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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.

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.

Author Interview, Betsy Ashton, Eyes Without A Face, Featured, Lifestyle, Psychological Mysteries, Psychopaths, Suspense, Writing, Writing Style

An Interview With An Author, Part I

January 29, 2018

Recently, I sat down with an Intrepid Reporter who wanted to talk about my serial killer book, EYES WITHOUT A FACE.

Intrepid Reporter: I understand you recently wrote a book about a female serial killer. Do I have that right?

Me: Well, since you are reading from the press release, yes, you have that right.

IR: What ever possessed you to write about such a dark subject?

Me: Nothing possessed me, if you mean, was I taken over by a spirit or something like that?

IR: Huh?

Me. It was the result of a double-dog dare. You can never turn down a double-dog dare.

IR: Really? Who dared you?

Me. I took a course on writing mysteries a few years back. One of our challenges was to write the first sentence of a mystery. I wrote: “My sorority sisters were into sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but that wasn’t enough for me. Then, I killed someone and found my true calling in life.”

IR: Well, now.

Me: That’s what the teacher said. She went on to double-dog dare me to turn the opening into a novel. I did.

IR: May I assume you are not a serial killer?

Me: You may.

IR: How were you able to get inside the head of such a, um, well different character?

Me (signing): It’s called using the creative gene. I imagined what it would be like to be a killer and wrote about it. Simple as that.

IR: I think it would be very hard to write this book in first person.

Me: No harder than in third person or from the point of view of a dog.

IR: A dog?

Me: Never mind. It was a challenge, but one I was ready to take on. I’d never written anything with such an unlikable character. Strike that. Some people think she’s likable.

IR: Eeuw! Really?

Me: Really.

IR (shaking her head): I couldn’t, but then again I’m not you.

Me: And you should be glad you aren’t. Imagine what my husband had to live with for the three years it took to shape and polish the book.

IR: I’d rather not. Let’s move on. The cover is very chilling.

Me: It’s supposed to be. I asked my son to put on a hoodie and ski mask that covered his lower face. I gave that picture to a cover designer who took out the rest of his skin, overlaid the eyes, and created a character without a face but with eyes that follow you.

IR: I can’t imagine what your dinner table conversation is like.

Me: Pretty normal, actually, except talking about using KA-Bars or switchblades for killing.

IR: But you don’t have a KA-Bar in the novel.

Me: Aha, you have read the book. I did, but I took the scene out. I may use it as a short story because I love one line in the section: “I don’t use guns because you never have to reload a KA-Bar.”

IR: I think it’s time to take a little break.

The second part of this interview appears on this blog on February 12. Stay tuned.

Eyes Without A Face, Featured, Lifestyle, Writing, Writing Style

Looking Ahead

January 1, 2018

And so 2017 is in our rear view mirrors. ‘Tis the time to wax eloquent about what the new year, 2018, will bring. I’m not one of those. I’m more rooted in what I can make happen and how I can entertain readers of this blog.

  1. Trust me. I will still occasionally post a blog with social meaning, social commentary, or just thoughts about life.
  2. I want to share more of my work in progress. Some brief bits of new work will appear here before anywhere else. (Later, the bits will appear on my Facebook pages, MadMaxPage, and EyesWithoutAFaceNovel. Completely new work might appear on my BetsyAshton page as well.) Lots of little things swirling around in the old brain that demand to be shared.
  3. I will continue promoting Eyes Without A Face  most of the year, because it’s a terrific story. I’ll share what readers tell me, like this quote:  “Congratulations on a superb achievement! Your book is riveting, original, and impressing. To evoke sympathy for a serial killer is no small task, but you did it. And the amount of research you must have had to do for this novel boggles the mind.” When you share comments, I’ll keep them, respond, and share.
  4. I ask you to review my books, all of them, on Amazon and Goodreads.
  5. I’ll let you know when the next Mad Max book comes out. HINT: February.
  6. And I have yet another novel I hope to get out in 2018.

So putting the angst-filled 2017 behind me, I’m really looking forward to 2018. Thank you for taking this journey with me. I value your support and comments more than I can express.

Happy 2018. Onward!

Christmas Past, Editing, Featured, Lifestyle, Satire, Writing, Writing Style

‘Twas the Night Before Deadline

December 18, 2017

with apologies to CLEMENT CLARKE MOORE

‘Twas the night before deadline, when all through the house

Not a writer was stirring, not even his mouse;

The laptop was set up on the table with care,

In hopes that the words soon would appear.

 

The images were nestled all snug in his head;

While visions of page proofs filled him with dread;

And good guy in mischief, and bad guy with a rap,

How to keep the right words, and edit the crap.

 

When out on the street there arose such a ruckus,

He sprang up in anger at loss of his focus.

Away to the window he flew like a flash,

Drew back the curtains and peered through the glass.

Red lights swirled on ceiling and wall,

Shattered concentration caused him to bawl.

When what to his curious eyes did appear,

Images of pages, blank and austere.

 

He wielded a pen so sure and so quick,

He knew in a moment his edits were nixed.

