Monday, December 9, 2013

Baby, it's COLD outside!!!

This picture was taken some three years ago and while we don't have the white stuff on the ground and on the trees, it certainly feels like it!

I've never been a fan of cold weather.  Growing up in El Paso, Texas does that to a person!  While we might complain about the heat in the summer, we sure wish for it in winter.

To that end, I've hauled out the warm clothes, the extra blankets and afghans, we've loaded up the wood rack... and I've heated up the kitchen.  This time of year is when my urge to cook goes into overdrive.  Perhaps it's because my kitchen gets so warm in the summertime (no air-conditioning... if we ever admit to it being too warm in the house, we turn on the ceiling fans and open all the windows!) that I make my warm-weather meals with as little heat inside the house as possible (that means a lot of grilling, which makes Paul the cook!)

But in the cold weather months, not only does cooking and baking help keep the house warm, it also keeps us warm... and in more ways than one.  This is when the holiday baking begins, to prepare the gifts I give to family, friends and co-workers.  And it's when I go all-out on the meals I prepare for the family.  Somehow, despite the shorter days, I find the time and energy to make the big meals that are so much more appreciated in the colder days.

One dish I've recently acquired came from a good friend in San Antonio.  Those of us from El Paso fondly remember Jaxon's Restaurant and their signature chicken tortilla soup.  I can't swear that my friend, Sonja's, soup is the reason Jaxon's closed its doors, but the timing is suspicious!

Here's the recipe:

2 chicken breast halves, bone-in with skin
4 quarts water
1 whole white onion, quartered
2 Tablespoons chicken bouillon (Knorr, if you can find it)
1/4 tsp. garlic powder (more or less)
pinch of ground cumin (not too much)

Combine the above and bring to a boil.  Simmer until chicken is cooked through (do not cover; evaporation makes the broth more concentrated.)  Remove the chicken from the broth and let cool.  At this point, I usually refrigerate the broth, in the pot, overnight and remove the hardened fat from the top. 

Bring the broth to a simmer and remove the skin and bones from the chicken breasts.  Coarsely shred the chicken meat and add to the broth.  Add 1 green bell pepper, finely diced, along with 3 stalks celery, finely diced (chop the leaves and add them, too) and 3 green onions, thinly sliced.  Add one 15 oz. can of petite diced tomatoes with the juice (you can also chop fresh tomatoes, enough for two cups, and add along with their juice).  Simmer until vegetables are tender.  Add 1-2 teaspoons dried oregano to the soup along with 1 bunch of chopped cilantro (about 1/2 cup chopped.)

Ladle the soup into bowls and serve with the following toppings: diced avocado, sour cream, shredded cheese (cheddar or jack), and crisp fried tortilla strips (cut corn tortillas into thin strips, fry in oil and sprinkle with salt... make plenty, everyone likes to snack on them!)  You can also add diced jalapenos or green chile and have lime wedges to squeeze over the soup. This is a perfect cold weather soup and no matter how you top it, it's delicious!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reviews: The importance of being honest AND nice

Over at the OTP (Oak Tree Press) author connection group, we've been having a discussion about negative book reviews... and how necessary they are.  It seems that someone ran across an article deploring negative book reviews, calling them unnecessary and mean-spirited. 

As a writer, there is a part of me that secretly agrees... the part that was raised to believe that if you can't say anything nice about someone, don't say anything at all.  But there's another part of me that firmly believes that negative reviews are necessary and probably essential.

That's the part of me that is called "book buyer".

Several times I have purchased a book on the glowing recommendation of a fellow author or friend who posted a review on or some other site that made me feel that I was missing out on the best reading experience of my entire life.  Once I had the book in hand and had begun reading, my eagerness dissipated until I was left with a half-finished book, extreme disappointment, and a measure of anger at having felt betrayed.

The reviewer, I'm sure, meant well.  Understood that writing is a hard endeavor.  That many hours of work and a lot of true feelings and heart went into putting those words together.  That the author had high hopes and a dream that was coming true and that surely they deserved an "A" for effort and, anyway, it really wasn't bad.  Well, not THAT bad.

So they ignored the misspellings, the inconsistencies, the inane dialogue, the confusing jumps in point-of-view, and the forced or improbable plot.  They applaud the author's weak and misguided attempt at imitating the writing style of a famous author though it seems obvious and contrived.  And with a clear conscience, they give it a 5-star rating, feeling good about having bolstered a fellow human being who had undertaken the gargantuan task of writing a book.

Or, maybe they figure, "Why should I be the only one to suffer through this???"

For the record, let me define "negative book review": it means that the book does NOT deserve lavish praise, is not highly recommended, or it scores a dismal one or two stars.  It does not mean that the reviewer gets to BE negative and declares open season on the author.

There have been some reviews posted that make me cringe.  Some people enjoy being mean-spirited and snarky and nothing works up their creative juices like excoriating someone who has dared to take the steps necessary to reveal their innermost thoughts and dreams to the world. That is certainly NOT the negativity that I'm endorsing!

But it doesn't help the writer to be told that there is no room for improvement.  Or that they sacrifice quality for quantity in padding their prose with excessive detail and description... or bail at the crucial moment and simply gloss over deep thoughts and feelings rather than explore them fully and allow the reader to truly feel what they feel.  The reader feels cheated as well.  We know when the author chickened out and left us with a sense of unfinished business or, worse, assumed that we aren't capable of reading between the lines and explain everything in minute and even condescending detail.

So as much as I hate criticism (and who doesn't?), I appreciate the time a reader takes to point out problems in my stories or in my writing skills.  It helps me to improve.  What some reviewers forget (or ignore) is that there is a difference in criticizing and insulting.  Everyone can use some constructive criticism.  What no one needs is to be insulted and made fun of in a public forum. 

So when one takes on the task of writing a review, remember that one can point out the problems with the author's work without being vicious.  A good reviewer will refrain from personal attacks and will stow their envy, pride, and attitude away and focus on the writing and the story.  They will look for the good and emphasize it and also recognize the not-so-good and give an honest, but kind, appraisal.  And the author has the responsibility to recognize that there is always a potential for growth and learning and not take honest criticism as an affront to their writing skills.  No one is perfect and no matter how much success and experience one has, falling short is always a possibility.  And, yes, sad to say, there ARE some writers whose enthusiasm far exceeds their abilities.  Maybe everyone can write, but not everyone can write well.  Sometimes, the best thing a reviewer can do (if they really can't bring themselves to be honest) is bow out as gracefully as possible and decline the opportunity to post a public review. 

The readers are the ones who matter.  They make an act of faith every time they pull out their wallets in exchange for our written words, so they deserve our very best.  It's up to us to give it to them.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Two Things

As the scintillating title states, today's blog deals with two different things.  Let's take them in chronological order:

First thing:  Thanksgiving Day.  Literally translated, it means a day to give thanks. Though its historical roots have been debated and muddied by political correctness and romanticized history, it still remains a uniquely American holiday whose sole purpose is to spend the day with a "gratitude attitude" for all the blessings we've received.

Some might question how blessed they've been when all the setbacks and losses they suffered through the year are taken into account, but one can't count a loss without having had a blessing to begin with.  This year, our family has suffered the loss of a beloved uncle.  It's hard to feel "thankful" knowing that our dear Uncle Sonny won't be at the table this year, sharing our meal, but we are thankful for the many memories we have of previous Thanksgivings--and Christmases and summers and other times we spent together.  That will be our focus. 

