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.

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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.”

“Exactly.”

“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?

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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.

My Cup of Tea

We’re in that in-between Christmas and the 1st of January time. The year is fading into the past, the past is merging into the present, and the present is quickly dissolving into future. It’s my time to reflect on who I’ve been and consider who I am and who I will be.

My best thinking requires my pen and connecting to happy memories from my past. I choose a cuppa, and the scents and tastes become my guide.

times-of-refreshingThe aromatic spice of Bigelow’s Constant Comment conjures images of my mother, who sits across from me and smiles with that special look that tells me she’s enjoying herself. We’re having one of our gabfests. She lifts the tea bag with the black and bright orange tag from the dark water in the cup. Her fingertips gingerly cinch up the wet string to keep the dripping bag from swinging as she removes it. She brings the lip of the cup to her mouth, all the while her eyes on my face, fully engrossed in what I’m trying to relay. I’m her eldest child, and we’ve become dear friends in the years and experiences we’ve shared together. She knows me, and she likes what she sees. That acceptance resonates with me as I take my first cinnamon-y sip.

The soothing flavor of Celestial Seasoning’s Honey Vanilla Camomile wends me to those nightly escapades when I had three children 5 and under. The house is finally still. The clack of the keyboard is my only noisy companion as the thoughts roll out and line themselves up before me in an order that eludes me during the busy day. The exhaustion seeps away as I enter the world of my crafting. I stop and take up my cup. The warm, clear liquid swims across my tongue while I review my work in satisfaction.

Pouring Orange Pekoe over milk in my teacup transports me to a time of cake and miniature dishes. The girls pick out the plates and the cups for the tea party; they arrange the crackers and cheese. Little heels flop out of my shoes as they clatter to the dining room, dressed in their finest play gowns. Two pairs of bright eyes watch for cues as to who we will be today while I settle into my chair. Are we rich ladies? Are we maids? Are we robots? Are we lost children today? They reach for the sugar cubes, and their little voices chatter over the orchestral music in the living room — because there will be a ball after tea is over. Soon they will ask me to tell them a story, a new story they haven’t heard yet. One about princesses… and maybe horses that fly. Imagination and discovery fill me, along with a bubbly sense of expectation. Where will my story take us today? I swallow the milky black tea with a satisfied gulp, just as eager to be introduced to my character in some gallant adventure.

The last drink of the Twining’s Lady Grey is stronger than the first because I leave the bag in. I like the gathering strength behind the subtle rendition of Earl-Grey-gone-feminine. I remember being mildly surprised I liked it the first time I tried Lady Grey. Now it’s my favorite. I offer it when drinking tea with a good friend. Rarely do they pick the Lady Grey, and those who do don’t often choose it as their favorite. It doesn’t stand out. It isn’t mild, like chamomile; it isn’t a spice tea; it isn’t sweet, like rooibus. It isn’t fruity or a dessert-type tea. It’s rather a quiet, unassuming brew that doesn’t require but a few sips for the drinker to know whether it’s to be approved or set aside. I like that: an independent tea with definite virtues, but not the sort to please everyone. Looking into the empty cup, I notice the dark stain lines along the porcelain rim. Lady Grey has left its mark. And so have I.

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?

5 Pacing Problems that Break Your Story’s Stride

Pacing can be my best friend or my nemesis when I’m writing. It depends. Getting from one plot point to the next without losing momentum is always a struggle. I’ve lost my way and left my characters wandering around too many times. That’s because pacing is the last thing on my mind when I’m tapped into my hero’s personality, living through what he is going through. This is the reason I’ve had to cut out chunks of my manuscript to be replaced by a line like, “It took three days for Aaron to cajole his rusty Plymouth into Arizona to find Maurice.” No introspection. No dialogue. No car-broken-down-on-the-side-of-the-road details. I have a story to tell; the extraneous information doesn’t work.

I’m reading two self-published books that have ruined the story’s pace in the first third of the book. Both are sci-fi/fantasy with very different tales to tell, yet they make the same mistake. I’d like to say it’s just a fluke – two stories with pacing problems – but it’s not. To those fiction writers who are flunking the story pacing test, I, the reader, need you to know five things.

