Just a Few Little Things Left to Tweak

 WiP Report # 14

 Hi, All!

 On July the Fourth I entered the following in my daily journal/log. [I’ve added a few things here and there.]

I’ve been checking some stats for Fatal February, which I completed yesterday morning [the third draft, that is, on July 3]. At least I finished the current draft and rewarded myself by going to see Mad Max: Fury Road. It was terrific. What a trip.

I’ve been beating myself up about being so late on it. [It’s called Fatal February after all and I’d planned all along to get it out in February 2015. Drafting a completely different novel during NaNoWriMo, that is, National Novel Writing Month, and taking off the entire month of December threw me off.]

But when I look at the stats, I’ve concluded I didn’t do so badly after all. It’s 93,000 words long for one thing  [about 50 pages longer than Draft 2] and I started it on April 22. How many days? Let me count. 55 days. Well, that’s a hoot. It’s 1,691 a day, which is just about the NaNoWriMo 1,667 a day goal. I’m not counting the abundant brainstorms I did throughout the draft. I only had one brief log entry in the month of June, but I did put at least a few words down in my handwritten journal every day.

 I wish I could say I’m totally happy with the book, but I’m not. [I have a few little things to do on it here and there. Yeah, I know, I know. All the tabs that mark places that need fixing make the manuscript look like it’s wearing a brightly colored hula skirt.]

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Still, I think the next draft should just involve tweaks of what’s there instead of writing lots of new scenes as I did with this draft. I guess it was draft number 3. I need to break and do other things before I start through the book again to do Draft 4.

 I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

 Best, Juliet

The Art of Rewriting a Novel

Congratulations! You’ve completed the first draft of your novel and the joy of creation still surges through your veins. But don’t rest on your laurels too long, for now you have to rewrite. No, I don’t, you say. I just run the spell checker and shoot it off to an agent, right? Besides, did Shakespeare rewrite? Apparently not, but his contemporary and friend Ben Jonson said, “Would that he had blotted a thousand lines.”

So now comes the time to get busy “blotting a thousand lines” (or more) because rewriting is a vital part of writing, the part that “makes the work come alive,” to quote Nancy Pickard, author of several popular mystery novels including Kansas Book of the Year, The Virgin of Small Plains. During rewriting, you “re-envision” the work and bring it closer to your original intention, obscured or lost in the heat of creating the rough draft.

Though often the writer comes up with new material during the rewriting phase, generally this last stage involves more analysis than creation, less the right side of the brain than the left. While new writers often think they can’t write unless they get it right the first time, most professionals rely on rewriting to bring their work up to par.

Effective, interesting, and vital writing is clear, coherent, concise, concrete, correct, and varied. Rewriting helps you give your work these qualities.

Okay, okay, I’m convinced, you say. So how many revisions should I do? As many as it takes, the mentor answers. If you’ve completed a work that you first drafted largely in your head, such as a flash fiction short story, you might not need many overall revisions. On the other hand, many pros freely admit to doing up to twelve major revisions of their novels. The average romance author does two and a half to three drafts, but Nancy Pickard says that she rewrites virtually up to the day of publication.

To rewrite a piece of fiction, you cut, add, change, move, and combine. But verily I say unto you, the greatest of these is CUT.

In rewriting, concentrate on these areas in this order: content, style, and mechanics. Why this order? you ask. Simple. It makes sense to get the content right before you spend hours polishing a sentence (paragraph, scene, chapter) that you might have to cut later–or worse, refuse to cut (though it no longer fits the work) because you worked so hard on it. Take the advice of Tony Hillerman who used to labor over his first chapters until he discovered that later chapters changed the first ones too much for him to use them. (He claimed to have had a drawer full of discarded but wonderful first chapters.)

On the other hand, if you’re rewriting the content of your novel and notice a sentence you can improve quickly or an error to correct, go ahead. Similarly, if you think of a great new bit of dialogue in a later stage of revision, by all means add it. (But be sure to reread this added section carefully, for often errors abound in such passages.)

ADVICE

1) To keep up your momentum and improve your chances of completing your novel, work on it everyday.

2) To minimize the number of corrections to make later in the process, initially format your manuscript in the correct form for submission later on to an editor or for production as an eBook or POD.

3) Follow the rules of punctuation like putting periods and commas inside quotation marks, etc.

4) For ease in rewriting, make separate files for all the chapters of the work.

5) If you use Microsoft Word, go to the Authoring and Proofing Tools in the Preferences menu, and in the Spelling and Grammar menu, click on “Show readability statistics.” Run your spell checker on each chapter as you complete revising it. The information will be especially valuable to you in later phases of the revising process. This document, for example, has 4% passive voice (much higher than my usual fiction percentage of 0%), 63.1% Flesch Reading Ease (considerably lower than my usual fiction reading ease of 85%), and 8.7 Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. No, I’m not related to that Kincaid, and my fiction averages from 3.5 to 5.2 grade levels.

6) Cultivate good stylistic writing habits like avoiding passive voice and employing showing writing instead of telling writing.

Still, generally, as John Braine advises, it’s best to write the rough draft as fast as you can and take as much time as you need for revision. Danielle Steele, for instance, takes six months to research a novel and six months to rewrite, but she blasts through the rough draft in a month of crippling twenty-hour days.

REWRITING FOR IMPROVED CONTENT

When you’re ready to start rewriting your novel, be patient and don’t just dive into revising. Instead, sit down and read the book through. Then skim it and take notes on what you see and patterns you notice. For instance, does your novel have a clear “Who wants what?” established very early. Does your protagonist clearly “drive the plot car” overall? Is the outcome clear at the end?

Especially pay attention to the big issues of structure. For instance, does your novel have a clear beginning, middle and end? That is, does it have a hook in the opening and a plot point near the end of the beginning part to set up the major story line? Is there some sort of important development in the middle section of the novel, that is, about halfway through? Is there a plot point near the end of the middle part of the book that sets up the end of the book? Do some math to see where these plot points fall in relationship to the overall length.

