Intense Experiences Color Your World and Your Writing

October 15, 2019

Last month, I unexpectedly found myself caring for two older relatives during — what I had no idea would be — the end of their lives. Throughout an intense 6-week timespan, I became a primary care giver and dealt with doctors and nurses. Following the sudden death of one relative, I made funeral arrangements. Then, I dealt with different doctors and nurses at a hospital, a nursing home and finally hospice for the other relative. The second death was somewhat expected, after which I interacted with a different funeral home. It wasn’t the decision making that was hard, it was the reality of dealing with life and death. The 2 deaths were just 15 days apart. This was one of the hardest and most intense experiences of my life.

Dealing with life and death has changed me. 

 

I’m sad and will be for some time to come. I also feel honored and blessed to have done the very best I could, with God’s help and guidance. Some days I can’t believe how much changed during that short time period. Although I’m relieved the intensity has ended, everyday things now seem trivial. How do you go from doing something so important to working a regular job, cooking dinner, folding clothes? From past experience with the death of loved ones, I know these feelings will fade in time.

As I contemplated what to blog about, my planned posts on genre or story form just didn’t cut it.

My experience is hardly unique. People deal with death all the time. I have always had great respect for medical professionals, in particular the care givers and hospice workers. What was so heart-wrenching for me is a true calling for those in the field. I thank God for those people.

It’s said that we reveal parts of ourselves in our writing and I’m no different. I’m a pantser by industry standards, an intuitive writer to the rest of my friends. I go with the flow, let my intuition direct the story line. My recent experience has colored my world and will color my writing. It has touched me in ways I can see and in other ways I may never recognize. I do know one thing. It has changed me and eventually will show up in my writing. Maybe in a hospital scene or an emotional scene with a character dying. Probably in an unexpected form.

My life experiences direct my writing.

 

My fiction includes material drawn from my dating life in my teens and 20s, from social interactions that took place years ago and I didn’t even know I remembered until I wrote them into a character’s life. Material comes from workplace people and happenings, from vacations, from my life. Sometimes, I’m surprised when these memories surface in my writing; sometimes I’m not. I never plan these scenes; they simply bubble up at the right time.

Here’s to my relatives who are now hanging out in heaven. I salute you. I miss you. I’ll be seeing you again soon, in the pages of my fiction.

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Here It Is! I Found It! In the Candlelight.

September 3, 2019

I shuffled through the bedroom to the adjoining bathroom wondering why it was so light in the room. Squinting at the bedside clock, my eyes opened wide. The digital clock was blank. I looked around the room suspiciously, wondering if one of my cats had somehow pulled the plug.

Shaking my head, I continued to the bathroom and flipped on the light switch. Nothing happened. I groaned, completed my morning routine and ventured into the kitchen where my boyfriend was reading the paper.

His head appeared over the newspaper. “Power went out an hour ago.”

Glancing at the clock, I understood why it was so much lighter in the bedroom. I grunted, got out a bowl with oatmeal and opened the microwave door. “Oh. Duh. Let’s go out for breakfast.”

“OK, the power will probably be on by the time we get back. It never goes off long here.”

candle2

He was wrong.

That evening, as he found our flashlights and battery-powered radio, I lit candles throughout the main floor rooms. The candles imbued a dreamy ambiance. The only problem was that I kept tripping over our black cat.

“This is great.” I plumped up the cushions on the living room and settled in with a thick book. “How often do you get to read with no other demands?”

He raised his eyebrows. “You’re not going to write?”

“Nah. Still not in the mood. I’m only about half recharged from our train trip.” (My earlier post – Big Sky, Blank Paper – explains how I had run out of creative energy, was unable to write, and needed to recharge.)

The next evening, I got home from work to find the power still out. We went through the same routine as the previous evening, except I was all read out.

“Why are you pacing?” my boyfriend asked.

I shrugged. “Dunno. Restless.”

I looked around the quiet, peaceful room with its multiple candles flickering from the slight breeze wafting in through the open windows, and I was compelled to sit down and write. My calico cat curled up next to me and I breathed in the scent of the rose candles on the mantle. With my writing pad on my lap and my favorite gel pen in hand, I wrote. I was calm. I was thoughtful. The words flowed.

candle1

The third evening, I again lit my candles and settled down for an evening of writing. And then we heard a click.

