Adventures in Research

by Elizabeth Engstrom

 

I’m writing a book wherein a murder takes place on a cruise ship.

Last month, my sweets and I took a cruise. Perfect time to do a little research.

This is how it went:

First, I asked the Cruise Director if I could speak to someone in Security, as I was writing a murder mystery set aboard a cruise ship and I wanted to get a couple of details correct.

He sent me to Guest Services.

questions

The guy at Guest Services, when I gave him my card to show I was legit–a real writer– and told him that I wanted five minutes with someone from Security, said he’d call me when someone was available.

No sooner had I gone back to my stateroom than the Guest Services guy called and asked what questions I had for Security.

I quickly had to think, and pare down my questions. Mostly, I wanted just to chat with the guy and find out a few of their procedures, but clearly that wasn’t going to happen. So, off the top of my head, these were my questions:

  1. If there is a murder aboard, who on board is in charge of the investigation?
  2. If it is during an ocean crossing, whose jurisdiction is it (the originating port or the destination port)?
  3. If the crime takes place in a very public place (in the middle of the night), how do they secure the scene of the crime?
  4. If the victim is a member of a cruising group, will the head of security be willing to let the group leader help with the investigation? (My sleuth, of course, will have to solve the mystery.)

Those were my questions. The nice guy from Guest Services wrote them down and said he’d call me back.

Thirty seconds later, he called me back and told me to get in touch with the cruise line via the Media Relations button on their website.

Zero help.

I was very surprised by this, although after thinking about it a while, I guess I wasn’t that surprised. They have to be very careful with their image, and there have been some very high profile murders/deaths aboard cruise ships.

The unfortunate thing about this particular situation is that I’ll have to write the book as I imagine it and then find someone to read it who can tell me if I’m completely off the mark. I’ll then rewrite the scenes that aren’t right, and hope that my assumptions don’t derail the entire plot. All I was asking for was a little information for the sake of accuracy.

This, however, was the first time I have ever been stonewalled when asking for help with research. From policemen to doctors, nurses to lawyers, priests to politicians, everybody is eager to help with their knowledge of things. I’m careful not to waste their time; I’m careful to let them know that I am serious, and also that sometimes getting a book published is a crap shoot. So I do my homework before I engage. Case in point: I knew what I wanted to ask Shipboard Security.

When people ask me about things in which I have vast or intimate experience, I am only happy to oblige. I believe that is true for most people. So ask away. Be bold. Be brave. But be considerate of someone’s time and sensitive to whether or not they want to go on record.

Research is one of the fun parts of writing fiction.

A Whole New World

by Amy Braun

I think it’s pretty safe to say that these days, most of us wish we were somewhere else. It’s hard to get up in the morning and realize you live in a world where absolutely absurd, cruel, and wretched things happen, and that when you do donate or speak out, it can be hard to feel like you’re contributing. I’m not saying to give up (never, ever, do that because your contributions and donations truly do matter and truly do help), but every once in a while we just want to escape this world and dive into another one.

The solution is actually quite easy and pretty cheap: Books.

As a reader, I’m a sucker for a book with an amazing setting. Red Rising, Nevernight, and LifeL1K3 are just some of the books that have drawn me in with their exquisite and visceral worlds. As a writer, creating them is something I’m addicted to.

Urban fantasy is one of my favorite genres to both write and read, and the moment I decided to write Storm of the Gods, I knew it could only be urban fantasy. But I didn’t want my setting to be like most urban fantasy worlds, where the buildings haven’t changed, the people haven’t changed, and my imagination can’t really stretch. No, I wanted to twist in new elements. I had to—You can’t exactly write a book about reawakened Greek gods and expect them to share your idea of architecture and décor.

Greek mythology is one of my oldest love affairs. I won’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve read enough to understand what would appeal to each deity. Since the gods in the Storm universe have only returned to our world thirty years ago after a two thousand year slumber that saw them reduced to fairytales, their powers are not as strong as they had been. While creating the history of this world, I knew that the gods would be divisive but need to work together to build their New Kingdom.

So I took the setting—a reimagined version of California—and broke it up into pieces for each of them and their scions, the humans who are descended from the Olympian’s lusty escapades.

From there, I changed each region to match its Olympian. Dionysus got all the vineyards. Artemis has all the forests and hunting grounds. Poseidon owns Santa Monica and most of the beaches and ocean. Aphrodite’s region is one big romantic getaway on one half, and the other is a literal red light district.

