Friday, October 28, 2016

The Advice Most Often Given to Writers: Write What You Know

The trouble with that advice is that a lot of thrillers, supernatural suspense novels and tales of horror would never be written if we followed it. I've written about killers, genetic experiments, financial empires, supernatural powers, espionage, the Middle East and other topics of which I have no personal experience. If I only wrote about what I know, the list would include idiots, self-absorbed and spineless jerks, nutcases, liars, and false friends.

Okay, so I could write political novels. As we all know, Washington is full of all of those type of characters.


My friend and fellow author, Shelly Arkon, has lately been writing a  great deal about matters of faith on her blog. Shelly has spent the past few years studying both the Bible and the Torah and has learned a great deal. While bloggers are often warned about writing about matters of faith in a cheesy manner, Shelly's posts are honest, from the heart and thought-provoking. I've done a lot of thinking myself. I'm a Christian, and I've experienced a great deal in my life that has confirmed my faith--but I still have more questions than answers. I'm by no means an expert, but still I want to write things that make people think and hopefully find a door opened to them that they haven't seen before. So how to do it?

Fiction, mostly. In Chasing the Wind, I write about characters who also have more questions than answers: cynical FBI agents, an agnostic photojournalist, a Biblical archaeologist who has faith but challenges it, and an atheist who is called to be a prophet but still can't believe what's happening to him. I put them in situations where they get pushed to their limits and their faith (or lack of it) is tested. They witness miracles. They deal with loss and rise above it. And they face many of the same questions I've faced.

I always believed in God--but as the Bible says, even demons believe in God. They know He exists. Believing is not the same as putting one's faith in God. I wasn't able to do that completely for a long time. That door opened for me twenty-two years ago, on a dark night in which I felt more hopeless than I ever had. I went to bed that night, facing a situation for which there seemed to be no resolution. I prayed, more than I ever had before, and was still praying when I finally fell asleep. I was awakened the next morning by what first seemed to be just a ringing telephone, but in fact was God's answer to my urgent prayers--the miracle I needed.

That miracle has led me to write my first work of nonfiction--a memoir that's (finally) almost finished, Riding Out the Storm. It's not easy to lay bare one's soul for all to see, as my close friend William Kendall discovered with his recent blog post. But sometimes, we need to write about the things that make us most vulnerable. Sometimes, as in William's case, it's a way to exorcise our personal demons in order to be free of them. It took tremendous courage for William to share the things he'd kept so private for so many years. For some, like Shelly, it's a way to share our discoveries of faith...and to provide a warning of what's ahead. For me, it's hopefully a means to testify, to show others that anyone can--and will--change. And that it really is darkest just before dawn.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What a Character!

Recently, Collin and I went to see a special sneak preview of Doctor Strange. We're both big fans of the Marvel superheroes. Why? Because they don't take themselves too seriously. There's a lot of action in their movies, but also a healthy dose of humor. And their characters are people first, superheroes second. Their movies have some of the best characterization I've ever seen. Their heroes are flawed, men and women with questionable pasts, dark sides and emotional issues.

Dr. Stephen Strange is a brilliant, arrogant neurosurgeon who believes only in himself and his skills as a surgeon--until a career-ending accident puts him on a path to a world he could never have imagined, and a life in which he could save millions rather than one life at a time.

In Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers are divided when a tragic mistake made during a mission causes the deaths of many civilians. It pits genius Tony Stark (Iron Man) against Captain Steve Rogers (Captain America). Tony has daddy issues--he never felt loved by his father, Howard. "My father never told me he loved me, he never even told me he liked me," he says. By contrast, Steve had a close friendship with Howard back in the '40s, when Howard assisted Dr. Abraham Erskine in creating Captain America using his super soldier serum for the US  military. Tony remembers hearing Howard talk about Steve over the years, and there's clear resentment there. For Tony, it's akin to sibling rivalry. Steve had a relationship with Tony's father that Tony never had. When Tony discovers that Steve's best friend, Bucky Barnes--the brainwashed assassin Winter Soldier--killed his father and mother twenty years ago, he realizes their deaths weren't an accident, as Tony had been led to believe--and that Steve knew the truth.

civil-warTony is a complex character. He's always been terrible at relationships, even when he really wanted them to work. He was deeply loved by his mother but felt rejected by his father--a fact that shaped all of his interpersonal connections.

Actor Chris Pratt, who portrays Guardians of the Galaxy's Peter Quill, describes the character as "emotionally stunted." Peter's mother died when he was just a boy, and he never knew his father. Add to that being abducted by aliens the night his mother died, and it makes sense that Peter would miss the maturity train, so to speak. He grew up a thief, part of a group of intergalactic pirates called Ravagers, but something deep within him yearns to be the hero, the Star-Lord his mother nicknamed him. It takes him twenty-six years to open the package she gave him on her deathbed. She told him not to open it until she was gone. Perhaps somewhere in his subconscious, he doesn't open it because as long as he doesn't, she's not really gone?

