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Saturday, July 31, 2010

I haven't been AWOL. I've been flying with the Anhinga...

I promised you guys I'd blog from the Anhinga Writers Studio Summer Workshops, and I am.  It has taken me four days of radio silence to find time to do so, though, and for that I hope you'll forgive me.

During those four days, I have taught writing sessions and done manuscript reviews and conducted one-on-one consultations and tried to assist faculty members who got lost on their way to Gainesville.  I've scheduled reviews and consultations for a faculty of 13.  I've sold my books and the books of others.  I've toted my books around.  (Also my computer and my printer and anything else that needed me to tote it.)  I've done a bunch of other stuff, too, but it's a blur, so I'm not even going to try to tell you what it was.  And I've had a good time doing it.

It's a lot of fun to watch people learn how to improve their writing and how to spread their wings as a published writer.  I dearly love to brush elbows with the other faculty, many of whom are old friends.  Though it's hard to find the time for quiet conversation, I do try.  It's energizing to bond with people who understand the highs and lows of an author's life.  And I defy anyone to find a more interesting group of folks than a group of writers.

Sooner or later, I'll make a list of things I learned from my peers this week.  It will be a nice postcript to my "Thirty Writing Tips in Thirty Days" marathon.  Today, though, I thought I'd post a few photos from a most hectic week.  I hope yours was as pleasant and productive!

Giving feedback on a manuscript review

Teaching a session on "What is a Story?" with
Jeanne Leiby, editor of The Southern Review

Enjoying some social time with students and fellow faculty

Happy reading and writing!
Mary Anna

Monday, July 26, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-minded #30: Talk to me

Here we are at the end of our marathon journey through 30 writing tips in 30 days.  Thank you for taking it with me!

Does this mean I'm going away?  Oh, heck no...not unless you people rise up and tell me to go away.  And what would be the point?  All you have to do is stop reading or stop talking back to me.  Google Analytics will tell me you've all gone away, and I'm not real big on talking to myself.  :-)

So what's today's writing tip?  Actually, it's a continuation of Tip #29, which was Reach out.  Today, I'll be specific.  Reach out to me.

I work like a serf.  (That's one of the things about the publishing business that you probably didn't want to know.)  I enjoy taking a break to visit with friends.  And I love to talk about writing.

Some of you have been already been reaching out here, or by email, or on Facebook.  Some of you are probably reading it via the Amazon feed, and I'm not even sure there's a way to comment there or whether there's even a link back to this page.  Therefore, I shall confuse the webcrawling bots and post a link to this blog on this blog, putting them into an endless self-referential do-loop:

Drop me a line and tell me which writing tip(s) have been the most helpful to you.  If there's a topic you'd like me to thrash within an inch of its life explore, let me know.  If you have your own writing tips you'd like to share, have at it, and let me know whether it's okay for me to discuss them further in the blog.

Beyond responding to the feedback that this shout-out generates, I have several other plans for material with which to fill this space.   First, I will be teaching and organizing a major writing conference this week called the Anhinga Writers' Studio Summer Workshops.  I will be working on this project from daybreak till long after dark, but I'll have my smart phone and laptop with me.  Unless unremitting disaster strikes, I plan to post the gems of wisdom I learn from my fellow instructors.  And since my life seems to consist of careening from one ridiculous situation to another, I'm sure there will be funny stories to tell.

After I recover from the workshops, I'll be returning for a while to the behind-the-scenes stories of publishing weirdities implicit in the title of this blog:  "It's Like Making Sausage:  Sometimes you don't really want to know how books are made..."

Then, as October approaches, you can vicariously experience the highs (good reviews) and lows (booksignings where nobody remembered to order books) of a book release.  Don't make me do this alone...

Mary Anna

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Making you wait a bit...

It's time for that 30th and last Writing Tip for the Practical-Minded, but it's also time for my biweekly post over at The LadyKillers.  This fortnight's topic is how we name our characters, and that's not how I want to wrap up my 30-day marathon.  So I'll save your 30th writing tip for tomorrow.

In the meantime, hop over to The LadyKillers and read my post there, entitled:  "Characters:  Call them what you like, just don't call them late to dinner."

Then come back here tomorrow and see how I'm going to wrap this up.  It would be helpful if I knew how I was going to wrap this up...

Mary Anna

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-minded #29: Reach out...

I'm winding down to the end of my 30-Writing-Tips-in-30-Days marathon, and I'm thinking about the reason I started it.  (And please don't worry that I'll leave you lonely when it's done.  I have plans for you...)

I love to teach, and this was my warm-up to a big week of teaching next week at the Anhinga Writers' Studio Summer Workshops.  I'll be leading four 90-minute workshops and meeting personally with a double-handful of students, as well as just spending time socializing and talking writing with about seventy-five people who are soon to be among my dearest friends.  :-)  We Anhingas are a very tight group.

My goal when I teach is to tell aspiring writers the things I wish someone had told me.  Some of these things aren't easy to hear.  "You need to do some revisions before you start submitting this thing to publishers and agents," is chief among them, but the advice is always delivered with love and with the belief that hard work can get people where they want to go.  Fortunately, some of the advice I have to give is very pleasant to put into practice.  Tonight's Writing Tip for the Practical-minded is one of those.  Here 'tis:

Writing is a solitary activity.  Balance yourself by reaching out to other writers.

Did I do this when I was an aspiring writer?  Heck, no.  During all the years I was learning my craft, I was very, very busy.  How busy?

Well, I took my first serious writing class in graduate school when I was 21.  I wasn't really supposed to be taking that class, being as how I was pursuing a master's degree in chemical engineering as fast as humanly possible, but I needed something in my life besides coursework in fluidized bed heat transfer and advanced transport phenomena.  I wrote in spare scraps of time during the year I was taking classes, then I took a job teaching community college math and physics during my last semester, as I finished my thesis.

A year later, I had my first child, dropped back to teaching part-time, and wrote when  he was napping.  Just over a year later, I had my second child, moved to Florida, and wrote whenever I could get them both to nap.  Just over a year later, I divorced, took a full-time job as an engineer, and wrote when my kids were asleep at night.

What is conspicuously absent here?  Um...publication.  And contact with other writers.

A couple of years later, I remarried and found some time to attend occasional meetings of local writer's groups, but publication still eluded me.  A couple more years later, I was on bedrest for most of my third pregnancy, so I split my time between continuing my work as an environmental consultant and writing an environmental thriller.  Because I'd never written anything book-length before and I wasn't sure I could, I took a correspondence course in novel-writing, and it's one of the best decisions I ever made.  I couldn't leave my house to get companionship from other writers, per medical orders, but I could do it by mail.  (And yes, in 1995, I took that course by snail mail.  If you take a similar course, it will be online and your life will be much easier than mine was.)

