteen hundreds, they used to jam sticks under the toenails of the presumed dead so they’d wake if they weren’t really dead. Or they put bells on their toes.

I wish they’d done that to me. My eyes are frozen open.

Only One

“There was only one dead. Thank god.” The women spoke, phones lighting their faces vaguely blue, even with the harsh light of morning streaming through the train windows. They didn’t lean into each other. Just sat there in their seats, asses spread around their hips, talking about my dead wife like it was nothing. Just another news item.

Last night it was chaos. Twitter lit up about 6:42pm with reports of a shooter at the Pines Mall. For the next hour and a half, misinformation after rumor after joke spread across Twitter. It trended at #4. Not #1, not #20. A nice, innocuous, #4. I scrolled past it at least twenty times. Sitting in a train seat just like the one I was sitting in now. Only way I know it wasn’t the same one was I was going the other way.

The women chatted. One scrolled with the tip of her finger, her besparkled nail sticking up over the screen. It, too, bathed in pale blue light and assaulting my eardrums with its clicking as she tapped it on the screen. “Look at this. He tried to kill himself. Missed.”

The other one chuckled. “Couldn’t even do that right. He’s lucky more people didn’t get hurt.”

I sank further into my seat and tried to stare out the window. Watch the city pass.

Probably I didn’t have to ride the train all the way in from Mesa. Lora would have brought me at least halfway. There’s a train stop not three blocks from the school where she teaches.

Shit. Taught.

But I hated putting her out. 

“You’re not putting me out. I like riding with you. As long as you don’t talk to me until after coffee.”

And then she’d wink, and smile, and help me put my hair up. Always mothering me. She’d do my makeup for me if I let her.

You should see my hair today. I can see it in the window of this godforsaken train. Not a single strand stayed in the damn braid. 

Just once I should have gotten off at her stop and met her with her pile of papers to grade as she lugged her wheeled milk crate to the car. Just once. Maybe if I’d met her more, she would have waited more, and whatever it was she wanted at the mall would have been there another day.

“Oh look,” the other woman said, “looks like the little girl who got injured isn’t going to have any permanent damage.” She scrolled. Ghostly blue light shining in her eyes.

“Thank god. That’s a blessing. This could have been so much worse.”

I covered my mouth. Worse? For who? Didn’t they see my face?

The tears splashed off my bare arm. No need for jackets in Phoenix in, well, any month. But I shivered anyway. Lora would have been so glad the little girl was OK. Just out for ice cream.

And what was Lora there for? Who knows. Even I didn’t. There were a thousand and one things she wanted to get. Wanted to have. But living on a teacher’s salary, a thousand and two things she couldn’t have.

Oh god. Her salary.

My heart-rate raced. How was I going to pay the rent without her? 

I sat straight up, wet eyes wide. I couldn’t even make next month’s. If there were ever two women living paycheck to paycheck, it was us. Nothing even in savings.

Chest tight, I leaned forward. Fist balled in my gut and pressing my hot, empty insides. After everything we built together, I was going to lose it in…I pulled out my own phone to check the calendar.

I wish there’d been a time when her face was my lock screen. I’d like to tell you I was all sweet like that. Mine certainly was on hers often enough. I think the last one she set was the one where we did a couples zombie costume. Fake blood, about the only makeup I was ever any good with. That was a fun time.

I unlocked the screen, going for the calendar. But Twitter had a notification. And damned if I didn’t click on it.

It was nothing, of course. Just one of the people I’ve got on notify. A celebrity with a marathon to run. But I was there now, the app open, the news feed scrolling. Trending topics.

The shooting had been relegated to “what’s happening.” Beneath the trending topics. “One dead in Pines Mall shooting.”

Don’t click it.

I clicked it.

They hadn’t plastered her face all over the internet. Not yet. I guess I counted as next of kin but I asked them not to release her name until I called her mom. Not that we’d spoken to each other, my mother-in-law and I, in less than three years. The last time I tried, she made me feel bad for not spending enough money on her daughter. And for being gay. But that was more an undertone than anything. Something she’d been making me feel bad about for close to a decade.

God, close to a decade. Just one dead, and it had to be my Lora.

The slick feeling wormed around my stomach. Those chatty women smelled like that powder people wore. Had a slight after-smell of toilet paper. I could never figure out why they liked it, why they wanted to walk around smelling like a restroom. 

I should have let her drive me in. Then she would have waited to drive me out. We could have ridden together. Maybe she would have taken me to the mall.

Yeah, come to think of it. I wish I’d been with her. I would rather have died with her than be here, feeling this, right now. If I’d been the praying kind, I would have prayed for that. Let us die together.

I kept scrolling the story. Why.

His face popped up. Some stupid scowl on it. They mentioned some kind of manifesto. I didn’t want to read it.

Why I clicked on it and read it you can ask yourself while I don’t tell you what was in it. What does it matter? He took that anger and turned it inside out and shoved it at other people. But he was no good at it, and he only killed one of them. 

Only.

My eyes unfocused, I drifted. Planned to start packing tonight. That nice apartment all for nothing now that I couldn’t afford it. Back to that shithole we used to live in. But without her, it really would be a shithole. At least when Christmas came, she’d put up some cheap bulbs around the window, the three-foot-tall fiber-optic tree beneath them. Make homemade hot cocoa. Force me to pour it into little styrofoam cups for both of us as she drove us around all of Scottsdale, looking at lights on the fancy houses. 

Don’t forget the mini-marshmallows. Those had to go in the top of the little foam cup. Melt into the hot chocolate. Give us both mustaches that glowed green in the dash lights.

