Murder-A-Go-Go’s: A Music-Inspired Anthology

By Lisa Alber

Today (Monday as I write this) is publication day for an anthology that I’m honored to participate in: MURDER-A-GO-GO’S: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Go’s, edited by Holly West and featuring sooo many great authors (many of whom I call friends).

Music-themed anthologies are fashionable these days. In the last several years, I’ve seen anthologies inspired by the music of The Replacements, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, and Steely Dan. All male, you notice. It’s about time for a female-artist-themed anthology, especially centered around a band like The Go-Go’s — the first, and to date only, all-female band to write their own songs and play their own instruments and top the Billboard album charts. That’s no mean feat in a male-dominated rock world.

The way it worked was that we were assigned song titles as prompts. My song/story title is “It’s Everything but Partytime.” From a process point of view, I found it challenging and fun to start with a title. Normally, I don’t know the title ahead of time and struggle to come up with decent titles all the time. Working backwards from a title was oddly liberating. And let’s be honest, it’s rarely going to be partytime for characters involved in a crime. So I could have written just about anything.

However, I decided to work a party atmosphere into the story — a fun and maybe funny environment in which to set a murder. I decided on a furry convention for the sheer novelty and silliness of it. I realize these conferences are serious business for devotees of the furry world, but … you know … it’s funny. It just is, especially if you’re an outsider — let’s say a cranky detective — who doesn’t understand what the hell is going on.

It made for a great push-and-pull. The environment is an obstacle to sussing out the murderer of a guest at the conference hotel. However, ultimately the environment helps the detective find the murderer. The environment is light and humorous, but the crime is dark.

This week I’m heading up to Vancouver, B.C., for a writers conference called Left Coast Crime. A bunch of my anthology pals will be there, and we’ll toast ourselves in true tipsy writerly fashion. That’s what I call partytime!

 

 

When Your Novels Sucks And You Stick it in a Drawer

By Lisa Alber

I happened to see this question posted on Facebook recently:

For those of you who have novel manuscripts that you put away because they weren’t working (i.e. they sucked), what were the problems that you noticed in those drafts?

Normally, I don’t go in for pseudo-survey conversational gambits like this. My interest that day might have had something to do with the drawer novel that I periodically pull out and then shove back in the drawer. It might also have had something to do with my work-in-progress, which almost landed in the same drawer a dozen times last year.

Interestingly, most of the responses fell into the following categories:

  • Not enough plot: Lack of forward momentum. Episodic scenes with protagonists on the road to nowhere. (Thank you, Talking Heads.) Conflict and goals and obstacles and stakes apparently sidelined.
  • Passive protagonist (often linked to plotlessness): Characters with not enough to do. Too much rumination and thinking, not enough movement. Reactive rather than proactive.
  • Too much plot: Bigger plot than you know what to do with. Situation so complex you can’t write your way out of it. Too many subplots.
  • You don’t know but it’s off: No matter what you do, it doesn’t feel right. (This one’s a toughy.)

The responses got me thinking about my drawer novel and my novel in progress.

My drawer novel is a case of too much plot and my inability to let some of it go. I know! I drive myself nuts sometimes. I’ve noodled every which way with the parallel plot line (I love a good parallel plot line), but it’s too much. The entire thing’s gotta be re-jiggered into one storyline … Next time. Or maybe never. Maybe that was my practice novel … (but I can’t quite let it go!)

My work-in-progress also contains a parallel plot line — heh — but I’m more skilled than I was when I wrote the drawer novel. Nevertheless, something was off.

Head. Wall. Ouch. Repeat.

I was suffering from a case of I-don’t-know-but-it’s-off. My solution was to think bigger picture: voice and perspective. I engaged in a thought experiment in which I imagined the story from some other character’s point of view, and imagined it told in first person instead of third (or vice versa). In my case, this was enough to rock my world and a-ha myself out of my stuckness.

Whew! Massive rewrite, to be sure, however, at long last I’m back to having fun with the story. Which, it seems to me, is the ultimate barometer. If, no matter what you do, you keep not having fun with a novel, let it go.

