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Editing, Featured, Writing, Writing Style

When Women Writers Get Together

June 19, 2017

A week-long writers workshop began with a reunion of half a dozen kindred souls, all writers who had attended the workshop for several years, as had I. We filled the first hours with catching up on the families and other personal activities. Then, we began talking about our writing. And that’s when the conversation turned serious. Really serious.

Each of us expected the other writers to have finished a chapbook of poems, much of a new novel, a series of essays or short stories. What we learned is that to a one, we had been oddly blocked. We knew what we wanted to write, but the writing-ness of writing was more than difficult. For a couple, it had been impossible. Some of us were stress starvers who don’t each much; others were stress eaters who put on weight. At least fifteen pounds.

This felt different from generic writer’s block. Its origin was in the cosmic angst, not in the person herself. The more we talked, the more we were able to identify the point when we stopped feeling like writing. (Not to say, many of us continued, but the joy was gone.) For a couple of writers, the date was early in November; for others, it was in January. Those who waited until January hid behind the holidays. Once January ended, their mental paralysis was in full bloom. They sat. They spun. They thought but could find little to write down.

Several started writing about happier times in their lives. I didn’t realize it, but I was one who went back to an earlier time, to a story I started on a lark about a place where I felt safe and joyous. I revisited the story, fleshed it out, wrote outlines for six additional stories, and decided I would write a novel in stories about an extended family and some of their friends. Good things and bad happen to the family, but they always have one place of solace they call home. I felt excitement growing. I felt a release.

The more the women talked, the more we realized we had allowed outside events overwhelm us. We spent too much time on social media. We allowed people we love to interrupt our writing. One woman’s daughter texted her constantly when she was writing, growing shriller and shriller until she stopped and responded. Concentration shattered. Might as well go onto Facebook and Twitter and see what was going on.

We pretended we were doing research when we followed trails all over the Internet. One woman wanted to validate a point in her novel, only to find herself an hour later still following links down all sorts of side paths. She had entered the “oh, look, a chicken” mindset. She vowed to turn off her phone, keep only the story live on her screen, and let the world find its own way without her for a while. Sounds good to me.

I too let myself get distracted because I don’t want to hurt my friends’ feelings if I don’t interact then instant they get online. I played into their games, leaving myself vulnerable to losing my train of thought. I let them control our relationship, because I didn’t want to get into any lengthy discussions about why what I was doing was more important than looking at their stickers.

We women left the week-long workshop rejuvenated. We promised to help each other if we found ourselves straying. We agreed that our position might not be all that popular, but if you want books from us, you must, absolutely must, understand that we will take the space we need. No matter how many times you text me, how many emojis/videos/stickers you send, I will be online when I’m finished with my work at the end of the day. I may take breaks in the middle of the day for a few minutes, but that doesn’t mean I’m inviting anyone to try and engage in lengthy conversations. I ask you to understand. This is not open for debate. I have two books that must be finished in short order. And they will be.

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing

Worms

June 5, 2017

You read that right: worms. I woke up this morning thinking about worms.

Before I continue, I confess that there is little in nature I like less than a worm. I hate them. I know earthworms are good for the soil, but I don’t have to like them, do I? I don’t know why worms were on my mind before dawn today, but they were.

Think about all the way worms appear in our vocabulary. Remember the childhood complaint: Nobody likes me, everybody hates me. I’m going to eat some worms. Now, I never knew that eating worms would be a good idea if no one liked you, except by doing so you might gross someone out. Watching someone eat worms would gross me out, even if they are considered a source of protein and a delicacy in some parts of the world. I prefer chicken or tofu for my protein, thank you very much.

In early spring, when the earth warms, the rains soften the hard ground, earthworms emerge and slither across driveways and sidewalks. A harbinger of spring, I love it when they appear. Just don’t ask me to touch one. I don’t like slimy things, and worms are right up there with the slimiest.

Ear worms are another annoying, albeit not slimy, evidence of worms. No one likes to have “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” or “It’s a Small World” stuck in your brain all day. “Nights in White Satin” or “Sound of Silence,” maybe. In fact, definitely “Nights in White Satin.” Usually. ear worms are the most annoying interruptions. And the more you try to get rid of them, the louder they get.

What about sayings we hear from our parents and grandparents. “The early bird gets the worm.” Or, “he’s caught like a worm on a hook.” There are more. Add your own favorites.

The more I think about it, it doesn’t end well for the worm. I think I’ll leave it at that.

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing

“Wait, What?”