Doing this was a long, tiring process, because each region needed its own security, temples, distinct personalities and types of residents, but it was ultimately worth it. I love the world I created, and it ends up feeling like an entirely different place rather a slight deviation from normality that happens in most urban fantasy novels.

World building is one of the longest and most taxing processes in writing, but it’s one of my favorites. Whenever I do it, I feel not only a connection to the characters I’m creating, but I understand the mechanics of my story and the rules of society. I also understand how my characters can––and often will––break them.

At the time of posting, there are only certain sections that will be explored in the first Areios Brothers novel. But I have at least four more books planned as well as three novellas, so it’s safe to say that there will be more worlds and adventures for anyone who enjoys this New Kingdom as much as I do.

***

 

 

***

Amy is a Canadian fantasy, steampunk, YA, and horror author. Her work revolves around monsters, magic, mythology, and mayhem. She started writing in her early teens, and never stopped. She loves building unique worlds filled with fun characters and intense action. She is an active member of the Weekend Writing Warrior community, and has even had a spotlight on the website of international best-selling author Michael J. Sullivan (The Riyra Chronicles, Legends of the First Empire).

When she isn’t writing, she’s reading, watching movies, taking photos, gaming, struggling with chocoholism and ice cream addiction, and diving headfirst into danger in Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. Amy can be found online on Facebook (www.facebook.com/amybraunauthor/) Twitter (@amybraunauthor) and Instagram (@amybraunauthor)

amybraunauthor.com

 

Murder With Sprinkles On Top

by Christina Lay

I’ve always loved reading and watching cozy mysteries, but not until recently have I tried my hand at writing them. As with many things, you don’t really understand the complexity of a task until you try to do it yourself.

As well-versed in the ins-and-outs of the genre as any avid fan, I dove in quickly and with relish. But soon, one important and fairly obvious question occurred to me: how, exactly, does one make murder, the most heinous of crimes, cozy? How do you create a world in which murder happens (and maybe regularly, if you’re writing a series) that the reader or viewer nevertheless finds comforting? A place where half the population ends up dead but still seems like a very nice place to visit?

Clearly one of the anchors of the cozy mystery is a cozy setting. A majority of these stories take place in small towns, and not just your run of the mill small town, but one that is quaint, meaning it’s preserved its historic charm. These towns have lovely architecture, lots of twisting alleys, probably a waterfront of some sort, nearby woods for the disposing of bodies, and a VERY PROMINENT CHURCH.  Quaint shops abound, and our sleuth might even be the sole proprietor of one (maybe the bakery, which is a very popular setting for cozy book series, with cute names like Til Death do Us Tart and Survival of the Fritters. Baking fancy cakes and crime solving seem to complement each other. Here’s a link to a list of them http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/bakery-dessert-list.

Any cozy worth its imported sea salt will feature a tea shop and an antique store—bare minimum. Sometimes the town is larger, like Oxford, but within the larger town are cozy communities, like an elite college, in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, which always proves to be a very important element in helping our sleuth solve the crime.

Which brings us to the other most important key to a cozy, the sleuth. Mostly this will be an amateur, but private detectives like Hercule Poirot and rumpled Detective Inspectors like Tom Barnaby also qualify. The more professional the sleuth however, the less cozy the murders tend to become. The sleuth is nearly always an outsider, no matter what their profession. Even a detective inside the police department will be the odd one out, the one who uses brain over brawn, who always doubts the obvious first clues and champions whatever poor soul is arrested first. Often the amateur sleuth/slash pastry chef is conveniently married to, dating, best friends with or otherwise connected to a professional in the biz, like a police detective, coroner or forensic expert, which is quite handy. But in the end, the sleuth relies on their powers of observation, keen intuition and wits to solve the crime. Which they always do.

The likability and relatability of the sleuth are key to creating a memorable and enduring cozy mystery series. They must, like all good protagonists, be flawed, but in a lovable way. And usually, whatever their deep wound is, it helps them understand the criminal mind and have compassion for the underdogs. First and foremost, they must be unusually smart, even if not everyone thinks so.

