Mistakes can be blessings

oops2Usually when I make a mistake, it’s something that continues to kick me in the head no matter whether I admit it or not. There’s always payback. Bent nails, split wood, crooked trim, creaky hinges–the list goes on and on. And when it comes to my writing, it’s worse. On the plus side, however, many of the mistakes I’ve made ended up as object lessons. Sure, they focused on how not to do something, but they were still valuable.

It took a long time to come to that realization, and to this day I hate it when I get things wrong. Over the past few months, however, I’ve found that a mistake I made is actually guiding me to writing a much, much better novel.

I know it sounds weird, but here’s what happened. I started a new novel set somewhere in the Midwest in the early 1970s. It would be a paranormal tale, but it wouldn’t feature vampires or any of the other other-worldly critters that are so popular these days. The scenes came flying out, and I was having a fabulous time putting them in order. My multiple point-of-view tale had some excellent opening scenes, a solid tension level, and a charming array of oddball characters. It also had a fantasy element sure to drive a highly entertaining story.

But about 25,000 words in, and after a few kind volunteers read and commented on the first three chapters, I realized I’d completely missed the mark on the setting. Not that I’m all that good on setting anyway, but on this occasion it wasn’t a less-than-stellar job of description. This time I missed both the best time and the best place for the story. I just couldn’t get the mileage I needed out of the 1970s or from a vague, imaginary metro area somewhere in the heartland. More than anything else, the story’s reliance on a syndicated gossip columnist dictated that it needed to take place in the post-Depression era.

It also became apparent I needed to focus on an area I know well–the South, and more specifically, Atlanta, GA.

OopsThirty years worth of technology–to say nothing of a world war, and more words added to the English language than at any other time in history–presented me with a challenge. Moving the story in time and space would require big changes. Of course, I always had the option of ignoring my misgivings. I wouldn’t be the first to wave off early warnings. (Or lament it!)

Yesterday I finished revisions of those first six chapters, and I’m now ready to move on with the story. The good news is that I’ve got a much greater appreciation for the world my characters inhabit, and I’ve developed it through researching ways to get around the many social, linguistic and technical differences between 1973 and 1943.

Slang, hospital equipment, cemeteries, newspapers, clothing, a virtual absence of television–all of it contributed to a tidal wave of changes. And the story will absolutely benefit from it. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll post part of it here, but that’s a definite possibility. Keep an eye out for it!

And for those of you struggling with an evolving story, I urge you to take a fresh look at your setting. Make sure it works for the tale you’ve decided to tell. There might just be a much better one!

–Josh

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Land of the Midday Moon

Wait. “Midday moon?

Yep. It remains the land of the midnight sun, but I like this alternative story much better, especially since I experienced it.

A little background:

Seems there’s a little town in Alaska called Ferry, population 32, although that could easily have changed since the number appeared in a Houston Chronicle article a decade ago. The story we heard on the train from Denali National Park to Anchorage covered, or perhaps uncovered, the same stuff.

Greater Metropolitan Ferry straddles the Nenana river a short distance south of Denali National Park. Roughly a generation ago, the Alaska Railroad built a bridge across the Learning the truthriver. The folks in Ferry were delighted to finally avoid the 20-mile detour they’d had to endure to cross the Nenana without getting their feet wet. They drove everything but livestock across that bridge, which didn’t set well with the railroad which focused on other issues, like safety, especially after a locomotive hit a vehicle on the tracks. No one, evidently, was hurt. Embarrassed probably, but not seriously injured.

However, the incident caused the railroad to try and enforce it’s “no crossing” policy. Legend has it the railroad installed spikes in the bridge to discourage drivers. The Ferry

School photo of an early migrant (top right) to Ferry, Alaska.

School photo of an early migrant (top right) to Ferry, Alaska.

folk retaliated by covering the spikes with wooden planks and continued driving across.

The railroad appealed to the state government which threatened to fine anyone who used the bridge. The residents were displeased, of course, but had little recourse. It’s hard enough to fight city hall; state governments are even tougher. So they resorted to using the only thing left for honest, law-abiding, American citizens: their first amendment rights. From then on, the story goes, the town folk of Ferry, Alaska, would line up on the Fourth of July each year and moon the Alaska Railroad’s Midnight Sun Express as it rolled by. In both directions!

But the story goes on. When the railroad brought in the Alaska State Patrol to quell the protest, the residents simply switched their demonstration to the following day, or whenever the troopers weren’t available. Nowadays, anyone riding the Alaska Railroad is mooned carlikely to be mooned almost anywhere. Alaskans, it appears, take their protests seriously.

