Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What’s Doing in My Writer’s Lair

By Kay Kendall

When I write, my dog Wills sleeps on the floor beside my chair, with his head resting on my foot. He prefers my lap, but he makes do with my foot as second best. He is a cavalier King Charles spaniel, a breed preferred by royalty as “comfort” dogs in Western Europe beginning five centuries ago.

HERE IS WILLS KENDALL, age 6.5 years old.
Portraits of the royal houses of Spain, France, and England often include depictions of these little spaniels. The earliest portrait including one of these small spaniels was painted by Titian in 1538.

Queen Victoria’s first dog was a King Charles spaniel. His name was Dash, and she doted on him. Dash is included in the television version of the young queen’s life now showing on PBS. Since these dogs have spent 500+ years doting on their royal masters, it pleases me to giggle and think of my feet as sort of royal.
My husband Bruce and I have rescued rabbits for more than twenty years. Our current three bunnies—Midnight, Smokey, and Jack—are jealous of Wills. They are never allowed to frolic in the writer’s lair, my name for the hovel of a messy bedroom where I write. The three long-eared wonders reside next door in my husband’s study. Sometimes Jack escapes, and then he always hightails it down the hall and into my lair. When Jack sees one of us coming to extract him from the lair, he squeezes behind furniture to hide. Rabbits can be very stubborn...and always, always cute. (Wills insists that I add that he is also extremely cute. Indeed, he is.)
While I write, I often listen to classical music. Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Chopin and their like. The volume must stay subdued, otherwise I get drawn too far into the glorious melodies.  I cannot write while listening to music with singing. The words fight with those in my head that are trying to make their way out to paper.
Authors are often asked how much outlining they do before they begin to write their books. For my first two mysteries—DESOLATION ROW and RAINY DAY WOMEN—I had the arc of the story, but no details. I knew who committed the crimes and why, but not exactly what the other suspects had done to bring scrutiny to themselves. I made up those details as I went along, as my characters grew on the pages.

I always know the personalities of my characters ahead of time and let them fulfill their destinies. From them come the plot twists and turns. It’s tricky, throwing in red herrings here and there. An author must play fair and drop a few hints, but not give away the whole game. Readers want to be fooled, although they love trying to guess who done it.
I’m now in the midst of writing my third mystery. I have planned its plot out more than I did for the first two, but I don’t claim to be a voracious outliner. Some authors I know go into such detail that their outlines end up filling 30 pages. I used to feel guilty not doing that. Now, however, I have heard enough bestselling writers say that it is fine to do whatever works for the individual writer. The guilt is banished, pretty much.
I edit as I go along. I cannot bear to rush through a first draft, leaving ugly sentences in my wake. Of course, after a sort-of first draft is done, I return and do umpteen drafts all over again. All the while, I berate myself for not writing perfect sentences the first time through. One of these days I need to post a sign on my corkboard in front of me that says . . . ALL GREAT WRITING COMES FROM REWRITING. In short, I am not a fast writer. I surely do wish I were though.
Want to read the first 20 pages of Kay Kendall’s second mystery, RANY DAY WOMEN? Go to her website That book won two awards at the Killer Nashville conference in August 2016—for best mystery/crime and also for best book. Her first novel about Austin Starr‘s sleuthing, DESOLATION ROW, was a finalist for best mystery at Killer Nashville in 2014. Visit Kay on Facebook


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Words of Resistance

by J.M. Phillippe

On January 15th, 2017, I made my way out to the front of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library to attend a rally.

At about 10 minutes after the officially posted start time, a young girl that no one could really see started singing the national anthem in a clear strong voice. There was no MC, no announcement that the rally was officially starting, and there was a long silence while the first speaker made her way to the podium, which, the crowd noted shortly after, was too low on the steps. The volume of the microphones was also too low, and shouts of "louder!" came from the people furthest back.

It took a few readers -- each coming up to the podium, saying their names and telling the crowd what they were reading-- but finally someone pulled a microphone from a stand, asked the crowd if they were loud enough, and stood high enough up on the steps to get a huge roar of approval.

The empty podium, abandoned in the cold, became a symbol for the rally itself: when the people speak, its time for a change.

The PEN America sponsored Writers Resist rally was a solid two-and-half hours of authors, poets, and even politicians reading excerpts from Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, and of course, Martin Luther King Jr. -- as well as many many others -- in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and in protest against an incoming presidential administration that regularly attacks the media and individual writers. Former United States poet laureates read inaugural poems from past administrations, and many other writers shared their own work, some written specifically for the occasion. There were readers and writers of every race, from myriad countries of birth, and from a multitude of backgrounds.

The themes of the readings were about fighting for freedom, standing up for democracy, and finding a place as a American when so many others might tell you that you don't belong. Some people read song lyrics (a reading of Frank Zappa's "It Can't Happen Here" stands out), and others read parts of the constitution, including the First Amendment. The battle, the thing everyone was there to resist, was the silencing of words. Audre Lorde's quote, made into a poster, was held above the crowd: "your silence will not protect you."

As a writer in the crowd slowly inching her way closer and closer to that empty podium and the readers standing several steps above it, I felt like I was getting a master class in the power of words. Even as the cold numbed my toes and fingers, and my feet ached from standing still for too long, my ears still caught carefully constructed lines, doing what precise prose and perfect poetry always does: inform, impress, and inspire.

While I found much of it moving, it was the inaugural poems that got me thinking. The first president to have an inaugural poem was John F. Kennedy.

"When power leads man to arrogance," Kennedy is reported to have said, "poetry reminds him of his limitations. "

When power narrows the area of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses." 

