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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.

 

Editing, Featured, Lifestyle, Mad Max, Mad Max Mysteries, Serial Killer, Writing, Writing Style

World Building Or Worldview

June 4, 2018

Hi, my name is Betsy, and I suck at world building. I can no more create a mysterious land, populate it with rare and wondrous beings, draw on human mythology, than I can fly. I enjoy reading fantasy. I really do, but to try and write it. Save your keystrokes, Ashton. You cannot do it. I admit defeat.

But, creating a character’s worldview? That’s a whole different situation. When I get out of my characters’ ways, I can see their worldview. I might not like it, but I can see it. Take, for example, my Mad Max character. She’s worldly, rich, and sexy. She enjoys a life of service on various cultural boards. She runs her deceased husband’s engineering firm. She has a life.

After Max’s daughter is seriously injured in an auto accident, she is forced to make a decision. Traumatic brain injury changes her daughter’s behavior from being a wonderful soccer mom to not giving a damn about her kids. Max has to decide how much of a day-to-day role she’ll play as they grow up.

Along the way, she runs into racism in the second book. It’s more the “us versus them” racism, where locals dislike Hispanics who they think are stealing their jobs. Max must learn how to survive in the alien landscape of post-Katrina Mississippi. True, it’s rather like a strange land, except it’s populated with human beings with normal names. Every time she runs into something she’s never experienced before, it’s a challenge to her worldview. Over the course of three books, she grows and comes to appreciate what is truly important.

And then there is that pesky serial killer. I let her live in my creative brain for nearly two years while she took shape and emerged with her own moral code. It is NOT my moral code. I don’t look at people and see someone who should be killed. True, she preys on people who victimize the weak–battered women, children, etc. Her worldview makes many readers uncomfortable, but in the end they are even more uncomfortable when they realize they’ve been rooting for her all along. I’m not sure what the killer says about me. Little, I hope, but she sure says a lot about herself.

I’m working on a series of stories that are a complete departure from what I’ve been writing. Not a single serial killer. No massive crime sprees. Mostly, ordinary moments in life that thrill or change us. Sometimes the change is for the better; other times, it’s merely change. We as readers are left to work the change into our own worldview.

I think I’ll stick to the internal worldview exploration. I don’t need any fanciful names, even though occasionally I need to understand mental illness. When a character takes me down that path, I relish in researching new topics to write about.

Join me in the Mad Max series. I double dog dare you to read Eyes Without A Face. You might end up rooting for the killer, too.

Beta Readers, Early Readers, Editing, Empty Words, Featured, First Paragraph, Writing, Writing Challenge, Writing Habits, Writing Life, Writing Style

If Writing Is An Art,

May 21, 2018

then editing is a craft. For me, writing the initial draft of any work brings me a freedom to put anything, and I do mean anything, down on paper. I love getting out of my characters’ way and let them have free rein. That first draft may be full of purple prose, misnamed characters, characters whose physical features change from sentence to sentence. I don’t worry.

Once I’ve finished the first draft, I sit back and think about the characters first. What do they look like? How do they speak? What do they carry in their pockets or purses? I make a list of all these things, so that when I begin crafting a story, I have a reference point. Notice I do this AFTER I’ve written the first draft. Nothing can restrain the initial gush of story.

I then return to each chapter. Is it necessary? Does it move the story along? Does it have or need conflict? What happens in it? If I can’t see the chapter moving the story forward, I cut it out of the longer manuscript and copy it into a file called [Working Book Title] Parking Lot. I may need it again. I may not, but at least it’s not lost.

That done, the fun begins. I mean it. Editing is fun, painful at times, but fun, because that’s when I shape the story. Think of a potter at her wheel. She slaps a blob of wet clay in the center and begins spinning the wheel. Gradually, through a deft touch and no small amount of luck, she shapes the clay into a vase or bowl or whatever the clay wants to become. Words are like clay. Story is like the wheel. My hands are merely a means to revealing a story, much like the hands of the potter pulling a shape from the blob.