Some people have setbacks for which thankfulness evades them.  Losing a job or facing a serious illness are situations where it's hard to be thankful for what you had before.  I hope that for them, Thanksgiving Day is a day of hope for better times ahead... and things to be thankful for.

Second thing:  Small Business Saturday.  Yeah, laugh it up, since everyone knows I work at Walmart, but it's thanks to two small businesses that I have an interesting and fun-filled life and have the opportunity to do something I really love to do!

First off, a tip of the hat to Noisy Water Winery.  Up until about four years ago, my knowledge and taste for wine was defined by Boone's Farm and Arbor Mist (if I wanted to be sophisticated, I went for Beringer White Zinfandel.)  Thanks to Noisy Water, and many other small, family-owned and operated wineries in the state of New Mexico, my taste has expanded and blossomed.  What you get in a bottle of wine from a small vineyard or winery is more than just fermented grapes: you get a lot of love for the craft and art of winemaking, a history of the families who have cultivated the earth to produce it, the faith needed to undertake the task and business of producing wine.  And in Noisy Water's case, I also got a second job with wonderful people who love what they produce and love to introduce new people to it. 

Second, there is Oak Tree Press, a small, independent publishing house who took a chance on a new, unknown writer (that would be me) and brought her dreams to fruition.  It's the small publishers who are most likely to help a fledgling author see their work in print, who encourage and nurture beginning writing careers, who say "I believe in you" with a contract, not a Hallmark card, and help another voice be heard over the cacophony of thousands of competing authors.

So this coming Saturday, after you count your blessings and then turn your thoughts to Christmas shopping (hopefully you're doing those things in that order!), remember the small businesses.  They are run by dreamers and doers and put their heart into the things they produce and sell.

Here is my shameless plug for my favorite small businesses:

Visit in person or visit us on-line.  You'll find specials there to rival any "Black Friday" sale and the best part, you'll be giving a gift produced with love and care and pride, something worthy of the recipient!  As a bonus, you'll be helping to keep the dream of these small business owners alive and healthy!

Have a happy and blessed Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Downtime: What This Writer Does When She's Not Writing

Perhaps a better title would be "What this writer would LIKE to be doing when she's not writing".

The truth is that this writer has two other jobs in the "real" world and both jobs take a lot of my time away from home (including travel time) and other activities in which I'd like to engage when I'm not sitting at the laptop or with a notebook and pen (yes, I still use those!)  Here's some things I'd like to do more of:

1)  Read.  Yes, I already read voraciously, but if I had more time, I'd read even more!  I barely get to scan the news headlines on-line and I've cancelled magazine subscriptions because I just don't have time to read all the articles anymore.  Books are in piles waiting to be read.  I'd definitely read more!

2) Travel.  Not actual vacation trips, but road trips to various nearby places, just to get a change of atmosphere or satisfy my curiosity.  Even a drive in the mountains on a Sunday afternoon would be a real treat (especially at this time of year!)

3)  Cook.  Most days I barely have the time and energy to pull together a real meal for dinner (protein, starch, and two veggies), which I love to do, and have to make do with pre-prepared food or rely on the goodness of my family who lives nearby and often wants to share part of their meal with us... or else hit the only local restaurant in the area, five miles down the road.

4) Bake.  I love to bake and I'd do it year round if my kitchen didn't get so darn hot in the summertime!  But with the holidays approaching, the baking bug is biting hard and I just don't have time to do all that I'd like to do.  Like this:


 4) Spend time with my family.  Yes, even though I live (literally) next door to Paul's family and less than two hours away from my family, the work takes a toll on my energy and time to spend with them.  I'd surely love to find a way to be with our families even more!

What do you like to do when you're not working "the job"?

Monday, November 4, 2013

NaNoWriMo: Does it really work?

There is a never-ending quest among writers to find "the key" to getting published.

You can find articles, essays, and whole books and magazines devoted to ways to get published.  Very rarely do any of them mention NaNoWriMo as one of those ways.

This is my twelfth year competing in NaNoWriMo.  For those of you in the dark, NaNoWriMo is shorthand for National Novel Writing Month, an idea born of a genius by the name of Chris Baty back in 1999 who wanted to encourage creative writing.  The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.  This is where I question Chris' genius in choosing November for NaNoWriMo instead of, say, April which also has thirty 30 days and no major holiday (except for Easter, occasionally) in it or immediately after it that seems to require immense preparation.

The reason I entered NaNo the first time, back in 2004, was because I had one major obstacle in becoming a novelist... lack of discipline.  I was a world-class procrastinator (Who am I kidding?  I still struggle with this.) and had a hard time finishing anything I started.  I worked better with a deadline and since I was just starting out, toying with the idea of a novel, no one was really expecting anything of me--I certainly did not have a publisher waiting impatiently for me to finish my novel so they could publish it--there was really no "good reason" to finish the novels I started.  It was way too easy to put off writing time as well. 

So in October of 2004, I registered and on November first, with the encouragement of my ever-patient husband, Paul, I began. I think I got as far as 25,000 words before I tanked.  But somehow, I still managed to find the optimism to try again the following year.  And the following year.  In 2007, I finally managed to finish.  Not the novel (How many novels actually stop at 50,000 words?) but I "crossed the finish line" in that I wrote 50,000 before midnight on November 30.  And the overwhelming feeling was that of accomplishment.  I did it.  I finished writing 50,000 words in 30 days.  And a few weeks later, I picked up that manuscript and continued working on it.  And because I had developed confidence from meeting that 50,000 word goal, I knew I could actually finish the novel.  And I did.

That was the beginning.

Somewhere I have that first finished novel.  And the second one I finished the following year (yes, I actually "won" NaNo twice in a row!)  And with those two "wins" under my belt, I realized that I can do this; I can actually BE a novelist. I can start something and finish it.  And that was what set me on the road to writing for publication.  It doesn't matter how talented a writer is or how interesting the characters and plot might be; if you don't finish the project, whether it's a novel or short story or essay, no one will ever read it.  Especially a publisher. 

So whenever anyone asks me, "How do you become a published writer?" I always respond with "Have you ever heard of National Novel Writing Month?"
It's a testament to the power of persistence. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Good Question!

So last week the call went out to my friends and blog readers to ask me some questions.  Not all pertained to the business of writing (I'll get back to you about lunch soon, Patty) but I gleaned a few of the more interesting ones, or rather, those topics I haven't quite covered in the blog.

1) How do you come up with the characters' names?

Without trying to sound facetious (or worse, delusional), a lot of times the characters will walk into my imagination and introduce themselves.  Some are fragments of names of real people I know that just happened to sound like the character I was creating.  I try not to use real names of people I know or have heard of... if a real-life name is almost too good to pass up or fits a character perfectly, I try to tweak it so it isn't exactly the same.  And sometimes, the character actually dictates what his or her name is.  I had this issue with one of my main characters, Sheriff Rick Sutton.  I didn't like his first name.  I fought to change his name, but "Rick" kept insisting on it.  Finally in frustration, I told my character, "You CAN'T be Rick! That means your first name is really Richard and you are NOT a Richard!"  Clear as a bell, I heard his voice in my head say, "My first name is Patrick."  Whoa.  Okay, that sounded more like my character.  As I said, they sometimes DO speak!

2)  Have you ever gotten stuck and how did you get past it?

