Featured, Lifestyle, Poem, Writing, Writing Style

Raising Ben

November 5, 2018

No one would say I’m a poet. I’m not, but occasionally I write something that goes beyond my standard doggerel. I’m very happy to announce that my poem, “Raising Ben,” will be featured in an upcoming anthology, which celebrates the30th anniversary of the Smith Mountain Arts Council. I hope you like it.

Raising Ben

hold my hand

don’t let go

I’ll help you walk

 

time to eat

it’s your favorite

I’ll feed you

 

give me a sign

a smile something

show me you know I’m here

 

speak

one word any word

let me hear your voice

 

Mama

 

No, not Mama

just me Kathy

your daughter

Editing, Featured, Lifestyle, Writing, Writing Life, Writing Style

Wait! You’re A Writer?

October 22, 2018

All of us who write get a series of questions, most of which are asked out of curiosity, a few out of envy, and even fewer to debase us.

  • How long does it take to write a book?
  • What’s your “real” job?
  • How long do you write every day?
  • How much money do you make?
  • Are you a best-selling author?
  • I’ve never heard of you. You must not be very good.

The list goes on and on, like the road leading out of the Shire. Let’s dig into these and see if I can clarify my answers:

  • How long does it take to write a book? As long as it takes. Use “How long is a piece of string?” to give the questioner a sense of just how silly this question seems to those of us who write all the time
  • What’s your “real” job? Writing is my real job. Between my family, writing my allotted number of pages, interacting with readers, Skyping with book clubs, and promoting my materials through social media, it’s a “real” job. It’s even what I list on my IRS returns where the forms ask for occupation. I answer, “Author.”
  • How long do you write every day? I put in a good four or five hours each day in creating new material and editing older material. New material begins with a blank screen. On a terrific day, I fill up that screen and many more with words. On the next day, I look at those words and see how many I can keep. Sometimes it’s most of the new work; other times most is designated “what the heck was I thinking?” and moved to the parking lot, a graveyard for what seemed good ideas at the time.
  • How much money do you make? Best answered politely with “I never discuss money,” when you really want to say, “How often do you have sex?” Same degree of “none of your damned business” questioning. Some people think it’s fine to be snoops. They usually end up dead in a subsequent novel.
  • Are you a best-selling author? If I was, you’d know it.
  • I’ve never heard of you. You must not be very good. Well, that is a matter of opinion. My readers think I’m pretty good. As I add more with each book, I rise in the ranks of authors. So, if you haven’t heard of me, shame on you. You’re not paying attention.

It’s hard sometimes to paste that smile on your face, but you have to do it. These people are future readers, most likely. They may not remember what you write but they will remember that you dissed them. Don’t diss them. Honor the comment with a polite one of your own. No matter that we don’t like being in public, the first time that pesky novel hits print, you are now a public figure. Enjoy it.

Editing, Featured, Lifestyle, Writing, Writing Style

The Power of We

September 24, 2018

It’s such a tiny word. We. W and E. And yet, it’s such a powerful concept. It’s the power of more than one doing something together.

For a writer, “we” is the writer and her characters. They don’t exist in a vacuum. Writers need to listen to their characters to be certain she represents them the way they should be represented, the way they want to be represented. When I try to force a character to act not in accordance with the way it thinks, nothing works. Descriptions become stilted; dialogue becomes unnatural; characters become cranky. And none of us want a cranky character.

For a writer, “we” is also our agent, publisher, and editor. I’ve talked to many of my fellow writers, most of whom think their agents are god. The agent works for the writer and sells the work to a publisher, who assigns an editor to polish it. I cannot tell you how many writers have told me they hate their editors. They hate having their ideas challenged, their words changed. I’ve seen posts on Facebook by new writers who think an editor/publisher should take what they write and publish it without a single question. That’s what self-publishing is all about. And that’s why so many self-published works show a lack of discipline that “we” bring.

Let me give you an example. In Uncharted Territory, the second Mad Max mystery, my editor questioned a technique I used to signal the presence of a certain character. This character tapped the main character on the cheek with an invisible feather. I thought I’d explained how this clairvoyant manifested his thoughts through the feather. I guess I didn’t, because by the fourth time the feather appeared, my editor wrote, “What’s with the f***ing feather?” Well, now. I guess I didn’t explain it.