More rapid than eagles his cross-outs they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

“Now, Bracket! now, Period! now Colon and Slashes!

On, Comma! on, Hyphen! on Quote Mark and Em-Dashes!

To the top of the page! to the top of the wall!

Now erase away! erase away! erase away all!”

 

Ideas that normally flowed freely and fast,

Now met so many obstacles they left him aghast;

So on the pages his cursor stood still,

Hours to deadline and no words to kill.

 

And then, in a twinkling, he heard in the hall

A shuffling gait of his wife’s slow footfall.

As he drew back his head, and was turning to see,

Into the study she carried fresh coffee.

 

She was dressed all in flannel, from her head to her foot,

And her clothes were all rumpled, no makeup to suit;

A cup she set on the table with care,

Steam rising and swirling, to drink it a dare.

 

Her eyes—how they twinkled! her dimples, how merry!

Her cheeks were like roses, her nose like a berry!

Her droll little mouth was pursed up like a bow,

And the hair on her head was as white as the snow.

 

He wished she’d call his editor to plead

All he wanted was more time to re-read.

His editor he knew would laugh and deny,

He was behind in his contract, he could but sigh.

 

That editor so mean, so nasty and bold,

“Not another second,” his memory so cold,

With a nod of his head and a stroke of his pen,

He showed him the way out of the mess he was in.

 

He spoke not a word, but went straight to the work,

Delete key melt down, words appearing from murk,

Finally laying fingers on keyboard with a touch so slight,

He typed and typed well into the night.

 

He sprang from his chair, the manuscript to send

The deadline met, the last words “The End.”

His editor sent a note full of delight,

“Happy deadlines to all, and to all a good write!”

Anthology, Editing, Featured, Psychopaths, Publishing, Writing, Writing Style

It Always Takes Longer Than You Think

November 6, 2017

Time to share some publishing experiences from this year. I’ve been lucky to be involved with three books. One reminded me of how lucky I have been with traditionally published books. The other two were interesting lessons learned.

In February, I was honored to be part of 50 Shades of Cabernet, a delightful collection of 18 stories by 19 writers, most of us Sisters-in-Crime members, although there are a couple of “bros” in the collection. We were invited to submit stories and worked independently. Our only direction was a maximum page length, the fact that each story had to include a mystery (didn’t have to be a murder mystery) and had to mention “Cabernet.”  This winey group of stories are, for the most part, light-hearted, with a few having darker overtones. My publisher, who does the Mad Max series, produced this collection. I had to write my story, polish it until I thought it shown, and then review the edits from the professional editor. We voted on the cover and waited until we could purchase copies to sell. Easy peasy.

I decided to self-publish another anthology, The Virginia Writers Club Centennial Anthology 1918-2018. I had a selection team help sort through the stacks of poems, short stories, and essays. A different team helped with the basic editing: commas in the right places, spelling, obvious typos. Easy peasy, huh! NOT! My inside designer had holy fits getting the various formats trued up to fit into a 6″ x 9″ book. Poetry was the easiest this time, with the essays causing him to say MANY bad words. Finally, we got to the place where CreateSpace accepted our words. The cover, which had been designed and approved earlier in the summer, didn’t meet CreateSpace’s standards. And didn’t meet them again and again. Finally, we took out a swirly design element and CreateSpace took pity on us and accepted the book. What should have taken one month once the editing was complete took nearly three months before the proof copies were ready.

During this time, I was simultaneously working with the publisher of the anthology and a different cover designer to finish Eyes Without A Face, my serial killer book about a feminist killer with her own moral compass. Or immoral compass, if you will. We gave ourselves two months. The actually formatting of the innards wasn’t that bad, since I was remarkably consistent with using Word styles. Alas, the formatting program didn’t always read the styles, so every page had to be reread and edited. Once again, the cover was the hardest. The designer game me a terrific cover, but CreateSpace was cranky about bleeds, of all things. We needed nearly three months…

The bottom line: if you think it will take you two months to get your book ready for publishing yourself, double that time. You’ll need it. And just maybe you’ll have a bit less stress than I did.

Featured, Female Characters, Psychological Mysteries, Psychopaths, Psychopathy, Serial Killer, Sociopathy, Suspense, Writing, Writing Style

So You Think I Write About Me, Do You?

October 30, 2017

This post originally appeared on the Roses of Prose blog.

Don’t you just love the various questions we get from our readers? Where do you get your ideas? What is your favorite book? What is your favorite character? Are you in any of your books?

I think we are all in every character we create, don’t you? Not all of us in each one, but a bit of us, to be sure.

Take my Mad Max character. I don’t look anything like her. She’s short, athletic, blond. She’s much younger than I am. She’s ever so much richer that I am. But, she’s snarky. Anyone who knows me knows I love a good snark at the appropriate or inappropriate time. We’re both strong-willed, brook no nonsense, stand true to our beliefs, and will fight to the death for our friends and family. Maybe a bit of me is in Mad Max, but more of her is a composite for several women I know, and several I want to know.