Fuck, what fun would Christmas be without her?

There was no way for me to ever know why they were in that mall at the same time. Ever. No one could tell me. She didn’t text me. She didn’t leave a note. She didn’t unpack her papers. Maybe she just wanted a damn Starbucks. It was her favorite kiosk within twenty miles. Despite the fact they couldn’t remember her order, at least it was the closest one with decaf espresso. She loved her decaf and wouldn’t let me or any other caffeinated asshole take it away from her. She said at thirty-seven, she couldn’t drink regular coffee at night anymore. Between never going to bed and getting up to pee she’d get like four hours sleep and that fifth hour was her heaven. 

“Oh, see, the woman who died was thirty-seven.” The phone crept ever-closer to the woman’s scrunched face. The train jostled her, but did she lower her voice when I sobbed into the palm of my hand? No. 

“That sucks. But that’s not too bad, thirty-seven.”

I clenched my phone hard enough to break it, it felt like. What was not too bad about never having another chance to ditch papers for just once and run up to the mountains with your best friend? The one who’d agreed to marry you and everything. What wasn’t too bad about never being able to finish the pile of papers at all? Never being able to see another student shine when you told them how wonderful you thought they were at writing? 

Because she did that. She made them feel special. She taught them about English but she also taught them about themselves. She listened to them, silly teenagers, when no one else would.

And she made me feel special. Like I meant something. My own mom hadn’t talked to me in a lot longer than my mother-in-law. I don’t even think she knew our new address. But Lora thought I was perfect, even though she knew damn well otherwise.

Oh, the life insurance.

My stomach leapt to my throat and stuck. 

The one thing we hadn’t cashed out to cover my student loan. The one thing. I could pay rent with the life insurance for a couple months while I worked on downsizing. 

Downsizing.

What an innocuous word for such an ugly thing. 

The train rolled to its next stop and I hit my head on the window hard enough to bring tears to the corners of my eyes. 

The cursed women spoke again as they stood, dumping their phones in their purses. “He came with so much ammunition. It’s such a blessing only one person died.”

Only one.

Why I Love Horror

How many times a day do you ask yourself why you love the stories you do? I know every time I look at a Supernatural GIF, read about what Molly, AKA the Thing of Evil is doing, or randomly think about what that sneaky little noise was in the corner, I wonder why I love horror. Why I always have. I bet my mom asks the same question. I would ask her, but I’m honestly a little afraid of the answer. Horror in its truest form, what others think of us!

Seriously though, what makes the things that go bump in the night so fascinating? I mean what’s so great about stories in the first place? The world is full of its own horror as it is. All one needs to do is pull up their facebook feed to see that.

Don’t do that. Stay here with me.

Scary stories aren’t always a safe place. At their best, they take our worst nightmares and lay them bare. How do they do that? In the case of Sam and Dean Winchester, they put on pretty, pretty, handsome, swoon worthy faces and prance around for an hour, saving people. OK. Dean prances. Sam grimaces, Castiel cocks his head, Crowley makes a smart remark, and Bob’s your uncle.

It’s the in between, that’s where they get you. Where they fight for their own souls while killing, hosting, and becoming literal demons. In the end they beat them back and kinda do a great job of convincing you that you can beat your own, as well.

Then of course, there’s the master, Stephen King. I am a King junkie. A Constant Reader. I feel no shame in that. When I was thirteen years old, I read my first King novel, “Pet Sematary”. Growing up, we lived in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on all sides by farmland of one type or another. It was a gorgeous place, full of light and green and rain.

But at night, it was cold and quiet. Still, dark, open fields on all sides. Behind my bedroom window nothing but wide open space. Plenty of space for whatever might be out in those trees way over there to come creeping up to the window at my back. Scratch its cold and dead nails down the glass, pull me out from under the sill, and be off into the night.

I read that book huddled under the covers. And when Louis stumbled through the swamp, his dead little boy cradled in his arms, I all but wept in fear. Up until that very point, and it’s one of my more vivid memories, I had no idea why you wouldn’t just…stop…reading.

But I knew then, and I know now. You cannot get through the swamp if you stop halfway through. You cannot escape the monster if you leave it, hovering over your shoulder, snarling and wheezing and drooling. No. You must push through. Get to the other side.

Vanquish the monster.

And I think that’s it, right there. The crux of it. Why I love horror, why stories matter, and why I choose to push on, even when I’m terrified. Adrenaline junkie? Sure. You know it. But more than that, stories, horror stories in particular, take the deepest darkest parts of us, shove them out into the light, and then force us to push through. To deal with it. To read on, and come out the other side.

I’ve dealt with my own personal demons. I have more to unearth. So I’ll just get out my little shovel and see what’s under the surface.

Those old burial mounds won’t mind if I just park it here, right?

Pitch Events 2019 – Twitter and beyond

Hi all! For a little over a year now, I’ve been querying my second novel. While I have, I’ve also been participating in every Twitter pitch party I can. I practice them all the time, rewriting new pitches about every quarter. Twitter pitches are about the hardest thing I’ve ever written, so I find practice helps.

At any rate, how to write them is a different post altogether. In this post, I wanted to share the year’s calendar with you, and I promise to update it as dates come available. There is a large variety of Twitter parties. If you have a finished, polished manuscript, come join in on the fun! At the bottom, I’ve also included off-Twitter pitch events. Please feel free to drop info in the comments if there’s any I haven’t listed! I’m doing this list as much for me as anyone else.

