Writing Process Blog Tour

Author and blogger Kim Bullock has invited me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour. Kim is a historical fiction writer currently working on a novel based on the life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens, and his wife. She blogs at What Women Write.

What am I working on?
My work-in-progress is a family saga tentatively entitled, “A Prayer for Maura.” The story centers on the estranged relationship between Frank O’Malley, the patriarch of a Boston Irish-Catholic family, and his daughter, Maura. They had a falling out over Maura’s decision to have an abortion, which triggered a series of events that culminated in the murder of Betty, Frank’s wife. It is now ten years later. Frank is dying of cancer. Maura never did have the abortion, but couldn’t face her family after her mother’s death. Frank’s dying wish is to reconcile with his daughter and solve the mystery of how his beloved wife was murdered.

How does my work differ from others in my genre?
There are a number of authors who specialize in family sagas. My favorites, my personal Holy Trinity, are Anne Tyler, Alice McDermott and Alice Munro. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t write as well as any of those three esteemed authors. A common thread running through their stories and those of others in the genre (Sue Miller comes to mind) is the unhappiness that sets in for a female as she advances toward middle age trapped in an unsatisfying marriage. As Peggy Lee sang, many of these characters seem to be saying, “Is that all there is to life?” In some cases, these characters act on those feelings and in some of these stories, they decide the grass isn’t always greener or they don’t fully appreciate what they have. So what’s different about my work? In both of my stories, my first novel, Small Change , and my current WIP, the protagonists were much younger—teen-agers when the stories began and on the cusp of middle age when the stories ended. My two main characters, John Sykowski and Maura O’Malley, are defined not only by the choices they make, but by regrets over missed opportunities, feelings not acted on and dreams not pursued. They are very different characters, but they share some common struggles.

Why do I write what I do?
I read many genres and enjoy many types of writers. I like mysteries, literary fiction, Young Adult, psychological thrillers, legal thrillers (Grisham and Turow), and even horror. I am drawn to stories that center on families. There is something about the dynamics of family relationships that makes for powerful fiction. Of all the relationships that humans have in their lives, the family is the most enduring, complicated and often the most difficult. The potential for conflict and tension—the twin staples that move stories forward—are always present in a family situation. Even families that appear content and happy on the outside undoubtedly have tensions simmering somewhere beneath the surface. What I aim to do through my writing is to show (not tell!) that when it comes down to it, when all else in life fails, a person’s family is all she has. And if a person does not appreciate and love his family, he’s lost something fundamental to his being. And I try to convey that in a way that is not preachy. OK, sermon over.

How does my writing process work?
Oh boy, that is a good question. The short answer is I am a pantser at heart who is trying to be more of a plotter. I start with a germ of an idea. In the case of Small Change, I was thinking about a family’s first real summer vacation. That’s not much of a story, though, so I asked a series of “what if” questions. What if this blue collar family from the Chicago suburbs meets another family that is the polar opposite? What if this other family is from rural Iowa and is headed by a minister? What if these families become intertwined over the years through various relationships. And, of course, what if there was a big family secret that even the first-person protagonist did not find out for twenty years? So I started there.

I do a lot of outlining in my head before committing any words to the page. My mental outline usually consists of about a dozen milestone scenes that get the story from the beginning to the end—in this case from 1973 to 2000. The nice thing about a general roadmap is that you can make mid-course corrections. The first draft for me is one of discovery and one of my major ones was that I had drawn the character Rebekka all wrong. I pictured her as the typical wild child of a clergyman, but that didn’t feel right to me. Instead she became the victim of withering verbal attacks by her mother and grandfather, the mother believing Rebekka’s birth had ruined her life and the grandfather believing it had ruined his son’s life. Rebekka became the heroine of the story and her inner strength and fortitude allowed her to rise above a bad childhood. A more dramatic mid-course correction occurred in A Prayer for Maura. Originally Frank O’Malley was the main character, but I had trouble writing scenes from his point of view. The scenes from Maura’s point of view felt more alive and full of energy.

The lesson is that every writer has a different process. If you are a pantser and it works for you, that’s great. If you cannot write without a detailed plot outline, that’s great, too. I’ve become a believer in thinking through major story questions and character development before beginning a draft because it can save a lot of unnecessary revisions later on.

I am attempting to line up some of my author friends to participate in this tour. If you are interested please contact me at cblake55@comcast.net.

