The Thing About Story Children

I think about my stories as my children. Sometimes I use the term to mean the entire story. And before the story is written, I think of the individual characters as my children, too. I will sit down at my desk to work, and my characters will start talking to me all at once. They aren’t from the same stories, either. On the days when I’m already having trouble concentrating, those insistent thoughts and ideas will block me. I know which story I was planning to work on, but there’s a niggling feeling I’m going to miss something important if I don’t listen. And I don’t want to neglect these ideas and personalities in my head. So, who do I listen to?

I have one story-child who is very troubled, and I haven’t figured her out yet. When I visit with her, she craves the attention, even while she refuses to tell me what she’s really looking for. Her world is super alluring to me, but it’s also a black hole of research and details that swallow me up for hours. I finally come up for air with less than a thousand words to show for it.  Another story-child is part of a plot that’s more like a ball of knotted yarn. The protagonist knows exactly what she wants, and I’ve tried to work out the kinks of the story arc so many times I’m cross-eyed. The more I concentrate on it, the more it tangles. I will step back and tell her that her story isn’t ready to be unwound yet, but it drives me absolutely mad. I so want to be done with the story, and there are times I’ve contemplated burning it. A third story-child just wants to be read. I’m in love with each of its characters, but the story ending just needs something. I don’t know what that something is, but I tend to ignore that story the most. It’s like I’m telling that child, “You’re the most put-together of all my story-children, so I’m going to neglect you because you don’t need me as much as the others do.” What? What kind of reasoning is that?

I think it’s ridiculous that I go around with a burden of guilt for not finishing my unfinished stories. Yet, that’s what I feel. It’s like I’ve promised these imaginary people something grand. I really believe my promise when I make it; but as the journey with my characters progresses, I lose confidence.

Years ago, I was part of a discussion where someone theorized that writers’ half-finished novels become a shadow of their own lives, and that finding the answers in your life journey frees up your subconscious to find the resolutions in your story. I wish I’d never been exposed to that theory. Before I heard that, I worked from the opposite premise—that when things were too much for me, I wrote about a scenario and a conflict I could resolve. It was both therapeutic and productive. It gave me a way to think calmly while I waited on reality to make sense to me again. That’s how I coped. Now, my stories take to haunting me. They tug on my shirt sleeve and look at me imploringly. What’s a writer to do?

Handling Criticism as a Writer

Like every writer does, I resist being told that something is wrong with my work. I want to explain away the problem, or even convince myself it’s really a unique aspect to my story. As a beta-reader and editor, I’ve been given a window to my own writer soul. I haven’t learned to handle criticism as well as I’d like, but I’ve been honored to work with some excellent teachers. My friend, the “Who-Dunnit” crime writer, knows the art of gracious acceptance and sincere gratitude for the time I spend combing through her manuscripts. I cannot wait until her series is published because it is full of warmth, humor, and tidy endings. I have a women’s lit writer friend who gets very quiet after receiving my list of concerns. She doesn’t respond immediately; instead, she tells me, “I’ll think about what you’re saying and get back with you.” She waits until she’s had a chance to let my perspective sink in before she’s able to ask for more details on what I think will improve her story. She’s come back with a second book, so I know she values my feedback. A third writer I’ve worked with over the years is slowly unfolding a thriller with tie-ins to ancient history and legend. He began by steering me away from the punctuation and grammatical errors. “I know it’s bad, but I can’t focus on that or I will never get it written. Please, can you help me with plot holes and moving the storyline forward?” I’m grateful for his honesty. It’s so much easier to work with a writer who admits weaknesses and tells me what aspect he’s trying to address first.

Recently, a friend messaged me, “I’m granting you the opportunity to read my manuscript before I prepare it for query.” Don’t get me wrong; beta reading can be fun, but it’s still work. I don’t think it’s a favor to “grant” someone your manuscript. I took this as a huge hint that this writer had not yet learned the value of a beta reader. It was in my best interest to decline; so, I did.

Then I felt kind of sad. I love beta work. I think I love it more than writing. If I could work full time in this field, I might do it. I say “might” because I have worked with some rather delusional writers and read some awful manuscripts. I know that sounds harsh, but both can make beta reading and editing a nightmare. There is a giddy enjoyment I get from cleaning up and ironing out a good read. Yes, beneath the red ink on the page, the soul of the manuscript-child, well, it beams at me, and I beam back and say, “You are a treasure, little one. A treasure. This is just a little polish to make you shine.”