1. I’m Not Your Therapist.

I like that your character has thoughts I can share. That’s what introspection is for: divulging information that is vital to the storyline or to my connection with your character. That’s it. When you include immaterial monologue, I become the unwilling listener. You are not paying me to trudge through the many branches of your character’s runaway train of thought. I am the one who paid for your book! If I wanted that kind of treatment, I’d have picked up a memoir. Sift through your character’s thoughts and decide whether they help your reader or subject your reader to TMI.

2. I’m Not Your Man Friday.

When your character is flashing back to the past, then to the present, and back to another time in the past, you have probably mistaken me for a yo-yo. Why am I errand-running through your protagonist’s head? I have my own head to run around in, thanks.

It’s imperative that a character’s experiences move the story forward, which is why every writer should question all flashbacks. “Is this flashback absolutely necessary for the reader to read?” Once you’ve answered that question, go back through the flashback again, asking, “Is there another way to convey the information more concisely?”

3. I’m Not an Idiot.

If I’m reading about a doctor who’s talking with a patient, do I need a dialogue tag to tell me who says, “Your blood work came back fine”? Please don’t use overuse dialogue tags, (begged Rilla). If you had to read a tag after every sentence, wouldn’t you find that annoying? (asked Rilla). Unless your characters are named “Dick” and “Jane,” and I happen to be at an elementary reading level, your tagging is belittling. Use hints. Often. They are the weapons of mass instruction for a dialogue pro.

4. I’m Not Your Prisoner.

I’ve mentioned this before, so perhaps I’m being redundant about this redundancy: If your character says it and the description repeats it, that is wasting four seconds of my life. Those are four seconds I could have been checking my email. I could have been deleting another Groupon offer for a spectacular $20 Jujitaekwarate course “Introductory to Principles of Breathing for Martial Arts” (as much as I would like to see who actually shows up for those). If Justin says he’s going for a run, I believe him! I don’t need the narrative to report, “Justin put on his running shoes and stepped out the door for a brisk jog.” Changing the words doesn’t change that I’m chained to Justin’s every move.

5. Um, I’m Still Here.

Have you ever had a friend tell you an anecdote only for you to remind him/her, “I was there”? It’s pretty funny when that happens, but the friend is usually a little embarrassed because, you know, he/she ought to remember me, right? A character may need to explain something to a new character that I, the reader, already know. Or a character may need to discover what the narrative has already described. Worse than the friend who forgot I was around, a writer who repeats an explanation is showing a lack of consideration for the reader. It doesn’t matter how brief is it. It’s being repeated for the sake of whom? Your imaginary character? I’m real. It is never a bad thing to show your reader you remember he/she is there by skipping the rehash.

As a detail-oriented writer, I know what a pain pacing can be when I’m in the throes of a tale, but it’s really worth it. I latch hold of the story’s momentum, as writer or reader, when the pace is kept in check. I don’t have to work at finding the important points because the story doesn’t become sidetracked. The characters will know where they’re going and how to get there, so I know, too. When it comes to introspection, flashbacks, dialogue tags, descriptions, and explanations; be ready to chuck the immaterial, stay in the present, drop the labels, and skip the replays. And don’t forget the magic words: Move On.

There are plenty of pacing tips I’ve not included here. I need help with these, too. Have some helpful advice?

On Finding Joy

This year has been full of wonderful experiences for me. I’ve been less focused on my own writing in favor of learning from other writers. (I’m still writing, but – you know me – I’m not ready to share until I’m ready to share.) During one event I attended in September, I met talented writer Sarah Floyd, who has self-published her novel, Finding Joy.