January 15, 2019 #IWSGpit (open to all) http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-twitter-pitch.html?m=1

January 30, 2019 #SFFpit (sci-fi and fantasy/all ages) http://dankoboldt.com/sffpit/

February 14th, 2019 (still to verify) #KISSpitch (all subgenres of romance) https://allthekissing.com/kisspitch/

February 21st, 2019 #PBPitch (picture books) http://www.pbpitch.com/

February 27th, 2019 #FaithPitch (Faith-based fiction and non-fiction/all ages) https://littlelambbooks.com/faithpitch/

March 7th, 2019 #pitmad (open to all) http://pitchwars.org/pitmad/

April 23&24&25 #DVpit (three days for marginalized authors and illustrators – day one for kids/YA, day two for Adult, day three for artists and illustrators) http://dvpit.com/index

May 23 #Pitdark (open to authors of darker genres/all ages) https://jasonhuebinger.com/pitdark/

June 6th, 2019 #pitmad (open to all) http://pitchwars.org/pitmad/

June 19th, 2019 #FaithPitch (Faith-based fiction and non-fiction/all ages) https://littlelambbooks.com/faithpitch/

July 24th, 2019 #SFFpit (sci-fi and fantasy/all ages) http://dankoboldt.com/sffpit/

#IWSGpit (open to all-next one not until January 2020) http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-twitter-pitch.html?m=1

September 5th, 2019 #pitmad (open to all) http://pitchwars.org/pitmad/

October 24th, 2019#Pitdark (open to authors of darker genres/all ages) https://jasonhuebinger.com/pitdark/

October 28&29 #DVpit (three days for marginalized authors and illustrators – day one for kids/YA, day two for Adult, also artists and illustrators) http://dvpit.com/index

November 20th, 2019 #FaithPitch (Faith-based fiction and non-fiction/all ages) https://littlelambbooks.com/faithpitch/

December 5th, 2019 #pitmad (open to all) http://pitchwars.org/pitmad/

OFF TWITTER CONTESTS/PITCH EVENTS

April 6th, 2019 #REVpit (open to all – more than a pitch contest, see rules) http://reviseresub.com/

July-September 2019 (wishlists announced September 11, mentee submissions September 25-27) Pitch Wars https://pitchwars.org/

February 13-15, 2019 Savvy Authors Sweetheart Pitchfest* RULES & GUIDELINES: https://savvyauthors.com/se-pitchrules/

May (dates TBD) #QueryKombat (open to all)  CANCELLED FOR THIS YEAR, WILL RETURN IN 2020 ://www.michelle4laughs.com/2018/03/announcing-query-kombat-2018.html

June 12-14 Savvy Authors Summer Hot Pitchfest* RULES & GUIDELINES: https://savvyauthors.com/se-pitchrules/

*Savvy Authors has many pitch events throughout the year. Check their calendar in case I miss some: https://savvyauthors.com/special-events-calendar/

Writing Twitter Pitches

I’ll be the first to admit, writing Twitter pitches makes me more insane than I already am. So I do it a lot. Every pitch event, I try to write a new one or perfect an old one. Even my favorite, the one with the quote, has been changed recently.

With that in mind, let’s do some exercises to get the brain going.

First, who is your book about?

I have dual POV and each POV character (they’re both protagonists) have almost equal screen time. But Adelaide is the MAIN main character, the hero, the one with the most significant character arc.

She’s early twenties and was born after the apocalypse happened. The only world she knows is the post-apocalyptic one. She didn’t grow up in a city, so socializing is a whole new complication. And she’s never sure if she’s doing it right.

reclamation-cover-photo
Second exercise: what is your main character’s goal? This is where we might have to skip ahead.

At the beginning of my book, and probably many, many books, my MC’s goal is to live a normal life. So let’s forget about that. What happens to change that goal? This is your inciting incident OR your first plot point. Or both.

For me, infected people are found within the safe space of her village and when her dad investigates, he’s wrongfully arrested. Inciting incident —> first plot point.

Now her goal is to free him. In one of my sample pitches, I’ve summed it up in this sentence:

“When she has to save her father from a murder plot it’s almost a welcome distraction.”

So it’s not just what happened, but also a taste of character motivation.

writing abstract
Other considerations: what are the stakes? What is stopping them from achieving their goal?

Try to brainstorm about this and think about what needs to be included. Maybe the goal we talked about in the last exercise implies the answer to both of these. Maybe what’s stopping them is interesting and unique. Think about a few punchy words you could use to describe their opposition.

waiting

This is where we tie it all together, and make it irresistible (we hope!).

Conflict.

We talk a lot about making sure our stories have conflict, and our pitches should too. The way I envision this is: I’ve told you who my MC is, what their goal is, and the stakes. Now I take those stakes and turn the screws. Really tell us how you’re trying to keep your protagonist from success. And if it’s personal (without being too spoilery), make the twist personal. The more you can destroy your protagonist’s world in this sentence, the better.


I leave a reader of the pitch with questions they need to have answered. What does Addy discover in the course of saving her father that leads her to believe the Cure might not be so great? I had a better one, but it was a little too spoilery for my taste.

So I’ll leave you with that.

Think about your character, what makes them unique, what they need to overcome, and how you’re keeping them from winning. You don’t have to sum up the whole plot, you’re just trying to hook a reader. Pick your punchiest lines and fit them together in 266 characters or less.

See this post for 2019 pitch events

I Don’t Know What I Did Last Summer

Hey there! I know, I know. I’m behind on all my reviews and it’s been a radio-silent kind of summer (except for this ). Summer is an incredibly busy time for us, it’s the opposite of restful. But I took my little one to San Diego while she still thinks I’m cool. So it was worth the hassle. 