When I consider it from that perspective–the perspective of the beta reader–the writer in me takes less offense. I’m trying to accept that the truth may smart in the beginning, but that doesn’t mean the manuscript is a bust. Nor is it the critiquer’s fault. The reader who takes the time to tell me about the mistakes deserves my gratitude. Assuredly, they are not what’s plaguing the project. Besides, if my reader didn’t like my manuscript, would they be sticking around to help me help it along?


The Treaty with Edie

Rilla sorts out writer-ish things with Edie, her rather critical inner editor.

Rilla: Okay, Edie. We’ve been working together for some time, and I think you need to understand something I’ve figured out about me—us.

Edie: And that is…

Rilla: I write for the joy of it. I truly believe we’re not seeing eye-to-eye on this, and I need you to get onboard so I can finish The Zorce Collection.

Edie: Meaning, you want me to stop being honest? You’d rather I didn’t tell you the uninteresting, unpolished, unprintable things you write are trash and need to be burned?

Rilla: Yeah. Pretty much.

Edie: I can do that. In fact, I have no problem letting you wallow in the mire of your own dumb compositions.

Rilla: Now Edie, you’re a good editor. You’ve saved me from a lot of mistakes, I grant you–

Edie: And this is the gratitude I receive for being there for you at all hours? All hours! Because you know I wake you in the middle of the night so you can know about that typo in the comment you posted yesterday! Who else would be as concerned about your image? Protecting you has been my top priority for over thirty years now, and all you can say is, ‘You’re a good editor, Edie, now shut it’? I see how it is.

Rilla: That’s not what I said, Edie. Nobody’s doubting your loyalty here. I don’t want you to quit; I just want you to look at our work as a personal reflection rather than a marketable product.

Edie: ‘Our work.’ Thank you; I appreciate that. So, you’re saying the trilogy you’ve been wrestling with for years is now a personal reflection? You’re going to spend—who knows how many—years to complete three books, and then you want to stick it in your little diary and call it a day?

Rilla: Yes. That is exactly what I mean.

Edie: (jaw-drop) What a waste of your life! Why would you want to do that?

Rilla: It’s simple. I need the freedom to write what I want to write without thinking of who’s going to look at it and what it’s going to make them think. We did that last time, remember? Where did it get us?

Edie: (nodding) I see your point. We’ve been trying to peg this story down for almost a decade.

Rilla: Ugh. Don’t say that.

Edie: Well, it’s true. But, I will admit, you’ve been able to eke out a few good stories, even while you were blocked.

Rilla: Thank you. So, what do you think? If we work on The Zorce Collection as a reflection of our life rather than a product, how would that change the approach?

Edie: Well, obviously, I wouldn’t have to stop you mid-scene to ask if the scene itself is really necessary.

Rilla: Yes.

Edie: The dialogue could be as long as you want it. The word count wouldn’t matter.

Rilla: Yes.

Edie: Ooo, here’s a big one: I wouldn’t have to alert you every time you divulge something that hints at your own painful experiences.

Rilla: Bingo, Edie. That’s the one that’s holding us back.

Edie: So, are you calling this a memoir now?

Rilla: Absolutely not! This is Casey and Ivan’s story. They need to be able to speak, and they can say what they need to say much better if they don’t have a self-conscious author in the mix second-guessing and censoring herself.

Edie: I see.

Rilla: What do you think? Can we give this a go?

Edie: You know how I despise that long-winded garble you call your style. Will I have to wade through that again? I refuse to work with you unless I can still rip apart the scenes that don’t speak the way I think they should.

Rilla: I’ll make you a deal; if you’ll give me time to get the scenes out on paper, I’ll take you page-by-page, through the section when we’ve finished. You can clean it up to your heart’s content.

Edie: It has to be crisp. You know that’s very important to me. Clean and crisp.

Rilla: Well?

Edie: I’m willing to try it. Anything to get this monstrosity out of our head.

Rilla: Thank you, Edie.

Edie: And when we’re done, who knows? Maybe you’ll want to publish it anyway, and…

Rilla: No. Edie.

