Monthly Archives: November 2012

Every Day (Bridget P. Haines)

Writing is like lightning in a bottle. As authors, we often feel like we have to be struck by inspiration before we can sit down at the keys or with pen in hand, and put our ideas down. But if you want to write for a living, that isn’t a very helpful way to approach your craft.

I was in second grade when my mother decided I should take piano lessons. My foray into the musical arts didn’t last very long and, to be honest, I was a horrible pianist. I did take something away from those lessons, though. “Practice every day for at least one hour,” my teacher told me.

I wasn’t a good student; I hated practicing, and I stopped the lessons in a matter of weeks. It’s no surprise that I can barely play chopsticks some 33 years later. Professional musicians practice every day and that is why they are able to make a living at music.

In college, I was away from home for the first time. I wanted to be an art major, because I loved to draw. That lasted about three and a half years. I had some talent for two-dimensional art, but I was an impatient twenty-something and easily distracted by the new world around me.

One of my professors told me, “Draw every day, even if it’s just doodling.” I didn’t. I drew when the muse struck, and claimed I couldn’t draw otherwise, or if people were watching me, or on demand for assignments. I was rewarded for my excuses and lack of commitment with a slew of “C’s” in my art courses. Eventually, I switched majors and earned a degree in something that didn’t require me to be creative on demand.

I neglected to do something in both pursuits which might have made the difference between success and failure. I neglected to engage in my chosen craft every day. Two years ago, when I decided to give writing a real shot, I recognized that I would go down that same path to failure if I didn’t change my outlook on “practice.”

Write every day. I know what you’re thinking. “I don’t have ideas every day for my novel/story/memoirs.” So what? Who says you have to write that every day? Just do something directly related to your writing. Immerse yourself in the craft of writing every day, for at least an hour. Seven hours a week is not a huge commitment if this is something you want to succeed at.

“But Bridget,” you think, “I don’t have an hour of free time every day. I have work/kids/underwater basket weaving class.” I don’t recall saying it had to be a consecutive hour every day. 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there. Find those moments when you can focus on your craft. Tell your significant other and dependents that you are “On Duty” for that block of time. Turn off Facebook, the cell phone, the television, your email. Nothing is going to explode if you dedicate a few minutes to work on something important to you, right? And if you don’t make your hour today, add the time to tomorrow’s hour. At first, you may find yourself having to play catch-up on the weekends, but so be it.

I know some of you are looking at this, stumped over what to do for those seven hours a week if your muse is on vacation in Tahiti, sipping a drunken monkey on a beach, while you’re locked inside your brain trying to put thoughts to paper. Some ideas:

