Monday, June 14, 2021

Words for Writers - To Thine Own Self Be True


You’re probably asking, why on earth is this woman quoting Shakespeare? What does Hamlet have to do with being a writer? The truth is, I was going to call this post “In Defense of the Semi-Colon,” but I knew no one – and I mean no one – would read that, so I chose a title that I thought would get you to skim at least the first paragraph. As for those semi-colons … well, you’ll just have to keep reading to see where they fit into the plot. 

Call me eccentric, if you will, but I believe Shakespeare’s advice has relevance to us as writers. Why? Because I believe most of us will be tempted to ignore it at least once in our careers, and we may regret that. 


In some cases, disregarding the bard’s counsel is the result of not having fully defined “thine own self.”  So, let’s start with that. I propose a few minutes of introspection to answer three questions:

1. Who am I?

2. Why do I write?

3. What is important to me? (or, to paraphrase that, What do I value?)


We all have different answers, and they’re all valid. I’ll give you my answers because – no surprise – they have a bearing on the issue of semi-colons. 

Who am I? I’m a Christian writer. Though there are other facets to my life, my faith and the need to write are central. That’s how I define myself. 

Why do I write? To entertain readers and to introduce them to my world view. (My world view, by the way, is one in which love heals and justice prevails.)  

What do I value? Besides justice and integrity, perfect grammar. I doubt any one of you will add grammar to your list of values, but it’s important to me. And that’s where the semi-colons come into play.


In Defense of the Semi-Colon

More than ten years ago when I was still writing for the secular market I started working with a fledgling publisher. They were interested in one of my early romances to which I’d received reversion of rights, and – since that book was the first in a series that is still in print – I thought that having it reissued would be a good marketing move. It was, I believed, the classic win-win situation. The publisher would get a book that required no editing, and I’d be able to introduce some of my newer readers to that particular story. 

Unfortunately, the publisher had what they called a ‘house style’ for text, and that style dictated the abolishment of both colons and semi-colons. I could live with the substitution of em-dashes for colons, since that didn’t change the meaning of the sentence, but turning all semi-colons into commas just didn’t work for me. As you can tell from reading this, I write sentences with multiple clauses, and there are times when a semi-colon is mandatory to maintain the meaning.

After a week or so of discussions with the editor, I pulled the book. Why? Because grammar is important to me, and the changes she wanted made would have turned my manuscript into one that would make me cringe. In other words, I would not have been true to myself if I’d agreed to eliminate semi-colons.


Trivial? Maybe.

This may sound trivial; it may sound extreme. (Notice the semi-colon in the previous sentence.)  I doubt anyone else on the planet would refuse a contract for that reason. 


What If?

But what if the editor asked you to change the basic premise of the book, turning your heroine into a character you didn’t like? 

What if an editor wanted you to change the setting and timeframe to one that was more popular but which didn’t appeal to you? 

Or what if being published meant signing a contract with a company that had a reputation for being less than honest? 

Would you do it? 


The point I’m trying to make is that we all want to be published, and once we’re published, we want to continue to see our books in print. That’s part of being a writer. But, in my opinion, we should never compromise our principles simply to be published. 


Think about that and your answers to the three questions each time you consider signing a publishing contract. The bottom line is, it’s your book; it’s your name that will be on the cover; it’s your decision. I urge you, though, whatever decision you make, to remember Shakespeare. 


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - June 9, 2021

 

wildflower with insect
One of the attractions of summer in Wyoming is the abundance of wildflowers it brings. But more than flowers flourish during this short season. If you look closely, you'll see that a brilliantly colored insect is searching for nectar on one of the flowers.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Words for Writers - Finding Your Writing Rhythm

 

* “If you want to be successful, you need to get up early every morning and write for at least an hour without interruptions.”

* “The best time to write is late at night when the kids are in bed and there’s nothing exciting to watch on TV.”


* “The only way to write a book is to have a detailed outline before you begin. You need to know what scenes will be in every chapter, whose POV each scene will have, and make sure that every plot point is outlined.”

* “Outlining a book before you write destroys creativity. The best way to write is to simply sit at the computer and let the ideas flow.”