I have gotten stuck more times than I can count.  When I first started writing a novel (many years back), I took getting stuck to mean that I wasn't cut out to be a writer.  Or that what I was writing  wasn't that great.  So I would stop what I was writing and start another project.  Inevitably, I'd hit a wall with that project, too, and stop.  I have an amazing collection of first chapters (it even rivals my equally impressive collection of rejection letters!)  It wasn't until I picked up an abandoned rough draft (after ignoring it for a few months) and read it from the beginning that I saw that changing something in an earlier chapter would have eliminated the problem that got me stuck.  So after eliminating the last four chapters I had written (and a hapless character I had created and thrown in to try to fix the mess), the story began to flow and I managed to finish.  It wasn't easy; throwing out your hard work, even if it isn't useful to the main story, still hurts (I still feel bad for that character I created and had to get rid of!)  But it's part of the writing process and something a lot of would-be writers struggle with.  So my advice is, if you get stuck, back up and see if you didn't make a wrong turn somewhere.  Even if fixing it means getting rid of a few thousand words or a few dozen pages, it's better than giving up!

3)  What does it take to become a writer?
Coffee helps, too!
There are several ways to answer this.  First off, if all you want to do is write, all you need is something to write on and something to write with.  And something to write about.  If you want to write to be published, it takes a little more.  I took several classes on creative writing, but didn't learn anything of use that I hadn't already learned in basic English grammar.  And I read a lot.  I mean, A LOT.  Depending on what you want to write, that's what you read the most of.  And not necessarily the best of the bunch.  I learned a lot more about character development, plotting, setting, and dialogue from reading books that I struggled to finish than books I loved and wanted to read again and again.  The most important thing I learned?  Don't write a book I wouldn't want to read myself.  Something else it takes to be a writer (specifically, a published writer) is persistence.  Keep writing.  With practice comes, if not perfection, then improvement.   Even the most talented of writers get rejected.  The important thing is not to give up.  That can mean all the difference in being published or not.

4)  What do you think about love triangles in murder mysteries?

Well, I have one in mine, although I am not a huge fan of them.  A lot depends on how well written the conflict is... and how believable the reasons are for not resolving the conflict.  Too many love triangles have carried on for nearly 20 books without any resolution in sight and it becomes tiresome after a while (Think about it: a series publishes a new book about one every 9 to 12 months.  Even if the time frame in the books only covers about 3 years total, 20 books means this love triangle hasn't been resolved for almost 20 years!  You'd think the author would have gotten tired of it by then!) I think the main focus on the series should be the mysteries, not the romance!  The triangle with Corrie, Rick, and J. D. will be resolved before the series ends, but I can't say for certain how long it will take... complications can arise... but I hope to not tire readers out with it.

5)  What about recipes?

My other pet peeve!  I recall writing a note to my friends, Aimee and David Thurlo, when they were writing the Sister Agatha series, thanking them for not succumbing to the trend and presenting us with Sister Agatha's refectory recipes!  It's a little disappointing to pick up a murder mystery and find that nearly 50 pages are taken up with recipes that the characters make.  I wouldn't expect to pick up a cookbook and find a murder mystery or romance going on between recipes!  So if you want Corrie's enchilada recipe or Rick's blueberry pecan muffin recipe, you won't find them in the books.  There are some great recipe websites on-line, so check them out!

That covers most of the questions I was asked, but feel free to ask anything else that might come to mind!

Monday, October 21, 2013

A little about me... and an assignment for YOU!

It's been a busy few days and, for once, most of it has been writing related.  I turned in an interview with Lucy Walton from "Female First" magazine (from the U.K.) where Oak Tree Press's authors have been spotlighted recently.  I decided to take a couple of her questions and use them for today's blog entry (including a peek at the next book!)

It is the first book in the Black Horse Campground series, so can you give us some insight into the next installment?
The next installment is tentatively titled “No Lifeguard on Duty”.  That might give you a clue as to where and how the next murder is to take place!
When you are not writing you are cake decorating , so tell us a bit about this area of your life.
I started decorating when I was 12 years old.  I came home from school one afternoon and my mother had signed me up for cake decorating classes with a neighbor of ours.  I don’t remember ever asking for it or expressing interest in the art of cake decorating, but my mother always said I was very creative and it turned out that I enjoyed it and had a knack for it. It gave me a creative outlet and even if the cakes didn’t look all that great in the beginning, they still tasted good and my family still liked them! When I got married and moved to New Mexico, I found a job at a bakery and I’ve been decorating professionally for 25 years, 15 of those years with Walmart.  It still gives me a good feeling when I see the delight on people’s faces when I’ve made a cake for a special occasion.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
I think it was back when I learned to love reading.  I was a huge fan of the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and what intrigued me was how Laura was a real person who loved to write.  Writing assignments were always my favorite and getting positive comments from my teachers and friends certainly encouraged me!  I also had wonderful teachers, two of whom I acknowledged in my book (Patricia Quinn and Patricia Hollis) who were excellent English teachers who always prodded me to do my very best.  I owe them both a lot.
Okay, so here's the assignment part:  Send me YOUR questions!  I'll pick five and use them for my next blog entry!  So send your question to me via my e-mail on my website or to (be sure to put Back Deck Blog Question in the subject line) or write it in the comments box below.  Hope to hear from you soon! 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

How To Keep A Writer Happy (Part 1 of 50 Part Series.... just kidding!)

Keeping a writer happy is not necessarily a life-skill most people need, unless, of course, they are married to one, are best friends with one, are biologically related to one, or read books.

So, yes, I'm talking to YOU.

Let me assure you it's not as costly as you think.  We don't need diamond-studded pens, journals of parchment vellum with genuine giraffe leather covers, and we really don't need a secluded cabin in the Rockies with pristine meadows and lakes around it, a well-stocked wine cellar, and a hot-tub (it would be nice, but we really don't NEED it.)

What we really need to keep us happy is the following (in no particular order):

1)  Read our books.  How simple is that?  And yet, it means so much to know that someone actually reads the work on which we spent so much time and effort.  If you want to send us into ecstasy, mention something about the book to us.  Example:  I was talking to a friend at work about an upcoming book event and how I had planned to serve pinon coffee (the protagonist's favorite kind of coffee) at the event.  She lit up and said, "You should also serve banana bread and blueberry muffins, just like the sheriff makes in the book!"  You should have seen ME light up!

2)  Read our blogs.  And tell us you do.  Same friend mentioned that she follows my blog (yes, I know she's reading this!) and I was stunned and flattered.  When you take the time to put down your thoughts and then post them up, there's always a twinge of "Is anyone reading this?  Does anyone care?"  I've said it before, writers can be some of the most insecure people in the world.  So if you do follow your favorite writer's blog, let them know that their words and thoughts aren't merely floating around in cyberspace waiting for someone to notice them.  Comment or tell them in person.

3)  Attend their book-related events.  Short of manuscript rejection, a writer fears nothing more than the possibility of hosting a book talk or signing to which no one shows up.  I attended one last week and it was quite well-attended, for which I'm sure the writer (who traveled 200 miles to get there) was most appreciative.  Even if you don't buy the book, being there and keeping us from talking to empty chairs means a lot.  And you might get free coffee and banana bread, too!

My writers' group at my first book signing... and they didn't even get banana bread!

4)  Understand that writing IS a job.  If a friend who is a writer says they can't go to lunch or a movie or shopping because they have a deadline or they need to spend a few hours on their manuscript, don't take it personally.  It's not a rejection of YOU.  If you had to turn down a lunch date because you had to work, you would expect people to understand that.  Well, to a writer, especially one under contract, especially one who is on a deadline, time is something that is in precious short supply.  Believe me, I'd love to be able to take off on one of my days off and just have a fun day out, complete with lunch and a movie or shopping, but sometimes the work must come first.  And a guilt trip doesn't help.  I'm fortunate to have a spouse and friends who understand that!

