July 31st, 2017

How To Get Your Writing Groove Back

Christa Allan

Once Upon a Time, I Had a Writing Groove…then the music changed. Finding your writing groove after life transitions
A post made possible by the fact that my husband doesn’t read anything I write…except checks.

Four years ago, I retired after teaching high school English for twenty-five years and grooved myself right into being a full-time writer.

I basked in my writerly world for six months until my husband announced he was starting his own business, and he needed—guess who—to work for him. The groove became the rut my writing fell into and out of my reach. But he assured me I’d be able to take my laptop to work and write…between answering the phone, filing, and clients that barked, growled, pooped and peed. Did writing happen? Well, I took notes because how can you not when a man arrives with his snake in a cardboard box and tells you it has a cold, and he’s sure of it because the snake’s been sneezing. My journal/morning pages became my refuge, and I comforted myself with the knowledge that I was at least still capable of forming coherent sentences.

Then, six months later, after increasing my meds (let’s all agree to no judgment here) and his hiring more employees, I re-retired to being a writerly person again. Rescued the stories I’d abandoned, salvaged what I could, and filled the rut with enough hope to get my groove back. Until…we (he) decided that converting part of our home into a vacation rental would be a brilliant idea. My new job description included bedmaking, washing, cleaning, dusting, vacuuming, and scheduling. And once again, did writing happen? Well, I took notes because how can you not when a neighbor calls to tell you that the bachelorettes left a penis-shaped piñata in your front yard?

I managed to cobble together enough chapters to publish my first indie…a Christmas novella. Maybe because of the constant craziness of my life at the time, maybe because I was simply grateful to have an idea, regardless of how wacky it was, I allowed myself to have fun with a cast of characters who grew out of these first lines that baked in my brain: “It took Beulah Grace three tries, but she finally killed my mother. The first time was in June when she accused her, her being my mother Nancy Jane Pressfield, of diverting $29.54 from the Magnolia Springs Garden Club into her personal account. For fertilizer.”

In the meantime, my husband had neck and back surgery following an accident (more on this later). 

And because the husband and I can take crazy to a whole new level…we did. We converted the entire home to a vacation rental.  Which meant we had to move. Which meant I had to pack. Which meant my writing groove transformed into a rut. Again.

Months later, my groove returned when the writing gods smiled upon me, and I was offered a contract. This provided me legitimate grounds for escaping post-moving responsibilities because my mantra became, “I have a deadline. I have to keep writing.”

A year later, we sold the vacation-rental house, sold the house we moved into and, after a lifetime in NOLA, we moved to Houston. I wanted to be closer to my kids, my husband retired because he could no longer work due to his injuries, and my book was finished. Of course, this meant more packing followed by more unpacking.

Writing? Nada. Nothing. Zilch. Zero.

Now, for months, I’ve been coping with RHS (Retired Husband Syndrome), which is only slightly related to RLS (Restless Leg Syndrome). Instead of having irresistible urges to move your legs, RHS is characterized by irresistible urges to move your husband. To another planet. At least temporarily.  Because how the hell else am I going to write when…

  • the television in the room next to my office is belching high speed car chases and crashes, and universes exploding, and weapons firing at volumes that make the floors tremble
  • when, if my fingers aren’t glued to the keyboard, I mustn’t be writing, so questions like: “Do you know where ___is? Can you print this for me? I’m going to Home Depot. Don’t you want to come with me? How about we leave in two days to drive to Omaha for the College World Series? We’ll only be gone ten days.”
  • a text summons me upstairs, and I bolt to the second floor thinking something is wrong, only to find said texter on the ladder, pointing to the floor, and asking if I mind handing the (insert name of tool here) to him so he doesn’t have to get down off the ladder

One of my writer friends, who also deals with RHS, says she shuts her office door, but her husband still walks in. She said she never knew he could talk so much.

My PSA: In all fairness, my husband didn’t want to retire, and the man who could play two rounds of golf a day is barely able to play six holes. I mean, if I could find a play group for retired men, I’d be delighted. He probably would be as well.

So, now what? How do I find my groove before it becomes a rut again or, worse, a trench?  To segue from Orly Konig-Lopez’s post on Juy 21, how do we move from “Working World” to “Retired World”?

My first thought was maybe I should consider a part-time job.

But, seriously, it was recognizing that we’re in a season of our lives where the bucket that holds the list of all the things we want to accomplish is much closer to our feet than we’d like it to be. So, how much time away from the man who made my own retirement do-able, who made my dream of living closer to my kids possible, who’s blessed my life beyond measure, am I willing to sacrifice in the name of writing?