I’ve also been tightening up my query, synopsis, and first pages from the novel Reclamation. Though I hadn’t exactly planned to, I submitted to Pitch Wars. It was a lot of work last year for little return, but I finally figured it was good to work on my query no matter what, and that they couldn’t say yes if I didn’t ask. So I submitted and now I’m awaiting those sweet, sweet requests for more material.

waiting

I’ve been considering the reviews and honestly I’m not sure I’ll continue with them. Unless there’s something new and groundbreaking to say, it’s often the same thing over and over again. There’s sure to be copious amounts of fangirling over Jensen in his new role this season, but if you follow me on Twitter you can watch that happen in real time.

That brings me to the question of what to do for a regular feature. I would love to reach out more often, but I’m not sure what would keep me coming back regularly. Is there something you’d like to see? Something we can turn into a regular thing? Maybe we can talk more in depth about characters, like this essay or this one.

Gish1 18
Or maybe I can explain what lead me to run full-tilt into this wall.

draft 4 cover
I made this cover just for fun. Warning: there’s no ships involved whatsoever.

Maybe I can just give you updates about where I am in writing. As for right now, I’m working some pretty heavy revisions to book 2 in the Reclamation series. While that’s going on, I haven’t been able to focus on anything. I have three books started but I just keep losing steam. Eventually I went back to my very first completed novel and am rewriting it from the ground up. I’m keeping the plot and the characters but there are Point of View issues to fix and a complete lack of true structure that needs quite a bit of help. I am thinking of publishing it online at some point after completion. Watch this space for that update. 

 

The journey to publishing is a long one, and I’m still mulling all the options for my original works. Querying really takes it out of you. I take part in several Twitter pitch events as well, and that’s exhausting on its own level. But I can promise you this – those books will be published. They will. They are my heart and soul and I believe in the story they tell. I won’t give up on the publishing journey.

So that’s where I am right now. Keeping my little fingers busy with the typey-typey while my brain tries to run away with anxiety. I’ll see if I can create a poll about how to continue with a more regular blog. Hop over to my facebook for that. Or comment here if you’ve got suggestions or requests!

Crafting a Haunting Story with Emotional Resonance

Today, I hosted a chat on the 10 Minute Novelists’ Facebook page, entitled “Crafting a Haunting Story Using Emotional Resonance.” I enjoyed putting the material together, and the discussion which followed. I’ve posted a transcript here of my points and questions, including links for source material. It’s always fun to do some deep thinking about the craft of storytelling. If you haven’t joined the 10 Minute Novelists, you can find the website here and the Facebook group here.

TOPICS COVERED:

-1.Universal themes

-2.Deep POV

-3.the senses/vivid description

-4.MRU to give emotional reactions more impact

-5.Show don’t tell

-6.Empathy vs exposition

CHAT TRANSCRIPT:

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P1/Q1: First of all, what is emotional resonance? It’s when you create a story, a world, a character readers identify with on such a deep level, they do more than understand the character. They see themselves in them. Reading is a profound way to feel empathy. It’s one of the reasons for literature to exist – the ability to live a different life, someone else’s experiences. But to be able to frame them with your own experiences, that’s emotional resonance. Once readers put the book down, they can’t forget about it. And they want more of it.

So how do we create this resonance? There’s several levels to it, and we could pinpoint empathy as the primary weapon. But it’s not the only one. I’ve tried to structure this so we begin macro and move inward, from exterior world to interior feelings. None of these are set in stone, and you can pick and choose a variety of them, weaving them into your own story as you see fit.

What’s a book or series of books that jumps out at you, something that has stuck with you for years and years? I could name so many, but the first one that jumps to mind is a Stephen King story called “The Long Walk.” And a character I come back to, time and time and time again? Rincewind, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.

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P2/Q2: Starting macro, let’s talk universal themes. The human condition is widely varied, but there are things that all of us can readily grasp. The value of love, good vs evil, hardship and triumph. If we can choose something which people can identify with, half our work is already done.

I’ll use “The Long Walk” as an example (spoilers if you haven’t read it). The prevailing theme is survival – man vs self. The titular long walk asks the contestants to walk until they cannot walk any more. If they stop, they die. If they walk longer than everyone else, persevere through exhaustion and hopelessness, they and their families will be fed for the rest of their lives. Each footfall magnifies the drumbeat – survive, survive, survive.

Many of us have experienced a time in which we had to do what it took to survive. Whether that meant fighting a bear, or dragging yourself out of bed for a job that’s slowly killing you so you can buy Ramen. We want to believe we can defeat that hopeless little voice in our head, and so we see ourselves in the character who won’t give up.

What other universal themes can you think of that you might like to explore? Which ones resonate with you? Here’s a quick list:

https://thewritersacademy.co.uk/blog/common-literary-themes/

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P3/Q3: I think, of all the points I’m making today, this is the one most up for debate.

Choosing the right Point of View (POV). To inspire the greatest amount of empathy, to get someone to see themselves in a character at the most profound level, deep POV is the best way to go. First and third limited/deep are considered the closest points of view (see the link for brief descriptions of each). This is not to say the other POVs are no good, or should not be done. But when you really want to get your reader into the character’s head, and vice versa, you can delve no deeper than first or limited/deep third.

Think of a story or character you were so attached to that you ran out and bought or borrowed the next book immediately. The Harry Dresden Files by Jim Butcher is a great example of this for me. They are written in first person, from Harry’s POV. As the series progresses, you can actually watch Jim’s writing style improve, becoming more polished and easy. But even for all the flaws of the early books, I was so attached to the character that I actually read all 14 books available at the time back to back to back.