Other factors to ensure your murder is entertaining rather than disturbing include:

A victim who was a no good so-and-so. Lots of people wanted them dead, and no one is overly sorry to have them gone. Anyone who is, probably did it.  Also, their death, though possibly elaborate, is swift and unseen. Usually, the murder happens before the book even starts, or off-the-page. It might happen after the world famous detective arrives and the murderer foolishly decides to go through with their plan anyway. Or after all the guests are assembled at the manor house, or when the train leaves the station. Isolating the group of suspects is a great trick for upping the tension. There’s a murderer amongst us!

Limit the bloodshed. This is an element that seems to be ignored more and more in the television version of mysteries, usually the result of what I call “the slaughter of the innocents”.  This is when, once the murderer commits the initial crime, they then feel compelled to kill off several innocent bystanders to cover it up, which of course is what usually tips their hand. I have to admit to being disappointed when what is touted as a cozy mystery ends up with a high body count, among them unfortunate girl guides and birdwatching old ladies who were in the wrong place at the worst time. Besides being depressing, these acts of senseless violence are usually stupid, which diminishes the fun of solving the crime. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but NEVER KILL THE DOG.

No sex. Wait, what? Well, I’ve wondered about this, but it appears to be true. While amateur sleuths are often romantically pining over the local detective, or visa versa, the most they will ever do is share a pint at the quaint local pub and match wits.  I believe this is because sex is really just a distraction from what readers of cozies care about most, which is solving a mystery. No one wants to see rumpled whosit and the dowdy baker get down. It’s just not where the appeal lies. Romance, a hint of it, is just fine, as long as it doesn’t pull our heroine/hero away from what they’re there to do. And naturally, the suspects will be fornicating up a storm, only not on the page.

Cats are king.  Throw in a smart cat, or perhaps a reasonably intelligent dog. Readers of cozies love sleuths who love pets. If the cat helps solve the crime, well, that’s a subgenre unto itself. http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/cat-list  If you can combine cooking and cats, all the better.

Provide a wide array of colorful, likable characters to consult, kill or arrest. Sometimes even the murderer is likable. The sleuth will have an extensive network of interesting acquaintances to contact regarding the case. If, for example, a body is washed up near the quaint lighthouse, the sleuth’s uncle will be the local captain of the coast guard. There will always be busybodies, town gossips, town drunks, and loose but large-hearted women who know the town’s secrets and our sleuth will be friends with them, or have some way of convincing these people to talk. Think tea and cookies instead of truth serum and truncheons.

Comeuppance will be got. In a cozy, the murderer is always flushed out. They might escape the long arm of the law, but they will lose everything they were willing to kill for. If you can think of an exception in the cozy mystery field, feel free to enlighten me.  One exception might be the Serial Adversary, a Moriarty of sorts, but since those chaps tend to be serial killers, their evil antics don’t qualify as cozy.

To sum up, the key to a cozy murder is the fun of watching a character we love solve a baffling riddle by their wits (and possibly their cat’s) alone. So naturally, you’ll need a riddle worthy of their and the reader’s attention. Anything over the top, like graphic violence, graphic sex, grit, torture, profanity, end of the world scenarios or gratuitous explosions, you can pretty much leave at the door. Raymond Chandler claimed that readers of cozies, especially the English variety, “like their murders scented with magnolia blossoms and do not care to be reminded that murder is an act of infinite cruelty”.  For some, I’m sure that’s true, but I don’t think readers are drawn to mysteries just so they can ignore the murder at the heart of it; rather, they prefer to focus on the solving, rather than the commission, of the crime. And just because a setting is cozy, or the sleuth an old English spinster, doesn’t mean we can relax. As Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple says “One does see so much evil in a village”.

What Did You Win, Eric?

 

Littlest Death: An Afterlife Fantasy (a.k.a., Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel):
Winner: Independent Publishers Awards Silver Medal for Fantasy.
Winner: International Book Awards for Visionary Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Fantasy Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Best New Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Cross-Genre Fiction

What Did You Win, Eric?
by Eric Witchey

Last time I posted in this blog space, I talked about award sickness because one of my novels had just won the Silver Medal for Fantasy Fiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Since then, that same novel has won First Honors in the Visionary Fiction category from the International Book Awards. It also won finalist (top five) positions in several other categories, including Fantasy Fiction. At the same time, another novel of mine won First Honors in the Fantasy Fiction category from the International Book Awards. Yet another book won a Finalist position for both cover design and short fiction. The books are, respectively, Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel from ShadowSpinners Press, Bull’s Labyrinth from IFD Publishing, and Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure from IFD Publishing.