If you’re like me, you’ve heard this kind of conflicting advice, whether presented in a workshop at a writer’s conference, posted in a blog or simply expressed as part of a casual conversation among writers. Again, if you’re like me, you’ve gone home shaking your head, trying to figure out which one of the statements is correct. You may even have despaired of ever being a successful writer, since you don’t do any of the things you were told were essential.

What’s a writer to do? I propose a three-step program. Ready? Let’s go.


Step One:  Take a deep breath. If you’re a chocoholic, have a piece of chocolate. If you’re a jogger, this is the time for a nice long run. If movies are your favorite way to forget about the world, watch one. In other words, relax. 


Step Two:  Repeat after me, “I am a writer. I am unique. What works for someone else may not work for me.” Relinquish the guilt and sense of failure that no matter how many times you tried, getting up at 4 AM to write only makes you tired and cranky, not creative, and that even though you would like to let ideas flow as Mega-Selling Author advised, that doesn’t work for you. 

I know I’m making this sound simple, when the reality is that it isn’t, but it’s an essential step. Even though you want to have Mega-Selling Author’s success, it’s important to remember that you’re not twins. What works for Mega-Selling may or may not work for you. And that leads us to the final step.


Step Three:  Find your writing rhythm. There are several aspects to this. The first is determining the time of day and days of the week when you’re most productive. You don’t need to be a scientist to do this. Simply observe yourself over the period of a couple weeks, noting when you feel most energized and writing down both the day and time. It may be that Tuesday through Thursday early evenings are your best time. If you know that, your goal should be to devote that time to writing. There’s no reason to waste your creative time doing laundry or watching TV, is there?

Secondly, think about yourself. Are you a left-brained person who needs everything organized? When you take a trip, do you have a detailed itinerary and avoid detours? If so, it’s probable that you’re a plotter and will be more productive creating an outline before you begin writing. 

If you’re an explorer who finds more pleasure in the journey than the destination, you may be a seat-of-the-pants writer (sometimes called a pantser). It’s also possible that you’re a combination of the two, that you may start with an outline but find that your story takes you in unexpected directions when you write. That’s good, but so too is being a pure plotter or pantser, if that’s where you’re most comfortable and most productive. 


The essential thing is to discover what works best for you. I’m not telling you to ignore the advice you’ve received, but I am saying that you need to consider whether the techniques that are being touted as the only way to succeed are ones that fit you. 

One size does not fit all. The truth is, there is one right way to write. What is it? The one that works for you.


Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - June 2, 2021

 

summer in Wyoming
Is this your image of summer in Wyoming? The combination of deep blue skies, puffy cumulus clouds, and green grass says, "It's summer!" to me. After long months of golden grass and bare tree branches, it's wonderful to know that summer has returned.

This photo and all of them I'll be sharing this month were taken at Pole Mountain in the Medicine Bow National Forest.



Monday, May 31, 2021

Words for Writers - The Critical Element


What does it take to be an author? 

If you answered, “talent, desire, a good command of the English language, an understanding of readers’ expectations,” you’d be right. All of those are important, but it’s been my observation that many who want to become published authors and who possess all those characteristics may begin to write a book but will never achieve their goal, because they’re missing the critical element.

What is that element? Grit. Are you laughing? It’s all right; go ahead and laugh, but then keep reading. 


Of Oysters and Authors

My dictionary has a number of definitions for “grit,” the most important of which for writers is “sand or gravel.” At this point, you’re probably either wondering if I’m crazy or asking yourself what sand could possibly have to do with authors. The answer lies with oysters. Like oysters, writers create pearls, but just as not all oysters produce pearls, not all would-be authors produce a book. Grit makes the difference. 

To understand why, let’s talk about pearls. They’re formed when a grain of sand enters the oyster’s shell and irritates it so much that the oyster coats the sand with layer upon layer of nacreous material, all to stop the irritation. Eventually that coated piece of grit becomes a pearl. Quite simply, without irritation, there would be no pearl. 


The Importance of Irritation

I propose that without irritation, most books won’t be written. Inspiration is important, but it’s irritation that keeps authors writing until they reach “The End.” Just as an oyster forms a pearl not because it wants to but because it has to, irritated authors have to write.