Editing is plain hard work. Early drafts are, for me, broad brush strokes to see where the story falls apart. It will, because it hasn’t been finessed at all. Secondary drafts are where I look at every word in every sentence. Is it the right word to convey what I want? Is it a cliche that has to die a rapid death by Delete key? Is it trite, original, fresh, stale? Sometimes, it takes several drafts before I can set a chapter aside. After a few weeks, after I’ve finished all the other chapters, I sit back and reread from page one to “the end.”

Oh what was I thinking? What drivel? No one will ever want to read this. It sucks. Oh, wait, what? That chapter is really pretty good. So is the next one. I think about what makes each chapter sing. I try to replicate it.

And then I ask my loyal beta readers to dive in. Usually, this leads to more revelations about what needs to be fixed. Some are such good readers they can suggest what they expected to read. After a few more edits, I’m finally ready. I put the book out into the world. I cross my fingers in hopes people like it. I read reviews, even the one-star reviews. I engage with readers on social media or old school by phone, in person, or email. Each interaction, each engagement, helps me become a better writer.

I’m in the midst of the secondary draft stage of a book called Out of the Desert, a novel in stories. So far, one chapter of fourteen sings on key. The others are still slightly off key. More work to be done. Bye for now.

Featured, Lifestyle, Psychological Mysteries, Psychopaths, Psychopathy, Serial Killer, Suspense, Thriller, Writing, Writing Style

Loving Our Bad Boys

May 7, 2018

Why is it that we fall in love with our bad boys? I don’t mean in real life, although that was true once for me when I fell in love with a budding rock star, until he became a star and lost his way in the drug scene.

I mean, why do we like our bad boys in our books? I ask that because I have never written a story about a bad boy. My Mad Max series has strong male figures, but Max’s boyfriend can’t be confused with a bad boy. Johnny Medina is a decent guy who loves Max. Period.

My serial killer is the closest to a bad ass dude as I’ve written, yet she is a female bad ass dude. I didn’t fall in love with her, but I became entranced by her story. After all, she has a “storied” career of what she sees as righteous kills. Her fans find themselves rooting for her, even as she struggles with her own psychological mysteries. She doesn’t know how she would be defined in the DSM and frankly doesn’t care.

So, why do I want to write about a bad boy? Because they look so deliciously entertaining. Years ago, I wrote a romance which I never sent out. It doesn’t fit the genre model. The characters are both around forty. One is married; one wears a wedding band, but her marital status is unclear. When they fall in love, the conflict intensifies along with the heat. He’s married; she might be. Is he a bad boy for being married and loving a potentially married woman? So far, he’s the baddest dude I’ve tried to write.

I read about bad boys all the time. I love thrillers and suspense stories. My fictional heroes range from Jack Reacher to Mitch Rapp to Jack Bauer to Mr. Reese in the old Person of Interest television show. They kill. They’re good at it. Very good. They are sexy in a dangerous sort of way. They kill people who need killing. They hide in plain sight.

Oh, hell. That Thing in Eyes Without A Face is a female version of all them with a dash of Dexter. I guess I can write about a bad ass. Bad ass dudettes need equal billing.

What do you think?

###

Betsy Ashton is the author of the Mad Max Mystery series. Her stand-alone serial killer novel, EYES WITHOUT A FACE, is a departure from her normal fare.

Editing, Eyes Without A Face, Featured, Psychological Mysteries, Psychopaths, Psychopathy, Serial Killer, Sociopathy, Unsafe Haven, Writing, Writing a Series, Writing Life, Writing Style

Getting Inside Your Character’s Heads

April 23, 2018

Any of you who have read my work know I love writing in the first person singular. Why? Because I can get deeply inside a character and gaze out through her eyes. I can say “her,” because so far all of my first-person works have had female main characters. I really like the narrowed lens of a singular point of view. I don’t want to know more about what’s going on beyond what my character sees, feels, smells, etc.

I’ve stayed with one character for a three-book series, the Mad Max Mystery series. Max is a grandmother, a youngish grandmother. She’s smart, rich, sexy, and snarky when she needs to be. She’s strong minded and strong willed, a force of nature not to be messed with, particularly when it comes to her family, extended and nuclear. She can go from mild-mannered to tiger mom in 3.5 seconds flat.