Consider your narrative line. Once you start your story, do you continue in a straightforward line or do you switch back and forth in time, from past to present to future to past? Think about your audience and this maxim: The larger the market you want for your novel, the easier you want to make your novel to read. That is, employ the K.I.S.S rule especially when you’re writing popular fiction and want lots of people to read your book.

Consider the type of novel you’re writing and reader expectations for that genre. If you’re writing a categorical romance, for instance, do you have at least one love scene? If you’re writing a mystery, is there a body or at least a crime?

On the basis of your observations, prepare an outline or write a narrative synopsis. Advice: Do not consider your outline or synopsis as engraved in stone.

As you write a second draft and concentrate on content, you might want to CUT all or part of ground clutter (action that leads nowhere), sections of dialogue that run on too long, unneeded characters and everything related to them, sections of description that run on too long, scenes that contribute only slightly to the plot, extended sections of background or exposition, unneeded transitions between scenes, sections that tell the reader what to think instead of letting them draw their own conclusions, unneeded or overlong passages of thought, unneeded material between the climax and denouement, and any element that impedes the pace.

On the other hand, you might need to ADD details that explain later action, descriptions to make a character or setting come alive, character development and motivation, background information, more dialogue, significant action, reminders to the reader, foreshadowing, clues and red herrings, symbols and metaphors to highlight theme, and transitions between scenes.

Often you will want to CHANGE from telling writing into showing writing, from indirect to direct speech, from indirect to direct thought, or from one point of view to another.

Sometimes, too, you might find that, in drafting, you got in a rush and tried to do everything at once. So you might need to MOVE introductory exposition to later in the story, exposition closer to the action it relates to, and thematic commentary or epiphanies closer to the end. You might also need to move scenes and plot points.

Finally, you might need to COMBINE one character with another or one scene with another.

GETTING FEEDBACK

Once you have the content about right and can think of nothing much else to do to the work, let gentle, sympathetic, knowledgeable people (preferably not family members) read your novel and give you feedback on what it’s like to experience the work for the first time. When you get your novel back from your readers, look over their comments and rewrite to improve the content at least one more time.

REWRITING FOR IMPROVED STYLE

Now you will complete the PEP phase. That is, you will P(olish the style), E(dit for grammatical correctness), and P(roofread for misspellings and typos). At this point it’s a good idea to put all your chapters into a single file, so that you can spot glitches in formatting your eBook or POD versions as you edit.

Verily, again I say unto you, the greatest of these is CUT. Overall, including cuts for both content and style, try to make your final version at least ten percent shorter than earlier drafts. (Some writers draft very long and cut out nearly half.)

For concision, CUT redundancies; one, two or even three adjectives out of every three; there is/are, which is/are, it is . . . that; excessive or elaborate dialogue tags; and most adverbs.

For clarity and coherence, you might need to ADD transitions and dialogue tags.

 For clarity, vitality and ease of reading, CHANGE long sentences and paragraphs into shorter ones; big, fancy words into smaller ones; uncommon words into more usual ones; over-used words into less common words; passive voice into active voice; states of being verbs into action verbs; progressive verbs into straight present or past tense; general into specific; abstract into concrete; unclear pronouns into nouns; and fuzzy word choices into just the right words.

 For clarity and variety, occasionally MOVE phrases from their usual spot into more unusual ones.

 For coherence and variety, occasionally COMBINE many short sentences into longer ones and many simple sentences into compound or complex ones.

But as Strunk and White say in The Elements of Style, break any of these rules rather than commit a barbarity.

 REWRITING FOR CORRECTNESS

Always edit a completed manuscript with extreme care because mechanical errors and misspellings betray you as an amateur to agents, editor and readers. If you can’t spell, learn! Use a spell checker (but still proofread for homonyms, like “too,” “to,” “two”). If you don’t know how to punctuate, take a review course. And no matter how sharp your editorial skills, always proofread your material several times before you submit it or publish it.

 In the PEP phase, you might find it helpful to read your manuscript aloud. (James Michener and his editor read one of his big novels to each other five times.) Run your spelling/grammar checker and get your overall stats on readability, etc. It’s also good to use “find and replace” to locate your personal trouble spots (one of mine is over-using the word “then”). If you have fellow writers who proofread well, you might ask them to proofread our work. Or you could hire a professional proofreader or copy editor.

 THE IMPORTANCE OF PROOFREADING

As Jack Riley topped the final rise before town, he saw the buzzards circling above him. Not this time, he thought, a half smile on his face. He had just been through eighty miles of the roughest dessert anywhere . . .

 

Craig Johnson’s Any Other Name

Craig Johnson’s Any Other Name

Boy, howdy, can that man write!

A week or so ago, I needed something to read and so I started buffeting the nine or so new books close to my bed where I do most of my fiction reading. (So what if I spend lots of bucks buying hardcover fiction? As an addiction, my fiction fetish is comparatively cheap. Plus, unlike other consumables, you can experience the high of reading a really great novel more than once.)

Oddly, at first I couldn’t find anything to suit me. The next alphabet mystery? There are so few letters left now that I thought I’d save it a while longer. The latest, just published, from the brilliant Canadienne? I thought I’d save that one, too, since it will be another year before the next one. The next choice of my book club? Well, no, I like to read those closer to the discussion date.

And so, going lower in my stack, I came upon Craig Johnson’s Any Other Name. The acknowledgments set me back briefly since Johnson says right up front that this book takes place in the winter and at least three of his previous Walt Longmire mysteries include hip-deep snow and harrowing blizzards. I needn’t have worried, though, because Johnson uses winter especially well in Any Other Name. In fact, it might be my favorite for reasons I won’t describe because I’m not given to spoilers. But I bet you’ll love it, too.

But anyway, Johnson’s great personal charm that showed up even in the acknowledgments in giving floral names to his helpers for the book got me through my misgivings to the first page. And there Walt Longmire’s voice hooked me and I knew I’d found the book I wanted to read next. I never regretted my choice from first page to last.