I hadn’t seen the problem. I was too close to the story. So, when my editor pointed out the flaw, the story became stronger, clearer and more exciting when I explained it the first time it appeared.

“We” works in our personal lives as well. “We” is our family. “We” is our close friends. “We” is our country. When “we” all work together, “we” get great things done. And now, it’s time to listen to my latest character, Toad, who is my current “we.” He has a lot to say right this minute.

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Betsy Ashton is the author of the Mad Max mystery series, Unintended Consequences, Uncharted Territory, and Unsafe Haven. She also wrote a dark psychological suspense novel, Eyes Without A Face, about a female serial killer, who unpacks her life and career in first person.

 

Featured, Lifestyle, Travel, Writing, Writing Habits, Writing Inspiration, Writing Life

My Little Secret

September 12, 2018

Do you remember the cheesy games we used to have to play? Those ice breakers at camp, corporate retreats, training sessions? Those adult questions that were little more than “what I did on my summer vacation” but which were meant to share something most people wouldn’t know about you? Well, I have a secret most of you don’t know.

I LOVE SNAKES.

Always have. When I was five, I drifted away from Mom at the San Diego Zoo. The gibbons were over-gibboning. I didn’t like it. I wandered off. When Mom discovered I was missing, she knew where to find me. The snake house. Yup, there I was, staring at an emerald-green boa, the prettiest snake I’d ever seen.

So, when I began writing, I knew I’d have to write about snakes. I haven’t found a place for them in the Mad Max series, except to explain, in Max 3, why so many doctors and nurses at a New Mexico hospital carried guns. Rattlesnakes. The serial killer didn’t use deadly toxins. Couldn’t have a snake suddenly slither in. When I started writing about a family living on the high desert of Southern California, the setting was ripe for a rattler.

Here’s the setup. Toad is around ten or eleven; his younger brother, Cricket, is about seven. Killing a rattler is a rite of passage, one Toad had experienced but one that Cricket desperately wanted. He had to kill a snake to keep up with his brother.

“I gotta pee before I do anything else.” Cricket jumped off the platform and tripped on an untied shoelace. He landed hard. Momentarily winded, he rolled over in the sand before sitting up to check the damage he’d done to an elbow. He heard buzzing before he saw the snake.

“Toad! There’s a big rattler about six feet off the deck.”

“Don’t move.”

“I won’t.” Cricket froze, eyes on the rattler, which had coiled in warning. He didn’t blink for fear the snake would strike. Ranger ran down the three steps to the sand and barked. The snake raised its rattles, head following the dog’s movement, tongue tasting the air.

“Ranger! Sit!” Toad jumped down, machete in one hand, forked stick in the other. “Want me to kill it?”

“Uh-uh. I wanna do it.”

“Are you sure you remember what Pops said?”

“Yeah. Give me the stick.”

“I think I should do it.”

“It’s my snake. I have to kill it.”

While the boys were arguing, the snake left off sunning itself and rattled a final warning, before it uncoiled and slithered off.

“It’s getting away” Cricket shouted.

“Kill it.” Toad yelled.

Cricket pinned the snake with the fork right behind the triangular head, exactly like Pops had taught him. Toad handed him the machete. His brother swung the sharp knife and severed the head with a single chop. It flew a few feet away from the body, poison dripping from its fangs.

Ranger retreated to the safety of the platform and barked encouragement. Both boys watched the snake’s body whip back and forth before the convulsions slowed to a stop. Toad walked around Cricket and kicked the head aside.

Cricket ran toward the outhouse. “Now, I really gotta pee. Don’t you do anything with the snake. I get to cut the rattles off.” When he was back, he collected his trophy. The boys skinned the snake before burying it, head and all. They nailed the skin next to a dozen others on the back of Shorty’s run-in shed.

When the boys’ parents got home a couple of hours later, Cricket crowed about what he’d done.

“Daddy, I killed my first snake today. See. I have a rattle of my own.”

“Did you really kill the snake?” Dad looked skeptical. “Are you sure Toad didn’t kill it?”

