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Dickens Knew How to Say It or It Has Been One of Those Weeks by Debra H. Goldstein

November 3, 2013 5 comments

Abby as cowDickens Knew How to Say It or It Has Been One of Those Weeks by Debra H. Goldstein

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times” is how Charles Dickens began a A Tale of Two Cities. His words definitely describe my past few weeks. Some of the high points included everyone being together to celebrate Jennifer’s wedding, having brunch with Stephen and sixteen of his closest friends in Chicago, watching Joel salivate while sitting in the second row when the Chicago Bulls played the Indiana Pacers, and seeing Abby in her first Halloween costume.

Rejection bums me out so you can imagine what receiving two rejections did to me. Happily, one was accompanied by a suggestion that the story needed a rewrite, but they would be happy to read it again in the future. The writer was right – there is something lacking in the story. I would have worked on it more immediately, but I had some minor things removed near my eyes and the ointment and drops have kept me in a state of blurred vision for the past few days. Being slowed down is not easy for a Type A person – it makes for the worst of times.

I would be lying if I told you the moment I turned into a sludge Type D person I found time to smell the roses. The reality is I lay around feeling bored and sorry for myself until I decided to play mental games. Perhaps listening to a TV show and seeing if I could come up with the line before the character said it (amusing game with a certain poorly written police procedural), making lists of things I wanted/needed to do in the future, inventing plot lines in my head (I think I feel a new series in the back of my brain) were acts of desperation, but I appreciated telephone calls and friends who came bringing dinner and conversation to distract me.BULL

These things made the time pass, albeit perhaps not as quickly as I normally would have liked, but at a pace that gave me time to relish the pendulum swinging back to the good times. In the space of two days my vision is clearer, my short story “Early Frost” received a Mobile Pensters award, the November Bethlehem Writers Roundtable is featuring my story “A Political Cornucopia” and “Suggestions for a Top Ten List” at http://bwgwritersroundtable.com, and I drafted my first blog as a member of The Stiletto Gang.

The Stiletto Gang is an established blog, written by a group of women mystery writers (http://thestilettogang.blogspot.com ). I hope you will check out my Stiletto Gang posts on the 2nd and 4th Fridays of each month and continue to read my personal and guest blogs on “It’s Not Always a Mystery” every other Monday. The fact that guests already have signed on through mid-2014 for “It’s Not Always a Mystery” is a pendulum high point for me – and for you. I’m looking forward to us continuing to share the best and worst of times. — Debra

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Guest Blogger – Victoria Weisfeld – Follow that Thread!

April 20, 2013 1 comment

 

Victoria Weisfeld Author

Victoria Weisfeld
Author

Follow That Thread!  

by Victoria Weisfeld

“Out the back door and under the big ash was a picnic table . . . I lay down on it for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea how to begin a piece of writing.” These first words from John McPhee’s essay on narrative structure, published in the January 14, 2013, issue of The New Yorker resonate with every writer who’s faced the bleak whiteness of a blank computer screen.

McPhee’s piece is about writing narrative non-fiction. Long-form non-fiction—the sort we see in high-quality magazines—bears striking similarities to fiction itself. It tells a story, it has a satisfying arc, it nails interesting characters, there’s theme and incident and power in the telling. John McPhee is a master of the form. His Coming into the Country was part of my preparation for writing a short story set in Alaska. And his long essays on places and people and happenings in New Jersey, where I live, add a richness to my home ground.

Almost as if he expects us fiction-writers to follow behind him, listening to his exploration of structure with our differently tuned ears, he says, “A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.”

Where does your story line, your narrative thread, begin? It might not begin as far back as David Copperfield’s opening chapter, “I Am Born,” but its rightful beginning might be as the story’s forces are gathering and rumbling like distant thunderheads.