The last pattern I noticed in the Facebook responses was that the bullish attitudes about manuscript problems tended to come from the more experienced writers; these were problems they’d yet to solve, that was all. Most stories are salvageable, but it may take a few (or more, probably more) years of craft experience to learn the art of the salvage.

Oh, and don’t forget your friendly neighborhood beta readers and brainstorming partners. They save me all the time.

Reapplying the Bum Glue

By Lisa Alber

It’s not that I haven’t written since my mom died at the beginning of the summer … It’s that I haven’t truly been writing either. Know what I mean?

There’s a self-discipline to sitting down to the writing. There’s also a self-discipline to clearing life stuff out of the way so I can sit down to the writing. I’m out of practice with both.

So, this morning as I laid in bed, I gave myself a lecture:

  1. Whatever you do, do NOT roll over for the return journey to slumberland. It’s your own blasted fault you accidentally read until 1:oo a.m.!
  2. One hour, just one hour, of writing is a-okay. Ignore word count rules. Thinking counts as writing!
  3. Turn on the computer and. just. WALK. AWAY. Do not pass go, do not collect stressors from the email queue and distractions from Facebook! However, do open the manuscript so that it greets you when you return with your coffee.
  4. For a change of pace, try relaxing with your coffee for 15 minutes before starting the computer hunchback routine. Maybe open a novel by an author you admire, turn to any page, and read to get your juices flowing.

Happily, I achieved the written word today. It’s still not enough — there goes Little Miss All-Or-Nothing again — but it’s what I could do today.

The truth is, I wrote for one and a half hours. The truth is, if I can wiggle past the daily distractions and day-job triggers, the one hour often turns into more.

Write Better Faster

By Lisa Alber

I’m a somewhat — OK, highly — skeptical person, so when a writing buddy, A, told me about an online course she was taking called “Write Better Faster,” I snorted. Seriously?

(Sidenote: The link above will disappear after awhile — Google “Write Better Faster Becca Syme”)

But … Somewhere inside me, after Mom’s death in May, while still dealing with the estate stuff all. summer. long. I felt a nibble of interest when A said, “Oh, this isn’t one size fits all. She uses personality (psychometric) tests like Myers-Briggs to work through what strategies might work best for you for your writing based on how you’re wired. I got a lot out of it. I bet you would too.”

Hmm …

I’ve been stalled since May … I’d thought I was on my feet again, but it derailed earlier this month in the face of stress. Plus, A isn’t a dope; she doesn’t buy into BS or fads. She’s singularly level-headed and sensible.

What the hell, I thought, and signed up for the August course. (They’re held every other month as far as I can tell.) If you’re the kind of person who likes psychology and are curious about how your brain works as related to your writing life, you might like this course. For example, why are some people pantsters and others outliners? One way isn’t better than the other. It has to do with your wiring. Me–I’m a pantster. Now I know why, and it makes total sense.

The instructor, Becca, is amazing and sooo knowledgeable.

A fascinating aside: Becca mentions a study that was done that illustrates that when we improve on our natural strengths we achieve monumentally greater improvement than if we improve on areas that aren’t our strengths. Like, I could take a class to improve my car maintenance skills, but since I’m not talented in anything to do with machinery, I’ll only improve so much. But, if I take a class to improve on my gardening skills, I will see a big difference because I have a natural aptitude with plants.

Ultimately, the course is about capitalizing on our strengths to improve our productivity and writing. Becca breaks down what in her vast experience as a coach generally works best for I vs. Es and Ns vs. Ps, and so on (from the Myers-Briggs world).

She spends time on our systems, which includes our energy, our environment, our health, and so on. So it’s a systems class. She advocates changing one small habit at a time, and a lot of the class is about figuring out the small habits that will make the biggest difference. For example, as a high-P (perceiver), I’m easily distractible because I take in all the data all the time. (Yes, this is true.)

A small change for me might be to *not* open up Internet or email first thing in the morning. Instead, have the manuscript open and waiting for me instead. That’s a small but difficult change. Becca talks about how painful change can be, which is refreshing, because how many times have you been in a course and the instructor says, Do this, like it’s no big deal?

