Wednesday, September 11, 2019

From One Sentence


Back when I wrote for a local newspaper, a friend and co-writer remarked to me that part of our job was figuring out how to write an entire news story out of one sentence. We both laughed when she said that, but she had a point. Frequently, as is the case with local news, your entire piece can be summed up in one sentence: Fourth-grade student Cindy-Lou Resident wins the district elementary school art contest sponsored by local car dealership. Or, Neighborhood gardener grows forty-pound pumpkin. OR New restaurant downtown features free-trade coffee and artisan bread. In other words, most of our stories came to us in a fairly complete form, and our jobs were to generate full-length articles from those leads.

I guess that’s every journalist’s job, in the end. Most news stories can be summarized in a sentence. Theoretically most stories, period, can be summarized in a sentence. For instance: Young orphan boy finds out on his birthday that he is actually a wizard and needs to learn all about his true heritage and identity. OR A group of young friends find themselves in a battle against a monster that presents as a killer clown. OR Obsessed captain goes whale hunting. Simple, right?

But fiction is a slippery beast compared to news stories, which is one reason that reading about different writers’ processes is so interesting. I imagine there are fiction writers out there who decide on a topic and proceed to figure out a story around that. I can’t even conceive of doing it that way so I would find it fascinating to watch someone produce a tale using that method.

Nevertheless, a great story can come from a single-sentence method, but in a far different way than the average news story. Stephen King came up with an epic novel that was kicked off when he typed out one simple sentence: “He was a dark man.” From that sentence, he proceeded to create the world of The Stand complete with a plague that ended life as we know it, a battle between good and evil, and yes, a very dark man at the center of it. I have always wondered how that one sentence resonated in the man’s head until it became a novel of over one thousand pages.

I am no Stephen King, but Saving Jake was born out of a simple thought. Unlike Mr. King, mine didn’t present itself in one sentence, though. What popped into my head, for no discernable reason, was, “What if I had a choice of leaving this world? No drugs, no suicide, no pain. Just leaving. Would I do it?” At the time, I had been kicking around the idea of a friendship between an artist and a writer, with one of them being suicidal. In the original story, the artist was a girl named Amy, and the writer was someone I hadn’t yet named, but I knew at the end of the book he would be alone and she would have ended her life. Sounds jolly, eh? Welcome to young adult fiction.

But somehow, I couldn’t quite get the story to gel, until the above-stated thought came into my head. And then suddenly I had an artist named Jake Holdridge and a writer named Philip Corts and if you’ve read it, you know all about them.

I once took a class in news story writing, and the structure of the traditional news article is to put who, what, when, and where into the opening sentence. The why and the how make up the rest of article, with the most important information at the top and the less important at the bottom. That way, the editor can cut the piece to fit the newspaper without sacrificing the pertinent information.

Fiction is built in a different way, since an editor obviously cannot cut off part of it, especially the end, and still leave the reader satisfied. (Or expect to continue living, as far as that goes.)

We all read news articles. We all read fiction. Both can have one sentence as a foundation, but how that sentence is used makes all the difference in the world.


Thursday, September 5, 2019

An Explanation in Advance

I know I have been a less-frequent visitor to Facebook--and possibly my own e-mail-- over the last month or so. This past summer has been hectic and unpredictable, and I couldn't always spend as much time chatting or visiting as I might have liked. I did try to keep up with FB posts Monday through Friday, though, since I'd made a commitment to do that.

My visits to Facebook are about to become even scarcer. As they say, one of the truest, and sometimes saddest, facts about life is that nothing stays the same. Everything has to change. That's happening for me starting on Monday.

On Monday, my work schedule is changing enough that I won't be around much. I'll miss reading everyone's announcements and chiming in on things, because I know that even if I get to the computer later in the day, I'll be coming in late to the conversation, so to speak. I'll have missed all the things posted earlier in the day, unless I want to sit at my monitor for hours trying to catch up. That's not happening, not in this house!

At any event, I will still try to keep up with my daily Facebook posts. And if you like them enough to comment, or to share, please continue to do so! I'll try to catch up with everything posted to me when I log in later in the day, or in the evening. I like reading what people have to say or share, and sometimes the feedback I get on my posts are the closest thing I have to conversations with so many of you who stop in to comment.

Also, if you email or message me, please have patience! I'll get there, honest.

I will do my best to put up a new blog post every Thursday, as always. I know these don't always get read by everyone, but sitting down to write these pieces on a regular basis is good for me.