  • Write your story/novel/memoir. Duh. This is our goal, but it doesn’t make itself available to us every day. Some days, there seems to be a 30 foot-high wall between our ideas and our fingertips, locking away that all important route through our brain where ideas become prose. Some days, we have to do something else in order to break down that wall. Thus the rest of my suggestions.
  • Start a blog reviewing books, posting recipes, or telling jokes. My husband and I put together a small blog reviewing local food trucks. We try to post once every two weeks. It gets us used to deadlines and schedules, and also the practice of research (tasty, tasty research.)
  • Write little anecdotes for public consumption in a note on Facebook. I have a friend who puts up hilarious little slice-of-life snippets about incidents with her adorable son. It might not advance your novel, but it advances your ability to communicate a scene to a reader.
  • Read a book on writing and complete any provided exercises. There are thousands of resources out there. The more we learn, the better we write. One of my favorites is “On Writing” by Stephen King.
  • Doodle, or write up character sketches, of your protagonists and antagonists. They don’t have to be beautiful art or poetry, but get the images out of your head onto paper as a reference for yourself and others. I have in depth descriptions of Sister Mike Lassiter and Eleanor Wickham, as well as sketches of them. These will never appear in my stories, but the references ensure my characters are portrayed consistently.
  • Brainstorm story ideas. Make up a list of ideas you have for characters, scenes, plots, dialogue, situations, and backgrounds. Mix and match them. Who knows? Put enough of them together and you might find a story in there somewhere.
  • Interview your characters. Come up with a list of questions (I particularly like James Lipton’s 10 questions on “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”) and write your characters’ responses to them. This helps give your characters depth and life, and gives you a written reference for how they see the world.
  • Engage in text-based roleplay. There is an entire world on the internet in which people roleplay as characters in situations through the written word. Play-by-email, MUSHes and MUXes (played via telnet), Livejournal RP communities, Forum RP, and RP even on MMOs. Would it surprise you to know that several of my characters were created for MUXes? Eleanor Wickham started off as a cop on a game based in the world of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake stories. Finn Walker was crafted for a World of Darkness Changeling game. Roleplaying those characters in different environments helped me to craft their personalities. Visit Mud Stats and peruse what’s out there in the MUSH and MUX offerings.
  • If all other avenues elude you in which you actually write something, engage in research for your stories and take copious notes. Spend the day surfing the web, going to the library, photographing a location, or visiting a museum in order to inspire yourself and expand your knowledge base for your work. I’ve been to the Texas Renaissance Festival dozens of times, which inspired my story “Chivalry Is Dead.” It would have been very difficult to write if I’d never been there.
  • As a last resort (or in the case of having finished your draft), edit your story/novel/memoir. Duh part two. The word vomit we initially put on paper is typically not fit for human consumption. Go back and tighten up part of your story if you’re stuck in the progress department. BUT BE WARNED! Don’t get too deep into editing before the rest of the story is down. Many writers fall into the trap of an edit loop, where the rewrite the same chapter or three over and over and over, and never finish the story.

These are all just suggestions, but one thing is an imperative. Writers write. If you want to be a writer, then write every day.

What tricks do you use to get yourself writing again?

Bridget P. Haines is the author of “Cold Hard Cache” and “Chivalry Is Dead” from Deadly Diversions. A native of Niagara Falls, NY, she now lives with her husband Paul in Houston, TX. This self-proclaimed geek-girl is also a gamer, hobbyist photographer, and cake decorator.

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What To Do When Your Character Wants Revenge (C.J. Sweet)

Recently I found myself at an impasse when my main character committed suicide because she was in love with a married man. A completed circle, a common triangle, a beautiful story, a boring ending. Something was terribly wrong. It was predictable, and there was no twist, no depth, no “oomph.” I stopped and listened to my character. It turned out she wasn’t ready to “go quietly into that good night.” The little sweetheart wanted revenge. I had to admire what was left of her spirit, and I played around with her little act of defiance to see what I could do. As every writer knows, characters do not always act as we program them to act, and (though we hate to admit it), occasionally they do know better.

That decided, I immediately thought of two quotes, both ancient and time-honored. The first, a quote from Star Trek: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” And the other, from Confucius: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” I wrestled with the first one, then discarded it because my character’s nature was not a cold one. Does one have to be cold to seek revenge, or just cold enough to serve it? No, the second one appealed to both my character and myself. It would work. I started thinking about revenge. What does it really accomplish? Not much if your character just threatens it with no follow-up. But what if your character actually goes for it?

In Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood, she talks about this “dark side that shouldn’t be ignored.”

“Before you have a character take the air out of her ex-lover’s tires because he left her for another woman, consider what that tells your reader about the character. How does that act change the story? The person? The reader’s response to both?”

If it’s revenge with a little “r” (as in the above scenario), chances are pretty good that the boyfriend will be angry, but face facts — the only one you’re going to hurt is you. If your character wants revenge enough to murder for it, the logical consequence would be lethal injection or life imprisonment. Hence, two graves. But what if it’s Revenge with a big “R” (as in getting even with someone who has left you with nothing but suicide as an option) and your character is already resigned to suicide? Methinks the game would change somewhat. It was fascinating to watch my quiet, withdrawn character come up with a fool-proof way to make it look like murder. She’s already set on one grave, so why not two? Now, that’s cold.