“I did it myself.”

“Really?”

“Really,” Toad said.

And so Cricket takes one step toward adulthood. Not much of a step, but movement nonetheless. BTW, I killed my first rattler when I was little older than the fictional Cricket. I kept my rattles for decades in my treasure box. One day, it vanished. I don’t miss it, but if I saw another rattler, I’d have no problem dispatching it.

Featured, Lifestyle, Nostalgia, Writing

First Days of School

August 27, 2018

Certain times of the year are causes for nostalgic thoughts. Fall is one of those special times, when one thing ends and something else begins. No, not the augment of all things pumpkin. Not the first leaves that drop to the deck, to pile up on the driveway. Not the first hint of color when the days grow shorter and nights grow longer. No, fall brings memories of going back to school.

I loved the beginning of school each year. New dresses, all starched and pretty. Brightly polished Mary Janes. A tiny book bag with new supplies I received at school. Elementary schools in those days didn’t send out lists of things parents had to purchase. Oh, there were some, like new boxes of crayons and #2 pencils smelling so sweet when we sharpened them. I didn’t know they were made of cedar. I didn’t care. They were new, as were their erasers.

When my friends and I said good-bye to summer, to long days spent in the sun as free-range children, and settled indoors in classrooms, we had to relearn not to squirm in our seats or whisper that really great thing we just had to tell our best friend sitting next to us. We had to wait through 50-minute periods until we had a brief recess where we could run and shout and expend some of our pent-up energy. We learned that blackboards were really green, and that chalk was dusty. We learned to read and write cursive. We learned that things we took for granted might not be as welcome in a classroom as they were at home.

My grandmother read aloud to me beginning when I was a year old. By age three, I was reading along with her. I started kindergarten with a third-grade reading level. And that was something my teacher couldn’t tolerate. She tried to order my tiny grandmother to stop teaching me to read. That genii had left the lamp long before Miss Whatever-Her-Name-Was tried to intervene. My grandmother taught school for 45 years. She taught phonics. This new style of teaching sight reading was something she wouldn’t allow. And so I always read ahead of my classes. Tough.
Today, parents are sent lists of what to buy at the local office stores. Elementary school kids look forward to their first Chromebooks as early as first or second grade, depending on the school district. My grandsons will begin kindergarten and second grade this year. They spend a lot of time with screens already. I hope their teachers also cursive writing, use an erasable board, and help them use pencils. No matter what anyone says about pencils being old-school, out of date, whatever. They may be analog, but they can’t be hacked.
Author Interview, Family, Featured, First Paragraph, Growing Up, Lifestyle, Memories, Writing, Writing Style

Getting Started

August 13, 2018

As a writer, I’m often asked where do I find my ideas? How do I get started?

I start with two words: What if. I find this works with everything I write, whether it’s a short story, a novella, or a novel.

Take my Mad Max series as a starter. In Max 1, Unintended Consequences, the what if question was: what would happen if a mother decided she no longer want to take care of her children? When Max’s daughter emerges from a coma after a terrible car accident, she is diagnosed with having a traumatic brain injury. Her entire personality changes, and not for the better. This leads Max to have to decide what role she will play in raising her two grandchildren.

Max 2, Uncharted Territory, raises the bar with what would happen if the family were suddenly thrust into an alien environment? That environment is post-Katrina Mississippi, a food desert, a land washed clean by the tidal surge, a land where locals were suspicious of any outsider. Max has to figure out how to keep a growing, extended family clothed and fed, all the while keeping her eyes open for new perils.

And in Max 3, Unsafe Haven,  the what if question is what would happen if you took your grandson to a hospital to set a broken leg and all hell broke loose? How would Max cope with fears of losing both her grandson and her boyfriend at the same time?

You see where I’m going with this. The right what if question sets the stage for everything to come. So when I began working on my latest, Out Of the Desert, my what if question was personal, very close to home. When I was twelve, my favorite cousin died. He was a year older. I’ve always wondered what he might have become, as any parent who has lost a child wonders. My cousin wouldn’t leave me alone.