The eleventh in the Walt Longmire series (counting the delightful novella Spirit of Steamboat) centers on the suicide death of an old friend of Lucian Connally, the retired sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. As Walt and Lucian look into this, other possible crimes emerge and the whole case becomes very complex. The weather, too. Meanwhile, Walt’s daughter Cady is about to have her first child way across the country in Philadelphia and from time to time she calls him to remind him he must be present for this event. This is not easy when he’s. . . . Never mind. You’ll find out.

In keeping with my standard blogging practice of sharing what I learn from the books I read that help me write my own, I’ll offer this. Johnson is a master of the set-up and follow-through. So when Walt and Lucian are stuck waiting for a long, long coal train to pass on page 1, you can be sure that trains will figure importantly in the plot of Any Other Name. Boy howdy, do they ever!

For your additional pleasure, I’ve attached my first blog installment about Craig Johnson’s work, originally posted in August of 2011, when I was working on Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel (now available as an eBook at www.amazon.com/dp/B00FQLQ2WI and as a trade paperback ISBN 978-0-9899504-1-1).

Craig Johnson’s Junkyard Dogs and Hell Is Empty

“Boy, howdy,” as Walt Longmire would say, is Craig Johnson ever a wonderful story-teller.

I’ve heard Craig Johnson speak twice, once on the book tour for Junkyard Dogs, the sixth in the series featuring Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire, and the second time for Hell Is Empty, the seventh. Both times were delightful.

Both times he visited here, he wore jeans, a casual shirt, boots and a cowboy hat, reflecting a genuine need since Mr. Johnson lives on a ranch and starts his work day with chores before he holes up to write. On his first visit, he’d recently returned from France where he’d received the Nouvel Observateur Prix du Roman Noir. (His mysteries are very popular in France.) While in Paris he had an encounter with a group of French school boys that I think of as “Le Cowboy at the Louvre,” a story Johnson told with great humor and flair.

I’ll give you highlights of Mr. Johnson’s other presentation at the end of this discussion. Before I start, here’s an update on the WiP.

This week I finished the fourth draft! A few whistles and a little applause, but don’t go on too long because I still have lots of work to do. One thing I’ve noticed is a big difference between the tone, voice, and style of the first half of the book and much of the second part. The former is pretty dark, formal, fairly literary. The latter is lighter, informal, chattier. In my fifth and I hope, final draft of this book, I really need to make those elements consistent throughout the book.

Right now, though, I’m wondering whether to go light or dark, but a comparison/contrast of Junkyard Dogs and Hell Is Empty gives me much needed guidance.

Hooks

Junkyard Dogs begins out-and-out pratfall funny as Walt Longmire tries to take in the fact that an old man had been up on the roof of a house on an icy midwinter day and secured by a rope to an Oldsmobile when his grandson’s wife drove off.

Hell Is Empty begins in a much darker way with Walt Longmire feeding a hamburger to Marcel Popp, one of three murderers the sheriff is helping to transport. Popp has just threatened to kill Longmire for the twenty-eighth time so far.

Characters

Aside from the regulars, many of the characters of Junkyard Dogs are comic as well. For instance, Geo Stewart, the old man hauled off the roof and dragged down the icy road, waves to a neighbor as he slides by. Stewart’s grandson Dwayne seems pretty dim and Dwayne’s wife Gina initially plays the vamp.

There’s nothing funny about the antagonists in Hell Is Empty. Besides Marcel Popp, the sheriff and his deputy are transporting Hector Otero, a murdering gangbanger from Houston, and most sinister of the three, Raynaud Shade, a Crow Indian who has visited the Bighorn Mountains before.

Plot development

The action of Junkyard Dogs continues in the comedic vein quite a ways into the book with the discovery of someone’s missing thumb in a cooler as well as a revelation about Walt’s former English teacher that I won’t share because I don’t want to spoil the surprise.

In Hell Is Empty the action escalates and the body count eventually is very high. Not surprisingly given the title, Walt must travel into hell before the book’s over. Both books are winter tales, but the weather provides much more grueling obstacles for Walt to conquer in Hell Is Empty than in Junkyard Dogs. In many ways also the plot of the sixth book is grounded in reality while in the seventh Walt goes on what is, in many ways, a mystical and spiritual journey.

Settings

The settings of Junkyard Dogs tend toward the interior and the manmade. Several important scenes take place in a hospital, for instance. Settings also include a huge junkyard guarded by two wolf-dogs and filled with trashed cars, stacked one atop the other and going decade by decade back in time.

More of the scenes of Hell Is Empty take place outside where wind, darkness, and cold threaten Walt’s life. As in Randy Wayne White’s Deep Shadow, nature is an adversary in Hell Is Empty.

Style, tone, and voice

Both of Johnson’s books are first person narratives, that is, told by Walt Longmire in Longmire’s voice. But inevitably the more comedic characters and plot of Junkyard Dogs make that book lighter.

When I planned this installment, I thought I should just stick to Junkyard Dogs because, long-time lit major that I am, I kept trying to trace all the illusions to Dante in Hell Is Empty, not just in the overall plot but in the characters’ names. I mean, there’s a waitress named Beatrice, for goodness’ sake, and another one named Virgil. I was going crazy doing that.

I don’t mean to imply that Johnson sprinkled in the literary allusions superficially because he didn’t. The references are integral to the plot. He set it up from the start by having Walt’s deputy, Santiago Saizarbitoria, reading a battered copy of Dante’s Inferno that Walt later takes on his journey. The style of the book doesn’t come off as literary. And Johnson does what all good writers do when they rework stories like journeys to hell. He transforms it and makes it his own timeless story, yet of and for our times.

The lesson for my WiP

I’m thinking that since I’m reworking fairy tales, in particular those known to most people through Disney movies, I should stick to the lighter side. In other words, I should stick to the lighter tone, style, and voice of Junkyard Dogs instead of the darker side of Hell Is Empty.

And finally, as promised . . .