Edie: I don’t see why. Can’t you just think about that an itsy-bitsy bit?

Rilla: No. We write The Zorce Collection, and it’s done. That will free us to work on (whispers name of fully-written children’s story draft).

Edie: Ah. Yes, that’s been dangling there for some time.

Rilla: Are we agreed?

Edie: We never agree, but I will concede with this one set of stories–which is all I’m giving you!

Rilla: Good enough.


“Meet Buddy,” my hostess said, as I pushed open the gate to her property. I’d come to spend my weekends, this and the next, in quiet contemplation in an apartment above her barn.

Her dog, Buddy, approached me, his nose hitting my bicep as I turned around. He was all black, and he was seated. Immediately, I thought of The Hound of the Baskervilles. This dog was huge! He looked up at me with his yellow eyes (“So help me, he had yellow eyes!“), and I thought, “This dog could eat me.”

I tried to pet Buddy. When I was younger I’d had a German Shepherd I could scratch behind both ears when my hand was splayed. Not Buddy. I was shocked at how small my hand looked on his head. He could definitely make short work of me.

I woke at 2:30AM that night to the onslaught of a storm. The rain beat on the slanted roof just over my head, and I thought. “I’m scared to death of Buddy.” I envisioned myself being attacked in the evening hours next week because the dog didn’t recognize me, and his owners were away.

I entered the chicken coop on the second day—it would be my job to feed the chickens and put them on the roost in the evenings. “You pick her up by placing your hands under her. Wrap them around her wings, so she won’t flap them.” I followed my host’s advice and tried to get a good grip on the chicken. This particular hen was still sitting on the roost because of arthritis. I brought the arthritic chicken to the ground. She tottered before walking out of the hen house. I felt proud of myself, but the evening was more difficult.

“She’s heavy. Make sure you don’t pull on her wings.” The second hen felt my lack of confidence and flew out of her nesting box. I could see myself, next weekend, with hens flapping around me, trying to peck out my eyes. At which point, I’d push my way out of the hen house, where Buddy would promptly eat me.

The next morning, I gave animal-feeding another try. I fed Buddy, who ate his food in seconds. I wondered if his meals would suffice next week, or if he’d gnaw off my leg in hunger. I entered the gate to feed the chickens, and they clustered and clucked around me expectantly. A bit intimating, but I thought I could kick them off and fling feed over my shoulder to escape. I went into the coop and helped the arthritic chicken down. Her feathers felt like a Sherpa blanket. It was nice. I gave Buddy a Milkbone, and, suddenly, I knew we were best friends.

The next weekend, I entered the gate to the barn, and Buddy barked at me. Not in a mean way. He’d recognized me. I dropped my stuff off at the barn, and we went for a walk around the property. He was pleased to have my company.

The chickens were quiet as I set them on the roost that night. They hardly stirred as I counted them to make sure they were all there. I left the chicken house by lantern light, and Buddy bounded around me, barking to let me know he was going to be watching for mountain lions and such that night. (There was a rumor of one with babies in the area.) I enjoyed a quiet night sorting out the antics of my fictional characters.

The morning was raucous. I hadn’t heard the rooster as much the weekend before because of the storms. He was making up for lost time. I finally pulled myself out of bed at 6:00AM. I did some writing, came to a stopping point, and went out to feed the chickens. Miss Arthritis was on one foot. She had trouble getting her legs under her. I think she’d had a tough night.

Buddy ate his meal with his usual alacrity and showed off his stick-carrying skills. I gave him a treat before I went back to my room for a breakfast of two of the eggs I’d found in the hen house. Delicious!

I looked out the window around lunch and noticed a revolt was happening in the chicken field. Three of the chickens were in roped-off territory. I headed for the field, Buddy at my…back (not at my heels—he’s too big). I tried to shoo-shoo the birds back to their side of the field. Two of them obeyed, but the last one was determined to enjoy her freedom. Buddy barked a reprimand at her and chased her as best he could outside the gate. He helped me pin in little Miss Behave to get her to go back to her side.

In the afternoon, Buddy and I took another walk. The weather was brisk, and Buddy was excited to show me his haunts. We sat down afterward for a talk. He wasn’t ready for me to leave when it was time for me to get back to work. He followed me unto the deck, which was prohibited. I warned him. He lowered his head and slunk off the stairs. I can’t believe how I afraid of him I was at first!

