The other day I came home to find the men I hired to build my patio sitting in my backyard looking at a stump. This was not a normal stump. This was a giant. Paul Bunyan, Big John kind of stump. I sat down with them and I, too, considered the stump.
“George had to get his chain saw for that sucker,” one of them finally said.
“Took two hours to get it out,” another offered.
“I think it broke George’s saw,” the first chimed in.
“Why didn’t you leave it in the ground,” I asked. “You know, pour the cement around it?”
“We thought about it,” the third said. “It wouldn’t have been right.”
They told me that they had managed to cut it up into the piece we were looking at but that it had been twice as big and buried deep in the ground; a remnant of a primordial tree. Their task had been Herculean. They told me that if they poured the cement over the stump, the darn thing could rot and my steps would fall in, and I would be upset with them because they had poured cement over a stump the size of San Francisco.
“It looks petrified,” I said. “How many years do you think it would take to rot?”
The first guy shrugged, “Twenty. Thirty years.”
I shrugged back. I would probably be dead by the time the stump rotted and my stairs fell in. I guess it was the principal of the thing. They would have known the stump was there.
We sat in the hot sun a while longer. Someone suggested carving the stump into the likeness of the contractor. I liked that idea but no one knew how to carve. I thought we could make it into a table. Eventually, we all stopped looking at the stump. The men moved it out of the way and started work again; I went inside to make dinner.
That stump has now been in my backyard for months. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. But, like all things that are hard to get rid of, it eventually served a purpose. It taught me a few lessons:
1) Everybody has a stump. It might be in your real backyard, your professional backyard or your personal backyard, but it is undoubtedly there.
2) What you do with your stump will tell you a lot about yourself. Either you will dig it up and deal with it, or you will leave it to rot.
3) If you’re stumped and need help there is always someone willing to work hard with you to take care of it as long as you work as hard as they do.
4) You can never go through a stump but don’t panic. You can go around them, over them and sometimes even under them but that takes the longest.
5) Sometimes stumps are not as big as they look and sometimes they are bigger. Size doesn’t matter. Stumped is stumped.
SECRET RELATIONS, book #3 of the Finn O’Brien Thriller series is available now.
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I am updating my early romances and contemporary women’s fiction novels with the intention of re-releasing them. I am excited because these books were my training ground. In these pages I can hear the first tentative sounds of my distinct ‘author’s voice’. I see that I instinctively had a good grasp of what makes a story work (don’t all voracious readers have that instinct?). There is one more thing I see in these books that is hard to embrace: my major author ‘dork’. I have no other word for my early writing stumbles. Some of them were mistakes of publishing fashion and others were born from an untrained sense of drama.
Since hindsight is a wonderful thing, I thought I’d share my top three ‘author dork’ mistakes.
1) Hysterical dialogue: This is not an industry term so don’t use it with an editor. Sill, I think it perfectly describes my use of long sentences, harsh words, and huge banks of exclamation points to get across a character’s anger, distress, fear and passion.
Solution: In my later work, I learned that proper scene set-up, thoughtful exposition, and spare and realistic dialogue give me a lot more dramatic punch.
2) Fad over fashion: Within the first few pages of Seasons (a book I really love) my heroine appears in Laura Ashley dress. If you’re old enough to know who Laura Ashley is, you’re cringing at the image. If you’re not old enough to know then I have made you stumble as you try to figure it out. I have no doubt I will also run across references to big shoulder pads and power suits.
Solution: I now describe clothing generally – jeans, slacks, blazer, leather jacket – to allow the reader to fill in the detail blanks. I use color to underscore character. I never use a designer name or a fad because this dates a book. The only exception is when I need the fad to assist in a plot point. For instance, a label in a corpse’s clothing might call out a specific designer.
3) Overwriting: When I first started writing there seemed to be an accepted rule of thumb that a chapter was twenty pages, that women’s fiction and romance were not worthy unless the author lingered over love scenes and dialogue was drawn out. If there is purpose to long stretches of prose or dialogue then go for it, but if during the edit the author can’t remember what happened in the last three pages of a book then the reader won’t remember either.
Solution: Tell the story. Do not write to word length. Either the story is solid and will move along at a good clip or it won’t, either it will be 100,000 words or it won’t. The readers won’t stick with you.
The good news is that I am happy with these early books and will not fundamentally change them. I will, however, make them better by applying what I know now to what I wrote then. If only we could do the same thing with our high school yearbook pictures the world would be perfect!
