Afloat in a Sea of Estrogen

Earlier in the week I had 7-8 fellow bloggers volunteer to read my short story, Itinerary, and almost every one of them showed a bit of surprise when they discovered it was written from a female POV. Most commented that I did a pretty good job communicating a feminine perspective. Anyone ever wondered why I go by DL instead of my real first name (Don)? First, I have never been crazy about my name and when I started writing I was determined to change it. Secondly, I wanted to avoid some of the same pre-conceptions that arose with my short story this week. Initials are gender-neutral, and I don’t have to struggle against bias towards a male author writing from a female POV. And it does exist!

Why am I so comfortable writing as a woman? I come to work every day and supervise seven women. Their ages range from 43 at the youngest, to 62. All but one of them is married and has children and/or grandchildren. They are as close to me as family. Most of us have been working together in this same office for 20 years and you can’t do that without knowing each other inside and out.

In fact, during my whole career I’ve only had women working for me. It wasn’t a conscious choice, things just worked out that way. As a result I’m usually the brunt of jokes around the office regarding my harems. Let me tell you something though, it ain’t no picnic! Between PMS, menopause, fashion talk, diets, ex-husbands, current husbands, suitors, rebellious children, and ignorant co-workers, I put up with a ton of shit! Do you know how many times I heard the phrase “MEN SUCK”? Anytime a guy does something wrong, I hear about it. Most of the time I am trying to defend the “male” gender or I am asked to explain the “males” point of view. It can be exhausting and not always easy. It’s even worse than being raised with sisters because they don’t share the same 20’ X 40’ room eight hours a day, five (and a lot of times six) days a week, 52 weeks a year, for 20 years.

On the flip side, I don’t have to worry about getting “in touch” with my feminine side because I am forced fed it every day (more like “bent over”). As a result I have a very good feeling for the female perspective of things. Let me clarify that…….I have a sense of the female perspective….it doesn’t necessarily mean I agree or understand it. In order to do that I would have to have my brain totally re-wired.

Other men might have the tendency to overcompensate when put in a situation where they are outnumbered, and in this case it would mean being as “Butch” as possible. Not me. I do what I always do……go with the flow.

That’s not saying that I’m not “Butch”, but I do have a great recipe for Eggplant Parmesan!!

Drive-by Blogging…The Second Pass

This is going to be a quickie (let the sly comments begin) due to my overabundance of work at my day job and my free-time being consumed by my WIP.

I’m not a big proponent of posting when there’s not much to say. Time is precious and why put a burden on yourself to conform to a strict schedule? But it works for some of you, maybe even necessary to maintain a sense of structure and forward motion. I’ve realized there’s another benefit to posting more frequently, and it’s one that lurks in your blind spot until you’ve been away for a while. Dialogue. Contact with other writers. Even when I’ve gone several days between posts, I’m always reading and commenting on your blogs. But it’s one way communication, me speaking to you. I usually only hear from you when I post a new blog, so if I don’t post…there’s only silence. So the purpose behind this totally selfish post today is interaction. I find myself craving your comments.

To legitimize this post and give it at least the appearance of being substantive, I guess I can tell you where I stand with my writing endeavors. My mystery/suspense novel Fallen Knight is complete and in the hands of several beta-readers and critiquers. So far the feedback I’ve received has been glowing, but not without mistakes that need correcting. I even have a query letter that I can hold in my hands without having to fight the urge to rip it into tiny pieces. I am very close to taking the plunge into the querying waters.

I also a have romantic short story entitled Itinerary that I’ve submitted to several on-line magazines and contests. If any of you would be interested in taking that one out for a test drive, I’d be grateful for the input.

That’s it. Short and sweet. Comments are wide-open and I would really like to hear from you. Especially those lurkers out there. That’s right…you! :)

Black Ice

I’ve been in an analogy kick lately, so here’s yet another one for everyone to ponder.