Do we always act predictably? No way. Neither do our characters. So the next time your character is trying to tell you something, it may behoove you to listen. Play around with it, and you just might reach the conclusion I reached as I ended my story, thinking, “Oh, yeah. You go, girl!” And yes, revenge can be sweet.

C. J. Sweet is a native Texan who currently resides in Spring and teaches English as a Second Language at Westfield High School in northwest Houston. Ms. Sweet is currently working on a collection of short stories and poetry as well as two novels and a novella. Several of her poems and short stories have been published in literary magazines. She has also written various multicultural pieces and has initiated writing ideas used by teachers in other classes.

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Deadly Diversions is Now Available!

The latest anthology from The Final Twist is now available in paperback and Kindle versions! Solve a mystery today! Houston authors take you into a world of hobbies and pastimes with mysterious, and sometimes deadly, consequences. You can purchase at:

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How to Use Body Language to Show Communication (Laura Elvebak)

Have you ever wondered what the difference was between mediocre writing and books that stood out and begged to be read? I have, and through several workshops, I’ve learned that one of the most notable differences is the way the writing shows how characters communicate.

If you have a character in a scene, you need to show them communicating, even if they don’t have one line of dialogue. Everyone communicates nonverbally all the time. Sit in your doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room, and watch the other people. Their faces convey unspoken messages. Their posture conveys unspoken messages. Their lips, mouth, eyes, glances, sighs, spatial relationships, movements and finger twitches convey unspoken messages.

Sometimes writers use body language as a beat. They need a short sentence, a pause, a few hits of cadence to precede or follow a line of dialogue, internalization, or action. Unfortunately, writers often repeat the same body language beats in multiple chapters. On the page, they’re predictable, they’re boring, and they slow pacing.

We’ve all read books in which characters display too many behavioral tags such as these: running hands through hair, arching an eyebrow, chewing lip, rolling lips in, licking lips, rubbing jaw, crossing arms across chest, narrowing gaze, clearing throat, shrugging, both shoulders, one shoulder, and half-shrugs, drumming fingers, steepling fingers, fisting hands, etc.

I’m just as guilty, but now that I’m aware of what I’m doing, I give the pages a second look. Even if you change the wording, such as running a hand through hair, raking his hands through his hair, running fingers through his hair, it’s all the same pattern. It’s not interesting. If those three examples were each used once in 100 pages, it could work. Used three times in 50 pages? Three times in 30 pages? Too much.

Writers do not have to interpret most of the non-verbals for the reader. They don’t have to say why the character is blinking more rapidly – or write that character X probably shifted in his chair because the topic made him uncomfortable. The reader will pick it up consciously, or subconsciously.

Go back to that waiting room full of people. Watch their nonverbal responses. Write your own list. How many of them are different from those listed above? Are they: massaging their mustaches for ten minutes? Scrunching their noses making ugly-kid-faces? Scratching the inside of their ears with the eraser end of a pencil? Chewing their hair? Picking dog or cat fur from their clothing?

REMEMBER: Readers get bored with the same nonverbal tags. Your characters are not boring. Don’t have them use repetitive body language.

Laura Elvebak Laura Elvebak is the author of Less Dead (2008) and Lost Witness (2009), (L&L Dreamspell), both awarded five star reviews on Amazon, which features Niki Alexander, an ex-cop turned teen counselor. Her short stories are “Searching for Rachel” featured in A Death in Texas, and “Dying For Chocolate” in the award winning A Box of Texas Chocolates. .

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Villains (Mark H. Phillips)

Great villains often make great novels. Your protagonist will be measured by the strength and cunning of her antagonist. Indeed, since the villain is often the prime mover of the plot, his motivations become crucial. In The Silence of the Lambs, Agent Clarice Starling must figure out the motivations and thought processes of two different serial killers, Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill. Sherlock Holmes requires a Moriarty; Superman, his Lex Luthor; Batman, his Joker; Bond, his Blofeld; and Luke Skywalker, his Darth Vader. Without the villains, there would be nothing for the hero to do.