And in case you might be worried about it, book seven is very much alive and in the process of being nailed down. I'll just have to figure out a way to shoehorn my writing in with less hours per week. Oy.

Thank you all for reading me. Thank you for responding to me. And I will be around - just a little less so.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Maybe It Would Be Easier to Move

I don't know how many of you watch The Dead Files, but I am a true aficionado. I watch repeats. I even record and watch repeats. I've gotten to the point where I remember the clients and their houses just from reading some of the episode descriptions. I also record and watch the new shows. But while I enjoy watching Amy do her walk and explain about the dead--and other things--that she is running into, and while I get a real charge out of Steve's interviews and his research, the two things about that show that float my boat are 1) The Sketch, and 2) The Reveal.

If you don't know the show, after her walk-through of a malevolently haunted site, Amy will sit down with a sketch artist to have one or two renderings done of the thing or things she finds most disturbing on her walk. Somehow, she's always able to decide on just one or two. Me, I'd be having the sketch artist doing a mural-sized canvas. But that's beside the point. The sketches, which are not shown to Steve, the clients, or those watching at home until The Reveal, are amazing. They've included everything from headless, twelve-foot creatures that Amy described as "guardians" of the property, to angry hags and creepy dead men with serial-killer tendencies. 

The show also includes a clip of Amy sitting with the artist, describing what she saw. I always wonder if the artist goes home that night with nightmares. I also have always wondered what happens to the sketches. I don't imagine the clients want those freaky drawings anywhere in their houses after they've seen them. I doubt that Amy keeps a scrap book of them: she's already seen the real thing up-close and personal. I always think the show should auction them off as a fund-raiser to start an account for the poor people who are told that they need to leave their homes and don't have the financial resources to do it, but that's just a thought. I have no idea where those pictures go.

I like the sketch technique so much I borrowed it for my own series. I even had the pleasure of interviewing a police sketch artist to find out how they do what they do. Good thing Nick Borja is an artist, isn't it? And I resolved my own issue with the picture he produced, too. I won't spoil it in case you have not yet read Drawing Vengeance (and if you haven't, please get right on that! But only after reading Haunted and Dead Voices, of course) but there is no question about the real purpose of the picture that Nick draws at Cassie's request.

At the end of The Reveal, Amy tells the clients what they need to do to stay safe. Sometimes she has to tell them to move. If Amy Allen told me  to move, I'd take her word for it. She's scary. But lots of times she gives them various solutions to their problems and no two are ever alike. There are some of the expected answers, such as bringing in a priest or minister to perform a blessing or even an exorcism. Sometimes she'll tell them to find a demonologist, a Wiccan, or perhaps a shaman from the local Native American nation to bring peace to the property. She uses tar water and salt and sometimes a vial of something that she doesn't exactly specify. Occasionally she'll tell them they need a psychic knower, or a Reiki Master, or even a voodoo practitioner. She has been known to suggest a curandero or a chaos magician (I have no idea).

The one piece of advice I have seen her give on a couple of occasions, and the one that would probably be the hardest for me, is when she tells them they need to clean their entire house, top to bottom, all surfaces. I would probably say, "We need to move." Moving might actually be easier than cleaning my entire house, top to bottom, every surface. And I live in a small, three-bedroom ranch, too.

Confession time: I am an amazingly indifferent housekeeper. I used to be really good about it, but something happened and I morphed into a person who tends to focus on some things and not see others, like the giant dust bunnies and webs that decorate the corners of my house, or the amazing amount of splotch that builds up on my windows and that I usually intend to clean off next spring. Or when hell freezes over, whichever comes first. 

I'd say you could ask Jim about how bad a housekeeper I am, except that he's exactly like me. We are not model homemakers, either of us. When I say, "I didn't get to the bathrooms, yet" he'll answer with "That's okay, I didn't get to the floors." We understand each other perfectly.

So if Amy told me I needed to clean my house top to bottom I'd probably shake her hand and tell her, "I think we might just move after all."

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Concerning Grandkids


Some time ago, maybe even two years or so, my granddaughter was gifted with an American Dolls creation. Truth be told, I can't even remember which particular doll she has, but when she chose it, she loved its look, its detailed apparel, and its realistic appearance. Until she didn't. One day, she took the doll, hid it in her closet, and closed the door. When her mother asked her why, she just said, "I don't like the doll. It's bad."

Hmm. Her mother thinks it's related to something her daughter saw online, a trailer to a movie or a clip of some sort. Whatever the cause, that doll is still deep inside the bedroom closet and the door remains firmly closed except for when my granddaughter is pulling out a hoodie or a sweater. Until she decides to give it away, I imagine that's going to be the doll's fate.