Through the use of an intimate POV, Jim is able to pull you into Harry’s head. While I might not be a modern wizard who is a private detective for hire, I know how it feels to be uncertain. To think maybe I’m doing the wrong thing, but see no other options. And when the character triumphs, I feel like I can succeed, too.

And I want to do it again. So I buy more books.

What do you think is a strength of first or deep third person? What books can you think of which pulled you in so completely, it didn’t even matter when the main character made less than stellar choices?

http://www.thebeginningwriter.com/2012/03/look-at-different-types-of-point-of.html?m=1

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P4/Q4: So let’s talk about description. First, there’s the senses. This is personal preference, but I prefer picking just a few of the five and focusing on those in each scene.

Smell is a powerful sense. Just the scent of Gardetto’s snacks can put me in a specific time and place, almost twenty years ago. Without preamble, there I am, driving across the country with my best friend and my dog.

After my first beta readers came back to me saying, “I never thought about how a zombie would smell,” I knew I was onto something. And it made my characters more real to them, knowing that they sometimes gagged because this rotting body approached. When the back of my characters’ throats closed, my readers could feel it. That dragged them ever deeper into the story.

Vivid descriptions using imagery can do this, too. Consider this excerpt by Ash Ambirge (from this essay):  

“I grew up curling my bangs in a trailer park, using food stamps to buy popsicles, dating boys who milked cows, bringing boom boxes to stone quarries, and thinking tinted car windows were the ultimate sign of prestige.”

These are all images, but somehow they’re also pieces of time. Feelings. Combined, a sense of longing and despair. Maybe a little contempt. But she never said that. She merely gave us a vivid set of descriptions that tie us to her.

Can you think of something like this in your own work? An unexpected use of senses, or a shiny little piece of imagery? How about something you read that has stuck with you?

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P5: Now we’re getting down to the nitty gritty. In an effort to keep us moving, I’m going to let the article do most of the talking. But I’d like to briefly address how to make the reactions of your characters have more impact.

The motivation-reaction unit (MRU).

Some of you are aware of this. Some of you are probably like me the first time I discovered this little hack and you’re going to be saying, “why didn’t I know this before?!” It’s good for many things, not the least of which is keeping the pages turning. But here I’d like to point out how it makes readers feel more deeply.

The basic idea is to break cause and effect into two paragraphs. If the cause is the ladder falling, the effect is the character’s fear before they hit the ground. But if it’s all bound in one paragraph, it’s almost like a run-on sentence. There’s no pause, no place for the reader to inject their own feelings. Just like breaking the tension, you have to give readers room to feel what your character is feeling.

Just give them that little paragraph break. Let them take that briefest of moments to anticipate what the character is going to feel. Let them start to fill it in before it happens.

You know what they say about antici–

https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/writing-the-perfect-scene/

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P6/Q5: This is a big one, most of us hate it a little (or a lot). But stick with me. It’s “show don’t tell” time.

Linking into the time you gave your readers to anticipate the character’s emotional response, is the fact that you don’t have to spoon feed them said response. Nor should you, not if you want your words to have maximum impact. Yes, there are times to tell. Absolutely. We are “storytellers,” after all. What I have to say about showing vs telling and its place in creating emotional resonance is not “show all the time and never tell.”

It’s more show the feelings instead of telling them. Show the internal dialogue, show the character arguing with themselves, show us how goofy they feel when they hear the sound of their own voice. Don’t be afraid to travel deep inside the point of view character(s).

Put simply, leave room for the reader to fill in the gaps on their own. Show them the cold sweat of the brow, the clenched fist, and let them surmise if it’s anger, or fear, or both. When we allow the readers to create with us, to take an active part in building the story in their own mind, it burrows deep into their heart and makes a home there. They become part of the story, rather than just an observer. And it makes it easier to relate their own experiences, to transfer them onto the character. Or vice versa.

Those of you who’ve known me for a while have seen this essay before, I’m sure of it. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t show it to you, again, especially while we’re talking about this. It’s got to be the single greatest piece I’ve ever read on showing and when I say it was a game changer, I cannot overstate just how major of a change it was. Is it necessary to do exactly as Chuck suggests, at all times and in all circumstances? I’ll leave that to you to decide. But I strongly urge you to give it a try.

What are your favorite pieces of showing? Or your favorite piece of advice on showing? How have you implemented them in your own writing?

https://litreactor.com/essays/chuck-palahniuk/nuts-and-bolts

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P7/Q6: And finally, what I consider one of the most important of all the subjects we’re going over today: exposition vs empathy.

Let me tell you a little secret. In third grade, I picked up my first novel. It was the novelization of “The Empire Strikes Back,” by Donald F. Glut. Looking back on it, I can’t remember a ton of details, though I found some pretty harsh reviews in looking it up while I wrote this. One thing I do remember is that the world of books opened to me when I read that. When the TIE fighter pilot chose almost certain death in an asteroid field over going back and telling Vadar he’d failed in capturing the Millenium Falcon, I suddenly realized what books had over movies. Interior dialogue.

I was hooked.

There was an article I read many years ago which went into the success of the Harry Potter books and why they were so much more successful than some of Rowlings’ contemporaries. Obviously there are several reasons for their success, but one is her use of empathy, or what the linked article refers to as “interiority.” She had a ton of worldbuilding to do, but rather than bury it in description and exposition, she related it to us through Harry’s experience. His utter shock when he’s told he’s a wizard, his wonder at all the magical things he sees in Diagon Alley, his amazement at even the simplest of spells.

