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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?

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.

 

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.

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?

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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.

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