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Book Review: 11/22/63, by Stephen King

Stephen King’s novel, 11/22/63, delves into a question that has haunted America for decades: how would the nation’s recent history have been different if President John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated? It also considers a deeper question: can we, or should we, mess with the past?

Jake Epping, the time traveling protagonist of 11/22/63, learns repeatedly the hard lesson that the past does not want to be changed. And Jake also learns that when somebody changes even minor events in the past there is a “butterfly effect,” meaning a small change can have far-reaching and disastrous impacts.

A recently divorced high school teacher living in a small town in Maine, Epping is handpicked by Al Templeton, owner of a local diner, to finish the job that he started. Templeton had passed through a portal located in the pantry of his diner back in time to September 9, 1958. After a number of trips back in time, Templeton decided he would try to prevent the assassination of JFK. Before he could do it, though, he was ravaged with cancer and was too sick to continue. So he returned to 2011 and he tapped Epping for the mission.

Intrigued by the challenge, Epping assumed a new identity as George Amberson and stepped back into time. After preventing a couple of local crimes, he set off for Florida and then for Dallas, where he assumed a double life. Amberson secured a job as a teacher in the friendly suburb of Jodie, Texas, but he rented dingy digs first in Fort Worth and then in Dallas, where he stalked Lee Harvey Oswald.

King’s research into Oswald’s life and marriage is impressive and he offers specific details of Oswald’s movements leading up to that fateful day in 1963. While the teaching job was merely a means to pass time and earn some money, Eppng/Amberson fell in love with school librarian Sadie Dunhill. His love for Sadie was so deep that he decided he would marry her after he stopped the assassination.

I believe King’s main point is that the world exists in a delicate balance, and the slightest change can upset that balance. Epping/Amberson experiences a moment of clarity during a charity dance in Jodie. “For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life.”

This is really two parallel stories: the idyllic life Amberson led in the pleasant small-town world of Jodie and the ugly, violent city he witnessed in Dallas. King clearly has a liking for the 1950s and early 1960s, when life was simpler, but this story drives home the point that, for better or worse, we cannot go back to the past.

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How Many Characters Do You Need?

Like the bromide about too many cooks, an overabundance of characters can spoil the novel. How many characters is too many? Well, like a lot of questions about writing, it depends. The type of story, the genre, the plot, can all affect how many characters show up in a novel. An epic like the Harry Potter series has a castle full of characters. A “quiet” novel that explores interpersonal relationships may have only a few.

I came across a helpful exercise by Janice Hardy in a June 2013 blog post.

Hardy’s exercise goes like this: Take a sheet of paper. Make two boxes in the middle, equally spaced apart. Write the name of the protagonist in one box and the name of the antagonist in the other. Write the names of other characters below the protagonist and above the antagonist, depending on which characters are connected to with character. Next, draw a solid line if the character is directly connected to the protagonist or the antagonist and a dotted line if indirectly connected. Finally, draw lines between the characters who are directly or indirectly related to each other.

“If you had a hard time finding room for all your boxes, that’s a red flag you might have too many characters,” she wrote. “Same if you have a lot of characters who have zero connections to your protagonist, but connections to other characters in the book. Lots of people with dotted lines to one person could be ones you can combine (like those extra thugs).”

The real value of this exercise, Hardy writes, is that it “forces you to think about how the various characters are connected.”

It is also visual. If your paper is cluttered with boxes, you just might have too many characters.

There are two main problems with having an abundance of characters, blogger and author KM Weiland writes.

First, when there are too many characters, the reader may be unable to keep track of who is who. Second, a writer who introduces too many characters runs the risk of fragmenting the narrative.

Most of the posts I’ve read on this subject advise something like this: How many characters do you need? Just enough to tell the story. That doesn’t fully answer the question, though. The real test for me is whether each character fulfills a purpose, either large of small. For example, let’s say the main character does something stupid as a teen-ager and is arrested. The cop who makes the arrest serves one purpose. He doesn’t need to reappear, unless he decides to mentor the young man.

Every main character needs a supporting cast. This cast can be small or large. It may include the following: sidekicks, mentors, confidants, spouses, siblings, parents, teachers, co-workers, friends, enemies. You get the picture. The writer may not choose to include everyone on the list; she will choose carefully depending on the genre and the nature of the story.