That third baby was three before I finished the environmental thriller, but I did finish it, and it got me my agent, Anne Hawkins.  Having had Anne's literary companionship for 12 years has made my writing life a lot less lonely and a lot less scary.  She not only believed that my work was good, but she was willing to risk her valuable time on it, because she thought that it would one day make her some money.  How cool is that?

Anne and I were together five years before we sold Artifacts , but the sale brought me more literary companionship--an editor, a publisher, and the folks at the publishing house who make things happen.  The need to publicize the books took me to writers' conferences and readers' conferences and bookstores and libraries, where I met the people who read my books, as well as other writers who were hoping to publish theirs.  Wonder of wonders, I also met anthology editors who have since published my short stories and essays.

Now, listen closely.  I learned that my agent Anne and my editor Barbara attend writers' conferences, looking for new talent.  I learned that they had both been at conferences that I could have attended but didn't because...well, look back a few paragraphs and tell me when I would have had time.  Still, if I'd gone, my work might have seen print years earlier than it did...if I'd had time to write it.  Yes, I know that lack of time is a vicious cycle.  All we can do is the best we can.

So if anybody reading this will be with us at the Anhinga conference this week, welcome.  You're doing a wonderful thing for yourself.

If any of you would still like to come, well, it's almost too late but not quite.  Drop me an e-mail,

If you're interested, but this is just not the time, watch this space for developing news.  We're streamlining our programs for the upcoming year.  Instead of one monster conference, we'll be doing several "lock-ins," where a small number of attendees will spend an intense weekend with just one instructor, with the goal of walking away with new skills and a significant piece of writing done.  If you want face-time with someone who can kick-start your work, plan to join us.  And if you're a fiction writer, know that the someone doing the kick-starting will be me.  :-D

Reach out to other writers because you can learn from them.  Reach out to them because they might soon be reporters who can cover your work or editors who can get your words out into the world.  Reach out to them because it will feed your soul.

You'll be glad you did.

Mary Anna

Friday, July 23, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-minded #28: Get a cat.

A few days ago, I told you about my brief conversation with Corbin Bernsen, and I mentioned that on the day he and I were on the same television show (!), three of the other guests were representative from the humane society--a human and two dogs.  Or, you know, maybe it was her two cats, because the humane society was promoting their two-for-one cat promotion special.

I think I saved a few kitty lives that evening when I spoke to the local Sisters in Crime chapter about how to start a career as a mystery writer.  I told them that I had pursued publication for many years.  (Many, many, many years.  So many years that I'm pretty sure my sanity should be in question.) 

Mystery readers and writers, I reminded them, are notorious for loving cats, yet I had always been a dog person.  (Do you know how to distinguish a woman who loves her cats from a crazy cat lady?  Crazy cat ladies kiss their cats on the mouth.  Or so I'm told...I limit myself to nuzzling my kitty on the top of his adorable head and behind his sweet little ears.)  When my daughter turned seven, I finally caved to her badgering for a pet.  We went to the pet rescue place and brought home a gray tabby cat who had been born on the street and who now, many years later, still retains some of that bad-boy, streetwise attitude.

One month later--just one short month after I acquired the mystery writer's archetypal companion--I sold Artifacts to the wonderful folks at Poisoned Pen Press.  Coincidence?  I think not.  I told the lovely folks at the Sisters in Crime meeting who were hoping to sell their books to run, not walk, to the Humane Society and get a cat.  Or even to get two, because the second one was free!  I hope there are kitties living in lovely homes even now as a result.

My kitty loves it when we start a nice writing day.  I feed him, stopping to pet him frequently because he's more interested in the petting than in the food and water.  Then I get in the recliner where I always work, put my computer in my lap, then wait for the 14-pound cat who I know will launch himself into my lap and stand there, purring and blocking my access to the keyboard.  I pet him for awhile, then he remembers that he's a cat and he's supposed to be aloof, so he jumps onto the floor and stalks away to do whatever it is cats do.

So let me take this opportunity to save a few more kitty lives.  If you want to get published, go adopt a cat.  Preferably two.

Mary Anna

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #27: Get advice from people you trust

Publishers Weekly weighed in on Strangers this week.  They said lovely things, so I cannot resist copying them here.  I have deleted one phrase, because it gave away too much plot.  (And if you care about such things, do not read the dustjacket blurb.)
From Publishers Weekly--Strangers: A Faye Longchamp Mystery
Mary Anna Evans, Poisoned Pen, $24.95 (322p) ISBN 978-1-59058-742-3; $14.95 paper ISBN 978-1-59058-744-7
Evans explores themes of protection, love, and loss in her absorbing sixth Faye Longchamp mystery (after 2009's Floodgates). [Faye and Joe], who have started an archeological consulting business, are excited by their first big job--excavating the rear garden of Dunkirk Manor, a historic house in St. Augustine, Fla., that's now a bed-and-breakfast. When Glynis Smithson, the manor's attractive manager, goes missing, a note for Faye and several artifacts in her abandoned car are found. Blood on the front seat suggests foul play. The local police consult Faye about the artifacts, and her research skills provide important clues to Glynis's disappearance. Compelling extracts from a 16th-century Spanish priest's manuscript diary that Faye begins translating lend historical ballast. Determined that old mysteries see the light of day, the feisty Faye never gives up until justice is done. (Oct.)
Ah...absorbing and compelling.  I can live with that.  I'm enabored by that first sentence, because exploring "themes of protection, love, and loss" suggests a book that should be taken seriously.  And yes, Faye really never will give up until justice is done.  That quality is simply central to who she is.  I've always considered  mystery fiction to be the literature of justice, just as some people say that science fiction is the literature of ideas.  Faye's tenacity in the search for truth reflects my views on the matter.