Anyone from a predominantly cold climate is intimately familiar with the term Black Ice. For those of you lucky enough to claim ignorance, it refers to a type of hazardous road condition that occurs when ice with few air bubbles cover the throughways, making it virtually transparent. Many an accident has been caused by drivers cruising along until they hit a patch of the slick coating and find themselves suddenly fighting to maintain control of their vehicle.

What you may not be aware of, we as writers have our own sort of Black Ice to guard against. Moreover, this is a peril of our own making.

There’s your reader, traveling down the road you’ve paved for him with your eloquent prose, losing themselves within the world you’ve created, when suddenly it happens. Their attention wavers and they lose traction. They begin to do something universally feared by writers of all content, they begin to skim. Forced to jump ahead, searching for stable footing, an attempt to re-connect with the story line that had become abruptly burdensome. Why? What happened? The author failed to detect the Black Ice he unknowingly allowed to creep into his work. It’s the material that bogs down exposition by including too much descriptive detail, mundane character interactions, or a plot contrivance that over-stretches the limits of believability. It could even be the result of sagging momentum (see The Scooter Method). Consequently, the reader becomes distracted, or even worse, annoyed because they find themselves slipping through paragraphs or even whole pages. Whatever the reason, the reader goes on the alert and the author’s reputation has taken a hit.

So how can we as writers prevent Black Ice from sabotaging our own work? By its very definition, it’s extremely hard to detect by ourselves. We re-read our stuff so many times its hard not to skim. This is an area where our beta readers and critique groups are so crucial. Consider them the salt or sand preventing the ice from taking hold in the final draft. Used properly they can highlight sections where they feel themselves being taken out of the flow of the story, especially useful for first time authors.

To be fair, skimming is just as much about the make-up of the reader as it is the intent of the writer. That is why we have to work twice as hard to make sure we don’t give them any reason to slip. Glue them to the page. Clear away anything where ice can form. Some of our most prolific authors would do well to remember this particular hazard. It is our responsibility and shouldn’t be shirked in the name of we can’t please everyone.

Let’s face it, no matter how hard we try and the measures we employ, some amount of Black Ice will probably sneak in anyway. The occasional slip and slide can be forgiven. But continually turning a blind eye to the problem will eventually impact readership, and status.

What about you? Do you have a method for spotting Black Ice? Care to share?

Origins

Is anybody reading this a fan of comic books? I used to be. My collection was massive until I was foolish and gave it away to a friend just before one of my families many moves. I collected all the classics, Iron Man, Thor, Avengers, X-Men, Silver Surfer, Captain America, and on and on. And in every series my favorite issue was the origin. That’s the issue where you learn how the superhero came to be, gained his abilities, what set him on the path to right all wrongs and defend the innocent. I know I’m not a superhero, or a hero, heck…I won’t even question a cashier when they give me incorrect change back, but I do have an origin story. My chronicle of the moment I became a writer. Some of my longtime followers may have read this tale before, so feel free to click through to the next blog if you wish. Hopefully the rest of you will find this enlightening, and maybe entertaining.

It was the late-spring of 1974. I was a junior in high school and the summer break was just over the horizon. Our English lit. teacher, whose name escapes me now, wanted to do something different for the end of the year. She devised an unusual project that the class would work on in teams and broke us down into groups of four members each. When she announced the names in each team it was clear she utilized some un-decipherable logic for selecting who wound up in what group, but when I heard the other names in my group I broke out in a cold sweat.

One boy I was friends with, another I vaguely knew, and the final name continued ringing in my ears. It was Vicki M. Everybody knew Vicki. She was a cheerleader, but not just any cheerleader. She was the prettiest, friendliest, most popular girl in school who was also blessed with intimidating intelligence. I had never spoken a word to her, not even to bless a sneeze. I was quite certain that if she said anything to me, all of my clothes would suddenly disappear and there would be no recovering from the depth of my nakedness.

I was just getting over the shock of finding out I was going to be on a team with the Vicki when we received our assignment. Each team was to create a ten-minute audio recording in the style of an old time broadcast serial such as Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie during the golden years of radio. The material used for the show also had to be from an original idea, meaning the groups had to write their own scripts.

