Friday, October 30, 2009

Brown & Orange Wrappers

Happy Halloween everyone! Here's a fun little short story. Ironically, no one died in my Halloween story unlike all of my other stories. Yea, I don't get me either.


The orange haze from the strings of lights wrapped around the porch of the white house made Till’s lips swing upward. He tapped Nillie on the shoulder. “Let’s start with that one,” he said.

Nillie grinned at him and made a slight cooing noise. Till took that as a yes.

It was Till’s favorite time of the year, and this was the best neighborhood. They had to travel quite a ways, but it was worth it. The people on this street knew how to shop for candy.

Till loved the feel of the paint on his skin. The clumpy, gummy feeling was unusual to him, but he liked it. Nillie let the silky fabric of her dress run through her digits, and she smiled.

“Pretty,” she said.

Nillie’s toe of her boot caught on the bone of the plastic skeleton decorating the yard. Till reached out his hand, and helped his sister to steady herself. She laughed, but it didn’t sound sincere.

“It’s all right, Nillie. You’ll get the hang of it, and just wait until you taste the chocolate. Nothing in this universe is as good as chocolate,” he said with a smile that showed all of his teeth.

Till reached his finger out and pressed the illuminated white button. He heard the doorbell chime inside and waited. He spread his bag wide, his leg bouncing.

“They’re coming,” he said, hearing the shuffle of shoes on wooden floors.

The tall man leaned against the door with the silver bowl resting on his hip. Nillie seemed to find her shoes more interesting than anything else.

“Open your bag,” Till said, tugging on the white plastic.

She just looked up at him, lost. The tall man dropped a few pieces of candy into Till’s bag. He sat it down and helped Nillie. She smiled when she saw the brown and orange wrappers inside of her bag.

“Thank you,” she said.

Till felt proud. She would get it.

They continued down the street, and admired the pumpkins' flickering faces, the white gauze ghosts flapping in the wind, and the eerie sounds of the cackling animated witches.  House by house, the bags filled until finally Nillie was dragging hers. The plastic sliding along the asphalt let Till know the night was nearly over. Mom would be looking for them soon.

Till slid his fingers between Nillie’s. “It’s time to go.”

“Want candy,” Nillie pouted.

Till laughed. His poor sister didn’t realize the bag she was lugging was full of the stuff. He reached into his bag and grabbed a shiny brown treat. He unwrapped the tiny bar and held it towards her mouth. She opened wide, and he dropped it inside.

The smacking noises, followed by hums of approval, flowed from Nillie. She smiled wide, and her teeth were an oozy brown. Till laughed. She continued to smack until the chocolate was all gone.

“We have to go, Nillie. Mom will be mad if we are late.”

She nodded.

They began their trek though the moonlit woods, pine straw crunching beneath their feet. The green lights ahead let them know they were close. He clinched Nillie’s hand a little tighter.

“Have fun?" asked Mom.

“Got candy,” said Nillie, trying to lift the heavily weighted bag in the air.

Mom and Till laughed at the cute bouncy thing that was so excited about her stash.

“How about you, Till?” asked Mom.

“Lots of fun. Can we bring two bags next year?’

“I worry more about your arms falling off,” laughed Mom. She tapped him on the shoulder. “Climb aboard.”

The three pairs of shoes belonging to Mom, Nillie, and Till shuffled up the silver ramp. Once inside, the airy hydraulic sound began, lifting if from Earth’s floor to the closed position. They all took their seats as the roaring ignition process started. Their bodies jolted as the ship lifted into the air.

Once among the stars, Till turns to his mom, “Next year, Mom, I want to be a cowboy.”

“That sounds like a lovely idea, honey.”

Thursday, October 29, 2009

But why mommy?

All right. So now you have an idea. The question. It’s time to dig deeper. Here’s that nurturing part that I was speaking of yesterday.

I’m going to use examples. My question is what if a very particular and familiar metaphorical expression was literal. I am being vague on purpose as it is the entire premise, the diving board, of the story. I’ll share when it’s more developed, but right now it’s my little secret. Sorry.

I saw in my mind’s eye (I love that phrase!) two people sitting in a classroom. Next step is to ask more questions. The first thing I need to know is who are these people and why are they in this room. Well, let’s ask them. The lady is returning to college. Why? She is now a single mom. Why? Her husband recently passed away. Why?

See how this works. I approach the situation like an inquisitive five year old. Just keep asking why or how until the character throws their hands in the air and says, “I don’t know.” Then, I change course. There was a second person in the room. And so it begins.

Now notice that I said ask the questions like a five year old and not like a mafia henchman. These characters must trust you in order to open up and tell their story. Ask open-ended questions, not yes or no. Don’t lead them. They are in charge. It’s your job to listen.