The second time I heard Johnson speak, the word had gotten out about how great he and his books are and the place was packed. Again, he displayed his wonderful sense of humor as he told us about his involvement with the production of Longmire, a series coming to A & E in 2012. It sounds great. I’m sure I’ll love it and I bet you’ll like it too.

This closing comment from 9/11/14. I have loved the Longmire series and thought Season 3 especially strong. And so the news that A & E has cancelled the series disheartens me. However, at this time, it’s possible that another channel will pick the series up.

Sally Berneathy’s The Ex Who Wouldn’t Die

Sally Berneathy’s Lively Ghost

Sally Berneathy puts us on a speeding Harley with Amanda Randolph at the pulse-pounding start of The Ex Who Wouldn’t Die, the first in her Charley’s ghost series. Sally keeps the action going through a terrible crash and Amanda’s rescue by her husband Charley, who cajoles her, berates her, and bullies her into crawling up an embankment to the road so someone will find her.

Only thing: Charley is acting weird. He says he can’t call 911 on her cell. And when she tries to grab him, she falls right through him. This is logical since Charley’s dead, murdered by someone who’s also out to kill Amanda.

I’ve written about the start of The Ex Who Wouldn’t Die partly to show how well it hooks the reader. But also Sally shows great range in this mystery with a light touch. In fact, some of my favorite parts are the quiet scenes in which we visit Charley’s family home. Again, Sally presents plenty of details–fried chicken on a flowered plate, the songs of the mockingbird Amanda hears from the porch–to let us experience the place in the country where Charley grew up. This house and Charley’s mom exude calm amid the calamities of Amanda’s life. And I found these sections powerful and touching. To me, these scenes are the heart of the book.

And overall, though this mystery focuses on a ghost, its pages are very much alive.

I also recommend Sally’s Death by Chocolate mystery series. Featuring another troublesome husband, those mysteries are also light–downright hilarious in spots.

Sally Goldenbaum’s Murder in Merino

Late September Vacation

It’s always a pleasure to read Sally’s latest Seaside Knitters Mystery because for me, living in the landlocked Midwest, it’s like taking a vacation at the shore. When I was a youngster, my family often visited several of my mom’s relatives who lived in New Jersey, if not on the beach, then within an hour’s drive. A trip to the shore isn’t feasible for me now, but Sally’s deft descriptions on page one take me right back there. Plus, contrasting details like “foamy surf crashing against the rocks or water smooth as silk” create tension, ever a plus in fiction, especially mysteries.

For the eighth outing in Sally’s series, the author has chosen autumn as the season–after the tourists have left Sea Harbor, Massachusetts, leaving one mysterious visitor lingering there. Julia, nicknamed Jules, Ainsley soon becomes a subject of speculation for the Seaside Knitters: Nell Endicott, the main viewpoint character of this novel; her niece Izzy Perry; Cass Halloran; and the lively octogenarian Birdie Favazza. Why has Jules decided to stay so long after the season? Why is she so interested in buying Izzy’s little house without ever having been inside it? What’s inside the locket Jules always wears?

With many popular series, readers get caught up in the personal lives of the continuing characters and enjoy following them from book to book just like we enjoy catching up with the lives of old and dear friends. Murder in Merino is no exception. Here we find Nell and husband Ben approaching their fortieth wedding anniversary. Will it go off all right? Izzy and Sam dote over their baby girl while Cass is shocked to see her boyfriend Danny Brandley standing too close to the beautiful Jules Ainsley. Is there something going on between them?

Personally, I also enjoy being in on some of the continuing, comforting rituals of these characters’ lives like the Friday evening potluck suppers on the Endicotts’ deck. The food is delicious and so is this lively mystery, especially when it plunges backwards in time to other folks that once lived in the little house Jules Ainsley longs to own. Why?

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 I’ve included my blog post about the fourth installment in this series. Originally posted on December 23, 2010, as part of the “fiction addict” series, it focuses on what I learned from A Holiday Yarn that helped me write Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel, the mystery I was working on at the time.

Sally Goldenbaum’s A Holiday Yarn

The Power of Thought

Not long ago, in one of the writing groups I belong to, my friends gave me to know that the pace of early chapters of my WiP is hectic. I’ve got lots of plot, they said, but I need to slow down and give my protagonist and my readers some breathers here and there.

By good fortune, at the time my friends told me “You need to slow down, Juliet,” I was reading A Holiday Yarn, the latest in Sally Goldenbaum’s Seaside Knitters Mysteries. This installment has a particularly thoughtful protagonist/viewpoint character in Nell Endicott.

As I read, it struck me that Nell’s thoughts and reactions are exactly the way a person not used to violence might react to murder, much differently than the police detective in Tami Hoag’s Kill the Messenger, for example. Nell is quietly unsettled by the murder and determined to figure out, with the help of her fellow knitters, who committed the crime so that peace will return to their little town.

Another knitting amateur detective leaps to mind, Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple. Like Miss Marple, Nell is an armchair detective who figures out solutions to crimes often while she knits. Over the years, though, Miss Marple has developed a type of wisdom edged by cynicism. Nell’s not cynical but thoughtful and quite troubled about what would drive a person to commit murder.

In more ways than one, Ella, the protagonist of my WiP, resembles Sally G’s Nell more than Agatha G’s Miss Marple. For one thing, like Nell, my protagonist is married though she has three kids while Nell and her husband are childless.

In the years of their marriage, Ella’s husband has shielded her from the type of abuse she experienced as a child at the hands of her stepmother and stepsisters. She’s forgotten about the worst elements of their torment, though they twit her slyly every chance they get, especially about her slight weight problem even though her younger stepsister is downright fat.

Once the plot of my novel gets rolling, the protection Ella’s husband has provided over the past twenty years is ripped from her, her children taken away, and she’s exposed to scorn, sarcasm, blame for a crime she didn’t commit, as well as to physical violence she’s grown unaccustomed to. The antagonists in the book give her lots to think about and to react to along the way.

Going back for a second look at A Holiday Yarn, I noticed that indeed it starts with Nell reflecting on the unsettling events that unfold in the book. Though this lasts only a page before we zip back several weeks and head into a scene with increasing amounts of dialogue, action, and some description, it establishes Nell as a thoughtful person.

