Connecting. Unequivocally

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Reading on steps

Photo by Garry Knight. Creative Commons license 2.0

I have a few happy memories of my childhood that involve my mom.

I never gave it much thought. I didn’t know I was supposed to have more. I knew only one way of how mothers and daughters worked. I didn’t know our way was not the norm.

Until one spring day a few years ago I had a meltdown.  Something pretty insignificant happened and I lost it. Started crying and couldn’t stop. I got in the car and I drove and drove through a heavy rain, sobbing loud and ugly, until I couldn’t breathe or see. I don’t cry, so this scared me, but it siphoned off…something. Temporarily.

Then it happened again a month later. I didn’t know I’d still been dragging my entrails through the dirt until my body said, “Enough!” I sought help…and got it.

So why am I scrawling this personal revelation on my blog? It’s because of a novel. By some accident (or not) of fate, I recently happened upon a 2007 book, Dirty by Megan Hart.** I recognized the main character Elle’s plight right away, and her mother, too. Reading Elle’s story made me tense with discomfort, made my own psychology bubble to the surface. Made me sick and worried. Not for me, but for Elle. I kept turning the pages to see if she’d be okay, and when Elle’s brother said she should see someone because “…Talking about it helps. Puts things in perspective. Proves I’m not crazy…” the truth of it stole my breath. I wanted to reach through the little electronic pad I read on and shake Elle, say “Listen to your brother! He knows!”

I was on edge about every decision Elle made, the sorts of so-called choices we daughters of difficult mothers make to establish a modicum of control over our own lives. I was completely, unequivocally engaged with her.

Some people say “write for yourself.” Not me. I  write in quest of a bond, a connection. Yes, for entertainment, too, but even then, the be-all, end-all is the emotional tie, creating deeper feelings, four dimensional reading experiences. Total immersion.

Books have so much power. As a reader, I want to be submerged. As a writer, I want to be your only source of oxygen.

I’ve read thousands of books, and still I’m surprised—and giddy—when it happens to me so thoroughly.

 

**Dirty is an erotic romance, not necessarily for every reader.

Brow-raising, lip twitching and fingernail biting. Yeah.

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My characters’ eyebrows are very mobile. They raise, lower, arc, meet. One goes up, the other down. It’s an issue, one my CPs and beta readers take glee in excoriating me over.

I can’t help it! In real life I’m always paying attention to non-verbal communication, but there are only so many ways to describe non-verbal cues in a novel. I fully I admit it gets old, all the eyebrow raising, lip twitching and finger fiddling.

When it comes to “face-to-face” interaction, there is so much to be gained by paying close attention to non-verbal communication. I watched an episode of Vikings with my son not long ago, and there was a scene that was almost silent. There were a few words (none terribly memorable), but the non-verbal communication between the characters, and more importantly, toward the audience, was crystal clear. At least it was to me.

My son didn’t infer nearly as much as I did, which illustrates the dangers of depending on non-verbal cues. 1) Someone has to actually pay attention to non-verbal language, and then 2) they have to interpret it exactly how the writer/director/actor meant it. Which can be tricky.

Take, for example, a tense interview on a news magazine. The subject is sitting there unable to make solid eye contact with the interviewer. AHA! I say. Look at that liar! But what looks to me like nervous lying may be something else entirely. Maybe the subject’s eyes are darting about because the interviewer’s got something large and unsightly hanging around her nostril, and if the subject doesn’t look away, he knows he’ll only stare at that ONE spot. How would I, the viewer know? The answer, of course, is I can’t. I’m making assumptions, sometimes judgements.  The interpretation of non-verbal communication will always, always be subject to interpreter bias.

As a writer, this is important to keep in mind. Obviously, novel-writing (graphic novels excepted) is not a visual medium, but I, for one, do want readers to “see” my stories play out in their minds. With nothing for the eyes to interpret, though, non-verbal cues in writing have an added layer of obfuscation. Beyond interpreter bias, we are dependent on the reader to imagine what the writer describes.