Fast forward to this past weekend. My older daughter decided to have her niece (yes, that granddaughter) and nephew for an overnight with her own son. So that would be out three grandkids all in the same house with us: two boys, ages 11 and 8, and one little girl, age 6. We've done this before so it's not unknown territory. Our house is a small, three-bedroom ranch, though, so containing all that child energy under this one roof can get to be a mite challenging. Nevertheless, my daughter handled them all heroically, getting them all bathed and changed into their pajamas, and all set for a fun and then restful night.

Except none of them wanted to watch the movie she had selected. And then the battle for sleeping space broke out. The usual battles of who didn't want to share a bed with whom, who got to be in which room, and what time they were all going to sleep, broke out and were finally quelled. In the end, two of them slept in my grandson's room, one of them slept in my daughter's bedroom, and my daughter graciously slept on the couch in the living room. (Jim and I were thankfully uninvolved in any of this.)

You would think that once the children had all fallen asleep, and they eventually did despite the added rush of soda at dinner time, ice cream for dessert, and than some assorted candy just before bath, that the house would be at peace. Not so, according to my daughter.

She told me that she hardly got any sleep at all that night, not because the couch is so uncomfortable (it isn't) or because she wasn't tired (after a day with three active children, she definitely was). She couldn't sleep because the house itself was so restless. It started with a particularly loud noise we sometimes have in the kitchen. It's the noise a freezer makes when the ice maker dumps a load of cubes into the container. Except that we don't have an ice maker.

Then there was all the commotion in the hall. Not only the usual rustlings and steps that are a given in our house. She also talked about the sound of our bedroom door opening. She was awake anyway, so she would wait for one of us to come down the hall and turn in at the bathroom. Except that only happened once, and when it did, and I went into the bathroom, she was outside having a middle-of-the-night/can't-sleep-anyway smoke. 

The next morning when she asked about us going in and out of our room during the night I did tell her about my one nocturnal trip. "Oh, that must have been when I was outside," she said. "Because you flipped the outside light off on me, didn't you? And then put them back on when you realized I was on the porch?"

Uh, no, actually, I didn't. I told her that and she asked me two more times about it in hope that I was mistaken. "You're sure? You didn't use mess with the light? Just turn it off for a few seconds, then turn it back on?"

I never made it anywhere near the light switch so I knew it wasn't me. 

Well, after all, it IS this house. And my older grandson sees dead people. And my granddaughter dislikes her doll. And though my middle grandchild doesn't say much about it, he has off-handedly made remarks that tell me he has ability in that area, also. Like the time he told his mom that he missed her best friend. Except that his mom's best friend passed away when this child was only one year old.

Gotta love those grandkids and their energy. They enter a house like this one -who knows what gets stirred up?

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Coming to a School Near You

Back when I was still a member of a professional organization for children's writers, I used to land the occasional school visit. I know there are writers out there who make up part of their income by doing school visits: I was not one of them. In fact, I actually got turned down for a visit or two due to the subject matter of my books. And that was when Saving Jake was my only claim to very slim fame. One seventh-grade girl who contacted me and then found out that the PTA wouldn't allow me to visit because of what I wrote about sent me an apologetic email telling me that I was no longer invited. And ended with "I guess we'll just have another boring writer this year." That comment helped take the sting our of my disappointment! But I did get to do a visit from time to time and every single one of them was an experience.

For one thing, because I was in a children's writers group, I was frequently hired to speak to students in fourth grade and younger. Anyone who reads me knows that except for the precocious reader, my works aren't exactly for that age group. But the younger grades were always part of the package, so in order to get myself and my work in front of the fifth graders and up, I spent time with students as young as Kindergarten-age.

I figured out how to present to the really young ones. I'd bring in a huge art pad and we'd plot a scary story. The kids would call out suggestions for a creepy setting, the name of the main female character, the name of the main male character, what kind of ghost or monster they were up against, and what kind of ending it would have--happy, sad, scary, or open-ended, meaning that said ghost or monster could come back for future stories. Turns out kids enjoy plotting stories like that so we usually had a good time.

But the best for me was speaking to the older kids. They were interested in how I got my ideas, what my writing process was, how a book gets published, who does the cover--everything related to book production, and that was great. I'd prepare a short talk touching on those points, taking questions along the way, and then having an actual Q & A session at the very end.

