Tuesday, March 24, 2015

And Then the Wheels Fell Off

This is a post about writing, but one can apply it to all kinds of life activities. It’s about that moment when I’m cooking along, writing, thinking “Oh yeah! Just gonna let the story take me where it will.” I’ve got the pedal to the metal, the radio blasting, letting the scenery flow past. After a while I slow down a little and wonder exactly where this thing is going, but I’m determined to not get in the way of this wonderful, organic process. After a while I reach a signpost. Which direction should I take? A few possibilities spring to mind and I pick one, telling myself that any direction is better than sitting still. I keep on going. Hey, this is great! Rocking down the road.

Wait! What’s that noise? Is it the transmission? Did I run over a branch and I’m dragging it? Uh oh. My heart sinks. I know what’s happening: The wheels are coming off. I screech to a halt and climb out to take a look.

Groan. It’s happened again. I’ve taken a wrong turn in my writing and the wheels have wobbled and wobbled….until they’ve fallen off. How do I know this is what’s happened?

1)   The action has ground to a halt and I don’t a clue what can possibly happen next.
2)   I’m bored. If I’m not excited about the story and where it’s headed, I can be sure my readers won’t be either.
3)   The characters seem to have wandered away and are doing things that have nothing to do with the story.
4)   I’m suddenly enthralled with the idea for my next book and think it would be a fine idea to start working on it right now.
5)   I self-righteously remember that I’ve been neglecting my promotion activities—especially social media. Time to go to Facebook and take a few quizzes that enlighten me about what color my aura is, or where I should be living. Hmmm. New York City? Maybe I should start packing.

Okay, now what?

I kick the tires. I whine. I wander around the house thinking of all the chores I should be doing. But oddly, none of these appeal to me. I do more social media. I clean the refrigerator.

But at some point (like I remember that I have a contract deadline looming), I turn around and trudge back down the road to find out where I went wrong. Invariably I’m shocked at the rookie mistakes that I’ve stumbled into that have taken me out of my story and led to the breakdown. Here are a few signals I look for to get the wheels back where they need to be. I list them from the mundane to the most serious:

1)   Remember when I said I was flying along “letting the scenery flow by?” Bad idea. When I stop grounding my characters firmly in their setting, that’s when they get the notion that they can go where they please. It’s all well and good saying, “the characters seemed to take over the story,” but in the end I’m responsible for them. It’s my job to keep them on task.
2)   Odd dialogue. I start looking at dialogue and sometimes I realize that one of the characters has said something that another one should have said or is completely out of character. They are trying to find their way back into their proper roles, and I’ve let them wander away.
3)   I’ve included some activity that doesn’t move the story forward. Action doesn’t always have to feed the main story line, but if it doesn’t it still has to have a real purpose. In a series, it may mean that a relationship or a back story is developing over time and the scene plays to that.  What it doesn’t mean is that a character can kick around doing something unrelated to the main or sub-story. Any development has to feed the story. If it doesn’t it’s going to stop me down the line.
4)   The premise needs tweaking. This can be a serious problem. It means I didn’t fully appreciate all the ramifications of the story idea and I may have to go back and do some serious rethinking. I’ve had to do it, and it’s a bear. But if I don’t do it, I’ll be on foot limping to the end—and then I’ll have to go back anyway and start over.

I said at the beginning that this doesn’t just have to be about writing. We all hit moments on any life project where everything stalls out. That’s when it’s time to go back and figure out where you ignored the signs that told you to go one way, and instead you went another. And to figure out what you have to do to get back on track.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Uncomfortable Conference Encounters

This week I’m writing about something that came as a result of my blog post about shyness. I have a friend who is outgoing, well spoken, interesting and always worth talking to. She read the post and said that what she doesn’t know how to handle is when she’s at a conference or party in conversation with someone, and that person is obviously scouting the room for “someone better” to see or be seen with.

It happens to all of use. You approach someone to be friendly, only to find that aren’t interested in conversing if you aren’t obviously someone who 1) can help their career, 2) is famous, or at least recognizable, or 3) is worth being seen with.

Even worse is when you get up the courage to talk to someone you admire, only to find that it pains them to have to be seen with someone not as important as they are. I’ve rarely encountered Mr. or Ms. Too Cool for the Masses Ninety percent of the well-known writers I’ve encountered are more than generous. With those few “stars” who can’t be bothered, there’s not much to be done except slink away and vow never to buy any of their books again.

I’m just as sensitive to this kind of bad manners as most people. Usually when it happens, I’m so humiliated that I pretend I see someone I know and say, “Excuse me, I see someone I need to talk to.” And I slink away and go talk to the wall. But if you really want to do something more, I’d say the way you handle it depends on how much you care—if you want to teach them a lesson or if you just want to extricate yourself and move on.

I’m not much for trying to teach a lesson because I think it’s a waste of time. But if I were feeling particularly snarky and annoyed, I probably would say something like, “I can see I’ve disturbed your search for someone. I’ll leave you to it.” At least it lets them know that their wandering eye isn’t lost on you.

But there’s another possibility. The person who is searching for “someone better” may actually be looking for someone. Or he may be tired, hungry, or grumpy about something that has nothing to do with you. Although there are polite ways to convey this, she may have reached the end of her ability to navigate the chaotic world of the conference.