Or does it begin with the illuminating stroke that is the story’s precipitating event? I often start writing in the moment when the precipitating action is under way, a spot my writing coach calls “pot already boiling.” This is different from what I like to read. I enjoy easing into the action with “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times” like Dickens sets the stage for A Tale of Two Cities, which he follows up with an tremendously out-of-fashion discourse on roadway hazards encountered by the Dover mail. But, in writing, I plunge in. My first suspense novel opens with the heroine trying to escape from a stranger who she thinks is pursuing her and means to hurt her. He is, and he does. The one I’m working on now starts with the hero at a testimonial dinner, biding his time until he can slip away to visit his mistress. In paragraph two, he arrives at her apartment and finds her sprawled on a maroon velvet sofa, dead from a gunshot wound. Pot already boiling.

Or does it start at the very end so that the whole work is an extended reminiscence? This approach is perfectly captured by the title Elizabeth George uses for her harrowing novel about impoverished London immigrants: What Came Before He Shot Her. Right in the title, she gives you the punch line.

With respect to the essay that led McPhee to stare at the leaves, he says, “I had never tried to put so many different components—characters, descriptions, dialogue, narrative, set pieces, humor, history, science, and so forth—into a single package.” When we sit down to write or plan our next novel, we are in much the same position. We have the germ of an idea, possible plot points, a couple of characters who may be new or familiar, some loosely thought-out scenes. How do we assemble them? If we’re mystery writers, we also will eventually have to work in clues, red herrings, suspects, and more than a dram of well researched plausibility. We have enough “components,” as McPhee called them, to drive us crazy.

The easiest and most-often-chosen path for a story is strict chronology with a little backstory artfully thrown in to answer the question “what just happened?” Mysteries offer perfect opportunities for marshalling the evidence of the past: “At last Aunt Janet’s long-ago remark began to make sense . . .” Now there is context for Aunt Janet’s prescient observation. Dropping in backstory bits are little backward loops in our narrative thread that don’t divert it from its essential forward motion.

Sometime, though, we want a different, we hope more effective structure to highlight our themes, or even to create the more intense drama. McPhee describes a number of alternative paths. A key initial scene might be followed by a long flashback to the beginning that makes its way back to the first scene—“now I understand!”—passes it, and continues on to the end. An initial scene may be followed by a giant leap forward in time, and the unraveling of those future events finally illuminate the beginning.

More complex looping structures reinforce and build the resonance of the writer’s theme over time. This last approach might be adapted to the story of a woman who keeps meeting the same wrong kind of man, caught in a destructive emotional groove that keeps replaying in her life—Groundhog Day without the happy ending.

By visualizing your narrative thread as a continuous forward unreeling, despite such loops, scenes that don’t contribute become more apparent. In the structure you’re creating, you’ve lost the thread. People who write by tightly plotting their stories before they start out—essentially storyboarding them—probably find it easier to identify superfluous scenes and keep what stays in the best order. More organic writers, like me, need to examine retrospectively whether the thread of our story has frayed or become hopelessly tangled.

If starting and sequencing the elements in your writing are hard, so is making sure you end where you should. Originally, my suspense novel ended in a happy, romantic place. Moonlight, hand-holding, uncertainty. I liked it. But it wasn’t strong enough. Eventually I added a new last chapter that put my character firmly in charge of her own fate, the undisputed hero in her own story.

Adding a bit is sometimes necessary; subtracting can be just as necessary, but harder. McPhee advises, “If you have come to your planned ending and it doesn’t seem to be working, run your eye up the page and the page before that.” (Fiction writers should perhaps substitute “scene” for “page.”) He says you may find “you were finished before you thought you were.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Vicki Weisfeld writes mysteries and suspense and has several published short stories to her credit, including two published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. She’s currently in search of an agent for a completed suspense novel featuring an American travel writer whose assignments—and her own overactive curiosity—regularly lead her into trouble. She has a journalism degree from the University of Michigan, currently lives in Princeton, N.J., and is a member of Sisters in Crime. She works out her writing frustrations by dancing flamenco and simmers down with yoga. What she’s reading, writing, and thinking about, including news items that beg to be woven into stories, can be found on her website: http://www.vweisfeld.com.