So, what constitutes irritation for a writer? It varies by the individual, but in each case, what’s important is that that irritation is strong enough that the author feels compelled to write, because that’s the only way to ease the irritation.

For me, irritation has included:

* Characters whose story must be told. A minor character from a book I’d just finished woke me in the middle of the night, announcing that he needed a bride. I agreed, but oh, did I make him struggle to win his bride. That was the price he paid for disturbing my sleep.

* An unforgettable location. This is a corollary to the first form of irritation. Several months after moving to Wyoming, my husband and I visited Fort Laramie, and I was so fascinated with it and the fact that it bore very little resemblance to my idea of a western fort that I couldn’t forget it. That trip became the impetus for my Westward Winds trilogy. I simply had to tell the stories that started whirling through my brain that day.

* Personal goals. For almost as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer. At first my goals were nebulous, but as a teenager I set a goal of selling a novel before my thirtieth birthday. That seemed so far in the future that I only wrote sporadically, but a month before I turned twenty-nine, I realized that if I was going to meet that goal, I’d better get serious about writing. That was the irritation I needed. And, yes, I did sell my first novel a week before my thirtieth birthday.


I urge you to look deep inside yourself and see what irritates you. If it’s strong enough, it’ll sustain you through the inevitable difficult times between the first line of your book and “The End.” That’s the power of grit.


Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - May 26, 2021

 

Wyoming State Museum, Cheyenne WY
Rounding out our second month of museum visits is one very close to home for me, the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne.

In addition to permanent exhibits, the State Museum has periodic special exhibits, including this one from several years ago which featured Shakespeare's First Folio.

With something for just about everyone, the State Museum should be on your "must see" list when you come to Cheyenne.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Words for Writers - The Art of Great Beginnings

 “It was a dark and stormy night.” “Once upon a time …”  Those are two classic ways to begin a book. While they’ve become clich├ęs, they are effective beginnings. Why? Because they set the scene

The first one tells us we’re not reading a romantic comedy. Instead, there’s likely to be at least something sinister about this story. The second one makes it clear that the tale will take place at some time in the past. It also has a leisurely feel to it, signaling readers who are seeking fast-paced contemporary stories that this isn’t the one for them. All this in just one line. That’s part of the art of a great beginning.


But there’s more. Not only should the first page tell readers what to expect from the rest of the book in terms of tone and timeframe, it should also intrigue readers enough that they simply cannot put the book down. 

How do authors do that? By asking more questions than we answer. I don’t mean that we necessarily begin with a literal question, although a line like, “Why couldn’t you at least have tried to hide Wayne’s body?” would probably intrigue readers enough that they’d continue.


Rather than use actual questions, I try to begin my books with sentences that will pique readers’ interest and cause them to ask themselves questions like, “Why did she say that? What does that mean? What’s going to happen next?” That’s why I began A Tender Hope this way:


She was free.

 Thea Michener smiled as she checked the harness, then climbed into the buggy. Within minutes, she would be leaving the only home she could remember. As much as she loved Ladreville, whose half-timbered buildings and Old-World charm made visitors declare it to be one of the prettiest towns in the Hill Country, it was time for a change.

While others might have trembled with fear over the thought of leaving family, friends, and all things familiar, the prospect filled Thea with relief. A new town, new possibilities, a new life beckoned her. A year ago she would not have dreamt of leaving, but that was a year ago. So much had changed in the past year, most of all Thea.


Here’s what I hoped to accomplish in each of the three paragraphs.  The first paragraph, which is only three words long, is designed to make readers ask, “Free from what?” 

The second names the heroine and sets the time and place. The references to the harness and buggy signal that this is an historical, while “the Hill Country” tells readers that the book is set in one of the most beautiful parts of Texas. 

The third paragraph gives us a few clues to our heroine and the story itself. She’s clearly leaving home, and her reaction to that isn’t necessarily commonplace.  Instead of being apprehensive, she’s excited. Why? I don’t tell readers that yet, because I want them to keep turning the pages, asking why Thea wants to leave and what changed her so much that she wanted to leave.


Did I succeed in creating an opening that raised more questions than it answered and that intrigued readers? You tell me.