Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Lessons Learned on Edginess from the 4077th

I’ve been told my stories are good but need a bit more edge to them.
I think I write edgy stuff.
For me.

In Breathing on Her Own I had a mother of two have an accident while driving under the influence.
In Libby’s Cuppa Joe I had a woman get pregnant out of wedlock.
There’s a kidnapping in the Edge of Quiet.
Rocks and Hard Places has a school shooting.
And now, in my latest work, Courtesy Turn, my protagonist has a stalker lurking about.

By today’s standards I play it safe.

But I don’t think edginess is all about the tension surrounding the antagonist or even the plotline or situation. It is not all violence or sex, either.

I think edginess is found in making my characters a bit larger than life. I’m not talking about superhuman powers. I’m thinking along the lines of exaggerating their quirky habits or behaviors, making them sassy or quick-witted. Or crazy. Or obnoxiously boring.

I'm talking about allowing my characters to think the unthinkable. 

Giving them permission to say the things I would never say. Out loud.

Allowing them to take unimaginable risks on the pages of my novel.

Would an example help?

Consider this story line: A doctor needs a new pair of boots and goes to great lengths to get them.

Safe, right? But make that doctor Hawkeye Pierce, put him in the middle of a war in Korea, give him a crazy sarcastic sense of humor and a clever wheeling and dealing do-anything-to-get-new-boots persona and you have an edgy story. Hawkeye has attitude. He’s willing to break rules to get what he needs. He’s willing to cross the boundary of being nice to Frank Burns in order to get boots without holes in them.

M.A.S.H. has violence inherent in the war setting, but we only see the aftermath.

M.A.S.H. has sexual innuendo and the audience is well aware of the infidelity going on in camp, but we aren’t privy to anything graphic.

The writers of M.A.S.H. pushed the envelope on social issues and allowed us to see differing viewpoints.

Let’s face it. M.A.S.H. was a comedic-drama. It was edgy. Every character had a quirkiness about them. An exaggerated personality with which we could all identify.

So my challenge to you…and to me this week is to rethink those sweet little characters. I want to let them get out of my comfort zone and shake things up a bit.

What do you think? How do you describe “edgy?”

 Oh, and to help you, I found a great little post on being edgy on Story Fix. Check it out.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

All in Good Time: Using a Calendar to Map Your Story

I have electronic planners but there is something about holding a little book in my hands and thumbing through the pages of a year unfolding that I find satisfying. But if you think organizing my time is what this post is about, think again.

I have several old unused calendars I saved through the years. As an early childhood educator I used them to teach math lessons and play games with first graders. As a professor I offered the pictures as an icebreaker activity. As a presenter I’ve used those same pictures as story starters for writer workshops.

Now I use old calendars to project a reasonable sequence for each novel. Using a calendar helps me think through the story from beginning to end.

Using a real calendar helps me attend to details I may have missed otherwise. For example in my latest work my main character decides to return to the activity of square dancing. The lessons start in January. Without the calendar I already know she is likely to deal with snow or ice in January and February. However, when I look at the calendar I remember the Super Bowl is coming up the first Sunday in February. Here is a brief excerpt. It takes place the last Sunday in January. My character has invited her son and his family over for Sunday dinner.

“Mom, you make the best gravy in the world.” Ethan spooned an extra portion of the brown gravy over his mashed potatoes, effectively changing the subject.
“It’s true. My gravy is always lumpy.” Cheryl never appeared threatened in any way when Ethan raved over his mother’s cooking.
Not like me. Dottie studied the face of her daughter-in-law. I always felt as if I was in competition with John’s mother. “My gravy was lumpy, too, Cheryl until one day when my mother-in-law shared a little secret. It’s all about the temperature. Most people put the flour in the hot milk and water and broth and it cooks it up like miniature dumplings. You need to mix it first and the bring the temperature up.”
 “Dumplings! I haven’t had your chicken and dumplings since…well…I can’t remember, Mom.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what. You two come next Sunday and I’ll make you chicken and dumplings for lunch.” It’s so good to cook for people again.
“Thanks, Mom, but we can’t. Next Sunday’s the Super Bowl and we’re going to a party and all at Cheryl’s brother’s house.”
“Yeah, and I have to take dip or something. I don’t know what to make.” Cheryl spooned a bite of mashed potatoes into Drew’s mouth.
“I forgot about the Super bowl.” Dottie prayed her disappointment didn’t show. The Super Bowl’s in the evening. They could come for the lunch. Let it go. “Well, sometime soon, then.”
Cheryl finished cutting Jack’s meat up instructing him he needed to clean his plate before he could get down and play. Like a script. I remember saying that very thing to Ethan.
The boys toyed with their food. Cheryl turned to her husband. “Ethan, I could use a little support here.” Dottie watched as her son challenged the boys to each take bite of potatoes.
“You know what, Mom Blevins? You could come with us to the Super Bowl party. I know my brother wouldn’t mind.”
Dottie hesitated. What was that look her son shot his wife? “Actually, I have a Super Bowl party that day myself. I nearly forgot.”
“You’re going to a Super Bowl party?” Ethan’s tone pierced Dottie’s fragile heart. She bit the inside of her cheek.
“Why not? I’m not exactly over the hill no matter what you think, son.”
Cheryl smiled. “Where’s the party?”
“It’s at the barn. A square dance.”

