Author Archives: admin

About admin

So many changes! I've recently retired from teaching, returned from living in Germany, and am exploring the many blessings and challenges of early retirement. When not writing this blog, I write mysteries, women's fiction, and dark little stories. Life is good in Tacoma, WA, even though I often feel like a foreigner here. Here's to change, the only constant in life.

Trying a New Genre: Romance

It’s IWSG time again! The Insecure Writers’ Support Group is a place where writers encourage each other, express their doubts, and offer help. According to their website, it’s “a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds.” They also offer oodles of resources for writers. Visit them here:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

This month’s question: Have you ever surprised yourself with your writing? For example, by trying a new genre you didn’t think you’d be comfortable in?

Why yes, I did!

On social media, I happened on an article on how lucrative and fun it can be to write erotica. This got me thinking: most of my favorite stories have a strong romantic element and some spicy love scenes. My three completed novel manuscripts, two cozy mysteries and a women’s fiction story, all have a strong romantic thread. Why not try writing a schmexy story in which the romance was the main plot thread, for once?

At first, I thought I was writing a story that was mainly about a young widow’s sexual re-awakening. But you know how it goes: the characters had other plans. Sixty thousand words later, I had the first draft of a romance novel with more emphasis on hearts and minds than on loins—though the sexy scenes were great fun to write.

My goodness, there are so many flavors of romance fiction and erotica! I’ve been gobbling up romance novels like popcorn, learning about this new genre. Honestly, I’ve discarded about half of them after a few chapters. There’s a lot of trite, poorly written romance fiction out there, with silly twits for heroines. But—and this is a bit but—the ones that grab me really grab me.

And so, after feedback from three generous beta readers, I’m hard at work revising my first contemporary romance novel. I’m sure it won’t be my last.

What about you? Have you tried writing a new genre just for fun? Was it a positive experience?

 

Fashion and Vengeance: What I’ve Learned about Myself by Writing Fiction

“We’re all just working on our own stuff.” This comment from a wise women’s fiction writer has got me thinking. Lately, I’ve noticed some surprising threads in my own fiction writing: a fixation on fabulous outfits and well-deserved comeuppance. (Isn’t that a great word?)

I’m currently resting in the pause between fiction projects. My latest completed-for-now manuscript, a cozy mystery, is in the hands of beta readers, and I’m about to jump back into a romance novel that’s been marinating for a few months. In between, I revised three short stories that had been cooling on the corner of my desk for a good six months—all of them Twilight Zone-esque tales of psychological suspense.

Three different genres, but all highlight costume and karma. In fact, two of my creepy short stories feature clothing with magical properties. My female protagonists use clothing to express their inner sparkle, their complex, artistic souls.

Several male critique partners have pointed out how often I focus on what my characters are wearing. (Women readers don’t seem to mind.) And what do I wear as I write these stories? Mostly exercise gear, stuff I’d never wear outside my home unless on my way to the gym. It’s comfortable, but not creative or glamorous. Hmm—do you suppose my protagonists are trying to tell me something?

My upbringing urged me to be modest, obedient, not to call attention to myself. I thought I was done with that nonsense, having accepted my inner applause junkie long ago. But my protagonists are pointing out a bit of self-sabotage I’d do well to notice.

And while in real life I endeavor to have faith in karma and tamp down my tendency to be judgmental, in my fiction someone nasty always gets what’s coming to him or her. If I do my job well, that comeuppance arrives in unexpected ways, but arrive it does. In real life, I’m a powerless observer; on the page, I’m an avenging fury.

I’ll bet it would take years of therapy to gain this kind of insight. Okay, writing fiction is just as time-consuming, but it’s cheaper! What have you learned about yourself from your fictional creations?

What are your values?

Mount Rainier on a smoky day

“I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values—and follow my own moral compass—then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.”

–Michelle Obama, from her remarks at the Tuskegee University                                                             Commencement Address, 2015

A few months ago, I wrote about my newfound love of podcasts. Hey, I’m a late bloomer, hence the name of this blog. One of my favorites, The Minimalists, frequently discusses the importance of identifying your values so you can align your life with same. Of course, some values are more—er—valuable than others. Identifying my values is an excellent exercise, and one that bears repeating every few years or so. Otherwise, I risk getting caught up in pursuits and priorities that don’t reflect my soul’s true direction—and that’s how one gets lost.

