Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Another Kind of Journalism by Bonnie Schroeder

Bonnie Schroeder is the author of Mending Dreams as well as published short fiction. Find out more about Bonnie at her website





ANOTHER KIND OF JOURNALISM


I came of age in the 1960’s, the era of Hippies and anti-war protests, the Summer of Love and psychedelia. Dropped out of college to marry an art student. Lived in a loft in Downtown Los Angeles before it became the fashionable Arts District.
A lot of good writing material there—if only I’d taken better notes.
I didn’t start keeping a journal, however, until 1974. Here’s the first entry, from January of that year, scribbled in a blue-vinyl-covered spiral-bound notebook: “This journal was a gift from John, who will soon be my ex-husband.”
I didn’t consciously craft that sentence as a story opening; it just came out that way, from my brain to my fingers to the pen on the page. And at least I was able to write authentically about the ups and downs of a no-fault divorce in California.
I’ve become a devoted journal-writer since then and have lost track of the number of notebooks I’ve filled. It’s become a need, a way to preserve and (maybe) make sense of what goes on in my life.
Those lost years in the 60’s? I can research in libraries and online until the cows come home, but it won’t reveal what I personally was thinking and feeling and experiencing in those days. My journal is a repository for all life’s oddball experiences, good and bad, beautiful and ugly—all waiting to spring to life again.

But journal-writing has another, even more valuable application: it’s great writing practice.
For years I worried that I wasn’t doing my journal writing the “right way,” not filling pages with long, elaborate, lyrical descriptions and all that. Then I realized, that’s not necessarily what it’s all about. Journaling is simply practice in putting words on the page and building up those writing muscles.
Whether you intend to or not, once you keep a journal, you do start to notice the world around you more carefully as you strive to record and interpret your experiences, in as much interesting detail as possible. The challenge presents itself without your even trying.
And remember this: nobody’s looking (unless you want them to) so you free yourself to experiment with phrasing and structure, to invent whatever and whoever you want, to create fiction as well as re-create fact.

There are a ton of how-to books on journaling out there. I have two favorites that are especially relevant to me. When I’m feeling stuck or just need a break from my current project, I sometimes turn to them to jump-start my writing in unexpected directions.

·       The CreativeJournal by Lucia Capacchione 
·       The NewDiary by Tristine Rainer

As for all those notebooks stashed away in my garage? I finally wised up and started keeping my journals on the computer, using MS Word (and a password protected file.) This has several advantages: my handwriting is horrid (the only D I ever got in school was in penmanship), I don’t have to make room in the file cabinet for yet another notebook, and the entries are searchable in case I want to look something up quickly. I confess, however, that sometimes only the scratch of the pen on paper will quell the writing itch, so I succumb and then in my OCD fashion retype the entry into the digital file “for future reference.”
I didn’t invent journaling, of course. A lot of writers, better and more well-known than I (hello, Ana├»s Nin) have even published their journals. Some have written novels in journal format (one of my personal favorites is Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.) It seems a fairly common trait among writers, this deep-rooted urge to put words on paper, to capture and describe (or invent) their experiences, even if/when their words aren’t meant to be read by anyone else.

So let me ask: do YOU keep a journal? Does it add value to your writing life? If you haven’t been journaling, did this post make you want to consider it?


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Long and the Short of it….by Rosemary Lord



Sometimes I want to read in a hurry: quickly turning pages to find out what’s coming, racing through an exciting mystery. Other times I enjoy lingering in the luxury of words – savoring the colorful, evocative descriptions. Immersing myself in the mood of the piece.

I became aware of this as I began to read the English Best Seller, The Girl On The Train, by Paula Hawkins. I saw a smart format that moved the story along quickly. Written diary-style. Staccato. Divided with headings into morning and evening. Sentences very, very short, each session about a page. Although the diary entries increase in length heavily deeper into the book.

It starts off with brief descriptions of what the girl in the title saw on her daily train journeys back and forth to work. She makes up her own stories about the people she observes daily. We’ve all been there. I did that, fresh out of school, following similar train routes when I worked in London years ago. Train journeys are an excellent opportunity for writers imagination to run wild.

But it was the quick, short approach that caught my attention. Short descriptions, simple words written in the first person. No luxuriating in similes. Nothing sentimental. ‘Just the facts, Ma’am.’ It’s hip and sharp. And it works. This book was #1 on the L.A. Times Bestseller List.

But my problem is that I write about the past. A slower, gentler past. I get steeped in creating a mood of a by-gone era. Admittedly, I sometimes get carried away with my sometimes verbose descriptions and my writer friends on this blog will reign me back in. But a short, staccato, present tense would not work for what I want to say in my 1920s-set novels. Although I am getting better. 