May 22, 2017

A few years back, James Ryan gave a commencement speech at Harvard’s College of Education where he advised graduates to question everything. His first bit of wisdom was what he called, “Wait, What?”That’s when you’are telling your kids something, you throw in, “I need you to clean your room.” Your kid hears “blah, blah, blah, clean your room, blah, blah, blah.” Your kid says, “Wait, what?” The clean-your-room comment is the only thing to penetrate text brain. Ryan’s message was about listening to a message and questioning it.

Journalists and writers are sympathetic questioners. We want to know the answers. So we ask the questions.

A writers most important question could be “What happens if…?”

What happens if you put a plain-looking man in a group of “pretty people?” How can you make him stand out? Does he have the gift of gab? Is he uber-smart? Is he a billionaire? Or is he an ordinary guy who listens when people talk and asks questions to keep them talking?

A few years ago. my husband and I visited Blowing Rock, NC. We’d just checked into our motel and were off to find ice cream at our favorite local shop. Lying next to the gutter was a child’s sock. A single sock. I wondered, “where’s the other sock?” I didn’t want a prosaic answer like its mate was in the dryer, or a child pulled it off when Daddy wasn’t looking. I wanted it to be a clue dropped by a woman who’d been kidnapped. Or maybe it fell out of a sleeve of a well-dressed man whose wife didn’t iron his shirts. Clue: the sock will appear in a story later this year when the wrong sock is the clue to a missing child.

Then, there was the woman dressed like a gypsy at a Barns at Wolf Trap concert even more years ago than the sock. She sat to the side, lost in her own world,  and shuffled a deck of Tarot cards. Was she going to tell her own fortune? Did she want to tell mine?

My friend, the late Sally Roseveare, could look around a room and find at least three things that would enhance her mysteries. Sometimes it was a mundane item that could be used to kill someone. Picture wire was one of her favorites, yet she never used it in a story. Or she’d wonder why a teaspoon was left on a chair even though no one was eating. Could it have traces of poison in it? And what about that crumpled paper? Did it have a written clue about where to find a murder weapon?

I look at people and wonder what their secrets are. We all have them. Do we wish we had been kinder to an elderly relative? Or to a child? Or do I wish I hadn’t spent our week’s grocery money on a necklace for my mom on Mother’s Day when I was eight? I do, but she was kind enough to hide her anger and worry about our diet for a week. She gave me the necklace years ago. I still have it.

Look around. You never know what you’ll find. Take tons of pictures of things that strike you. You never know when you’ll need that precise image.

What questions do you ask? What makes you curious?

Lifestyle, Writing

Learning To Be Me

May 15, 2017

Most of you who know me or who have been following me know I’m independent and stubborn. That’s a double understatement. So, three weeks ago when I fell and broke my wrist, I knew I was going to need a lot of help. My dear husband stepped up to taking care of me along with all of his own tasks. He had no idea what being me entailed.

I broke the right radius, the bone that allows the wrist to turn. I had surgery one week later.

Now, I’m profoundly right-handed, so I knew teaching my useless left hand to do anything would be a long and winding road, It was and is.

Let’s start with what I’m doing now: writing a blog entry. I’m typing with my left hand, backing up constantly to fix typos, and trying to keep my thoughts clear. Yes, my brain struggles to fend off the anesthesia muzzies. I figured out how to hunt and peck the letters. Then there was a contraption called THE MOUSE. I didn’t reset the mouse buttons, because it wouldn’t have done a darned bit of good. I’m better at mousing. I’m so proud of me. I’m feeling cocky enough to trying to cut and paste, but not until I feel like being bought to my knees in frustration.

Cooking is out of the question. I have a freezer full of homemade soups and stews. We laid in a stack of Lean Cuisine and plenty of fresh veggies for salads and for roasting on the grill. Terry is good in the kitchen. Normally, I cook and he cleans up. Now, he’s doing it all. I’m so lucky. Eating itself can be a challenge. As one of my friends said years ago about his toddler: “it’s not pretty, but it’s effective.” Only twice since the break have I wished for a bib. At least, clothes and hands wash. Speaking of laundry, I’ve never been good at folding fitter sheets, but at least I have an excuse. Wonder how long I can milk it.

Personal hygiene has been easier than I thought. A baggie over the mallet bandage, rubber bands to keep the water out, and an elbow to help with shampoo bottles. Pedicures take of toes and feet. Forget makeup. I’m out and about in native skin. And bless the people who developed battery-operated toothbrushes; they are my heroes.

To the people who have come to my aid in putting groceries in the car, adding lids to my coffee so I don’t pour slop hot liquids all over, and the sweet young girl who carried two lattes to the car. I appreciate your kindness. To Joesephine at the Westlake Library, the “scene of the crime,” who fetched ice, called Terry, and took me to get emergency treatment, you’re my hero for springing into action and not getting sick when you saw how out of alignment the wrist was. I promise to share your kindness forward.