Guest Blogger: Kaye George – Writing What I Know

 

Author Kaye George

Author Kaye George

Writing What I Know – by Kaye George

Writers are told to “write what we know,” right? This poses a problem for mystery writers because most of us haven’t killed anyone, or even been shot. My life contains so little violence, it’s practically G-rated. So mystery writers soldier on, imaging people shot, strangled, poisoned, and bludgeoned all over the place. Some of us enroll in Citizen Police Academies. I went through one in Austin, TX, and gained an enormous amount of knowledge from it.

But, as far as writing what I know, that’s how I came to create EINE KLEINE MURDER. I’ve played violin since I was 10. I’ll leave you to wonder how years that adds up to. I started piano at age 5 and still noodle away at that occasionally. I even pretend to sing. All that is to say that I have a background in music, mostly classical music. I love composing, which I started doing in high school. I didn’t get too far in taking music theory classes, though, since that wasn’t my major in college and, after freshman year, I dropped out of the Northwestern Orchestra due to time constraints. However, when I joined a string quartet in Dallas called Allegro Strings, we sometimes found ourselves wanting to play something that hadn’t been arranged for a string quartet. I seem to naturally think in four-part harmony, having played in quartets since junior high school, and also having sung in church choirs the same amount of time. I loved arranging for our quartet!

Fast forward a few years, after eons of frustrating short story submissions and rejections, to the point where I decided to take up novel writing. Since my favorite reading was mystery, I already knew the form and the conventions and I gravitated to the genre. The first mystery I wrote that isn’t forever shoved into the back of a drawer, was SONG OF DEATH. This is the novel that eventually became, after publication of several other mysteries, EINE KLEINE MURDER, and has been picked up by Barking Rain Press, much to my overflowing joy.

I have a passion for classical music and hope I can convey that to the reader. I think a lot of510x765-EineKleineMurder-250x375_april_1 people are afraid of classical, but only because they don’t know much about it. But it’s like art: you know what you like. You don’t have to know sonata trio form, or what allargando means. You just have to listen, accept and reject. You’ll know what you like when you hear it.

One of my favorite symphony goers was a guy who worked with my husband a few years ago. He loved going to the symphony, but knew absolutely nothing about music. He asked me what those funny long wooden things were (bassoons), why we shouldn’t clap every time they stopped playing (because you don’t clap between movements, just at the end of the whole piece) and other questions that made me chuckle. But he loved hearing the orchestra because he lived for the moments when all the strings were playing loudly. That’s what he liked and he knew he liked it. And I liked that about him!

I’d sincerely like to know if anyone learns anything about music from reading my mystery, although learning about music isn’t required! I’d also like to know if anyone completely unfamiliar with classical music gets enjoyment from the book. After all, there are deaths–and mystery!

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Kaye George is a short story writer and novelist who has been nominated for Agatha awards twice. She is the author of four mystery series: the Imogene Duckworthy humorous Texas series, the Cressa Carraway musical mystery series, the FAT CAT cozy series, and The People of the Wind Neanderthal series. EINE KLEINE MURDER, the first Cressa Carraway novel debuts in April from Barking Rain Press. DEATH IN THE TIME OF ICE, the first Neanderthal book, will be published later this year by Untreed Reads. The first FAT CAT book, from Berkley Prime Crime, will appear in 2014.

Her short stories can be found in her collection, A PATCHWORK OF STORIES, as well as in several anthologies, various online and print magazines. She reviews for “Suspense Magazine”, writes for several newsletters and blogs, and gives workshops on short story writing and promotion. Kaye is agented by Kim Lionetti at BookEnds Literary and lives in Knoxville, TN. Homepage: http://kayegeorge.com/

Kaye George, Guppy president, two-time Agatha Nominee/
Imogene Duckworthy Mystery series/
EINE KLEINE MURDER, April 2013/
FAT CAT cozy series, writing as Janet Cantrell, coming 2014/
DEATH IN THE TIME OF ICE, coming soon from Untreed Reads/
http://kayegeorge.com/        Want my newsletter? Email me and I’ll put you on the list.

Guest Blog: T.K. Thorne – How Do You Know If You Are A “Real” Writer?

