Saturday, May 23, 2020

Keeping in Touch in the Age of COVID-19

If it weren't for social media, I'd be bonkers now. But it's also contributing to a sense of if not paralysis, at least inaction.

If I'm working on a family history book or planting flowers, my mind is occupied enough that it doesn't wander. Otherwise, I could go from website to website looking for...answers. When will normal return, when will I feel as if someone is in charge of normal returning, how do you eat a ten-ounce bag of M&Ms and not gain weight? (I already know the answer to that last one. You can't.)

Cats in Quarantine
Really, I'm not depressed. I like my cats, but I'm sorry not to be with friends and family. I'm also grateful that I can stay in the apartment rather than have to work at a grocery store or take public transportation to any job.

Earlier this week I ventured to the school where I subbed all year to help empty 7th grade lockers. Now there's fodder for a story. I knew the school was so clean you could lick the walls (I didn't) and that there would be few people there. The personal contact with people I like was wonderful! Then I went home and looked at the grass seed I planted. It does not grow faster if you stare at it.

So, I've given myself a good shake, and decided to stop looking at the Internet so much and that I don't need to watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory every evening. And I'll write more blog posts. I had no idea I had not written one in May.

One day this week, the Sisters In Crime organization sponsored a webinar with Jane Cleland, author of the Prescott Antique Mysteries and several excellent books on writing. That has energized me to work more steadily on The Least Trodden Ground. Jane's books on structure and plotting are superb.

I wish you good writing and reading.
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Check out Elaine's website or sign up for  her newsletter

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Now You've Reached the Muddled Middle

My last blog post suggested this could be a good time to get to work on an intended project that hasn't made it to paper or the computer screen. Even though you don't need a "chunk of time" to write, some people believe they have a better chance of completing a book when they have nearly unlimited time.

I am far more likely to finish something when I have a set time for completion -- a.k.a. a deadline. In a time management class, a lecturer once said, "If you say you work better toward a deadline, it means that you don't work efficiently the rest of the time." Probably true.

Let's say you've made a good stab at a story or novel, but suddenly you aren't sure of the next steps. Or the only reason you haven't thrown your computer out the window is because it's a desktop and it's too heavy.

Here are some questions to ask yourself or techniques for completing a first draft.

1)  Even if you don't outline, are you clear about how the story will end? If you don't know, write down several options. They can be as simple as (with insertion of your characters' names): the hero discovers the child his mother gave up for adoption, the villain gets away with the murder, the hero uncovers who really embezzled the money.

Ultimately, you have to know what you're aiming for or it will be very difficult to send characters down the path to get there. You don't need to write down how everything will happen, just ensure you know the ending scene(s).

2) If you're stuck at one point, write a completely different part of the book. It can be one scene that's been making it's way around your brain, a conversation you want two characters to have, or a description of the room where the murder took place. It doesn't matter what you write, only that you do write rather than think you can't.

3) Write a set of bullet points for what will be in the next two chapters. This doesn't have to be a full-fledged outline. The key is not to start fleshing out those bullet points until you have written them. (My bad habit is to get an idea and start writing. It's made worse by the fact that I type so fast I think I'm getting somewhere.)

4) Consider a reverse outline document. I started this eight or ten years ago and it's been a huge help. I wrote a detailed set of bullets for each completed chapter. These aren't written in the style of a publicity piece, and the reverse outline will likely contain far more info that an up-front outline. Include notes to yourself about things to do or check.

The reverse outline is especially important if: a) You didn't start with an outline, b) You have to start and stop your work. It also helps you see if a subplot has been ignored or a character sidelined by lack of action or conflict.

5) Don't move to another project until you have finished the first draft of the current one. It's relatively easy to write the first third or half of a book. If you move on to the next idea simply because you think you can't finish, you likely won't complete anything. It's okay to work on two projects at once -- I usually do -- but not okay to quit.

As soon as I write this, someone will say you have to know when an idea is not developing well. That's true, and an experienced writer may decide something is unworkable and move on. If you're reading this, you likely aren't writing your tenth book, and you don't have the perspective to decide what truly cannot be finished.

Now, quit eating that leftover Halloween or Easter candy and get back to work.
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See more about Elaine's work at https://www.elaineorr.com or sign up for her newsletter.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

So You Finally Have Time for That Book

You've had an idea for a book for a looong time, but you had a lot on your plate and couldn't make the time to put it together. And now you are home with less to do. So you gather notebook, pens, maybe computer and...

Now what?

If you're like a lot of people, you can write for a few hours or days without hitting a stopping point. Then you hit a "what next?" wall and stop. You put it aside while you think about it. There's plenty of time, you can't go anywhere.

I hope you do get back to the book. If the idea has been percolating, it needs to be on paper, even if you don't decide to publish it.