But even more, she gives us moments of perfectly human connection. Moments to paste our own feelings over Harry’s, and to identify with someone else. To see ourselves in the unfamiliar, thereby making it familiar and activating our empathy at a deep level. From the Sorcerer’s Stone:

“ “Go on, have a pasty,” said Harry, who had never had anything to share before, or, indeed, anyone to share it with.”

In studying human behavior, it’s been found that creating a connection through empathy goes deeper than one created with exposition. It’s that interior dialogue, their thoughts and feelings, how perfectly human our characters can be, which really connects readers to them.

One way I do that is by adding my feelings, my own experiences, to my characters. Not the frame of them, not the actual events, but rather, the shape of them. Then you weave it into this story you’re telling, put all the parts together, and let it ride.

What’s an experience you’ve had you think many people could relate to? How could you give this same emotion to your main character?

And one last article to finish us off. I recommend the exercise at the end. I did it on my opening scene, and while it didn’t change much, it gave me confidence that I know my characters. Writing the interiority was a breeze. If you do the exercise, come back and let me know how it went!

http://www.writingcycle.com/craft/film-versus-literature-show-dont-tell/

 

If you’d like to join the discussion, by all means, let’s talk in the comments!

Timeless Review ep 2.05 “The Kennedy Curse”

 

First of all, I’m incredibly sorry about the last two episodes and missing the reviews. As for “Hollywoodland,” I was too heartbroken to revisit Wyatt and Lucy’s night together. I think I still am. It hurts, you guys. It hurts.

As for “The Salem Witch Hunt,” it was fantastic and I am in love with that episode. With Lucy telling those women it’s OK to be weird. It made me realize someone had to teach Lucy all this “be an individual” stuff, and that someone is on the inside with Rittenhouse. Carol might just be our own sleeper, once she gets her head on straight. But I was sick with the flu last week and boy, it’s just not as easy to come back from that stuff as it used to be.

But here I am, for the Kennedy Curse, and what an episode to be back for!

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Wallingford, CT, September 17, 1934

Not that the date is important because…

As Lucy learns when she wakes (and the first thing she says is, “Wyatt?” </3), Rufus and Wyatt really, really should not time travel without her. Haven’t we seen how this goes, already? After some delightful awkwardness with Jess, and a hearty agreement that time travel messes with your head, we find Wyatt, Rufus, and Flynn hatched a spectacularly bad plan.

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JFK. In the present. As a young man. Nothing can go wrong with this plan.

Sorry, just got distracted watching. Had that same problem during the original airing:

Where were we? After young JFK escaped this “air-tight” secret bunker, Lucy, Wyatt, and Jessica decide to go on a road trip. Speaking of spectacularly bad ideas. But Jiya makes the great point that they are successful because they all still know who JFK is, and, once again, she brings up the visions. Personally, I love the fate vs free-will thread they’re following, mainly because I’m unsure where they’re going with it. They seem to be trying to push the fate angle pretty hard, but Rittenhouse has already changed history, and so has the Time Team. So fate isn’t set in stone. But time is a harsh mistress, and she wants to get her way.

Some of the best parts of an overall fantastic episode were with JFK. He made a great fish-out-of-water, and who doesn’t love a good fish-out-of-water story? We all do. I love that he was heartened to see the way times had changed. How women and people of color have become more visible. Educated. Equal. Are we perfect? No. But considering where he came from, the change, the progress, is significant. And his joy in the way medical science has advanced gave me an interesting warm fuzzy feeling.

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Got a definite “Kill Bill” vibe from this scene. The fiance started whistling. You know the tune.

Ah, see, got distracted watching that great fight again. On Twitter, Matt said it took them over eight hours to film. It was worth the effort. It looked fantastic. Like to see Emma get handed a little of her own medicine. In a hospital, no less. HAHAHA I’m hilarious.

 

And at the end of the fight, Jessica found out what Wyatt’s really been hiding from her. He’s totally in love with Lucy, and she could see it. It looked like the floor had fallen from beneath her feet as she watched them together. The reaction was so genuine. And I appreciate the talk Jess and Lucy had. Jess was willing to walk away, but Lucy knows Wyatt’s heart. She knows he needs this chance to be with Jessica. And she’s a grown-up, not a teenager, so the right thing is easy to know and to do, even when it hurts.

Lucy Preston – smart, beautiful, badass, adult. My hero.

I think the hardest part of this episode, though, was JFK finding out about his fate. And the fate of his family. I was scared they were going to talk about his son. It was hard enough watching him find out about his own assasination, and writing this while watching the scene, I’m crying again. There’s a reason we can’t see the future. As if he hadn’t already had a weird enough night.

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Nice touch, with the coin changing to Nixon. A shame we didn’t get to see it change back.

I loved everything about this episode. The bonding between each character was genuine and easy. The team is working together so well now, it’s delightful to watch. Their chemistry only improves, and we need another season to watch it keep going (follow the link BELOW to vote and save our show!).

The exploration of fate, free will, a higher power, it’s all very complex. I very much appreciate this show going there. It’s not something you see on TV very often, it’s ballsy, and fits perfectly into this show. Timeless really is a unique show, and TV Land can only benefit from more and more of it.

 
-how hard they’re pushing the fate angle makes me very excited about the resolution of Lyatt. If it’s fate that Wyatt and Jessica are not together, then that means Wyatt and Lucy will end up together no matter what. It’s fate. (fingers crossed, Lyatt shippers!)