And I had a come-to-Jesus meeting with myself about my own bucket list as a writer. What book(s) would I regret never having written? How do I, gut-level honesty, spend the time I do have writing, not trying to write? Cory Padgett wrote an article, “6 Ways to Waste Your Time as a Writer,” and I’m guilty of all of them, plus about ten more she didn’t mention.

I could sit myself somewhere else to write, like Starbucks or the library, for a few hours a day. We could schedule days as yours, mine and ours. I could pimp myself and my writer friends (let’s all agree that’s marketing) on social media during one of those butt-thrashing noisy movies he watches. We’d at least be in the same room and that counts for something, right?

So, maybe the music of my writing groove changed. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop dancing.

Perhaps, during these transitions, when our writing seems to be falling off the edge of life’s cliffs, we learn what we need. Not what we want. You know…like our characters.
 
Has your writing groove ever been hijacked? How did you find it again? Are we, as writers, destined to always choose between sacrificing writing for our families or sacrificing our families for writing?
 
About Christa
A true Southern woman who knows any cook worth her gumbo always starts with a roux and who never wears white after Labor Day, Christa Allan writes women’s fiction, stories of hope and redemption. Her latest novel, Since You’ve Been Gone released in 2016. Her other novels include: A Test of Faith (2015),  Threads of Hope (2013), Edge of Grace (2011), and Walking on Broken Glass (2010).
 
Learn more about Christa on her website.
July 28th, 2017

How to Make A Grand Opening

Tina Ann Forkner

There is a lot of buzz around town about a new business that recently opened in my community. From what I hear, it’s already booming just a few weeks in. This new business is a cocktail lounge, and while I’m not familiar with what it takes to open a lounge, I couldn’t help but notice that the owners spent a great deal of time preparing for the grand opening. Every time I passed by, they were working on making it look good. They knew that if they wanted customers to return, they would need to plan a fabulous opening that would make customers want more.

The same can be applied to the opening of a novel. If you want a reader to continue reading, then your opening must be grand.

When I say grand, I don’t mean complicated. I just mean the opening needs to succinctly give the reader a taste of what’s to come and make them want more. I have had the pleasure of being a judge in several writing contests, and I have noticed that most openings of unpublished manuscripts are lackluster and do very little to set the tone or hook you in. In fact, if I were not a judge, I would not read past any of those openings. That’s not good news since in the publishing field, writers must grab an editor from the first page, if not the first paragraph – even the first sentence – or your time is up.

If your beginning is not grand enough, it doesn’t matter how well you’ve written the rest of the story. The editor will never know. So how can you make sure that your opening is grand? Here are five steps to help guide you.

Establish a Sense of Place

Just like the grand opening of the cocktail lounge, one of the things you need to give your readers is a sense of place. Some people would call it ambiance. If you walked into the cocktail lounge on opening night, you would have felt the vibe based on the setting around you. It has a slightly historical downtown feel that is upscale while instantly making you feel welcome.

This is what you want to do in your novel, as well. Give us details that make us feel like we are there, but not too many. Use a few key words and sentences to set the tone, hinting at what is to come. You can start wide with a setting and focus in on where the character is. Perhaps you will show us the expanse of the city and immediately focus in on the barstool where your character is drinking a martini and staring at himself in the mirror. Or maybe we are at the kitchen table and there are two place settings, but only one person. Wherever you start, you want the reader to be there too.

Introduce an Interesting Character

Another thing the cocktail lounge did was hire good employees to represent them. When you go there, not only do you get a sense of ambiance as soon as you walk in, but the employees are engaging and friendly, dressed in a way that evokes the personality of the cocktail lounge itself. You instantly want to talk to them, for them to make your drink, perhaps especially that one server with the playful look who seems to be in charge.

It’s the same for your story. Make sure that your main character does or says something that makes you want to know more about them. You don’t have time to describe your character in detail during the opening, but you can make them ask a question or do something interesting, or even recall the hint of a memory that makes the reader want to get to know the character(s) better. Perhaps she has a bad case of bedhead, bad breath, and can’t remember her own name, but she knows she needs a skinny soy vanilla latte with two shots of espresso. What the author wants is to present a snapshot of the character that is intriguing or engaging, but not a detailed description.

Entice the Reader with Action

If you walk into the cocktail lounge on opening night, stuff is happening all around you. It’s bustling, you are catching snippets of conversations all around, and that guy in the corner looks like he might propose to the woman sitting across from him even though the way she’s staring so hard at her plate that she looks like she wants to run.

