How It All Began

I’ve never quite figured out why some of us become writers. Oh, I don’t mean writing a message on Facebook, twittering a tweet, or even writing a blog. I’m talking about that strange compulsion that comes over some of us to write a novel. To look at a blank page and know you have to fill it with words about what happened to someone who doesn’t exist in circumstances that never happened. You have a story to tell.

Dying For A Change was my first novel. I’d had a few short pieces published,  so finally got up the courage to do what I always wanted to do. Write a mystery novel. Only, where to start? When I was in school, creative writing was not on any class list I ever found. Creative anything wasn’t. You were supposed to learn what was put in front of you and question nothing, not even why you couldn’t understand algabra. The art of putting words on paper to make a story was foreign to me. Luckily, I didn’t even realize back then that it was an art. If I had, I might not have blindly tried it.

I had been to a couple of writing seminars at the local college and one universal piece of advice was “write what you know.” So, as I sat up in bed with a legal pad on my lap and a mug of coffee beside me, I pondered. What did I know about? Real estate. Horses. Kids. I knew a lot about kids. Divorce. Starting over. I had chosen to do that in a small town on California’s central coast. A town that was about to get a Wal Mart, a fact that did not make everyone happy. I knew about that. I thought about conflict and knew I had a plot.

It wasn’t that easy, of course. I have never, to this day, found a dead body in any of the houses I’ve shown. I’ve never seen anyone who has been shot. I’ve never had an Aunt Mary. Those things I had to make up. Actually, I had to make it all up. Once I had the outline for my main character and the primary conflict that would run through the story,  it started to unfold, admittedly in fits and starts, but unfold it did and was it ever fun.

I worked on that book until my eyes crossed. The first several versions were not what I wanted, only I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. Several people helped me, made suggestions, and I went back to school. UCLA has extension classes that they often hold as week-end seminars and I was more than willing to make the drive to LA. I learned, among other things, that writing is a craft and you have to  learn the basics. Then I wrote it again.

Eventually, it was a finalist in St Martin’s Malice Domestic contest, got published by another company but got published, and got really great reviews. Library Journal and Publishers Weekly both loved it.

So, now I’m hooked. I love writing these books. Not only has Ellen grown and changed through the four books I have written about her, but so have I. Murder Half-Baked is the fourth Ellen mystery, and while she’s had a lot of adventures through those books, found a lot of bodies, solved a lot of mysteries and even sold a little real estate, in Half-Baked, she gets to do something she’s been slowly moving toward. Ellen gets married again.

Dying For A Change is back. It is out on Kindle and Nook, where you can find all of the Ellen books, and from now until the end of November, you can buy the first one for .99. Meet Ellen, and follow all of her adventures, including her wedding which didn’t come about smoothly.. I hope you have as much fun reading about them as I have had writing them.

Quality Control

Years ago, before I had anything published, I used to write little things and hide them in my cedar chest. I have always been an avid reader and secretly wanted to be a writer, an august state I was sure I could never attain. I didn’t have the imagination, the cleverness, to write a book, or even an article. My scribbling was destined never to see the light of day, and especially not the printed page.

One day one of my daughters wanted something in the cedar chest and came out with a handful of pages. “Did you write these? They’re really good.” They weren’t and I knew it, but shortly after a close friend commented on how well I wrote business letters and other things, so I gathered my courage and decided to seriously try. I wrote an article about my children’s adventures in 4H and it was published by Family Fun. I was thrilled. I was on my way.

It didn’t turn out quite that easy. Writing a book, writing anything, is hard work. At least it is if you want it to be good.

I wrote my first mystery novel without benefit of knowledge of the craft, or even the knowledge that it was a craft, one that needed to be learned. Why that never occurred to me, I don’t know. You have to learn to do everything else. No one dances the lead in Swan Lake without years of practice, no one is allowed to drive a car unless you can prove your competency, no one wants to grace your dinner table unless you’ve learned to do something more than boil water. Writing is no different.

I submitted my first mystery novel to St Martin’s Malice Domestic contest, by now certain my hard work and the sale of that one lone article had made me a competent author. I was certain to win. The book came back with a note from the judge, saying it had promise but I needed to learn how to write. Well!

How dare she! I picked up my precious manuscript and started to read. It didn’t take long. She was right. I realized I had two choices. I could put the book back in the cedar chest and do something else or I could learn how to write. I chose to learn.

Four novels, several short stories, articles and blogs later, I’m still learning. My work is earning praise from readers and reviewers and I’m about ready to tear down all of the rejections I used to paper the bathroom wall and replace them with glowing reviews. It’s taken years of hard work and I’m not finished yet. I’m sure I’ll still be learning, still rewriting, still giving my books more layers, tightening up the story, fleshing out my characters on the day I shut my computer down for the last time. Which brings me to my point.

