Monday, February 27, 2006

Your Turn

I tried to come up with something witty to blog about, but frankly, I don’t have too many brain cells left that aren’t fried to a crisp. I spent today doing our taxes. Leave it to the federal government to make everything tedious, burdensome, and generally life-sucking. How can someone who makes so little money generate so much paperwork? Flat tax anyone?

So after that rant, can you all believe I have a degree in finance? Yeah, I do. Don’t ask.

On a positive note, Arizona may get rain. We're nearly 130 days without it. But it's raining in California, so there's a chance it could be coming here. Unless those evil Californians keep it all for themselves.

So, anyone want to talk about anything? Preferably something that doesn't require me to think.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

And the worst mommy award goes to . . .

Beware of days that start out well. I had a good day writing. Didn’t get a lot of words written, but I got a lot planned and felt better about this book than I had in a long time. I paid the bills, and we actually had money left over. That hasn’t happened in a year and a half. I went to the chiropractor and got my shoulders unstuck, and my son got a sucker.

So it was in this happy mood that I went to the library to return the CD version of Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin. This is definitely worth listening to as he reads it himself. And I had to pick up a collection of Flannery O’Connor short stories that Chris Fisher was talking about on his blog.

We take care of business at the library and get back into the minivan. I buckle my son in, toss all my stuff on the front seat, and close the door. I go around to get in my side.

The door is locked.

Oh crap.

Through the window I can see all the doors are locked, but I still pull on the door handle like somehow reality will change. I can see the keys sitting on the driver’s seat, along with my purse and cell phone.

But I know my son can unlock the doors. Except that he’s strapped in his car seat. However, childproof things have never deterred him before. I tell him how to get himself out of his seat. “Just push that red button.” He pokes at it, sucker in his mouth. Then he pushes harder, but he just doesn’t have the strength to get it. We try seeing if he can unbuckle the car seatbelt and free the car seat, but he can’t reach it.

There’s no hope. I’m going to have to call and get help. But my phone’s in the car, too, so I have to leave him to go back into the library. It goes against every instinct to leave my son alone in a car while I go inside. But, I think, if someone can break into the car to steal it (and who wants a 98 minivan with 180,000 miles on it?) I could at least get my son out. So I hurry inside to try to find a pay phone. Apparently pay phones don’t exist anymore. I finally ask the librarian.

She laughs. “Oh, I don’t think it works.”

Not funny. “I need a phone. I’ve locked my keys in the car with my son. I need to call somebody.”

“Oh, I guess you can use this then.” She moves her desk phone toward me.

Gee, thanks. I can’t believe she’s not shocked or astounded. Do people routinely lock their children in the car while they’re at the library? I call Peter, who luckily is at the office and not on the other side of the valley. He tells me to call AAA. I patiently explain that my phone and purse—with my AAA card—are in the van. Now, in the interest of full disclosure here, Peter has locked himself out of that car more times than I can count, to the point that he carries a spare key in his wallet. Said spare key was what I wanted him to bring to me. We won’t mention the fact that I think that is the only spare key since I lost his whole set of keys by leaving them on the bumper of the Expedition and driving off. Never did find those things.

Anyhow, on my way back to the car, there is this guy who has been outside the library trying to get people to sign his petition. I don’t know what for, and I don’t care. He’s seen me walk by now four times and starts pestering me to sign his stupid petition.

“I’m a little busy right now.”

“Doing what?”

Oh, the things that went through my mind. I didn’t say any of them, however. Let’s just say that the next dead body in my book will be a guy that looks a lot like him trying to get people to sign a petition. I just kept walking to the van where I hoped my son wasn’t a sobbing hysterical mess. He was frowning, but I think that was because he had dropped his sucker.

So I lean my head against this really dirty window—when was the last time Peter washed this thing anyway?—and talked to him. People driving through the parking lot stared at me. What was this crazy woman doing talking to a car? A police officer drove by. I watched him, half hoping he’d stop. He didn’t. I tell my son to go to sleep, and for once in his life, he minds me.

