Sunday, April 27, 2014

How To Learn Storytelling From The Movies

Photo courtesy of Mike Licht

I am going through the Oscar-nominated best films of 2013 on Netflix, having missed most of them in my neighborhood theaters. Yesterday Fruitvale Station was up. I confess that I brought with me to the screening a bucket load of pre-conceived notions of how this story would be told. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area where the real life event took place and remember all the press, demonstrations and riots concerning Oscar Grant's death.

I assumed it would be a polemic, pure and simple. How could any filmmaker avoid that temptation with such a fevered story. How could anyone blame him. But how wrong I was.

For those of you who don't know the story, Oscar Grant was 22 years old when he was shot by a police officer on New Year's morning on a BART train platform. The subsequent rioting occurred when it was revealed that Mr. Grant was shot in the back, while lying face down, handcuffed and restrained by an officer. It seemed like target practice. The altercation was filmed by passengers on the train, which provided important evidence that lead to the firing of the officers involved and prison term for the shooter.

So you can see how a good guy vs. bad guy story could be told, whether you did it from the point of view of the officers who claimed to be under siege, or the innocent victim of racial profiling.

Ryan Coogler, writer and director, took a better, more powerful approach. He followed the dictum of one of my writing teachers, Tom Jenks. If you want your readers to care about a death, you have to make them care about the life.

Coogler shows what happens when you come in close and show his bright smile, the love for his daughter, his very bad decisions, his prison experience, his short temper, his character weaknesses alongside his love for his mother, his desire to do right for his family, his tender fathering of his child. Done without sentimentality or one sensational headline, he makes you hope against hope that, even though you know the outcome, you hope Oscar Grant will rise off his ICU bed and return to his family and have another crack at fulfilling his dreams. You weep at the end because you have lived his relationship with his mother, his girlfriend and his daughter and you feel their pain.

There is no other way to tell a story in my opinion.

Interestingly (for me), last night I also watched Amber, the four-episode Irish mystery that told a similar story. A young life taken (we assume) and a family left to grieve.  As with many stories, it had strengths and flaws. I happen to like a story told from several points of view, and Amber did this well. The one character we did not get to know was Amber herself, a fictional 14-year old who just disappeared one day. The ending was frustrating for many reasons, but largely because it left us hanging as to her ultimate fate. Yes, in real life, very few children who disappear are found.  But this was television. The nature of the genre required something else. It got this viewer too involved in the mystery, rather than the life, so that I did not weep at the end, but figuratively threw my shoe at the TV. Apparently, so did the viewers in Ireland. The writers (it seemed to me) relied on the tugging of heartstrings typical of a missing child story to carry a big piece of the series. But if you are going to write in a genre, you must follow the rules. In a mystery you nail the perp. In a human interest/literary piece, you go deep into the characters that matter, even if the ending is not an alls well that ends well. With all its great production values and actors, Amber did neither.

Lesson: no matter what you're writing, show don't tell. What does that mean? Watch these two films for the answer.

Friday, April 25, 2014

You never know who's watching

Since I'm still recovering from surgery and saving my energy to finish editing Dying For Diamonds, I will just say that it is always good to put yourself out there. You never know who is watching.

Last week a friend of mine emailed me that she had picked up a copy of Women's World Magazine at the grocery store.  In it was an article about cozy mysteries, one of my Kindle ebook genres (The Darling Valley Cozy Mystery series, A Corpse In A Tea Cup). And in it the author featured one of my books, Armoires and Arsenic. It was a wonderful surprise that I'm sure has helped me heal, or at least feel much better while I'm hobbling around.

But the Daily Writing Coach message here, for anyone sitting on their creative work, is put it out there. You never know who's watch who might give you a big boost. And, yes, sales of Armoires soared that week (relatively speaking. After all, I'm not Stephen King!)

And if you are curious about Dying For Diamonds, I hope to launch it next week. Here's the cover:

Happy weekend, all.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Writer's Process Blog Tour

I have been invited to participate in a project with global reach, The Writers Process Blog Tour. I thought chain letters went out with floppy disks, but this tour revamps it into something new and painless for the reader. I was invited to participate by Andrew Hill, author of Crowed, a novel in linked stories that follows generations of a family from the 1800s to present day living under the continuing scourge of Jim Crow. The characters are unforgettable, the writing is superb, the story is universal. I urge you to check him out, not only his books on Amazon but his insightful blog.