A related question is how many Point of View (POV) characters should a novel include? Personally I have trouble keeping up with more than five or six POV characters, yet I’ve read stories with as many as nine and the writer was able to make the narrative work. However, it takes tremendous skill to juggle nine or 10 POV characters without diluting the narrative.

What about you? How many characters do you create for each story? How many is too many?

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Book Review: Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen

“Bad Monkey” is Carl Hiaasen at his best, which is to say it induces side-splitting laughter on nearly every page.

A Florida native and Miami Herald columnist, Hiaasen plums the rich depths of the Sunshine state’s bizarre real-world events, from corrupt politicians to sleazy developers and environmental plunderers. This story features Andrew Yancy, a disgraced cop fired from the Miami Police Department for a botched whistle-blowing attempt and most recently suspended from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office for doing something unnatural with a vacuum cleaner attachment to his mistress’s husband. And Yancy is one of the good guys in this tale.

Young’s boss, Monroe County Sheriff Sonny Summers, is a compassionate man. The Sheriff manages to find Yancy a new position as a restaurant inspector. Yancy yearns to ditch the “roach patrol” and return to policing and he sees an opportunity when the Sheriff, looking to avoid bad publicity, asks him to take custody of a human arm reeled in by a tourist on a fishing charter.

Yancy decides to do some off-duty detective work and in the process he falls for a sexy Medical Examiner, Dr. Rosa Campesino. They trace the frozen limb to one Nick Stripling, a Medicare fraud artist who specializes in filing bogus claims for motorized wheelchairs. Only in south Florida could this scheme work. Yancy discovers the feds were on Nick’s tail when he disappeared and presumably drowned off the coast of Florida.

His detective work leads him to an island off the coast of the Bahamas, where the luckless native Neville Stafford, has been swindled out of his land by Nick’s widow, Eve,and her shadowy boyfriend. The land isn’t the only thing Neville has lost. His pet monkey, Driggs, who may or may not have had a bit part in The Pirates of the Caribbean, is taken by a voodoo lady called the Dragon Queen as payment for a curse she puts on Eve’s boyfriend.

And then there is Bonnie, his ex-girlfriend, a former school teacher who is on the run from Oklahoma, where she was arrested for having sex with one of her students. As if that’s not enough, Yancy’s neighbor is building a huge monstrosity of a house that will block his breathtaking view of the sunset over the water.

Hiaasen’s droll observations of south Florida are mordantly funny. At one point, he wrote that premeditated crimes on Key West were rare “because they require a level of planning and sober enterprise seldom encountered among the island’s indolent felons.” At another point he describes the newly elected Sheriff as “a local bubba named Sonny Summers who won office because he was the only candidate not in federal custody, the two-frontrunners having been locked up on unconnected racketeering charges eight days before the election.”

Laughs abound in this page-turning story. I was sad to see it come to an end.

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Book Review: The Vacationers, by Emma Straub

With its alluring title and aqua-hued cover, Emma Straub’s third novel, The Vacationers, screams out “beach read.” It is that and more. The story centers on a long-awaited family vacation for the Posts, a Manhattan family. Jim and his wife, Franny, and daughter Sylvia, and son, Bobby, embark for two weeks on the island of Mallorca to celebrate the couple’s 35th wedding anniversary.

But there is more than a little trouble in paradise. Jim has been dumped from his job at a men’s magazine for having an affair with an intern. Franny, a food and travel writer, “wants to plunge an ice pick in between his eyes.” Sylvia, about to go off to college at Brown, wants to lose her virginity and Straub conveniently gives her an Adonis of a Spanish tutor. Bobby, not yet 30, brings along his girlfriend, Carmen, a bodybuilder who is ten years his senior. And Franny has invited her best friend and confidant, Charles, and his much younger husband, Lawrence, who are awaiting word on their dream to adopt a baby.

Infidelity is the elephant in their vacation home. Each of these characters has cheated or has been the victim of cheating. While opportunities abound for tawdry liaisons among this crew, Straub wisely eschews the temptation to go for the cheap, salacious story line. Though the constant point-of-view shifts could giver a reader whiplash, Straub puts the reader in the heads of each character with great sensitivity and empathy. These are not bad people; they are imperfect human beings who hunger and hurt as we all do.

