Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lighten Up!

An early post this week as tomorrow I'll be otherwise engaged. So enjoy, smile, and have fun!

Unless you’re the prude of your generation, everybody likes a humorous story. Some light-hearted anecdote to bring a smile or a gentle chuckle.

Many authors will insert humor into their stories, even if the subject matter is serious or the tone is dramatic. Humor gives the reader a rest, a small break before diving back into the deep end. My favorite example comes from the Hitchcock movie “Topaz”. The entire movie concerns spies. However, the one small moment comes near the middle when Hitchcock makes his appearance, as he did in all his movies. It’s an airport scene and Al is being pushed in a wheelchair through the terminal. Suddenly, he stops, stands and walks off camera. It’s one of those scenes where you stop for just a second and think, “What just happened?” The scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but it’s mildly funny because of its ironic inclusion.

Of course, many books are purposely humor based. I cite Evanovitch’s Plum novels and Barry’s “Big Trouble”. They’re written to be cynical or slapstick and designed to show the corny side of life.

Many private detectives (and those non-detectives who end up being one anyway) have a lighter side. Many are cynical, ironic, or sarcastic. How many detective novels have you read where the hero mouths off to the bad guy even in a life threatening situation?

When I set out to write stories featuring my private investigator / martial artist, Mallory Petersen, I wanted to add a humorous side to her. I didn’t want her to be a hard-boiled, world weary, life’s-a-drag kind of person.

Mallory is tall and blonde and beautiful. She’s an exceptional martial artist who cares about her students and her clients. She puts her all into making sure her taekwondo school has the best training and while investigating her cases.

I didn’t want Mallory to handle only the serious cases. She has to have fun. So, I made the majority of her clients and crooks come from the nuttier side of life. In “Beta” she sets up surveillance equipment to find out who is stealing snacks from a local bakery and finds the thief doing some outrageous things. Her tailing of a high school girl’s boyfriend has her discovering his less than stellar intelligence. When she spies upon a philandering husband and his mistress, she snaps pictures of an interesting dichotomy between the parties in question.

Many of the bad guys and minor characters Mallory encounters throughout the book are not the typical thug with a weapon and a bad attitude. The gang banger has an unusual handle. The armed robber dresses in drag. The hygienically challenged informant she cons using her feminine wiles. The flustered receptionist. Even in her taekwondo she finds a stray bit of humor. Her instructors are trying to discover which child is urinating in the locker room’s waste can.

I purposely set out to include humor in “Beta” to temper the subject matter of the serious case. I’m not giving away spoilers by mentioning the kidnapped girl in the story is subjected to the hell of child pornography. This is a heinous crime and I hope I’ve given enough details without causing too much revulsion. I want the reader to become emotional about this child and about Mallory’s feelings and frustrations during her search for her. But I give the reader a rest by putting Mallory in a few humorous scenes.

Humor can be difficult. There is a temptation to steal from comedians. I couldn’t resist using an old joke regarding the philandering husband. However, the urinating taekwondo student and the ditzy receptionist are based on actual incidents.

When you’re writing humor, look around you. You don’t necessarily have to make up a joke or grab lines from professional funny people. Life brings us humor nearly every day. From the politicians to klutz in the part to Aunt Mary getting beaned by a water balloon.

By utilizing humor, you may find your story stepping up to the next level, and hopefully your readers’ enjoyment will too.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Fear, Part 2

A soft thud in the night. A creak in the hallway outside your bedroom. A lonely road cutting through a dark forest. All of these can cause fear. However, fear need not be felt in these creepy, eerie locations. One can experience fear when going in for a job interview, on the first day of college, or even writing your first novel. We fear the unknown. What made the thud upstairs? The creak in the hall–just the house settling or something else? What if the car stalled on the road? You wonder if you can present yourself professionally to the prospective employer or if you'll make friends on the new campus. Writing is no different. It's a scary process. I'm not even referring to writer's block, but it, too, can be an unsettling experience.

I remember somebody turning the word fear into an acronym. False Evidence Against Reality. Basically, what that means, is what happens is usually totally different than what was originally imagined. I've experienced this countless times in my life, usually when asking a woman to dinner. Okay, my fear about their rejection usually held true, but never in the way I imagined it.