This was born out when our train was “hit” by a lone mooner as we chugged between Denali and Anchorage. The accompanying photo, though pure fiction, may give you a feel for the experience. Not sure if it’ll help with digestion, but catching a full moon at midday certainly made us all smile.

I can’t wait to write a story about Alaska, its marvelous scenery, and magnificent people.

–Josh

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An Exercise in Square Peg Cramming

Me n Denali We just returned from a wonderful trip to and through Alaska. Just thinking about all the postcard-perfect scenes we saw leaves me in absolute awe. I suppose I knew, somewhere deep inside, that such vistas existed. I’d just never seen them, or anything quite like them. The only thing that comes close would be some of the scenes shot in New Zealand for the film versions of “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings.” And yet, I never got over the sneaking suspicion that much of what I saw in those films was the product of Hollywood CGI.

Alaska doesn’t come compliments of computer-generated graphics. Alaska has no need of them. Alaska, I’m thinking, has damned little need of anything–it’s already got everything, with the possible exception of sunny, sandy beaches. BUT, there’s a whole lot of Alaska I haven’t seen yet, so I could be wrong.

Me and the love of my life–about to embark on a perilous journey to the face of a glacier. Sans booze!

When not shaking my head in wonder at the splendor all around me, I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how to move the novel I’m working on from its fictional Midwestern setting to this magnificent place. My original plan called for a story set in the early 1970s, and it required at least a mid-sized city, one large enough to sport a syndicated writer. Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, had a population of about 125,000 back then, which might have worked if the story’s other requirements were met.

Then, a writer friend suggested I push the story back farther in time to take advantage of some cultural and historical issues which could play into it. So, now I’m thinking 1930s or 1940s, but Anchorage only hosted around 3,000 souls back then, hardly large enough for a daily paper let alone one that could boast a syndicated columnist. Not impossible, but pretty darned unlikely, and my story concept had enough hard-to-believe elements in it already.

Me and Bullwinkle.

But, damn it, I wanted bears and caribou; I needed the wolves, beavers, eagles, and salmon. I craved the chance to write about moose and dogsleds, the native people, and the frontier types who joined them. I desperately craved the fabulous spaces, the magical winter skies, and the skewed sense of time from the oddball schedule for dawns and dusks.

Alas, the story just didn’t bloody fit. I could knock the corners off of it, perhaps, and/or stretch this and that to make up for something else, but in the end it just wouldn’t work. Square plot, round setting hole.

Knowing that I’d stepped into a no-deposit, no-return kinda vacuum didn’t make me feel any better. I still wanted to pen something set in Alaska. (The possibility that I might write off the cost of the trip as “research” never entered my mind; I swear!)????????????????????????????????????????

What this means, of course, it that I’ll have to come up with something new to insert into the Alaskan wilderness. There’s more than an outside chance such a story might feature a Native American of small stature–I’m thinking of a little fellow who stands about two feet tall. How the hell I’ll get him to Alaska is a whole ‘nuther question, but one that provides me with an interesting challenge. (I’m completely open to potential story names, by the way. Feel free to drop me a line with your suggestions.)

Me n Annie n glacier

Chillin’. Seriously.

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that sometimes you can’t force a story to work out. Sometimes you have to take what you’re given and do the best you can with it. As much as I like the idea of setting a tale in the Alaskan wilderness, there’s no point in trying to force a regency romance into it. I’m thinking of Cinderella’s step-sisters trying to cram their hideous feet into sweet Cindy’s little glass slippers. As an exercise in imagination, it’s not a bad idea. As a practical matter, it’s a complete waste of time. As an excuse to visit Alaska? [Huge grin] Why the hell not?

–Josh

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Oh, those damned middles!

MiddleYou know how it starts, and you know how it ends. Now what?

For many, including most of my writing students, the gaping black hole which sits between the beginning and the end of a story can be daunting. How does one navigate that? How does one manufacture the trys and fails that will fill the void and entertain the masses?

I appreciate how challenging it can be to maintain the pace of constant threats and resolutions. What helps me is having more than one point of view character. It may sound counter-intuitive, since it involves more plot problems rather than less, but it works for me.