Yes, it’s my tendency to shrink away from self-published works; I’ve been burned many times. This book is different. It’s different in a lot of ways. First, it’s inspirational fiction…and I actually like it. That is a shock to me. There is a natural passage of time needed for persons to grow and develop, which principle is terribly lacking in most novels, particularly in the “Christian inspired” ones. And there’s no heavy weight of preachiness, no “hit me over the head with the Spirit of God” moments. In fact, most of the life principles that are brought up in this book are underemphasized. I found myself a few sentences ahead when the impact of some thought really penetrated my brain. This is where Sarah Floyd’s skill truly impresses. Here’s an excerpt near the end of the book where one of the characters is talking about how she’s forgiven someone for hurting her:

“I have to keep forgiving him periodically, you see, like clockwork…or a…an annual physical or something. And it’s overdue…I need to do it again.”

Yes! That’s how forgiveness really feels. It’s not something where you just forget what happened. The scar is always there, and you have to go back and reapply forgiveness every-so-often with no feelings of guilt, or “God isn’t doing His job taking this away from me.” It’s a natural part of the process that gets ignored. And it’s like an afterthought in this conversation. I love that!

Second, Floyd remains true to her characters. When Joy Carnegie gets to Vermont, she’s overwhelmed. She sees the needs others have, and she doesn’t suddenly pull a skill out of her back pocket and come to the rescue. When a friend gets sick, Joy reflects on her distress at her friend’s sickness; but she can’t think of what she can do to help. She prays; she calls to check on him. That’s all she can do. In another section of the book, Joy has a friend who is going through a family crisis and is crying softly in her bed. This moment of quiet release is a single statement in the story. Joy doesn’t do the superman thing and run over to comfort her. She just let’s her cry, let’s her have her time. The author doesn’t make excuses or leave her heroine feeling like a lousy friend. It’s clear Floyd’s not directing her principle actors to say what needs to be said at the fitting time, or pushing her characters to be anything more than what they are organically. She allows them to develop and change on their own. It’s wonderful! They say things and do things that flow like a normal stream of consciousness would have them. This is one of many reasons I turn to the old books for normal-human-reaction therapy. I want to read about the behavior that was completely acceptable before our super self-aware, movie-watching imitators’ culture decided what emotion and response is universally appropriate for every personality and situation. The writer of Finding Joy doesn’t conform to that silliness.

Here’s the third great thing about Sarah Floyd’s Finding Joy: It’s comforting. When I was a kid, my mom would make Cream of Wheat for breakfast, sprinkle it with sugar, and pour milk over it. That’s my comfort food as an adult – that or oatmeal with the milk poured over it. Now, if I’d just said, “Finding Joy is like eating oatmeal,” I realize most of you readers would’ve curled your lip at that. (Maybe you still are!) But I’m trying to give you an idea of the feeling this story wraps around me. It empowers one with the sense of being part of a special fellowship in the midst of all the struggles that can occur in life. There were sections where I smiled or laughed at the gentle banter between Floyd’s characters because they reminded me of the fun I share with close friends. (And it doesn’t hurt that there’s a character that likes eating oatmeal.)

Lastly, the grammar is better than I’ve read in current book selections from some of the genre book clubs. (Isn’t it dreadful how writers lazily apply past tense verbs when the narrative is in past participle? I don’t know why editors allow it in print.) I found a handful of typos but nothing that made me cringe. It’s obvious the author knows her verb tenses and her English, as well as some French!

I have no qualms or hesitations; I can completely recommend Finding Joy to you. Like I do with every story, I looked for a worthwhile protagonist to take with me after I closed book. I’ve found Joy to be just that sort of character. Find Joy’s story on Amazon.

Less than 5 days for Earth Trolley!

Earth Trolley is a fun read about a woman who slips into her future and has to change things to keep the love of her life, whom she hasn’t even met yet, all during a trip to the grocery store. Try it. You won’t be able to put it down. Three readers in a row just told me they couldn’t put it down, so I can totally say that.

As of today, the story is on the second page of the Beyond Time contest list for number of votes on Inkitt.com. It has to receive enough votes to make the top 10% by July 27th. That’s less than 5 days away. The Inkitt judges will choose the best stories from the top 10%.

Please, read it. Vote! And share it: http://www.inkitt.com/stories/16918.