According to Wikipedia, only four other presidential inaugurations had poets prepare something for the occasion: Bill Clinton's two inaugurations, and Barack Obama's two inaugurations. That hasn't stopped me, and indeed others, from imagining what poetry might inspire President-Elect Donald Trump. As I listened to speaker after speaker reading words about what it means to fight for freedom, I tried to imagine what sort of words Trump reads, what philosophers, what authors, what poets.

As the saying goes, "watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions." We are all shaped by what we read, the stories we take in, the ideas we absorb. More than the President-Elect's tax returns, I want to see his reading list. I want to know what words will guide this new president; I fear the only words he cares about are his own, that he is a president without poetry.

I fear that he is a president that would rather censor the press than face criticism, that his attacks on the media are part of a greater attack on free speech. I fear that because he "knows all the words," and "has the best words" he thinks he doesn't need to listen, to read, and to learn.

So I gathered with hundreds of others in New York City (and hundreds more across the country) to listen to words, and to march to Trump Tower with a pledge to defend the First Amendment (signed by over 160,000 people) and to shout more words, as is my constitutional right. Peaceful protest (and not so peaceful) has been a part of every great change America has ever made. Our country was founded in protest of another country the people who made their way to our shores thought was unjust. The Founding Fathers wanted to create a space where democracy would thrive and understood that this could not happen if the very tools of the revolution they fought -- including protest -- weren't protected. Every social revolution brings us ever closer to those ideals fought so hard for: a more perfect union with equality for all.

But not everyone has made the same study of those words, and many do not share the same vision for what equality looks like. As another saying goes: when you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. For every person who wants to make America great again, there is another who is still trying to find a way to make it great for the first time, to find their place under the great umbrella of "for all." For this second group of Americans, words of resistance -- resistance to settling, to taking less, to living in despair -- are what keep them going, keep them hoping, keep them dreaming.

And keep them reading, and keep them writing. Our very constitution is a poem to the ideals of freedom. This country was founded on the promise of words. I marched to help hold our country to that promise. And whenever I can, I will brave cold or heat and crowds and shouts to hear that promise spoken again and again.

Words have power. It's why people in power fight so hard to silence them. And its also why writers will always be at the heart of every resistance.

* * *
J.M. Phillippe is the author of Perfect Likeness and the short story The Sight. She has lived in the deserts of California, the suburbs of Seattle, and the mad rush of New York City. She works as a family therapist in Brooklyn, New York and spends her free-time decorating her tiny apartment to her cat Oscar Wilde’s liking, drinking cider at her favorite British-style pub, and training to be the next Karate Kid, one wax-on at a time.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Writing Rehearsal

by Paula Gail Benson

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!

How do you get happily published? Submit carefully crafted writing.

And, how do you ensure that your submissions are carefully crafted? Write extensively.

Do you have to write every day? Some authors manage without, but I remember what happened when I tried to improve my piano playing and left off practicing until the day before the lesson. The result was passable, but not as polished as it could have been if I had built on a daily habit.

While music and writing may be inspiring to their listeners, they don’t emerge from the muse by someone simply placing their fingers on a keyboard. Music and writing have to be worked out in advance before you can sell tickets to the audience.

Acting is another creative activity that requires prep time. The first reading of a line may “feel” perfect, but once you’ve rehearsed it, you realize more subtle nuances, ways to play off fellow actors, or timed reactions that are funnier or more poignant than the original interpretation.

Pianists and writers are solo performers. Only by repeated practice do they learn the methods that will best charm and involve an audience. One of the greatest joys of a performer can be the private discovery of how a musical or written piece should be presented.

That joy is compounded when they hear the audience’s reaction. The true moment when the muse touches you is when you realize the perfect order and symmetry for your work. An actor or pianist may receive a more instant gratification in hearing applause, but what writer doesn’t relish listening to a reader tell him how his words and stories have changed a life?

Practice is necessary for performances because to act or play piano is an extension of self. The way we turn writing into that extension is to: (1) sit down to write with purpose, and (2) embrace the discoveries made.

By developing a writing habit, you can let the daily discoveries soak in until they become a part of your writer self. You learn to recognize those “tricks” that attract your audience’s attention. Then, you refine them in order to make them appear natural, so they become craft and your audience doesn’t perceive them at all, but is completely involved in the story and hates to see it end. This is the objective of every artist: to tell the story well and leave the listeners satisfied.

Walter Moseley said that when writing becomes a daily practice, the writer completes projects and his subconscious begins to assist him even when he’s not writing because the constancy of the task has become so strong. (Why does his concept make me think I hear, “May the force be with you,” echoing in my head?)

Linda Rodriguez has written some inspiring recent messages about becoming motivated to write and making the decision to be a writer. Both feature excerpts from her recent book, Plotting the Character Driven Novel, which is terrific.

If youre still contemplating New Years resolutions, here are a few books that have recommendations to help you develop a daily writing schedule: 

The Divine Guide to Creating a Daily Writing Practice by Pernille Norregaard. This inspirational text includes many quotations from established authors (like Walter Moseleys theory above) and emphasizes how to effectively build a habit.

Lifelong Writing Habit: The Secret to Writing Every Day by Chris Fox. By illustrating how he changed his entire life through developing consistent practices, Fox shows the path to more effective writing and offers exercises to achieve that goal.

The Eight-Minute Writing Habit: Create a Consistent Writing Habit That Works With Your Busy Lifestyle by Monica Leonelle. This guide offers a modified Pomodoro Method of timed writing. By limiting the writing period to eight minutes, Leonelle contends it creates a habit that is easy to incorporate into any lifestyle and capable of ensuring at least 250 per day, which could lead to 90,000 words in a year.