Today almost any one can get just about anything in print, or published on the web in some form. Put your novel up on Kindle, Nook or Smashwords. It might sell. Create a Facebook page and get a Twitter account. and you’re good to go. Self publish and set the reading world on fire. Maybe. However, most really good books are still published the old fashioned way, with an agent to guide you through the hunt for an editor and that same editor doing what they are supposed to do. Edit. Conversely, many of the self published books are poorly written by earnest people, many with talent, all of whom were willing to put in the hours, days, months it takes to write a book, but haven’t taken the time to really learn their craft. How is a reader to know which is which?

For me, it goes back to quality control. I look at reviews, see if the libraries stock the book, see if others have read it, and see who published it. That doesn’t mean I’m going to like the book, and it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, but it does give me a guide. Trying to pick something to read out of the thousands of ebooks offered, or the hundreds of new books that just came into the local library, or find my way through the stacks at Barnes and Noble, is daunting. You can’t tell the quality by the cover. You never could, but now that so many people are proficient at photo-shop, you really can’t. I’m not saying all self-published books are poor quality. Many aren’t. I know authors who are talented, write tight stories, build beguiling characters, are meticulous editors, but for some reason haven’t made it through the slush pile or have had bad experiences and choose the self published route. But you, the reader, can’t tell that by the cover. There is no way to know if the story is tight, the characters convincing, especially if you are choosing an ebook. There is no gatekeeper.

So, I have developed a strategy for picking authors new to me. I look at who is publishing the book. If I know, and respect the publishing house, or the person giving the blurb on the back cover I am more willing to take a chance. Then I go back to my favorite method. I go to my convenient and friendly local book store and ask the bookseller what’s new and what’s good. She’s usually right. Besides, she carries my books.

A Personal Best

I’m not much for team sports. For whatever reason, football, baseball, all those kinds of sports have never grabbed me. Perhaps it’s because when I was young I went to Catholic school. The nuns weren’t much on girl’s team sports either, except volleyball. They loved it. I didn’t. I always stood in the back row and ducked when the ball came near me.

However, I love individual sports. The kind of thing where you are competing against yourself as much as against the other guy in the pool, the ice rink, the horse show arena, or on the gymnastic floor. The sports announcers call it “personal best.” I understand that kind of competition, challenging yourself to get better, to try harder, at something that is very important to you.

This couple of years have been filled with personal best challenges for me. Some I didn’t think I’d accomplish, but somehow I’ve managed to achieve a few of them. And, glory be, I’ve just pulled off another one. I can get into—and out of—the swimming pool without using the handicapped lift chair.

I can hear the murmurs now. My two year old does it all the time, I hear someone back there say.  So did I until I ended up with only one leg.

I’m not going to describe here how I can do it, but suffice it to say it’s damn hard and scary as all get out. I really didn’t think I could do it until I met a man at the pool who also was missing a leg and climbed in and out routinely.  I stopped him to ask how he did it and how long he’d been an amputee. If he’d been young, bulging with muscles, I wouldn’t have asked, but he looked to be about my age and in not much better shape, so–.

He’d been an amputee since he was a teenager so was a lot more practiced at this stuff, but I decided that didn’t count. If he could do it, so could I. I tried climbing out first. Half the lifeguards were standing by, ready to pluck the old girl out of the water, but I made it. The next time, I went down the ladder into the pool. They were all still there, but they weren’t holding their breath quite so obviously. Now, they just ask which way I’m going in or getting out. Yes! One more hurdle jumped. Figuratively speaking, of course. But this frees me up just a little bit more. I can go to any pool without asking if they have a handicapped lift. So—hotel pools, friends pools, the Y pool near where I live, I can go to any of them.

Challenging ourselves and winning is a great feeling. We all do it, in almost all facets of our lives. We challenge ourselves to be better at work, to be better parents, or grandparents, to be better, healthier cooks, gardeners, tennis players, to loose weight, do a better job balancing our budgets, the list goes on. We’re not always going to win, I still struggle with that blasted budget, but if we keep trying, and set realistic goals so we don’t defeat ourselves before we ever get started, its amazing what we can accomplish.

Writing is no different. You are in a competition with yourself to write the best book or short story possible. You’re going to test how well you did by sending your manuscript out to compete with thousands of other writers who are also sweating blood and tears to come up with the next best seller, or just to get into print. And, as certain as death and taxes, you are going to get rejected. If you keep at this long enough, you’ll have enough rejection slips to wallpaper the dining room. But, like getting in and out of the pool, if you keep trying, good things happen. It may not come in the form of a publishers contract, but go back and read something you wrote a year ago, two years ago, and see if you have improved. See if you are learning, finally, to do this very difficult thing, write a good book. Now go back and read the chapter you just finished. How does it read? Flows better? Characters seem more real? Dialog not so stilted? Plot makes sense? You haven’t used every adverb you’ve ever met?  Ha! You have a personal best. Celebrate. Sing your own praises, crow like a rooster, dance an Irish jig. Make yourself a hot fudge sundae. Then, go pull out that desk chair and plant your behind in it. Crank up the computer and take another look at that great chapter. Can you make it even better? Probably. And, what comes after that? The next chapter, of course. And this one will be better still. Because personal bests exist only to challenge us to do more, to reach another harder and more rewarding goal.