With multiple POV characters, I’m given the option to tell more than one side of the story. It’s best if the players involved have competing motives. F’rinstance:

Polly PopularOne could start with Polly Popular, an entertainer at the bottom of the show biz ladder. She’s maybe working on a cruise ship doing song and dance at night while running bingo games and ping pong tournaments during the day. Her goal is to make it big in Hollywood. Obviously, she has a long way to go. We introduce her being hassled by some asshat cruise director with a grudge against her. Person, place, problem, right?

Next up is Daniel Dirtbag, a loser extraordinaire who is being pressured to commit a heinous crime to pay off gambling debts. All he has to do is follow instructions. It’s either that, or he can pay with his life. Oh, yeah, he lives near the cruise ship docks. Person, place, and problem number two.

Now we toss in Tommy Tourist, a fellow who’s been on his own so long, he can’t even spell female companionship. A recluse, the only reason he’s booked passage on the cruise is because his mother, who still loves him, insisted on it or she’d write him out of her will. Tommy isn’t interested in adventure, and he dreads the thought of being on a boat miles and miles from shore. He spends his paycheck on seasick pills and goes anyway. Person, place and problem number three.

Bad guyFinally, we could even add yet another character, or two! Maybe it’s a wannabe mob boss who wants to extort money from the cruise line, or it could be a real terrorist *posing* as a mobster. Either way, there needs to be some pressure (read: problem) that they’re responding to. For the mob boss, maybe it’s the need to show he’s tougher than anyone else competing for the top job. For the terrorist, maybe it’s a demand from the head of his jihadist organization–“Perform, buddy, or we behead your wife and kiddies.” Et voila, we have yet another person, place and problem.

As the story is told, we switch views over and over. First it’s Polly dealing with her issues. We learn about the tragedies in her life and why she has decided to substitute success for romance. At first, her biggest issue is the cruise director. He’s pissed at her because she refused his advances. Now he wants to punish her for it. (Readers will love her for this; who hasn’t had a boss who hates them because they wouldn’t give in?)

We learn that Tommy has dreams, too. But he doesn’t believe in himself enough to accomplish anything. His inhibitions have tied him in emotional Saran Wrap. In an effort to avoid other passengers, he walks through crew quarters and encounters a weeping Polly. Stricken by her beauty and her emotional state, he begins to rise to the occasion demanding to know what he can do to help her.

Meanwhile, Daniel Dirtbag is given his orders. He’s to board the cruise ship with a carry-on bag given to him by one of the mob’s henchmen. It’s heavy. He’s told to leave it in his cabin when he goes to dinner. He’s also told the bag is rigged to explode if anyone opens it.

The clock is ticking for the mob boss–or the terrorist, doesn’t matter. Someone higher up wants results, sooner rather than later, but naturally, there are problems. There must always be problems!

The reason this approach works for me is because it allows me to get away with writing a single scene featuring the problems of only one or two characters. I don’t have to think about anything except how this one scene will advance the over-all plot: Polly is upset; Polly finds an unlikely ally; Polly plots revenge against the Cruise Director; etc.

TommyMeanwhile, Tommy is rapidly falling in love; he rearranges everything to be near Polly; Polly’s co-worker, not realizing Polly has encouraged Tommy, thinks the geeky passenger is stalking poor Polly. She decides to do something about him, etc.

Daniel has a crisis of conscience, and instead of putting the bag of explosives in his cabin near the engine room, he sneaks it onto one of the life boats near an upper deck. Then he discovers that the mob boss (or terrorist) has put another agent on board to watch him. He has to move the bomb or risk having his treachery discovered. Just as he’s about to sneak back onto the lifeboat to grab it, the ship’s captain announces a surprise lifeboat drill, etc.

The point of all this is that you have flexibility to pursue several different stories at once. Everything intertwines; one player’s success becomes another’s failure. Making these interactions work will generate opportunities for surprises. Tommy gets drunk; Polly gets pregnant; Daniel goes into denial; the FBI takes out the terrorist; a rival gang kills the mob boss. Tommy falls for the gal who thinks he’s a stalker. Whatever.

As long as you know how the story ends, you can take the middle pretty much anywhere you want to go. Just remember to bring the players back into position for the climax, and it should be the biggest firecracker in your July 4th collection. It’s the one everyone’s been waiting for. That’s where everything comes together for one last, grand collision: Polly and Tommy realize they aren’t good for each other, and Polly runs off with Daniel who turns out to be the real hero. The mob boss/terrorist is left dangling over the rail, forty feet above the cruise ship’s drive screws. If he falls, his death will be both quick and certain, to say nothing of gruesome. Who doesn’t love gruesome ends for bad guys?

