CAREFUL WHAT YOU SAY OR DO—YOU MAY END UP IN MY NEXT NOVEL

I never thought I used actual people in my short stories and novels, but a few readers claim to “recognize” someone. That always surprises me.

Then I decided to use one woman’s particular circumstances and ended up using some of her personality in the character in my novel, A Broken Life, and even her dog. She loved it. Thank goodness.

A friend gave me a tee shirt that said, “I’m A Writer. Everything you Say or Do may end up in my Novel.” Next thing I knew, people were staring at my chest, then smiling.

Anyway, finally, a stranger said, “So, I’m going to be in your next novel?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Thank you very much.”

She laughed. As she walked away, I asked, “What’s your name?”

She laughed harder. Thank goodness.

https://www.zazzle.com im_a_writer_anything_you_say_or_do_maybe_used_in_a_t_shirt-235114230802496612

This led me to a hunt for other tee shirts for writers. They’re everywhere! Amazon. Café Press. Zazzle.

“I’m a writer. What’s your superpower?

“Save a writer. Buy a book.”

“I’m a writer. (No, really.)”

“Writer’s block. When your imaginary friends won’t talk to you.”

Anyway, putting real people you know in a novel can be explosive. Pat Conway said: “When The Great Santini came out, the book roared through my family like a nuclear device. My father hated it; my grandparents hated it; my aunts and uncles hated it; my cousins who adore my father thought I was a psychopath for writing it; and rumor has it that my mother gave it to the judge in her divorce case and said, “It’s all there. Everything you need to know.”

But what Anne Lamont said should probably be on a tee shirt you wear right after a new novel or short story comes out using real people as templates: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

So there.

What I really want is the mug that says, “Go away. I’m reading.”

https://www.zazzle.com/go_away_im_reading_coffee_mug-168942890660892017

 

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MY JUNE, 2017 PICK FOR BEST PRODUCT

I want to recommend a free program called “Pocket.” Because it’s one of my favorites, ever.

https://getpocket.com/about

Why I love it:

You see something on-line you want to read later, and Pocket grabs it for you so you can read it anywhere: on your phone, tablet, PC, laptop. I tried to capture their icon, but couldn’t find a way to do it. It’s a white arrow on a red shield. All you have to do is click on that shield on your brower’s toolbar and the article you want to read later is saved.

  • It does NOT include all the sidebars, ads, and other extraneous stuff, just the article.
  • If you want to see the whole article, it puts the link up in the right-hand corner when you open the article. That way you can go and share it on places like Facebook. And read comments, because it strips them, too.
  • You can change some settings. My favorite is one that has a black background with a white font. This cuts way down on screen glare!
  • You can change the font size.
  • It has a long list of “recommended” articles—probably those that get the most clicks.
  • You can sit in a more comfortable chair to read longer pieces.
  • You can delete them, make them a favorite. or archive them.

My only problem with it is that I save way too many article to read later, and that cuts into my novel reading. But I am able to keep up with the news, save how-to-write-better posts, and find quirky things to share on Facebook and Twitter.

https://getpocket.com/about

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READING TO LEARN HOW TO WRITE BETTER

A great trick for helping your own writing is to read other fiction similar to what you write and see what you skim through because it doesn’t interest you or bores you.

Does anything in particular annoy you about the book? Examples:

  • Present tense
  • Starting with one character musing or waking up. No conflict, no action
  • Too much description is a good example. Or maybe even, not enough, which results in no sense of place.
  • Characters with annoying habits that distract you from the plot. One recent read had several characters puckering their lips, apparently in confusion or disgust—I was pretty disgusted myself after about the fourth use of this word. Another one I saw by a best-selling author was; “Her eyes crunched.” What? Like cereal?
  • Anything that distracts you from the plot
  • Long descriptions of travel routes. Who cares how the character got from A to B, unless something exciting happens along the way? I don’t mind a mention of a few streets so that people familiar with a real setting get a better visual, but no need for every single turn, IMO. Or telling the reader every time a character climbed into the car, and then exited again. Anyone find it amusing, as I do, at how hard we try to use different words for ordinary actions, like sitting and getting in and out of a car (climbing in and exiting out of)?
  • Too much jumping around—with too many character POVs, settings, and/or timeframes. All this can be handled well by a good writer, but it can be hard to read by a not-so-talented one.
  • Weird attributions. The latest one I saw by a best-selling author was; “Her eyes crunched.” What? Like cereal?