The book continues for another twenty-four pages leading up to the discovery of the murder victim. Shortly after this, Nell literally sits down to ponder the events of the night before. Sally gives Nell nearly five pages to react to this event that deeply shocked and saddened her before the narrative moves into the next scene. Later in the book, though not at such length, Nell again takes time to think about what has happened.

Sitting down to think about a murder instead of rushing on to the next thing as my character often does strikes me as a very realistic response of a quiet, thoughtful person unused to violence. Besides the emotional and psychological realism they add, the thought-passages allow the protagonist and the reader to consider the moral elements of the crime before continuing.

And so, following the examples provided by A Holiday Yarn, I’ve already added a quiet, thoughtful scene between two action scenes in my WiP. Thanks, Sally G., for your model, and happy holidays to all who read this blog installment, the last of 2010.

 

 

Cinderella: Living Happily Ever After

Juliet Kincaid’s Cinderella, P. I. Fairy Tale Mysteries

Cinderella PI Kindle Cover 2-4-2013bMost of us heard or read fairy tales when we were young or view Disney versions of stories like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. We still can and do as grown-ups. For instance, Disney recently has brought us Tangled, the story of Rapunzel, one of the folktales transcribed by the Brothers Grimm and published in 1812. On television we can watch Grimm or the family friendly Once Upon a Time. As many of you know, I’m writing a series of mysteries featuring Cinderella as a private detective twenty years, three kids, and a few extra pounds after the ball.

How did I come to write these mysteries?

Well, back in 1996 at a writing conference I heard someone say that it’s very hard to write a complete story in fewer than 2,000 words. (This obviously was before the rise of flash fiction that typically tops out at about 500 words.)

Shortly after that, with this challenge in mind, I set out to write a story in fewer than 2,000 words.

Why did I choose Cinderella?

Now, at the time, I happened to have a copy of Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum by Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen in my office at the community college where I taught writing for twenty-five years. This textbook includes a unit on fairy tales, specifically “Cinderella,” the best-known fairy tale in the world. Indeed, there are more than 700 versions of this fairy tale including traditional versions handed down from generation to generation before they were written down and published by folks like Charles Perrault in the Mother Goose Tales of 1697 and literary versions like Tanith Lee’s “When the Clock Strikes.”

FYI: the earliest version that scholars have a specific date for–between 850-860 A.D.–is the Chinese story of Yeh-hsien, who had tiny feet. One of the more recent versions is Marissa Meyer’s Young Adult novel Cinder, first published in January of 2012, in which Cinderella is a cyborg.

But back to the start of my journey with Cinderella, I’ve always been intrigued with the “happily ever after” tag that ends many fairy tales. I feel that if you’re bored you’re not happy. So what would keep Cinderella from getting bored in her life with Prince Charming? I asked myself. And as a reader of crime fiction, I promptly decided that my Cinderella would be a private investigator. (I was terribly naïve about how busy Royal families can keep with their duties, causes, etc.)

Before I started writing, I made some technical decisions to keep the story short. These included using a first person narrator who could provide background information succinctly without sounding like a manual. Also I chose present tense in preference to past tense, so I wouldn’t get mired in “haditis.” (After I heard an agent say she never represented fiction written in present tense, though, I switched to past tense.)

Once I made those decisions, my Cinderella started talking to me, as characters often do. And lucky for me, she has continued to do so through twenty-nine stories and two novels.

Also lucky for me, the fairy tale provides certain expectations that made writing go more easily.

For instance, most folktales use the same plot line. The protagonist wants something. In the classic Grimm version of the tale, for instance, Cinderella, called Ashputtle in this rendition, wants to go to the ball thrown by the King whose son is in need of a wife. To get there, Ashputtle must surmount several obstacles. But never fear, she prevails, dances with the Prince and after a few more challenges, marries him and lives happily ever after.

I also had a setting in time and place. My Cinderella’s world is sort of like our middle to late 19th century. People still got around in horse-driven carriages. But once my heroine started talking to me in a voice rather like my mother’s, I got in at least a few contemporary touches. That first story, for instance, starts with “So that morning, as usual, I’m out on the balcony on the treadmill, trying to run off a few extra pounds. . . .” The treadmill is mechanical, but her obsession with her weight is 21st century.

The basic plot supplied important characters. In her happily ever after, Cinderella has a charming husband, but she also still has her stepmother and stepsisters, collectively called the Steps in my mysteries. She also has a helper, a fairy godmother. In “Cinderella, P. I.,” though, the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak, and Cinderella helps her fairy godmother find her magic wand that’s gone missing.

When you work with such a rich tradition as folktales provide, often serendipity operates. For instance, in the first story I needed someplace for the fairy godmother to live. And what should appear in my head, but the little cottage in the woods formerly owned by the Three Bears. Plus I never quite know who will show up in these stories. For instance, when I needed to get my protagonist somewhere far away in a hurry in “Cinderella and the Usual Suspects,” she flew “Air Mother Goose.”

Along with the basics, the original story has certain logical yet sometimes unexamined elements. For instance, logic demands that our heroine’s name is actually Ella with “cinder” a pejorative prefix. Indeed, in my stories, Ella’s royal in-laws insist that the “Cinder” be dropped. Also, implicit in the basic tale is the story of an abused child and how she prevails over an unhappy childhood without losing her inherent kindness and sweetness of character.

One last thing, it’s logical that Ella missed out on her education and so she doesn’t speak like you’d expect a princess would. As a result, even as I wrote the last draft of Wings, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel, I couldn’t always predict what my Cinderella would say and how she would say it. I hope she keep surprising me as she continues to live happily ever after in my stories and novels.

Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel is currently available as a Kindle eBook at www.amazon.com/dp/B00FQLQ2WI and as a trade paperback: ISBN 978-0-9899504-1-1.

Wings, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel is now available as a Kindle eBook at www.amazon.com/dp/B00LGXFB2W.