Mean kidAlas, you won’t be happy with the first ending. It’s too bland and uncertain. So you start to rethink things, and you come up with yet another character, albeit one who isn’t a point of view character. It’s a mean little kid. Yes, I know it’s a sterotype, but who cares?

In the revision, we introduce Little Bobby Butthead, who shows up repeatedly throughout the story. He pops up once again at the end, this time with a very sharp knife purchased in a tourist stall on one of the islands the cruise ship visited. Wee little Bobby sees the bad guy dangling, helplessly. Bobby’s mom is, characteristically, nowhere around. Neither is anyone else. Bobby remembers when the miscreant dangling below shoved him out of the way earlier in the voyage. He takes the knife from his pocket, giggles, and starts sawing away on the rope.

End of story.

Wphew! There’s an entire novel outlined in — I dunno — twenty minutes. It’s got more middle than most folks will know what to do with.

Now it’s your turn. Go write something better!

–Josh

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Twain said it:

Mark_twain2“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”

[Herewith, the third guest post from a writer friend, all of whom do this a lot better than I. Makes me think I should rent this space out. You’ll see the potential wisdom of that once you’ve absorbed this charming post from Doris Reidy, whose new novel, Every Last Stitch will be available in a matter of days. Remember her name; you’ll want to read every word she’s willing to share!]

Does it really get easier, as my writing teacher, Josh, promises? Will books three, four, and more, trip merrily from my keyboard, now that two novels are finished and I’ve gained some experience?

Well, I’ve learned some things. I’m still a “pantser,” one who writes by the seat of her pants, forsaking outlines to wander down any attractive lane.  But I now write in sequence. It was tempting, when I first began, to write scenes or character sketches in no particular Whites Just Becuzorder. I could indulge whatever was simmering on my brain’s front burner, planning blithely that I’d do all the weaving together at some point in the future.  I thought I’d remember all the plot twists and turns that came to me at three a.m. I thought, for that matter, that I’d remember my characters’ names and traits. Guess what: I didn’t. They changed their names and hair color between Chapter One and Chapter Twenty-Two. Things happened that altered them, so good guys went bad, and new people cropped up in unexpected ways. Spackling it all together at the end was pure torture. I’ve learned to tell my story linearly, to keep a running chapter synopsis, and a description of characters, including their full names, ages and descriptions.

Then there’s plotting. And pacing. And verisimilitude. Syntax and punctuation and dialog. Adverbs and adjectives and stative verbs. That dodgy old shape-shifter, point of view. All traps for the unwary that snag me time after time. The idea that first comes to me wears only lovely bones. Somehow, I have to put flesh on those bones and make you want to keep reading.

How much flesh is just right? I write short. I’ve pretty much said all I have to say in 50,000 or so words. My first readers constantly yank my arm and say, “More here.” “Expand this.” “What happened next?” This is especially apt to happen when my writing horse smells the hay in the barn marked “The End,” and races headlong toward it. (Did I mention the terrifying tug of tempting metaphors?)

12325513_sAnd that brings me to my darlings. How it hurts to kill my darlings! And yet, they must die: the plot twist that ultimately goes nowhere; the phrase that makes me smile smugly at my own brilliance; the character I thought would carry the story, but who turns out to have jelly-legs. They gotta go. Usually, somebody has to tell me to kill them, but as I continue writing, I can sometimes see it for myself. That’s progress, painful as it is.

Why do it, then? What makes it worthwhile to sit alone in a room staring at a computer screen, trying to hammer out a page or two? Writers, by definition, must have healthy egos. I need to believe that I have something worthy to share, and that you will be interested. Maybe you’ll even say something nice about it! (See “ego” above.) Or maybe, at heart, it’s the same instinct that made some prehistoric human mix up a batch of paint for front coverthe cave wall. I want to tell you a story, a story about what I see and hear and think. I want to engage you, because then we connect. And connection, not the Hokey-Pokey, is really what it’s all about.

Doris Reidy

[Here’s a sneak peek at the cover of Doris’ new book, Every Last Stitch. As soon as her editor quits foolin’ around and finishes the last few fixes, you’ll be able to grab a copy. The signed ones are the best; drop me a line if you’d like to get in touch with Doris so she can arrange to send you one.]

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Good intentions….