But what if they'd said that it was flimsy trash that wasn't worth the ink used to print it?  Well, what's done is done, and that flimsy, trashy book would be landing on bookshelves this October, regardless.  I could pretend like the review never happened, but I'd be forced to ignore a publication I respect.  One of those moments when I thought, Oh, good Lord, this is really happening, struck me when PW reviewed Artifacts.  (They said nice things.)  That review meant that the industry whose approval I'd been seeking for years had finally noticed me, and they had deemed that I'd said something worthy of that notice.
I hear actors and writers and dancers and musicians and artists of all kinds say that they don't read their reviews.  I'm not actually sure they're serious about that.  And perhaps an artist with an unusually fragile ego (and a few of us have those) really can't work without fear after reading a negative opinion of that work.  I guess my position on that issue is that you should read them if you can.  You just might learn something.
Reviews of my work in large publications aimed at the publishing industry--PW, Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus Reviews--have generally been very good.  At worst, a couple of them were lukewarm.  There were a few scathing reviews online and in small-circulation publications that were written by people who seemed to be angry that I was breathing, but I made myself read them and consider whether their criticism was valid. 
And that is my point here today.  If you can get a critique of your work, take advantage of it.  Try to determine in advance whether this critique is coming from someone whose good opinion you care to have.  As you read the review, keep this question in mind:  At the end of the day, do I care what the person who wrote this review thinks?
I care deeply what Booklist thinks, but there are a couple of reviews posted on my books' Amazon pages that make me shake my head.  After considering whether the reviewer's opinion is one I cared to have, I move on.  If a valid criticism helps me to see something lacking in my work, then I use it as a prompt that shows me how to improve.
Seek out respected friends for feedback.  Seek input from other aspiring writers whose work you enjoy, and consider forming a writers' group with them, but always remember that your work is your own.  Just because a reviewer doesn't like it doesn't mean that your work is matter who the reviewer is.
Everybody's a critic, but if you can find a good critic whose advice helps you burnish your book into something better, then you've uncovered a real treasure.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #26: Lost in time and space

Someone asked me recently if I storyboarded my books.  No, and I only have the dimmest idea of what storyboarding is.  I do write those long, involved, for-my-eyes-only outlines that I've described to you, but stories evolve between outline and finished book.  If they don't, then maybe we writers are working too hard.  Maybe we should just publish our outlines and be done with it.

I've learned to take a stab at a timeline when I'm outlining.  I try to have some idea of the passage of time, so that I'll know when Faye has done enough for one day and she really needs to sleep.  I don't record the consumption of every single meal, figuring that you'll presume she grabbed fast food or slapped together a sandwich if I don't tell you specifically that she ate.  And I do not inform you when anybody goes to the bathroom, unless there's a darn good plot-related reason.  If it's not part of the story and it doesn't drive the plot, then it is omitted in the name of streamlining.

The roughed-out schedule that's implicit in my outline shifts as I write, but I'm just not rigid-minded enough to force myself to think out the plot on a minute-by-minute level at this point.  At some time in the process, usually as I'm finishing the first draft, I am so lost in time that I am forced to sit down and page through the manuscript, making notes on when this day ends and that one begins.  The editor of Artifacts made me write her a scene-by-scene timeline.  I'd guess that I have hundreds of scenes in a 300-page book, so this was an arduous undertaking.  My natural style is tight third-person with multiple viewpoints, so this means that one scene may be taking place simultaneously with the next one, as two or three or even more people observe the same thing at the same time.

This exercise taught me that I was using the multiple-viewpoint technique to manhandle time itself.  By letting one character point a gun, then having another watch in horror, then having another see that she is in the line of fire, then letting the second one try to take the bullet for the woman he loves, I can spend a nice leisurely page or so exploring this turning-point moment in short rapid-fire scenes, without losing the tension necessary for such a situatioin.

But it was really hard writing a timeline for that sequence.

While I was writing Findings, I came to the point that I had no idea what day it was any more.  This became a problem, because I needed for Faye and Joe to go to the rare books library, which would ordinarily be closed on it  was really important to know whiether it was Sunday yet.  Time to write a timeline...

Then I wrote the climactic scene and I realized that I had three boats floating around those Gulf islands, and it was essential that I remember where they were all parked...moored...docked...whatever.  I had to do a boat location log as part of the timeline, because when one particular boat blew up and left Faye stranded, I did not want to hear from somebody after the book was published, saying, "If she'd have just walked down to the beach where Joe dragged his john boat ashore, her problems would have been solved."

I found that I needed to do some tweaking to make sure I wasn't sending them to the library at a time when it would be closed, and I had to move some action to Wednesday, because Joe and Faye going many more places on Tuesday than was humanly possible.  If I hadn't done the timeline, I wouldn't have known that. 

Of course, if I'd planned the passage of time in more detail when I started the book, all this fussing around could have been avoided, but I am only half-engineer.  I am also half-artist, and I work the way I work.

Now, go map out the timeline of your own work-in-progress, before your characters start meeting themselves, coming and going.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-minded #25: Get to the point

When I review manuscripts for aspiring writers, there is a problem that I see time and again in books that are right on the brink of being publishable.  These writers have put some effort into the mechanics of their work, so there are very few errors of punctuation or grammar or spelling to point out.  They've worked hard to develop their characters and plot, and they've written a complete manuscript. 

(I find that actually completing the manuscript often translates into a writer who does everything else better--characters, setting, mechanics, and plot--probably because the discipline necessary to actually finish a huge project like a book carries over into all aspects of the work.)

The final hurdle that must be crossed to generate professional-level work is high, and it's hard for students to wrap their minds around, because it isn't as easy to point out as a misspelled word.  Almost-publishable work generally lacks pacing.  It isn't tight.  And tight copy is like pornography...I know it when I see it.

So how is that helpful to you, who are so intimately entwined with your book that you can't see the forest for the trees?  Well, first, you need to set it aside for a few days.  Then you need to read it as if you just checked it out of the library on a whim.  Read it for pleasure.  If you're honest with yourself, you'll recognize that it feels flabby, somehow.  You will be fighting this feeling throughout the editing process.  Every time you read that book, you should be identifying useless adjectives and prepositional phrases that say nothing.  Deleting such things should give you a feeling of great power!

On a larger scale, you must make sure that dry, boring exposition is not dragging your story down.  Look at the opening chapter, in particular.  How long does it take for something to happen?  Beginning writers feel that they need to introduce each character and describe the setting and set up the action, all in the first chapter.  Wrong!  How many people would have watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, if the screenwriter had opened the film at the university where Dr. Henry Jones was teaching, then described the Ark of the Covenant, then put us on the airplane with him to get to the jungle where he wanted to find a golden idol?  Oh, and the unrepentant scene-setter-upper who wrote this engrossing flick would have probably spent that plane ride describing the idol and the booby traps that awaited Dr. Jones when he found it.


Instead, we moviegoers were plunged into danger and mystery and tarantulas and a honkin' big rolling rock before ever really meeting Indy.  It felt like we were dropped out of an airplane.  And we loved it.

When do you introduce your characters to your readers?  After they're hooked.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is what flashbacks are for.

I was still learning this when I wrote Artifacts and Wounded Earth.  Their opening chapters morphed into something complete different as I edited.  Most notably, while editing both books, I reversed the first and second chapters, then I slashed the bejesus out of the original opening chapter.  As you develop in your craft, you will find that you almost always need less exposition than you think you do.