Thoughts Before You Start

1.  Pull your thoughts together and make some notes. Maybe you've jotted ideas for a while. If not, try to write a short road map before you begin. It'll help you know where you're going and if you're close to finishing.

2. Are you writing for fun or publication? If the latter, think about who you want to read the book and how much they will know about your subject. It makes a difference in your vocabulary and level of detail in description.

3. Don't sweat the details. Also known as don't get bogged down in research. Maybe there's a scene where folks harvest corn. You don't need a lot of intricate facts. Leave a space that says, "Add two sentences on harvesting." If you start reading about the process, you could go on for hours.

4. If you're writing a mystery and want to describe a weapon or manner of murder, you may not need pages of description. A true crime novel or private investigator story would need more than a traditional or cozy mystery. Same goes for a book that involves a hobby. Unless it's germane to the story, the reader doesn't need to know how to throw a curve ball or how long it takes marigolds to germinate. (See #2.)

5. Just keep writing, don't stop to edit. If you take a break, you may need to reread your last chapter to get the feel for where you are, but don't critique yourself.

6. Try not to think about things such as how to find a publisher, market your book, or which talk show to be on. Nothing like that matters until you finish and polish the manuscript.

7. Some people close to you may be interested in your progress, but most people won't be. They may like you a lot, but they're living their lives and probably aren't writers. Besides, someone could try to talk you into going in a different direction. You want to follow your own path.

8. And the most important point. Don't stop if you hit a dead spot. It's okay to jump ahead and write a scene that's clear to you. Work on the transition or specifics later.

That's it. Writing is hard, but it doesn't have to be overwhelming. Check back in a couple of days for a blog post on how to keep the story moving.

And don't stop reading!
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                  To see more about my writing, go to http://www.elaineorr.com.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A Tongue-in-Cheek Naming Game

If there were a Lexicon Tribunal, this is the kind of missive it would produce.

It has come to the attention of the Lexicon Tribunal that there is a growing confusion in the land over which individuals have entered into the official partnership known as "marriage." After careful study, the Tribunal has determined that the cause of this consternation is the relatively recent decision of many women to defy the time-honored tradition of adopting the man's family name.

There seems to be no logical reason for this rash practice. The Tribunal foresees untold problems if this convention is permitted to continue. Will telephone directories, already bloated by the addition of second phone lines for fax machines, double in size yet again?  

Will mothers-in-law be forced to learn their daughters-in-laws' names, rather than simply putting the prefix "Mrs." before their sons' names? How will nosy neighbors be able to tell the difference between married couples who have two distinct names and two people simply living in sin?

After holding extensive hearings, at which Tribunal members were repeatedly insulted for daring to raise the topic, we have developed criteria for determining which of the prospective partners' names should become the family name under which the marriage contract can be consummated. 
  • If there is a difference of more than three letters in the length of the name, the shorter name will be used. However, both parties can agree to use the longer name if three sets of witnesses attest that this decision was reached without bloodshed.
  •  If there is a difference of three letters or fewer, three criteria are suggested:
  •  The name that is the most Waspish will prevail.
  •  If both names are ethnic in character, the one that is the butt of the fewest jokes will be selected.  (If there is difficulty determining this, both parties will stand near the playground for a classroom of fourth graders, preferably boys, and keep track of the nationalities most insulted. As in golf, the lowest score wins.)
  •  If one name is or rhymes with "fairy," "duck," or "rick," the other will be employed. This is in consideration of possible offspring of the partnership.
Couples may not avoid the decision by combining family names and creating a hyphenated alternative. There is the obvious issue of length of names for succeeding generations.  It would not be long before mailboxes would have to be elongated, check sizes would be extended, and return address labels would be longer than the envelopes. 

There is, of course, the delicacy issue. The Tribunal greatly appreciated the many suggestions of inappropriate name combinations that members of the public offered. For instance:
  • If Holly Hunt married Max Roach, her name would be Holly Hunt-Roach.
  • If Jane Fonda married Jon Peters, her name would be Jane Fonda-Peters. 
  • If Dan Coffey married Peter Sellars, his name would be Dan Coffey-Sellars.
 The full text of these examples is available in the reference section of the library.  Parental approval is required for individuals under age 18. The Tribunal respectfully requests that citizens stop submitting examples for its review.
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For some of Elaine's more traditional writing, visit www.elaineorr.com. In the comments section here, you are welcome to post additional examples of hyphenated names. I took a humor writing class from Dan Coffey at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival. To see more of his wit, check out his travel blog, Geezers Abroad.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Calling Vivid Images to Mind

As a three-year old, my parents took me to a co-op nursery school in Garrett Park, Maryland, which was in walking distance of our house. Moms (I don't remember dads) helped the professional child care workers staff the one-room school.