5)  Buy the book.  Like the first item on the list, this one sounds easy.  And knowing we have readers who like our work really is worth more to us than money.  However, the hard, ugly truth is this:  without book sales, there won't be other books.  Publishing is a business.  The business is not just to print books, but to sell those books.  And if the books aren't selling, the publisher will not ask the writer to keep writing.  So if you really, REALLY like the writer's work, make your Christmas shopping easy and buy your friends a book.  Make it one of a kind and get it signed by the author (most will do this if you mail them the book with return postage.)  And then next year, you can get them the next book in the series!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Fabulous Fall!

I think fall is my favorite season... there's something about crisp mornings, warm days, and cool nights that seems to give me a burst of energy.  It seems odd that the time of year when everything is winding down is when I get my second wind.

First off, baking kicks into high gear.  This is understandable, since the summer time is way too hot here in New Mexico to have the oven running all day.  But in the fall, the kitchen doesn't heat up so much, and you have the added bonuses of the house smelling wonderful and the residual heat keeping you warm at night so you can postpone turning on the heaters or firing up the woodstove!

And just when it seems like I am busier than ever, baking cookies and breads to go in the freezer for the holidays, that's when my creative energy also kicks into overdrive.  Suddenly, I have more ideas for stories than I could have imagined even a few weeks ago!  This is when I start carrying a pocket notepad (for those of you who have read "End of the Road", now you know where Sheriff Rick Sutton got the habit of carrying a notepad!) for those sudden bursts of dialogue or story line that seem to pop into my head at the oddest times (like in the middle of decorating a cake!)

Look familiar?
I really don't know what it is about this time of year that inspires creativity.  Perhaps it's the riot of color that suddenly appears in the trees.  One day all you see is green, the next day there's red, gold, burgundy, orange, yellow all mixed in with the green and the sky takes on a shade of blue that is almost impossible to describe.  I always feel like a child who's been given a brand-new box of crayons (yeah, the 64-count with the built-in sharpener, of course!) and the whole world is a blank page, ready to be filled with words, pictures, scents, sounds, and flavors... most of which find their way into my stories.
The sight of changing leaves and the smell of wood fires and the sound of elk bugling and the taste of pumpkin bread fresh from the oven.... these are all things that combine to bring a story to life.  When I experience the kaleidoscope of elements that signal the changing of the seasons, my characters experience it, too.  And by extension, I hope my readers do as well!
So let me pull on a cozy sweater, cut a slice of that pumpkin bread, and brew a cup of pinon coffee and let me sit at the keyboard.  The year may be coming to a close, but stories are just getting started!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Where Do Your Story Ideas Come From?

To a writer, this is the equivalent of a child asking where babies come from.

Meaning we hate to be asked this in front of other people.

Unlike the question about where babies come from, we don't always know the answer to the question "Where do you get your story ideas?"  And no one will believe you if you tell them that the "Story Idea Stork" brought them to you. 

The fact is that there is no single answer to this question.  For some writers, finding story ideas is much like Columbus looking for the passage to India--it's out there somewhere, we just have to find it.  And, much like Columbus, we sometimes find something totally different and not at all what we were looking for... but it works.

Other writers are like prospectors.  There is story gold to be found, so we dig.  And dig.  And dig even deeper.  And if we're fortunate, we hit the Mother Lode of story ideas.  Or we might find a nugget or two.  Either way, we're left with a big pile of dirt and rocks and a huge hole.  And that nugget.

Then there are writers for whom story ideas are handed to them by well-meaning folks, much like potluck leftovers no one liked are given to a college student living alone and presumed to be starving to death--in other words, they'll take anything.  This usually happens to a writer who has had their first book or story published and people they barely know who not-so-secretly fantasize about having written a book are eager to share their ideas in hopes that the newly published writer is so desperate for ideas that they'll take it (thereby giving them credit in the book's acknowledgements... and thus being the only way they'll ever see their name in print.)

There are ideas everywhere and sometimes they buzz around our heads like gnats and sometimes they hide like our car keys when we're running late, but they're there.  Many times we have the same idea other writers have had, but rather than discard it because it's not original (there really aren't a whole lot of original ideas left anymore), we look at it and process it a different way and it becomes a completely different story. 

I've found that the best answer to the question "Where do you get your story ideas?" is quite the simply the easiest and most honest one: "They're everywhere!"

Proof that there are plenty ideas just waiting to be found!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Write What You Know, Not Everything You Know

I think it's the one of the most common pieces of advice given to writers--write what you know.

For some, this advice might bring their writing to a screeching halt.  They fear that their lack of knowledge of firearms, history, wine-making, cars, or whatever it is they want to include in their story will be glaringly evident and thus they lose the trust of their readers.  And while this is a concern that is justified, there is one even worse....

The writer who is so enamored of their knowledge that they have to share it. ALL of it.  Every detail. Whether it is relevant to the story or not.

I write murder mysteries and I claim no personal knowledge or experience in committing crimes (that's my story and I'm sticking to it!) nor investigating them.  However, since my characters include police officers, I have to have some passing knowledge of police procedures and weapons.  This includes firearms.  Now I have to confess, I know nothing of guns and have never handled one... until yesterday.

Yep, I finally did it!  A friend took us (Paul and me) out to his shooting range and let us handle some guns from his collection (including one owned by Capt. Joe Foss, a Marine who served in Guadalcanal during World War II and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor... had a few chills while holding THAT piece of history!)  He insisted that it was imperative for me to know something about what I was writing about... when a law enforcement officer or the bad guy drew a gun, I had to know exactly what that felt like. 

And now I know... and thanks to my friend's seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of firearms and their history, I also know more about guns that I'll ever need in the course of my writing career.

Does that mean that knowledge is wasted?  Not at all!  Of course, I was raised by a dad who insisted that it never hurts to learn something you don't need to know.  But now I can write with confidence that if a person who never handled a firearm suddenly grabs a .45 and fires it, they're not going to act like it's no more difficult than firing a water pistol... trust me, those .45s can KICK!

So while I will use the knowledge I gained to make my fiction more real, I will spare my readers the fascinating, albeit irrelevant, tidbits of history and trivia that I picked up in the course of an afternoon spent on a gun range... a place that, 25 years ago, I assure you I would have never dreamed of being, doing something I never dreamed of doing.  But that's the beauty of "write what you know"... it opens up a lot of possibilities to keep learning!

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Real Job

I took last weekend off from the blog for no reason other than the fact that I had an extremely full week of having fun.  That kind of admission would probably get me fired from any other job, but not from what my friend, Mike Orenduff, would call the REAL job.

I was interviewed by the Alamogordo Daily News on Saturday by a young journalist who confessed to being an aspiring novelist herself.  Naturally, I got the question all published novelists get asked:  What advice would you give an aspiring young writer?  And it's the answer all published novelists give: Write.

I don't know if she was disappointed by my response or not.  Perhaps she thought it's what we published novelists are supposed to tell young writers and that we keep the "real" secret of writing to ourselves.  Apparently, telling young writers that the secret to getting published is to keep writing sounds too much like work.

Well, the truth is this:  Writing IS work!