The Minimalists offer their own hierarchy of values, but I’ve modified that a bit, organizing mine into Foundational Values (must address every day) and Aspirational Values (I haven’t reached these yet, but want to). I’m not saying that I live up to this list 100% every day, but having these goals before me helps me to live a meaningful life. Here are mine. What are yours?

Foundational Values:

  • Conscious living—thinking about the choices I make, rather than following the crowd.
  • Creativity—writing, cooking, artwork, music, dance…
  • Simplicity—A corollary of #1 above, I try to include only those things and activities that add value to my life.
  • Good health—because my spirit lives in a body.
  • Achievement—I feel best about myself when I can look at concrete accomplishments.
  • Balance—work and play, alone and together, sit and stand and walk and dance…
  • Intellectual Curiosity—because the world is so interesting!

Aspirational Values:

  • Order—Yeah, this one needs work, but life is more enjoyable if I can find stuff.
  • Discipline—I exercise discipline in my writing schedule. In other arenas, I have work to do.
  • Beauty—Beautiful surroundings, beautiful clothing, these give me great pleasure.
  • Music—I love it and want to include more in my life.
  • Connection—I need to push myself to connect with those I love more often and to meet new people, because they’re not going to come into my writing cave (except on social media).

Care to share some of your guiding values?

IWSG Question o’ the Month: Pet Peeves

The first Wednesday of the month brings another blog-hop from the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. IWSG is a valuable resource for all of us hacking our way through the jungle of writing advice. Check it out here: http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

Thanks to this month’s IWSG hosts: Christine Rains, Dolarah @ Book Lover, Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor, Yvonne Ventresca, and LG Keltner!

This month’s question: What are your pet peeves when reading/writing/editing?

Hoo boy, I can’t wait to read this month’s replies. I love a good rant. Warning: there’s strong language below.

I have learned so much from reading and critiquing the works-in-progress of other writers, both in face-to-face critique groups and in online manuscript swaps. Despite my extensive experience in written expression, a few boo-boos will always escape my notice. My readers help me catch those, along with areas where I was unclear or missed an opportunity for greater impact. I’m grateful for their help.

That said, I carefully proofread my submissions before asking anyone else to read them. The main purpose of writing is clarity, whether the writer is trying to convey a scene, a character, a theme, an emotion, or an explanation.

I wish all my critique partners would take care to proofread before asking me to read their work. (My WFWA partners do.) It’s not like we weren’t taught this stuff in school. It’s not like this information is difficult to find if we need a refresher on, say, comma usage.

I run into two scenarios:

#1: The writer shrugs. “I’m not good at punctuation. I hope you’ll help me.”

#2: “Who cares about commas? You know what I mean. Why are you being such a pedantic jerk about spelling and punctuation?”

In response to #1: Extensive line editing is time-consuming, and it’s not a service I offer for free. Sure, we’ll all miss a few errors, but when I have to wade through a jungle of superfluous punctuation, gaping holes where punctuation ought to be, tangles of vagueness, and steaming pits of confusing word choice, I get frustrated and tired before I ever reach the story.

And isn’t the story what it’s all about?

As to #2: Imagine this attitude translated to other scenarios—for example, talking to your tax accountant.

“Okay, yearly income. Let’s say 50K.”

“But your W2 form says you make $68,732.”

“Whatever! They’ll know what I mean. Precision’s not important here.”

“Actually, it is. If you enter the wrong amount, the IRS will come after you for back taxes, plus penalties—”

“I hate the IRS, and I hate picky assholes like you.” (Gathers papers and stomps off.)

Or at band practice:

“Wait, someone’s playing the wrong note. We’re in the key of D.”

“Why is it important that I play in D? I’m really feeling it in C minor. Sounds good to me.”

“That’s not how the song goes, man. It’s D minor, then B sharp, then—”

“Whatever, man. You’re always criticizing me. You’re a picky, pedantic asshole.”

“And you’re out of the band.”