Some authors, realizing that their most creative efforts are going into devising a fascinating, complex villain, simply make their villain the protagonist, alá Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, the heyday of the anti-hero and the villain-hero. The Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, the Sub-Mariner and Dr. Doom, Michael Moorcock’s wonderful characters Jerry Cornelius and Elric of Melniboné, are all characters who violate traditional heroic templates or are actual villains. Alex, the evil protagonist of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, comes across as more authentic and stylish than the hypocritical and tawdry culture that surrounds him, a lithe tiger in a culture of pigs (actually this contrast is emphasized more in Kubrick’s film). Alex is heroic in a Byronic, rather than moral sense.

The “rules” for writing a great villain are much the same as writing any other complex character. Their inner motivations must be complex and a believable product of a convincing back-story. They will usually display character traits that would be admirable if their motives were pure. They might display superb self-control over their emotions, or a remarkable stamina, brilliance, focus, or determination. They often spend hard years honing their talents in the service of their ultimate goal of world domination, or overcome hurdles with heroic effort and ingenuity.

From their own perspectives, villains will often see themselves as the true hero of their own story. Ra’s al Ghul (from Batman comics, not the recent movie) sees himself as trying to save the world from ecological disaster, even if it means drastically and violently reducing the world’s human population. Ra’s al Ghul sees Batman as a misguided opponent of limited vision who thwarts R’as’ benevolent plans. William B. Davis, the actor who played the sinister Cigarette Smoking Man on the X-Files, recounts how he came to fully grasp his character only when he realized that, from his own perspective, the CSM was the hero of the series, and Agent Mulder was the one endangering humanity with his foolish quest to expose the “Truth.”

You might invite your audience to see the villain’s downfall as a tragedy. The audience will come to see the villain fall as due to some fatal flaw in an otherwise heroic character, and pity him. Othello’s insecurity and jealousy are the only flaws in an otherwise admirable man, but unfortunately flaws which Iago can use to destroy Othello, a man in all other respects far better than himself.

In the X-Men movies, Magneto, emotionally scarred by the deaths of his parents in the Nazi concentration camps, sees his mission as a defense of Homo superior from the hate and murderous prejudice of non-mutants. His fatal flaws consist of intolerance, arrogance, ruthless cruelty, and an unfamiliarity with the concepts of innocence and non-combatants. His ideological conflict with Charles Xavier is reflected in non-fictional history by the conflict between Menachem Begin and David Ben-Gurion during the fight for the creation of Israel. Was Menachem Begin a terrorist or a freedom fighter or both? A good writer exploits moral complexity. Realism and depth are accomplished when it’s not always clear who the real villain is and who the real hero is. The Watchmen is a near perfect exercise in such complexity as painfully flawed “heroes” successfully prevent the “villain” from saving the world.

Nothing spoils an otherwise competent piece of fiction as a weak or blasé villain. Spend the time creating a villain that readers will love to hate. Learn to see the world through your villain’s eyes. Find his flawed nobility. Explore the tortured inner conflict that drove him to his megalomaniacal quest. Can you write your story so that when the villain asks the hero to join him (perhaps a clichéd, but nonetheless powerful opportunity to explore the ideological basis of their conflict), your audience wavers as the hero does—not because the hero is weak, but because the villain is so convincing, so authentic, so admirable, so committed, so sincere.

Which villains do you love to hate?

Mark H. Phillips has been writing stories and political tracts for as long as he can remember, submitting stories to a magazine at the age of twelve. He grew up in Central Illinois, and holds several degrees in Philosophy. Mark met his wife, Charlotte, ten years ago, and later discovered they shared a passion for writing – they are collaborating on books and short stories – their first novel is Hacksaw. He’s currently teaching pre-calculus, politial philosophy, and the theory of knowledge. He’s been a member of Houston Scriptwriters for three years, and is a member of Sisters in Crime and The Final Twist. His short stories appear in the Final Twist anthologies: A Death in TexasA Box of Texas ChocolatesTwisted Tales of Texas Landmarks, Underground Texas, and the upcoming Deadly Diversions.

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