Just do it. F–k that. I hate that Nike slogan. Actually, if you’re a J, judging, not to be confused with being judgmental, these kinds of thoughts might work for you. See what I mean? 🙂

In addition to taking the Myers-Briggs assessment, we also took something called DISC. DISC measures what motivates you–how do you thrive. (This is a simplistic definition.)

D = Drive (How Type A are you? Low D doesn’t mean no drive to achieve goals. It just means you’re more easy going. I’m low D. I’m so not a type A personality!)

I = Influencer (This is the people-oriented one and you want to have influence.)

S = Stability (You’re particularly affected/get derailed when things are unstable or chaotic.)

C = Compliance (This is wanting things to be right and obey the rules; nothing to do with being passive.)

I’m highest in stability, which means I thrive when things are calm. I have a need for harmony in my life. This make total sense, because I get derailed easily from my writing when things feel unstable. This is good for me to know — for one thing, knowledge is power, so I don’t need to get down on myself  when I derail. I’m not a failure because I derail; I’m just a person sensitive to what’s going on around me. Knowing this, I can come up with strategies.

We also took a Strengthfinders test to gather our top five strengths. Three out of my five top strengths were thinking-oriented (intellection, deliberative, and input). What’s funny about this is that I don’t think of thinking as real writing. But Becca opines differently. For some people, thinking is writing, and we should include that time in our designated writing time. In other words, I was discounting one of my greatest strengths because of a fallacious notion that writing looks like one thing, word count!

Some of these things are a relief, you know? Such as the de-mythologizing of “rules” like you must write every day (bullshit, not everyone is wired like that, and success happens for all kinds of writers, not just the ones who write every day).

Anyhow, I had fun with this class, and had some epiphanies along the way. We are wired differently, and one size does not fit all when it comes to writing processes. Oh, the humanity!

(In my next post, I’ll let you know what small habit I decided to change and how it’s going.)

Showing Up On The Page

By Lisa Alber

Exactly two months ago I wrote a ShadowSpinners post while sitting vigil for my dying mother. In that post, I wondered about my writing—whether I’d ever feel like writing fiction again, whether it mattered.

And now, here I sit again, clacking away. The past few months have been a blur of grief, dealing with trustee drudgery related to Mom’s living trust, and skimming the surface of the “have tos” of life. Last weekend I spent three hours scouring the bathrooms. At long last I cared enough to spend energy on that task. I thought, Well, maybe I’m doing better because I cleaned the bathrooms.

A Sikh friend recently commented that Americans don’t do grief. We allow ourselves a few days and then get on with it, as if that’s all that’s required. As if compartmentalization as a life strategy works when it comes to sorrow. I’m trying to do grief better this time than I did when my dad died in 2001. Feel the feelings, acknowledge them, and try not to squash what burbles to the surface.

One way I pay attention is by journaling—A LOT. It had been years since I’d journaled regularly because fiction took priority. Not these days. You’d be correct if you guessed that I haven’t written much fiction in the past few months.

This is going to sound contradictory, but I forbade pressuring myself to write fiction at the same time that I promised myself I’d show up on the fiction page each day. Showing up means opening up the manuscript—that’s it. Read a few pages—that’s it. Sometimes I’ll noodle with a chapter and take some notes. If this occurs, great. My only goal is to show up each day.

Somewhere within me, I must have faith that showing up will get me back into my writing routines. Hopefully this is true, but the other day it occurred to me that since I’m naturally lazy, I might be using the grieving process as an excuse not to write. We can use any excuse to procrastinate, right? Grief seems like as good an excuse as any …

All that is to say that there’s a slippery slope between taking it easy on myself and milking grief for procrastinatory reasons. The fact that I’m aware of this is probably a good sign, eh?

Sitting Vigil

By Lisa Alber

It’s a surreal time right now. I haven’t been writing — at all. I feel like I could never write again, and I’d be fine with that. My two sisters and I are hanging out with each other in Mom’s house more now than we have in the last few decades. N is like an Energizer bunny. She has trouble sitting still and is out for a run now. K is mellower. She’s plugged into her tablet, watching a movie. Me, here I am. It seems that when the chips are down, I do continue to write, don’t I?