It doesn't matter if your writing is absolutely brilliant and awe-inspiring or if it's boring and clichéd.  Trust me, it's hard work to just get your words down on paper.  It's actually easier to take your boring and clichéd first draft and edit it to awe-inspiring brilliance.  It really is.  You have something to work with.  Staring at a blank page or screen is probably the most exciting and most terrifying thing a writer has to face.  The blank page has so much potential, but as Linus of the "Peanuts" comic strip once said, "There is no bigger burden than a great potential."  Carrying that blank page around can become quite a chore... a chore that you don't know how to do.  But put a few words down and suddenly, you have a focus of sorts.  You can see, even dimly, the direction you're supposed to take... or at the very least, a path.  Whether it leads to where you want to go, or it leads to another path that is actually the one you want to take, matters little.  You might be at a crossroads with no sign to give you direction, but you've made a decision, committed to a path and now you're on your way... even if you're not sure just where it is you're going.

The blank page is the crossroad and the first word you put down is the first step in any direction.  And once you get going, you must keep going.  Every day.  One word, one page at a time.  All roads lead somewhere but sitting in place gets you nowhere... except run over by the other writers/travelers who are following the road to its conclusion.

Nothing is more encouraging to a writer than to actually finish.  Whether it's a novel, short story, article, whatever, finishing it is what gives you the assurance that you CAN do the job, even if it requires a lot of editing, or even if it goes no where but to the circular file.  Finishing writing a manuscript was the biggest step I ever took on the road to becoming a published author.  I really have no idea where that manuscript is now and I probably wouldn't look at it if I did.  But I know I finished it and I knew I could do it again--only better the next time.  And the next.

But the hard truth is this: Writers write.  Every day.  It's what makes them a writer.  It's a lot like being a mother; you can't miss a day of caring for your children just because it's hard and you're not sure you're doing it right or if you have another job. It must be done, so you do it. 

For a writer, writing is the REAL job.

Monday, August 19, 2013

It's a New Mexico Thing!

Note: It's summer, the season of reruns, and I decided to take a day off and rerun this post from August 19, 2013... because it's that time of year again!

You either have to live, or have lived, in the southwest (particularly New Mexico) to understand what I go through every August.

Mid- to late-July is the time of year that it sets in... withdrawals.  By that time, the previous year's supply is gone, the freezer is empty, and you're finding yourself visiting restaurants for a fix that is, somehow, never as good as what you usually have at home.  Or succumbing to the desperation that drives you to the frozen food section.

I am talking, of course, about green chile!

Some may disagree, or even become offended, by this but to us here in New Mexico, green chile is the drug of choice.  Once the chile roasters start running in early August, you'll see lines of people willing to endure scorching summer heat as they haul their burlap sacks and cardboard boxes to the front of the line to have their bright green fresh chile rendered blackened and blistered and bagged in plastic, ready to take home to their kitchens and freezers.  The bonus is that your car smells like heaven for a week or so!

Some years--like this one--there seems to be a shortage and the chile season turns into a fevered hunting season.  Facebook postings about your chile conquests and triumphs can turn your friends and family and people you trust into stalkers.  "Where did you get it?  How much do they charge?  When are they open?  Do they have plenty?  How much did YOU get???"

Sorry, Onate, THIS is what New Mexico gold really looks like!
Today I was fortunate that I had my right hand man, Paul, to help.  Last year he got shut out of the chile hunt after I scored two sacks in Ruidoso and had to buy them without warning (he usually takes the day off to help with the bagging for the freezer.)  After a friend clued us in to a place in Tularosa that had Big Jim chiles (a must for the best rellenos!), I called and ordered two 40 lb. boxes.  After picking them up and salivating the entire 15 miles from Tularosa to home, we unloaded them on the back deck and while Paul bagged two dozen per gallon-size Ziploc bag, I warmed up tortillas and kept the iced tea glass filled (usually it's Bud Light, but it was only 9:30 in the morning....)  And yes, this is HIS preferred way to bag the chiles!
So now we have a freezer loaded with 80 lbs. of New Mexico's best and it feels like we just won the lottery.  And sure enough, next July when the last bag is taken out of the freezer and the last rellenos made with the 2013 crop are enjoyed, we'll start to feel that mild desperation building into all-out withdrawals and again we'll start the hunt for the best green chiles when August rolls around.  Until then, we'll sit down to each meal made with our "New Mexico gold" and really mean it when we say, "Thank you, Lord, for this food."

Monday, August 12, 2013

Here, There, and Everywhere

I love to travel.

Some people might interpret this as a way to escape my day-to-day life and small town.  Nothing could be further than the truth!

I was a reader long before I was a writer.  Books took me to places I had never been and left me with a desire to see what was in this huge world around me.  I used to listen to my parents tell stories of their youth in other places and my dad telling of the places he'd been while in the Army Air Corps.  I learned early on that the world was not just me, my house, and the space immediately around me.  There was so much more out there....

Traveling was not something I did a lot of when I was a kid.  Yearly trips to visit family in Roswell, NM or Chihuahua, Mexico were about the extent of it. Mostly it was because my parents were not big on traveling; they pretty much lived all their lives in the same place.  But the idea stuck with me that "when I grew up", traveling was something I wanted to do!

And when I got married in 1988, our honeymoon took us to Niagara Falls, NY and Washington, D.C.  You have to remember that, until then, I'd never been any further east than Carlsbad Caverns!

Paul and I have traveled a lot... for me anyway!  We've been to Rome (Italy) and on a cruise to Cozumel.  We've made a lot of trips here at home in the U.S.  Spent a week in Alaska (bad idea in the wintertime for a desert rat!) Colorado is a favorite place to visit.  I love northern New Mexico and visit at least once a month.  Arizona is another state I like exploring.  I'd like to travel back east and spend more time there.  I finally got to Las Vegas (Nevada) this past January (cross that off the bucket list!)  And of course, there was this last fall:

In Key West, Florida with Paul and wading in the Mexican surf in Cozumel!

I bring back with me a little of each place I visit, locked in a memory.  Sometimes all it takes is a word or a sound, a scent, a taste, and I'm right back there, reliving a moment of my life.  I'm happy to say that most of them are absolutely wonderful.  I don't remember any truly disastrous travels. 

Maybe it's because I'm truly happy at home... in fact, I'm happy wherever I am!  I like to look at life as a never-ending adventure, whether at home or down the street or across the globe.  There's always something new to see, to learn, to try out.  So whether my next exotic meal comes from a restaurant on a Caribbean Island or from my own kitchen, I know the most important thing is to have fun no matter where you are!

Tell me where you've been and where you'd like to go!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Who's That Girl?

Admittedly, not one of Madonna's best songs, but the title sums up my latest experience as an author.

No, seriously... who IS that girl?
It seems incredible to say this, but it's true: I received my first fan letter as an author a few days ago.  Yes, it was from a friend, but she wrote as a FAN of Amy Bennett, author.  And what she said was music to the ears of a writer.

"At first I was reading because I admire you as a person and a friend, but somewhere in the first fifteen pages I forgot about you and just found myself not wanting to put the book down; a very good sign of being captured by the story and the characters.  The authenticity of the characters made the book very appealing as the interesting story reveals their true natures."  I'll stop there because I'm getting too misty-eyed to continue.

Ask any author and they'll tell you that no matter how compelling the story might be, it's ultimately all about the characters.  The most interesting story in the world can become the most boring if the characters are not someone the author--and ultimately, the reader--cares about.  And believe me, the reader can tell if the author doesn't like, or more importantly, care about their characters.

I care about my characters; I really like my characters.  Maybe not everything about them (does anyone ever really like everything about everyone they know?) but enough to want to follow their day-to-day lives and hope that everything works out for them... even though we know they're going to face obstacles, set-backs, and trouble along the way.  Conflict is what drives a story... and why should their lives run any smoother than ours?

