Greetings from Texas to all my writers and readers!
Can you possibly believe it? I’m on time this month, posting this today, October 15, 2018.
For those of you who blog, I’m sure you’re well aware of the challenge of figuring out what to write. Given the political climate in this country, it would be easy to wander down that path. And those ideas who alienate half of you. That’s not what I’m aiming for. My desire is to build a community of authors, both published and aspiring, who understand the task.
I understand the task and I have to laugh when I think about where I was when I started, 30 years ago. I first got the idea to become a writer when I was reading novels, mostly chick lit and it was easy to tell how the ideas were connected – how the setting revealed the back story and vice versa. Writing a novel seemed easy (ha!). All I needed to know was what happened to whom, when and where. Then voila, novel finished.
Boy, was I naïve. The longer my stories got the more confused I got. It was (and still is) simple things like: what was that guy’s name again? Did I already say that? Or did I say something different?
It didn’t take long for me to develop a deep respect for authors. As you might guess, I’m a pantster, not a plotter. I wish I could be a plotter and hold all those details in my head. But my imagination can’t ever make up its mind. I always see all kinds of combinations and permutations of possibilities for my characters – in who they are and what they do.
I’ve now migrated into helping others succeed, which brings me great joy. Life is too short to not do what you love. I hope my Wise Words for October support your writing efforts.
Be safe in all this rain and write on!
Barbara (Mother) Wilson
Inexcusable, I know. I missed last month’s blog and I nearly missed this month’s. But to understand why, you’ll need to know a little about my personal life. You might not give a rat’s ass about what goes on in my life. Here you go, anyway.
I have been married to the same man for 40 years. That’s four decades of ups and downs with a little screaming here and there but mostly connectedness. We have two grown children. One lives in New Zealand with his Scottish wife and my only grandson, who will turn five at the end of September. My son has had quite a number of health challenges including losing his colon at age 20, several back surgeries and severe migraines. Health care in New Zealand is free (or nearly free) so that’s a relief for all of us.
His problems pale in comparison to our daughter, who until very recently lived in Alaska. Five years ago, she was injured in a sledding accident. She shattered her knee and the bone directly below. When she had surgery to put in a plate, the doctor screwed up and severed her femoral nerve. (If you don’t know what that is or what it does, look it up.) The bottom line is that her left leg will never be the same again. The doctor’s mistake set off a condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. (You can look that up, too.) She needs almost constant care. Happily, she’s just moved down to Texas with us and bought the house across the street, where she lives with her ginormous guard dog. (See the photo.)
I know this sounds like a bad movie. But it’s all true. (For those of you who are interested, there’s more. But I’ll skip that for now.)
The bottom line is that life is fragile and it’s easy to spend a lot of time and energy wishing things were different. As my son says, “The essence of all misery is want.” Constant dissatisfaction can ruin the happiness that lies right in front of you. If you accept your life as it is and relish the joy in a child’s smile, the beauty of flowers and the taste of a good meal, your life gets easier. Trust me. I know.
P.S. Yes, my daughter won a malpractice suit but did not get nearly as much as she deserves. There’s a cap on pain and suffering in Alaska.
P. P. S. This blog is late because I’ve been helping my daughter move into her house across the street. Forgive me?
I’m psyched! I’m about to write a new book. It will be about… Hmm…what should I write about?
I don’t know about you, but I have a terrible time getting started. Once I actually produce some text, I’ll have another, better idea and I start over. And over. And over. You get the picture.
The only way I’ve been able to cope with this hamster-wheel experience is discipline. Oh, I know that’s an awful word but it works. However, (isn’t there always a ‘however?’) I have to know where I’m going. For me, that requires a lot of walking around the block or on the treadmill. It also takes faith – faith in my ideas and that they are all good. I believe I can craft a story about what I have decided to write about.
Last month, I shared the opening paragraphs from Daryl Wood Gerber’s FINAL SENTENCE.* She’s an expert at sneaking her details into the story so her readers barely notice.
Here’s another example from that book:
“So excited,” she (Aunt Vera) repeated.
No kidding. The striped walls of the bookshop blurred together; I felt trapped in a kaleidoscope. Chipped walls painted baby blue, olive green, and a weird fleshy pink color flashed around me. Normally, I liked twirling and dancing. I (Jenna)3 adored music — rock and roll, country, and big Hollywood musical classics. My mother used to play the radio full blast when she drove me to art classes, and we would sing and car-dance to our hearts’ content. But I had returned to my childhood town of Crystal Cove less than an hour ago, and I hadn’t found my sea legs yet. Warmer than normal August temperatures weren’t helping my equilibrium.