The exceptionally entertaining, smart woman who talked to me about this said it makes her not like to go to conferences. That floored me. To think that someone as savvy as she is would allow herself to be turned away from what could be a valuable experience by someone who has no manners!

Bottom line the rude person is not worth one second of your attention, regardless of the reason for it. He or she may live in her own little hell of not being recognized enough. She may need something you can’t give her. Or, he may just be overwhelmed.

Bottom line: It’s not about you. Don’t let yourself be defined by people who don’t have good manners. Don’t let them waste your time for one moment. Have a stock phrase ready, like, “Nice chatting. Catch you later.” And walk away.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

For a Good Cause

Years ago my sister, mother of three children, started donating her time to CASA, working with a young girl whose parents were unable to care for her properly. Here’s what the CASA website says about its mission: “Every day in this country, 1,900 children become victims of abuse or neglect, and four of them will die. Every day. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children is a network of 951 community-based programs that recruit, train and support citizen-volunteers to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children in courtrooms and communities. Volunteer advocates—empowered directly by the courts—offer judges the critical information they need to ensure that each child’s rights and needs are being attended to while in foster care.”

Fast forward to last spring when I went on safari in Africa with a lively group of people. Four of them had retired to the panhandle section of West Virginia and were all on the board of their district’s CASA. As board members they work hard to raise money for CASA because West Virginia is the only state of the union that does not have a line item to fun this children’s advocacy system.

All of them had read my first two books and asked if I would consider being a part of their fundraising effort. I was delighted to do so. In May I will be attending several fundraising events that not only raise money for CASA but for their country library. One of the fun things they are doing is auctioning off the chance to be a character in my next book. The winner gets to choose whether or he or she wants to be a villain, a hero, or just folks.

To buy a chance costs only $10, and the money will go for a wonderful cause. I’d appreciate it if some of my readers would help these hard-working board members raise money for a good cause. Here’s the link:

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Don't be shy

Are you the kind of person who at the beach enters the water slowly, letting your body acclimate to the temperature, or do you plunge in for an exhilarating jolt?

Believe it or not, a few years ago I went to a high school reunion, and several people remarked to me, “You used to be so quiet and shy in high school.” Those of you who know me as a social chatterbox probably will have trouble with this image of me as a shy person. The kind of person who dips her toes in, then her ankles, until she finally can swim.

By contrast, I now fling myself into the water, and into social situations. I won’t say I don’t have moments of shyness. I’m as tongue-tied as the next person when I’m in the presence of a writer I really admire. (What to say that won’t make me fell like an idiot?)

With Left Coast Crime coming up and a whole year of wonderful conferences and workshops to contemplate, I hear worried comments about people feeling shy. “I’m an introvert. I don’t know what to say. What if no one talks to me? Everyone will know everyone else and I’ll be invisible.”

I used to have those same jitters. I hated small talk and thought it was a waste of time. But after a while I realized that small talk is the equivalent of sticking your toes in the water to get used to the temperature. It’s a way for a person who isn’t naturally chatty to warm up. Think of social interaction as an athletic event and that you are limbering up for the event.

To help me limber up, I realized that I needed to “think outward” rather than inward. That meant focusing on the person I was talking to, rather than focusing on myself. The idea was to short-circuit the “panic” questions—will she think I’m a fool? Will he roll his eyes to his companions the minute I walk away? Will the group ignore me? Will they pity me?—and plunge into the event.

So I learned to think of a few open-ended questions that I could use to break the ice. Here are a few:

For writers the questions are easy:

1)   What are you working on? You can ask ANY writer this, including the most celebrated. Be prepared to have your ear talked off. People love to talk about what they are working on.  But just in case you ask a writer who doesn’t want to talk about it, you could ask,
2)   What’s the best book you read last month? Or
3)   What have you read that you wish you had written? Or
4)   When will your next book be out? Did you have any problems with it that you usually don’t have?
5)   Any process question (where, when, and how do you work)

You may be talking to an agent. If you are looking for an agent, this is a situation guaranteed to make you tongue-tied. Remember: even agents are people. If you are at a conference, the agent knows fully well that some people are looking for agents and guess what? They are looking for clients! So approach them the way you would anyone, as if you are interested in who they are, not what they are. Here are some questions you could ask:

1)   What’s your favorite book that you acquired last year?
2)   Do you like being an agent? Why? Why not?
3)   What book did you read this year that you wish you had gotten your hands on as an agent?

Same with publishers:
1)   What’s your favorite book you ever published?
2)   Did you always know you wanted to be in publishing?
3)   Do you wish you could turn back the clock to when publishing was a less chaotic business?
4)   Do you think working on the computer has hurt or helped writers?

And of course you may run into a reader! Don’t ask what authors they like. People often feel put on the spot because like everyone else they get brain freeze when they are asked that. Instead ask:

1)   Were you a reader from a young age?
2)   Have your tastes changed over the years?
3)   How many books do you have in your TBR pile?

Or make up your own questions. But the trick is to have a few handy. The even greater trick is when you ask the question, listen to the answer. Somewhere in the answer is the next step.

Having some pre-planned questions up your sleeve will make your conference time sizzle.