Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Stretching Out of My Comfort Zone

by J.M. Phillippe

It all starts with an idea. What if...?

And then you have a choice -- follow through with the idea, or don't. Not following through is easy. You just have to avoid taking any action.

But following through often means doing something new, stepping out of your comfort zone, taking some sort of risk.

This year, I am putting out a Christmas-themed novella. I have never written a holiday-themed story before, so this is all new territory. There is the added stress that I have a very tight deadline to get this story done.

The fun / hard part is having to think about Christmas stuff when in the middle of a heat wave. At this point, "Christmas in July" is a cliche, but I have found myself listening to Christmas carols, and watching Christmas movies to help me get in the mood for my story.

It has definitely been hard to concentrate on Christmas themes with fireworks going off, but it has also been nice to keep some of that holiday cheer up year round. I even have some decorations out for visual inspiration.

Trying something new always feels at least a little risky. And while all writing feels risky, stepping outside of your usual genre or style feels like an even bigger leap than usual. My fear and anxiety is at war with my excitement, and any given day one or the other wins. Good writing days, the excitement wins. Bad writing days, the fear wins.

I find this same fear vs excitement battle happening in other parts of my life, forcing me to take deep breaths, control my catastrophizing thinking, and remind myself that the stakes are not nearly as high as my emotions want me to feel they are.

In the end, I know I will be proud for stepping outside of my comfort zone, whatever happens with the book. That's what I keep holding on to whenever the fear threatens to take over -- there is going to be another side of this feeling. All I have to do is plow through, endure the discomfort, and make it to that other side.


J.M. Phillippe is the author of the novels Perfect Likeness and Aurora One and the short stories, The Sight and Plane Signals. She has lived in the deserts of California, the suburbs of Seattle, and the mad rush of New York City. She works as a clinical social worker in Brooklyn, New York and spends her free time binge-watching quality TV, drinking cider with amazing friends, and learning the art of radical self-acceptance, one day at a time.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Lexington (SC) Serious Writers' Tour with Steven James, Michelle Medlock Adams, and Bethany Jett

Bethany Jett
by Paula Gail Benson

In May, the local Word Weavers group, an affiliate of Word Weavers International, brought the Serious Writer One Day Tour to the Riverbend Community Church in Lexington, S.C. If you’re looking for excellent craft and business instruction, I suggest you check out the offerings at http://www.seriouswriter.com. The organization, operating since 2015, has online classes as well as the one-day programs and appearances at conferences.


Michelle Medlock Adams
The instructors who attended the Lexington meeting were Michelle Medlock Adams, a journalist and award-winning author of primarily children’s books and devotionals; Bethany Jett, co-founder of The Serious Writer and Vice-President of Platinum Literary Services, whose work includes devotionals, ghostwriting, and marketing; and Steven James, who I knew as a prolific thriller writer and terrific writing instructor, whose craft books include Story Trumps Structure and Troubleshooting Your Novel. I also learned that he had written a significant number of books for the inspirational market.


I decided to attend the program because I had heard Steven James speak at Killer Nashville and I knew he taught a highly respected novel writing intensive course with Robert Dugoni, limited to twelve participants each year. His presentations for the Serious Writer tour were very generous, including specific techniques and excellent handouts to help with crafting twists, creating suspense, and revising problem areas. While I spent most of my time at Steven James’ sessions, I also very much enjoyed the portions of the program where all the authors joined in to give tips about the process of marketing a book and using social media. The day was full of good advice and fellowship.


Steven James
Following are some great lists of information that James provided for improving story telling:

Aspects of Story Telling

(1) orientation, which lets a reader know where the story takes place, then provides the hook that gives the impetus for escalation;

(2) crisis or calling, which is what goes wrong, turns the world upside down, and makes the protagonist respond;

(3) escalation, which occurs as things get worse and is in two parts: (a) the moment of despair and darkness, and (b) the inevitable, unexpected conclusion; and, finally, as the story ends, are:

(4) discovery, and

(5) transformation.

James recommended that every story is driven by tension and every scene should end with a plot twist. To be satisfying, plot twists should be:

(1) unexpected;

(2) inevitable;

(3) an escalation of what preceded it; and

(4) a revelation of what went before.


He categorized the five types of plot twists as:

(1) identity;

(2) awareness;

(3) complexity (example: a sting operation);

(4) cleverness; and

(5) peril.