Some cues lend themselves to visualizing better than others, which is why they tend to be the overused ones. Eyebrows go up, eyebrows go down. It’s relatively universal that when brows are lowered, it’s a negative. Scorn or anger, perhaps puzzlement. I’ve yet to see or read of lowered brows indicating joy or happiness. But let’s say I write, “His brows lowered, and the corner of his lip seemed to have developed a tic.” Is the character mad? Disgusted? About to start crying? It could be any of those things, and of course, context matters. But  sometimes the more you, the author, say, the less clear it gets.

The use of non-verbal communication in writing is very much tied to the “show, don’t tell” mantra. It’s also a word burner. A writer friend and I were conversing online and I sent an emoticon. This one: >;-| She called it “winky disdain,” which I thought was brilliant. Two words to describe it perfectly. But if I were to use this facial expression in my story, I’d probably blather on trying to be more specific: “…one eye squinted under lowered brows, her lips pressed flat…” TEN words. Here is the danger. I prefer the ten-word description, to maximize my chances that you, the reader, will see it the same way I do. In fact, if I use so many words, you damn well better see it the same way I do. Otherwise I’ve wasted 8 precious words. But I can’t guarantee it, can I? I could have used “winky disdain” and left it up to your interpretation, and many, many skillful writers do exactly this.

I’m a “visual” reader, so when I write, I do a lot of trying to manage what the reader “sees.” Thus my [over-]dependence on eyebrows. For now, my CPs and betas will have to keep admonishing me while I search for the happy medium, one that involves just the right balance of word-burning imagery and verbal efficiency.

“One of these days I hope I’ll figure it out,” she said, her lip wobbling.

Now Appearing on a 2nd Blog

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Things have been a little sparse around here lately. It’s because, in the spirit of knocking myself out of my lane, I’m participating in a group blog with some of my writer friends. I encourage you to pop over to BadMenagerie.com for a look-see. We’re a barnyard full of diverse opinions and perspectives, which makes for an interesting collection of posts to scroll through. (And we have a published author over there, so it’s for realz!)

I’m trying to get the hang of doing both, still figuring what should go where—I have a new post coming here tomorrow—but I hope you’ll stick with me while I work my way out of the slow lane. Look! I even have one hand off the wheel. 😀

 

 

Waiting For Stories

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bikeI have this stark visual image of a character.

I’ve been seeing her for 5 years now. She rides a bicycle, a blue one, with wide chrome fenders, rusty on the edges, and upright handlebars. There’s a wicker basket strapped to the front and it hangs kind of crooked. Her name is Claudia and she’s wearing a fluttery white skirt with orange poppies on it. I always wonder how it doesn’t get caught in the chain or spokes. Everyone waves at her as she glides into the market square, and she waves back and jokes with the vendors by name.

The problem is, I have no idea what to do with her. I’ve been waiting all this time for her to tell me her story. I do know some things about her. That she’s ill, that she’s going to heal someone. I know her teeth are a little crooked and that all the old men of the neighborhood cafe admire her vitality, wish they were young enough to ask her to the cinema.

I’ve tried to introduce some people more intimately into her existence, but nothing’s worked out. I can’t make her stop being a loner. So I sit here waiting for the right person to show up, the one who will get her talking.

Frustrating, because as often as I’ve tried to leave her behind, she won’t go away. Almost every day, she sails through my mind and into the market square, waving, calling “Ciao, Umberto!” to the baker.

If she didn’t want me to tell her story, why did she come along?

Pardon me, I seem to have a frog in my throat

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My blogging has ground to a halt, a dangerous thing to happen to a blog. The thing is, there have been a series of events that seem to have…stolen my voice.

(WRITER WHINING ALERT!)

First there was Camp NaNoWriMo. I was busy being a novella writer and, I know I’ve mentioned this before: I’m a horrible multi-tasker. So July, no blogging.

After the full month’s break from my romance novel, I decided to try a contest. One of those ones where you submit your query and first chapter and hope for…something. I had no illusions, no realistic thoughts that I would get picked. My bar was set low. Submit. Practice sending my work into the wider world.