For the past 5 years I have been working to save an historic Hollywood building from being turned into a condo-resort-with-swimming-pool. And as there were elderly ladies involved, it led to me to write the historical aspects, their stories and why the Woman’s Club of Hollywood should be saved. My first submissions were red-penciled by the legal teams. The Court, they pointed out, just wants the facts, no flowery descriptions, no emotions, and few – if any – adjectives. I learned to cut the information to the bone, with no sidetracks. It was explained to me that with thousands of legal pages to read, one needs the court to understand the story - without getting bored. Keep it simple. A twelve-step program phrase that is very useful.

I used the ‘keep it simple and short’ theme consistently when I was writing the updated version of Los Angeles Then and Now last year. Although I find it much easier to keep things simple when writing non-fiction. I did that as a journalist for years. Editors give you very little space in which to tell the entire story.

So, when I returned to working on my Lottie Topaz novels (Yeah!) that are set in the world of silent movies and Prohibition in Hollywood, it was with a renewed enthusiasm and fresh approach. While my novels and character’s voice are not really the place for that 2015 staccato tone, I have divested my writing of some of its frippery. And some of the descriptions that I just loved – well, they had to go.( Although my fellow blogger GB Pool uses an excellent, Chandleresque staccato tone in her Johnny Casino books. But that’s a subject for a whole other blog…. )

So, the long and the short of it is that there is room for both styles. It depends on the nature of your writing. I will leave you and return to my dusty, dry days of sweet-smelling orange groves, endless blue skies and the clang of trolley cars in the distance and the world of Hollywood in the 1920s. 


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Building a Better Villian by Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of Petals in the Wind.  
She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no 'help wanted' ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon


BUILDING A BETTER VILLAIN

Call me TINO – tolerant in name only. I recently noticed many of my odious characters share a certain trait, which would be fine if that trait related to being dislikable. However, the similarity my antagonists share is physical – they’re gross in every sense of the word.
It made me wonder if I have a deep-seated bias against those who share this physical attribute. But wait, I’ve read many books with villains who ‘look’ like mine. Does that make me biased, or just lazy?
So that got me thinking – how do you build a better villain, one who is complex and human, who doesn’t fall into the easy prejudice category? It’s one thing to make your villain a classic enemy, like a terrorist or Nazi. They’re no challenge to make despicable; we recognize them as bad from their title. You can say murderers, a staple of mysteries, are easy villains, while action/adventure genres almost demand evil characters bent on destroying the world. But that isn’t enough to create a truly memorable bad guy.
The most fascinating villains are the ones we can relate to on a certain level, no matter how vile their behavior, unconscionable their deeds, or distasteful their appearance. For villains who are pure evil there must be something about them that intrigues us beyond their horrific actions. What draws us to Robert Benchley’s shark in Jaws, or Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon, is not so much their conduct as their nature. Unlike the hero, it’s not about the villain’s vulnerability, but ours – to the likes of them.
As writers, we must build characters, not caricatures, which means we have to find some redeeming qualities in our villains. That’s not to say the nemesis has to be admirable, but like a protagonist who is purely good is boring, so is an antagonist who is one-dimensional. If we give our heroes some imperfections, we must also balance our villains with enough positive qualities to make them real without making them nice.
To build this kind of villain, think of how many real life villains are smart (Ted Kaczynski), charming and attractive (Ted Bundy), or charismatic (bin Laden). What makes them villains is the way they used those positive qualities in a negative way. This type of villain should present a genuine challenge for your hero by having the power or ability to exploit your protagonist’s weaknesses. Whether a mighty army against a ragtag bunch of freedom fighters or a devoted family man bent on annihilating one segment of society, the greater the task to defeat him the more invested we’ll be in the story.
Villains don’t have to be evil. It surprised me to learn that one synonym for ‘villain’ is ‘antihero’ – I’ve always thought of them as protagonists – flawed people you empathize with, even like, despite their badness. Whether Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, Count Dracula and Frankenstein, Moriarty from Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books, or Michael Corleone in The Godfather, these antiheroes fascinate us and we often root for them. Even when their actions horrify us. 
It reminds us that villains don’t have to be wicked moustache twirlers, rope in hand. Haven’t we all known good people who’ve had a momentary break and done bad things? Some, like BTK killer Dennis Rader or Susan Smith, go well beyond bad, but what shocked us most about them was their very ordinariness.
To build this kind of villain, write a character biography to create a backstory. Then seek a motivation for the deed, one that readers can relate to, with a believable trigger. That will provide a reason, which is different from an excuse. Bad can never be excused, but if we understand what provoked the bad – fear, shame, anger – we won’t view the character as a really evil person but as a real person who did evil.
It’s a subtle but important difference. It’s what makes them complex and human.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Human Mind (Yes this has something to do with writing!)