Marvel's got some well-developed villains as well--Loki, for example. The second son of Odin, King of Asgard, he grew up in the shadow of his older brother, Thor, heir to the throne. When he discovers he's not Odin and Frigga's biological child, that Odin found him during a battle with the Frost Giants, having been abandoned, left to die, Loki concludes this is why Odin always favored Thor. Even when Loki does his worst, fans relate to him. They get him. When an angry Odin tells him his birthright was to die, the fans feel for Loki.
Zemo is another interesting bad guy. Having lost his entire family during the Avengers' battle with Ultron, he seeks revenge. He knows he can't destroy the Avengers, but with the right push, they can destroy each other. "An empire destroyed from outside can be rebuilt," he says, "but one that is destroyed from within is dead forever."

Throughout his quest for revenge, Zemo is seen listening to a voicemail message. It turns out to be the last message he received from his wife before her death.

When I started writing, I was focused on plot. I was young and lacked the life experience to understand the importance of well-developed characters. One editor I knew used to call me "The Master Plotter." Now, I prefer more character-driven stories.

Who are some of your favorite characters?

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Misadventures of Shady Lady and the Wayward Nut (Or How the Cubs in the World Series Has Jumpstarted the Apocalypse)

I suppose I should explain that title. Collin and I have some pretty weird after dinner conversations sometimes. Last night, I dropped an almond I still haven't located. I told Collin I had to find a  wayward nut. He said it sounded like Trump's Secret Service codename. It's actually Mogul, but this one is a much better fit, don't you think?

From there, we reached the conclusion that Shady Lady fit Hillary better than Evergreen. Or maybe IT Gal (as in IT, internet technology)?

It's been a wild week, hasn't it? Who would have expected the 2016 World Series to be the Chicago Cubs vs. the Cleveland Indians? Talk about an underdog story! But then, it's been that kind of year. Nobody--especially GOP leaders--expected Donald Trump to be their nominee for President of the United States. Most of us thought it was just a really bad joke that day he descended via the escalator at Trump Tower, surrounded what was rumored to be a paid-for crowd of enthusiastic supporters (I still suspect that entrance was a bit of raunchy symbolism to make him look as if he were descending from the heavens to save us from ourselves). After all, he'd said just the week before that he was going to make an announcement that would make everybody happy--his words, not mine! I took that to mean he was going to announce he wouldn't be running for President! It certainly would have made my day.

I didn't think Hillary Clinton would run, either. I thought she and Bill would be content with their foundation and their two grandchildren. I'm younger than either of them, and I'd rather be at home watching movies and eating pizza with Collin than spending my days like an ant stuck under the giant media magnifying glass in sunlight hot enough to fry me.

But no. Instead, we have the two most unpopular candidates in history as our choices for our next President. We have the two least likely teams to reach the top competing for the World Series championship. What's next? Venus gets knocked out of orbit and collides with Earth? 

PS To my blogger friends: I'm way behind on blog reading/commenting. I spent most of Saturday changing all of my passwords in the wake of that massive global hacking. Some were easier to change than others. Some still haven't been changed. WordPress was such a PITA, I'm seriously considering dropping my author blog there. Don't need it anyway. I have author pages at Creativia and Amazon.

I promise to get caught up with all of you within the next few days....

Friday, October 21, 2016

Is Mercury in Retrograde Or Something?

It's been one of those weeks.

It started off great--royalties! We always celebrate royalties (and advances, when I was in traditional publishing). Even when the checks aren't big ones. The largest check I ever got was $35,000. The smallest, a royalty for a Silhouette Romance published over twenty years ago, came earlier this year. The amount? $5.78. They fluctuate.

Anyway, after the arrival of quarterly royalties, it was all downhill. Wednesday night, I made the mistake of thinking it would be cool enough overnight to leave the central air off. As a result, I was too warm to sleep comfortably and got only a couple of hours sleep. I was groggy all day. I got in the shower, thinking that would wake me up. Halfway through, we had a power outage--our first in ten years. After trying to finish in the dark, I've come to the conclusion that if I ever go blind, I'm screwed. I already had enough cuts and bruises from my ongoing attempt to declutter our place. (We really need a bigger storeroom--or less stuff!)

With the power off, I couldn't try to catch up on that lost sleep, so I forged on, exhausted. With no electric, I couldn't make lunch, so Collin went to get takeout for us. (Okay, so there was a bright side to this!) I couldn't do any work in the storeroom, either--no windows, so no light. We had already gotten rid of a lot of stuff, though--so much that I mixed up some bags and accidentally sent a bag to recycling that should have gone to the trash. I guess a big bag of recycling ended up in the dumpster....

Fortunately, the power was restored within two hours. With the AC back on, I decided a nap was in order. I had just drifted off to sleep when the phone rage! I couldn't believe it! I was so angry, I could have slammed it against a wall. I hate talking on the phone and rarely do so. I only have one friend I call, and that's because she doesn't have internet service. I even make my doctor appointments via email.