I'm really thankful it's only the upper 60s and not 112. I start thinking which window would be the cheapest to replace and look around for a big rock. Nothing. If it were 112, I have no idea what I could use to break the window. Well, he's asleep, Peter should be on his way, and other than people thinking I’m nuts, there isn’t any problem with waiting for him to get here. Just that my daughter gets out of school in 30 minutes and since our neighbors moved, there's not a house for her to go to if I'm not home.

I’m standing against the car, with not even a book to read. I watch cars go by, looking for a white construction truck. You know how many of those are out here? About every third car.

After about 25 minutes a tow truck pulls into the parking lot. It takes me a minute to realize Peter had called AAA for me. Hmmph. Here I was looking for him, and he sent a tow truck instead.

They guy gets out with all his equipment. Then he sees my son. “Hey, if we’d known there was a kid in the car we would have gotten here in five minutes. Why didn’t you tell us?”

“I actually didn’t call. I’m guessing my husband did.” Yeah, why didn't he tell them? I'm pretty sure I would have mentioned it.

The guy gets his equipment out and starts prying open the door with this little inflatable device. Very cool, though frankly I don’t care if he rips the door off.

Then a white construction truck pulls in. Peter.

“That’s my husband,” I tell the tow truck guy.

“Does he have a spare key?”

“I don’t know.” Because at this point, I really don’t. It might have been on that set that somehow got left on the bumper of the other car.

“I might.” Peter has a keychain that weighs more than our children. But somehow he pulls the right key out the first time. The door opens. My son wakes up. The tow truck guy packs up his stuff.

I think I’m going to throw up. That Flannery O’Connor book had better be worth it.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Dinner Reservations?

My husband took me out to a wonderful dinner last night. It’s one of his weaknesses—good food and wine. When we lived in Orange County, California—and before we had children—this wasn’t a problem. There were many excellent restaurants within easy driving distance. But last night was the first time since we’ve been in Arizona that we went to a nice restaurant. Actually, it was the first time since our anniversary since we’d been out anywhere together without kids.

I think most of us have good memories of a nice restaurant on a special occasion or a memorable meal. So it seems natural for us to create those kinds of situations in our books. Right?

Donald Maass doesn’t think so. In his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook he calls these low-tension scenes. He says the most controversial part of his workshop is where he tells authors “to cut scenes set in kitchens or in living rooms or in cars driving from one place to another, or that involve drinking tea or coffee” (know how often Starbucks shows up in my book?) “or taking showers or baths, particularly in a novel’s first fifty pages.”

Often these scenes are skimmable. They don’t add new dimensions to the characters, or deepen conflict or complicate matters. They relax tension and review what’s happened. Basically a Sequel in Swain/Bickham terminology.

And I have to admit, when we went out to dinner last night, it was pretty low tension. Except for when my daughter called in tears because the dog had taken her brother’s piece of pizza, and she was afraid the dog was going to get sick. He’s allergic to animal protein. Yes, I know, we have a weird family—even the dog.

In real life, I want a low-tension dinner. I don’t want Peter to tell me he’s been fired, or we’re being investigated by the FBI, or he lost one of the kids. And I’m sure he doesn’t want to hear that someone’s been stalking me or torched our minivan. However, I’ll happily do that to my characters.

And yet, can you imagine a novel with no eating or drinking or driving or showering scenes? No. So what do you do?

Well, obviously famous writers make it work. Maass uses the example of the Da Vinci Code. While a good portion of the book can be a study in what not to do, Brown’s pacing at the beginning is quite good. And lest you think this only applies to commercial or genre fiction, Maass goes on to use two literary examples: Sister Noon and The Lovely Bones. While we don’t typically think of literary works as being tension-filled, there has to be a question, something we want to find out that keeps us reading. Tension and unease do this. We’ll keep reading to see what happens next.