Note: Thanks are in order here for Alan M. Clark for his cover designs for both Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure and Bull’s Labyrinth.

Has my good problem, Award Sickness, gotten worse? Yes. Yes, it has. Thank you for asking. On top of that, I now have another good problem. I now have conversations that go sort of like this:

“Congratulations! What kind of stuff did you win?”

“Uh. Um.” Eric looks down and shuffles his feet.

“Really,” they say. “Cash, like the Pulitzer or the Nobel?”

“Uh. No. It’s not like that.” Eric waves his hands as if to push the assailant away and avoid embarrassment.

“Well, what then?”

“Stickers?” It sounds so tiny and pointless to Eric, so he adds, “I won some really cool stickers to put on my books. And a certificate!”

“That’s it?”

“A silver medal on a ribbon. I won that, too.” He doesn’t want to say he could wear that heavy bit of kitsch around his neck if he wanted to shout to the world that he is the worst kind of self-impressed language geek.

This kind of conversation confuses non-writers who often think recognition of excellence means income or fame. Having won quite a few awards for my writing, I can say with some confidence that awards rarely translate into income or fame. Sometimes, but rarely. This absence of fame and fortune even confuses some writers, so it’s time to come clean on the whole award thing.

Here’s what I won.

On a purely material level, I won stickers, a medal, and several certificates.

On a marketing level, I won the right to have Littlest Death presented to an international audience at the New York Book Expo and at the Library Book Expo in New York. Also on a marketing level, Littlest Death press releases went out to 800 various media, blog, and vlog outlets for consideration for exposure. Oh, and I can put stickers on the covers that appear as part of the presentation and advertising on places like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and GoodReads.

Yay! Of course, I have no idea what that means in terms of sales. I won’t know for months, and possibly years, to come.

From my personal perspective, I won validation for the Afterlife Fantasy genre, which is embodied by Littlest Death. I had been thinking about writing an Afterlife Fantasy for some time, but I probably would never have done it because it would not have fit into any existing marketing category served by the octopus imprints of the big five publishers. A book like Littlest Death would have made the rounds of the imprints for several years. I’d have received the usual “loved this but not quite right for us” rejection letters. Instead, it came out from a small press that isn’t quite so risk averse.

Most important from my perspective, I won validation for the creative process that resulted in Littlest Death.

When I teach, I often say that craft tools should be based on the underlying linguistic and cognitive principles that govern the reader’s internalization of emotion from story. The test of a principle-based tool is pretty simple. It must be all of the following:

  1. Useful as a descriptive tool for finished, text-based story.
  2. Useful as an analysis tool and solution predictor for revision of text-based story.
  3. Useful as a design tool for the production of text-based story.

To that end, I have spent about 25 years obsessively characterizing and recording tools that fit the above criteria into a personal catalog. I use these tools constantly, and I teach them to others. However, prior to writing Littlest Death, there were a few tools in my box that I believed fit the criteria but that I had never actually tested on the design level. I had only used them as diagnostic and revision tools.

I used the opportunity to write my Afterlife Fantasy to test the design power of the untested tools. Specifically, the tools I often used in revision and description but had not really applied during story design were:

  • Irreconcilable Self as a control for character psychological and sociological development.
  • Vertical Story Analysis as a design tool to support manifestation of Dramatic Premise (Lajos Egri) and Character Arc prior to composition.

I’m not going to explain these tools here. Sorry. It would take too long. I’m just saying that these tools have been in my box for a while, and I have used them to revise many stories that went on to sell. In fact, I used them to revise Bull’s Labyrinth, which won the International Book Award for Fantasy Fiction. I also used them to revise some, but not all by any means, of the stories in Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure. I had just never used them up front before initial composition, so I felt a little bit like a fraud when I taught them because I had only proven to myself that they worked on two of the three levels of proof for “tool” that I require.

Once Littlest Death went into print and I started getting emails from people who cried tears of joy while reading, I felt pretty good about having demonstrated the tools’ usefulness in design. Once Littlest Death won two awards and several finalist slots in competition against many thousands of other novels, I started thinking it might be worth considering a few more such experiments in design.

What did I win?

I won validation of knowledge, confidence in that knowledge, and the confidence that sharing that knowledge with others will be useful to them.

Resuscitating a Manuscript

By Elizabeth Engstrom

I have a new novel coming out this summer. Guys Named Bob.