But then, all around me, writers started hearing back. Acceptances, or reasons why their particular story wasn’t accepted. People who got accepted by one judge got feedback from others as to why that particular judge had declined the submission. People who didn’t get accepted received emails from their chosen judges anyway. Sentences, some even paragraphs, of feedback.

Now this is not “part” of the contest and I had no reason whatsoever to expect anything. Feedback is something extra the judges may or may not choose to do. But I let hope take over and my goal shift. I wanted feedback. Was it the query? The premise? The writing that didn’t click? I heard from one of four of the judges I submitted to, a one-sentence reply I clung to like a rescued baby mermaid, and I hoped I’d get a little something more from the others. Something. Anything.

But no. Crickets.

Hope turned to brussels sprouts in my mouth. I reminded myself I had expected nothing. Told myself I was being unreasonable, unprofessional. Admonitions morphed into the conviction that I couldn’t handle the rigors of the publishing game, where success equals an even lower batting average than in baseball. I wasn’t cut out for this, and obviously, my story was dog poo because no one could find the wherewithal to even send me a little note.

(I gather this bleak state is one writers sink into quite readily.)

I convinced myself nothing would come of my book, and stopped writing altogether. No novel, no novella, no blog. Intellectually I knew nothing could come of a book one didn’t SUBMIT. But like Ramona the Pest, I crossed my arms and stomped my foot. Figuratively, but still…Yes, I am childish.

And then, In the midst of this self-immersed, apocalyptic doomscape, I received a horrible text message. One of my sorority sisters, Maria, who had been battling a rare—and incurable—form of cancer, was in the hospital, her family by her side. My world stopped. Everything went into suspension.

I saw her in January, lively, vibrant, laughing, drinking wine with her sorority sisters and sharing a wonderful, loud, chatter-filled meal. It was as if we were back in the big dining room at the ADPi House eating, talking, laughing. That wonderful night I forgot Maria had cancer, that her prognosis was dire. There was no way the woman I saw was going anywhere but back home to raise her boys to adulthood. She’d outlived her diagnosis by more than a year, after all.

A day after the text message, confirmation came. Maria had taken her eternal flight.

What were my petty complaints compared to the death of my friend, for God’s sake? What of Maria’s sons being left without their mother, her husband left without his wife, her family left without their daughter, their sister. Grief grabbed hold of me and squeezed. Maria had bugged me and bugged me about reading my book; I’d wanted to have her read it before cancer took her away. Chalk up another unmet goal.

Where before I was childish, now I was breathlessly mute.

I’ve lived a pretty charmed life, haven’t often been touched closely by death or grief. I didn’t know how to handle it. I felt like the pebble that starts the snow ball that becomes the body of the Guiness Book of World Records-sized snowman. One thing after another just seemed to layer onto my woes. My words felt small and stupid and unimportant. I lost a dear friend. And my will to say anything.

It’s been a rough month and a half, but slowly the metaphorical sun has started to shine and I’ve started to poke my finger through the slush that was the snowball. The words are building up inside me again. I still have a frog in my throat, but I have a lozenge on my tongue.

I think the sunshine is Maria. Maybe she got in my subconscious ear to remind me of something important: I have to keep going. I can still hit a goal, albeit a revised one. She may not hold my book in her hands, but if I send it out into the world again, somewhere in the great universal ether, Maria will know she helped bring it to fruition. I’m holding on to that.

May the universe embrace you and wrap you in the joy you gave to everyone you touched on this earth, Maria.

Maria Sofia Rimkus 1964-2014.

Maria

Dissociate Me

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547px-Janus-VaticanSometimes I wish I had a modified version of Dissociative Disorder, a kind I could turn on and off at will. Prolific writers seem to have mastered the ability to dissociate, to turn their minds to disparate worlds, characters, stories as easy as changing the settings on the washing machine. There’s a skill there that is proving gawdawful hard for me to learn.