As I packed up to go home after my second restful weekend in a row, I was sad. Not because I wanted to stay and work more. I was thoroughly ready to return home. I was going to miss Buddy. I was going to miss the soft down of the chickens’ feathers and the quiet tap-tapping of my keyboard. But, mostly, I would miss Buddy.

3 Points of Writing & the Universal Rule

My brother, a musician, named three properties that become his focus as he works to craft a piece of music. They are: the key of the piece, the tempo, and the kick pattern.

“Making sure the song is in the right key is essential,” he said. “You would be amazed at how changing the key of the song can change the entire feeling.” He talked about some songs we both knew and how they didn’t work the same way with a key change. “This especially goes for songs that modulate for a build at the end. It can be catastrophic for certain song structures.”

“The second thing I experiment with is the song’s tempo. I have songs I struggle to keep from being too slow or too fast.” He talked about one of his slower songs, Give In. “I played with the speed of that one for quite a while. Any slower and it lost its intensity, but playing it faster took away from the serious mood.”

“The last thing will probably sound shallow, but it’s not. It’s the kick pattern. And I’m not talking about the beat of the drum so much as the pattern in the listener’s head. You want them to anticipate when the drum is coming, even when the sound isn’t there at all. The listener needs that. But you don’t want the pattern to be predictable, either.”

As he talked, I realized the method to his music was the same method I use to improve my writing. Instead of using chords in a key pattern, I’m focused on the structure of the setting. The setting of the story houses the mood, the atmosphere, the foundational guidelines of my piece. Without it, my work has suffered from being too ambiguous or lifeless. I’ve changed the setting suddenly, and it’s ruined my whole story.

Tempo is obvious. I’ve discussed the importance of keeping the pace of a story in the forefront of a writer’s mind—not letting the characters slip into reveries or flashbacks at the wrong moment, making sure there is a goal the story continues to move toward. Even the simplest digressions can have an impact on the way your reader perceives your work. Some digressions bring your reader into a closer connection with the experience you’re sharing, and some digressions confuse, and even polarize, your reader.

Lastly, there is a pattern created by the writer in every story. Sometimes it’s called the voice or the style of the work. But it’s more than that. It’s that unspoken rhythm of thought the reader recognizes and latches onto. This is comparable to the kick pattern of a song, I think. Certain stories ooze personality, the story’s own flair, from the first word. Tolkien had a beautiful sense of this. Mary Shelley played around with it in Frankenstein. (Personally, I think she overplayed it.) Maximum Ride held readers with a snarky, hard-edged flow–not just the dialogue, but the storyline itself rattled with that teen angst pattern. These three examples are easy to pick up on, but all literature of length sits within a pattern that the reader subconsciously recognizes and expects to continue throughout the work.

My brother opened my eyes to this universal rule of the artist: We don’t mold the message alone; we mold every pause between. From the dead spaces to the underlying matter, we orchestrate and riddle out the kinks, so the listener can get to know the work without needing to know why it resonates.

Quiet in the Barn

One of the hangups of being a responsible person is not knowing when to say, “Okay. I need some time to myself.” I deny myself the time to write. I admit it.

When the kids were young, I would hunker down over my keyboard until 1 or 2 AM, aware of nothing but the story. I would live and breathe, some days, to get back to my characters. And I felt guilty for that. Numerous people would tell me, “You’re going to miss this time in your kids’ lives. Treasure it.” I wish I could’ve treasured it more because they were right; I miss the times when they were little. Now I do. When they were little, I just needed a break! Every stage of life is different, and in that stage I was running from my kids–trying to find a moment to think, trying to shut the bathroom door to pee, trying not to burn supper while addressing the Battle of the Toddlers #7,008 in the other room.

Then the kids grew up, and I found the solitude I needed holed up in my walk-in closet (yeah, I talked about that once). When we moved, I missed that closet. I tried the next closet for awhile, but the magic was gone. I returned to writing at night, but I could see my kids were doing a lot of emotional growing up. When Mom was typing in the quiet of the night, that became the time they could have just me with no distractions. That was the time to ask, “Who am I, Mom?” and “I have these things I want to do in life, Mom, and I don’t know where to start.” How could I deny them that personal, introspective one-on-one time? (Don’t get me wrong; there were a few times I, flat out, did.) I had to put my writing aside and hear them–really listen to their needs. I fed their spirits, and I’m glad I did! But I went hungry sometimes.