This book was written long ago, had some serious interest by my agent, and several publishers in New York. I never inked a deal because they wanted me to change things I didn’t want to change.

Years later, I’ve evolved with regards to how I view my art and my career, and the message I want to send out to my family, my friends, my fans, into the universe. It was time to make big changes to the manuscript.

This was not an easy thing to do. Technology has changed radically since I wrote that book, and technology changes everything.

rewriting

But I worked with it, and I altered the story to fit who I am today. I still rejected some of the changes those editors thought I ought to make in order for it to be more of the mainstream type of book they wanted to publish, so clearly, this is not a book for everyone. But it is a book that I wanted to write then, was heartbroken when it wasn’t picked up by a publisher, and now that it has been picked up, I’m delighted to put it out into the marketplace.

Bottom line: Some projects take more time than others.

My book Candyland was outlined during a dinner party on the back of an envelope. Seriously.  It practically wrote itself, and very quickly. My agent and I had a falling out over it, and I fired him as an agent. Since then, it has been published in an anthology, as a stand-alone novel, and was made into a movie (Candiland).

Other books take years to write.

Guys Named Bob took decades. I wrestled with committing to it, wondering if I had anything original left in the tank. Was I now just rewashing old story ideas? Did this mean I was finished as a writer? Am I even capable of writing anything new and fresh?

Well, yes. Life has interfered with my writing career for a while now, but I’m back at it. I have a list of projects to finish, and have a renewed passion and excitement for them.

Bottom line: Life has its seasons. We evolve as writers. No experience is wasted. Joy, heartbreak, disappointment, love, desperation, insecurity, determination… These are all things we must experience first-hand before we can put them on the page. And while the circumstances of a piece of fiction may need to be updated, those emotions remain eternally relatable.

And oh: I have a new website. Check it out. http://www.elizabethengstrom.com

 

Success Sickness, by Eric Witchey

FNTCVR

Fantasy Silver Medal, 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards

 

Success Sickness

Eric Witchey

Last weekend, I supported a local mini-conference here in Salem, Oregon. The conference made use of the Parallel Play program psychologist Brian Nierstadt helped me create sixteen years ago. Parallel Play has been the subject of other articles and will be again. For now, I want to focus on the fact that the conference was all about production and overcoming obstacles.

Aside: Special thanks to Chris Patchell and Debbie Moller, who did the bulk of the work to create the very successful, sold-out weekend. Special thanks to Willamette Writers: Orit Ofri, Kate Ristau, and Summer Bird. Also, thanks to the other professionals who donated their time to help the local community of writers: Rachel Barton, Erica Bauermeister, Elizabeth Engstrom, Devon Monk, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Waverly Fitzgerald, and Natalie Serber. My deepest apologies if I’ve missed anyone.

Now, it happens that on the Wednesday before the conference one of my novels received recognition from the 2018 Independent Publishers Book Awards (IPPYs). Littlest Death, cover show above and available in print or ebook on Amazon from Shadow Spinners Press (grin),  received the silver medal in the Fantasy category.

Result? I can’t write.

This is not a new experience. I know I’ll get past it, but I thought I’d take a second to write about this particular form of writer’s block because of the inspiring mini-lectures I was honored to listen to over the weekend. However, before I really get going, I want to point out that this is sort of a violation of certain social mores. In our culture, we accept that people can talk about the struggles, problems, obstacles, and especially the solutions encountered while striving to achieve our dreams. The gods know, I have done plenty of that both verbally and in writing over the years. We are much less accepting of people exploring the struggles, problems, obstacles, and solutions that appear because we achieve the things we strive for. Nobody wants to hear about how annoyed you are about the misleading Engine Warning light in your new Rolls Royce, but everybody wants know how you managed to, and by extension how they can, get a Rolls Royce.

So, at the risk of social shunning, I offer these insights into a problem I hope everyone has already overcome or gets the chance to overcome.

First, I’ll point out that there are two types of success sickness. They are “Anticipatory success sickness” and “recent success sickness.” They pretty much work the same way, and the treatment is pretty much the same, too.

Here’s how success sickness, which I sometimes erroneously call award sickness, works.