A writer gets asked many questions about being a writer.  Some of those stock questions have stock answers, but sometimes a writer gets a question that makes them pause.  At my book launch party last week, this was the question that gave me pause:

“Which character is you?"
Of course, a writer creates their characters, but not, as some might think, out of thin air. At some time, the writer has met someone who sparks an idea for a character (work in retail long enough, I guarantee you'll have a never-ending treasure trove of potential murder victims.) But the reality, of course, lies in that question.

Which character is the writer?

Many people seem to think that the writer automatically identifies with the hero/heroine of the story, especially if the character is good-looking, brave, resourceful, and manages to thwart the villain with near-superhuman martial arts skills while demonstrating a rapier wit and a flair for appreciating fine wines. Perhaps it's true that the writer creates a larger-than-life hero or heroine, a character everyone would like to be, but very rarely do such characters mirror the actual flesh-and-blood person who created them.

If you want to find the writer in any of his or her characters, look for the flaws.

That's where the fear of the dark, of spiders, of failure, of love and commitment, of success, all those things that make the characters REAL is where you will find the author. It's only in the anonymity of writing fictional characters that a writer has the freedom to admit their own flaws and find a way to overcome them (or avoid them!) while creating characters with whom the majority of readers can identify. It's where you'll find me. But I didn't exactly say that in answer to the question.

What I did say was, “There's a little of me in ALL the characters.”  And maybe that's why I get so emotional when I read a comment from someone who's read my book and it's about how compelling they found my characters.  There's a little love in there for me, the author, as well.

Monday, July 22, 2013


I think we all forget at times to be grateful for what's good in our lives.

I know that when things are going well (and they usually are), it's easy to forget to appreciate that.  It's even easier to forget to appreciate the good things when something goes wrong.  And by things going wrong, I don't usually mean something catastrophic like a cyclone or an earthquake or a death of a close family member.  I mean a lousy day at work, a burnt dinner, or the dog eating the newspaper.

In the grand scheme of things, how badly do incidents like that affect us?  We might have had a bad day at work, with the boss in a bad mood and more duties to fulfill than we have time, but we have a job.  Maybe not the greatest, maybe not what we really want to do, but something that pays the bills.  Dinner set off the fire alarm?  I'm willing to bet that there's something else in the pantry or refrigerator we could eat.  We're not starving.  The dog ate the paper?  Hey, we know HE'S not starving... and maybe the news would have been too depressing to read anyway (there's always the television, radio, or Internet for those gluttons for punishment who just HAVE to keep up with current events.)

No, mostly we let the petty annoyances distract us from the good and wonderful in our lives.  Why?  Maybe we feel we don't really deserve to have so much good given to us.  Maybe we're afraid that there's going to be some big trade-off for the good stuff.  Or maybe we just take it for granted that the good is supposed to happen and anything that runs counter to that is just unfair.

I try to make it a habit to be grateful for the little things: a beautiful sunset, the rain (especially the rain!), a smile from a loved one, a day where things run relatively smoothly.  It makes me appreciate the really big things even more.

Blogging on the back deck... something to be thankful for!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Friends and Family

Paul and I just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary with a big party at home.  The guests were mainly family and friends who we consider family.  In fact, some of these friends we've had longer than we've had certain family members.

Paul and his best friend have known each other for over thirty years... in effect, they have been together longer than Paul and I have been together!  This friend and his family have become part of our family, which includes Paul's biological family as well as mine.  And over the years, as family members grow up and marry and have kids, the family expands as well, bringing in more family and family ties.

The lines between family and friendship tend to blur with us.  We have found our best friends within our family and found family with our close friends.  And by that we mean that there is nothing we wouldn't do for these people, even though we live over six hundred miles apart and really only see each other once a year.  Yet somehow, despite the time and distance between us, we're never really apart.  That closeness has even extended to our children, who also consider our friends' children as friends and cousins.  It doesn't matter how much time we've been apart, when we do get together it seems as though we pick up right where we left off--no awkwardness, no getting reacquainted.

Part of our celebration included a Mass and the first reading we chose was from the book of Sirach 6:5-17.  Part of the reading says: "A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds a treasure.  A faithful friend is beyond price, no sum can balance his worth."  Not only does that sum up my marriage with Paul, but it also defines the bond we share with the friends and family that gathered to celebrate with us.  They have been as much a part of our lives these past 25 years as we have been to each other and it is nearly impossible to imagine what our lives would have been like without their loving presence. 

During the course of the reception and dance (for which one friend brought all his DJ equipment and another had provided lighting and shelter--as a gift to us!) Paul and I requested a special song to be played for our treasured guests: "Find Out Who Your Friends Are" by Tracy Lawrence.  It pretty well summed up our feelings for our family and friends who have many times have dropped everything and been at our sides, no questions asked, no hesitation, in good times and in bad.

People asked us what we wanted for an anniversary gift.  What more could anyone want with family and friends like this? 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Countdown to book release!

For a first-time author, the days and weeks leading up to a book release are filled with nail-biting tension, queasy stomachs, and barely-restrained impatience. If you can't picture it, imagine sitting in the ER waiting to be seen.

Yeah, THAT feeling.

Like the person in the waiting room, the first-time author has to keep in mind that he or she is NOT the only person in that waiting room... there are others who have been waiting longer or who might have more serious conditions (even if not readily detected.)  They have to wait their turn.  The author's first book might be the most important thing in their life at that moment, but the publisher has anywhere from a dozen to a couple hundred books in the queue. 

Believe me, it's hard to believe after months and perhaps years of working on a manuscript to discover that all your hard work is merely another small fish in a very large pond... and some of the other fish may be quite a bit bigger.  It's easy to get discouraged when you try to contact your publisher and they don't get back to you within fifteen minutes (all two dozen other authors who hit the "Send" button at the same time you did feel the same way.)  It seems like things are never going to happen. A publication date that is three months off may as well be three years off... the calendar seems stuck in last week and no matter how many times you check your e-mail you still find no response from the publisher.  I'm sure the publisher would love, just once, to check his or her e-mail and find "No new messages"; it might give him or her a chance to catch up (or at least, go to the bathroom!)

Then things start to happen... suddenly, you're getting messages regarding text block, cover image, ordering guidelines, event postings to the publisher's website.  You check your publisher's website and there you are and there is the title of your book and suddenly that "Coming (fill in date) from (publishing house name)!" takes on real meaning.  And the real panic begins... not unlike that of a parent whose 5-year-old is about to make their debut recital performance.

Did Hemingway feel this way?

Maybe that's why he spent so much time HERE....

What am I doing?  What was I thinking?  I'm not ready for this! What if it bombs? What if no one likes it? What if it's really not that good?  Maybe it needs more work... maybe I can still catch it before it gets printed... maybe it will be easier to just change my name and become an accountant...

That's about where I am now.

This is when the calm, soothing voice of reason jumps in (He goes by the name of Paul.  I've been married to him for 25 years.  He's seen this before, many times.)  That's the voice that says that my publisher wouldn't have invested the time and effort if she didn't think the book was good enough to publish.  That I worked for too long and too hard to bail now.  That I can't please everyone all the time and people are free to like or dislike what they please and it's no reflection on my talent or personality if the book doesn't make the NY Times best-seller list (or the Ruidoso News, but they don't have a best-seller list... to my knowledge.)

And that, at the end of the day, what matters is that, after 20-plus years of writing, revising, editing, submitting, being rejected, and trying again... that my novel is going to be published.