In a novel’s grand opening, you need some action, as well. It can be big, but it doesn’t have to be. Something just needs to be happening. Is your character slamming down the phone? Are the wheels of the toppled bicycle spinning? Is someone drumming their fingers loud enough to annoy the woman across the room? You want the reader to wonder why someone slammed the phone down, why the wheels are spinning, and what is really annoying the woman across the room. Whatever action is happening in the opening scene, you want it to entice the reader to wonder about what has just happened and what is going to continue happening in the story. Bring the reader into the action early and make her feel it enough to want to keep reading.  

Organize the Beginning

This is probably the most important aspect of a story opening. If I walk into the new cocktail lounge on opening night and can’t tell if I’m in a bar, a doctor’s office, or a nail salon, I’m not going to stay. Even if the energy is buzzing, things are happening that intrigue me, and the people around are interesting, I’m gone.

If an editor or agent can’t figure out what is happening, they aren’t going to keep reading your novel, either. Readers need to know where they are at and have a hint of where they are going. I think that many writers inadvertently create a confusing story opening because they are afraid of giving up too much information too fast, but in my experience as an author, we usually have the opposite problem. We don’t have to tell the whole story in the beginning, but as an editor once told me, giving enough information to orient the reader is like giving them a flashlight to show them the way without illuminating everything around them.

Hook the Reader

The hook is paramount. I can’t say it enough. If I leave the cocktail lounge and nothing has happened that I want to come back to, the business has lost me, but if there is a chalkboard announcing an upcoming happy hour and a secret grand prize, I would want to go back to see what the prize is.

That’s exactly how you want your readers to feel after the opening.

A great hook is like the attractive man or woman in the corner of the cocktail lounge waving a one-hundred-dollar bill at the reader. What is it about them? Are they going to give that money away? That’s when they crook their finger at the reader to follow, just before they slip out the backdoor. In your novel’s beginning, what morsel can you give that makes the reader want to follow you through that door? Maybe you don’t tell the secret, but you let the reader know there is one. This is where you spill the breadcrumbs that make them want to read the whole thing.

What are examples of some of the best openings you’ve read?

*  *  *  *  *  *

 About Tina Ann Forkner

Tina Ann Forkner wrangles words on the pages of her novels and kids in the classroom as a substitute teacher. She lives in Wyoming with her husband, who knows when to wear a cowboy hat, and three teenagers who never do (even if she thinks they should). She is the author of five novels including Rose House, Waking Up Joy, and The Real Thing.

Learn more about Tina at her website: www.tinaannforkner.com

July 26th, 2017

Calling up your Story Spirits

Kimberly Brock

I think I have ghosts. This is what I said to a friend this week after I had to get up and leave my desk and take a walk to clear my head. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good ghost story! And to be honest, I like a cool shiver up my back when I’m writing. I think it’s why I continue to write at all – because I’m haunted.

This isn’t the first time a bit of writing research made all the hair on my head stand up or caused me to look over my shoulder or turn off my monitor. It happens all the time, in fact. I’ve come to expect it as part of my writing process from beginning to end and truly, if it weren’t there, I’d know I was wasting my time on a story. That feeling someone just nudged me or the voice I swear I heard when no one else is around, they’re affirmations that come from my subconscious. They are signs from my psyche that the characters, themes, and settings I’m wrestling with have something more than story format to bring them alive. It’s the difference between the bones and the breath. I think these experiences that give me the chills, do so because I’ve brushed up against the spirit of the thing I’m trying to bring to light in the world.

By now, you are rolling your eyes. That’s fine. Me, too. Because it sounds like hooey. But I swear to you that no part of my creative process is as imperative as the spirit test.

Here’s how you run the spirit test: um, you don’t.

I know, I know. You think I’m being ridiculous. But it’s not part of the literal process. It IS the process. I mean, I could tell you that you stand in front of the mirror at midnight and whisper Story Spirit three times, open your eyes and you’ll see the bloody thing reflected back at you. I could tell you the secret to levitation (or publication) lies solely in your fingertips. Light as a feather, stiff as a board. I wish. If I knew the trick to giving life to a story, I’d write a how-to book under the pen name Kimmie Lou Frankenstein and make a bazillion dollars. But like most writers, I can’t call my story spirits up on cue. They’re more like film.

Remember film? Four thousand years ago, before digital, when you had to use actual film in your camera, let in the light, and then it had to be run through some mysterious dark room process to develop the images captured on a negative? Calling up story spirits is more or less like that. It takes time. And a certain amount of faith. It’s revelatory. It’s when you see the image captured by the camera, and notice all the amazing stuff your naked eye totally missed. And you are struck in that moment with the wonder of perspective. Like any good ghost hunter, I can appreciate this. I know that my part of the work is to focus the camera, and my subconscious will act as the negative, and it doesn’t lie. It will expose me every time. All my ghosts in orbs and flashes. So maybe the spirit test isn’t something you call up from the outside, but the inside.