After I stopped feeding myself the time and the space and the quiet I needed, I began to miss it less and less–which is the same as saying I missed me less and less.the barn

In four years, Lord-willing, my kids will be moving on. Leaving the nest. They’ll still need me, but it won’t be in the same role in which I’ve identified myself for most of my life now. I’ve been looking in the mirror lately and wondering who that person is looking back at me. I thought I knew her, but as I see the empty nest looming, I’m intimidated by her. What are her expectations? Who is she, and what are those dreams she’s been trying to tell me are in her heart? I’m already regretting the time I haven’t spent feeding her spirit, helping her find the place to start.

This past weekend, I took her out, just the one of us. My friends let me stay in an apartment over their barn and get some quiet time. I laughed. I cried. I was scared, but I still wanted to meet me. And there, I found my story. My characters had been waiting for me. If they can pick up where we left off, I know I can, too.

Now I Know What’s Coming

I’m in Georgetown, Kentucky this week. I had 90 minutes to spare today, so I zoomed over to the local library, popped open my laptop, and started working on my current project. I realized someone had taken the desk behind me when the clack-clack of an electric typewriter began. I raised my head from the screen, listened to the rhythm, and dove into my work again. Instantly, the typing put me in the zone.

Sometime later, a voice broke through my concentration. I looked to find a woman standing beside my chair, telling the typist, “We have conference rooms, sir, if you’d prefer to work in one.”

“I didn’t think I was making that much noise,” he commented.

The librarian repeated her invitation, and, within seconds, my phone alarm went off. I stopped it and began to pack up. This meant I was turned toward the guy peering over his machine, looking rather dazed.

I said, “I like it, too,” and smiled.

There’s this thing about me, and you probably wouldn’t guess it on first glance. I look pretty normal, but I really can’t say what I mean. Which, coming from my lips, would be interpreted as, “I haz the don’t talk good.”

Oh, I can tell you exactly what I think once I’ve written it out, but the words hardly ever present themselves to me on the fly. And my comment was completely useless in this case because it had no context or meaning to the typist behind me. I’d been thinking, ‘He was told to move because he was making a noise people might not like. But he liked it. And I (aided in my thought processes by the rhythm) liked it, too.’

But, “I like it, too” came across to him as, “I’d like it, too.” It was most unfortunate that he interpreted my comment to mean that I, too, would like it if he grabbed up his typewriter and headed for a conference room.

But I didn’t figure this out until well after he’d given me a hard look and packed up his stuff.

He stomped up to the front desk, and I got to listen to him complain, heatedly, about the rights of typewriter owners everywhere and the undemocratic environment of a library filled with the noises of cell phones and video game devices. (It was true. Though I hadn’t heard any video games, I’d heard 2 seconds of a phone alarm–mine.)

He obviously thought everyone was against him and his trusty typewriter. Only, I wasn’t against them at all. In fact, I’d been contemplating how I could find typewriter background noise to work by in future.

He glared at me again as he headed toward the exit, lifted his typewriter bag, and pointed to it.

“This is coming!” he declared, like a disgruntled prophet out of a fantasy novel.

I shrugged. “I liked it. I didn’t have any problem with it at all!”

As I finished my lengthy-for-me defense, he turned his back and waved his hand over his shoulder.

“Talk to the hand,” he said. “I’m outta here.”

Wizfect, my sensitive little laptop, seemed to take it harder than I did. It wanted to do some updating, perhaps find a comforting code to solace itself.

While I waited for Wizfect to find the strength to go on, I mused about what this man might have been typing up. Was he a writer interrupted, caught off guard by a conscientious librarian? Had his outburst been fueled by a stormy scene, his character inadvertently possessing him in the raging emotions he’d created? Or was he just madly devoted to his typewriter?

I patted Wizfect. To all of these I can relate.