I’m not interested in proliferation. (Not yet anyway, wheee!) I only want to be able to dig into one story while wrapping up another, to work on them both at the same time. The prevailing wisdom is while the betas have a draft, or while waiting on queries, get to work on your next story. Alrighty, then. Only, now my mind is split between two stories set in very different eras, with characters who would not be friends in real life. I need to be concentrating on one, but my mind drifts to the other. This seems a sure recipe for not finishing either project, and it may be that most insidious form of procrastination I’ve talked about before: procrastination that looks suspiciously like progress. But even this terrible possibility hasn’t forced me to develop a more effective strategy yet. A writer friend suggested that this ability is a habit, one that takes time to develop. In the meantime, it feels like driving in circles.

Learning the ins and outs of creating marketable fiction is a struggle. Just when a writer thinks he’s conquered one aspect—say, dialogue, point-of-view or storytelling—he’s faced with a new, higher-level skill. It’s daunting, and frustrating. No wonder so many people stick manuscripts in the trunk and never pull them out again. There are plenty of resources for learning mechanical skills, but for the more esoteric skills, it’s really a matter of slogging through and figuring it out on one’s own. Because each writer’s process is unique.

No one can actually teach me how to split my brain to manage two (or more) books at once. I have to learn it, develop a working solution. I’m not a naturally effective multi-tasker at the best of times, and when I’m immersed in writing, forget it. I live in my story. Even food and sleep get shunted to the farthest back burner. But to be a professional about this, which is my goal, this skill must be learned.

Like Janus, a writer must be able to look in opposite directions and see two, sometimes opposing, views at once.

Jupiter help me.

 

Photo Attribution: By Fubar Obfusco [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Learning From My Mistakes

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Installation_des_Chevaux_de_Marly_aux_Champs-Élysées_1794As I’ve mentioned, the novel I’ve been working on for a year and a half now is out with betas yet again. (Someday maybe I’ll get it right.) While waiting for the jury to come back, I’m working on a second book in the same world. I am determined not to repeat the mistakes of the first. The ones that have me still needing to revise after 5 drafts. I can’t do that again. Not only is it demoralizing, it’s a waste of time.

When I started that one, I didn’t have writing buddies, or Critique Partners, to be more respectful of them. Now I do. Mostly we sit around in a chat room talking nonsense, but we’re all eager to brainstorm when one of us needs a sounding board. A few in the group are sticklers about logic and this is my big weakness. I’m all about story, as in, the tale parts, but solidifying a novel’s logical underpinnings…not my strong suit. At all. But the stories I’m writing fuse disparate mythologies and beliefs, so it’s imperative I have logical reasons behind the character’s actions.

The basic storyline has already been established by the previous book, so this time, once I’d written a few chapters to get to know my characters, I decided to pre-write a query letter, to see if I could “sell” the story. Everything went swimmingly until I got to the stakes. What was at stake for my main character? Um…well…she could…she might…CRUD. It seemed like her choices were all easy and wins for her. BLARG!! That does not a novel make.

So I went begging to my peeps, and after one brainstorming session, I thought I had it nailed. I moved on from the query and wrote a synopsis. I was thrilled with the outcome. I posted it in the chat room for the others to look at and one of the most logic-minded of our group started pecking holes in it until it was a ragged mess.

In my previous life, the one where I’d never completed a novel, I would have quit in frustration. But now that I’ve done it once, not well, but done it nonetheless, I wanted to buckle down. I know how much easier it will be to write this thing if I don’t have to go back and rebuild the logical scaffolding. I need a sturdy skeleton.

I went back to work, bouncing ideas and what-ifs, hammering, re-jiggering, and when I came up with something that felt right, I let the others have at it. And…lo! They couldn’t find holes. Yes, there are choices to be made—I can go wood or iron, bolts or welds—but those are just options. The story makes sense, stands up. There are reasons. Sound ones, ones that will survive the length of the novel and not shift under the weight of the story as happened in my first book.

I have scaffolding. Solid scaffolding.

For a storyteller this has been hard for me to grasp. Doesn’t the skeleton just come along for the ride? You can’t see it, after all. Isn’t it just…there in any entertaining story? The answer is a resounding NO. It must be built, and carefully, ahead of time if a writer wants to avoid endless draft hell.

So now I’m off and running. Moving forward having learned something about myself and my process, having recognized my Achilles heel. Having been challenged and come out, grinning, on the other side.

For my money, there’s not a better feeling to ride into a new project.