  1. The writer either anticipates or has received some new success—any new success. It can be as simple as a compliment from a teacher, a friend, or someone in the family.
  2. The writer sits down to write.
  3. The writer starts wondering either what they should write to succeed or what they did when they wrote the material that succeeded.
  4. The writer can’t figure it out, so they scrub the bathroom floor instead of writing.
  5. Repeat 2-5 until suicidal or new floor tile is required in the bathroom.

I first encountered success sickness after selling my first short story in 1987. I didn’t sell another story until 1997.

Well, that sucked.

Then, I won a slot at Writers of the Future and a place in the top ten from New Century Writers. New Century was a big deal then because Ray Bradbury was involved. Now, sadly, both Ray and New Century are gone. About the same time as the above two awards, I sold my first short story to a national slick magazine.

All good, right? I figured I was off to the races—a made man in the fiction family.

Then, number 2, I sat down to write and…NOTHING…3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5…

Well, that sucked.

After about six months of cleaning the bathroom and chatting with my new phone friends from the suicide hot line, I realized that I was in the loop of trying to recreate the success without understanding that the success had been created by not trying to create the success. In short, I had just been practicing my craft when I wrote the stories that won the awards and sold.

Sure, I wanted to sell stories and win awards, but I hadn’t been working on each story with the idea that I would do certain things in order to sell the story or in order to win an award. I had just worked on each story to make it the best story I could make it. I had practiced craft without regard for outcome.

That realization led to the idea that I needed to just work on stories and stop thinking about the successes, which of course is like telling yourself to not think about the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Sigh… Well, that sucked.

Once the tile in the bathroom had been replaced and I had tattooed the suicide hotline number on the inside of my wrist, I decided I needed to figure out how to trick myself into not paying attention to what I may or may not have done to contribute to the success I wanted to repeat.

My solution was to practice craft in a way that made it impossible to write a story that would sell. If I knew it couldn’t sell, then I couldn’t expect anything from it other than experience and words through the fingers.

Clever monkey.

So, I went back to the basic concept of practicing craft. I went back to my personal simplest form of practicing craft. I picked random topics to bind together into silly stories. That way, it would be impossible to believe I was creating saleable, award-winning material. Then, I picked a craft concept to practice. I called what I was doing my morning warmup, and I sat down every morning to a speed writing session in which I attempted to execute the craft concept I had selected while also incorporating the stupid random topics.

No pressure. No bathroom. No hot line. Just silliness and practice.

We are talking seriously random, here: My orange coffee mug; Mrs. McPharon’s black gravel driveway; The stinging fur on a caterpillar I found on Hogue’s barn. These are things from my desk and my childhood—totally unrelated. The concept to practice was, conversely, serious. It might be any of a thousand things, but it is always specific—something like “deliver implied intentions through indirect dialog.”

Five to fifteen minutes of speed writing attempting the concept and including the random topics was all I had to do. I started with one minute based on the belief that I can always sit down to do one minute. In a week or so, it became five. Later, and to this day twenty years later, it is fifteen.

Way back then, it took about six months before I stopped second-guessing every word and my writing became about the story on the table again. And, oddly, once I forgot to worry about how I had done what I had done, I did it again.

Well, that didn’t suck.

Except, then, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and…

And begin again. New tile. Reacquainted with the hot line people. And back to five minutes and random topics at speed.

About six weeks passed, and I forgot to worry about how I did what I did, so I did it again.

… and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, …

You get the idea.

Fast forward to 2018 Silver Medal in Fantasy IPPY award, and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3,4,5, and…

And back to five minutes of speed writing at the mini-conference. I did manage to put in several hours of productivity at the conference, but my stupid brain kept returning to what I had done to make Littlest Death an award-winning story.

Well, that sucks.

I’m hoping it will only take me a week or so to get to the point where I forget to worry about how I did what I did so I that can do it again. However, since I’m hoping that will happen, it will probably take longer since I now also have to forget to hope that I’ll forget to worry about how I did what I did before I can do it again.

Silly monkey.

The moral to this whole convoluted story is that sitting down to write something silly for one minute will lead to five will lead to fifteen will lead to an inevitable focus on the story at hand instead of what it might do once it’s finished because of what other stories have done in the past.

I will point out at this point that many of the stories I have sold were born during my warmup and became the story at hand. It turns out that choosing random topics to make it impossible to write a story is nearly impossible because the brain can, if given the freedom to do so, make a story out of pretty much anything. Sadly, that adds a whole new layer to this insanity of not thinking about what you did while you are doing what you are doing now so that you can repeat what you did. I think that’s another article.