What I found endearing about this novel was the way Straub gently shifted the reader’s attitudes toward the characters. I found Jim and Franny at first completely unsympathetic. Franny was obsessed with food, meticulously shopping for just the right ingredients for her dishes. But preparing food is an expression of love and I came to see that in Franny. Jim, over the course of the book, comes to realize what he has done and what he has lost. Bobby and Sylvia have epiphanies of their own, as do Charles and Lawrence.

While I am not sure I’d want to spend two weeks with these characters in a house on Mallorca, I was happy to sit on a beach and savor Straub’s poignant story.

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Book Review: The Casual Vacancy, by JK Rowling

JK Rowling’s first non-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, drew mixed reviews upon its publication in 2012. I didn’t read this one right away. In fact, I read her outstanding Robert Galbraith mystery, The Cuckoo’s Calling, before reading The Casual Vacancy.

While I have the greatest admiration for Rowling and I found much to like in this book, I saw the same flaws other reviews have identified. First, let me share what I liked about this book. Set in the fictional UK west country village of Pagford, the story centers on a nasty battle for a council seat following the death of the popular Barry Fairbrother. Pagford’s neighboring city of Yarvil is beset by many of the same ills of any urban area: poverty, crime, drugs, and prostitution.

The class struggle between the smug elites of Pagford, personified by the rotund right-wing leader Howard Mollison, and the champions of the less privileged, a cause Fairbrother took up, provide a clever microcosm for the political battles fought daily in the U.S. and doubtless many other countries.

Rowling dishes up plenty of black humor throughout. The dinner scenes featuring Howard and Shirley Mollison and his son, Miles and his buxom wife, Samantha, who detests the Mollisons, are filled with hilarity. The leaders of Pagford are obsessed with petty gossip and go to great lengths to hide their dirty little secrets. Leave it to their children to pull back the curtain on their indiscretions, using their expertise with the internet and technology.

The central point of contention between the two forces is Howard Mollison’s plan to close a substance abuse clinic and to redraw the village boundaries to jettison a notorious public housing complex to the city of Yarvil. Fairbrother had understood better than anybody the obligation of society to help those who are less fortunate, but his supporters appear outmaneuvered.

Now let me share what I didn’t like. Most of the characters lack depth and, worse, are thoroughly unlikeable. I’m not asking for perfect characters, but these folks really turned me off. I also found the ending more than a bit contrived and it left me with an empty feeling.

That said, there are some terrific scenes and moments in this book. I just wish the ending paid off the premise.

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Please.Stop.Doing.This.

This post will likely offend many of my writing colleagues and friends who use this technique, but I cannot hold it in any longer. There is a stylistic technique in vogue these days that bothers me to no end. I see it in novels. I see it in articles. I see it in blog posts. I see it on Facebook. It is the breaking up of dramatic sentences into a series of one-word sentences. Consider this: I. Can’t.Take.It.Anymore. Does that sentence read as badly to you as it does to me?

Writers know they are not supposed to use incomplete sentences or sentence fragments, but they also realize that’s a rule they can break from time to time. “The one-word sentence, or more generally the incomplete sentence, is a tool you can use for emphasis,” author and blogger Christine Amsden writes. “Like this. It’s short, to the point, and easily digestible. It calls attention to itself and its brief content, making that content stand out. When done correctly, it is a way to shamelessly exploit a reader’s emotions. Bam! Right there.”

As Amsden points out there is a time and a place for incomplete or one-word sentences, but what I am seeing again and again is very different. It is taking a complete sentence and breaking it up into a series of one-word sentences.

I believe writers use this technique to ratchet up the drama by giving the reader a dramatic signal. Wait for it. Wait for it. Okay, here is comes. The sentence broken up into a series of one-word sentences. You might as well add the words, “This is really important, reader.” For me it has the opposite effect. It’s like the sort of faux drama you see on reality television.

It is akin to the overuse of exclamation points. The legendary Elmore Leonard wrote that a writer gets to use about three exclamation points for every 100,000 words. Why? The words themselves should convey the emotion intended by the writer. The.Same.Applies.To.One-word.Sentences.

If I were to write this post and put a period after every word, how annoying would you find that?

I’m truly sorry if I have insulted my writer friends. Many of you who do this are much better writers than I will ever be. And, having gotten this off my chest, I am willing to admit I could be completely wrong about this.

What about you? How do you feel about this technique? Am I completely wrong?

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