I’ll be brave and look at my recently completed manuscript for these low-tension scenes in the first fifty pages. I’ll admit it. I have a car ride and three lunch scenes in the first fifty pages. Yikes! (I also have two car chases and a gang initiation.) However, no one has complained about the lack of tension. Here’s why I think that is. Kyle, who has just met Heather, is giving her and his friend Bernie a ride out to lunch with a couple of other people from church. I added tension to this scene in a couple of ways. One, Heather is interested in Kyle so you have all those little jitters going on. Two, she just found out he’s a cop, and she’s not sure how she feels about that. Three, Bernie keeps bringing up the day’s sermon, a topic that makes Heather uncomfortable. So I use the car as a way to force Heather into an uncomfortable situation with no easy escape.

And I don’t let the tension up at the restaurant. I actually wasn’t going to write this scene, but Mike Synder made me do it (gotta blame him for something). Mostly I was afraid that it would be a boring scene, but at his encouragement, I switched to Kyle’s POV and built up tension by having him and Bernie both being interested in Heather and doing a little positioning for her attention.

The next two lunch scenes are settings for conflict too. One, Heather’s stalker ex-boyfriend shows up while she’s having lunch. And in the other Kyle’s friend Joe basically calls Kyle a chicken for not asking Heather out yet.

Ultimately, I think the point Maass is making is not that scenes involving food, drink or cars are bad, just that writers often uses them as crutches for weak writing. So keep the tension up in your lunch and dinner scenes. In your writing that is. In real life it’ll just give you indigestion.

I know y’all aren’t shy. Anybody care to share how they infuse their “no-no” scenes with tension? I need some ideas for my current book.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Things I Learned in the Army

I've never been in the Army, but my dad was during Vietnam. He has some interesting stories to tell. This is a picture of him with my daughter a couple of years ago when we were camping. He was out visiting last weekend and read my blog (Mike and Peter, you should be glad he has a good sense of humor), and so I asked him to send me this story, which is one of the most memorable from my growing up years. And you might be able to see where I get my sense of humor from.

So, without further ado, here's the post from my dad.

As a non coffee drinker I share the following anecdote: While in the Army it became my turn to go in early and make coffee. I checked with my wife to find out how much of the brown stuff to put in the top basket thing with holes in it to go along with the 2 gallons of water. When I opened the lid and peered into the aluminum pot I was surprised to see how dirty it looked. In the Army we were told that everything needed to be clean and polished. So, like a good soldier, I proceeded to clean and polish with cleanser and steel wool. All the time I wondered how the others before me were able to get by with such seemingly unclean procedures. But, I knew the results of my labor would be impressive to the officers and noncoms who were actual coffee drinkers.

They were ALL VERY IMPRESSED ! The colonel even "invited" me into his office to discuss whether I was member of the U.S. Army or possibly an enemy insurgent bent on disabling the entire 525th Military Police Battalion.

After my little chat with the C.O., Major "Mac" called me in to let me know I would not need to "prepare" the coffee anymore. Something about the chemistry of aluminum, steel wool, chlorine cleanser, coffee and ignorance being a bad combination. I seem to recall him saying everyone would be safer, if I just disarmed land mines in the break room.

Have a great week everyone. And get some writing done!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Writing from the Senses--or More Ways to Procrastinate

Looks like winter is over here in Arizona, though I’m not sure it was ever here except for a couple of weeks of cold and frost. Just enough to decimate my backyard landscaping. We hit 82 degrees yesterday. Since the morning started out at 45 degrees, I wore three different outfits, ending up in shorts when I took the kids to the pool for a bit.

Fire season has also started in the mountains north of us. Apparently we’ve had so little rain, the moisture content of the trees is equivalent to what it would normally be in July. One unexpected difficulty of fighting forest fires in February is that it still gets down to about ten degrees in the mountains at night. So the reservoirs and lakes the firefighters would normally use for water are frozen.

Orange County, California—where my current series is set—has also been fighting brush fires pretty early this year. In an eerie coincidence, they just contained a fire awfully close to the location of the fire that opens my second book in the series.