Success sickness is the mind attaching itself to what was and what will be instead of resting in what is. Playful experimentation will bring the mind back to the here and now in which all successes are born.

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

-End-

Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir

iStock_000051779652_Large

Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir, by Eric Witchey

Something new for my blog this time. Instead of waxing dreary on some topic of my own choosing, I’m answering a question from a person who took a class from me at the Write on the Sound Conference in Edmonds, Washington. The last time I was there, I taught a class that included a brief discussion of a concept I first presented in an article for The Writer Magazine in October of 2011. The concept is the Irreconcilable Self (I.S.).

The writer, a memoirist, dropped me a line last week. The question has two parts. The first part is whether the I.S. the writer is working with is precise enough. The second question is more of a presupposition about whether the I.S. tool can be used in memoire. Also, note that the writer used Wallace Stegner’s book, Angle of Repose, as a reference point. It has been a long time since I read it, so my examples from memory may or may not fit the experience of people who have read it more recently. I did not go back and check the book to verify my memory, which is a swiss cheese muddle of too many stories that often blend together.

The Question:

I’m presuming that the I.S. can apply to a memoir ‘character’ since I’m treating myself as the character? Good. So then, my opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity.

My questions — is that SPECIFIC enough?? Or is it too linked to place and time? Do I need more soul-searching to really get at stronger conflicting notions here? I am conflicted in the idolization of country living vs the reality and want to expose that a little more via my experience, but also have notions and real experiences of longing for that country living.

The Answer:

Hi, again, Writer X:

First, I’ll be teaching an 8 hour seminar on this subject in Eugene, OR in May. I have a couple of memoirists already signed up. You don’t have to sign up for all six classes. You can just take this one alone, but I would recommend this one and the one in June for a full sense of how I.S. works in conjunction with other story elements. The people at WordCrafters can help with accommodations. The classes are set up so people can drive or fly in on Saturday and drive or fly out on Sunday. Anyway, here’s the link.

https://wordcraftersineugene.org/fiction-fluency-2018/ff-seminars/

Second, I always welcome “one-off” emails, but I can’t always answer them. Also, I’ll only answer one or two before I send you a contract to set up a formal relationship as a sort of piano teacher of words. Too many people think of me as a private encyclopedia of writing techniques if I let them, and I do have to fulfill my own obligations in life.

So, no worries. I’m especially happy to hear from people who have read my stories and taken one or more of my classes.

Interesting that you mention The Angle of Repose. Not many writers who contact me have read it. Stegner is brilliant. Before I talk about that, I’ll talk a bit about Irreconcilable Self.

When I teach I.S., especially in a short form venue like a conference (60 to 90 minutes, total), I teach it as a binary form to get the idea across. It can be more complex. The form I teach has two parts and relies on “I believe” statements in juxtaposition—something like this:

“I believe Romantic idealism is the only truth in this world.” Vs. “I believe deeply in personal honor and family honor and pride.”

This would be Romeo.

Notice that I have already put in more than one thing in the second “I believe” statement. The juxtaposition of these deeply held, untested beliefs is what’s important. The beliefs are deep and often, but not always, unconscious. They are, however, untested. The only way the character is able to believe both things at the same time is that the beliefs have not been tested in his or her life.

That’s the short version of I.S.

Now, Stegner. Keep in mind that Stegner is telling several stories. Lyman is narrating. He’s telling both his story and the story of Susan. Susan’s story includes the story of Oliver and Frank. Each of these major characters has an I.S. that generally functions beneath their consciousness and either drives or allows them to act in the ways they do. Each character has their beliefs tested. Lyman’s is tested by the telling of the story and the revelations that come because of that. His I.S. is something like, “I believe I am a good man from good stock” vs. “I believe the world and my family owe me for their betrayals.” His I.S. is tested by revelations and experience. He abandons the second belief, modifies the first one, and reconciles his experience into, “My choices create the love around me.”

Okay, I’m making this up on the fly, so don’t expect “correct” summary descriptions of a novel I read a long time ago. I’m just trying to give an example that might be useful for you.

Frank can’t reconcile his beliefs. He kills himself. That’s, more-or-less, the definition of tragedy. I’d say his belief was something like, “I believe I’m a good and loyal friend” vs. “I believe I love Susan beyond life itself.” Yeah, that doesn’t work out for him. If memory serves, he kills himself.