There are many aspects of fear in writing. I wonder if what I write will sound stupid or even comprehendible. Will I be able to finish the manuscript? I have a story I'm working on at present that I just can't get through. I want so much for it to be a decent story, but I'm afraid I can't make it so. Then, after I've polished it up and edited the stuffing out of it, I fear I won't find a publisher or an agent. I've pitched my stories to several at different writers' conferences and afterward I feared their rejection. In 2009, my fears dissolved when two of my stories were accepted. However, a bigger fear loomed. No, I'm not talking about the dreaded red ink from the editor (although that turned out to be a bear to deal with). I'm speaking of marketing. See, I've never been good at sales. I worked radio advertising for a couple of years and hated every minute of it. I feared rejection. I dreaded walking into businesses and the owners sending me right back out again a couple of minutes later. Sales are tough. So are marketing and promotion which are a pre-sale type of operation.

Fortunately, I've made contacts with various people at these writers' conferences who have been invaluable to me and have shown me my fears (like usual) were unfounded. Actually, I've come to enjoy the promotion. Building a website, joining groups of writers on various other sites, blogging, conducting interviews with authors and media. Distributing business cards, bookmarks, and promotion postcards. Sure, I've been frustrated when I run into apathetic people (and yes, I'm still rejected), but for the most part promoting my eBook, Night Shadows, has been an eye opening experience, but a enjoyable one.

You'll find loads of fear in Night Shadows. Lots of spooky fun, too. I've found the writing, editing, and the promotion of the book full of anxiety, a little fear, but, for the most part, great fun. If you're planning on writing your own story one day, do a little planning and strategizing before you start the process. That way, you won't be so afraid.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Fear, Part 1

As the first anniversary of the publication of Night Shadows approaches (February 16), I want to present two blogs regarding fear.

I once read an article stating how fear is an acronym for False Evidence Against Reality. The article went on to discuss how most fears aren’t as devastating when the reality of the situation is revealed.

For instance, I fear change. Change in my residence or employment usually produces a queasy feeling in my stomach. However, in the face of reality, the new apartment or job isn’t as bad as expected.

Many of us experience fear in one form or another and at different intensities. Anything from a mild anxiety about an upcoming dinner date to a long suffered phobia of spiders or heights. Tony Shalhoub portrayed a man with the ultimate in fears in the television series Monk.

Fear, however, is a bit different from being scared. Fears can be faced and, in many cases, overcome. The phobias some people have can be dealt with through counseling or outright confrontation with the fearful situation. Scared is heightened and lingering fear. Scared is knowing potential danger is imminent. The teenage camper, having seen her mutilated friends strewn about the woods is truly scared of what’s behind the door of the lonely old cabin she’s discovered. She knows the killer stalks her and is watching, waiting.

For me, scared was driving seven miles on a curvy, hilly, ice covered road with steep ditches on either side and no way to turn around. As a child, scared was being stranded on the other side of a large lake with no way to return except for trekking another hour back, knowing the trouble I’d be facing.

Horror movies rarely scare me. Sure there are moments that give my heart and stomach a short-lived jolt, but they’re rare. The twist at the end of The Sixth Sense didn’t really scare me, per se, but left me feeling very weird since, for me, Bruce Willis being dead was completely unexpected. Most horror films, though, are various versions of the same theme: the serial killer or mutated monster slaughtering the wayward young or ghosts, vampires, or other supernatural entities doing the same.

Radio and literature hold more potential to scare because they force you to use your imagination. One of the most famous radio incidents creating a mass scare was Orson Welles narrating the alien invasion of War of the Worlds in 1938.

I’ve collected hundreds of horror novels throughout the years and have been scared by only a few. Not very many have left a lingering sense of dread or maintained the imagination after the last chapter. There have been rarities leaving me wondering, “What if…” or “What would the next scene be?” because there was no real resolution in the story.

H.P. Lovecraft was a master at creating those lasting feelings for me. He wrote some truly scary material and years passed with several re-readings of a few of his stories for me to understand the attraction to his stories. Rarely did he show you the monster. One of his best stories, in my opinion, At the Mountains of Madness, draws you in so well with so much detail and description, you feel that you are right there with the travelers discovering an ancient vanished civilization in the Antarctic depths. When they flee the scene, you are desperately wanting to know what the main character saw when he looked back over his shoulder, what awful, nameless thing destroyed the mind of his partner…but Lovecraft doesn’t tell you. You are left wondering…wondering what could it be? For me, I loved that scared feeling imagining there really were super tall mountains at the South Pole hiding all sorts of unknown creatures.