All this has me thinking I’m going to have a lot of inspiration for my writing this spring. Since last summer I’ve been playing around with the idea of creating an environment to trigger my muse into waking up and getting to work each time I sit down at the keyboard. It started with listening to an RWA conference CD in which someone, I think Tara Taylor Quinn, talked about writing from the five senses. I was bogged down in the middle of my first book, so I was looking for anything to jumpstart the old muse. At that point, I was leaning toward a defibrillator. So here’s what I did.

For sight, I got some foam core board and put it above my desk. I mocked-up a cover for the book and pasted it in the center. Then I filled in the rest of the white space with pictures of my characters, photos of the setting, and my ten, twenty, and fifty word blurbs. I’d heard of writers doing this. Some walk into the craft store and start picking up stuff that just seems like their book whether it makes sense or not. I wish I could afford to do that as I think it’d be a fun thing to do. I haven’t done this yet for book two, as I don’t think I know enough about it to start making visual representations. But I have been collecting pictures and putting them in an album in iPhoto. I also think objects that remind you of your characters or things in your book would be helpful. I’m thinking of stealing one of my son’s fire engines.

Smell was the easy one. I wanted something that smelled like the ocean. So I wandered around the craft store until I found Marine Mist. It doesn’t smell exactly like the ocean—it’s missing the dead fish and rotting seaweed component—but it’s evocative of the beach. Oddly enough, I think this cue has worked the best. The moment I open the candle (it has a lid) I think of Kyle and Heather. And the flame is a signal to my family that I’m writing, so don’t bother me.

For book two, I wondered if I should use the same scent or something different. I spent sometime thinking about what it should be. Joe, hero of book two, is a firefighter, and so I thought something that smelled like a campfire would remind me off him. No, burnt toast doesn’t qualify. But, I thought roasted marshmallows might. Of course with the way fire season is going this year, I’ll probably just have to write outside to be filled with ambiance. After sniffing a bunch of candles, I decided Tahitian Vanilla smelled a lot like roasted marshmallows. I haven’t burned it yet, so I’m hoping it works as well as the Marine Mist. Gotta love those cheesy names.

Touch was kind of a weird one because I’m mostly touching my keyboard. But I thought maybe for those times I’m not typing, a bowl of sea glass might provide some tactile stimulation. I don’t know if it works, but I like playing with it when I’m supposed to be working.

Sound is a difficult one for me. I can’t listen to music while I write, even classical music or soundtracks. I start humming along, directing the orchestra, making up silly lyrics to the songs. I am so easily distracted. The other day, though, I saw a whole CD of beach sounds. So I got it and played it while I was doing edits on my first book. It didn’t distract me. Whether it helped, or just made me have to go to the bathroom more often, I don’t know.

Finally, taste. According to the workshop I listened to, mint is supposed to make your mind sharper and help you concentrate. To me, that sounds like a good excuse to stock up on Peppermint Patties. Because chocolate can only improve mint, right?

Whether any of these things actually make me a better writer, I don’t know. However, they can be fun things to play around with to see if they light a fire under your muse. And as long as you don’t use them to procrastinate (do as I say, not as I do), they can’t hurt. Well, unless you forget about the candle and burn your house down. Or eat too many Peppermint Patties and your butt gets so big you can’t fit in your chair.

Oh never mind.

Feel free to share what has sparked your muse.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Go Somewhere Else

Really. This has nothing to do with my trying to wrestle back my blog from the male chauvinists who've absconded with it. Seriously. There's just a couple of other good blogs out there y'all might want to check out. I mean that.

Dineen Miller has an interview with suspense queen Brandilyn Colllins this week on her blog.

Robin Miller is doing a series on agents and this week has Sha-Shana Crichton as a guest.

And Christopher Fisher is doing an awesome job relaying his experience at Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program, University of Southern Maine. The post “Day Two (continued again): Ann Hood, Narrativity and Film” is an excellent summary of story elements and presents some great thoughts that we can all apply to our WIPs.

Besides, nothing has burned at my house lately and I’m not injured, so I don’t have anything to say.

And no one really wants to read the comments from the last post, I'm sure. Nope. Nothin' there, so don't even bother to look.