The lights and fans turned on. Through the open windows, we heard the neighbors cheering and we joined in with delight. Relief mingled with disappointment. Writing would not be on the agenda that evening.

The fridge and freezer needed to be cleaned out, laptops and phones charged, candles and flashlights put away… writing would have to wait for the following day.

As I threw away spoiled food, gratitude welled up. Losing electricity had prompted a personal recharge (and an appreciation for all the things electricity provides). I had found my way back to my happy writing place.

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What is My Main Character Doing Now?

August 20, 2019

I’m a pantser when I write; I’m a plotter in most other aspects of my life.

When I wrote the previous sentence, I believed it; however, by the time I finished writing this post, I realized it’s not true, so I left it and added this sentence. Just like a pantser.

People in the writing industry know the terms “pantser” and “plotter”. Early in my fiction writing, I went to a writing conference session led by Dr. Stanley D. Williams. According to his web site, he’s an international award-winning video producer, filmmaker and show creator.

Although Williams is a movie guy, his expertise translates easily into book writing – it’s all about the story, after all. During his presentation, he mentioned pantsers and plotters. My writer friend and I immediately said to each other in unison: “What did he say?”.

In my own words:

scribbled notes

“Pantsers” begin writing with only a few ideas of what will happen in the story They may have a main character and conflict and determine the rest, or they may just sit down and write, see what character is formed, what conflict develops. This is the way I write.

“Plotters” outline the entire book from start to finish. They know all the characters, all the conflicts, in what order these conflicts will occur, who will do what to whom, and how the book will be resolved.

writing outline

There are variations within each. Most people are somewhere in the middle but lean toward one or the other.

A thousand years ago when I had to write papers in college, all the professors insisted we turn in an outline first. They didn’t care (or didn’t believe me) when I told them I didn’t use outlines. I wrote all my papers well ahead of the due dates so I could then write the outline from the paper. I guess all my professors were plotters.

I don’t like word counts – I often say “it’ll be as long or as short as it needs to be” although when I’m writing a novel, I do keep an eye on word count so I know when to put in conflicts or resolve them. I’m guessing that plotters know the exact page on which they introduce or resolve a conflict. I have no idea how to do that. Plotters probably can’t conceive of how I write either.

According to Williams, there are drawbacks to each approach. Again, in my own words:

A pantser may have to rewrite if the story goes somewhere unexpected. They may have to change or add characters, add foreshadowing, change some plot lines. I once had a character change from a bad guy to a good guy halfway through so I had to change all the bad guy foreshadowing early in the manuscript.

I’m often surprised by what the people in

my stories do.

A plotter may be so bored by writing what they already know is going to happen that it can be difficult to see the writing all the way through. Also, if they want to change something, then they have to change the whole outline.

So, how do these terms translate into other areas of my life? Ten minutes ago, when I started writing this, I would have said I’m a plotter. But I’m not. I do a general plan but leave some things open. Exactly like I write.

When I vacation, I book the flight and hotels and a few activities. I leave plenty of time open for the unexpected. I once took a train across country at the last minute – one of my best trips ever.

My work is strategic planning, marketing and outreach. I begin with a definite plan and, even though I have years of experience determining what motivates people to buy or give or come back, you can never say for sure what people will do. So, I allow time and room to adapt the original plan after it’s launched.

As for relationships in my life, well, um, you can’t plan those, can you? Lol.

When people are involved, you can’t plan in detail. At least I can’t. Just like in real life, I’m often surprised by what the people in my stories do. This can be good or bad, but it’s most always fun – at least in stories.

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Photos by Fabian Grohs, Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash

 


Nature AND Nurture

May 28, 2019

I started writing stories as a child. My first story was about Bennie the Green Bean, and I decided I was going to write children’s books. I eventually majored in Journalism in college. At that time, it never occurred to me to try and make a living writing fiction.

green beans
Photo by Sonja Langford on Unsplash

After more than 20 years working in communications, marketing and public relations, I decided it was time. Time to write my novel. I wasn’t getting any younger. Plus, I had honed my writing skills for years, so knew I could whip out great novels in no time. Ha.

After writing a few days, I began pulling books off my shelves and analyzing them. How much description? How much dialogue? How many characters? Where do you put in the backstory? How do you start the backstory? How many words are in a novel?

 These are just 2 of the many bookshelves in my home office.