I remember the pineapple/orange juice combo and graham crackers, and my mother standing at the edge of the room. She wore a pair of red plaid capris -- except they were called petal pushers back then.

The only other conscious memory is Danny F. crawling with a box on his head so he could knock down piles of blocks (a.k.a. castles) other children had built. We later went to the same high school, and I reminded him of his feats. He grinned, but had no other comment.

Lately I've been making a list of indelible memories. It occurred to me that something that rattled around in my brain for decades had to have stayed there for a purpose. In other words, can I use one of those memories in a book? No identifying block busters or others, of course.

A few other recollections are:
  • Encouraging a younger brother to ride down the stairs from the second floor to the first in a box. And earning one of the rare spankings my mother provided.
  • Siting with my dad when he came home from work, trying to convince him that he would rather have a new friend than one million dollars. He said it would be a tough decision.
  • Thinking about a fifth-grade teacher who noted that some girls who attended Mass at the beach (probably Ocean City, MD) wore raincoats because under the coat they had on shorts. The scandalized teacher reported this to the parish priest at the beach. One could say the teacher had 1950s standards, but when I relayed the story to my mother, her take was that God was happy to have the girls in church.
  • Picking up a dead fish from a creek, and crying when my dad washed my hands with some beer, because we had finished the iced tea my parents had also brought. (Though I was about four, to this day, I hate the smell of beer.)
  • Getting tears in my eyes after answering a question wrong in third grade -- I was usually right. (Note to self: could be a topic for a therapist.)
  • Being in stores with my mom and younger sister and having strangers tell Mom how beautiful my blue-eyed, curly haired sister was. And feeling pride rather than jealousy, because she was, and she was ours.
The list is much longer. I would encourage other writers to dig deep for similar memories. If you kept a journal from childhood, you probably have the ideas recorded. I didn't start until my late 20s, and I've been sporadic,
Is this important? No, but it does keep you writing when you're stalled.
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Check Elaine's website at https://www.elaineorr.com or sign up for her newsletter.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Searching for the Creative Voice Within

I'm looking for my creative voice.  It's around here somewhere. Some days it's so loud I can't stifle it with a stuffed pillow.  And I never know what it's going to say. 

I do need that voice. A writer does not live by white-out alone.  A search warrant is in order. "Single white female in search of inventive perspective. Touch of humor and dash of whimsy essential." Too dry.

"Brazen wench seeks bizarre attitude. Prefer voice that laughs so hard it bleats." Better. 

Perhaps the voice is simply distracted today, not sure when to show up or what to do when it gets here.  I can always tell when it's having an identity crisis.  Every speck of dust in the house stands out.  They insist on obliteration; a vacuum or dust cloth will do. The dust distractors appear most often when I'm on deadline.

Wait. The voice was thinking of meditating. Damn. I hate it when it hangs out with that crowd. Comes back all mellow. No bite at all. Might as well stay in that darkened room with the silly paintings on the wall. A woman with tendrils coming out of her head. A man playing a lute as he rides a unicorn. Should be a warning sign.  "Artist on meditation, hide the paint."

But, I don't think the voice is meditating today.  I'm too calm.  It usually only mediates after we've had a disagreement.  Like the time we debated whether "The Little Engine that Could" really exists, or if it was just the author's way of trying to brainwash a couple generations of kids. I won, of course. I often do.  Then the voice pouts. Could be for just a few minutes. Sometimes for as long as a couple of days.

It comes back.  I'm convinced it misses me as much as I miss its quirky incantations. Where did I find it last time?  Ah yes. At the keyboard. Actually, I think it was hiding in the computer screen. I had finished DEP--dust elimination procedures--and tackled all the weeds in the flower garden. Thought the voice might be in with the June bugs. Couldn't think of anyplace else to look, so I just turned on that sucker, and there it was. 

"Where were you?" it asks.  "I've been waiting." 

I know its wiles.  Trying to make me forget I'm angry that it's been in hiding. 

Perhaps it's in the computer again today. I approach the contraption, sneaking up on its blind side, so the voice doesn't sense I'm coming. Once you turn on the computer, the voice can't escape.  Can still hide, of course. 

Aha! There it is.

There's always an excuse for being away.  "I've been collecting my thoughts," it says. 

"Collecting or concealing?" I ask. And we're on our way.

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Author's note: Sometimes writing a blog post is a good way to escape the creative voice. To see more about my writing, go to http://www.elaineorr.com.

Typo Avoidence Strategies

Typos are the bane of every writer’s existence, and they annoy readers. When people tell me they can't afford to hire an editor, or even a proofreader, I suggest they look for items to sell on Craigs List or have a garage sale. I'm not being a smart aleck.  Your unwanted stuff can polish your product.

Before you work with a proofreader, you'll show copies to a critique group or send several chapters to a potential agent. To reduce errors in a draft, take a look at these Typo Avoidance Tips.