It works. Square dancers are notorious for finding any occasion to get together. I could have waited until the “Valentine” dance. I’m sure they’ll have one then, too, but my character is a widow and I think she might feel a bit uncomfortable with all the lovey-dovey Valentine stuff.

The calendar helps me think about the weather, events, and sequence of my story in a meaningful way.

For my newest endeavor, I grabbed a twenty-eight month planner (January 2010-April 2012) I had in storage. The story will fit within that time frame. I am starting to write down what I think will define the main events of my novel and those elements I think will serve as turning points for my characters. Of course I am writing it all down in pencil.

I pulled out a few sticky notes for the major scenes I want to include. That way I can move them around in my calendar if I need to do so.

And yes, 2016 calendars and planners are now on sale in the “drastically reduced” bin at local stores. Of course, if you are watchful in December and January your insurance agent, realtor, church, and local funeral home often have freebies available for the taking.

Using a calendar is a visual way to outline a story. For me, it works.  If you are a novelist or would like to be one, I hope you will give the calendar method a try. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

WIP- An Excerpt

I shared with you last week that I resumed work on a romance novel I started months before Tom died. It is the story of a fifty-seven year old widow who decides to return to the activity of square dancing. It was inspired by a couple Tom and I knew through our own experience in square dancing. During the first lesson my main character meets a rather interesting man. A tall man she refers to as “The Cowboy.” He certainly looks the part. This excerpt takes place a few days later when she accidently runs into The Cowboy at a local market. Let me know what you think.

Excerpt from Courtesy Turn by Rebecca Waters
Jungle Jim’s was crowded with people anxious to stock up on food items before a nasty winter storm made travel impossible. Dottie picked up a loaf of bread and a box of cereal. She put a few bags of chips and jars of salsa in her cart. Love salsa. Oh, cheese and crackers are always nice, too. Dottie grabbed a box of crackers and a small brick of Colby Jack cheese. The meat was packaged in large “family size” quantities. Dottie found a small ham and a package of chicken legs. Four legs? That’s four meals for me.
She had just rounded the corner leading to the fruits and vegetables section of the store when her heart leaped. Turning down the next aisle was The Cowboy. She only caught a glimpse of his back, but it was him. The height, the way he walked, even the hat was distinctive. He was coming down the open aisles on the other side of the squash. What was he picking up? Eggplant? Something purple looking. Between the banners and signs hanging down describing each item and the tables of vegetables themselves, Dottie could see the bottom of The Cowboy’s face and had a clear view of his shopping cart. Three apples, a small hand of green bananas and a couple of baking potatoes. I bet he lives alone.
A plan started forming. If I turn my cart around now, we’ll probably meet at the end of this aisle near the cabbage.
She would look up. He would tip his hat and say something like, “Well hello, again. We met at the Hayloft Barn last Tuesday, remember?” She would smile a slow smile of recognition. “Oh, of course. I remember.” He would give his name and she would offer hers. Maybe they would have a cup of coffee at the Starbuck’s right there in Jungle Jim’s.
Dottie looked over the zucchini. The Cowboy was gone. She looked both ways. He had vanished. What was I thinking? A little laugh escaped.
Grabbing potatoes, some cabbage, and bananas, Dottie made her way through the store, picking up a bag of brown rice, a few canned vegetables and the makings for her famous bean soup. Some milk and eggs and I’m out of here.
The dairy aisle was bottlenecked with shoppers. She sampled a new Greek yogurt offered by a young woman at the end of the aisle. It was good. Dottie mentally added Greek yogurt to her list. She bent over a bin containing two varieties of the creamy yogurt. As she stood up to compare the calories of the two, a corduroy clad arm reached past her.
“Oh, pardon me, Mam. I was tryin’ to get that blueberry yogurt.”
The Cowboy.
“No problem,” Dottie smiled.
The Cowboy tipped his hat, dropped a blueberry yogurt in the basket and pushed away.
I should say something. Maybe, I could be the one. I could say, ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’ No. That’s lame. Dottie bit her lower lip.
She could say something like, “Were you at the Hayloft Barn Tuesday?” No. “Pardon me, but did we meet at the Hayloft last Tuesday? Much better. He would say, “Why yes.” Then he would offer his name and she would offer hers. Would we have coffee? I really need to get these groceries home. Maybe exchange phone numbers. No. That would be rushing it.
“Excuse me, mam, but could I reach past you? I need the fat free yogurt.”
Dottie blinked her eyes back to the reality of the grocery store. A young redheaded woman with a redheaded infant in her cart was smiling sweetly at her.
“Oh, yes, I’m sorry. I guess I was blocking the way.” Dottie put both yogurts in her shopping cart and pushed forward.
The Cowboy was gone. She grabbed a quart of milk and a dozen eggs before  making her way to the checkout line. No cowboys were anywhere to be seen. “I’m an idiot,” she said to no one in particular. The dark skinned man behind her grinned.

