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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.

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.

Betsy Ashton, Featured, Martin Luther King, Poem, Writing

Stone of Hope, 2011

January 15, 2018

Those who know me know I’m anything but shy. I’m cheeky. I sent a copy of the poem to the Obamas and received a lovely letter and personalized note back from Mrs. Obama. I’m humbled. I share these words now as always on Martin Luther King’s birthday.

STONE OF HOPE, 2011

Granite statue gazes outward,
seeks proof the dream
continues

I have a dream

looks for foot prints
on the path to freedom

that one day on the red hills of Georgia

laments ridicule of a president
with the audacity to dream

the sons of former slaves

sees a country
broken by religious hatred

and the sons of former slave owners

hears uncivil discord not
peaceful civil disobedience

will be able to sit down together

wonders what happened
to embracing differences

at the table of brotherhood.

abandons hope of government
for all people.

I had a dream.

Granite statue gazes outward and weeps.

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!”

Featured, Lifestyle, Veteran's Day, Writing

He Sat Alone

November 11, 2017

Those who are regulars on this blog have read this essay before. I run it every Veteran’s Day to remind me of what our service men and women do and what ghosts they bring home. I hope you enjoy the rerun.

Dedicated to the management and staff at Applebee’s,
Bedford, VA

The black man sat alone in a large booth in an Applebees restaurant filled with friends and family honoring our veterans on 11.11.11. When he arrived, the manager asked, “Would you like to sit with other veterans?”

He shook his head. “I’d rather eat alone if that is all right.”

“Of course.”

The manager led him to a large booth, the only one open, at the side of the restaurant and handed him the special menu for Veterans Day. Every year for the “Veterans eat free” promotion, it was always the same:  sit alone, eat, leave. Every year the manager tried to get the man to join with others, but failed.

He measured every bite of his free dinner slowly. He drank nothing but coffee and spoke with no one. Was he a Vietnam vet? He didn’t look old enough. Was he a combat vet from Persian Gulf War? The age seemed right.

Veterans walked over to greet the man and ask if they could join him. He shook his head. No, he wasn’t feeling like company. He didn’t look up. The vets moved away and found others to share a meal with.

A little boy broke away from his father’s hand.

“Mister, are you a veteran?”

“I am.” The man looked at the boy.

“My daddy was in Iraq. What war were you in?”

“I wasn’t in a war.”

The boy’s father retrieved his son, apologized for interrupting the man’s dinner and moved to his family’s booth.

“But, Daddy, if he wasn’t in the war, why does he get to eat here today?” The little boy’s voice rang through a quiet moment amid the usual cacophony of shouted greetings and hellos.

“Because, Ben, many men and women are veterans, but they never went to war. We need them to help keep America safe during peace, too.”

The boy crawled into their booth, his face frowning over his father’s lesson.

Halfway through his Salisbury steak and macaroni and cheese, the man looked at a vet across the aisle from his booth. They recognized the emptiness in each other’s eyes.

“Army?”

The man shook his head. “Air Force.”

“Where?”

“Dover.” The man looked at his plate. The conversation was over.

The Army vet whispered to another vet. “He was at Dover.”

“Think he was a crew dog?” asked a third man.

“Nah, seen a lot of crew dogs. He never worked the flight line. He was inside somewhere.”

“Don’t look like an officer,” said the original vet.

“Might have enlisted right out of high school,” said the man who knew the black man wasn’t a crew dog.

“Coulda been in an office job. Logistics. Payroll. Something like that.”

“You don’t get that thousand-yard stare flying a desk.”

Other vets in the restaurant joined the whispered conversation. They kicked around what kind of job the man had held that left him haunted.

“Maybe he was in the clinic. Get to see a lot of sick and injured there.”

“Maybe. He don’t look like a combat vet. ’Sides, he told the kid he wasn’t in the war.”

“Peacetime guys see shit, too. Sick and injured. Dead.”

“Don’t Dover get the bodies from Afghanistan and Iraq?’

“Yeah. Wonder if he was on part of the honor guard.”

“Could be. Thought most of them guys was younger. He seems too old for unloading flag-draped coffins in the middle of the night.” The second vet wouldn’t let the issue die.

“Someone has to do it,” said the first vet. “Maybe he saw too much of what’s in those boxes. Young kids. Someone like his own son, maybe. Had to be hard looking at dead kids.”

“Never forgot what it’s like to see your best friend blown to bits,” said an older vet.

“He’s got the look, don’t he, Rex?”

“If he wasn’t in combat, he most likely was in the Dover morgue. Bad enough to be shot at. Worse to have to put the pieces back together for the families. Most IED dead don’t leave much behind,” Rex said.

“He’s alone. Bet his wife and family dumped him. Hard to live with a guy full of demons. Wife left me, too. Never understood the darkness didn’t involve her. She moved out. I tried to move on. Damned hard sometimes.”

“Hear you, man.”

Tables emptied as veterans and their families finished their meals. New vets arrived. Someone would whisper “Dover” and jerk a head at the man sitting alone.

No one asked what haunted him, the man with the thousand-yard stare. Veterans walked past his booth, dropped hands on his shoulder and moved on. He sat straight, frozen, neatly dressed in clean jeans, a shirt and zippered jacket. His ball cap rested on the bench seat beside him. Head and face shaved. He couldn’t acknowledge the support his fellow vets tried to give him.

Alone. On Veterans Day. As was his wish. He kept his head down and ate with complete concentration, lost in his thoughts. He paid for his coffee, asked for a go cup, and carefully dressed it with two creams and two sugars. He stirred, put the lid on, set his cap on his head and worked his way off the bench seat. He passed the boy’s table.

“Mister?” The little boy stood in front of the man. He held out his small hand.

The man reached out and shook it.

“Thank you,” said the little boy.

The little boy saluted. The man straightened his shoulders, held his head high and saluted. He looked at the father and his son, nodded and walked slowly out of the restaurant, a black veteran alone, his cup of hot coffee clutched in his hand.

 

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?

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