The road to

Another of my wonderful writer friends has stepped forward to help me fill this space with deepish thoughts our fellow scribblers can ponder. Thank you, Pam Olinto, for your insight. But more importantly, thanks for being who you are and for doing all that you do. It’s easy to see why you are loved. Herewith, Pam’s thoughts on this strange craft we call writing:

I applaud all ye intrepid writers who squelch all misgivings and self-publish. While I consider myself somewhat brave, the whole publishing experience, to me, is akin to walking into a formal event stark naked, with only my surgical scars for accessories. Plus, those irritating voices inside also conspire against me.

What will you do with your book after you publish it? If it’s a memoir, your family won’t read it. Why would anyone else? The same goes for a novel, a story, a picture book…What if people think your writing is terrible? What if you’ve made a ton of embarrassing mistakes?

I could continue sharing my personal demons, but here’s the problem. A year ago, I happy camperfinished writing a chapter book about a twelve-year-old girl and her annoying three-year-old brother. Towards the end, I felt satisfied to have actually completed something. But over the past twelve months, I have felt my writing changing and hopefully, progressing. I know I would no longer be happy with my earlier work and would need to rewrite much of it. Plus, I have begun a sequel with frequent references to events in the first book making it complete in itself. And then there are the other genres….

In the meantime, my brother’s wife has divorced him for the Romanian tennis pro who fathered her baby; my DNA test suggests my father may not be my father; my house is threatening to turn me in to Hoarders Anonymous—all the normal real life issues that get in the way of thought processes and project completion.

But all is not lost because I enjoy the delight I see in my friends faces while they await the completed, published copies of their latest works. I long to be a part of that exciting new club made possible by the latest electronic advances.

Elbow-GreaseI’m like my youngest son who asked me where he could buy some elbow grease which the head of ROTC told him he needed for his shoes. Where can I get some courage–that doesn’t come from a bottle?

Pam Olinto

[Note from Josh: Although I’ve been after Pam to submit her work for publication somewhere if she chooses not to publish it herself, she hasn’t taken that step, yet. But I still harbor hope, and I look forward to the day when everyone can read her wonderful stories.]

Posted in editing, Guest posts, Writing | 5 Comments

Never too old to learn

[Posted previously, in error, for about two minutes. I apologize to everyone who tried to comment on the original post which disappeared so quickly.  The error was entirely mine. –Josh]

I’m pleased to share this guest post from a wonderful writer friend. Though she’d been a teaching professional at the college level for years, creative writing was something new for her. She’s been a delight to work with, and I’m proud to count her among my good friends. Herewith, the words of my talented colleague, Betty Smith, Professor of Anthropology, Kennesaw State University (retired). Enjoy!

On a lark, I signed up for a course on creative fiction writing taught by Josh Langston. Never did I think I would actually write a novel. Josh assigned weekly best opening contests. Each opening required a person in a place with a problem and a hook to draw in the reader. I wrote two openings that I determined could be used together, and I began to write. Fifteen months later, I finished my novel, Abby’s Choice. What have I learned through this process?

Who knows where all the words come from?

First, I learned I am a pantser, not a plotter. I knew how I wanted my story to begin and end but not what would happen in the middle. I sat at my computer and typed as the words come to me. I didn’t even think about an outline (what a plotter does) until I was well into the story. By then I needed a list of scenes to make sure I didn’t get lost.

Second, I learned I tend to rush through my scenes – Josh kept fussing at me about that, forcing me to go back and rework scene after scene. Slowing down to get the most out of a scene has been a hard lesson for me, but it will be a big help in my future writing.

Third, I learned I am pretty good with dialog. Most of the time there is verisimilitude (Josh’s favorite word) in my dialog.

Fourth, I learned I did not write a typical romance. In most romance novels, there are only two or three main characters: the woman, the man, and the woman’s best friend. I had lots of characters. In most romance novels, all the action takes place within a few days or weeks of the man and woman meeting. How anyone can write 50,000 to 60,000 words encompassing so short a time is beyond my grasp. In my novel, nearly a year elapsed before the happy ending.

Fifth, I learned I’m a writer – not the best, but, nevertheless, I’m a writer. I have no idea where the words come from. They just come. Putting them together into a coherent whole is fun, as Josh always says writing should be.

Cover testI finished Abby’s Choice, and, for a while, experienced an emptiness, not knowing if I had another novel in me. But now I’ve begun research for my next novel, so I guess it’s in me, somewhere. Again, I know the beginning and the ending, at least in very general terms, and I’ll discover the middle as I write. Don’t know how long it’ll take to finish this one, but I’ve got plenty of time, the Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.

Betty Smith

[Please note: Abby’s Choice, Betty’s debut novel, will be available soon. Stay tuned for an announcement!]

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