I’ve also noticed that there’s always the one character that is quick to talk. The chatty Cathy that has much to say. For me, this person tends to be my protagonist. The quiet one, the more reluctant, tends to be a strong support character that helps drive the story and tends to maintain that air of mystery around them throughout the story.

The second person that was sitting in the classroom, he’s not talking. I know he’s male, a key part of the story, and has green eyes, but beyond that—notta. But I have faith that he will talk when he’s ready.

A side note—I like to find the names to my characters early on. Normally just the first name will do until I know more about them. For me, this makes them more real. Let’s them know that I am taking them seriously. And then I can also stop referring to them as character 1 or character 2.

So, when you get that idea, talk to it. Ask it questions, and then listen. If it doesn’t talk, just wait. It may not trust you yet. Show it that you are there and committed to letting the world hear their story.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ideas: Lightning Bolts and Banana Peels

Writers are often asked where they get their ideas. What is their secret? Well, I tell ya. Lean in real close. A little closer. Ready? There is no secret. No, magical unicorn horn hiding in a desk drawer. No, mathematical equation.

The idea comes from anywhere and nowhere at the same time. Sometimes, it’s a simple event that leads the brain down a path. Other times, it’s just being still long enough for the right and left hemispheres to talk to each other.

Most of my ideas come from a question. It all starts with “What If.” And my best ideas often come from “Wouldn’t it be funny?” (The answer is normally no, not really funny, but a good story.) It’s what you do with these questions, these thoughts, that make the difference.

Right now on my hard drive is a folder titled “Other Projects.” Inside that folder are several word documents. Each one has a single question at the top. As the answer or the story that stems from the question materializes, then I start that story and watch it grow. See, ideas are seeds; you have to nurture them to create stories. Sometimes they are gems and sometimes they are duds. And, I find, the questions you can answer instantly have no life, no depth.

Stephen King’s book, On Writing, discusses this better than anything else that I’ve read. And in my non-expert opinion, I agree with him. (If you are a new writer, I highly suggest that you read his book. Heck, if you are not writing – it’s still a great read. Even if not a fan of his other books.) 

The novel that I recently finished stemmed from one of those questions of “Wouldn’t it be funny?” The story actually has nothing to do with the exact question. It was merely the banana peel that I slipped on to fall into the story. But had I dismissed it when the thought occurred, Iron Thirst would not exist.

The newest addition to the “Other Project” folder came from a question that attacked my brain while I was driving. It came out of the sky, and hit me like a lightning bolt. I actually swerved the car. It started with a tiny little question, and by the time I was driving home, I was ironing out backstories for two characters who have begged to see this question answered. Will it produce a story worth reading?  Won’t know unless I write it.

When an idea hits you, what do you do with it? Do you save all of them or do you wait for the one that truly inspires? What are your methods when starting a new story?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Canary Yellow

I wrote this short story specifically for a writing contest on The Public Query Slushpile. The writing prompt was watching paint dry.


Erin Carmichael has wanted to finish her basement for the longest time. Roger had bought the materials and started the process but never finished it. The last step was to close off the walls, covering the itchy pink insulation, and paint it. The kind gentleman at Ace Hardware said that a latex semi-gloss would be the ideal paint for the job.
She stood back to admire her handy work. It was a vibrant shade. Canary yellow. It was Roger’s least favorite color. She begged him so many times to let her paint the kitchen the exact same shade, but Roger wouldn’t hear of it. And when Roger put his foot down, she knew better than to argue.
She opened up all the doors and placed a small box fan in the middle of the room to allow the paint to dry a little faster. The sound of the fan circulating brought her back to her childhood. Erin and her older sister, Janet, loved to talk into the box fan they had in their room. It made their voices sound so distorted, and it was the best way to tell ghost stories. That was before Erin knew what real fear felt like. Now she could easily walk into a pitch black bathroom at night, look into the mirror, and try to conjure the ghost of Bloody Mary. Wouldn’t faze her a bit.
Erin sat down in her blue housecoat and slippers with a glass of wine staring at the bright yellow wall. Minutes ticked away, and the wet shine dimmed. She poured herself another glass and walked over to place her finger on the wall. The paint was still gummy. A little imprint remained where she had touched.
She sat back down in her chair for two more glasses of her favorite Merlot. Roger despised wine. He only drank beer. “Wine was for people that thought they were better than everyone,” he would say.
Once more she walked over to touch the wall to check the consistency. It was no longer sticky.  Pride fell upon her in a rain of confetti. She had accomplished two grand things today.  She now had her beautiful finished basement. And Roger will never hit her again. He will stay forever wrapped in yellow. Next on her to do list, call and report him missing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Revisions: Tweezers and Wrecking Balls