Everyone else knows I do email, so most of the calls I get are wrong numbers. I guess that was the case yesterday, because there was just a number, no name, so it wasn't someone in my phone's contacts app. I snatched the phone up and disconnected the call (that was an accident, really--I just don't answer if I don't recognize the number). Then I turned the phone off so I could sleep for a while.

This is how it goes. I can go weeks without getting a call, and when I do, it's always when I'm dictating (my phone is great for dictation) or sleeping. 

I did get one bit of good news this morning, though: my publisher's new landing page for Chasing the Wind is up, and it looks great! Take a look....

Monday, October 17, 2016

Maybe I Won't Retire, After All....

Writing used to come easily for me. I wrote one of my best novels, The Unicorn's Daughter, in four months. Final Hours took six weeks. It was almost too easy, which is why I was surprised that The Unicorn's Daughter required almost no editing from Berkley and became, along with Chasing the Wind, one of my best-reviewed novels.

As I've gotten older, though, I've found it more and more difficult to finish a project. I asked my neurologist if I might be in the early stages of Alzheimer's. "No. You're way too sharp for that," she assured me. Okay. If not that, what about epilepsy? I was first diagnosed as a teenager, and due to my own stupidity, was off the anti-seizure meds for a long time (I don't have convulsive seizures, so I assumed--incorrectly--that I wasn't having seizures at all). Again, the answer was no. My previous neurologist told me I was just distracted. ADHD, maybe?

My eyesight is not what it used to be--not that it was ever all that good. Arthritis has been an issue, so writing first drafts in longhand, as I've done throughout most of my career, was no longer possible. It was also a problem in using a computer, tablet or smartphone--especially the latter two, since I had to hold the devices at an angle close enough to be able to see the screens. I've joked here about my "Kindle elbow."

I'd tried dictation, but that was also a struggle--until I found this book.

Dictate Your Book: How to Write Your Book Better, Faster and Smarter by Monica Leonelle is a gem. Really. She points out that, like learning to type and use a computer are skills that require training and practice, dictation isn't something you just do. Her book is short, concise and gives you all you need to learn to dictate your books, screenplays, short stories, etc. Collin is even considering it for doing his classwork, time being a big factor for him.

I'm probably going to repeat this post on my writer blog on Wednesday. And speaking of that, today's post there is on characterization....

Friday, October 14, 2016

Why Are Fictional Presidents Always Better Than Real Ones?

The answer to that question is a simple one. Writers control our fictional characters. God gave humans free will--which hasn't always worked out so well for all of us.

In Air Force One, Harrison Ford battled terrorists...

In Independence Day, Bill Pullman battled aliens...

In Designated Survivor, Kiefer Sutherland became President by default when just about everyone else in Washington was killed during the sitting President's State of the Union speech...

In The American President, Michael Douglas dealt with a Republican opponent...

In The West Wing, Martin Sheen dealt with more "normal" issues...

In House of Cards, Kevin Spacey just disposed of anyone who got in his way--but he was still better than Donald Trump!

And then there are our real-life choices for President. In less than a month, we get to choose the lesser of two evils!

Don't forget to vote!

Postscript: All but the first on the Trump/Hillary memes were created by my talented son Collin. And for a twist, my author blog today is focused on nonfiction....

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Great Decluttering Movement of 2016, Part Deux

Yep, it's still full steam ahead and all that. By the time I'm finished, all that will be left in our storeroom will be items of sentimental importance and the things we don't have space for in the kitchen.

My drawers and closets are done. I no longer have any clothes I don't wear. I'm not saving anything I have any hope of getting into ever again. That stuff has been gone a long time now. I've surrendered on that battlefront. Not gonna happen. I had shoes I'd never even worn.

But then, I really don't like wearing shoes at all. In a perfect world, I'd be living in a climate where only sandals and flip-flops would be needed. And no heels!
I dumped a lot of makeup last year. I seldom wear it anymore--one of the advantages of getting older. Too much is, well, too much. 

Collin's been busy, too. He's digitized our entire DVD collection. Now, everything is on external hard drives. With them, our Kindles and our smartphones, we can now store all of our books, magazines, photos, music and movies in one small drawer. Digitizing is a great space-saver.

I even turned one of my older Kindles into a digital cookbook. Amazon offers several e-cookbooks free or for a very low price. Not that it's going to get much use. I'm still a terrible cook. I microwave. I order takeout. I use my Crock-Pot when I can find a recipe that doesn't require any of the ingredients be pre-cooked. (Come on...isn't that what Crock-Pots are for--convenience?)

Decluttering can also be profitable. Collin took several of our DVDs to V-Stock--and got just over $84 for them. They sure sell better than used books these days!
The most important decluttering task, however, is decluttering the mind. That's next. It really should have been first--but I tend to do things backward, like reading the end of a book first.