4 Methods to Escape Your Book

I participated in my first escape room experience and had so much fun not escaping. That’s right; my team lost. The six of us tripped around a tiny room, gathering clues and trying to convince each other we had the solution to the puzzle. We sifted through a bunch of nonsense theories to come up with the right one, form a plan, and execute it. Now I’m going to risk it and make a correlation that, I hope, will not doom me to the loony bin. Here it is: Sorting out these puzzles in an escape room is just like novel-writing to me, only I’m not brainstorming with five other individuals. I’m brainstorming with a bunch of differing opinions in my own head.

Will the character break here or does he need more pushing to come to the realization he’s got to change his thinking?

A third part of me thinks it’s time for him to break. A third thinks he’s not ready yet, and there is the final third that’s just not sure. That sounds like I only have three parties in disagreement, but there are really far more than even six opinions in the crowded room of my mind. For as many paths as there are that a story can take, there is a distinct and vocal campaigner in my head. And here’s what’s going to reserve my straightjacket at The Cracked Nut, A Haven for the Blissfully Barmy: I love this about writing! It thrills me when I have all of these directions presented to me because the possibilities are endless and ever-changing. I also hate this about writing! I’m not innately a ‘P’ on the Jung-inspired Myers-Briggs personality spectrum. I’m decidedly a Judging, closure-craving writer with a great need for open possibility and experimentation. So, I don’t want to be left in the crowded room of my mind, piecing the same puzzles over and over.

When our time was up, we left the escape room still hashing out our mistakes. First, we admitted we didn’t always know what the point was–as in, the object of the game or the goal of the individual puzzles. Second, we should have asked for clues. Third, we decided a different strategy would have sped up our progress considerably and kept us from getting distracted by details. In talking this out, I realized that these are things I deal with as a writer. These issues keep me from escaping—from finishing my book.


1. Know the Point

On entering the room that would be our home for an hour, our escape guide rattled off a bunch of guidelines and asked, “Do you have any questions?”

No one responded except to look at one another.

“Okay, then…” He backed out of the room.

“Wait!” I said. “What is the point of this? What are we trying to do here?”

He gave me a small, enigmatic grin. I thought he was going to say a line from Princess Bride. ‘You’re trying to trick me into giving something away. It won’t work.’ What he said was, “You’ll figure out what you’re looking for as you go.”

“No, I mean, what is the overall goal here? There’s this criminal who is going to be set free if we don’t find… what?”

He gave me another one of his ‘you can’t fool me’ smiles.

“Are we looking for evidence that will keep the criminal in jail?”

“Yeah, you have to find the evidence.” He said it like I was supposed to know this. “But there will be a number of puzzles before you get to that.” The other players in the room nodded or said, “Oh, okay.” And this amazed me. Had no one in the room known what we were doing? Would anyone else have asked? Did it matter to anyone but me that we didn’t know the point of the story we were following to escape? I guess not.

Some writers begin a story without any focus or object. The goal manifests itself as they go. For me that’s like watching Lady in the Water. That movie was so frustrating I cried out, “He’s making this up as he goes along, isn’t he!” That being said, I’m not sold on knowing the concrete ending to my story, either. I tend to want to hold the ending inside, feel it and let it create the impetus to write it all out. I used to avoid writing out that ending scene beforehand. While I still think it’s important to be flexible about the last scene’s details, I have learned that I need to write the ending first in order to keep that initial image intact, or I’ll lose the principle, the point of the work.

2. Keep the Clues Coming

Our escape room guide told us, “If you want a clue, just look at the camera and say, ‘Kevin, can we have a clue?’”

He left the room, and we adults did what most adults do: we tried to work out the puzzles without asking for help. I found out later we should have been asking for clues all along. We knew we were behind when they appeared on the screen without prompting.

Writers need clues to stay on track, too. Our clues are the pre-written chapter titles that organize our scenes, or that skeletal plot outline, or the one-phrase reminders on the index cards of our storyboards. Too many times I’ve been bogged down in a scene, only to realize all that info I’m trying to stuff into it really fits a future situation. If I’d just backed away and looked at the outline, I would’ve seen it and stopped pounding that material into the wrong setting, the wrong moment. I know now that writing down my vision for each plot point is so valuable. They’re the clues that help me keep on task and pare down the extraneous material.