Precision is vital in written communication. Words and punctuation marks are the tools we use to convey meaning. Maybe you didn’t like English class. Maybe your teacher smelled funny. Maybe she was mean, and you really wanted to be fixing your makeup or playing a computer game instead of learning how to use apostrophes.

Tough shit. Clear communication is important.

Tripping Over Tropes in Women’s Fiction

Continuing the discussion from two weeks ago, I started a post about tropes in another genre near to my heart: women’s fiction. But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t seem to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t hurt the feelings of certain people whose feelings I did not want to hurt. It ultimately boiled down to my critical thoughts about a certain world view.

No, not politics—I’m talking about issues like victimhood, agency, self-advocacy, passivity, resilience. I couldn’t express my frustration with certain types of female protagonists without coming across as dismissive of women who’d suffered greatly at the hands of others, and that was not my intention—so into the trash can that post went.

Instead, as an exercise in positivity, I compiled a list of what I do want to find in a novel I read. This also serves as a checklist for my own writing.

  • For me, realism and believability are key. This doesn’t exclude magical, made-up worlds: I’ve read historical and fantasy fiction where I completely bought into the actions and motivations of the characters. Likewise, I’ve read contemporary fiction where I’ve thrown down the book in disgust, exclaiming, “No way anyone would say/do that!”
  • a protagonist who’s brave, audacious, resilient, creative, flamboyant, funny, smart
  • a protagonist I’d want to spend time with. She needs to be passionate about something other than just a guy, her kids, shopping, a corporate job. Not that family and jobs aren’t important, but I want to see substance beyond those basics.
  • a protag who thinks before she acts. If she makes an obviously bad decision, I want to see her reasons as she decides, and they’d better make sense in the moment. If later she learns something that reveals her reasons to be invalid, that’s okay. But if she allows herself to be buffeted about by strong emotions with no thought to consequences–meh.
  • sparkling, funny, biting dialogue
  • sensory description that allows me to peer over the characters’ shoulders and experience the scene as if I were there.
  • lots of scenes. Yes, narrative summary has its place, but I most enjoy stories I can experience as if I were watching a movie, but with a great sound system, vibrating seats, and Smell-o-rama.
  • Lots of riveting plot action but—and this is tricky—a minimum of obvious, formulaic manipulation. If every scene ends with a melodramatic cliffhanger, I feel like I’m watching a badly-written TV show. I like a break every now and then, a funny or reflective scene that lets me catch my breath.
  • This one is especially important for me to remember as a writer: a character who learns something about herself and/or others as a result of the plot events.
  • Of course, recipes are a plus.

How about you? Do the items above resonate with you? Care to add an essential of your own to the list?

Learning Patience

July beauty from Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park

Once again, I welcome a new month with a blog hop from the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. Thanks to Alex Cavanaugh and this month’s cohosts Tamara Narayan, Pat Hatt, Patricia Lynne, Juneta Key, and Doreen McGettigan. Check out their helpful resources for writers, including an upcoming Twitter pitch event, here:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

July 5 Question: What is one valuable lesson you’ve learned since you started writing?

I’ve learned patience–or rather, I’m learning patience. It’s a struggle, because I’m an impatient, over-caffeinated achievement junkie.

I queried my first two novels too soon. Of course, I didn’t know any better at the time–they felt done to me, and I was itchy for forward progress toward my dream of publication. The more you learn, the more you know, right?

My current WIP is moving forward at a snail’s pace, but it’s moving forward and is more substantial, more layered, more suspenseful and emotionally meaty than my previous stories.

It soothes my impatient ego to hear published writers tell about their first, unpublished novels—sometimes just a few, sometimes a trunkful. And on one of my favorite podcasts, The Creative Penn, author Joanna Penn asserts that an indie author can make a good income when she has twenty books out. Twenty!

To paraphrase Penn, what would you rather be doing with your time? I’d rather be writing. Onward!

Here’s wishing you a juicy, joyful July.

Tripping Over Tropes, Part One: Romance

“What kind of books do you write?”

I’ve always resisted attempts to fence me in—not a good trait in a writer who wants to sell books.