Please, please, please do not describe your alien villain's elaborate military uniform to me before he whips out a blaster and threatens somebody with it.

Mary Anna

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-minded #24: Use your pain

Do you ever feel like you're just going through the motions with your writing?  Does it seem like you're pushing your characters around like pawns on a chessboard, but you're not really connecting with them?  Well, if they're not real to you, they won't be real to your readers.  And if you're just going through the motions, your readers can tell.

So where do you look for the raw material that you can hone into a story that feels completely real?  In the end, the only place you can go is inside yourself.  Everything else is second-hand.  If it's not your emotion, how do you know whether it's true?

When I wanted my readers to feel Faye's pain at being ostracized for her race, I thought back to my years as a teenager in the 1970s South.  I knew in my head what she would have experienced, but how could I bring that experience into my heart?  Well, everyone has their own memories of feeling ostracized and embarrassed and wounded during their growing-up years.  (You can tell me you were Prom Queen and you never lost a boyfriend and you always wore the right clothes and you always said the right things, and you can tell me that your life was so perfect that you are not carrying those wounds around with you.  You can tell me, but I won't believe you.)

Overlaying my own hard memories atop Faye's experiences gave me the emotional depth that I needed for her character.  In a later book, she believes that she has lost Joe forever.  He survives, but others in that book do not.  The survivors suffer monumental losses, and Faye herself steps right up to that abyss and stares down into its depths.  You have to have loved somebody and truly feared losing them to write scenes like that.  If we're honest, most of us have felt that fear.  If we're honest, we can write about it.

Some of us have soft spots so tender that we really can't write about them.  I don't think you'll ever see me write about the suffering or death of a child.  When one book's plot required a very young character to die, I could only fool myself into writing it by making the victim over eighteen.  Even so, I got a phone call from a horrified friend yelling, "I can't believe you killed that child!!!!"  I don't like to read the scene where his mother learns of his death, and I wrote the thing.

Writing stories that ring emotionally true is not easy, but there is no better way to reach out of the pages and connect with your readers.  Perhaps there is no other way at all.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-minded #23: Fiction in a Nutshell

Wow--my hundredth blog post.  I'm starting to feel like the real thing.

Remember my post about the "I Write Like..." website, where you can compare your own prose to the masters'?  Well, I just saw an article describing how that site has gone viral...but I told you, my cherished readers, about it two whole days ago.  Do you feel hip and cool and cutting edge?  I know I do.

So what shall we hipsters talk about today?  Well, I've recently been reminded that I have a short story in an anthology coming out in a few weeks called Florida Heat Wave. (It's easy to lose track of these things when you wrote it and turned it in a year ago.)  It's a rather noir collection, filled with stories from illustrious writers who have written bestsellers and won awards, but you know it's set in Florida when you hear that one of the authors wrote a hit song with Jimmy Buffett. 

Why, you may ask, am I in a noir collection?  My books can be dark-ish at times, but the world view is probably not sufficiently bleak enough for them to function as noir.  Yet this is my third story for a noir collection, and my second for editor Michael Lister, so he must have been happy with the first one I sent him

There are two lessons for aspiring writers in my mini-semi-demi-hemi career as a noir story writer.  The first lesson is to network, network, network.  I met Anthony Neil Smith at the first mystery conference I ever attended.  He was editing Plots with Guns at the time, a noir publication if ever there was one.  At my second mystery conference ever, I saw Neil again and he said he had read Artifacts and liked my work.  Would I send him a story?

I stammered a bit, because I wasn't sure I could write something he'd like.  He said, "Don't worry about it.  Just make sure there's a gun in the story.  That's our schtick at Plots with Guns.  Have Faye dig up a musket."

Well, I wanted to do better than a silly musket, and I knew noir was heavy on blood and guts.  After a bit of musing, I realized that there was a heckuva lotta blood and guts in a hospital operating room.  The Fifties were some noir-ish years, if you ask me, so I made it a period story and created a starchy and starched-uniform-wearing nurse to narrate the story.  Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind said "Starch" was "twisted."  That still makes me feel incredibly hip.  I believe I can die happy.

Soon after that, I met Michael Lister at another mystery conference.  When I saw that he was editing some anthologies, I wrote him and asked what he wanted.  He said, "The anthology's called North Florida Noir."  This was a problem, since I'm still not the most noir writer around and I'd just written two stories set in north Florida.  I wasn't sure I had that much left to say about the place.  (So says the woman who just wrote a book set in north Florida.  Apparently, the material in this little piece of creation is endless.)  Michael, God love him, said, "Oh, okay.  You can stretch north Florida down to Orlando."

My storyteller's heart skipped a beat, because I knew what I wanted to do.  I wanted to kill somebody at Disney World (or someplace very like it...I'm not big on being sued.)  So I did.  The story's called Mouse House, and I had a blast throwing my victim off a castle that is notably not named after Cinderella. 

So last year, Michael was looking for stories again for Florida Heat Wave and he asked me for one, meaning that I needed to go all noir again.  I harked back to the mid-twentieth century and killed somebody during the filming of a movie very like The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  And I had a blast doing it...which brings me to the second point I want to make for aspiring writers.

Short stories give you an opportunity to try a new style or a new voice or a new narrative technique.  They give you a chance to strut your stuff.  Even if you have no intention of selling it, it's excellent practice to choose a technique you're not so good at yet--like, say, dialogue--and write a short story that's told entirely in dialogue.  Writing a novel means committing yourself for months or years.  Writing a short story means committing yourself for a few days. 

So take a chance.  If a fairly dainty Southern belle-type grandmother like me can write twisted stories, you can write whatever you darn well please.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-minded #21: My imaginary friends

People...okay, women...ask me all the time whether Joe Wolf Mantooth is based on a real man.  I don't like to dash their hopes, but the truth is that he is a total figment of my imagination.  Otherwise, I would not, at this point in time, be a single woman.  ;-)

And I'm not Faye, either, though people seem to confuse us at times.

I know writers who take a personality trait from one person and the facial features of another and the profession of a third, and they put them into some kind of mental blender.  Out pops a fictional character, ready for adventure.  It works for them, but if I tried it, I think I'd get something like the mythological sphinx--the head of a woman, the body of a lioness, the wings of an eagle, and a serpent headed tail--and I think that sphinx-y character would stick out of the narrative like a sore thumb.

My characters grow out of the setting or out of their situation.  As always when developing a story, I ask myself questions.  Who would live in this ramshackle old plantation house?  What would her problem be?  If she had a male best friend, where would he come from?  What are his passions?  Why aren't they lovers?  Or, if I'm developing a murderer, I might imagine someone who, in this particular place and this particular time, would kill out of a sense of shame.