THAT is a really good feeling!

Monday, July 1, 2013

How to Stay Married for 25 Years (to the same person!) and Like It

Hard to believe that tomorrow, Paul and I will be married 25 years.

Not hard to believe that we're still married, but hard to believe that it's ONLY been 25 years.

We are in Santa Fe, enjoying a weekend away together and, naturally, we're doing a lot of reminiscing about that day 25 years ago when we essentially made a date to be together on the same day the following year, 10 years later, 25 years later... and hopefully 25 years from now!

I think back and honestly don't know what those two kids back then would have planned to do to celebrate this milestone... except be with each other.  We are not exactly those two kids anymore.  We've changed in ways we probably never would have imagined; taken on challenges that have changed our perception of ourselves, each other, and the world at large; learned things we never knew we were interested in, taken roads that led us in directions we'd never been before... and loved every minute of it.

I'm not saying it was always easy or that there weren't times when we wondered what in the world we'd gotten ourselves into.  But one thing we learned early on was that having someone in your corner made everything easier to deal with.  Even when we disagreed about things or had an argument, we knew that we were still on the same side, no matter how big of a bone-headed mistake we'd made.

Another thing was that we made sure never to take each other for granted.  As one gets older, it's easier to see how life has no guarantees--the person sitting across the breakfast table from you might not be there tomorrow.  But young people think they'll live forever and nothing will ever change... especially our own selves.  The sooner one learns that change is inevitable, the easier it will be to take whatever comes along in life, good or bad.

Bodies change... not always in good ways.  Ideas change.  Financial situations change. Jobs change.  Houses change.  The number of people sharing the bathroom in those houses change.  Dreams change.  But knowing that there is someone there who has always been there... someone who knew you when... someone who shares the same name, the same memories and the same hopes for the future... someone that changes right along with you and helps weather those changes... somehow it makes for a very short 25 years.

No matter what changes come up in the next 25 years, it's safe to say that the one thing I hope never changes is who will be sharing those next 25 years--and beyond--with me.

Happy anniversary, Paul! I love you!
Our favorite place to be... together!

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Superman Connection

If you think about it, writers are a lot like Superman.

Stick with me on this, okay?

I'd like to think that, when he wasn't Superman and saving the world, Clark Kent was a pretty good reporter.  Or at least you'd think he would be after well over 50 years at the Daily Planet.  The point is, no one knew that Clark Kent, journalist, was Superman after-hours or whenever the need arose.

Most writers do not graduate from high school with a degree in novel writing and get hired by a publishing firm and work 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, writing novels and collect a paycheck every Friday (I can't think of a more wonderful--or horrific--way to be a writer, although the Friday paycheck sounds really good!)

Most writers have always been writers who discovered they were writers, much like Clark was always Superman.  He just didn't figure it out until he had to use his super powers to stop a runaway train or pick a burning car up off of an accident victim.  Personally, the discovery that I was a writer wasn't quite that dramatic.

When you're a child or a student, writing is one of those skills which receive a lot of praise, although many times the praise is directed at the correct spelling and the proper use of grammar and punctuation rather than the actual story.  On rare occasions, a young person has someone read what they wrote and see something beyond neat margins, no spelling errors, and grammatically correct sentences.  The reader looks at the writer with wonder in their eyes and says those words that every writer longs to hear: "Wow... you should write a book!"

That is the moment the runaway freight train is stopped and the day is saved.

It's also the day a lot of writers suddenly start looking for phone booths (note: if you were born prior to the advent of cell phones, please ask a person over the age of 30 to explain what a phone booth is.)  Because somehow, once it's said out loud, becoming a writer is something that is done on the sly.  Because no one really BELIEVES the writer will someday write a book and get it published. Because everyone knows that writers starve and need a "real" job to make a living and the writing is just a nice little hobby.

So we look for our own "phone booth"... a place where we can write our stories, study the craft of writing, maybe even type out a query letter (while glancing nervously at the door in case someone walks in), and then return to the "real" world and do our day-to-day tasks and work our "normal" jobs and act like we haven't been doing anything special.

For me, THIS is "normal"....
My "Daily Planet" has been the Walmart bakery for the last 15 years... cake decorator by day, writer by night (or whenever I have a pen and paper handy.)  When I finally signed a publishing contract with Oak Tree Press a few months ago, telling the news was a little awkward.  The prevailing response was, "I never knew you were a writer!" (I'm sure Clark Kent got that a lot... or would have if people ever found out what he really did when he went down the hall to bathroom to wash his hands!)  I just mumbled an apologetic something-or-other and then answered the usual questions: "What's it about? When will it be out? Are you going to give me a free copy?"  It's no wonder Clark preferred to remain anonymous.

And still the daily toil continues.  "End of the Road" will be released in a few weeks, but the debut novel of an unknown writer with a small independent publishing house is not about to let me be able to drop the Clark Kent cover and be Superman full-time (why do you think I still buy a Powerball ticket every week?)  But even so, there is a benefit to toiling away at a "real" job.  You get to interact with people and experience life so as to add a touch of realism to your stories; you get paid regularly, if not particularly well, which helps if you like things like food and shelter; and the most important, for me, is that when you don't get a chance to do what you love all the time, it makes the time you spend doing it even more precious and enjoyable.  Of course, the dream IS to be able to wake up in the morning and head straight to the laptop with a cup of coffee in hand to work on the latest work-in-progress rather than slog in to work at 4 a.m. and sling frosting for 8 hours... but some part of me will always be grateful that I found a channel for my creativity that allowed me to make a living while working on that dream-in-progress.

I think Superman--and all super writers out there--would understand.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Truth About Fiction (Part II)

So last week I talked about making a living (or at least having a cheap hobby) telling lies and how an element of truth can make your lies (i.e., stories) better.  Now this is the other end of the spectrum.

All writers want to tell a story.  The problem comes when a writer wants to tell his or her OWN story and pass it off as fiction.  Now, one might think that the best way to make your work of fiction ring true is tell about something that really happened to someone who does NOT have the same name as the people to whom it actually happened (remember: lawsuits are NOT a writer's best friend!) 

Not as often as you think...

One thing a writer quickly learns, however, is that no matter how intriguing, fascinating, exciting, or moving your story might be to YOU, there will be a vast majority of readers who find that same story contrived, boring, fake, and uninteresting.  Why?

Well, quite simply this:  if you're going to write YOUR story, then don't call it fiction.  Call it an autobiography, call it a memoir.  If you're going to write fiction, then write your CHARACTER'S story. And remember that what happened to you didn't necessarily happen to your character, and if it did, it didn't necessarily affect them the same way it did you. Nor would the outcome be the same.  Why?  Because your character might react differently to the events than you did.  A writer has to remember that the story is about the characters, not about the writer.  Don't think you can fool your reader, either.  A reader can tell when the author has decided to tell their own story instead of their character's.  The emotions feel forced because YOU know the entire back story and why the characters feel the way they do and your reader won't unless you take them step by step through every moment in the characters' lives leading up to the moment (please don't.  Please.)

Also, the reader will miss a lot because the writer will forget to tell them a lot.  Have you ever watched a movie for the tenth time?  Do you pay attention to every single scene, every single bit of dialogue, every detail?  Probably not.  You know it so well, you don't need to see every single minute of the film, unlike someone who is seeing it for the first time.  But as a writer, if you don't give your readers all the details, they're going to miss the reasons WHY this story had to happen the way it did.  And there are details that you might forget to mention that are crucial but because you know the story so well, you forget to include them.  There's no better way to lose an audience than to make them feel that they're not in on the whole story.