Cinderella, P. I. and Other Fairy Tale Mysteries is available as a Kindle eBook at www.amazon.com/dp/B00GMMUSTI.

COMING SOON: two more story collections featuring Cinderella twenty years, three kids, and a few extra pounds after the ball: Cinderella Around the World and Cinderella and the Holy Grail.

 

Fondly Remembered

Memory as a Resource for Characterization

I’ve completed the almost final draft of Wings, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel and it’s in the hands of my readers. (Thanks so much, Gail, Denise, and Barbara.) And I’m working on the cover. I’m not totally happy with it, but I’ll take copies of the current versions to my art class tomorrow for help.

In the meantime, I’m reflecting on some of the people from my past who have appeared with fictional disguises in the Cinderella, P. I. Fairy Tale Mysteries.

First off, a riff on naming characters, often a chore for fiction writers. Some authors run contests among their fans for the right to name characters after the fans, but right now I’m mining out my memories of the past in three ways.

1) The first two characters I’ll discuss soon are named for the people who inspired them.

2) Desperate for names for a group of four men who appear in Wings, the sequel to Walls, I recalled the last names of my mother’s brothers-in-law: Walen, Young, Johnson, and Morse. Ha! Nailed that.

3) Soon after that I realized that I have a resource of character names in the teachers I’ve had over the years. Since I have a Ph. D. and went to school for twenty-three years altogether, we’re talking lots of names. So when the cook in Wings needed a name, I called her Mrs. Swetnam after my professor in Romantic Poets at the Ohio State University.

And now to a tribute to three women important in my life:

1) After I left my husband and returned to Huntington, WV, my hometown, I found a job in the Acquisitions Department in the library of Marshall University. So I needed a babysitter for my very young daughter. And my former Sunday school teacher and longtime family friend graciously agreed to care for my child while I worked. So Jessica spent weekdays for the next eight months or so in the loving care of Vi Sullenberger and her husband Delbert, a retired clock repairman, in their little house filled with clocks. When Sophie, Cinderella’s youngest child and only daughter, needed a nanny, I gave her Nana Vi.

2) In the first Cinderella, P. I. story, written in 1996, later in “Cinderella and the Missing Queen,” Prince Charming’s mother was simply the Queen, but by time I came to write Walls, I realized she needed a name. Now, the Queen in these stories loves to dance and at one point, she taught it, too. And so I named her Frances after Frances Nestor with whom I studied the ballet and other forms of dancing for eleven years. Mrs. Nestor was my first teacher who was passionate about the subject she taught. As such, she made a wonderful role model for me as a teacher.

3) And now I’ll talk about my mother, Melicent Perkins Smith, called Middie for Midget by her family members and Susie by my dad and their friends. I was my mother’s only child and my daughter her only grandchild. But she was the stepmother of my older half-brother, Homer Dale Willman, Sr. So I got to see first-hand how a stepparent operates and how a stepmother in particular can feel that her relationship with her husband is challenged by the presence of another woman’s child in the household.

Although the relationship between Cinderella’s father and stepmother in Walls and Wings resembles my parents’ relationship before my dad’s retirement, I do want to make it clear that my own mother isn’t the direct model for Cinderella’s stepmother. There’s one very important difference between the two women: the fictional character lacks my mother’s inherent generosity. For instance, my mother went without new clothes for years, so that I could have the dance lessons with Frances Nestor that I so loved when I was young, the lessons that I still benefit from in terms of self-discipline, health and happiness early in the eighth decade of my life.

Thank you so much, ladies. You are all fondly remembered.

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Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel is currently available as a Kindle eBook (ISBN: 978-0-9899504-0-4) and trade paperback (ISBN: 978-0-9899504-1-1).

Cinderella, P. I. and Other Fairy Tale Mystery Stories is also available as a Kindle eBook (ISBN: 978-0-9899504-2-8) and trade paperback (ISBN: 978-9899504-3-5).

COMING SOON: Wings, A Cinderella, P. I Novel, second of two novels featuring Cinderella, twenty years, three kids, and a few extra pounds after the ball; and two more fairy tale mystery short story collections featuring Cinderella, P. I.: Cinderella Around the World and Cinderella and the Holy Grail.

AUTHOR BLOG CHAIN

Author’s Blog Chain

My friend Lisa Daly has tagged me to follow her in the author blog chain. I’m very excited about the publication of her first novel, Mystery, Ink: A Novel Way to Die. You can find more information about it on Lisa’s website: http://www.lisakaydaly.com.

Here are my answers to four basic questions about my work.

1. What are you currently working on?

Right now I’m about a quarter of the way through the first complete draft of Wings, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel. (I’ve already written parts of it.) It’s the second of two novels about Cinderella, twenty years, three kids and a few extra pounds after the ball. In the first she’s been convicted of a heinous crime she didn’t commit and exiled far to the north of the Kingdom of AzureSky. And she has to escape the walls that confine her. In Wings she flies home on Mother Goose to save her loved ones and to set the Kingdom straight after a villain and his minions have severely messed it up.

2. How does your work differ from others?

Typically, stories about Cinderella are for the young. Mine are for grown-ups, though they often contain some of the whimsy, charm and humor that people of all ages like in fairy tales. Though firmly in the fantasy realm, the Cinderella, P. I. novels and stories have a contemporary edge and are also mysteries.

Besides the Cinderella, P. I. novels and stories, I have begun publishing a series of historical mysteries set in Kansas City beginning with January Jinx in 1899. In these books, I’m trying for a light approach to historical fiction. I include humor, let my protagonist flirt with a good-looking stranger, and avoid extreme violence.

3. Why do you write what you write?

The simplest answer is that I habitually read mysteries, so that’s why I write mystery fiction. My second favorite fiction genre to read is fantasy. This partly explains my gravitation to fairy tale fiction. (I wrote “Cinderella, P. I.,” the first story in the series in 1996, long before the debut of Once Upon a Time and Grimm on television.)