“Too-ra-loo,” my aunt sang merrily. Her turban flopped to and fro. Copious strands of beads clacked against her phoenix amulet. Her royal blue caftan flared out around her large frame. “I have such a good feeling about our new venture. Sing with me. Too-ra-loo.”
“Too-ra-loo,” I croaked as I tried to slow her down by skidding on my heels. Three-dollar flip-flops didn’t win the prize for gaining traction. Why couldn’t I be a tennis shoe person? Except when exercising, I never wore them. “I’m feeling seasick.” The breakfast burrito that I had wolfed down on the short drive south from San Francisco was rebelling.
“Oh, my, you do look a little pookie.” Without warning, Aunt Vera released me.
Like a top, I gyrated out of control and landed chest-first against the shop’s ancient oak sales counter. Air spewed out of me. My butter yellow T-shirt inched up over my low-slung cutoffs. I wriggled the T-shirt down and checked my body for broken bones — none as far as I could tell, but my abdominals would ache for days.
Aunt Vera clapped. She wasn’t a sadist; she was ecstatic. “I’m so glad you said yes.”
Yes, to moving back to Crystal Cove. Yes, to moving into the cottage beside her seaside home. Yes, to helping her revitalize the aging cookbook shop that resided in the quaint Crystal Cove Fisherman’s Village.
From 350 words, we get more details. The shop they’re cleaning is a bookstore focusing on cookbooks. This implies that Vera loves to cook and loves to share her passion with others.
We know it is summer and the town of Crystal Cove is not far from San Francisco and is along the coast. We also learn a very important fact. Jenna struggled with her decision to move there.
As a writer, you can tell that Daryl knew exactly who her characters were and how they relate to each other. Her first draft might not have been so specific but by the time she got to her final draft, she had cemented the details.
As you plow through your drafts, it’s wise to use this example as a way to communicate clearly with your readers.
P.S. If you missed WHERE TO STUFF THE STUFF PART I, check it out here.
*Reprinted with permission from the author. Wood, Daryl Wood, FINAL SENTENCE. Penguin Group, USA, 2013.
Developing the story before the story begins and knowing where to put it is challenging. It’s easy for it to become repetitive or inconsistent. That’s a quick turn-off for your readers.
Many writers create a complete backstory only for themselves. It informs the decisions the characters make. It adds depth as they write and helps them establish a relationship between the characters and the readers. Once an author has firmly settled on the basics of ‘who, what, when, where, how and why,’ the writing begins and details are dripped in as the story develops.
One of my favorite examples comes from FINAL SENTENCE,* a cozy mystery by Daryl Wood Gerber.
“Aunt Vera, stop twirling me,” I yelled. But she didn’t. She continued to spin me in a circle. My eyes pinballed in my head. My brain whipped my cheeks — right, left, right, left. I didn’t ordinarily wear braids, but cleaning up a shop that closed thirty years ago, over a year before my birth, was almost as dirty a business as having a garage sale. I had dressed for the occasion: cutoffs and T-shirt, so I wasn’t worried about my clothes.
“Stop,” I repeated.
My aunt cackled with glee. “Jenna Starrett Hart, I am so excited.”
Because I had established myself in the advertising world as Jenna Hart, I had used my maiden name even after my husband and I got married. I decided not to change it to his, which was Harris. Hart…Harris. They were too close to mess with.
In less than 150 words, we learn a lot. We know both characters in this scene are women. Their names are Jenna Starrett Hart and Vera, who is Jenna’s aunt. Jenna is in her early 30s and is comfortable enough with her body to wear cutoffs. It’s likely she cares about her appearance.
She is, or was, married. This creates questions in the readers’ minds, “What happened to her marriage? Is her husband with her? If not, why?” This important backstory detail encourages readers to turn the page.
We learn Jenna previously worked in the advertising business. This snippet of information tells readers she’s college educated, social, creative and can meet deadlines.
The setting is an old, vacant shop and because they’re cleaning it, it’s about to be reopened. The mood is happy, expectant.
By the time Daryl Wood Gerber had typed her first page, she’d provided enough details to engage her readers without the dreaded, ‘information dump,’ many new authors fall into.
Mother Wilson suggests you try this with your own work. I’ll be back next month to review another section of FINAL SENTENCE and discuss successful backstory strategies.
Write on everybody!
*Gerber, Daryl Wood, FINAL SENTENCE, Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2013; p. 1
Interested in Daryl's books? Check out her web site here!
This is an open source image of a much newer RV than the one in this story. Gives you a rough idea, though. Photo credit: @frankievalentine on Unsplash.