October 8, 2012 7 comments

T.K. ThorneAuthor of Noah’s Wife – “2009 Book of the Year for Historical Fiction – ForeWord Reviews

How Do You Know if You Are A “Real Writer? by T.K. Thorne

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU ARE  A “REAL” WRITER?  This question has plagued me for a long time, and I saw it recently on a writing web site, so I am not the only one who has asked it. For a long time, I was unpublished and wrote in the “closet.” I was afraid if I admitted to doing it (writing, folks) I would have to face that dreaded question: “Oh, what have you published?” To which, I’d have to say, “Well, nothing… but my mother loves my stuff.” And then go crawl under a rock.

I’m sure there are people out there for whom this would not be a problem, people who have lots of self-confidence and don’t care what anyone thinks of them. I tip my hat to you. For the rest of us, what to do? Should we go to the writer’s conference and expose ourselves as wanna-be’s or should we just stay home?

Now that I have a novel published, I have the perspective to return to this perplexing question. How do you know when you are a “real” writer? What is one? Does anyone who picks up a pen or taps on the computer qualify? Do you have to be published? How many times? Does self-publishing count? Does payment in art journal copies qualify or do you have to be paid for it? If you win an award or get an honorable mention, does that jump you to the “writer status?” According to the IRS, a professional is anyone who is paid for their work. My first publication to a magazine netted me $8.48. It was a great feeling to finally reach that milestone, but somehow it didn’t make the question go away.

Is the aspired distinction merely to be found in the eye of the beholder? If I like what you write, does that make you a “writer” in my eyes, but if I don’t care for it, you aren’t? Saying someone is a “good writer” or a “bad writer,” at least slaps the tag on them, but is he/she a “real” writer? If you keep a journal under the bed and scribe in it daily, are you one or not?

Okay, I’ve asked the question, now I’ll share my epiphany. By college, I was quietly writing fiction, but I took a class in poetry because my roommate talked me into it. It turned out to be the best move I could have made. Everyone brought their hearts and souls to class with their poems. And it was brutal. I learned that there was only one rule—Does it work?

Not, does it express what you really want to say? Not, does it use alliteration and rhyme correctly? Only, does it work? You can  break rules; you can follow rules; you can cry big crocodile tears onto your paper, but the only question is that one.

So, it doesn’t matter if you are published or not, have won awards or not. It doesn’t matter what you write or how often you write. It doesn’t matter. A writer wants it to work! If it doesn’t work, a writer is willing to produce it for critique, to listen to criticism, to cut, to add, to change, to ask questions, to learn, to rewrite, to stand his/her ground, to start over, to rewrite again—whatever it takes to make it work.

Of course, you can write without being “a writer.” And there is nothing wrong with writing for your own pleasure or self discovery or for your mother. Kudos to you and keep writing! But if you have a passion to tell a story, to paint in words, to reach people, to move people, then you understand the question—Am I a “real writer?” And if you have that passion and are willing to work to make it “work,” then, in my book, you is one!

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T.K. Thorne retired as a captain of the Birmingham Police Department and currently serves as executive director of CAP, a business improvement district in downtown Birmingham.  Both careers have provided fodder for her writing. Her fiction, poetry, and non-fiction have been published in various venues and garnered several awards, including “Book of the Year for Historical Fiction” (ForeWord Reviews 2009) for her debut novel Noah’s Wife.  A short film from her screenplay Six Blocks Wide was a finalist in a film festival in Italy and has shown at other juried festivals in the U.S. and Europe.  She has served on several community boards, including the Alabama Writer’s Conclave.  She writes on a mountain top east of Birmingham, Alabama.  To learn more about T.K. Thorne and her writings check out her website at http://www.tkthorne.com .

Going for the Gold – DHG’s Top Three Medals for a Writer

 

 

 

 

 

Going for the Gold – Top Three Medals for Writers

 

This is the week of the Olympics.  Most of us will be glued to our televisions from the Opening to Closing ceremonies.  Some will hold our breath while gymnasts fling themselves into the air from the high bars or twist and turn on pommel horses.  Others will agonize whether this is the year of Ryan Lochte or if Michael Phelps will win the three medals he needs to be the most medaled Olympiad.  Whatever the outcome of the games, the events and awards will, unlike being a writer, happen during a finite period of time.  Because a writer’s life is continuous and is not televised, even though every writer dreams of winning a gold medal, here in reverse order are my top three Olympic Medals for Writers.