And last, but not least, the hard, cold truth is this:  The truth is not always all that interesting.  Some people might actually find your story boring.  Your grandmother's life story may be fascinating to you, but that's because you love Grandma and have a strong connection to her.  Your readers don't.  Unless Grandma's story is relevant to your character's story (remember who this is all about now?), it isn't necessary to give all the details.  If you're writing Grandma's story, then feel free to give details relevant to HER life, but don't make your character live Grandma's life.  Or yours, for that matter.

Let your characters live their own lives.  You just follow them and write down what happens. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Truth About Fiction (Part I)

I can't remember who said it, but I've heard that fiction writers make a living telling lies.

That's only partially true.  The very word "fiction" implies that what you are about to read, see, or hear is totally fabricated; it's simply a made-up story about made-up people doing made-up things.  To a certain extent, this is a factual statement (at least, I would hope Stephen King made up most of his stories.)  Certainly as far as my own mystery novel, "End of the Road", goes, there really isn't a Bonney County in New Mexico, nor a Black Horse Campground... and certainly the people who live there (and die there--it IS a murder mystery, after all) only exist in my mind.  Or do they? 

Writer at work

Any writer will tell you that in every work of fiction, there is an element of truth.  There has to be some truth, even in a made-up story, in order for people to actually believe, not that the events in the story really happened, but that they could have happened, and for the reader to actually care enough about the characters to see how the story plays out.  A friend of mine gave me a coffee mug for my birthday that says, "Please do not annoy the writer.  She may put you in a book and kill you"--the implication being that all of our characters are based on someone we actually know.  Of course, a smart writer knows better than to put real people in their stories and merely alter the names... lawsuits have been filed over this sort of thing!  But if you try to make up a person completely out of your imagination, they come out... well, unreal.  Fake.

But isn't that the point of fiction?  To invent something completely out of thin air?  Well, try it sometime.  Try to invent a place or person or event you've never seen or heard about.  Is it even possible?  Don't your experiences color your "original" creation?  I know mine do.  The places I go and the people I see and sometimes meet inevitably offer an element or two that goes into my fictional world.  Reading a newspaper or magazine article about something that happened or watching a news broadcast can trigger an episode of playing "What if...?" and a totally different story emerges... with some small bits of "facts" that make it ring true and real.

Even writers of science fiction, fantasy, horror or any other genre that requires the reader to really suspend belief have to incorporate some truth into their stories--real emotions, real fears, real struggles (man against himself is probably the most satisfying--and least original--conflict a writer can introduce into the story.)  Take your own fear of failure, of the dark, of bunny rabbits, of whatever, and let your characters experience it.  Let your own hurt and anger at your birthday being forgotten, your name being mispronounced, at some random stranger's racist comment become your character's.  That's the only way your readers will be able to identify with your fictional characters and come to care about what happens to them and keep them interested in the story you have to tell.

But too much of a good thing... well, that's Part II of this blog entry.  Next week, we'll see how too much "truth" can ruin a good story.

And as for my opening sentence:  the real truth is that SOME fiction writers make a living telling lies.  The rest of us just find the writing to be the real reward.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Time: Finding It and Making It and What the Difference Means to a Writer

One question I get asked a lot when people discover that I'm a writer is, "Where do you find the time to write?"  It's a legitimate question, considering I hold down two jobs, besides the writing, and also have a family.  Time is something, if you look at my daily schedule, of which I don't have an endless supply.

Time is a funny thing.  We talk about it as if it were money--we spend time, we make time, we save time, we waste time, we find time.  The difference is, when we actually do manage to save money, we have a tangible measure of it (although it's never really as much as we would like, is it?)  There are innumerable gadgets on the market designed to "save" time... and I'm willing to bet a lot of us have spent (or dare I say "wasted"?) a lot of money that we "saved" to buy these items.  But where is the time we saved?

There is no time bank... no matter how much time we save, we can never find it when we need it.  If you don't believe me, ask any writer on a deadline.  Whether you're a student working on a term paper or a novelist trying to finish their edits, it seems like all the time in the world is never enough.  But who really has "all the time in the world"?  There are day-to-day intrusions to a writer's time--jobs, school, household chores, family obligations, and sleep.  And they are necessary intrusions.  Bills must be paid, laundry must be done, kids must be fed, WE must be fed... and whether we like to admit it or not, we DO need to sleep!  So where do we find the time to write as well?

What some people did while the rest of us were watching TV

Time to write is easy to find--if you really want to look for it.  It's usually hiding behind the time spent on Facebook.  Or behind the time spent watching "Duck Dynasty".  Or the really tricky spot...  behind the time spent on lunch out with friends, shopping with your mom, or going to a movie.  Granted, everyone needs time to relax and just do fun stuff.  The thing is, if you want to be a writer, you have to have time to actually write.  And since all days only come with 24 hours, you have to decide what is going to be given priority on any given hour. 

So what will it be?  Sixty minutes spent watching the same episode of "NCIS" you've already seen (come on, you know summer is rerun season!) or those same sixty minutes spent working on your poem, your story, your song?  Those thirty minutes spent sharing the same picture of Grumpy Cat/Capt. Picard/the most interesting man in the world with the latest pithy comment that everyone on your friends list has already shared, or those same thirty minutes scribbling in your writer's notebook?  And what about that lunch hour at work... why not brown bag it a couple of days a week and hole up with your notebook instead of spending an hour going out to the same lunch place you go to every day (not only will you "find" time to write, you might also--wait for it--SAVE money!)

And this doesn't apply just to writers.  Anyone who wants to do something, learn something, be something, has to invest time.  Whether you want to be a painter, a pianist, a teacher, a gardener... none of these things happen without setting aside time to work on them.  All the money in the world won't make you a better writer... but a little time every day spent honing your skills just might.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Taking Time Out

Memorial Day is a holiday that has, in some ways, lost its identity.

Where once it was strictly a holiday to honor the U.S. service members who have lost their lives in defending our freedom, it has now taken on the dubious honor of being the "official" start of summer--which means a long weekend to take care of home improvement projects and to hit those car sales for a great deal, if one is to believe the majority of the ads in the media.

For most people, it means a long weekend to hopefully spend time with family and friends.  Yes, I know that Memorial Day deserves far more respect than being relegated to an official "first cookout of the summer" weekend, but let's think for just a moment about the men and women who have given that ultimate sacrifice for us.

What do you suppose were their thoughts as they fought on those battlefields?  Home, no doubt.  Family, friends, a campfire, a home-cooked meal, an impromptu softball game.  A deep, dark fear that they would never enjoy those simple pleasures again, that their call to service would require them to make the ultimate sacrifice in a place far from home.

I rather doubt any service member who gave all ever had their last thought be of how much more money they wish they'd made; how they wished they'd had a faster car or fancier home; how much they really wanted to have visited Paris or Hawaii before they died.  I'm sure that all that mattered to them, at the very end, was to have been able to spend one more moment with those that they loved, even if it was eating a charred hot dog, drinking too-sweet lemonade, and disputing a blown call at second base.

On this Memorial Day, I hope everyone got to spend time with those they loved and cherished the freedom that was won for us at so heavy a price to be able to do this every chance we get and not just on "special occasions"... because every day we're alive and with the people we love is a special occasion, even if it's in our own backyard instead of the Bahamas.

So raise a glass in honor of those who gave their all for us.  They won't care if it's too-sweet lemonade, warm flat beer, or champagne... just make sure you enjoy it with gratitude.