Oliver is something like, “I believe I’m an honorable, educated, man worthy of love and loyalty” vs. “I believe one more shovel full of dirt and I’ll strike it rich and save everyone around me.” Or, maybe, “I believe I’m a good husband and hard worker” vs. “I believe my worth is determined by the success of my next project.” I’d have to go back and reread it to do better.

Now, Susan, who is probably the most interesting character in the whole nested story mess, appears to be dragged through events, but she really isn’t. She’s just more subtle. Her I.S. is something like, “I believe in the trendy, romantic idealization of love and the West” vs. “I believe in family values and am a good wife and mother.”

The end position for a character who has resolved their I.S. (transformed) is one of the following:

  1. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs and die (Frank). I might also argue that Oliver ends up in this position, but he dies emotionally and spiritually.
  2. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs, but they find a new belief on which to base life choices and actions (Lyman).
  3. Experiences force the character to reject one belief and embrace the other (Susan).
  4. Experiences force the character to find a way to reconcile the two beliefs and live on in harmony with both (Nobody in that story).

Okay, on to memoir.

The chief problem I see when memoirists approach the use of fiction techniques in telling their stories is that they have difficulty stepping back to examine themselves for the underlying psychological, philosophical, and sociological understanding that fiction writers apply when working with made up characters. Finding your own I.S. is like trying to grab your shoelaces and lift yourself up so you can reach a book on the highest shelf. Even if you succeed in violating the laws of physics, you can’t let go of your shoelaces to reach for the book.

The various successful memoirists I have worked with have had to do extensive work in separating themselves from the character who represents them in the story. It’s much harder than making someone up from scratch, but the techniques are the same. For Memoirists, the trick is to do a lot of work figuring out what the core significance of the experience was both for the writer and for the reader. Sometimes, a very clear statement of the experiencing character’s main transformation will allow you to work backward into the land of unconsidered beliefs. Sometimes, deciding to assign an I.S. and then attempting to cause the story to conform to that I.S. will result in either success or failures that provide insights into what was really going on deeper down during the experience.

Regardless, one of the tasks the memoirist must always remember is that no matter what they think the experience meant to them, the end result is only useful if the reading experience means something to the reader. Those two positions are not in any way connected except through craft. Sometimes, they are two completely different meaning results.

I haven’t read your story, and I don’t know enough about it to name the I.S. for you. Frankly, that’s probably a bad idea anyway. However, I can say that once you know it, it is only one of three core control structures I teach. The other two are “arc” and “premise.”

That said, here’s how you described your I.S.: “opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity

The description you provided could be translated into I.S. form like this:

I.S.: “I believe I will only be whole if I am a known, respected member of a small, rural community.” Vs. “I believe only the anonymity of city life will let me fully express who I am.”

Do keep in mind that at story open the character rarely knows they believe both things. Given the above I.S., I can certainly see how a story that demonstrates this conflict of values and transformation of a person could be told. I can’t, however, really speak to how your character and your character context will manifest these belief systems on the dialectic, tactical, conflict set, scene, sequence, or movement dramatic levels. I think that’s where you’re getting stuck. You have an I.S., but the translation of it into increments of stress and change caused by experience isn’t taking your story “from-to” in a way that feels both true and satisfying to you on the I.S. level. For that kind of analysis, I’d also need the premise, arc, and a synoptic outline that captures emotional change resulting from the conflict for each dramatic scene.

I don’t have time or space to do a full exposition of these ideas here, but I can say that by using the control concepts of arc, premise, and I.S., it is possible to analyze the story along the conceptual boundaries readers use to internalize emotions while reading. Subconsciously, readers look for moments of emotional change. In fact, physiologically, they respond to those moments before they have time to think about them. The speed of emotional response overriding the speed of cognitive response is one of the things that keeps readers in the story. Being able to name the I.S., being able to see how each moment of the story either stresses the character’s belief system or confirms it (which is another kind of stress since things will get worse because of confirmations), being able to incrementally move the stress levels toward a personal, emotional/psychological crisis in which the character experiences one of the reconciliation results described above, and being able to deliver the emotional power of that moment of transformation to the reader in a context that allows the reader to FEEL its value to them is, at core, what all story telling is about.

I’m sorry I can’t provide more insight than this. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep and…

Best of luck and skill to you.

Eric