Max is as familiar to me as my own husband. I know what she thinks (not that I ever really know what my husband is thinking). I know what she carries in her Jimmy Choo handbag. I know what she keeps on her bedside table, on her bureau, in her medicine cabinet. I know what caliber of gun she carries.

Writing Max is as comfortable as sliding into a favorite bathrobe and pair of bunny slippers, until she does something that surprises me. As I said, writing from inside her head leads me places I hadn’t anticipated. I can put her in a situation and get out of her way. Readers seem to like her, so I continue.

On a challenge, actually a dog-dog dare, I decided to leave the Max comfort zone and delve into the dark realities of a psychopath. At least, I think That Thing is a psychopath. She’s not sure, and since she tells her own story in EYES WITHOUT A FACE, who am I to argue.

I had to do a ton of research into various personality disorders. She could have been a sociopath or a psychopath, except she denies she’s either. She is a narcissist, because she thinks only she can get revenge for people who are victimized and can’t stand up for themselves. She hates people who prey on the weak, women, children, the elderly. A compendium of our society. She thinks she’s the only one who can get rid of the perpetrators, because justice is too slow for her liking. She might be a vigilante. She might not.

That Thing doesn’t want you to put her in any kind of box, with or without bars. She refuses categorization. She acts with conviction and with a range of poisons, knives, and ice picks. She doesn’t use guns. Too noisy. Harder to kill up close and personal. No exploding heads, either. Her kills are tidier.

How hard was it to write Mad Max and That Thing concurrently? Damned hard. One was easier. I took a break from dark personality disorders, until Max had to deal with a demented, delusional villain in UNSAFE HAVEN. Then, the personalities merged.

I’ve heard from readers of both books. They say I scared them with That Thing. Good. That means they got into the story and into her rationale. What they didn’t like was rooting for the “bad guy.” Actually rooted for That Thing.

Thank you. You got the book.

###

Betsy Ashton is the author of the Mad Max Mystery series. Her stand-alone serial killer novel, EYES WITHOUT A FACE, is a departure from her normal fare.

Active shooter, Drop-and-cover, Fear, Featured, Lifestyle, Writing

Thinking About Schools

April 9, 2018

Schools have been on my mind lately. Part nostalgia, part not. I clearly remember the first school I attended. I think it was kindergarten through third grade. London Avenue School had beautiful Spanish mission lines with terra cotta tile roofs. No, I don’t remember them. I’ve seen pictures. Mom was a delightful pack rat who kept a lot of my younger photos.

My grandmother walked me to school. One mile each way. Uphill. Barefoot. In the snow. Actually, not. Flat suburban landscape with sidewalks and no snow. Ever. I remember my third grade teacher, Mrs. Peete. She encouraged my reading, although I already knew how to read when I started in kindergarten, the gift of a school marm grandmother and a mother who binge read books, often aloud. Mrs. Peete was also the one who had to lead us through earthquake drills. Hide under your desks and cover your heads with your hands. She led us through drop-and-cover drills in case of nuclear attack. Same regimen for us, hide under our desks, except we had to turn them away from the windows. As if turning away from the windows would keep us safe from nuclear war.

I went to nine more schools before my last one, East High in Pueblo, Colorado. I remember Mrs. Spiess, who taught me Latin and English, Sam Genova, who taught biology, creepy Mr. Gadow who was afraid on the dark and dogs (yes, we tested his fear. He was right.) By this time we were no longer doing drop-and-cover, because we knew nothing would keep us safe if a bomb fell. And with no earthquakes in Colorado, we didn’t need anything beyond the regular fire drills.

I have no idea why I can’t remember the nine schools I attended between London Avenue and East High.

It pains me to think that other schools have knocked the schools I attended out of my memory. Schools whose names are forever imprinted in the national psyche. Columbine. Sandy Hook. Stoneman Douglas High. These students have never known a time in school when they didn’t practice for active shooter attacks. These are no more real than our drop-and-cover drills, but are more frightening because the odds of having an active shooter in your school far outweighed the possibility of the USSR nuking the United States.