I had an actress in mind when Max came into her full-throated self. A strong actress who also puts up with no stuff from anyone. I won’t tell you who she is, but she’s been on television and in the movies for many years. Care to guess?

My latest book will be formally released on Halloween. It’s called Eyes Without A Face. I hope to goodness I’m not the main character. Why? Because this is a girl you don’t want living next door. You first meet her when she introduces herself:  “No matter what anyone says, I wasn’t born a serial killer. I don’t carry a sociopath gene, a psychopath gene, or even a serial killer gene. No such thing.”

She is a serial killer, a most unreliable narrator. Unnamed and relatively faceless, she tells her story in first person singular. Before you ask, it was darned creepy getting into the head of a psychopath, who lived in my head on and off for three years. Not content with revealing her narcissistic personality disorder, she had to display psychopathic tendencies, only to rip them away and deny she is indeed a psychopath. See what I mean about being an unreliable narrator.

Unnamed, That Thing, her childhood name, leads the reader along a series of different paths. Just when the reader thinks she has That Thing figured out, That Thing does something to upset all assumptions. She lives by her own code of ethics. Yes, serial killers can have codes of ethics. Warped, maybe, but codes nonetheless.

I don’t think That Thing is me. I haven’t killed anyone, although there are a few people who might make it onto a wish list. I killed them in the pages of Eyes. That Thing is a feminist; so am I. She wants equal acknowledgment that a woman could be a serial killer, even though most are men. Why not a woman, she asks more than once, only to be dismissed by the men she works with.

That Thing is loyal to herself. And she doesn’t tolerate people who take advantage of weaker people, particularly women, children, and the elderly. If they fall into her sights, well, they might meet a particularly gruesome and satisfactory ends. I’ve met people I’d like to see done in and meet a particularly gruesome and satisfactory ends. I haven’t acted on my impulses; I left that to That Thing.

So, am I in my characters? Yeah, kinda. Do you think a writer puts herself in her characters, even those that are unsavory?

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing, Writing Style

Interacting

August 28, 2017

Have you ever sat in a coffee house or bar and watched how people sit or stand when they talk with each other? I love watching the gestures, facial expressions, set of the shoulders–anything that makes me think the people want to talk and listen to each other. Recently, I’ve noticed something else.

Men and women sit differently. Women like to sit at a table and face each other. They look at each other, paying attention to facial expressions. Whether it’s a table in a restaurant or a low table in a coffee house flanked by comfy chairs, women like to look at each other. Maybe it comes from learning to read expressions at an early age. “Be careful. Mom’s on the warpath” does not mean Mom is wearing war paint but that her face is set and she’s not going to brook any nonsense. We learn that smiles mean it’s safe to approach, maybe even ask for something. Frowns are off-putting. We learn not to go near until the frown goes away.

Men, on the other hand, like standing at a bar side by side. Whether they are bellying up and leaning on the bar itself, or sitting on bar stools, or turning their backs on the bar to watch what other people are doing, men seem to be more comfortable talking out of the sides of their mouths, glancing over occasionally. When something like a crowd of women or a good game on big screen televisions captures their attention, they may pause at the distraction but resume the conversation a few moments later.

Women like words. Lots of words. They like telling stories about their friends, sharing plots of television shows, catching up on each other’s kids. They fill their space with so many words that they seem to hang in the air, crowding out everything else. They’re in a cone of chatter.

Men like silence. Lots of silence. Grunts, nods, shrugs are as important as words. Single words, monosyllables convey as much between men as clouds of chatter do to women. Men like to think about one thing at a time. Women created multitasking. They are always focused on something they have to do later/tomorrow/right now.

We’re wired differently. Ain’t it great?

 

Featured, Marketing, Serial Killer, Suspense, Writing, Writing Style

Introducing EYES WITHOUT A FACE

August 7, 2017

My newest book, Eyes Without A Face, releases in October. Unlike anything I’ve written before, it’s from inside the mind of a psychopath. Here’s a teaser:

No matter what anyone says, I wasn’t born a serial killer. I don’t carry a sociopath gene, a psychopath gene, or even a serial killer gene. No such thing.

You can argue about nurture versus nature. Go ahead. Have at it. Look at the studies about psychopaths. Check me against the list of traits. I didn’t wet my bed, kill small animals, or set fires. My younger brother did those things, but he didn’t kill people―as far as I know. I wasn’t sexually promiscuous. My sister was. She began screwing every boy and some of the men in town as soon as she got breasts.

My father was verbally and physically abusive like half the men in town. So overpowering was the old man’s dominance that my mother retreated into a dark place where no spark emerged. Valium and vodka numbed her into submission.

None of this turned me into a killer. I came to this life through free will.

Back in college, I was never in touch with the lifestyles of my sorority sisters, who were into sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I knew from the very beginning that would never be satisfying. I needed something more, something different. Once I killed someone, however, I found my true calling in life.

In a way, fate led me to kill people that didn’t deserve to live. Other than one time, I never, ever killed anyone without a damned good reason. Even that time, I felt justified because I was learning my craft, honing my skills, if you will. I came to killing gradually, but once I started, I continued for more than three decades.

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