Those of you who know me are aware my husband has been in Alaska for quite some time. Our grown daughter was injured in accident a while back and he's been helping with her recovery. This involves coping with the winter cold and darkness and her two 'interesting' dogs. On one of my visits, I wrote this story. Enjoy!
How Barbara Learned to Drive the RV
A Short Story
by Barbara Evertz Wilson
Setting: Wasilla, Alaska
Time: 7 a.m., two hours before sunrise, Winter Solstice, 2016
Ted bursts into the bedroom and shouts at Barbara, his wife of 38 years, “I need you to come with me. Pull some trousers on and get some boots.”
“What? What’s wrong?” she says, looking for a place to set her coffee cup on the table amongst Ted’s tools, trinkets, materials and debris.
“Come on, just come in your bathrobe. We have to go now!”
“The gate is open.”
Barbara meets Ted’s gaze with wide eyes. “Are they…?”
“Gone? Yes, both of them.”
Winter Solstice 2016 was the first day of “Breakfast in the Bedroom.” Barbara, an early riser, has been disturbing Dexter and Tserber while she’s been puttering about in the kitchen making coffee. Dexter is a 75 lb. Carne Corso, or Italian Mastiff. Sweet as can be, with a tail that flaps around like a kite in a storm, he loves everyone. Tserber, named after the Devil Dog mascot of the US Marines, is a walking contradiction. He’s a 160 lb. Caucasian Shepherd and is afraid of his own shadow. If you’ve never seen one, think of a St. Bernard with the jitters and you’ll have the right idea.
Both dogs spend nearly all their time on the lower level in the bedroom of their mistress, Julie. She spends most of her time down there, too, because she’s recovering from a nasty sledding accident. Although she rests a lot of time, she has trouble sleeping due to the pain and her medications. So, it’s important that the dogs are quiet.
Do they stay quiet when she’s finally sleeping? Um, no. Especially not when Barbara’s in the kitchen making coffee.
Ted and Barbara come up with a plan to help keep the dogs quiet. They move the coffee maker, cereal and other breakfast accoutrement into their back bedroom. And on the first day of this trial, the dogs are quiet and happy. Tserber is wagging his tail while Barbara prepares her Breakfast in the Bedroom.
Even though it’s still dark out, Ted’s awake, too, looking at his phone. “This might be a good chance,” he says. “Forecast is for clear skies.” The chance he’s talking about is for Barbara to see the Aurora Borealis, a long-time item on her bucket list. However, the ranking on her bucket list slipped quite a bit when she realized it meant driving two hours in the middle of the night to get away from the light pollution and then sitting in the dark and cold hoping something will happen.
But that morning, it was…well, morning. And still dark. “Do you want to go out?” Ted asks.
Barbara takes a breath and says, “Hmm, I haven’t had breakfast yet and the dogs are quiet. I don’t want to upset the apple cart.”
“We can take the RV and you can eat your breakfast there,” he says, adding that we can stop first at one of the few places near the house where you can see it.
Barbara resists. Without coffee, food and her medication for MS, she’s not inclined to go out.
“OK,” says Ted. “I’ll take the dogs in the RV – they love the RV – and drive over there. If the aurora’s out, I’ll come back for you.”
She’s happy with that plan and returns to her breakfast, pouring a bowl of cereal and adding fresh raspberries and some milk she’s kept in a cooler overnight. No sooner does she take one bite of cereal when Ted is back inside with the terrible news that the dogs are loose.
Neither of them wears a collar with tags that have their names and the owner’s phone number on them. Plus, Tserber is so skittish, he won’t come when he’s called.
Lovely, just lovely.
Barbara pulls yoga pants up under her bathrobe and shoves her feet into Julie’s wooly boots by the door. As she goes down the slippery porch steps, she hears Ted say, “You drive the RV. I’ll go on foot and see if I can get them to go in it.”
Barbara does not like to drive in the dark.
Barbara really does not like to drive when it’s dark and icy.
Barbara really, really does not like to drive when it’s dark, icy and in a huge vehicle she's never driven before.
Nevertheless, she pulls her big girl panties up and agrees. Step one: get in the RV. But can she climb in the door on the driver’s side? No. This is not any ordinary RV. It’s a 1992 Rockwood. That’s 199 TWO. As it’s now winter solstice 2016, that makes it 24 years old. She can’t get the door open and she’s not sure if anyone else can either. The only other option is to enter through the side door and climb over to the driver’s side. So she hauls herself up the stairs (without hand rails) and manages to settle in.