-Jiya and Rufus’ storyline is fantastic. I love examining a relationship in the middle of this crazy thing. I love that they can stay loving with each other and disagree about something as deep as whether or not there’s a higher power. It is possible to discuss these things as adults and not come out hating each other.

-Interesting that Carol didn’t want Lucy to be Rittenhouse. This is going to go sideways for Carol.

-Not to mention threatening Denise. That right there is going to bite her in the ass. Hard.

-The babydoll/sweetheart callback killed me. Dead fangirl walking.

-The tension between Flynn and Wyatt is palpable and wonderful. Flynn is, for some reason, very protective of Lucy. I like it. Looking forward to finding out why, and seeing where it goes.

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Dangerously close to actual friends, instead of frenemies.

 

Screencaps courtesy of the NBC app. Stream Timeless on Hulu, the NBC app, or HERE

On Writing the “Reclamation” Trilogy – part 3 of 3

Ah, we’ve reached the end of my little musings on how I wrote a trilogy. A little over a month removed from finishing the second draft and I still miss my characters so much. I have a difficult time with loss and letting go, so I’m trying not to be too hard on myself for missing them.

Let’s get on to the final part of this!

What really got the writing done? What really made me better? The desire to do so, and actually doing it. All of those things I mentioned in the last two parts are window-dressing. The real improvement in my writing has always come from practice. The more I write, the more in tune with my thoughts I am, the more ideas and words flow from the fingers to the screen.

Given that I was writing a trilogy, for the overall story I turned to successful trilogies. I know it’s not books, but again and again I turned to Star Wars. It’s not a perfect piece, but the structure of the trilogy is beautiful. George Lucas isn’t a perfect writer, no one is, but the original trilogy has a pretty firm grasp of structure. I did my best to structure my trilogy like Star Wars.

Part of my reasoning was that Addy’s arc is the hero’s journey, just like Luke Skywalker. I read up on the hero’s journey and compared it to Luke. The structure was sound in the movies, and it was primarily these two sources I used to structure all three books. It was a loose structure and the events shifted like the image in an ill-focused telescope. But the major ups and downs, the feelings, were plotted long before I got to them.

KM also had something to say about writing a serieswhich reinforced I was doing it right.

In addition, I referred to Randy’s rules of a trilogy more than once.

Rules of a horror movie

Rules of a Sequel

Most importantly, rules of a trilogy

I especially considered the trilogy rules from the third video. What I found interesting was the way the story wanted to do that, anyway.

And that’s at the heart of the most surprising thing I think I learned about writing such a long story. These people became real (a phenomenon I wrote about) in a way I did not expect. I often apologize to beta readers when the story takes a turn I think they may not expect. And I apologize to my characters more often than I thought I ever would.

I’ve been criticized for this.

I try to say, “It’s not my fault,” but there have been occasions when my friends don’t believe me. But honestly, it’s not. There’s a certain subplot that took off in a completely different direction than I saw it going. More than that, I never dreamed it would end up the way it did. I can’t explain in detail, but it all began when I found that there was a chemistry between two characters I didn’t write.

I swear to you, I didn’t write it.

As one character’s back story was revealed and the story drew to its inevitable conclusion (one of the first two books), the reasons for the chemistry, both past and future, became clear. Events took place in the story, characters made decisions they shouldn’t, and the subplot began to shift.

No one was more surprised than me, I promise you.

So, when I say, “It’s not my fault,” what I really mean is, I created these characters. I gave them desires and hopes, a past, a lie to believe in (side note: I hate that term. It took me forever to really figure out what it meant, and I could only decipher its meaning through practice), and set them loose within their world. I impose the plot on them, yes, but I prefer stories driven by the characters. So it is their decisions about the plot which drive the story forward. I give them the puzzle, and let them put it together. Because they are whole people, they are able to make decisions and position the next pieces of the story.

I just didn’t expect them to surprise me the way they did. Certain situations require specific reactions from characters, whether I like their reactions or not. Were I to go against these organic decisions, I would be going against the very character I wrote. And just because I want a certain situation to go a certain way, doesn’t mean I can force it (square peg meet round hole). I cannot force their motivations on them once I create motivations for them to own. Instead, I must listen to their decisions based on those motivations and work out what situation that will create.

This writing fiction thing is a trip.

Sometimes, it’s like chess. Sometimes, like a jigsaw puzzle. And sometimes? Sometimes it’s like a bowl full of spaghetti. All noodles and red sauce.

I can’t explain to you how much fun I had discovering this story. I’ve just used a lot of words to try, but somehow I still feel I’ve fallen short. Putting it together felt a lot less like creating, and more like excavating. Rather than write the story, I discovered the pieces and articulated them into a full skeleton. I did my best to make sure the patella went over the knee joints and the femur went in the leg and the tibia and fibula were in the right positions but who knows? Hopefully if I screwed anything up, it was just a small little finger joint and not the whole skull.

I don’t know if I served the plot, but I know for a fact I served the characters. Allowing them to mold the story was, in the end, the only thing to do. I couldn’t have predicted exactly how most of the story came out, it’s just not my style to outline like that. But even if I had, the interactions of my characters with each other would likely have been a surprise. My main character reached the conclusion of her character arc just as I planned. It’s the how that made the difference.

Maybe that’s some kind of metaphor for life. Many of us end up in the same place. We spend our days with job and family, consuming our favorite entertainment. Be it sports, TV, books, music, philosophy, we all have a favorite thing. The framework is the same, even though the details are different. Each of us has a unique experience, even within the same framework. And so my characters completed their arcs, but in their own unique ways.