When I said to my friend that I think I have ghosts, it was because I’m at a point in my work-in-progress when I’m comparing the fictional history and timeline I have created to that of actual events, places and people who may have been living lives during the time when my story takes place. Maybe I’m wacky, but I do this backwards. I like to make my world up as I go and then see what fits from reality. And when I do that, I often find strange coincidences like obscure names that coincide with characters or places I’ve been making up for months with no prior knowledge of historical fact. I can’t explain this. I don’t want to. If I could define it, fiction would lose the wonder that keeps me coming back to the blank page. I love the discovery. I love the mad laboratory. I love the rustling sound in the dark that keeps me up nights and that instant I throw on the lights and there’s the real thing staring back at me.

Maybe the only truth about writers is that we’re all haunted. And we like it that way.

Do you have ghosts? How do they make their appearances in your work? Do you embrace them or fear them?

About Kimberly

Kimberly Brock is the award winning author of the #1 Amazon bestseller, THE RIVER WITCH (Bell Bridge Books, 2012). A former actor and special needs educator, Kimberly is the recipient of the Georgia Author of the Year 2013 Award. A literary work reminiscent of celebrated southern author Carson McCullers, THE RIVER WITCH has been chosen by two national book clubs.

Kimberly’s writing has appeared in anthologies, blogs and magazines, including Writer Unboxed and Psychology Today. Kimberly served as the Blog Network Coordinator for She Reads, a national online book club from 2012 to 2014, actively spearheading several women’s literacy efforts. She lectures and leads workshops on the inherent power in telling our stories and is founder of  Tinderbox Writer’s Workshop. She is also owner of Kimberly Brock Pilates.

She lives in the foothills of north Atlanta with her husband and three children, where she is at work on her next novel. Visit her website at kimberlybrockbooks.com for more information and to find her blog.

July 24th, 2017

Detour Ahead: Obstacle or Opportunity?

Kathryn Craft

Turning Whine Into Gold

You chose to pursue a career as a novelist because of your passion for the written story. But what is your long-range goal? Mine was specific—as a writer interested in legacy, I wanted to leave behind a “body of work,” which to me meant eight novels. Maybe your interest in creative range, and you want to be published in three genres. Or maybe financial gain is most important and you hope to support your family.

“Human desire is a sticky thing,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn in Wherever You Go, There You Are. Desire is sticky enough to pull you toward your goal, but can also be sticky enough to blind you to unexpected opportunity along the way.

I wonder how many of us have written off opportunities as obstacles? I could imagine someone who tried to make it in TV and is now writing novels, saying, Oh great, I’m trying to write a novel and now someone offers me a job hosting an arts show on a local cable channel. I’ll never finish my novel! 

Who’s to say this is the best year to seek publication? We live in politically (and therefore economically) unsettled times and publishers are twitchy. What if getting published three years from now might get you to your goal quicker—and in the meantime, you could put those years to good use fleshing out new novels while building a valuable platform? Let me tell you how many publishers would like to see “cable TV host” in your query letter. Even delivering mail could introduce you to countless potential readers.

I love the old joke about the man praying that God will save him from the floodwaters threatening his home. A neighbor knocks on his door and says, “We must leave now. There’s room in my car—come on!” But the man says no. He too heard the warning, and is certain God will save him. When the floodwaters cover his stoop, the man retreats to the second floor. A stranger in a boat comes past his window and says, “Get into my boat and we’ll paddle to safety.” The man says, “No thank you. God will save me.” Then, from a hovering helicopter, a rescue worker shouts, “Grab hold of the ladder and climb up.” The man shouts back, “No thank you, God will save me.”

The man drowns. When he gets to heaven, he rails against God. “I was praying to you the whole time. Why didn’t you save me?” God answers, “What do you mean? I sent a warning, a car, a boat, a helicopter…what more did you want?”

Tunnel vision may appear to offer the shortest route between two points, but it may not be the quickest or the most satisfying. While focused on your all-consuming author goal, could you be missing the warning, the car, the boat, and the helicopter?

A softer focus on your goal could help you see these opportunities for what they are.

Aspiring novelists are told all manner of things that tighten their white-knuckle grip on our goal. Perseverance is key. Write every day. The only failure is quitting. Getting agented is a numbers game. Type “x” number of words a day. It takes a million words to make a novelist. These old saws can help us reach a destination that seems too far away. But think about it: should the same advice apply to all authors, when no two careers are ever the same? Who’s to say that an unforeseen opportunity might not increase your visibility, stoke your creativity, and lead to connections on which you can capitalize?