Bottom line, try to figure out why this particular book was easy to put down.

On the other hand, notice what you liked about a work:

  • The characters? Why? What actions and emotional responses made them come alive for you?
  • The setting? Why—because it was simply interesting to you personally or because it was done so well, or?
  • The plot—because it had great twists or was unusual, or what? What plot points worked well for you? How can you make them your own in your writing?
  • The writing itself—was it voice, or word choices, or theme, or pacing, or something hard to define? See if you can nail it down

As soon as you figure out that the book you are reading right now might be a favorite, start taking notes. For each chapter, do a short synopsis.

  • Pay particular attention to how it starts and ends
  • What was the main conflict in the chapter, or questions raised?
  • How did the writer describe things that made you actually see them in your mind’s eye?
  • What did you like about the characters, including the villain(s). What made you love to hate them?

Is there anything in particular that almost always makes you love or dislike a book? If so, what is it? And what do you try really hard to do well with your stories?

For a much longer blog post about reading to help your writing, I recommend this:

How to learn to write while you’re reading

BOOKS READ, AUGUST, 2016

I’ve decided to list the books I’ve read in the last month on the first Wednesday of every month with some thoughts about each one. My favorite of the month will be listed first in case you don’t have time to read the whole thing. The rest are in no particular order. I will only list those that I consider to be at least worth four stars on Amazon. The vast majority of books I read rate at least that many stars because I look for authors I like already, and/or for plot lines given in descriptions and reviews that interest me. I’ve noted when I’ve done full reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

If Morning Ever Comes by Anne Tyler

Okay, I’m prejudiced. Anne Tyler is one of my top five favorite authors. This is the first book she had published at the age of twenty-two! When I found this out, I was, of course, very jealous. It’s the story, told in the male viewpoint, of Ben Joe and his strange, dysfunctional but funny family. Mostly, it’s about love—all kinds of love. What’s not to love about that?

A Time of Torment, by John Connolly

Five star review up on Amazon and Goodreads. This is a Carlie Parker series thriller, the first in the series I’ve read. It involved a cult which I admit always fascinates me, and some very interesting characters. Very hard to put down.

So Many Steps to Death by Agatha Christi

I enjoyed this because it was an attempt by Ms. Christi to do a spy novel. Most reviews I’ve read put it down somewhat for that. I guess their expectations weren’t met. But if you like something different and love good plotting, good characters, and good writing, this is a very enjoyable book to read.

Dying in Style by Elaine Viets (a Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper #1)

This is the first in the Dead-End Jobs series by Elaine Viets. You can always count on some humor with stories by Ms. Viets. Josie Marcus is a mystery shopper. I knew this when I ordered the book, and I bought it because I wondered about how the whole mystery shopping thing worked. Although the plot is pretty improbable, this was a quick, fun read.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

This is one of those books that I’ll never forget. It’s the story of two sisters during WWII in France. One cautious; one impetuous, filled with heartbreak and suspense. I love stories where I learn something new, especially when there is excellent writing, as is the case here. Highly recommended.

The Limping Dog by J.R. Lindermuth

Another five-star review up on Amazon and Goodreads for this one. See my review on my blog: http://www.janchristensen.com/review-the-limping-dog-by-john-lindermuth/

New England (good start!). A sailboat washes ashore. Gavin Cutter, a local artist, rushes aboard to help. But the only living thing he finds is a limping dog. Isn’t that a great opening? I thought so.

The Last Mile by David Baldacci (Amos Decker, #2)

Another suspense novel where I learned something new, this time about a condition of total recall called hyperthymesia. Amos Decker has it, and it can be both helpful and annoying. Melvin Mars, awaiting execution in Texas for killing his parents, is saved by a man confessing to the murders. But did the confessor really do it? Many twists and turns in typical Baldacci fashion and hard to put down.

My Sister, My Love, by Joyce Carol Oates

And here’s an author I sometimes like okay, sometimes don’t appreciate at all. But I am very glad I read My Sister, My Love. It was just fascinating in so many ways. Very long, detailed, but the story pulls you in. It’s based on the JonBennet Ramsey case, but the little girl is an ice skater, not a model. Another book told in the male point of view by a female author, it’s of course exceedingly well-done. Highly recommended for people who love long, intricate novels.