Tomorrow I go back to the surgeon. I hope I get a smaller splint/bandage and go off to physical therapy. Keep an eye on Facebook for updates.

 

Featured, Writing, Writing Style

From My Spam Folder

April 10, 2017

Sometimes, rarely, but sometimes, I actually look at what’s in my spam folder. I was gone for a few days last week to the practice rounds at The Masters. When I finally plowed through my spam, I found this delectable post.

Headline: YOUR SILENT IS A CLEAR PROOF THAT YOU ARE REAL DEAD.

Who can resist that hook? I couldn’t. I had to find out if I was real dead. After the “Dear Valued Customer,” address, the message commenced with:

“I need to confirm that this is realy truth before we release your total funds to this gentle man. This office was contacted by Mr. Richards Thomas who claimed to be your brother. He promised to pay the needed fee and claim the package as your next of kin.”

Other than there are a few typos in this opening, it’s wrong in one big area: I’m an only child, ergo, no brother.

Next, the writer continued. “He said that you were involved in a car accident last week and died. We need to confirm that your are truly dead…We believed that you are dead, but as a federal office [he signs the note with his title Director of (IMF)] we need a proof for record purposes…If this is true!!! May your gentle soul rest in perfect peace. But if its not true then get back to us immediately you receive this message to enable us to proceed…”

Well, now, if I’m truly dead, I can’t confirm I’m dead. If I’m not dead, then I could, but the director of (IMF) wants too much personal information. I had to make a hard decision. If I followed his last instruction, “And also reconfirm your full delivery information wile geting back ok,” I’m not sure what he wanted. I mean, I could send a pic with today’s paper to prove I’m alive. Or I could delete the message.

I chose to delete this man’s sincere concern about my health. I hope my brother, Mr. Richards Thomas, enjoys the $250,000,000US he will claim shortly.

So, for now, I wish him well.

I think I’ll have fried Spam for dinner. Seems fittin’ after this communique.

Hope you enjoy the giggle. I love these semi-literate spam-o-grams, don’t you?

###

Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max Unintended Consequences and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery. She has a new short story, “Midnight in the Church of the Holy Grape,” in 50 Shades of Cabernet. Her works have appeared in several anthologies and on NPR.

Editing, Featured, Proofreading, Writing, Writing Style

Close-Ups

March 27, 2017

Have you noticed how cat selfies are taking over social media? Most bloggers know that if we want more people reading our blogs, we throw in cat photos or videos. So, in a blatant attempt to engage a host of readers in this blog post, I’m leading off with a close-up of my kitty, Smokin’ Mocha Java. Gotta admit, I’m prejudiced, but then again, I’m her human.

Mocha is here for a reason. It’s to introduce a mundane, nerdy post about one of the things writers HATE to do. It might be the most hated task in writing and producing a book. That final read-through, when you’re as sick of the manuscript as you can be, when you couldn’t see a grammo or typo if it scratched you on the hand, when you know that every word is perfect–until you get the galleys back from the publisher. Every error screams, “What were you thinking? Are you nuts? You think this is ready for the public? Sheesh!”

That’s right, final edits and proofreading are the bugaboos of most writers, me included. I call this “close-up reading.” Let me share my routine, if you will. If you are bored, I’m down with that. Thanks for stopping by. Catch you later.

What, you’re still here? You want to share my pain? Terrific. Here’s what I do for the last polishing of the manuscript before it goes to print.

  • I read the manuscript through from beginning to end with no pen in hand. This let’s me escape into the story and characters. It also allows me to ignore said typos and grammos.
  • Next, I read every word, every sentence, to see if it belongs, to see if it advances the plot, to see if it develops the character. I look for words I overuse, like like, just, very, anything ending with ly. All get the knife.
  • I listen to the dreadful computer voice read the book to me. Windows Narrator lets you choose a lot of options, but it still. sounds. like. a. robot. Mr. Robot also points all missing your brain know are there. Oh, wait, that should read “all missing words your brain knows are there.”
  • I read from the last page to the first, from the last sentence on the bottom of the page to the top of the page, and right to left. Are you still with me? I cut a mask that exposes a single line of text, which forces me to look at every word OUT OF CONTEXT. By looking at each word in its own right, I produce the best copy I can.

Even with all this, typos slip in. I think they sneak into the manuscript between sending it to my publisher and my publisher sending it to the printer. No amount of pest control strips or sprays prevents at least on typo from living through to the printed page. No matter how closely writers edit, there’s always something that gets through the close-up review. It’s so mortifying.