Seems to me, that’s one of the fun things about stories. They can be the same, and yet unique, because they are full of, and are made by, individuals.

I guess if I was going to give advice about how to do it, my biggest thing would be to just let it happen. Get to know the people you’re writing about as best you can, using whatever method is most comfortable for you. Just understand who they are. Give them a situation, and then let them react. Don’t overthink it. In fact, underthink it. Let the characters do the thinking. If you’ve made them whole people, they’ll be able to make their own decisions, based solely on who they are. I think this probably gets easier, so my only other piece of advice?

Write.

On Writing the “Reclamation” trilogy – part 2 of 3

The piece I was missing, and what made it so hard to get through my first novel, fell in my lap just as I began the first book. I joined a wonderful writing community on facebook, the 10 Minute Novelists, and there I found a community of writers who help each other navigate the seas of words. Under their strict no solicitation policy, we are able to speak freely about the process of writing. Not only the mechanics but also the highs and lows, joys and pitfalls, and everything in between. It’s a wonderful place to commiserate and celebrate. I’ve received countless recommendations for sources of inspiration and instruction.

One such author I found through this group is KM Weiland, who, through her website , offers some of the most helpful advice I’ve found on the world wide web for writing fiction. She also writes books, both instructional and fiction, and her book “5 Secrets of Story Structure” (free on kindle!), blew the roof off my understanding of structure.

Incorporating what I learned there into a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of plot and planning propelled me through book one and beyond. I like to think I understand character development, rising action, character interaction, etc., yet the finer points of how to structure a story was some kind of nebulous idea without edges. Reading about the craft of writing gave me edges to grab. I recommend doing at least a bit of reading on things like this, even if you’re a proud panster. I now consider myself a “plantser,” whereby I plot about two or three plot points in advance, with the ending in mind. I don’t think I’ll ever make a detailed outline, but I’ve learned so very much this last year about how to make my version of pantsing more successful. And enjoyable.

I want to mention one thing. I hear a lot of people complain about the “soggy middle,” both in writing and in reading. It’s easy to fall into the trap of the long, boring middle. I think I might have in book 2? Maybe not, but I get a distinct “Esmeralda Villa Lobos” vibe from it…somewhere. If anyone finds it, let me know.

KM’s book helped me to understand it’s not a three act play at all. It’s four. And each one has a high point in the middle, with a big beginning and a big end. The first act has the beginning, the inciting incident, and ends with the first plot point. I think a lot of people recognize that structure, even if they don’t know the words. But it’s the middle not everyone sees the same. The magic elixir? Pinch points. I get excited just thinking about them. Pinch points aren’t as big as plot points, but they are way stations from one plot point to the next. Without pinch points, I would not have made it through my second novel. I’d probably still be back there, trying to figure out how to slog through act 2, in order to get to the big piece act 3 was going to bring. Pinch points are like bright spots on the road. Like fireworks stands.

Something else I read about this time was about the scene/sequel structure of chapters and something called the Motivation-Reaction-Unit (MRU). You can read more in-depth here . One thing I haven’t done when editing so far is make sure I’ve properly followed the scene/sequel structure. I think I have, for the most part, so editing should go fairly quick. But once I read this, I incorporated most of the advice right away. Where to break paragraphs, for example (the MRU), is paramount to keeping the pages turning. And now when I look at my writing before this change, I hate it. I want to fix it all. The basics of it is:

Something happens.

(new paragraph) The character reacts. Emotionally, physically, verbally, all or some. In varying orders, just like keeping your sentence structure varied.

This not only keeps the reader turning pages, it kept me, the writer, turning pages. What a great hack I had no idea about. It’s interesting how many things I learned I had no idea about. I’ve always said, you don’t know what you don’t know. How do you know to ask the right questions if you are unaware of your ignorance in the first place?

In writing I’ve found part of this is being part of a community of writers. We talk, ask questions, answer questions, learn things. I mean, the MRU is immediately recognizable. But, here’s the kicker, you have to know you’re looking for it. Otherwise, you don’t realize it’s something you have to do. So when you talk with other writers, you learn the questions they’re asking, and you expand your own knowledge by answering them.

Another way to know if you’re asking the right questions is by visiting websites like KM’s, and by reading books on the craft of writing. There’s a book for everyone. A book for plansters like me (I’m assuming), a book for pantsers, a book for plotters, a book for who-knows-what-they-are. A book for writing, for editing, for dialogue, for exposition. There’s the Emotion Thesaurus series, which many people I know absolutely swear by. So to find out what questions to ask, reading is a huge part of it. And not just reading fiction.

And then there’s classes. I, personally, do not currently have the funds or time. I’m the sole breadwinner in the house at the moment. But I ascended to this position (haha) by going to college. Even the two English classes I took helped hone my craft. Yes, English 101 and 102. To be fair, my 102 professor was widely known to be the most difficult English teacher on campus and he was supremely awesome. I learned a lot more than I had expected, and our chats were always informative and enjoyable. I really dug that class. I hope to take more classes. There’s online ones, and there’s more at the community college (you can always apply for grants for community college).

And of course there’s cons. I got to a small one last year and it was super fabulous. I attended one a few years back that the same community college puts on each year. But in 2018, I’m looking to attend a super huge one (hint: it’s at that website I linked), and I cannot wait to meet some of the writers in my online community of awesome. There will be amazing speakers, and I hope to glean some knowledge from them.

Now that I’ve covered structure basics with you, what else is there to writing a trilogy? And what about those pesky characters and their decisions? Next week, the final part. Hope you’ll join me!