Last week Andrew answered four questions about his work and process and nominated three other writers to continue the chain. I was one of them and today it is my turn to address my own writing conundrums and introduce you to three talented writers you may not know. Yet.

Ask a writer to jot down a few words about his or her process and youll likely get an encyclopedia. It is not a subject we can capture in a few words or four questions. Many writers write for the same reason they breathe. Because they have to. Im one of them. These questions help us, the writers, crystallize what that means. Please circulate this post on your social media, Twitter, FaceBook and so on and keep the blog tour going. Now to my questions.

1) What am I working on?

When people ask me what I write I say, anything youll pay me for. Its pretty much true. I am a food writer, medical/health writer, mystery writer, novelist, childrens writer and have dipped my toe into the paranormal waters recently. At the moment, I am working on all of the above except medical/health pieces.

Under my pen name, Cassie Page, I am putting the finishing touches on the third book in my Darling Valley Cozy Mystery series, Dying For Diamonds. I hope to publish it next week. Ive also written a spinoff of that series, Tuesdays Tea Leaves Cozy Mystery Series, A Corpse In A Tea Cup, and a second one is starting to emerge. I am starting the second in the Mikey series, novels aimed at the 8-10 year old reader. I also have outlined seven in the Farty Arty series and they await illustrations. I have outlined three new series in the mystery/romance genre with five short novels in each series. Ive published seven cookbooks but except for a zombie cookbook with a knockout cover that is half written. I dont plan any others.

The book I consider my lifes work, if I may be forgiven such grandiosity, is The Equal of God. This novel has been seventeen years in the writing. It follows the Gavagan family from the early 1800s through the great famine and illustrates how that disaster afflicted not just the starving farmers but the Ascendency as well, the wealthy Irish and English landowners whose way of life changed as radically after the famine as did that of the survivors.  Following Andrew Hills lead, I intend to publish it in segments beginning this spring.

I hope to finish these projects by the end of the year, and then start a new list.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Im not sure mine does, except for my Irish stories.  Genre writing, such as cozy mysteries and childrens books, is much like Japanese theater arts. The aim is not to create something new but to follow the formula as perfectly as you can. Please dont think Im comparing my mysteries to Noh plays, but the idea is the same. Meet the readers expectations: heavily plotted stories that stay within certain boundaries. No blood and gore, no sex, no bad words, small town settings, an amateur sleuth and a story that keeps them guessing and amused to the end. Light on description and inner dialogue. And readers want you to turn them out quickly, so they must be fast reads. I would never take a year to write a cozy, much less seventeen. Dying For Diamonds is my fourth since August, so approximately two months for an 80,000 word book. They are more challenging than I expected when I attempted the first one, and keep me guessing until the end, much like the reader. I was reading Dying for the last time this morning and discovered an important theme I have to go back and include.

Cookbooks also have rules. They must have a theme, really good recipes, well-written and easy to follow. They must be extremely well organized.  I think mine fit that bill.

Children’s books and literary novels, such as The Equal of God give you more latitude in terms of innovation. What sets any literary work apart is the voice and perspective of the writer. No two of us are alike. I hope mine have a distinctive voice and unique perspective on the human experience, both for young readers and adults.

3) Why do I write what I do?

All but my Irish stories are written for money. In that, I write them because I think/hope they will sell. I want to earn my living as a writer. That is not to say I dont enjoy them, love the characters and stories, as well as learn from them. And, try to write them as well as I can. Those stories just come to me as I explore the genre. Whats a cozy mystery, what are kids interested in reading? But I write them to meet the readers expectations.

My Irish stories are written for me. They come from wherever stories come from. I can no more answer this question than tell you where the universe came from. It just is. I just do. I go into a sort of trance when I write. Im often surprised by what I see come out on the page. It often isnt anything I think up. I read what Ive written and think, where did that come from?

I think the stories are buried inside of me and that trance-state helps me pull them out. Who knows? My job is to write down what comes to me.

I do know that when this book got started and I began the research I realized there was so much about my heritage that I didnt know, my family didnt know and the world had forgotten. It gave a purpose to this book. To tell that story. I care about it more than anything Ive done. But I didnt start out to tell the world about the famine. I just started writing about the Gavagans and it turned into an epic.