I once had an interesting encounter while waiting to do a television interview.  It was one of those shows where the other guests are usually about as famous as me--Little League coaches, Humane Society volunteers, and the like.  We were all sitting in the green room watching the show, and the host said, "And today, we have Corbin Bernson of LA Law fame here with us."  I turned around and there he was, dressed in a rumpled white linen suit and politely begging his handlers to take him to his hotel after the interview so he could get a shower.

When the Humane Society lady and her two dogs got up out of the chair next to me, he dropped into it, looking exhausted, and asked me about my book.  There followed a brief but entertaining conversation where I learned who he likes to read:  Michael Connelly, among others.  Just as he was being called back for his interview (and before I got a chance to tell him there was a helluva part for him in Artifacts), the conversation had turned to our respective arts.  I was telling him that there is an bit of acting in what I do.  I have to know who my character is and where he/she has been before I can know how he/she will react in a given situation.

There is an element of empathy in what writers and actors do.  I'm sure Corbin Bernsen has never been a cocky, hotshot lawyer, but he had to imagine he'd lived that life in order to play Arnold Becker.  I was never a woman of color growing up in the South in the 1970s, but I was there and I can imagine what it was like for Faye.  The big difference is that Corbin had somebody to write Becker's dialogue for him, and I have to put words in Faye's mouth.

I have been writing Faye since 2001.  Her stories total more than a half-million words, and I hope I get to write a half-million more.  Or maybe a million.  She's a deep, rich character, and I'm lucky to have her in my life.  My life is so full these days that I can't see next week, but I wouldn't mind if I were still writing Faye when I'm 70 and she's 61.  She can be my multiracial American non-virginal Miss Marple.

I'll write other stuff.  I already do.  I  have a short story coming out next month in Florida Heat Wave, I'm writing that math literacy book I keep telling y'all about, and I've got a couple of stand-alones in my head that will erupt sooner or later.  But I love looking at American culture through the eyes of somebody who'll always be one step outside it.  (And I love Joe, but you knew that.)

When I start a new book and I spend that period of weeks or months doing research and brooding over the plot, I know that it's time to start when I hear Joe and Faye talking to each other.  (And yes, I do know that they're not real.  I'm not schizophrenic.  I'm a novelist, although I guess that may not speak too loudly of my stability.)

When you write your own characters, do whatever it takes to get to know them beneath the surface, or they will never be more than a laundry list of character traits.  And if you know Corbin Bernsen, would you please let him know that I've got a helluva part for him?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #20: I apologize for sending you this time-waster

There is a popular link floating around the internet, and I'm one of those people who never take that kind of bait.  Almost never. 

I don't have time to take those quizzes that tell me what kind of cheese I am or which superhero I resemble most.  I can tell you those things without taking any silly quizzes.  I am blue brie.  This lovely cheese is sweet and soft like brie, and I think the blue veins are very pretty but, like any blue cheese, the taste is unexpected and not everybody is going to like it.  And if you have to ask which superhero I most resemble, then you are clearly unaware that I am Wonder Woman.

This new timewasting link, however, is irresistible to any writer.  It's like a chunk of blue brie sitting unprotected atop a mousetrap.  It's called "I Write Like..." and it purports to digest a chunk of your writing and spit out a judgment as to which famous writer's prose yours most resembles. 

No, I'm not going to give you the link yet, because I don't want you to run off and play with your own writing instead of reading what I have to say.  ;-)

I just happen to have vast chunks of my own writing on this computer in the form of book manuscripts.  So I posted the opening paragraphs of the first chapter of Strangers, and this machine told me I wrote like Oscar Wilde.  Sweet!

Then I fed it a piece of the prologue of Strangers, which was quite a challenge for the little machine, I feel sure.  It is supposed to be an English translation of a journal kept by a Spanish priest during the founding of St. Augustine and subsequent massacres in 1565.  The "I Write Like..." website thought I sounded like James Joyce.  Another literary lion!  Sweet, again.

Anxious to see how my writing might have developed over the years, I posted the first paragraphs from Faye's point-of-view in Artifacts and got the result:  Dan Brown.  Too bad.  The man can make readers turn the pages, but I'm not a fan of his prose.  I'd love a tiny fraction of his sales, though.  The prologue to Artifacts seemed about right:  Raymond Chandler, a classic mystery writer with a literary style.

Then I reached back even further to see what the machine thought of Wounded Earth.  I hadn't tried any passages with dialogue, so I pasted in the first lengthy conversation between the protagonist, Larabeth McLeod, and the love interest, J.D. Hatten.  Surprise!  I got Dan Brown again.  Maybe there's hope that I can someday achieve a tiny sliver of his sales.  The opening paragraphs, though...the passage that caught the attention of my hotshot Manhattan agent...those paragraphs read like Vladimir Nabokov.  Yet another literary lion.  I love it.

And then I stopped this nonsense and came over here to talk to you.  After I press "Publish," I will turn my attention to today's twin tasks:  organizing the Anhinga Writers' Studio's upcoming writing conference and working on my math literacy book. 

There is nothing wrong with wasting time, and Lord knows that the fertile and active minds of writers like us need distractions at times.  So I'm going to give you that time-wasting link:

Spend some time there, then get back to work.  Because the sausage is not going to make itself...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #17: You are an artist. Write like one.

If the fact that I'm writing Writing Tip for the Practical-Minded #17 confuses you, because you are utterly certain that you read Writing Tip for the Practical-Minded #19 yesterday, rest easy.  I looked back and saw that I skipped #17.  Slipping it in out of order is just easier and less confusing than re-numbering the old posts.

I love to teach writing, and I'll be doing that soon at the Anhinga Writers' Studio Summer Workshops, July 28-31.  If you like this blog, you'll love our conference.  I'm in charge of the faculty, so I've assembled a crackerjack faculty that is stacked with my friends.  This means that they are talented teachers and they are fun.  My agent, Anne Hawkins, will be there.  So will Jeanne Leiby, editor of The Southern Review, NEA fellow and Florida Poet Laureate Peter Meinke, and a bunch of my other buddies.  I myself will be blathering for six hours over the course of two days, and I'll be doing one-on-one consults with students, as well.  Look here, if you'd like to get your Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded in person.  (I was going to say, "...if you want to learn to make sausage in person," but that just sounded icky.)

When I teach, I want my students to think of new ways to express their art, writing.  Sometimes, I suggest that they look to other art forms to get another lens on the creative process. 

Thinking about melodies and how they move people's souls will help you listen to the music in your prose.  Song lyrics or poems will open your ears to your own rhythms.

A mental picture of dancing bodies will give your words motion and lightness.  You want your words to leap across the page.  Your readers' eyes should never plod.