The quandary interests me, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have the answers. While I’m happy to play God in my novels, I am overjoyed I wasn’t cast as the master of the universe. I would have bungled the job by giving myself an easy path rather than challenging myself to explore the deep, lasting rewards of prevailing over rockier terrain, which ultimately gave me so much to write about.

I have seen writers hold onto their goal until it has shredded them apart. I’m just saying, this might not be the best use of your time on earth.

Think carefully before declaring something an obstacle or an opportunity. Saying “yes” might just take you one step further on the path of your unpredictable, creative life.

Maybe those opportunities could open more doors for your writing career.

Maybe they could make you happy.

As a fun exercise in career imagination, pick one of the following “obstacles” and show how it might lead to novel success. In addition, please share stories of success that arrived in an unexpected—or perhaps even unwanted—package!

  • Your talented daughter wants you to move to Nashville to support her singing dream.
  • Your mother, in hospice, asks your help in writing her life story.
  • Your boss wants you to move to Thailand for a year.

About Kathryn

Kathryn Craft  is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writingboth from Writer’s Digest Books.

July 21st, 2017

The Shifting Priorities of Your Writing Career

College then work. It’s a right-of-passage most of us go through in one form or another. Some multiple times. And I realized recently that I was on wave two.

College Years = Aspiring Author

This is when everything is shiny and possible and fun. You take classes, hang out in coffee shops, meet new people. You put in long hours studying, sometimes longer hours partying. Each new class brings on a new level of excitement and the possibilities are endless.

I started college as an art history major. The first year, I changed majors twice. I changed two more times before finally settling on English Lit. I dabbled in set design and lighting, political science, experimental psych, drafting, and graphic design.

Looking back, the aspiring author years were very much like college. 

When I dipped my toe into the writing pond, it was with chick lit in mind. It was at the height of that genre bubble and a lot of what I was reading at the time. I wrote three picture books. I have a middle grade novel in progress. And I’ve written a couple of women’s fiction stories.

Over the years, I’ve taken every workshop I could fit into my schedule and afford. I joined writer’s groups (the equivalent of sororities/fraternities I suppose). I don’t frequent coffee shops much but I have a very solid relationship with the espresso machine in my kitchen.

I took on all sorts of extra-curricular activities, which in this case, included volunteering with various writer’s groups, joining blogs, and setting up on every social media platform that was listed as a must for writers.

Gap Year/Graduate School = Debut Author

I didn’t take a typical gap year. I worked for a year but only because I decided at the last minute that, on second thought, I had absolutely no interest in law school and then had to wait while my applications for journalism school went through.

But then came graduate school. Oh my god was that fun. I was finally where I belonged. I loaded up my class hours and took on as many internships as I could fit into my schedule.

Being a debut author felt wildly like being a grad student again. Working on revisions with my editor had shades (mostly red) of working on my thesis with my advisor. “Internships” became more writer’s groups, this time focused on connecting with readers and signing up for author events. Confession: I was far less nervous defending my thesis than the first time I had to talk about my book.

Working World = Published Author

I was lucky with my first job. With most of my jobs actually. I loved going to the office, enjoyed the work I was doing, had fun with my colleagues. I put in ridiculous amounts of hours and it was worth it.

But as I got busier with work, I also realized that not everything I’d been doing fit into my new life. I didn’t have as much free time or, more appropriately, flexible time. Priorities had to be established and choices made.

Now that my first book is out in the world and my second book is about to go into production, I’m realizing just how many parallels there are with that earlier stage in my life. There are limited hours and unlimited demands.  

Like the adjustment period after I joined the working world, I’ve had to evaluate a lot of what I’m spending my time on lately. And the sad truth is that once again, choices have to be made.

And with that, I’m stepping aside from my regular involvement with Writers in the Storm. I’ve learned so much from all of you – contributors and commenters – over the years and I’ve loved being part of this community. I’ll still be around, reading, commenting, and contributing. But for now, I’m packing up my pens and coffee mugs.

I’ll see you in the comments and on social media!

About Orly

Orly Konig is an escapee from the corporate world, where she spent roughly sixteen (cough) years working in the space industry. Now she spends her days chatting up imaginary friends, drinking entirely too much coffee, and negotiating writing space around two over-fed cats. She is a co-founder and past president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and a member of the Tall Poppy WritersShe is rep’d by Marlene Stringer, Stringer Literary Agency LLC.

Orly’s debut, The Distance Home (Forge), released on May 2, 2017.

You can find her on on FacebookInstagram, Pinterest, Goodreads, or on her website, www.orlykonig.com.