As the RV is already running (Ted was trying to warm it up), step two is find the brake and put it into gear. Not as easy as it sounds. Both pedals are in unexpected positions and she needs a flashlight to find them. Ted then latches the side door open so the dogs can jump in – removing any chance Barbara will not be an ice cube before long.
And then…we're off. Barbara follows Ted down the icy lane to the road. After only a minute, they see the dogs. Dexter comes when Ted calls him and actually hops in the RV for a minute. (Good dog!)
Tserber looks at Ted with a doggie smile on his face and takes off. (**&#$& dog!)
With exasperation apparent in his stride, Ted comes back to the RV and recruits Dexter to help him track Tserber. He also tells Barbara, “Go around the block and go back to the house and get their leashes and collars.”
Sounds like a plan so off Barbara goes into a residential area to turn the RV around without having to back up. At the first street on the left, she turns in but doesn’t notice the No Exit sign until after the back end of the RV has begun to round the corner. Shouldn’t be a problem, there’s a big cul-de-sac so she can just swing around. The RV rolls forward down the icy road and Barbara knows, like really knows, this thing is heavy and she needs to slow down.
But slowing down requires brakes and she can’t find them. She pushes and jabs her right foot all over the floor board. Gravity takes over the RV moves more quickly toward the houses at the bottom of the hill. Barbara thinks she is going to die and wonders how many houses she’ll take out in the process.
Through panic and with blood pulsing in her ears, Barbara realizes that her MS is making it impossible for her to feel the brake through the boot on her right foot. Brain immediately engages left foot which hits the brake right away.
She puts the RV in park and just sits still for a couple of minutes while her breathing slows.
Now for a seat belt. She needs a seat belt. Where’s the damn seat belt? She paws and searches and grabs for things that might qualify. There is nothing along the left side of the door frame that is a seat belt. Are there no GD seat belts in this thing? Ah, ha, along the left side of the seat is a latch-thingy. It’s a lap belt with the other end along her right hip.
Now, to get going again. Using the handheld light Ted gave her, she scans the steering column to see if by any chance she could drive with her left foot. Not gonna happen. For reasons she doesn’t understand, there is a big something-or-other in the way. Solution: remove right boot and drive barefoot. (BRRRR)
And she makes it back to the house safely. (Hooray!) And discovers another problem, one of her own making. When she yanked the right boot off, she tossed it into the back of the RV, and of course, she can’t find it. With one bare and one booted foot, she stumbles around the RV trying not to break her neck.
Boot found eventually.
With leashes and her own coat, hat and gloves and better shoes, she drives the RV back to the road to look for Ted and the dogs. They’re nowhere to be found.
From this place in the road, the only way to turn that honking huge vehicle around is to drive through a 4-way stop and turn into an ice covered parking lot. Feeling a bit nervous about encountering other vehicles, all turns, including those on the ice are navigated successfully.
Barbara still has not found Ted so she pulls over to the side of the road and puts the RV in park but somehow has lost a glove. Oh, but there it is – just behind the passenger’s seat. RV’s in park, right? No reason she can’t reach over and get it. And just when things seem to be calm, the RV starts to roll backward, off the road and into a gully. As luck would have it (and Barbara needs all the luck she can get), the angle of the gully keeps the back wheels from rolling any farther.
Ted turns up and so does Dexter. He’s cold (the dog, that is. Ted’s cold, too.) and they sit in the RV for a while. Ted had previously been using a whistle (as in a little metal training tool) to call him. Tserber will come to it, when he’s in the mood and not scared of anything. This is not the kind off whistle where the pitch is above human hearing, it’s a whistle that makes a tweet-de-tweet sound. But somehow in the chaos, it’s gone missing and Ted can’t whistle. Barbara can, so they decide to roll down the window on the driver’s side so Tserber will hear it. (N.B. window still open as this story is being written. It will not close.)
Eventually, Ted breaks down and calls Julie to tell her Tserber is out. But not before they’ve searched other roads and Barbara has backed the RV around a corner by looking at the rear view camera and following Ted’s directions.
Once Barbara makes it back to the house with Dexter in the RV, Julie whistles and Tserber comes running.
And that’s how Barbara learned to drive the RV.
Is Shorter Easier?
Many new authors jump into writing picture books because they think it’s easy and a fast track to book sales. The stories are cute, the words are few and the pictures are funny. No big deal, right?
Hmm…yes, it’s a big deal. Coming up with a novel story idea is difficult. Debut authors are competing against the likes of Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. That said, teachers and librarians are always looking for new and different stories. Parents are, too. You can only read Goodnight Moon so many times before your eyes begin to cross.
As Mother Wilson, I advise picture book authors to know what’s out there. What’s popular and what’s been done to death. The competition for new books is fierce but a new story will break through if it has a relatable character, a clear sequence of events, an internal plot showing how the character(s) transform emotionally.