Thus far today, we’ve opened the door to the hospice chaplain and social worker, a hospice delivery of more morphine, a guy from the funeral home, and even a Catholic priest to issue last rites.

I say “even” about the priest because although we’re solidly Catholic on both sides of the family, we Alber sisters weren’t raised with religion. We figured it would be nice for Mom to hear the sacraments to help her along the process of letting go these mortal coils. Couldn’t hurt anyhow.

To my surprise, the ritual of the sacraments comforted me. I’d never heard them before except in movies, never seen a vial of holy water before, never shaken a priest’s hand and said, Nice to meet you, Father.

Fawn, my eight-pound dog, spends most of her time curled up against Mom’s shoulder. I’m amazed by her instinct. Mom’s oblivious — constant morphine now — her breathing noisy and a tad erratic. She hasn’t consumed anything since yesterday morning. I keep wondering why she’s hanging on. What’s holding her here? How do we help her let go?

We have no control over this, of course. We’ve each had our alone time with her to say goodbye and let her know that it’s OK to move on.

There’s so much people don’t warn you about when it comes to end of life. Like how much pain there is with the littlest of touches. Like how pain itself can anchor people too much to this life — that our bodies naturally resist death. We’re giving her morphine every hour now to lessen the resistance. It seems like a lot, but, man, I’d do anything not to see her get a frowny face in sleep and to help her relax into the next stage, whatever that may be. No one tells you that morphine aids in the process of letting go but in itself isn’t what causes the heart to stop.

This is where I am today. I wonder about my writing. Wonder if it even matters. I’m going to make chocolate chip cookies in a little while because we have the makings for them. Seems like something to do to pass the time. That’s another thing people don’t warn you about — the waiting. Death takes its own sweet time.

The Trouble With Omniscient Voice

By Lisa Alber

Since the fall, I’ve been working on a standalone mystery I’m calling The Shadow Maiden. It takes place at a girl’s school, hehe, has a gothic vibe, and features a back story that’s complex enough to need a secondary story line.

For the back story, I’m dabbling in omniscient voice. Ay yi yi, talk about masochistic! I’ve been fooling around with omniscient voice off and on since 2006 when I first tried it out in a workshop taught by Elizabeth George. I got hooked on the challenge of it, I guess.

There are many reasons not to use omniscient voice:

  1. It’s not exactly in fashion in the publishing world.
  2. If you don’t watch out, you’ll end up in head-hopping third-person point of view.
  3. It’s challenging in the most subtle way ever because although the narrator can tell the reader anything—because the narrator knows everything—you can’t be inside the characters’ heads in the telling. It’s kind of like knowing a person so well you can talk about what she’s thinking, but not her exact thoughts.
  4. Maintaining a consistent voice that’s not any of the characters’ voices will drive you effing bananas.
  5. We’re used to reading novels that read intimately—first person or close-in third—so writing from a more detached perspective feels awkward.
  6. Why make our writing lives harder than need be?

Given all that, then WHY oh why this infuriating choice on my part? (FYI: The main story is in first person, so we’re intimate with my protagonist Tessa. The secondary story will probably be about thirteen chapters out of fiftyish.)

First, my sense of the story (which I hope I can convey) includes a presence that hovers over Grayvale Mansion (girl’s school inside a mansion, hehe), the surrounding lands, and the local lore. I imagine this as the voice of my omniscient narrator who understands how certain events in 1986 in the life of the mansion and its inhabitants (including Tessa) come to bear on a crime in the present day.

Second, on the practical side, omniscient voice provides an ensemble method of sharing what’s going on with many characters at once, which is what I need. Otherwise, I’d have to use alternating third-person points of view—which is the done thing these days, don’t get me wrong—but I’d rather only have two voices in the novel: Tessa’s and the omniscient narrator. Otherwise, the second storyline will read too splintered for my taste. (Is that complicated, or what?)

Anyhow, all this is to say that I’m having a ton of fun writing my new novel. We shall see!

Here are a few posts I found about omniscient voice:

https://www.nownovel.com/blog/omniscient-narrator-examples-tips/

https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/omniscient-pov/

https://www.scribophile.com/academy/using-third-person-omniscient-pov