He emerged in a short story named “Toad,” which I was lucky enough to have accepted in the VWC Centennial Anthology. Toad was a dreamer. My cousin was a dreamer. Therein lay one comparison. I thought the short story would be the end of writing about Toad. Now, 80K words into the second major rewrite, I’m drawing to a close on the story of what might have happened. Toad grows up. He experiences love and loss, success and sorrow. He wonders if Thomas Wolfe was wrong. Could he go home again? And that, dear friends, is the impetus for the novel in stories. What if he did go home again? What would Toad the man find? Would he find Toad the Dreamer alive inside him after four decades?

I’m not one for spoilers. I’ll have to see how the ending plays out. But, what if I hadn’t listened to my cousin’s voice? What if I hadn’t cared enough to imagine a life beyond age thirteen?

What are your what if triumphs?

Book Covers, Featured, Writing, Writing Style

Drumroll: New Cover Revealed

July 30, 2018

My last post talked about how misleading the first cover for Eyes Without A Face was. My book isn’t about the Unabomber, Jihadi John, or Trayvon Martin. It is about a female serial killer. And that was what wasn’t clear with the first cover.

I needed a completely different look. I couldn’t go back to my original designer. He and I loved the face in the hoodie. He wouldn’t be able to kill his darling and come up with a new image.

I asked a host of friends for recommendations. Some had students who were looking for a credit, but who had never designed a book cover before. Others offered names of their cover designers. Unfortunately, many were booked solid for months. I reached out to a writer whose covers I loved. Turned out she and her husband have a design firm…

The rest is history. We discussed how to make the central image female. There could be no mistaking the sex of the killer this time. There could be no mistaking that this woman worked in the medical community. We wanted a female, Dexter-like creepy vibe, but not so creepy that readers would be turned off by the cover.

There could be no mistaking the fact that laws were broken, crimes committed. Kristen came back with something completely unexpected. And spot on.

I’ll be rolling out the re-release of Eyes over the next few weeks. Let’s hope sales explode all over the place. Let’s hope readers get the point of the book. Let’s hope they continue to root for the serial killer. Yes, most readers find their guilty pleasure when they like her.

Beta Readers, Book Covers, Early Readers, Featured, Writing, Writing Style

Judging a Book…

July 15, 2018

It is not true that readers don’t judge a book by its cover. We do. Sometimes we buy a book because the cover is intriguing, exciting, mysterious. I have often bought a book because I liked the front cover and the back blurb. And as a writer, I know how hard it is to write the blurb to attract readers and not mislead them.

So, we are about to go to school on my psychological suspense novel, Eyes Without a Face.  I worked with a boutique publisher who has a cast of professionals on speed dial. I’m one of his editors, so I work with some of his authors to polish manuscripts.

I selected one of his cover designers to help give Eyes a spooky look and feel. We came up with this. I think we achieved spooky. The dark brown color wash added a hint of danger without being overt. We chose the hoodie because the killer often wears one when she kills. We went with yellow on brown in keeping with that color palette. So far, so good.

We needed a face in the hoodie. After adding a host of different images using PhotoShop, we came up with nothing that worked. Last summer, my DIL, who is a photographer, suggested we take a pic of her husband, black out the face, and drop in a set of creepy female eyes we’d found in open source photo galleries.

We thought we had a winner. The book came out to solid reviews. All but one. That one focused on the cover. The reader would have given me 5 stars had the cover been different. About the same time, I did a series of book signings and talks. I sent out 100 postcards with the eyes themselves on the front. Sales were good but not great.

Three events in a row taught me that the cover was wildly misleading. Not only did the cover not reinforce the salient fact that the main character, who is also the first person narrator, is a bloody female. Pun intended. She’s a serial killer. She tells the story her way. She’s unreliable. She lies. And the cover lies as well.

People asked what the book was about. I did a bit of research to see what readers thought. They gave me three different ideas about the connotation of the image.

OMG! No, the book is not about the Unabomber. No, the book is not about Jihadi John, the Brit who became the public executioner for ISIS. And no, the book is not about Trayvon Martin. I don’t feel qualified to write about any of these three, particularly not Trayvon, whose tragic death touched me deeply.