The teacher let us devote the last thirty minutes of class to getting started on our projects, so everybody shuffled around chairs and we formed a circle. Vicki quickly took charge and asked if anybody had any ideas about a story. I lost myself in her hypnotic blue eyes and before I knew what I was doing, I volunteered to write the entire script. A bold move, certainly, especially considering up until then I had never written a story of any sort. But I had an active imagination and I knew it would be a surefire way to impress Vicki, so what the heck. Working together the group decided it would be easiest to do a radio spot along the lines of a Thriller Theater. Everyone looked at me and wondered if I could come up with something by the next day. “No problem,” I said, my sphincter now clamped so tight I couldn’t pass a microbe if I wanted to. What had I done?

That night I barricaded myself in my room with a legal pad, pen, a tall glass of milk and stack of Oreo’s. I was motivated by two forces, a deep desire to impress Vicki and become a blip on her radar, and a bone-chilling fear of failure. Surprisingly, the words started to flow almost immediately. I wrote a simple story involving a family who purchases an antique floor-standing mirror and the strange things that happen when their small son starts playing with a mysterious friend he sees in the mirror.

The rest of the team, especially Vicki, LOVED the story. We set about the task of recording the episode. There were acting roles to be assigning (Vicki was the mother), proper background music to choose, and figuring out how to create the different sound effects. The entire project took two weeks to finish, most of the time working at my house because I was the closest to school. Having Vicki in my house everyday was magical! My mom’s house the plants seemed to bloom brighter and the snacks she provided us never tasted so sweet.

Then the day came when all the teams were due to present their project. By luck of the draw, our tape was scheduled to play last. One by one we listened to each group’s tapes and I have to say the talent on display was truly impressive. Then it came our turn. While our tape played I stared down at my desk top, unable to look at my classmates faces, worried that my story wouldn’t be as well received as it’d been with my team.

Our tape garnered the loudest applause of the day and Vicki gave each of us a genuine hug.

But then our teacher called our group aside and demanded we tell her where we got the story we used, upset that we had not used original material as she had instructed. When we finally convinced her that I had written the story myself, she was so impressed that she urged me to submit the story to several writing contests. But I never followed through with her suggestions, preferring to stay out of the spotlight and be content that the act of writing itself was rewarding enough for me, that and the admiration of Vicky M.

I ended up writing for the school newspaper my senior year, but after high school my creative writing took a back seat to life. College, a career, a wife and three kids all ganged up on me and successfully forced my urge to write into an extended hibernation. But now it’s awake again…with a vengeance! I still carry the original copy of that script in my backpack, as a reminder of where my writing started.

How about you? What is your origin story?

The Scooter Method of Pacing

*Disclaimer - I am not a published author. I am just a dude, one that has written a couple books (again – unpublished) who a few people (waves to wife, mother-in-law, and a few close friends) have found entertaining. Therefore, if you decide to follow me down the path I’m about to describe, make sure you drop a few breadcrumbs along the way. 

Kelly Lyman’s First Page Blogfest was a rousing success, especially from my POV. I received 60+ comments (easily a new record) about the first page of Fallen Knight and many very helpful suggestions. In particular, a few of those comments mentioned that maybe my hook should have come a bit earlier. It was convenient because thanks to this blog post by Sierra Godfrey, I had already been planning on writing this article before the Blogfest, so the comments fit into my plan perfectly. Thanks gals (and guys)!

Let me first say that I am not disagreeing with the bloggers who left those comments. After all, this isn’t grammar we’re talking about here, its style and personal choice. The whole topic of pacing can be so subjective anyway. But I’d like to explain my reasoning for the way I layout plot points and maybe my methodology will make sense to somebody struggling in this area.

For me, it’s all about momentum.