The longer and more complex answer is that I’ve always enjoyed reading fiction that allows me to escape from my fairly pedestrian life, that is, to go on adventures in faraway places, long-ago times, and never-never-lands with characters I can identify with. I don’t like being in the heads of creepy people and I prefer happy endings to sad ones. I enjoy humor and wit. And I try to write the same sorts of fiction as I like to read.

4. How does your writing process work?

As a retired teacher of writing, ironically I find this question a little hard to answer. I guess this is because what gets me started on a story can be so mysterious. For instance, I wrote the first Cinderella, P. I. story as an experiment. I’d been to a writers’ conference and heard someone say it’s very hard to write a complete short story in fewer than 2,000 words. (This was before the rise of flash fiction.) So I decided to try to write one. I fixed on Cinderella as a protagonist because a textbook I used in a course I taught had eight different versions of the fairy tale. Plus I was intrigued with “happily ever after.” To my mind, if you’re bored, you can’t be happy, so what could Cinderella do twenty years, three kids and a few extra pounds after the ball that would keep her busy instead of bored? Well, solve cases. I decided to use first person, so any exposition would sound like dialogue, and present tense to avoid using “had” too often. Then of course, my Ella started talking to me, and the story took off.

A few pointed questions help me on my way. Here they are and in the order I like to ask them. Who wants (or needs) what? Does (s)he succeed? [“Yes” and “no” are less fun than “yes but” and “no but.”] What obstacles can I throw in this individual’s path?

Once I get tentative answers to these questions, I start shaping the plot according to standard plot structure described in books like Robert J. Ray’s The Weekend Novelist: Part 1, the Set-up; Part 2, the Development; and Part 3, the Resolution. Part 1 needs a hook to start the story and to grab the reader’s attention and plot point one to set up Part 2; Part 2 needs to develop the set-up plus a midpoint or turning point and plot point two to set up the ending in Part 2; Part 3 needs a crisis and a resolution/denouement. When I have only a few obstacles, aka plot complications, I write a story. Lots of obstacles and I write a novel.

Once I’m involved in a project like Wings, I try to work on it everyday so I don’t lose my momentum. Also, I try to follow the common advice to write the initial draft from start to finish as fast as I can. The revising process takes longer as I do lots of revisions, often attacking different issues in different drafts. For example, I try to fill “plot holes” in earlier drafts and work on style including readability in later ones. Early drafts go fairly slow. Later ones can go very fast.

You know what? There is another question, sort of a Question 3b. Why do you write? My answer? Writing makes me happy. It’s as simple as that.

You can buy Cinderella, P. I. and Other Fairy Tale Mystery Stories as a Kindle eBook (www.amazon.com/dp/B00GMMUSTI) or trade paperback. Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel is available as an eBook (www.amazon.com/dp/B00FQLQ2WI) and trade paperback. January Jinx is now available as a Kindle eBook (www.amazon.com/dp/B00HSSSBE4) and the trade paperback is coming soon.

It’s my pleasure to end my contribution to this Authors’ Blog Chain by tagging my friend Theresa Hupp.

MTHupp pic

Theresa is a writer of fiction (novels and short stories), essays and poetry.  She is currently working on a series of novels about the Oregon Trail in 1847 and life in Oregon and California during the Gold Rush. You’ll have to read her post next week to find out why she is writing historical fiction on this era of American history. She has worked as an attorney, a mediator, and a Human Resources executive and consultant. You can follow her blog, Story and History, at http://mthupp.wordpress.com/ or follow her on Facebook at Theresa Hupp, Author, at https://www.facebook.com/TheresaHuppAuthor

Theresa is the author of Family Recipe, a collection of essays, stories, and poems about family life.

Family Recipe cover Hupp

 http://www.amazon.com/Family-Recipe-stories-essays-families/dp/0985324406/ref=la_B009H8QIT8_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1392327751&sr=1-2

 

 

 

Juliet’s Favorite Reads for 2013

Becoming a publisher in addition to being a writer has cut into my reading time quite a bit this year, so instead of my usual rate of four books a month, I read fewer than three a month in 2013. But the five I’ve chosen would stand out in any year. (Please note that not all were first published in 2013 because sometimes it takes me a while to discover the book everyone else read the year or so before.)

# 5 – Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent (2013)

When I spotted this novel on the new and current shelf at my local library, its intriguing title and cover drew me to it. I picked it up, scanned the cover with the picture of a dragon shown partly in anatomical detail, and read the back cover. I put it back since mostly I read mysteries. But the clever concept of a fictional memoir of a lady scientist writing about her lifelong study of dragons drew me back. I checked it out and read it with great pleasure. This story of a bookish young girl drawn to dragons from an early age and determined to find out more about them in a somewhat Victorian setting did not disappoint. The Tropic of Serpents, the second in the series, comes out in March 2014 and I’ll buy it in hardcover, along with the trade paperback of the first.

# 4 – Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012)

When I found out how this book was written, it intrigued me for a rather specialized reason. It’s a fictionalized compilation of emails, articles from scholarly magazines, school documents, letters, etc. As such it goes back to two early traditions in English literature: the epistolary novel, that is, written in the form of letters, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and fiction written in diary form, like Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. (I have a vested interest in the latter style since I wrote my dissertation about thirty-plus pieces of fiction written entirely or partly in the form of journals. And actually, A Natural History of Dragons fits into the third tradition for the novel in English: the fictional memoir like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.) But no matter why I picked Semple’s novel up, I read it because it’s a touching story of a loving daughter trying to find where her eccentric mom has gone.

#3 – Colin Cotterill’s Killed at the Whim of the Hat (2011)

I’d been a fan of the Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries for their humor and exotic setting in Communist Laos for some time before I discovered Cotterill’s new series with Jimm Juree, a young woman journalist who lives with her eccentric family in a southern Thailand resort town. Just thinking about the title and other quotations from George W. Bush that start the chapters makes me laugh out loud. This is a very enjoyable, lively read.