James listed four essentials for creating suspense:

(1) reader empathy (that is, providing a character trait or desire with which a reader can identify, for example, to love and be loved or to have an adventure);

(2) reader concern (giving reasons why a reader should care about the characters);

(3) impending danger (physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, or relational); and

(4) escalating tension.


Finally, he offered four questions to ask when solving plot problems:

(1) what would the character naturally do?

(2) how can I make things worse?

(3) how can I add twists or take the story in a new direction?

(4) what promises have I made that I have not yet kept?


Steven James said that that everything you write is a promise and that in fiction a writer has both stated and implied promises. In distinguishing among mystery, suspense, and horror, he gave the following characteristics:

(1) mysteries are intellectual, not emotional activity where the detective is two steps ahead of the reader;

(2) suspense deals with important life matters where the reader is two steps ahead of the characters and wants to stop the danger; and

(3) horror allows the gruesome event to happen with the reader and characters in the same place.


If you want to read more, please check out Steven James’ website, http://www.stevenjames.net/, and his recorded interviews with other writers at https://www.thestoryblender.com/.


And, if one of the Serious Writer tours or events is coming near you, you’ll find it a great program to attend!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Sock Stories by Debra H. Goldstein

SOCK STORIES by Debra H. Goldstein
Have you ever noticed the socks a person wears? Like the words a writers put on paper, each pair tells a story or evokes images or feelings.

For example, my husband wears dark socks to his office because he has bought into the theory that they look more  look more professional than gym socks, but his disinterest in how he dresses is reflected by his unwillingness to take the time to match the color of his socks to the shade of his slacks. He’s just as likely to wear black with brown as he is to grab a pair of brown socks. Joel is most comfortable in gym socks and sneakers. To my chagrin, his yucky looking tube socks and an old pair of slip-ons are the image indelibly pressed into our neighbors’ minds when they seem him going outside every morning to retrieve his precious newspaper.

A young man I know tells a different story through his sock choices. He considers himself to be a player. Consequently, he coordinates the sharpest socks I’ve ever seen with tailor made suits and shirts, as well as specialized pocket handkerchiefs or patterned ties.

Personally, I’ve always been fond of wearing socks that tell a story or bring a memory back to me. I wear Chanukah, Mah jongg, and other holiday socks to make a statement for the moment, much as one does with a Christmas sweater. On a bad day, I choose between the comfort afforded by two pairs of warm soft fuzzy socks.

Last week, when we took a family cruise to Alaska, the socks I ended up wearing not only created a story for the moment, but became part of memories I will pull up in the future.

The ages in our group ranged from five to seventy-five. I wasn’t the oldest, but I easily was the group’s cattle herder. Before we sailed, I reminded everyone to bring passports, cold weather and rain gear (and of course our coldest day was 72 degrees and the only time it rained was once while we were sleeping), and other essentials. I chided, sent e-mails, and while packing managed to leave my air pushed out of it plastic bag of socks on the dining room table.

I arrived on the ship with only the striped sneaker socks I was wearing, but never fear, cruise ships sell everything. That is why I am now the owner of pink and purple socks that all say Alaska and have moose heads, full sized mooses, bears, and something I’m not sure of on them.

Each morning, as I pulled on a pair of these socks, they reminded me I was sharing Alaska with people who matter to me more than anything else. The animals, background mountains, and whatever it was on one pair that I wasn’t sure of, also made a statement that this would be a day of new experiences and beautiful terrain.

Our most varied day was in Juneau. For us, it was the day of the glaciers. Joel and I took the most sedate way of seeing them – busing and hiking to lookout points, but even from a distance, the beauty of massive pieces of ice broken from the main glacier fascinated me. What I saw and the ranger’s movie made me ever so much more aware of global warming because of how the glacier itself has receded. My daughter and her husband kayaked out to the glacier; my two sons took a float plane into the glacier area; and our five year old grand-daughter and her parents visited a dog camp and rode a dog sled. Everyone came back to the ship impressed by what we experienced.

From now on, whenever I put on a pair of my Alaskan socks, I will remember the looks of happiness everyone had while telling me about their day.