Now let’s move on. You’ve got a great idea and you know what you want to happen to your loveable (or not) character and how s/he will change emotionally from beginning to end. Write all that in 1,000 words or less. Yes, that’s what I said, ‘ONE THOUSAND WORDS.’ Most modern picture books run 500 – 750 words.
Writers over the age of 40 will protest. ‘But the books I read to my kids when they were little were longer.’
Times have changed. Color printing has gotten progressively more expensive, along with shipping costs. While the length of a picture book remains the same at 32 spreads, the cost to produce it has risen.
Of course, e-books are a quick and easy solution to those costs. But they don’t make very good birthday presents for four-year-olds. Kids still like to have something they can hold in their hands. It should be something unique. Something that looks different from the electronic gadgets. Book covers will draw children in.
But I digress. Selecting the exact words to convey plot, setting and characterization in less than 1,000 words is no easy task. But it’s not an impossible task. With patience and perseverance, you can succeed.
Things to Remember:
Start as far into the story as possible. We don’t need to know that your protagonist got his plant that’s not growing from his grandmother six months ago. The point is the plant’s not growing. Grandmother’s involvement in the story can come later.
Don’t use text to tell the readers anything they’ll be able to see from the art. It’s redundant.
The child should solve the problem, not an adult.
Think like a child. Use words that a kid would use. But don’t dumb it down. Even a pre-schooler will take offense if you treat him like an idiot.
Remember that kids have small problems – tying their shoes, eating broccoli, going to bed.
Don’t give up. Learn the craft and keep writing.
Fear is unpleasant. The racing heart, the dizziness and the unbearable need to pee are miserable. Failure sucks, too. The nausea, the sweat and that loud ringing in your ears are agonizing. Put fear and failure together and you get psychological paralysis. The fear of failure is debilitating, even for the strongest and most capable among us.
Read on for Mother Wilson’s Wise Words on overcoming your fear of failure and finding your personal path to success. This blog is aimed at writers in all genres and at every stage in their careers. However, these techniques can be used in any area of life.
To look closely at your fear of failure, first define, ‘success.’ Rather than spout off a simplistic response like ‘achieving a goal,’ or ‘getting what you want,’ apply this idea to something specific. Make it small, achievable and set a reasonable deadline. You could say something like, “By 5 p.m. today, I will have written three paragraphs.”
Step number two is to accept that those three paragraphs do not have to be perfect. If you have written three paragraphs, whether they’re good or bad, you will have met your goal and succeeded. Most writers I know end up writing a lot more than three paragraphs. The key is to get started.
Next, you’ll need positive reinforcement. You didn’t fail. You succeeded. Reward yourself. It’s easy to use food, but honestly, I don’t recommend that. We authors are a sedentary bunch and it will go right to your hips. (Trust me, I know.) Find something else you like to do. Call a friend, watch a movie, play with your dog.
Thinking positive always helps. However, studies from the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology show that positive thinking needs to be balanced. For it to work, you’ll need to visualize the obstacles between where you are and where you want to be. Then, see yourself moving forward. Plan a step-by-step method of overcoming the obstacles. Visualize yourself succeeding one step at a time. Don’t get snarled up in how far you have to go.
As you move forward, don’t run from your fear. Embrace it as part of being human. Hug your fear and say, “Fear I see you. I know you are there. I can and will live with you through acceptance.”
Write on everybody!
I love writers’ conferences.
I hate the jitters that go with them. Even after 20 years in this business, I can still get the jitters when talking to really important people. To quiet the butterflies in my stomach, I’ve developed some strategies.
The first strategy is ‘Giants and Pygmies.’ When you meet anyone for the first time, you often immediately classify them as either a Giant or a Pygmy. The Giants are strong and powerful. They’re influencers who can make or break your career. The Pygmies are the opposite. They’re small, weak and can’t help you one bit.
In reality, no one is a Giant or a Pygmy. We are all human and as the saying goes, ‘We all put our trousers on one leg at a time.’ The mental task is to lower the Giants and raise the Pygmies so you are all on the same level. Everyone in the room has equal value, including you. You’re there to meet them and they’re there to meet you.
Those awkward pauses in a conversation need a strategy, too. You can always ask a question and listen. Ignore that voice in your head that’s trying to find a witty remark to say next. By listening, you’ll find another question to ask and a genuine conversation will begin.
When talking with a key influencer, drop your own agenda. The goal is to establish a relationship so you will both come away with a positive experience. They’ll remember your smile more than what you said.
Write on everybody!