A painting can be viewed as a whole in an instant, and a book can't.  Even poetry can't be perceived at a glance...not even haiku.  But to truly appreciate a painting, it's necessary to stand in front of it and look at the details.  The brush strokes, whether they be feathery and precise or whether they be great gobs of paint ladled on with a knife, were applied for a reason.  Spend some time in front of a painting and ask yourself where the artist spent the most time and attention.  Ask yourself why he or she made that choice.  Then apply the answer to your own work.  What visual detail is so important to your story that you must spend precious words describing it?  Because words are precious.  Don't splatter them all over the page.  Set them down gently, like diamonds in an antique brooch.

To me, the very definition of an art must involve the notion of communication.  Artists communicate emotions that we all experience, but we're not all able to express them.  That's why artists and their work have been valued since the first handprint was painted on a cave wall.  Take yourself seriously as an artist, and consider how you will use the words that are your medium.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #19: There's got to be a writing tip in here somewhere...

Those of you who have been with me since early June will remember my epic trip to south Louisiana to research Faye's 2011 eventure, Plunder.  (And let us pause for a moment to hope that the newly installed cap we've been reading about suceeds in stanching the leak long enough for those relief wells to provide a permanent solution.)

One of the more dramatic moments in that trip came when I was issued twin citations for fishing without a license and for committing this crime in waters that had been closed to fishing because of the oil spill.  Let me insert a picture to refresh your memory:

That's my cousin Cheryl, who was also fishing without a license in restricted waters.  She lives in Louisiana, so although I am an interstate criminal, Cheryl is merely an intrastate criminal.  The gentlemen behind her were very courteous individuals and, as you can see, they are working hard at writing up our citations.  There were five--one each for fishing in restricted waters, issued to Cheryl, me, and her friend Kenny who was our boat captain, and one each for Cheryl and me for fishing without a license.  Kenny had a license, so he missed out on that one, but being the captain and the experienced fisherman, don't you think he should have known that there was something wrong when we had a vast swath of water all to ourselves?  I was ignorant enough not to question it--there's a lot of water around there, so I guess I thought the fisherpeople were spread pretty thin. 

The drama in this story arose when I found out that the penalty for fishing license-free is over $250.  Gulp.  And I still don't know the penalty for fishing in restricted waters, because that infraction requires the infractor to appear personally before the judge.  Big gulp.  This is not a small effort nor expense, when the infractor lives nine hours away in Florida and she has a book coming out three days after the court date.

This morning, I decided it was time to beg Plaquemines Parish for mercy deal with this problem.  First, I needed to decipher the phone number written on the citation, but I was denied.  It was unreadable.  I still don't know what it said.

I looked up the parish govenment's phone list and started calling people, asking sweetly for help.  After talking to six people in six departments, including two judge's offices, I found myself talking to a nice lady at the District Attorney's office.  I told my story for the sixth time.  (I live far away, my mother's very ill, I'm a single parent...all true.)  She asked if I'd ever been convicted of a fish and wildlife violation.  I said, "I don't even fish."  And I don't.  This was one of those peer-pressure mistakes that you warn your children about.  "But everybody else was doing it..."

Then she said I might qualify for a diversion program.  I'm a little foggy on the details, but I have to pay something to be in the program, but it's less than the fine would have been.  Then I fill out some paperwork, follow some instructions carefully, wait for some probationary period, then my record is wiped clean. I'll be as innocent as a newborn babe.

I cannot tell you how happy I am not to be folding a quick trip to New Orleans into my autumn, as much as I want to go back there sometime soon.

So how can I slap this experience into some kind of shape that will make it look like a writing tip?  Hmmmm.

Spending my morning navigating Plaquemines Parish's government felt a lot like doing book research.  Sometimes, you ask somebody a question and they send you to someone else, who gives you a half an answer that turns out to be wrong.  This stage can go on a long time, but it's important not to quit.  While I was writing Effigies, it took me a long time to track down some Choctaws who were willing to talk to me, but it would have been a much poorer book without their input.

Whatever it is that you need to know, somebody knows the answer.  Crawl over the internet, make some phone calls, check out some library books, and know that a labyrinthine path to that answer is common.  Sometimes you have to earn your answer.  Sometimes you learn important things while you're on the path.

And sometimes, you find somebody who's willing to put you in an amnesty program that will wipe your permanent record clean of any evidence that you were ever an interstate hunting and fishing criminal.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #18: You have five senses for a reason

I'm blogging today over at The LadyKillers, and the topic there is food.  But my topic here is writing tips. can I marry those two disparate topics?

I chose to do my LadyKillers blog entry about chocolate, which will be no surprise to anyone who has seen the stash of Hershey bars in my freezer.  I've given Faye very few of my own traits, but she shares my love of chocolate, in general, and Hershey bars, in particular.  I've given Joe a notable knack in the kitchen and around the campfire.  The man's an exceedingly fine cook, so I write occasional scenes that occur at the dining table.  I try to refrain from describing every bite that goes in their mouths, because that would be boring, but I do like to use those scenes to engage my readers' sense of taste.  At other times, I try to appeal to their noses.  And at yet other times, I want them to hear and feel what my characters hear and feel.

It is very easy to fall into the trap of describing how a scene looks, then moving on.  When I'm editing, I try to ask myself periodically, "When is the last time a viewpoint character has done anything besides look at the world?"

Let your readers feel the sand under their feet.  Let them hear the sound a shovel makes as it shushes through that sand and makes the dead clink of bone-on-metal.  Let them smell the rain as it approaches.  And when your character unwrappes a slab of chocolate, let your readers experience that first blast of nothing but sweetness, before the chocolate melts on their tongues, only to leave that faint gritty texture of cocoa behind.

And if you want to know what else I have to say about chocolate, check it out at The LadyKillers here.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #16: Thank you, Strunk and White

I'm getting in the car in half an hour for an overnight trip to visit my son and daughter-in-law.  What does this mean?

It means that I'm going to have a heckuva time providing you people with your writing tips for the practical-minded today and tomorrow!!

While pondering this conundrum, I remembered how much I learned from those two estimable men, Strunk and White.  (And if you do not have their slim volume, The Elements of Style on your shelf, get it.  It's cheap--$7.95--and it is the purest distillation of advice to practical-minded writers that I know.)  E.B. White, of Charlotte's Web fame, edited his professor's book of aphorisms like "Omit needless words," and "Be clear," into an easily assimilated guidebook for scribblers everywhere, and I'd like to thank him for it.

Here is an article written last year in celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style--  Read it, and you will have gotten your daily dose of writing advice, even in my absence.