Don’t forget to check out my latest release, Secret Relations, book 3 in the Finn O’Brien Thriller Series.
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Yesterday my husband and I decided to inaugurate the MoviePass cards our son gave us for Christmas. With one swipe (and $10 a month) we can see as many movies as we like at any theater.
Our first movie would be The Post at our local theater. It took both of us, and the manager, to figure out how to make the card work (which in hindsight should not have been necessary if we understood our phone settings). Finally, we swiped our cards only to find that The Post was sold out. That pushed us to our default selection: any movie that was not sold out. We ended up in a nearly empty theater watching Jumanji, the 20-year-later sequel to Robin William’s wonderful movie by the same name.
Jumanji is a fanciful action-adventure movie about a game that sucks people into an alternate universe and in order to get home, the player must win the game. In William’s version, he was the only one who disappeared. This version has an ensemble cast that includes The Rock, Jack Black and two other actors we weren’t familiar with but who were perfectly cast.
The movie began, the music was ominous, the set up delightful, the locations beautiful and the direction energetic. The kids in the theater reacted with oohs, aahs, and other exclamations of delight.
Oh, wait! That was me oohing and aahing!
Yep, I loved every bit of that movie and when I got home I realized the reason I loved it was because I lost myself in the storytelling. Everyone from the screenwriter to the lighting guy and cast was on board with the creative vision. The premise was quickly and clearly established. Casting was based on character and not on what looks that the producers deemed ‘sexy and salable’. The computer-generated stunts did not overpower the story nor did they last so long that the viewer could literally leave, have dinner and come back and they would still be crashing about on screen. If something fantastic happened – like characters dying and getting shot into space and suddenly falling back to earth again without injury – the viewer accepted it because it quickly became apparent that each piece of this story had a purpose. There was always a payoff that made sense. Threads were wrapped up at the end. The story built to a conclusion and didn’t present it. But better than anything, the actors never broke character. The adult actors were asked to channel their teenage counterparts in the real world that had been left behind. I have seen this transference in movies before but too often the adult actor simply remains an adult. The last time I saw this plot point beautifully executed was in Tom Hanks’s Big.
So, here’s what I want you to do. Before you write another word, before you start editing, go see Jumanji. It is one of the best lessons in pitch-perfect storytelling I’ve had in a very long time. As for me, I’m going back to work and give my manuscript the Jumanji treatment because the devilish details are what make for a heavenly story.
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It has been piled high with cold, flu conferences, a last minute, out of country speaking engagement and now a medical screening that needs a follow-up. Of course, there are also everyday things that pile on to the plate: bills, calls from my sons, the tennis league I belong to, dinner to cook and bathrooms to clean. I’m not complaining. This is all just life and good stuff if you take the cold and medical appointments out of the equation. Still, filling out my calendar and trying to figure out how I’m going to fit quality writing time in the schedule made me think about the craft of writing a novel. The question on my mind was how much is too much before a reader throws up her hands and pushes the literary plate away?
As a thriller writer, I love to go over the top. Unfortunately, I can get a bit too energetic and take the technique to crazy extremes. It’s a fault. No, it’s worse than a fault. It’s a sin to be so involved with own words that I forget my job is to entertain not challenge someone to wade through my excesses. When I do go overboard, I am giving my readers a reason to push away the literary plate I have served them.
Luckily, there are remedies for ‘too much’ writers like me. In real life we say no to many things, so let’s start saying it in our fiction. Here are three ways to figure out if you just served your reader a plate that is too full.
Echo: A particularly inspired turn of phrase, description or character quirk is a thing of beauty. Constant use of the same phrase or description or a continual reminder of the quirk is an annoyance. Readers are smart and imaginative. They will get it.
Blow-by-Blow : No pun intended, but sex scenes are more effective and dramatic if they are evocative rather than clinical. The same rule of thumb applies to shootouts, character travel or any scene that stops the reader and forces them to linger without a point. Move the story forward using varied sentence structure and only critical physical descriptions.
Cast of Thousands: Have you ever tried to find a friend in a crowd? It’s impossible because all you can see is a blur of humanity. The same thing happens to a reader if there are too many characters populating your book. Think of your book as a play. Characters may come and go but the ones we care about should always be center stage.
While you edit look for the echo, the blow-by-blow and the cast of characters and adjust the emphasis, streamline the structure and your literary plate will go from too full to too fabulous.