3. Dismiss the Details

Speaking of extraneous material, I learned something else about my writing technique when the escape room guide opened the door to let us losers out. We were given two boards to write on at the beginning of the challenge. One was completely discarded at some point; the other was in my hands the entire time. Kevin looked at my board and said, “Wow. I’ve never seen so many notes before.” I’d written down every single detail I thought would be helpful and grouped them into lists. In some ways I think my notes became more intriguing to me than the game itself. By the time our hour was up, I had solutions to clues to a puzzle we hadn’t made it to yet. Sure we would have saved a lot of time, if we’d had any time left to save, but my notes were useless.

Writers have a hard time with this, too. Sometimes, I’m inundated with story ideas, details, and descriptions that want to be put on paper, making it difficult to work on one thing at a time. Add to that the hours of compiled research, and I have this scattered mess of pages and files that don’t seem to fit anywhere. Like my terrifically notes-heavy board, I’ve let the details overwhelm me instead of allowing them to fill in the gaps in the background of my story.

4. Approach it with a Solid Strategyold-key-1385384620Pb2

Realm told me later, “We should have divided up into smaller teams and tackled the puzzles in tandem.”

“Yeah, kind of like leapfrog,” I added. “One team tackles the current puzzle while the second team gathers clues for the next. Each team could begin working the next puzzle in line after their first puzzle is solved.”


“But the guide told all of us to work on the current puzzle.”

“The guide was wrong.”

“We have to go back,” I told him. “We have to test this new theory!”

Lately, I’ve been experimenting with how to approach my story. I’m not talking about the narrative, rather, the approach I use to get the first draft down on paper. In the past there have been two stages for me when working on that first draft: marinating and transcribing. In the marinating stage I hole up in the bookstore or library and start jotting down the bits and pieces that will make my plot feasible. It’s the time when, while driving the kids to class, my daughter says, “Mom, you look really weird, talking to yourself and making faces like that.”

“I’m marinating,” I tell her, because that’s really what’s happening. My story isn’t marinating. I am. While I’m attaching all of these tiny threads of thought, linking together to form the woven picture, the story is attaching itself to me, soaking into my sleeping and waking moments until it’s ready to be told in its entirety.

And then I type. I type like a student in the manic last hours after procrastinating on a term paper. I’m trying to keep up with my characters as they play out the entire story in my head. If I don’t, the story begins to fade and disintegrate. I know; it’s happened. I’m left with patches and frayed swathes of story material with no home at all. So sad. So, I need blocks of time in the transcribing stage. But I don’t have blocks of time. I’ve had to experiment with my strategy in the last few years because my kids don’t take naps anymore, and they don’t need to go to bed earlier. They do need more one-on-one time to understand their assignments, as well as a chauffeur, a mentor, a therapist, a cook, and a personal trainer and nutritionist. You know, a mom.

So, in all the shuffling and scurrying of these adolescent years, I haven’t found the strategy that works all the time. Like Realm’s escape room strategy, I’d like to try writing in tandem, but it’s just me here with my thoughts and my little fingers clacking away. I hope, at some point, to complete this story… and the next… and the next… and then I guess I’ll be a pro at escaping.

Have any suggestions for me, fellow writers?

Candid Opinion: The Eye-Dancers

Michael S. Fedison, author of The Eye-Dancers, sent an email thanking me for commenting on his blog and letting me know his book was on sale at a discount. I’m an avid reader, and the book cover is really eye-popping. (Heh.) Add to this the analytical writing style he uses in his blog posts, and you know I had to grab it up and give it a try.

The Eye-Dancers is a young adult sci-fi/fantasy novel that explores alternate realities as four adolescent boys try to help a girl living in a parallel universe.

Technically, the story is splendidly laid out. The typos are few. The overall attention to grammar makes this a pleasing read. I was thrilled to discover the book has no profanity. Fedison’s style is descriptive with lots of imagery. The narrative shifts between the perspectives of each boy with clarity, which I found impressive. The style of prose is consistent; Fedison does not polarize readers by dropping in erudite words.

Mitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc are mapped out and developed with attention to character. Each boy has his own problems to deal with, his own weaknesses, his own strengths. I related to all of them and picked up on their personalities with each perspective switch. I appreciated this focus on characterization. Unfortunately, they were so thought-out I had difficultly remembering a character like Mitchell was only 12 or 13 years old. I would say the focus on the boys’ characterizations overshadows the plot of the story.