My initial anger at forgetting my socks has been replaced by the stories my new ones will always unlock. Whenever I see the pink moose or either "Moose Hug" or "Alaska" on my socks, memories and scenes from the cruise will be triggered – much as words create mental images in a good book, short story or poem.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

My Murder Mystery Notes by Juliana Aragon Fatula

Dear Readers, 

I've taken some notes in my study of how to write a mystery and today I share some of them with you. These may be from one writer or several. I've read books by the following writers on writing mysteries:  

Linda Rodriguez' Plotting the Character Driven Novel recommends these books on writing: Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life, Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer, Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, Julia Cameron's The Artists Way, Stephen King's On Writing: A memoir of the Craft, Madeleine L"Engle's A circle of Quiet, Leonard Bishop's Dare to Be a Great Writer, Elizabeth George's Write Away, One Writer's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, Brenda Ueland's, If You Want to Write a Book About Art, independence, and Spirit, John Gardener's On Becoming A Novelist, Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, Ursula K. LeGuin's Steering the Craft: Exercise and Discussion on Story Writing for the  Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.

On learning to read like a writer Linda Rodriquez suggests, "Read the first time the way any reader does for enjoyment and delight to find out what happens next. Then, read over and over, very slowly, Read and ponder. Read like a writer reads for techniques. These writers are our teachers...learn everything you can from them. Learn from the best. Then go practice some of those good techniques in your own work...You're a writer. Think on paper." 

Deborah Coonts, "Give your characters one or two eccentricities. Too many weird traits and too many offbeat characters and they start to blend together. Make them memorable."

Roberta Isleib, "The writer must build an urgency to solve the crime into the character's history and psychology, your character should learn new things about herself, and she should change because of what she learns."

Deborah Turrell Atkinson, "The most interesting conflicts usually combine internal and external threats and examine the reactions under pressure. The protagonist learns skills and acquires wisdom throughout the story, so t hat she/he is prepared for the final confrontation. She needs to grow and change. Add the unexpected. Life does that. 

John Westerman, "Imagine a mixed gender of adults you know well, concentrate on their faults, weaknesses and exaggerate them. Do the same for their modest strengths. What divides them? Brings them joy or sorrow? Some will be brave but some will have hands that shake and voices break during confrontation. Now imagine these people as cops and hand them badges and guns and the power to cause great harm on themselves and others. Send them on a noble mission."

Mathew Dicks, "As a write you must be willing to step into the darkness. A villains life is never simple. Villains are not without villains. Remember this."

Hallie Ephron, "Choose details to reveal character. How does she/he stand, sit, walk, run? How does she/he show anxiety, upset, frustrations, elation, or surprise? Include some at outset and layer more as story moves forward. Fill the fictional world your character inhabits with props. If you carefully choreograph details, you choose to put on page, you can reveal protagonists and her/his backstory in layers. Etch her possessions and setting in your mind."

1. Treat your protagonist like you hate her/him. No struggle beans boring story. Obsessions, bad choices, faulty judgements, trust wrong people, blind to people and things that might help to solve murder investigation, believes in betrayers, obstacles to solving homicide, wrong direction, delay/damage, make things bad and then worse, scandal, blind to real motive, danger, disasters, storms, injury, failures, betrayal, thwart the desire, use physical injury, mechanical failures, rejection...

2. A scene many never be written just to kill time or provide atmosphere and must fulfill more than one purpose, advance our understanding of character, must move story forward, escalation, and conflict, tension, two reversals that work against protagonists efforts, the last so serious it feels thee is no way to overcome, raise the stakes, make it harder....

3. Stories begin at the moment of change, force protagonist to correct, gain, prevent, a threat from happening. The story of that struggle coincidences can never be used to help protagonist but will be believable if they favor the antagonist (killer). Fail or win at a terrible cost that it hardly feels like a win, a victory. The ending must be earned by protagonists' efforts, sacrifices, leading to their growth as a person. 

4. Make protagonist run a gauntlet of fear and hates, plan a scene around each of them. Design your story structure to fit the kind of story you're writing, make use of characters' flaws, vulnerabilities, fears, and desires, conflict with obsessions, passions, secrets of other characters...

5. Make sure each scene has a beginning question, conflict, resolution of some kind and a push toward next scene's question. Create rising tension in chapters through the book to the climax. 

6. Construct a situation where your protagonist is faced with a situation she/he cannot ignore. Establish the problem. Think of three lessons she/he must learn in order to vanquish the opponent. Don't make these easy, Give her/him some bruises. Think of three ways she/he gains wisdom. Does she/he listen to someone she scoffed at? Come up with three different twists that no one could be prepared for. They must be related to the issue. 

7. When you are feeling an emotion, take note of how it feels, in your head, in your gut, nerves. How are you breathing? How fatigued or excitable are you? Are you sweating? Tearful? Are you blushing? Repressing emotions is associated with physical sensations and external behaviors as well as expressing them, without vivid emotions there is no character arc. One whose emotions are well communicated can win reader's hearts...