  1. Time and distance are your friends. The longer you let a draft sit in a drawer or in electronic limbo, the easier it is to spot errors later.
  2. Stop rewriting. Yes, you want your book to be the best you can make it. But at some point the book is done. Every time you rewrite a paragraph you can make new mistakes.
  3. Read slowly. You expect to see words in a certain order or names and places spelled a certain way, so that's what your brain sees and it keeps moving. If you slow down, you'll see the errors.
  4. Read your book out loud. It does take a lot of time, but you are asking a reader to pay for your book. They deserve this much more of your time.
  5. If your education did not include a formal grammar course, buy a book or take a community college or online course. Writing is likely your second career. Imagination may not be teachable, but a good command of the language can be learned.
  6. Keep track of regular errors to better recognize them in the future. Mine include leaving off the closing quotation marks or leaving out the apostrophe in the word its when it's supposed to be a contraction. But I'm not picky, I vary the mistakes.
  7. Use the search feature in your software to locate those regular errors. You won't find left-out words or missing punctuation marks, but you may see many oops items.
  8. Do a paperback rough draft. If you are self-publishing, you will do a paperback via Amazon, BN, or another source. When you review a printed proof, many errors will jump out. It's worth doing an early paperback version, even if you later redo it.
  9. Each device you have registered with Amazon has a Kindle address. (Look it up under "Manage Devices and Content.") Send your book to Kindle email address and it appears on your Kindle as a document (as opposed to a retail book). Just as with a paperback, your words will look different than they do on your computer, so you may spot errors more readily.
One caution. You don't want to pay attention to typos as you write those early drafts. Keep your focus on the story.
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Learn more about Elaine or her writing by visiting http://www.elaineorr.com  .

Friday, January 31, 2020

First Person Versus Distant First Person

I write all my mysteries in first person. Until now. I think. I decided to employ what I've seen referred to as distant first person for the Ancestral Sanctuary Series. What is the difference?

In the first person point of view, you are in the character's head and the character (in my case always the sleuth) refers to him or herself as "I." The reader sees the world only from that individual's perspective. I like it because I believe the mystery is stronger. No one 'tells' the reader anything. That said, most of the books I read (Beaton's Hamish Macbeth, Connelly's Harry Bosch) are in distant first person.

In distant first person, a reader still sees the world from the character's perspective, but the sleuth is referred to in the third person. The best example is my all-time favorite, the Harry Potter series. Once Harry is in a scene the story is told only from his perspective. Other times, a narrator speaks. However, that's relatively rare.
For example, In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (the U.S. title), Chapter One opens into the world of the Dursley family and closes on the street outside with Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall, and Hagrid. We know what these three are doing and some of their feelings, but it's from their actions and words, not their thoughts.

From the second chapter forward, the reader is in Harry's head only. Being in scenes without Harry lets the reader know more about what's going on beyond Hogwarts or the Dursley home. But because we don't know, for example, all that Albus Dumbledore knows, the author doesn't have to reveal everything. Readers get to solve the mysteries with Harry.

This general term for this kind of first-person writing is that we have a character's perspective but there is narrative distance. A great blog post on POV and narrative distance is one by Beth Hill.

It will take me a while to get used to writing in distant first person. In fact, a few days ago I wrote two scenes in first person. I miss it, but a different kind of writing will let me explore characters in new ways.
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To learn more about Elaine, go to elaineorr.com or sign up for her newsletter


Monday, January 20, 2020

In the Minds of Pets...

I enjoy having cats and dogs in my fiction -- fiction I write or that of others -- as long as they don't dominate most scenes. Only in my Mildred Mistletoe Christmas series is the story told from an animal's point of view. I believe the black cats I've owned have cast a spell on me.

When we started redoing the covers of the Jolie Gentil series, I realized that Jolie had taken care of and relied on her cat, Jazz, in every book. Jazz was her primary concern when moving into Aunt Madge's B&B at the Jersey shore (would she get along with the prune-eating dogs?). Jolie also worried that Jazz would feel overlooked after her marriage and growing family. No worries.

Thus, Jazz is featured on all the new Jolie Gentil covers. You could say she's the series glue.

Now I'm writing a new series, one that features an amateur family historian named Digger (birth name Kathy, but it was overtaken by events). Digger has a large dog named Bitsy, and her uncle Benjamin has an oversized cat that goes by Ragdoll.

The working title of the series is the Ancestral Sanctuary Series.

I'm paying more attention to where the pets are when action is underway. For example, Digger would be upset if she found a body, but so would the dog. And probably the cat, but cats won't act like anything matters.

I've been writing too slowly, so I've given myself two months to finish through first draft and one full revision. Gulp.
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To learn more about Elaine, go to elaineorr.com or sign up for her newsletter.