There.  That's all I have to say, and I think I've followed Strunk and White's dictum to "Be clear," so I believe I shall quit.

Mary Anna

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #17: Omit needless words

Yesterday, I directed you toward Strunk and White's timeless guide for writers, The Elements of Style.  The most famous dictum in that book, and one that most beginning writers of my acquaintance need to assimilate, is "Omit needless words."

Continuing to type after making that point would be oxymoronic, so I shan't.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #15: Please don't force me to read about a namby-pamby weakling...

I'm nearly finished ruminating on Gone with the Wind, but bear with me as I use it as a springboard to talk about a larger issue for writers hoping to create memorable characters.

How interesting would this story have been if Scarlett had said, "Fiddle-dee-dee.  I just can't figure out how to grow enough food for my starving family.  And keeping the books for my bumbling husband's business is just beyond me because math is hard.  Ashley?  Could you fix these problems for me?  No?  You're as big of an incompetent fool as I am?  Oh, whatever shall we do?  I think I'll just sit down and quit."?

How interesting would Melanie have been, if she hadn't been the kind of woman to rise from the bed where she lay, near-dead from complications of childbirth, and grab her dead brother's sword before staggering downstairs to save Scarlett from rape?

When my agent marketed my first novel, an environmental thriller called Wounded Earth, it got a lot of interest from some very prominent publishers and editors around New York.  There were nibbles from Hollywood.  I thought it was the beginning of my career as a writer, but I had to wait three more years before Artifacts eventually sold.  So what happened to Wounded Earth?

The feedback we got was that the editorial committee at an unnamed publisher loved it.  They loved the story, they loved the evil villain Babykiller, and they loved the heroine, a brilliant environmental scientist named Larabeth McLeod with an Achilles' heel in the form of the daughter she has never met.  Unfortunately, they thought she was too intelligent and strong and edgy for their readership.  In other words, only smart people like themselves could appreciate this book. 

Is it just me, or do you as a reader feel a little hurt by this?

As I began writing Artifacts, I asked myself if I wanted to write a meeker heroine.  Then I asked myself if I wanted to live with a wimp for 90,000 words.  The answer was a resounding no, so Faye Longchamp was born.  People seem to like Faye, and I do, too.  What is more, I respect her.

My current publisher does not do thrillers, so Larabeth McLeod has been sitting on my shelf for ten years.  But now, thanks to the wonders of e-publishing, I've been able to make Wounded Earth available to anybody with a computer or ereader or smart phone or ipad.  Just to make it easy for people who are interested in purchasing it, here are links to Amazon and Smashwords:

Smashwords edition of WOUNDED EARTH

If you're a writer, consider classic characters like Laura Ingalls of the Little House books and Anne of Green Gables.  Do you remember the passion that those two little girls put into being first in their classes?  If Victorian children were drawn to Anne, who certainly did not fit the prescribed standards for girls of their era, and if children ever since the Depression have been drawn to Laura, and if children ever since the Civil War have been drawn to Louisa May Alcott's little women, I think we can safely say that our readers are looking for female characters with fire in their bellies...characters like Scarlett and Melanie.  And they are looking for male characters who are their equals.

Nobody remembers the characters in those books who hewed to society's expectations, so remember that when you draft your characters.  Give them a passion for something they cannot have, like my Larabeth McLeod's lifelong grief for the daughter she gave up for adoption.  Give them Jo March's need to be a published author, even if she had to write trashy stories for tabloids.  Give them Anne of Green Gables' longing for a home.

And if you have ever met anyone whose favorite character in Gone with the Wind was the namby-pamby Ashley Wilkes, please drop me a line...although I'm not sure I'll believe you.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #14: Scarlett and Melanie have more to teach us...

Sometimes, I write a post here and fling it out into the world, then spend the rest of the day thinking about more things I should have told you.  Fortunately, I am queen of my domain here, so I'm free to sit down the next morning and revisit a topic that has turned out to be more rich than I'd expected. 

For those of you who are novelists, I'll point out that this is the beauty of our art form.  We can spend a whole year exhausting a topic that interests us.  (Or even more!)  If we find out we have more to say, and if we said it well enough that our publisher would like to hear more, then we can write another whole book on the subject.  This is heaven for the long-winded. 

I had no idea when I wrote Artifacts that I would write another book about Faye, and now I'm working on her seventh adventure.  Fortunately, I find her endlessly interesting.  Her family background, rooted in both slaves and their owners, gives her an inner complexity that will never go away.  Her intellect and thirst for knowledge allows me to dive deep into things that fascinate me and, hopefully, my readers.  And her love (can't spoil the later books for those who haven't read them all) goes so deep that Faye herself is astonished sometimes.

So where do these indelible characters come from, and why am I still talking about Scarlett and Melanie and Gone with the Wind?  Because when I set out to write a book centered on the faded glory of an old plantation house, I knew that I was treading on heavily traveled territory.  In other words, Gone with the Wind had already been done, and I needed to find something new to say about the history of the American South.

When the house on the cover of Artifacts popped into my mind, I did my usual plotting thing and asked myself who would live there, and what would be her problem.   Here's the image, so you can walk through the process with me:
Artifacts (Faye Longchamp Mysteries, No. 1)
In some ways, Faye is the anti-Scarlett.  She did not grow up surrounded by wealth.  She was not accepted by high society, because of the color of her skin.  She and Scarlett do share the trait of intelligence.  (In the book, one of the reasons Scarlett was rejected by Atlanta society was that she was better at business than the men.  Particularly shocking was the fact that she could "add a double-column of numbers in her head.")  Faye does have Scarlett's tenacity, and after Scarlett loses her wealth, she is as driven to save her ancestral home as Faye is driven to save Joyeuse.  But Faye lacks Scarlett's ruthlessness.  She will break the law to save her home, but she will not hurt other people.  At the beginning of Artifacts, she has withdrawn from the society that rejected her, but she has not lashed out in revenge.

Faye's ancestor Cally, a freed slave, is like Scarlett and Faye in her drive to keep Joyeuse, and she is like Melanie in her passion to save her baby.  When Cally faces the Yankee soldiers down on the staircase of Joyeuse, her baby in her arms, she shows Melanie's quiet passion.  Only Cally gets to live.

My other Civil War heroine, Viola Bachelder, appears in Findings only in the form of love letters that passed between her and her husband Jedediah.  She is yet more like Melanie, in that she poured her life into tending wounded soldiers, Yankee and Rebel and white and black, in her own home, and it cost her everything.  But unlike anyone in Gone with the Wind, Viola used her quiet strength to convince her husband to free their slaves.  Her commitment to abolition, and Cally's passion to be free, and Faye's refusal to bow down to the pressures of growing up in the South in the 1970s as a woman of color, are the things that I think set my stories and my characters apart from the stories that we've all heard before.