Comments? I’d love to hear from you.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Freeing Power of Being READY

Who knew one word could make me feel so free? If you read my post last week, you’ll remember I finally chose a word to guide me through this year. READY. Actually, I’m pretty sure God chose the word making it all the more precious to me. (If you missed last week’s post, click HERE.)

I immediately embraced the word. I want to be READY. For anything.

Since that last post I found out I have been accepted for the mission trip to Mexico. I attended a Women’s Conference over the weekend at church and I have the focus and energy I had been searching for in my writing.

Yes, the word has impacted my writing. I love to write. I love to create word images. I love to touch those tender places in a reader’s heart. I love every piece of the writing process. To me it is exciting. To see a story unfold is fun. I can see every scene playing out like a movie in my mind and I can’t wait to see how it ends.

But if you’re in the writing game at all you know there is more to it than crafting a book. Breathing on Her Own is doing well, but I’m often asked, “When is your next book coming out?”

I wish I knew. I have manuscripts in various stages: outlined, drafted, completed, revised, and edited. You name it.

Assured that writing is part of God’s plan for my life and with so many people affirming my work, I have felt a great urgency to publish a second book. I’ve had a couple of agents read a manuscript. The comments have been encouraging, but I can’t report I have a contract or anything.

And then there is the constant expectation to “market” what I’ve already written. It is easy to get “sucked in” to a barrage of social media strategies, webinars, and the like.

There is also a sort of unwritten cultural expectation that it’s time I get on with my life. I’m not sure exactly what that means but it implies that a year is long enough to mourn and now I need to learn to live without Tom.

The truth is this: A lifetime is not long enough to mourn the loss of that man and I have used every bit of energy I have this past year and four months learning to live without him.

Then that last Sunday in February came with sunshine and hope, a song and a word: READY. Last week I wrote that I now understand my role as a writer at this time is not to pitch and market. My job is to get the manuscripts READY. It is the most freeing of words for me.

During this week I have discovered an unexpected joy as I  rest in God’s timing.

I have this great sense of freedom. Free to write. Free to fully enjoy writing as I did in the beginning. And the result? I have been more productive this week than I have been in months.

In the course of the week, I completed 5539 words on my current fiction piece tentatively titled Courtesy Turn. It’s based on a square dance call. It's a book I started before Tom died. Curiously, it is the story of a widow. With the work I did this week, I'm at a grand total of 15, 483 words. It's a start.

I also revised 4532 words on the draft of a nonfiction piece I refer to as A Handbook for Writers: Creating a Business Plan.  It is a boring title and I’m open to suggestions.

Now it is your turn. Did you choose a word? What are you writing? How can I support you? Leave your comments. I would love to hear from you.