Broken Harbor by Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad #4)

Although I figured out what happened early on, this story pulled me in, and I had to finish it to see if I got it right. I did, but there was one more twist. You actually get two stories for one, and the writing is so good, nothing is confusing. Briefly, there’s a wonderful setting where a great detective is trying to figure out who killed two children, ages four and six, their father, and stabbed their mother who lived but remains unconscious for several days. I need to read the others in this series soon.

And that’s it for last month. See you next time. What’s the favorite book you read in August, 2016?

FIVE MAJOR INFLUENCERS OF MY NOVELS

Lewis Caroll

Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass

Entranced during childhood and beyond by the quests with very quirky characters and fun situations.

Influenced and still influences everything.

Mad Tea Party

Anne Tyler

Love her quirky characters, the humor, and the interesting plots. Locations are also often well-drawn.

Influenced almost everything, but especially my first published novel:

Sara’s Search

Nancy Drew

Influenced:

Tina Tales, especially Cluttered Attic Secrets where a group of friends—both female and male, but grown-up–attempt to solve a mystery. Sassy, pro-active protagonist.

Organized to Death

Buried Under Clutter

Cluttered Attic Secrets

Donald Westlake

Dortmunder Series, but all his books are great with engrossing situations and amazing characters.

Influenced: The Artie Crimes series:

Artie and the Long-Legged Woman

Artie and the Green-Eyed Woman

Artie and the Brown-Eyed Woman

Artie and the Red-Haired Woman

and upcomming, Artie and the Big-Footed Woman

Sue Grafton

Influenced, of course, my female PI series about Paula Mitchell:

Perfect Victim

A Broken Life

Secret Exposure

Front cover final I recommend composing your own blog post about the five major influencers of your writing.

(Sorry about the formatting. I don’t know why WordPress won’t let me do single spacing in this post, and I don’t want to take the time to figure it out when i could use the time better by writing my fiction!)

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PRESENT TENSE MAKES ME TENSE

Out of the last four or five books I’ve read, three were written in present tense. I don’t know if these books were classified as literary fiction, but one was definitely a mystery. I picked them up because the premises intrigued me, and they had a lot of good reviews. I rarely check the Look Inside feature on Amazon, depending more on word of mouth and reviews to pick what I’ll buy next. But after this experience, I will check inside every single time Look Inside is available.

It was a shock when I started reading each new story to find it was written in present tense. My first thought when that happens is, I don’t like present tense. Why not? Mainly because I’m not used to it. I’m reading, not listening to someone tell a story, and usually, writers write fiction in past tense. Also, there’s the pretension factor. Used to be only literary works ever used present tense. Now they’re used in some of the mysteries I read. I’ve heard it’s to help the reader get into the story more. Doesn’t work for me. And when I put the book down for a while and then go back to it, that present tense jars me every time. It often also jars me at the beginning of each new chapter for some reason.

The current book I’m reading has immediately disappointed me, as did the others written in present tense when I first started them. The author is going to have to work harder to make me like her book. And she’d better not slip and suddenly write in past tense for a few paragraphs. (Haven’t we all seen that?)

But wait, there’s more. This book started off in present tense. Very quickly, the character is remembering something in the past, so the tense switches to past. But it’s not obvious at first that the person is thinking of the past, so as a reader, I thought the author made a mistake. It does make sense to go to past tense when a character is remembering something. But now I was even more annoyed. I was annoyed when I figured out that the book was going to be in present tense. Then I was annoyed when I thought the author switched to past tense by mistake. Then I was annoyed at the change not being well set-up.

All within about three pages.

Are you a writer? Please do not try this at home. Or anywhere. Especially if you don’t have a stable of good editors to look out for the pitfalls. This was published by a big NY publisher, so it was edited several times, I’m sure. And I’m also sure the editors thought this was just dandy.

I carried on reading because the premise was still good.

Then this book got even stranger. The second chapter switched point of view and to past tense. And then, and then, when we went back to the first character’s POV, it was in past tense.

I have whiplash. Excuse me while I go get my neck brace. And maybe a new book to read.