When I first had the idea for Artifacts , I could have discarded it, figuring that Margaret Mitchell had gotten there first 70-plus years ago.  Instead, I asked myself, "What would be a story in this setting that would be right for 21st-century audiences?"  Seven books later, I think I did the right thing.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #13: Learn from the Masters

After several months of arm-twisting, I convinced my 14-year-old daughter to watch Gone with the Wind with me.  She is generally very tolerant of Mommy's ancient movies and overwrought 1970s progressive rock, but she was balking on this one.  Finally, I said, "Remember that I was right about When Harry Met Sally Do Kansas and Aerosmith not rock?  Sit down and look at the TV.  We're watching the movie."

At some point during the second half, she posted a Facebook status that said merely, "Rhett Butler!"  Styles and tastes change, but the virile appeal of Clark Gable and Rhett Butler will never fade.

As we watched, she periodically bleated, "She's so awful!" as Scarlett plunged through a dying civilization, trailing her swaying hoopskirts and the disapproval of every unreconstructed rebel in Atlanta.  Scarlett did some absolutely awful things, but she shouldered the responsbility of caring for her destitute friends and relatives and former slaves who didn't have her brass and determination.  And she found room in that flinty heart to completely love her father and her mother and her daughter and Ashley and her Mammy and, though it took her way too long to figure it out, to love Melanie and Rhett, too.  This, my cherished readers, is what one calls a memorable character.  And so is her husband Rhett, the rogue who is burdened with just a little too much romanticism to be a convincing scalawag.

I've seen the movie and read the book many times, though not lately, so this was the first time I'd paid attention to the story from the perspective of a novelist.  The first half of the movie is the epic war tragedy that we all remember, but not so the second half...the two hours that pass after Scarlett vows that she'll never be hungry again.  I invite you to watch it, and pay close attention to the second half.  The world is changing to something unrecognizable outside the walls of Scarlett's and Rhett's mansion, but it is their domestic tragedy that rivets our attention.  The second half of Gone with the Wind is an unflinching portrayal of the disintegration of a marriage between two people who love each other.

Watch Scarlett's face when she welcomes Rhett home from a long trip, only to be rebuffed by a man who thinks she doesn't want to see him.  Watch her strike back at him with hateful words, instead of running into his arms.  And listen to Mammy tell Melanie about the brutal and wounding things they say to each other in their grief over their daughter Bonnie's death. 

Then read the book, so you can enjoy the character details that couldn't be crammed into the four-hour movie.  Did you know that Margaret Mitchell said plainly that Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but that she had the ability to make people believe she was?  If you wanted to write about a character who was that strong and that dominating, how would you go about it?

It never hurts a writer to go back re-read something wonderful and familiar, if only to see how its author accomplished such a feat.  Now I must resume my campaign to bully my daughter into reading Anne of Green Gables...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #12: Wandering in the Wilderness with J.K. Rowling

I love starting a new project.  When the project is short and manageable, like a short story, I usually just toss the idea around for a while, then plunge in.  When the project is book-sized, I prepare.  I spend a month or so reading for a living, searching out books and websites that tell me more about my setting or about my subject.  Then I make an outline.  And then I plunge in.

The first 75 pages or so of a new project seem to write themselves.  In fact, if writing an exciting beginning didn't flow easily, I'd question whether I'd done my job during the preparation stage, and I'd go back to reading for a living for little while longer.

Similarly, the last 75 pages of a book seem to write themselves, with the words tumbling onto the computer screen as fast as my fumbling fingers can type.  If they didn't come easily, I'd worry.  The previous 250 pages were written expressly to set up those last exciting chapters.  Difficulty writing a book's climax is almost certainly a sign that it's just not time to finish it.

But what about those middle 200 pages or so?  For me, some of those pages are just back-breaking to write.  (Mind-breaking?  Finger-breaking? know what I mean.)

I was writing Findings when the last Harry Potter book came out.  My son called to chat, and he mentioned that he was reading it.  Then he asked how my book was going.  I was bogged down in the middle of the action, and I said, "Awful.  I feel like I'm wandering in the wilderness."  He laughed and said, "So's J.K. Rowling.  Wait till you read this one."

Within 24 hours of the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, my younger daughter had finished devouring it, so I got a crack at reading it.  After I raced through the slam-bang beginning, I found that my son was right.  A goodly chunk of the middle of the book involved Harry and Hermione and Ron fleeing from one remote campsite to another, and not a whole lot was happening.  In other words, they were wandering in the wilderness.  I laughed out loud. 

Now, maybe this wilderness wandering was completely calculated by Rowling.  The woman is a storytelling genius, and I admire her work immensely.  I find it amusing that her books have stirred religious controversy, when the entire series spins on the power of self-sacrificial love, even its ability to conquer death.  (Do these concepts not sound just a little bit familiar to those of us who grew up in homes steeped in Christian concepts?)  It is entirely possible that she intended those middle chapters to hark back to the 40 days and nights that Christ spent wandering in the wilderness.

Nevertheless, as a fellow writer, I cannot help but wonder whether Harry Potter's creator was slogging through her own wilderness, agonizing over how to get Harry and his friends from that slap-bang beginning to the eventual mythic ending.  She pulled it off very nicely, and my hat's off to her.

So what's a writer to do when she finds herself in her own wilderness?  I do two things:  I rely on my outline, and I keep slogging. 

The beauty of an outline is that you know where you're going.  If you find yourself in a mushy spot, point yourself toward the next big scene in your outline, and do whatever it takes to get there.  Push your characters toward the location of that scene.  Write the dialogue that will get them ready for the action in that scene.  Give them the knowledge that they're going to need when they get there. 

Do these things, even if you feel like you're just pushing chess pawns into place.  Do them even if the action feels clunky or limp.  Write the transitional scenes that will get you where you need to go, even if you know in your heart that they are awful...because you can always edit them later.

When I come back to those awful transitional scenes later, a couple of things happen very frequently.  First, I usually find that a lot of the narrative is unnecessary.  I can just surgically remove ninety percent of the ugly and troublesome text, and the narrative still works.  Still, I needed to write that ugly and troublesome text in order to generate the all-important ten percent.  And second, I often find that the scenes that seemed so ugly and troublesome aren't really that bad.  With some honing and polishing, they turn out to be good enough to stay in the book, after all.

Don't be afraid to write bad stuff.  You can always fix it later.  Sometimes writing the bad stuff takes you straight to the good stuff.  J.K. Rowling knows that.  And now you do, too.

See you at the Anhinga--
Mary Anna