 

Bronze:  The bronze medal is given today for the act of training.  Olympic athletes set practice schedules and repeat and repeat moves until perfected.  A writer trains by coming up with an idea and then getting it down on paper.  Talking about it won’t win a medal.  Rather, a writer must set a schedule and adhere to it to produce a number of pages or words.  The first draft is a start, but revision and revision is necessary to be considered for this medal.  Good intentions about exercising or writing are not sufficient.  So, congratulations to Bronze Medalist:  Training/Getting it Down on Paper.

 

Silver:  Once a story, poem, or book is finished, it needs to find readership.  The silver medalist faces rejection, criticism and praise while seeking an agent, editor, publisher, or self-published outlet.  Qualification for this medal may include rewriting that slashes well-loved pages and scenes.  Congratulations to Silver Medalist:  Getting Published.

 

Gold:  The line between Getting Published and Promoting While Continuing to Write is very close, but the difficulty of balancing the time period of seeking to reach an expanded readership after publication while still finding time to write is the winner.  The gold medal reflects time management, going outside one’s comfort zone, being flexible, and finding a way to blend creativity with further accomplishment.  Congratulations to Gold Medalist:  Promoting While Continuing to Write.

 

Guest Blog: What Makes A Good Writer’s Group by Linda Rodriguez

What Makes A Good Writer’s Group by Linda Rodriguez  author of Every Last Secret  – winner of the (St. Martin’s) Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition

Over the years, I have been a part of many writer’s workshops, groups, and organizations. I have been a founder of several. When I was a young wife and mother, I desperately wanted the companionship of other writers, other people who understood this difficult thing I was trying to do.

Since those days, I have developed many wonderful writer friends who truly understand this difficult thing I still try to do. Better yet, I am now married to a writer-editor and have a son and foster-son who are talented writers. I also belong to four writer’s organizations that I helped found—The Writers Place, Latino Writers Collective, Border Crimes, and The Novel Group—three that I had no part in developing but still love and support—the Macondo Writing Workshop, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Con Tinta.

Before these groups, there others that were not so helpful or successful, a series of undergraduate and graduate writing workshops, a group of activist writers putting out an underground newspaper (back in the day of underground newspapers), a short-fiction critique group, a freelance writers group,  a novel critique group, and even a romance writers group. So I have broad experience with writer’s organizations and groups.

One of the key elements of a good writer’s group, whether it is nationwide like the Macondo Writing Workshop, citywide like The Writers Place, or just a few writer friends like The Novel Group, is respect, respect for the group, for the other members and for the purpose of the group. Respect involves giving honest and helpful criticism without making it hurtful or personal. Respect involves valuing the distinctive differences of each member, as both a writer and as a person, appreciating what those unique qualities bring to the group as a whole.

Another hallmark of a good writer’s group is enthusiasm. Good groups are excited about writing and the writer’s life. When members grow discouraged, they can come away from a meeting of their group re-energized and back in touch with their passion for writing.

If a writer’s group or a subset of the group functions as a critique group, it is important for all the writers in the group to be writing at a similar level of experience and ability, otherwise the group will eventually fail as a critique group, no matter how congenial the individuals are. Often, however, beginners may be a part of a group led by an experienced author for a fee. This can be a good foundation—if the goal of both the leader and the members is for the members to outgrow the group.

What has your experience of writers groups been? If you have not been able to find one, would you consider starting one of your own?

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Linda Rodriguez

Linda Rodriguez’s novel, Every Last Secret (Minotaur Books), won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition, was selected by Las Comadres Conversations With…, and was a Barnes & Noble mystery pick. The second book in the Skeet Bannion series, Every Broken Trust, will be published in Spring 2013. Linda reads and writes everything, even award-winning books of poetry and a cookbook, and she spends too much time on Twitter as @rodriguez_linda.  She blogs about writers, writing, and the absurdities of everyday life at http://lindarodriguezwrites.blogspot.com.