4) How does my writing process work?

This question is easy for me to answer, as I am a fanatic about daily writing. I used to be a stop and start writer. Pages would stream out of my typewriter and later my computer until my inspiration would run out. Then it could be months before Id start up again. The exception was if I had a contract of some kind. That was usually for a food-related project and that was easier to outline and finish. I meet my deadlines.

Twenty years ago I realized it was as hard to keep writing when you didnt know what happens next as it is to put it aside and wait for inspiration to return, and then go through the agony of getting a project started again. It is hard to build and maintain your confidence in yourself, in your story and once you let it got it is murder to get it back. I decided to put an end to that merry-go-round and write fifteen minutes a day no matter what. And I have ever since then, though writing fifteen minutes a day leads to hours a day. The genius of starting small. I discourage people from setting out to write three and four hours a day if you dont have that muscle. Build up to, and then it will be yours for life.

I have learned so much from my daily writing discipline, and not just what happens next. Ive learned about myself. It is like a spiritual discipline for me. Much of it I detail in this blog.

These days, I usually start about 8 am and go until noon. Take a break and go until Im dry. Can be anywhere between 5 to 8 pm. Or if I take a long break, Ill get more work in after dinner. Im not rigid about that. I aim for 4,000 words a day. Sometimes I make it, sometimes I exceed it, sometimes Im short. But because Ive been writing every day for so long I discovered I could crank out my mysteries much faster than I ever expected. I can write on demand. I can break into genres Id never considered before. I believe this is because Ive trained myself to become a disciplined writer.

Usually I get the first 20,000 words done in a few days and then I hit the wall. I cant figure out the next plot turn. Sometimes it takes me two weeks before it materializes. But I still work on the book, or something else, every day. Then bingo, the story opens up again and usually I can keep going until its finished.

I dont outline per se. I start writing from an idea, a character, a book title, a clever approach to a perfect crime. When Im stuck, I outline until the writing starts up again. I start at the beginning of the book and write to the end. I may make notes about later chapters but dont write them until what comes before is done. That might be my way of outlining. I rarely cut anything out, though I do occasionally move scenes around.

I am an obsessive reviser. It is something I have to curb in genre writing. There isnt enough time. So I have to be better the first time out. But I usually do three drafts anyway. For The Equal of God the number of drafts are into the 10th power.

In cozies, my main focus right now, I make everything in the story lead to the killer. Little things I put in and dont know where they came from, I make them work. Nothing is extraneous. Thats my rule for mysteries. No filler. What seems like a throwaway to a reader, is a piece of the puzzle. There is always a subplot, so sometimes the little things are part of the subplot but it all comes together at the end. I dont know if I learned that anyplace, it just was my rule from the get go.

My Irish book, my literary writing, is entirely different. I look at photographs of old Ireland, listen to traditional music, recall my fathers brogue, recall my trips to Ireland and the sound of the voices. And then I pray something will come to me. It has for over 700 pages. Now to get it published.

The secret to a writers life: write every day. No. Matter. What.

Now I would like to introduce you to three writers I have met over the past year. I admire their work and dedication tremendously. I am happy to promote them here because if you give them a look, I think youll become fans.

Pamela M. Kelly,

Pamela M. Kelley lives in the historic seaside town of Plymouth, MA, near Cape Cod and just south of Boston. She has always been a book worm and still reads often and widely, romance, mysteries, thrillers and cook books. She writes cozy mysteries and romances and you'll probably see food featured along with a recipe or two in her work. She is owned by a cute little Maine Coon Cat, Kelley.

Phyllis Zimbler Miller, www.PhyllisZimblerMiller.Com

Phyllis Zimbler Miller is a digital marketer and online content creator as well as a fiction and nonfiction author. Her novel MRS. LIEUTENANT was a 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award semifinalist and her Cold War memoir TALES OF AN AMERICAN OCCUPYING GERMANY is a work-in-progress on Wattpad. She is also a member of the Department of Defense's Bloggers Roundtable and the Military Writers Society of America.

Anita is a professional photographer who decided to combine her love of photography with her love of a good story. Her writing shows the influence of her three favorite genres: Romance, Mystery and Fantasy. Writing under the pen name of Lorraine Adair, Anita published her first novel--Ambient Light--in 2013. She's hard at work on her next book, a contemporary romance.