Mocha wants the last word: “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”

###

 Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max Unintended Consequences and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery. She has a new short story, “Midnight in the Church of the Holy Grape,” in 50 Shades of Cabernet. Her works have appeared in several anthologies and on NPR.
Featured, Lifestyle, Stress, Writing

Frazzled

March 20, 2017

That’s the adjective that defines me right about now. As usual, I have too much on my plate, too little of me to get everything done, and too little time to finish my daily priorities.

I started the year with a reasonable to-do list and a clean desk. Virtually every day, some “crisis” pops up to derail the day’s tasks. Last week, it was Go Daddy calling to let me know that the version I’m on for my writer’s club was no longer going to be supported. Well, now. Okay. Hmm, let’s see. My last webmeister left the club two years ago. The one before that left three years ago. I dug through tons of files to find the password. Should be easy peasy to transfer the website to the new format, huh. At least that’s what the nice man at Go Daddy told me. All would have been well had the template we used fit ANY template in the new version. I tried several before realizing I had to transfer page by page, add pages to manage some of the content, etc. I figured that if I preserve the content, I can make the site workable when I have time to think about it. Yeah, right. When I have time to think about it. Like next century. And I will NOT stay as the webmeister.

I am the webmeister for an arts council. My problem last week was getting a button to display the right price for tickets to an event. No matter how I tried to fix it, the darned button kept displaying the wrong price. I finally asked a friend to see if he could figure out what was going on. Seems like an artifact from a different button stepped on the html — oh, hell, you don’t care about code and stuff like that. Leave it to say, I turned around three times, spit over my left shoulder, and scratched my left ear with my right big toe. Yup, things magically fixed themselves. That, and removing that errant fragment manually.

Couple in the release of an anthology last week and I’m behind the schedule for getting my signings set up. I have several, but need more. I’ll be busy calling locations where I usually sign books to get some time.

And I’m in the last readings/edits for my next novel. All comments are back from beta readers, my editor has offered final suggestions on places that don’t work, and I am almost, but not quite, on schedule to deliver the manuscript to my publisher.

After all that, I’ll tackle the in-floor, where all the things from the clean desk ended up.

Hope you are having a good day.

 

Anthology, Featured, Marketing, Mystery, Writing

50 Shades of Cabernet

March 6, 2017

For the longest time, I’ve avoided talking about my books, interviewing authors, writing about what I read. It’s time to weave more of these stories into my personal posts.

I’m starting with an anthology to which I had the honor of contributing a short story. More than a dozen writers got together virtually to write light-hearted mysteries around a wine theme. Called 50 Shades of Cabernet, the story had to have mystery elements, although not necessarily murders, and at least one mention of Cabernet. When I was first invited, I had no idea what I’d write. It had to be original; it had to meet a certain word count; and it had to be funny.

I don’t write humor. My first self-published book, which will come out this year, is about a female serial killer. In first person singular. From her perspective. That’s right–a female serial killer telling her story. The closest she gets to humor as sarcasm and snark.

I found writing a lighter story a great challenge and a welcome relief after spending months inside the head of a psychopath. Or should I say, she spent several years inside my head. Whatever.

Wine, huh? I like wine. I love Cabernet. I love thinking of ways people can get themselves into and out of jams. I sat several times to write, only to run out of ideas after a paragraph or two. I pushed the story aside. One day, when I was driving back from one of my writing groups, the epiphany hit. Why not do a send-up of New Age religions? Why not build one around celebrating wine? Why not layer on a few Neo-Druid trappings? And thus a story was born.

My story is “Midnight In the Church of The Holy Grape” is just such a send-up. Ryan, a member of this non-church church, wants his wife, Lucy, to go with him to the Winter Solstice meeting where he hopes he will be chosen to move up in the non-hierarchy hierarchy. His wife wants nothing to do with it. He persuades her finally, but she’s not a happy camper. Until she actually gets to the Gothic building and into the basement where they meet. Add moody music, elaborately laid tables waiting to groan with food and wine, and a crone sitting at the head. Well, Lucy becomes intrigued.

The layers: gothic setting, odd music in the background, the crone at the head of the table, and a battle between sects.

Oh, where does Cabernet come in? The crone is the Wrong Reverend Ruby Cabernet. Her leadership is challenged.

Did we have fun writing our stories? I sure as heck did. I only wish we could say we sat in a room and written together. We didn’t. In fact, I haven’t met half of the writers in the anthology except virtually. I hope you like the book. As soon as it is available, I’ll have a link to it on my web page and will be offering signed copies. For in-person signings, please check out our Facebook page.