            Since I am knee deep in revisions, I thought I’d take a break and talk about that for a moment. Let me start by saying, I am a newbie. This is my first novel. When I started the process, I hadn’t taken a single class, read a single style or writing guide, nor did I remember much of what my English teachers said about quotation marks, commas, or periods.
            I was oh-so-proud (ya’ll member) to finish my first draft. I sent it off to a friend, who lovingly pointed out how horrible my grammar was (God love her!) and caught many holes. I fixed everything she said – and then Ta-Da! It’s finished. Hoorah! Build query letter, and off I went to write book number two.
            But then I began to do my homework. I inhaled copyright laws, proper first chapters, Elements In Style, Stephen King’s On Writing, fiction workshops, pitch workshops, critique groups. Then I came back to book one. My reaction… (wait for it) … OMG! This thing needs serious work.
            Shock, huh? I didn’t appreciate the value in revision. I was afraid of it. It intimidated me to think about re-writing things that I had already labored over. But this new epiphany clued me into what writers much further down their path already know, it has to be done. You must revise, and your story will only grow as a result. If you are afraid to change things or admit that your manuscript needs work, it will sit on your hard drive and will not ever land on an agent’s desk.
            I took a wrecking ball to chapter one, threw my much loved prologue in the trash, added five new scenes, one deliciously evil, new character (read previous post), a nice POV switch, removed probably a thousand adverbs – apparently I’m addicted, and I’m only up to chapter 15 out of a total of 30. Woohoo!
            And you know what; I’m loving it. I haven’t had this much fun since, well, I wrote the first draft. It’s hard at times to kill your darlings, but I save each draft in case I can use it in the future. Alright, enough rambling – back to revisions.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Critiquing Critiques

Two scenarios. 1) You have finished your novel. It is a 100,000 word piece of art. The greatest thing ever written. You pass it off to a critique group and wait to hear the superfluity of praise. 2) You have just written a novel. You are quite sure that is utter crap. It is not going to sell, and you’re not even sure why you bothered. You pass it off to a critique group, and wait for them to tell you to find a new hobby, because you have no talent.

Ok. First of all, both attitudes are horrible, and it will be hard for either one to benefit from the critiquing process. Scenario A will ignore everything they are told, because they know better, and scenario B will listen to everything and create something that lacks their own voice and originality (and more likely just give up).

The critiquing process can be a fun, exhilarating process, but it is not an easy one. You are going to need to put on your Teflon armor before you proceed. Not to mention, be sure you are prepared to give the same honest critiques that you hope to receive.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you get back those highly anticipated (or dreaded) words of wisdom:

1) Say thank you. Specifically list anything you found helpful. Ask questions about things you didn’t understand. But for the love of Twain, do not argue, defend, or discredit the advice. (I apologize immensely if I did this to you in my first round of critiques. Chances are you were right and the revised MS now reflects it.)

2) Make sure that you request critiques from multiple people. Don’t just get one that says, “Yea, you’re great” – and then take a nap. Make sure you get multiple POV about your work.

3) After you’ve collected all of these nuggets of advice, praise, and criticism; take a step back. Let it soak in. Don’t immediately run in and change everything the minute you get it back. Ponder the information that you have received. Then tackle your ms with a plan.

4) Don’t listen to or ignore ALL advice. Once you get all the critiques back, you are going to have to make a judgment call. Some of it will be conflicting. My first critiques were so opposite – I felt like they were playing tug of war with my words.

Nothing improves your work more than getting and utilizing these critiques, but you have to be smart about it. Make sure that the end result is something that you are proud of and still holds your voice.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Flawed Heroes & Loveable Villains

Title pretty much sums it up. That’s how I like my movies and my novels. Juxtaposition should be huge where these two characters are concerned. It adds reality and layers to a novel. A reader needs to get angry at the good guy, and laugh at the bad guy. They should feel guilty when they find themselves screaming, “Yes!” when the villain enters the scene. Characters need to be so three dimensional you can smell them.
A hero needs inner conflict. No prince riding up on a white horse. I want the good guy to be on the borderline of good and evil. Selfish to an extent. Battling some inner demons. I want my hero to take so many wrong turns that he just happens to show up at the right time to save the day. He must have a bad attitude and preferably a love of rock-n-roll. He wants to get around the law, or heck, better yet, break it. Breaking the law, breaking the law, narrator sings in her head.
More importantly, I want my villain to be so delicious that I have a secret crush on him and want to follow him around while he oozes evil. A bad guy should drip in charisma. Why would his cronies get sucked into his web if he was just mean and evil? There was something that made them follow and do his bidding. Perfect example is Joker from The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger took this character that has been reinvented so many times that it’s not even funny and made it such a scrumptious role that it made me question whose side I was on. I want to love my villains. I want to feel sorry for them, and tell the person next to me, “They are just misunderstood.”
Think of who your favorite bad guys. Who are they, and why do you love them? And the hero that rocks your world? Bet it’s not Prince Charming!