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!

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Pursuing That Eccentric Interest



I am currently taking a continuing education class at my local community college. It meets once a week, will only have four sessions, and is entitled “Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes.” I may have mentioned this before and if I have, apologies. It turns out that the instructor for this class also teaches a three-week class on The Edmund Fitzgerald. He did mention that the Edmund Fitzgerald is the second-most famous shipwreck in history. The first, of course, is The Titanic.

That being said, when I mention to people that I am taking classes in this sort of thing, I usually get raised eyebrows, a look of confusion, and the question Why? I guess the answers to that would be the same as it would be for anyone taking a class in the history of hockey, the politics in the court of Louis the XVI, or Mediterranean dishes that are keto-friendly. The first one would be, Why not? The second would be, because I’m fascinated by this.

And the thing is, writers should be fascinated by a variety of things. We should explore all kinds of quirky and possibly off-the-beaten path subjects, or our writing will dry up and turn to dust. Seriously. Studying shipwrecks brought Jake Holdridge to my doorstep. Studying cholera in Illinois gave me the second book in my series. (A very gory, disturbing crime story brought me the first. I didn’t need to pursue that stringently at all; the particulars of that crime stuck with me after reading one account of it.) I sometimes wonder when knitting, Celtic history, and/or martial arts will turn up in one of my books.

Exploring varied and sometimes strange subjects helps to feed the imagination and the memory. Without either, a fiction writer will have a very short career! Most successful novels, if you think about them, are not just about the struggles the main character encounters and how he or she deals with them. They may also include other subplots that delineate or explore obscure facts from history: try anything by Clive Cussler, James Rollins, Preston and Child, or Steve Berry. Or they may segue into something so necessary and yet so mundane that no one even thinks about it. A great many cozy writers will have heroes or heroines that moonlight in solving crime while going about their very ordinary jobs. Diane Mott Davidson gave her readers a pretty decent background on how to run a catering business around detective work, with recipes included. Susan Wittig Albert touches on her protagonist’s past life as a trial lawyer as well as her current incarnation as an herbalist and shopkeeper. But in order to do this, both of these authors need to have a decent foundation in what it takes to cater events, or defend the accused and run a small shop.

I can’t claim to have solid career experience of any kind in my background. I have gone from office work, to sign language interpreting, to special education, and then to healthcare, never sticking long enough at any one of those to get a real depth to my work, but maybe to give me enough to be included in a book.

And so there are the classes.

If you are a writer, you owe it to yourself and to your readers to be as accurate and well-researched as possible when including those varied topics in your work. And if you’re a reader, well, my best hope as a writer is to show you a reasonable presentation of what I have lived, or what I have been studying. Good thing I love taking those classes!

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Idea Vs Story


Sometimes when I would try to write a new story, I'd come to the conclusion that there was something wrong with me, or that something had gone haywire with my skillset. I would have this great idea for a book, sit down to work on it, and hit a dead end. And I mean DEAD end.

Then I went and heard David Morrell speak and he talked about the concept of practicing writers being able to distinguish between what was an idea and what was an actual story. And the lightbulb went on. Mr. Morrell explained that not every idea, no matter how wonderful, shiny, or enticing it may seem, is meant to be expanded into an actual book.

That helped me a great deal. Like most writers, I have a manuscript or two lying around that will probably never see the light of day. We work on things and love them through to completion and then realize, well, this one probably isn’t going anywhere for any number of reasons. But I also have several unfinished manuscripts and stories lying around that started off explosively and then fizzled out and died. And those are the ones, as I look at them with a different eye, that were always just ideas. Brilliant maybe. Even dazzling. But not full-blown premises that could support a full story.

I guess there are probably writers out there that will disagree with this, and they may be right. Maybe it is possible to take every single idea that pops into a writing mind and turn it into a workable story. Two things occur to me, though: if the idea doesn’t want to get dressed-up in novel-length regalia, why fight it? Also, just because I can, doesn’t mean I should. Have you ever read a book and thought, why did the writer write this in the first place? I have wrestled through my share of somewhat dubious reads and when I finish the last page and think that question, I always conclude that the book was based on an idea that wasn’t really meant to be a story. The writer was skillful, persistent, or maybe just plain stubborn enough to force the issue, and there you have it. A book that is complete but also begs the question, “Why?”

The good news for me (and other writers like me), though, is that writers are the ultimate recyclers. Someone said or wrote that once, and I’m stealing the phrase. How many of us have pages and pages of scenes, dialogues, notes, and character development sketches that have never been used? And how many of us are saving them because we know that sooner or later, we will have need of just that very passage? We’re very much like quilters who hang onto those colorful pieces of fabric because sooner or later they will fit into a bigger, gloriously vibrant project. At this point, I can either have a garage sale of ideas and story snippets, or I can continue to hoard until I find a proper place for each one of them. Trust me, I’m a hoarder when it comes to this. After all, part of the trick of writing a novel is recognizing those parts that don’t actually belong to the work in progress; they belong to a future work in progress. So I save them, believing that sooner or later, each and every one of them will see the light of day.

Writing novels is a weird enterprise. We dream up entire worlds and invite others into our ethereal structures, convincing all those who enter and stay with us that they are in a real place, sharing the adventures of very real people, and joining in the action every step of the way. But a novel, one that can swallow a reader whole, is based on an idea that was strong enough and versatile enough to don the garb of a full-fledged story that can take readers by the hand and show them an entirely new landscape.

Writers dream dreams and build worlds for others to enjoy.

And if I think about writing this way for too long, I’ll freak myself out and probably never touch the keyboard again. A writer may work that kind of magic, but this writer thinks of herself as someone who, well, just likes to play with words and ideas, to make up a story. Or to hoard.