For a fantasy novel with sci-fi elements, I expected the storyline to move quickly through the plot points. The pace of The Eye-Dancers drags from the first chapter. Because of the focus on character development, there is a ton of introspection – which has worked before in sci-fi/fantasy when juxtaposed by danger or action-packed scenes. The Eye-Dancers does not draw its reader forward with intense action or a feeling of impending doom. It lacks momentum.

Overall, I think The Eye-Dancers shows Fedison’s strengths in the areas of POV switches, description, characterization, and technical skill. This book does not receive my full recommendation in its current state because it doesn’t hold the reader’s attention, and it doesn’t have what I think is a satisfactory resolution to the conflict. I would consider reading a future book by Michael S. Fedison because of his visually descriptive style and his grasp of characterization. I would hope to find a more honed approach to his plots in future works.

Thanks to Mike for allowing me to be honest about his storychild. With a completed novel in circulation and a sequel in the mix, he’s definitely further along in his writer journey than I am.

You may have a different opinion. Feel free to make your own decision about The Eye-Dancers.

Never Mind John Galt. Who is Beverley?

I’m reading The Warden by Anthony Trollope. As you know from previous hints, I’m very much delighted with 19th century writers’ methods. I crave the extensive introductions that grow the characters’ roots; it helps me understand them and empathize. I tend to linger over the insightful, sometimes humorous, comments from the author scattered throughout the story. Trollope satisfies my need to read about “real” personalities. And he doesn’t condemn his characters. No matter how proud, how cold or calculating, there is always a human element in these depictions of their nature.

He gives Eleanor, the warden’s daughter, a great deal of reflection when she takes up the campaign to save her father’s reputation from being ruined by the man she secretly loves. Trollope avers that hers is a disinterested act, yet he lets me see her through the eyes of one who knows the naivety and passion of youth. I smile at her expectation of gaining nothing, while I’m told she will end up with a pleasing confession from the man who returns her love. It’s gratifying to be told as a reader the writer’s decision not to use uninformed suspense to gain my interest in his tale. He woos by stroking a reader’s intellect and experience, while allowing his audience all the fervor of Eleanor’s determination to give up her most treasured wish for the sake of her father’s honor.

Trollope makes a vague reference while discussing Eleanor’s character. He notes she’s “not at all addicted to the Lydian school of romance: she by no means objected to her lover because he came in at the door under the name of Absolute, instead of pulling her out of a window under the name of Beverley…” Yes, Trollope does a wonderful job clarifying his meaning without explaining the allusion, but I want to know all the same. Who or what is Beverley? Being that my go-to tool for general questions is Google, I arrived at two quick guesses.

ma-74916Guess 1: Beverley is derived from the nun in Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion, Constance de Beverly, who ends up being punished for breaking her vows by being walled up in an abbey.

Contention: ‘Beverly’ is spelled differently in Marmion, but that isn’t such a big deal. Not having access to an online library search engine, writers transposed and omitted letters in names all the time. Yet, the being walled up part is concerning because it presents no window to be pulled out of.

Guess 2: If Absolute is not an actual name, perhaps Beverley isn’t either. Beverley was the Parliament seat Trollope ran for but didn’t win. Could this be a jab at the tactics used in Beverley, noting that things were done in a less-than-straightforward way?

Contention: Trollope’s experience with the Beverley seat happened in 1868. He published The Warden in 1855. No doubt, Trollope had a prescient talent when it came to character sketching, but I don’t think he was psychic.

I’m sure there’s a simple explanation; I just don’t know what it is. ‘Beverley’ could mean anything! (Which means I don’t know Beverley about Beverley.) Is he alluding to a well-known person or place? I’m sure it was well-known for Trollope’s time, but I’m not as certain of its popularity today. Yet, here I am, connecting with the mind of a writer long gone who tosses out allusions to all sorts of things literary, historical, and meaningful to his time. Sometimes I look them up and am rewarded for my labor. Sometimes the detective in me has reached my quota for the day. That mysterious reference will have to remain a mystery.

Do you ever think about 21st century references and how confusing they could be to the 23rd century reader? Meme-making images and viral videos draw attention for a short time, and then we forget about them. What might have taken years to pass into oblivion takes a matter of days now. At least that’s how it seems. What are some references you’ve come across lately? Did you have to look them up, or did you already know what they were talking about?

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