A manuscript should begin at whichever point in the story that creates enough forward momentum to engage the reader and keep them engaged. Think of it like riding a scooter. The first thrust is all-important, generating exhilaration and forward motion. Then all subsequent pushes should come at a point where momentum begins to fade. These pushes, or vigorous nudges, are usually in the form of new plot developments. If the story is coasting along as planned, spurred on by the energy already provided, then the introduction of another element designed to prod the story forward is important. Bringing in another plot point, or push, too early can be wasteful. Introducing one too late you run the risk losing that momentum and boring your reader, which leads to skimming.

Let’s take the first page of Fallen Knight as an example. It is 26 lines long (two over the guideline Kelly established, but I couldn’t cut it off in the middle of a paragraph). The hook in question was in the last three lines just before the next page. The first line propelled you into the story (hopefully) and between there and those last three lines we learned the following: Our protagonist is a teenage boy (okay…maybe that could have been explained sooner). He is an eternal optimist. He believed something was about to change for the better on that day. His family was struggling financially. He is probably close to his mom because he is good at reading her mannerisms.

We learned all that about Brady’s situation while just using the momentum created from the first line, and when the crucial time came…and make no mistake, making sure the first page is turned is very crucial…I pushed again and everything changed. Mission accomplished.

In the genre where I live and breathe, mystery-suspense, gaining momentum in the last 3rd of the story is vital. That means that revelations, twists, action and drama should come fast and furious in the final section. If it doesn’t, the work is doomed to fail. The pacing in your genre may be completely different, and that is something you need to discover for yourself. In whichever genre you write, learn how to know when a push is needed. That means also knowing when to save them for the appropriate time.

First Page Blogfest

I must first start off with an apology.  I was supposed to participate in Livia's Alternate Version Blogfest yesterday, but for reasons I didn't anticipate or plan for, I wasn't able to make that happen.  I thought about finishing what I had been working on and posting it today, until I remembered Kelly's First Page Blogfest.  I've decided to admit defeat and just post my entry for the First Page Blogfest (which just so happens to be already completed) and apologize to Livia for missing her creative event, as well as anyone who stopped in to see what I had to offer.  Sorry guys!

Below I present to you the first page of my novel FALLEN KNIGHT.  It belongs squarely in the mystery/suspense section of your local bookstore, and someday I hope to see it there.  Honest opinions only!  :)

Today was the day; he could just feel it.

Brady Jones told himself the same thing every morning. Deep down, he knew that it was simply lip service, a way of puffing up his confidence and reminding him that on any given day, his life could change for the better. He felt like one of those people who bought lottery tickets every week, always looking forward to the possibilities. Like them, he never wasted time worrying about the countless days when his prediction had turned out to be false, preferring to remain hopeful. After all, the change he hoped for didn’t have to be anything earth shattering; nowadays, his expectations were low.

This morning was different, though; he actually believed his pep talk. He sensed confidence surging through him. It was already May, and the end of the school year was just a few weeks away. That meant he was running short on time, and he always performed better when he had a deadline. His daily horoscope on Facebook that morning had read, “Some recent quandaries regarding romance look set to develop today. Someone new and exciting will fire you up.” Most important, his complexion was the clearest it had been in weeks, and his wild black hair was actually cooperating this morning. He resisted the temptation to check his reflection in the sun visor’s mirror.

He glanced over at his mom behind the wheel of their rickety 1997 Dodge pickup. Feeling unusually self-confident, he asked, “Mom, when can I get my license?”

His mom looked back at him, ignoring the road for so long that Brady felt uncomfortable. He noticed that the right side of her face, which had started swelling a few days earlier, was worse today. Her tooth was giving her problems, but they lacked the money to have a dentist look at it.

Turning her attention back to the traffic ahead, she answered, “Honey, we talked about this.” Her hands twisted nervously on the steering wheel, signaling to Brady that the conversation was turning serious. He wondered if she knew what an open book she was to him. “We can’t apply for a driver’s license under your real name, and I’m afraid to do it under Brady Jones until I can afford to buy some better documents. And even if I could pay for that, I can’t afford to buy you a car.”
 

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