IN THE BEGINNING

So you want to be a writer. So did I. I’ve probably written my million words–about eighty short stories and eight full-length novels, and a couple dozen articles, some published, some not.

To be a published author takes perseverance and a tough skin. I seem to have both. But not in the beginning.

It hurts to get that first rejection. It’s discouraging to get the first dozen.

Baby steps are needed. A baby learns to walk by practicing every day, and that’s what a beginning writer should do. You learn an awful lot by simply doing. But it doesn’t hurt to read a book or more a month about writing, and some of the better writing magazines and now blogs.

Read best-selling authors’ autobiographies or self-help books. Stephen King in On Writing said you should read an hour for every hour you write. You can learn a lot about writing by reading the current best sellers and widely in the genre you’re particularly interested in.

The ONLY way you’ll ever get published is to write. Thinking about it, talking about it won’t get you there. You have to go to that quiet spot with your writing tools and just do it.

Good luck!

NOTEBOOKS FOR WRITERS

I believe in notebooks. They can be journaling books, binders, fancy notebooks from the bookstore or office supply place, small note pads or whatever you like. Some should be small enough to keep beside you when you are reading and writing. Binders can hold information you’ve printed out from on-line or pulled from magazines.

Each one should have its own purpose. One for reading. One for writing. One for marketing. One for your recipes, etc. You might have one for each book you write with research, lists, notes, anything to do with that book.

But most important for a writer is to have one for reading and one for writing.

Why for reading? Because as you read, you should note down anything you find interesting or important. You might even have one for fiction and one for non-fiction. For example, for fiction, put down the date you read it, title, author, perhaps year it was published and by whom. Write down the main characters’ names, quote lines you liked, and when you’re finished reading, write down a quick plot summary. Note whether you liked the book or not, maybe even giving it a star rating. After you’ve done this for about a year, you can see what you liked most in plots, characters, and the writing itself if you’ve written down great lines. This will help you with your own writing and to pick out future reading. For non-fiction, simply fill in the title/author/etc., then jot down every highlight—the things you find most interesting and want to remember. Of course, if you own the book, you can also simply mark it up and put it in your bookshelves. Perhaps even dedicate shelves to those books you have marked up.

For writing? Every time you read a great article or book, be sure to write down the important things, things that you think you need to remember or need to keep in mind when you write. You’ll find yourself reading over this notebook every so often. I recommend you do so before you start writing each novel. You can also mark up these books you own, too, of course.

Notes and notebooks are your friends.

LEARING TO WRITE BY READING

What could be more fun than loving a book you’re reading and at the same time learning to write a book of your own?

Take a book you’re already enjoying and start reading it again, trying these steps for a quick start:

  • Jot down a line or two about how the novel opens. When you come to the end of the first scene, stop and imagine what could happen next. Write down everything you can think up. Do this with other places that make you want to find out what happens next.
  • List what happens in the beginning and ending of each chapter, if they grab you. If they don’t interest you that much, pay attention to why not and vow to do better yourself.  Especially note cliffhangers and really exciting chapter openings. (Special non-happenings to watch for—openings with a character getting up in the morning alone and thinking; closings with the character thinking and getting into bed alone.)
  • When you’ve finished reading the book, make notes about what you liked about it and what you didn’t. (You can do this as you go along, as well.)
  • Use your notes to outline your next book. Not the actual happenings, but when they happened: In the book you read, on page one, what happened? When did the inciting incident occur? Was it in the first chapter or later? How does the second chapter open? Put down the most interesting things that happen and on what page. Now see if you can pencil in plot points for your own book around the same page numbers.

Using this method, I think you will quickly learn what works and doesn’t work when writing a novel, maybe even a non-fiction book. The most important goal of any writer is to keep the reader interested in reading all the way to the end and to have such a great ending that the reader will want to read more of the writer’s work.

The only trouble with this method is that it probably will take some of the enjoyment out of reading that particular book, and it will tend to get you paying attention to the inner workings of future books you read. I make up for that with my own writing which I mostly tend to enjoy doing. I wish the same for you. I suggest trying this with blockbuster bestselling books, such as those by James Patterson or Mary Higgins Clark. Please let me know if you try this and how you felt about it when you finished. I’d love to hear from you.