And their questions were amazing. How did I decide I wanted to write a book? Was it hard? How long did it take? Did I actually write every single word in the book? Did I draw the cover myself and if so, how did I get it onto the book? Did I know J. K. Rowling? Why were my characters the ages I chose for them? 

I was lucky enough to speak to a class where the kids read Saving Jake before I even got there. WOW! And one young student asked me about the dedication! Who reads dedications? I know I do, but I figure that's because I write them myself. I read them when I was a kid because I was -and am- extremely nosy. But to have a student ask me about mine was amazing. He asked what I meant about my father who didn't believe in "this stuff" until later. I was both honored and touched that he not only bothered to read that short statement, but actually thought about it enough to become curious. I also had someone ask me if I had the same ability as my character, Philip Corts. I had to admit that no, I didn't have that particular talent.

Sometimes the students and I spent part of my sessions swapping ghost stories, and that was always fun. I heard the local legends from their neighborhood. I heard about a student's uncle's haunted barn. I heard which books and movies were the best and which were lame. And I heard which paranormal reality shows were "totally fake" (VERY strong opinion from this child.) 

Absolutely hands-down, the very best question I ever got came from a sixth-grade girl who raised her hand and asked me if I had ever been possessed. I had to laugh, especially when I saw the expression on her teacher's face. I did tell her that although my husband might not agree with my answer, I had never been possessed. I think she was a little disappointed.

I don't do school visits any longer since I left that writers organization, although I am always open to doing one. I miss talking to those bright and curious students. So for all you teachers out there who may read this and deem me safe enough to come and speak, that's a hint!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Beware the Scooby-Doo Ending


Scooby-Doo first hit the TV screens back in 1969, and that would make him fifty years old, which seems impossible to me. But when I think about what Shaggy and the Mystery Machine look like, I suppose 1969 sounds about right. The show was a hit, featuring likeable teen-age mystery-solvers, a dog that could talk—more or less, and the paranormal. Or so it seemed.

Every Scooby-Doo episode centered on a mystery, and always featured some sort of ghost or monster as part of the adventure. And Fred, Velma, Daphne, Shaggy, and Scooby would always get to the bottom of the problem, revealing the ghost or monster to be someone dressed up in a costume, or the clever result of different sorts of special effects, all geared toward frightening away anyone who might notice the crime that was being committed.

I don’t remember how long it took me to figure out that the show was never going to include actual paranormal events, but when I did, I was bummed. So disappointed. And annoyed. Why go to the trouble of introducing ghosts or monsters if none of them was ever going to be real? Or at least leave just a bit of uncertainty at the end so that the viewer might consider that paranormal things might be possible?

Jumping ahead to my adulthood, years ago, I was offered a chance to teach a short workshop on how to write a (paranormal) novel. Not all of the students who joined me were interested in the supernatural; some of them were just looking for information: on writing a book; trying to find an agent; or submitting a manuscript for publication. I understood that. The first workshop on getting published that I ever took was about “how to get your romance novel out there.” I’m no romance writer, but the authors who taught the class gave me some of the best information I’ve ever learned. So I wasn’t surprised that only half the students who signed up for my workshop wanted to work specifically on ghosts and ghouls.

However, I still stressed the fact—and this is my own bias, I realize—that it doesn’t do to play bait and switch with your readers. I taught that if you were offering a supernatural story in the title and blurb of your book, that you’d jolly well better be providing a real supernatural story. “No Scooby-Doo endings,” I would admonish.

Believe it or not, I have fallen prey to writers who offer a ghost story and then explain it away at the end just like Fred or Daphne. And that always annoys the heck out of me. I don’t like when I’m expecting one kind of story and wind up getting something else. And this doesn’t just happen with ghost stories, either. I remember a coworker who took her Navy-veteran father to see the movie “Pearl Harbor” and afterward never heard the end of it when it became obvious that although the movie was set around Pearl Harbor, it was actually a love triangle. She probably wondered if she’d ever get her dad to join her for a movie again.

Obviously, good books have twists and turns. Something happens that is totally unexpected, or that surprises the reader, and that’s a good thing. I want my readers to find at least one aspect of every book I write to be surprising or unpredictable. But I do not want to publish a book where my ending or denouement is sooo off-kilter with what the title implies that a reader imitates Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook” and hurls the book through the glass of a window after being completely disappointed by the ending.

I don’t know how it happened exactly, but Scooby-Doo became a mainstay in the paranormal world without ever including anything paranormal in any of the stories. I even reference the show every now and then in my own work. But I will say again: writers, don’t bait and switch your readers. I’m a reader, too, and I don’t like that!