Okay, enough about me. In a later blog, I will offer an interview with an author of my choice.

Editing, Featured, Writing, Writing Challenge, Writing Style

Entering the Death Throes of Editing

February 27, 2017

For the next month I will be heads down editing a manuscript to send to my publisher. If you’ve never been in my shoes, er, chair, er, sitting on my ball at my desk, you might not know what death throes of editing  means.

It starts with a complete read of the manuscript. I print it out first and read it from start to finish. Somewhere along the way, I pick up a red pen and begin marking sections that need work. Or words that need changing. Or chapters that were once brilliant and now have no home in the book. This is what I think of as the first rough cut, the first time I start at page one and read straight through to “the end.” This read can lead to a flip flop from despair to elation. “It’s junk.” “It’s great.” Usually, it’s somewhere in between.

I find places where I need to fix the story line. I may have glitches in hair color, time line, characters’ names. Yes, I have goofed on characters’ names, going from Eric to Alec, from Beth to Annie. No matter how many tables I have of the characters’ names and what they look like, overeager writing can create chaos. This continuity fix takes time, but it’s the most fun, because it’s where I finally polish the story line.

Okay, now that I’ve fixed the continuity problems, I need to read for word choice.  That is the tedious read. Does every sentence fit? Is every word the right one to convey the sense I want conveyed? What do I need to change to maintain the voice of the narrator? Every word has to be as perfect as I can make it. This is the director’s cut, where everything I think should be in the book will survive.

Finally, I pull out the Chicago Manual of Style and make sure that my grammar conforms to the norm. I read for missing words. I read for missing, or, too, many, commas. I look at punctuation! because? hey…We all #need; punctuation.

When that is done, I read from the last page to the first, right to left, bottom of the page to the top. Line by line, word by word, gray hair by gray hair I work through the manuscript. And lastly, I use Microsoft Narrator and listen to the book. This is the final cut, the best I can do.

AND STILL I MAKE MISTAKES. STILL I MISS TYPOS. STILL I DON’T KNOW THAT THE U.S. HAVE NEVER USED CORDITE IN GUNPOWDER.

Sigh.

 

Featured, Mad Max, Uncharted Territory, Writing, Writing Style

Questions From A Book Club

February 20, 2017

I recently spoke to a local book club about writing my Mad Max series of mysteries. Their questions were so astute that I wanted to answer some of them here. Hang on.

  1. Why did you set Uncharted Territory in post-Katrina Mississippi?  Max is entering uncharted territory as a grandparent raising her grandchildren full time. I wanted a landscape that resembled the situation she was in. Post-Katrina Mississippi, especially the area along the Gulf Coast, was barren, without landmarks, much as Max’s life is. Mississippi is an objective correlative where what is going on inside Max is manifested in the land she sees around her.
  2. How did you get the idea for the home-school teacher, Stuart Duxworth-Ross? He came through a discussion with a friend who had read the first book and decided the story was about him and his son. (It wasn’t, although two scenes came from his life and divorce.) Ducks rather defined himself. I knew he’d be gay, partly because this man who thought I was writing about him was adamant about “his” son being taught by a gay man. Challenge accepted, and Ducks was born.
  3. You have more than one character with second sight, or ESP, or some other paranormal traits. Do you know anyone with those traits? Do you have them yourself? The answer to the first question is easy. Emilie (who started life as Emily, but that’s another story) is modeled after my goddaughter. A triple Pisces, she’s spookier than Emilie is. The second question is yes, but not as well developed as some.
  4. Where did your themes of human slavery, child abuse, and racism come from? I like to work social themes into my books. I want readers to think while being entertained. Human slavery came to mind when I read a small story in the newspaper about a family held hostage to be breeders for a pair of men. I modified it but kept many of the overall events. I wanted to remind readers that racism isn’t always about black on white but can be on black on Hispanic or white on Hispanic. Most of all, it’s “them versus us,” when traditional ways of life are threatened.
  5. What about child abuse? That is very personal. I could not have written the rape sequence had my mother still been alive. I was abused by a stepfather. I told my mother who couldn’t handle it. It took years to forgive her for putting me in peril.
  6. Did you really stab your stepfather in the ass? No, but I wish I had. That’s the only part of the scene where I giggled. Actually, in all honesty, the entire rape sequence made me so ill that I couldn’t write for a few days after I finished it.
  7. Are you writing another Mad Max novel? Yes. Unsafe Haven is nearly done. Max, her boyfriend Johnny, and Alex are featured. I don’t know when it will come out, but it should be out before the end of the year.

Those readers were so interested in my books. I can’t thank them enough.

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