I hope I’ve created some scary moments in my book, Night Shadows. I waited until later in the book before the monsters were ‘seen’ and known. Several readers have shared the fact they really didn’t want to turn out the lights the night after reading the story. I hope I have also left people with a lingering imagination, a sense of ‘what if?’

What scares me scares many people. The unknown, the possibilities in the unknown. Also the experience you have when–

Oh, crap! Don’t you dare sneak up on me and tap my shoulder. You nearly scared me to death.

Friday, February 3, 2012


I’ve been a member of several writers’ critique groups over the years and I’ve come to realize a major factor in each group’s downfall has been the lack of writers. This may seem quite logical, but it’s true for any group. Knitters, martial artists, foreign language studies, puzzlers…if you are a part of a group and aren’t involved in the activity, the group suffers. A few more lackadaisical people and the group collapses, becomes less fun, or has less worth for those who are serious.

When I first started attending a critique group, there were about 15-20 or more who showed every week. I had heard many more used to attend. Why the dropout rate? Probably it started with something like this. “Sally, do you have anything to read tonight?” “No, I’ve been too busy this last week to write.” “Okay, but we really want you to read.” “I’ll try to have something next week.”

Well, as Yoda once said, “Do or do not do. There is no try.” You’re either writing or you’re not. So, the attendance dropped. By the time I stopped attending my first critique group, we were down to a core of about four or five with maybe two of us reading per week. It was a waste of my time to read for others who weren’t writing. I worked hard to have something every week, either a short story or another chapter from the ongoing book. I ceased going to the meetings not because I stopped writing, but because others did. I wasn’t going to stay with a group in which two or three people read and the rest of the time we just chatted. Plus, I didn’t feel those who weren’t writing, who weren’t keeping up with improving their craft, had justification to critique my material.

So, is it lack of interest or distractions that keep people from writing? Television, radio, Internet, phone, mail, email, kids, pets, spouse, something interesting out the window…all are part of a large group of distractions. I’m not perfect and my attention wanders at times. Much of my writing is done at a facility where people could come in at any moment. They’re distracting. I understand distractions and I’m willing to let a few excuses go by. When they become consistent, however, then I know the person really isn’t serious about writing.

In a recent interview I mentioned my ideal place to write. I said I wanted to be on a deserted island with no phone, no TV, no radio, no Internet, no people, with enough food and water to sustain me until I felt like rejoining society. Serious writers will make time to write, or will set aside a portion of the day or week and tell the rest of the world to leave them alone until a certain period has ended. Behind a closed door, with the TV, Internet, and cell phone turned off. If the radio is on when I’m writing, it’s tuned to a classical music station.

Don’t let your writing be a distraction to your writing. What I mean is, don’t stop after every sentence or chapter to go back and edit or change things. So many times in those critique groups I heard a repeat chapter one from a few people week after week. They took home our comments, did a rewrite, then came back, took home more comments and did another rewrite. The cycle continued. We never heard chapter two. Soon, they either gave up or decided the particular story wasn’t working out, so they switched to a new story and brought in a new chapter one.

Another example of a writing distraction is too much preparation. I realize every person has his or her individual writing style. Outlines that may take eight months to picking up a pen and starting in on something without a precise destination in mind. Whatever works for you, do it. However, if you are a type who sets up character profiles and setting profiles, don’t get bogged down in the minutiae. There must be a time when you start writing the first sentence.

One more example. Finish a story. Recently I have found myself falling into the trap of starting one story, getting partially completed, then jumping to another story, then a third, and I discovered I wasn’t completing a project. When I realized my problem, I stopped jumping around and set myself a goal to finish a particular story by the end of the year with at least one or two rewrites.

I’m not sure how long I took to complete “Beta.” I do know I did a few rewrites, character tinkering, scene additions, etc. Meanwhile, I was writing other stories. However, I never forgot I still had a completed story to ‘finish’ in the sense of polishing it up even more with each submission rejection. I’ve worked long hard on this book and even when correcting edits, still found it emotionally stimulating. I’m glad I persevered, and didn’t allow distractions to keep me from my goal.

Let your writing be your distraction from everything else, not the other way around.