I like three word titles, but this time, The Human Mind was just too obtuse.

In one of my prior lives, I majored in Philosophy with a minor in Psychology. The academic choices of a naive twenty year old I don’t think are of interest, or relevant, except as background for why I thought this blog was a good idea.

Philosophy gave me a logical thinking grounding, and Psychology appealed to my interest in always wanting to know “why?” Nonetheless, I’ve ended up being more of a “pantster,” than a thinking ahead “outliner” and laying out kind of writer. And when it comes to “why,” I sure like leaving “what if” loose ends and unresolved questions in my stories. Especially about the future. Logic and "why"—apparently went out the window.

Which leads me into the heart of this post. The numerous articles on how to do this or that (especially if it’s something computer related!) are wonderful, and my saviors in our electronic age. However, the “ten things” you have to do, or the “ten no-nos” or the “ten rules” for writing, editing, etc. sometimes hit a sour note. And they shouldn’t, because people are always asking those questions, and we’re all eager for help and answers.

But in the background areas of my "human mind" runs the belief everyone is different, and contradictory. And picking and choosing what works for you is the only one answer I wholeheartedly believe in repeating. That being said, I’ve pontificated while on many a panel, in many a blog, and answered many a question about “should and shouldn’t” behavior. Even had numbered lists. Guilty as charged.

Madeline (M.M.) Gornell
Finally, here’s the conclusion and connections to these thoughts(which started as musings on my way home back to the high-desert from a lovely lunch in Arcadia with some wonderful author friends—you know who you are): Not only is every author unique in our approach to writing, but also contradictory in our thoughts, actions, personalities, and life philosophies—and these contradictions, whether we want them to or not, in many ways define our writing style, the characters we develop, and the tales we tell.

A good thing, I think.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Difficulties of the Back Cover Description

If I know an author well, I will simply pick up a copy of his or her book, confident that I'll enjoy the read. I've seldom been disappointed this way.  But what if I don't know the author? What will make me lay down my money and take the book home, or even download it at a cheaper price from Kindle? After all, this is the position I have to assume most readers will have toward me when they first discover my books.

The back cover description is the key.

It's ridiculous, if you think about it, that an author must condense the plot, the character's arcs, the entire novel into a paragraph or two that will entice the reader to want more. But something on that back cover has to convince me the book is worth my time. Here is the back cover from Elizabeth Peter's first Amelia Peabody mystery. (It's a bit of a cheat, as my mother recommended it to me.)

"Crocodile on the Sandbank"

Amelia Peabody, that indomitable product of the Victorian age, embarks on her debut Egyptian adventure armed with unshakable self-confidence, a journal to record her thoughts, and, of course, a sturdy umbrella. On her way to Cairo, Amelia rescues young Evelyn Barton-Forbes, who has been abandoned by her scoundrel lover. Together the two women sail up the Nile to an archaeological site run by the Emerson brothers - the irascible but dashing Radcliffe and the amiable Walter. Soon their little party is increased by one - one mummy, that is, and a singularly lively example of the species. Strange visitations, suspicious accidents, and a botched kidnapping convince Amelia that there is a plot afoot to harm Evelyn. Now Amelia finds herself up against an unknown enemy--and perilous forces that threaten to make her first Egyptian trip also her last...

The basic story is that a spinster goes to Egypt and runs into a lost young woman, two brothers, and a mummy, but notice the adverbs and adjectives:  irascible, suspicious, perilous, scoundrel. The verbs are strong as well: embarks, rescues, abandoned, threaten.

These word choices also work because the characters and situations are bigger than life, which I think comes through.

Radcliffe is described as "irascible but dashing", which gives the reader a hint of fireworks and romance.

Out of this description, I'll tell you what would have made me open the book.

"...a singularly lively example of the species."

I LOVE dry, understated, and usually British humor. What a hysterical way to describe a mummy! That alone would convince me to open the book, because it's my kind of writing style. I would also look inside to check out the writing style because there are only two authors who are good enough to make me suffer through present tense.

1. Condense the story into a few lines.
2. Choose strong adjectives, adverbs and verbs.
3. Make sure the description reflects the tone of the book.

 Sounds easy, right?

Take your latest tome and apply the rules. Can you improve your description?