Oh, what to do? Hire a different cover designer, of course. And, true to wanting a build up for the reveal, you’ll have to wait until my next post. Yup, teaser that I am, you’ll have to curb your inquiring mind for another few days. Giggle. I hope you like it.

Family, Featured, Memories, Writing, Writing Style

The Keepers of the Box

July 1, 2018

Every family has a keeper of the box. It’s often the eldest child, or the only girl, or the one interested in genealogy. The box can be literal or figurative, but there is always a box.

My husband and I are both only children. The boxes handed down to us from our mothers have no other home. My mother-in-law didn’t believe in keeping what she called “old stuff,” things like family documents, photos, etc. She kept a few, but not enough to reconstruct the history of his family.

My mother kept tons on documents, photos, report cards. I found information on land I didn’t know the family owned, land lost to unpaid taxes. Photo albums with lots of pictures of people who have gone ahead and have not left their names behind. Legal papers. Ticket stubs. She kept so much of my childhood that I haven’t taken time to unpack it.

As writers, we are all keeps of our characters’ boxes. To create a complete character, we need to know ever so much more that we will ever use. We need to know what each character, main and minor, looks like. That means small details like the shape of ears, small scars and other marks. We should know what a female carries in her handbag, a man in his pockets. Where do they put their keys? Do they empty handbags or pockets every night? What is on their dressers, in their medicine cabinets? Do they floss?

You’ll never use these details, because in real life they are both automatic and boring. But, if you know these things, you know your characters. And then you can throw these minutiae away and get on with the story.

At times, however, one or more of these details demands to be unpacked and imagined. When did the item, if it is literal, enter the character’s life? What’s its importance to the plot? Can you avoid writing about it, or will you miss an opportunity to enrich the story with just the right detail at just the right moment.

Take for example, a concert ticket stub. Did the character attend the concert alone? With a best friend? With a long-lost love? What emotions go through the character’s mind when she holds that stub in her hand? How can you exploit the moment to illustrate something bigger?

Yes, families are the keepers of the box. Writers are as well, because our characters constitute our other families. What boxes do you have packed away? And how many of them have you unpacked?

 

Featured, Lifestyle, Memories

An Open Letter To My Father After Father’s Day

June 18, 2018

Let me start by saying I never celebrated Father’s Day. I never bought a card, picked out a terrible tie or a pair of socks, or visited the man who was my father. Why? Because I never knew him.

My father was married to my mother for about two years, during which time I was sired and born. And while my mother was carrying me, he had another girlfriend who became pregnant about the time I was born. Needless to say, my parents separated before I was nine months old, before my half-sister arrived. You left my mother to raise me by herself with no child support, although the courts ordered it. She did a damned fine job.

My father contacted me twice, once for half a day when I was 13, again for half a day when I was 17. A card or two followed the visits, plus a weird invitation to come and live with him, his wife, and my half-sister. Why would I leave my mother, who had been my sole caregiver, for a man I didn’t know? NOT!

My mother was annoyed at first when I started referring to the old man as my sperm donor. To me, that was what he was. Nothing more. I knew later how much that phrase demeaned their relationship. I’m forever sorry about it.

So, now that both my dear mother and the sperm donor are gone, I have some words for SD.

I hope you were a better father to your second daughter than you were to your first.

I hope you taught her how to play catch, played hide and seek, and did all the great dad things, like eating ice cream in a snow storm.

I hope you taught her a sense of right and wrong, gave her a strong ethical foundation, and were there for her when she needed you.

I’m sorry you were estranged from your own parents. I wasn’t, because my mother kept in touch with your mother and father until I was old enough to write. I know she did. Grandfather sent me a box of her letters, cards, and photos of me. She kept me alive in their thoughts until both passed.

I’m sorry you never got to see how I turned out, but then, you would have had to keep in touch. Once Grandfather died, there was no touchstone with your side of the family until a couple of years ago when your brother’s older daughter reached out. We’ve established a long-distance relationship, one I once wished I’d had with you.

For this Father’s Day, I don’t send good wishes. I don’t send bad wishes. I send the same type of wishes you sent me all these years. None.

 

P.S. Thanks, Mom, for being the best father a girl could have. Happy Father’s Day.

 

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