#2 – Charlie Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession (2013)

I’m putting this first novel near the top of the list not because one of my former students wrote it or even because it’s beautifully constructed of three different plot lines skillfully interwoven, but because at its heart it contains a touching and timeless story of a young man who finds the love of his life through books, loses her, and finds her again, also through books. It is not my top pick only because of my pick is

#1 – Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In (2013)

When my friend Sally Ooms gave me this book for my birthday this year, I hugged it to my heart and beamed. (You can see my joy in my picture on my Facebook profile page.) The ninth in Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series demonstrates this masterful writer at the top of her game. The bad news for those of you who haven’t read these books is I can’t recommend this book to you. The good news is you get to read Still Life, the first in the series, and the other seven wonderful books that precede How the Light Gets In.

The Hunger Name Games

Naming Characters Can Be Hard

When I joined an online fiction writers group some time ago, the current topic of discussion was naming characters. I identified with this since I had a terrible time naming a set of characters in Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel. I won’t say who they are precisely but here’s a hint: there are seven of them and they’re all extremely short. Initially I gave them names that alluded to these characters as presented in the first Disney full-length animated feature. But I worried through several drafts that the Disney lawyers would not consider this fair use and would sue me up side and down the other for copyright infringement. So I finally decided I had to revise the names and also the characters of my little seven.

But how?

Suzanne Collins supplied the answer to my question in the thoughtful, systematic, evocative way she named the places and characters of The Hunger Games. Character names also suggest things about the nature of the characters and often hint at the roles they’ll take in the plot.

Effie Trinket, who escorts Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark to the Capitol for the games, has a downright satirical name that reminds this English major of Mr. Thwackum and Squire Allworthy of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. She could hardly be more aptly named. Doll-like, superficial, and artificial with her pink wig and heavy make-up, she counts for very little in the overall world of the Hunger Games.

Overall, the names of girls and women in The Hunger Games resonate with meaning and portent. And often they arise from nature. In our world the plant katniss doesn’t exist, but in the world of the Hunger Games, it’s a healing herb. The last name Everdeen reminds us of evergreen, a kind of tree that’s always alive and green. What better name than Katniss Everdeen for the savior of her world? Katniss’s little sister Prim’s name evokes that character’s innocence. Her full name of Primrose evokes her sweetness. The tribute from District 11 is named Rue, which is a healing herb in our world, but the character’s name also evokes her rueful end.

The names for men are evocative, too, especially that of Katniss’s fellow tribute from District 12: Peeta Mellark. Presumably Peeta is derived from Peter, but it’s pronounced “pita” as in the Greek bread. Peeta is the son of a baker who earlier saved Katniss’s life by letting her have some bread when she and her family almost starved.

Katniss and Peeta’s mentor, the drunken Haymitch Abernathy, doesn’t have an out and out symbolic name. Yet his name evokes the strong Scots stock that populated Appalachia in the 18th century. And as a West Virginian born and bred, I must remind you of my home state’s motto: “Montani semper liberi.” Mountaineers are always free. Take that, you decadent Capitol citizens.

Many of the men from the Capitol have names that allude to ancient Romans, for example, Seneca Crane, the game designer, and Caesar Flickerman, the television host. (His last name perfectly evokes the flickering screen images that Panem citizens watch during the games.) These names make us recall ancient Romans with their cruel and bloody gladiatorial games. At least Roman gladiators were grown-ups trained to fight instead of children aged 12 through 18 chosen by lottery without consideration of their abilities to defend themselves and survive.

Speaking of Panem, I’ll do a little riff on place names. “Pan-” as a prefix means “all,” suitable for a nation’s name, but in The Hunger Games series, Panem is a country in which the individual identities of its states and regions have been replaced by nondescript Districts and numbers, from the rather privileged District 1, source of luxury goods, through the ill-fated District 13, destroyed many years earlier. Panem also alludes to “panem et circenses” or the bread and circuses with which the leaders of ancient Rome soothed the populace.

Coriolanus Snow, President of Panem, is very aptly named for the ancient Roman leader accused of robbing the populace of their bread. And while his last name comes from nature, Snow is a cold, mindless, harsh force.

You probably thought I’d forgotten Gale Hawthorne, Katniss Everdeen’s fellow hunter and confidant. But really his name provides an excellent example of Suzanne Collins’s systematic and thoughtful naming of the characters in The Hunger Games. His last name evokes one of America’s greatest writers, but also the sweet-smelling flowering shrub hawthorn, that has lots of thorns. Furthermore, his first name Gale evokes another mindless, powerful force. As you read Catching Fire and Mockingjay, you’ll be wise to keep an eye on Gale Hawthorne.

And so, with Suzanne Collins’ excellent examples in mind, I finally resolved my difficulties naming my short characters in Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel.

Seven? I asked myself. What else has seven? I wondered. Well, duh, the days of the week. And for that–oh joy! We have a popular nursery rhyme. And so my little people became members of the same family, got names or nicknames and at least one character trait apiece. The oldest is Moon, “fair of face” in spite of being extremely overweight. Next comes Toot, “full of grace,” especially with his hands. Wednesday’s child, “full of woe,” is Mopey, an epic poet always moaning and groaning about his work. (As a writer, I really identify with Mopey.) Thursday’s child is Thor, who has “far to go” because he’s completely deaf. His twin sister Frieda, the tiniest of the seven, is “loving and giving.” Saturday’s child Whip “works hard for a living.” As the mining company foreman he makes sure the others work hard, too. And finally Sunny, born on the Sabbath Day, is “bonny and blithe and good and gay,” that is, he has a really sunny, upbeat personality.

You can get to know these characters even better by reading Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel now available through Amazon.com as a Kindle eBook (www.amazon.com/dp/B00FQLQ2WI) or a trade paperback (ISBN 978-0-9899504-1-1).

And I’m very pleased to announce that Cinderella, P. I. and Other Fairy Tale Mystery Stories is now available as a Kindle eBook featuring Cinderella, P. I. in SIX NEW STORIES, twelve stories altogether, “twenty years, three kids, and a few extra pounds after the ball.” Buy it for only $2.99 at www.amazon.com/dp/B00GMMUSTI.