I’m going to follow my own advice. The next chapter in the book I’m writing is going to be more exciting, I’m going to push the story forward without getting hung up on tangents, the characters will be more alive and my dialog is going to sparkle. And, I’m going to keep getting in and out of that pool without using the lift and who knows, maybe I’ll get up enough courage to actually try swimming across it, Maybe. If I do, that will be truly a personal best.

So, I raise me coffee cup in salute to you, to me, to all of us who have achieved a personal best. Let me know what yours was, and how you managed it. I’ll bet there are some pretty interesting stories out there.

In Defense of Grammar

Years ago, before any of my novels or articles were published, I decided that if I was going to get serious about writing I needed a writing class. The instructor wrote children’s books. Past middle age, her long gray hair was twisted into a knot at the back of her neck. She was given to smock tops, tights under her long denim skirts, Birkenstocks, and she was delightfully vague. My perfect mental image of what a children’s author should look like, maybe any author. I’ve learned a lot since then.

She was a lovely person, but she wasn’t a very good teacher. She had no idea how to explain how an author constructed a story, built characters, and incorporated tension. Those things I would learn much later.

What she did do was emphasize the importance of story. And she inadvertently introduced me to the importance of grammar.

There was a man in the class who, from the first day, interrupted constantly to correct her grammar and everyone else’s. He brushed away the idea of story entirely and concentrated on correct sentence structure. Poor lady, she didn’t know how to stop him and fumbled around each class, trying to tell him that it didn’t really matter how correct the sentence was if it didn’t say something interesting. If it didn’t push the story line forward, didn’t build empathy for the characters, it didn’t matter if it wasn’t grammatically correct. No one was going to read it anyway. He finally dropped out.

It took me awhile to realize they were both right.

I grew up in Catholic schools, back in the days when nuns wearing habits, who were addicted to diagramming sentences, staffed them. Maybe that’s why I hated grammar. I didn’t really care if my participles dangled, if my page was littered with commas all in the wrong place, and if my spelling was atrocious. I was a reader; I had no thought of becoming a writer, and didn’t want all those little annoying details to get in the way of a good story.

It is only now, years later, that I realize the importance of grammar. How, for instance, a misplaced comma can impart a different meaning to a sentence than the one you intended. That a complete sentence is not a luxury but a necessity. That misspelled words are like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle and the story stops while the reader tries to figure out what the writer is trying to say. That the best story in the world is no good if poor grammar and misspelling is so distracting that the reader puts it down in frustration.

Where I have really noticed how distracting poor grammar and spelling can be is on the Internet. Today, anyone can comment on anything and post it for the world to see. Those comments are often vitriolic, lambasting everything and everybody. The government, people of other nations, people of faith other than the commentator’s, or merely their neighbor who lets her kids dare to play on the sidewalk, they all get a liberal dose of abuse. The Internet is awash in comments, posted by people who seem to take pride in the fact that their tweet has turned into a squawk. When I’m in the mood for a puzzle, I read some of them. Mostly, I don’t feel strong enough to unravel the wandering thoughts that never seem to come to a conclusion, the lack of punctuation, and the words that are so misspelled you have to guess at them. That’s when I thank Sister Mary St. Herbert for her love affair with the semi-colon and Sister Mary Katherine Patrice for her insistence on complete sentences with proper punctuation. Some of what they taught me actually rubbed off. I wonder, where were these people’s sixth grade teachers? Or are they so intent on posting their pearls of wisdom they don’t re-read what they have written? Maybe they’ve missed the button that takes you to spell check. I’m sure they don’t know where the delete button is or some of their postings would come down before they go up.

One of the first things writers learn is to re-read, and then re-write, what they have written. Does it make sense? Do the words flow together to present the thought accurately, and is the sentence a complete thought? Does that comma really belong there? Should there be a question mark at the end? If you make a point important to you, shouldn’t you take the time to express it in a way that makes sense? More people will read your comments on Facebook or Twitter than will ever read a novel, a scary thought. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a “writer,” just someone who wishes to make an occasional comment. You still need to go back and re-read what you just wrote. You may want to revise that a little. Or a lot. And, in case you missed it, Spell check is under Tools on your space bar and Delete is under your right hand’s little finger.