The point is I can’t remember a time when children didn’t have to fear something in school. Not the evil algebra teacher in high school, but a fellow student with a dark side who wreaks havoc on what should be a safe place. I don’t want to turn this into a political diatribe or a hand-wringing fear-mongering essay. I just can’t stop thinking about students, then and now.

I think I’ll hide under my desk for the rest of the day.

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing, Writing Style

Bright, Shiny Objects

March 26, 2018

I was going to call this post, “Bright Shiny Balls,” but I thought some people might take offense. Or not, as the case may be.

We live in an Attention Economy, where we are too easily distracted by bright, shiny objects. Try watching commercial television, where a man screams that you must, absolutely must buy this product immediately, but wait, there’s more because if you buy right this very instant, you’ll get two for the same price, except for shipping and handling. And when the commercial runs again in an hour, you get the same offer.

Our attention spans are shrinking daily. I used to believe that this all started with USA Today, which synthesized news articles to fit on one page. Only the main story in each section jumped to an interior page. Now, we get news snippets on important topics in all the local papers. “World Headlines,” “News in Brief,” etc. If we want “News in Long,” we have to go to a major newspaper or online to read a more comprehensive story.

I’m exhausted with everything that vies for my attention. I don’t want to know what’s going on in the world every single minute of the day. I don’t want to know that someone posted a picture of her dinner on Instagram. I don’t care if you took 100 selfies and posted them all on Pinterest. Sometimes, I like being in the dark, quietly writing with all electronic notifications turned off.

For the last two weeks in February, hubs and I were on vacation in Florida, where all the local news was about the tragedy in Parkland. We talked about this and other topics poolside with other guests at the Silver Sands Villas where we stay every year. Deep conversations. Rewarding conversations. Distracting, in a good way, conversations. As we were driving home, hubs commented that one thing he truly enjoyed was talking with and listening to people face to face. I agreed. So often our conversations are bright, shiny objects over Facebook, blogs, or email. God forbid, we have a conversation in Tweets or texts. Still, these bright, shiny objects make up most of our interpersonal communications today.

I vowed to control this Attention Economy by turning off notifications when I write, limiting news viewing to a time of my choosing, and not getting distracted by the myriad voices wanting me to do or buy something.

Oh wait, I have to jump off and buy one of the Slimming Sauna Shorts before the two-for-one special goes away. OMG! I got two pairs! See ya.

Editing, Featured, Lifestyle, Writing, Writing Style

Swim Lanes, or How To Keep Order in Your Writing

March 12, 2018

Nearly anyone who has worked as a consultant knows that projects are broken down into sections, with those sections broken down into smaller parts. In order to manage large projects, project managers draw up charts with sections listed along the left side and major tasks or milestones listed across the top. The same holds true for writing.

Normally, I begin on page one and write straight through until “The End.” I don’t care about the niceties of the story, just about getting the bones sketched out and words on paper. I am a self-confessed devotee of Ann Lamott’s “shitty first draft.” I only begin writing when I begin editing, moving parts around, worrying over every word, every sentence. That works for a linear novel, which is what I usually write. I decided about a year ago to write a different form of novel. New for me, it’s a novel in stories, or a series of linked stories that can stand alone if they want. That said, several different narrators tell their stories, often observing and commenting on the same actions, but from different points of view.

After I finished what I thought of as the really shitty first draft of eight stories, I put it aside for a week before going back for a reread. Oh, golly goodness, gee whiz. Three of the stories nearly knocked my socks off. The rest drew a big “meh.” Holes all over the place, missing stories, overlapping material written nearly word for word in three stories. How did I go so far afield?

I didn’t have an outline. I tried to write the way I always do, linearly. Doesn’t work if your story isn’t linear, but is more circular than anything. When the narrator of two stories commented on a letter, I put the letter verbatim in each story. So not needed. When I let one character comment on the situation but not read the letter until later, the conflict made sense.

I decided an outline wouldn’t be enough. I needed SWIM LANES. Out came the old consultant’s hat. Out came a flip chart. Out came Post-It notes and marking pens. And out came the manuscript in all its flawed glory. First, I needed to know what chapters I wanted. Then, I had to populate those chapters with characters. I had to be certain I didn’t refer to a character introduced in a different story but not mentioned in the current one without some degree of introduction. I needed to know how old each character was, what year(s) the story covered, who else was in the story, and what the central conflict was.