I was shocked that I didn’t inherently know these things; after all, I had been a voracious reader my entire life. This was harder than I had expected.

As I wrote, I had more questions. How long are chapters? What point of view should I use? Can I write male characters convincingly? I sought out advice and kept writing.

A few other writers attempting to transition from business writing to fiction writing scoff at my advice-seeking and learning the craft of fiction writing. They’re not going to classes or reading books on craft. They’re writing. They say that’s enough. And maybe it is for them.

Other friends expect me to churn out novels because I’ve been writing my whole life. I know they don’t understand it either. “You’re such a good writer,” they say. “How come your books aren’t published yet?”

writing-monsters-book.jpg

I’ve attended writing conferences, devoured books on plot, description, character development, and more. Recently, I read a book on how to write about monsters by Philip Athans.

Books and conferences are my candy. I soak up the advice and fully engage in the conference sessions, determining what works for me. My friends laugh and their eyes glaze over as I explain the elements that go into creating a scene or writing dialogue. I enthuse endlessly about what I’m learning. I can’t get enough of this stuff. My fiction writing is so much better than when I started out a few years ago. It’s hard to believe how much I’ve learned.

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One of the books I read early in this journey is “On Writing” by Stephen King. He mentions that he is always reading a book on craft. What? Stephen King? I think he is a wonderful storyteller and a gifted writer. When I read that, I thought, “I should do that, too!” That book was published in 2000, so I don’t know if he still does that.

Writing speeches, articles, white papers, strategic plans, press releases and web site copy is not the same as writing fiction. That’s not to say all those years writing don’t help me now; they do, in so many ways.

Of course, I wish I could have sat down and written the great American novel without advice, books, classes or conferences, but it didn’t happen. That’s okay. I’m slowly finding my way. This is an unexpected journey and I am enjoying the ride.

Do you think writing is a talent or a learned skill? What writing resources have you found to help you in your journey?

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Describe, Qualify, Modify, Alter, Delete

May 14, 2019

Some common advice for writing fiction is to use very few adjectives and adverbs. This is additional advice I don’t like, and I didn’t understand it at first. How could I describe settings and scenes and facial expressions? Plus, I was moving from writing press releases, speeches and business reports, to writing fiction, so I was excited to use adjectives.

writing report

Photo by Bram Naus on Unsplash

As I pondered this disappointment and continued writing, I began to understand the directive, although I phrase it differently. Instead, I use adjectives and adverbs judiciously. A friend put it better: “You use them sparingly, and they are very visual”.

Examples abound online, so I’ll just include a short example of an unnecessary adverb.

#1.  “I don’t care,” he said angrily.

#2.  “I don’t care,” he said, pounding his fist on the table.

Which one is more visual?

I also use the words “very” and “really”, and I have to go back and delete them. “Very hot.” “Really big.” How about scalding and gigantic. More descriptive.

I’ve heard the overuse of modifiers called lazy writing. I get that now. There are so many more ways to add description – through dialogue, action, and backstory, to name a few.

As I learned to limit my adjectives and adverbs to make them more effective, I discovered other writing devices. Metaphors and similes and onomatopoeia and analogy. These are fun! So, now, I probably use these too much.

eagle

Avoid clichés. “Soar like an eagle.”

A metaphor is a comparison to add description. A simile is another descriptive comparison but it uses “like” or “as”.

Analogies compare things more directly. — “My house is as important to me as play-doh is to my 5-year-old daughter.”

Personification gives human traits to an inanimate object. — “That pie is calling my name.”

 

Onomatopoeia

{On-uh-ma-tuh-pee-uh}

And my favorite: onomatopoeia. These are words that sound like actions. — “The horse clip-clopped down the path.” “Waves sloshed on the shoreline.” I like the way onomatopoeia is spelled, the way it looks when written out, and the way it sounds. It’s a cool word.

horses

Photo by Jorge Dominguez on Unsplash

Waves sloshed on the shoreline as the horse clip-clopped through the pebbles. The rider felt free, out of the desert at last, like she could spread her wings and do anything. The award meant as much to her as spaghetti and meatballs meant to her Italian mother-in-law. The sun celebrated with her, warming her face, and causing the water to sparkle like diamonds.

A good day.

What literary device is your favorite? And what word do you use way, way, way too often?

Note: My apologies to the English and grammar police if I have misrepresented any terms in this post. I’ve described things as I understand them.

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