Whew! The gaps became painfully obvious. One reader of a story asked why one character was so angry all the time. “What she always this bitchy?” Well, no, she wasn’t, but circumstances overwhelmed her, turning her to vodka. To understand and empathize with her, I needed her backstory. Oh, my another chapter.

I had several pages of notes before I went to the flip chart. The first image here contains notes and suggestions, arrows and scratch-outs. Not easy to follow. The second image is a pencil chart of what I thought I needed.  At that time, I needed to know what year a chapter took place in and how old the central and ancillary characters were. Still not enough. The image of the flip chart is what I’m using now. I can take a quick glance, move a sticky note around, move a chapter around, all without messing up anything.

If all this works, the book, Out of the Desert, will be out toward the end of the year. I hope.

This is my story about how the novel in stories is progressing. I’m sticking to it. I’ll keep you up to date as things progress. Until them, write away, write now.

Featured, Haiku, Humor, Lifestyle, Poem, Poetry, Writing

Seasonal Haiku

February 26, 2018

It’s time for something light. Days are getting longer, a minute or two each day. Tempers are getting shorter, because winter seems to be dragging on. It isn’t, but still people think it’s endless.

So, in hopes of bringing a giggle into your life, I offer four haiku.

SEASONALLY AFFECTIVE ORDER

Whites, browns, yellows, blacks
Screeching, shoving—
Gang warfare @ the bird feeder.

Gently rocking waves
Lull one to sleep—
The nose peels.

Apple, cherry, pumpkin
Pies in the oven—
Time for the gym.

Ice-shrouded world
One slippery step—
Technicolor moon.

Watch your step now, ya hear???

Crime, Featured, Lifestyle, Narrative Voice, Serial Killer, Suspense, Thriller, Writing, Writing Style

An Interview With An Author, Part II

February 12, 2018

Welcome back. I’m your Intrepid Reporter interviewing Betsy Ashton, author of the incredibly chilling EYES WITHOUT A FACE.

IR: I’m here with Betsy Ashton. Welcome back.

Me: Thanks. And thanks for the coffee.

IR: We’ve already talked about the cover and why you wrote the book. I want to talk now about the killer herself.

Me: I’m good with that. This killer got under my skin.

IR: She doesn’t have a name.

Me: I think you mean she doesn’t have a given or family name.

IR: Right.

Me. In her small town, most kids grew up with nicknames, Buddy, Bub, Junior, Princess. Her family nickname is a representation of how her family sees her.

IR: Did they really call her That Thing?

Me: Alas, they did. It shaped her worldview.

IR: I found I couldn’t always believe her.

Me: Well, she is unreliable. She doesn’t want you to believe everything she says, but she wants you to believe everything she does.

IR: That sounds contradictory.

Me: It is and isn’t.

IR: I see, I think. Is she a sociopath?

Me: She doesn’t think so.

IR: So, she’s a psychopath?

Me: She doesn’t think so.

IR: That’s why she’s called unreliable, isn’t it?

Me: That’s part of it.

IR: I may be foolish, but sometimes I found myself rooting for her.

Me: Good. That’s what she wants you to do.

IR: I got a distinct Dexter vibe. Was that intentional?

Me: By no means. I have heard of Dexter, of course, but I’ve only seen one episode. I don’t receive the channel it was on.

IR: Did you have any television show in mind?

Me: Criminal Minds. I think the episodes are perfect for that show.

IR: Do you see any of the actors playing That Thing? G-Man?

Me: Casting That Thing is for a different interview. If Joe Mantegna weren’t so old, I’d like to see him play G-Man. That said, I wouldn’t turn down Shemar Moore…

IR: Do you have any advice for a budding author trying to do what you did with this book?

Me: Humanize your character.

IR: How do you recommend doing that?

Me: Give her a cat.

IR: I’m afraid our time is up. I hope I can have you back to learn more about how you write and what you are working on now.

Me: It would be a pleasure.

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