I want to write, and read, stories of adventure, love, domesticity, revenge, creative self-fulfillment, murder, introspection, friendship, and vanquishing evil. The thread running through my favorite stories is the sympathetic, realistic protagonist who defies expectations to make a fresh start.

Wise writing mentors tell us: You’ve got to know whom you’re writing for and what sort of book experience she wants. You’ve got to know which shelf your book is going to land on. Romance readers expect certain things, as do mystery fans, women’s fiction fans, etc.

Who doesn’t love a good love story? Most books I’ve loved have a strong romantic element woven into the plot. And I love romance’s optimism—you know there’s a happy ever after coming, no matter how bad things get for our heroine. Life outside the book covers (especially politics) provides plenty of doom and gloom.

But my recent efforts to read good romance novels have led to a big pile of unfinished books. I like my characters believable, my heroines smart and brave. So far, I’ve found very few women like that between the covers of romance novels. Of course, an interesting heroine will have insecurities and past failures–everyone does–but she won’t be a quivering puddle of self-doubt.

I also love steamy sex scenes—in the context of a relationship, of course—but most of the sex scenes I’ve read so far sound like they were written by guys, or by women who’ve never had an actual orgasm. And romance tales about instant love? She sees him across the room and melts into a quivering puddle of desire and love, knowing he’s the one and only for her, forever and ever, amen. Yeah—that doesn’t happen. That level of love comes only after a slow build-up of getting to know the guy—and that build-up is what I want to read/write.

Oh, and domineering males? Can’t stand ‘em. I’ve never longed for some handsome guy to show up and boss me around. What’s up with that? I don’t care if he’s a bazillionaire—don’t tell me what to do, Bud! So much for the alpha hero.

And inexperienced, sweet young things? Meh. In real life, that rosy first kiss of maidenhood seldom results in lasting love. I’d like to read about mature women finding love after the first blush of youth.

So perhaps I’m not cut out to write romance fiction. Except all my daydreams, all those elaborate tales I’ve spun since I was a wee maid, have all centered around falling in love. That sort of story is calling to me. I guess I’ll keep writing them, and hope there are readers out there who want to read about love that could actually happen.

Can you recommend a trope-defying, believable romance novel?

An At-Home Writer’s Retreat

What’s an introvert to do?

I’m not a mole-woman who never emerges from her writing cave, but I do need a hefty portion of alone time every day for my writing, as well as solitary time just to process my thoughts and feeling and settle into my own rhythm–not to mention checking social media for cute puppy memes.

Whereas hubs, whom I love to the moon and back, needs more social contact, both from me and from others. He’s supportive of my writing, but living with a partner means I have to leave my office from time to time—often just when the writing’s flowing. And while errands and other projects give us the chance to reconnect, they often end with me grumbling about the writing time I’ve missed.

Enter the golf trip! Last week, D met two old friends for a week of golfing and male bonding, leaving me alone at home to write, write, write. It was marvelous! I had a few social meetups with friends, but otherwise kept my own company for eight days. Never have I been so productive!

I spent most of the week at my desk, wearing exercise clothes, typing away madly. When my head began to buzz and my body to ache from too much sitting, I’d go for a walk, then pour another cup of coffee and mount a fresh attack.

In that time, I finished reading Lisa Cron’s Story Genius and doing the exercises therein for half-finished mystery novel. What a revelation! If, like mine, your stories are overpopulated with characters and subplots, if your pacing drags, I highly recommend her techniques. It took me about three weeks to work through all these exercises, but the story is now so much more intense, so much tighter.

Sure, if money were not a concern I’d go find a wind-swept coastal cabin to hole up and write for a week, but I wouldn’t have been any more productive, any more at peace. A week alone at home was all I needed to clean out my pipes, rebalance my attitude, and shut down my grumbling. Not to mention how glad I am to see Hubs again.

Vive la staycation!

Never give up! Never surrender!

June is truly bustin’ out all over. (Bonus points if you can name that musical) Here in Tacoma, Washington, we’re enjoying intermittent spurts of lovely summer weather, punctuated by bouts of drizzle.

Tacoma’s Chinese Reconciliation Park

Once again, we welcome a new month with a blog hop from the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. Here’s their mission statement and a link, should you care to join the conversation. Please do!

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

Thank you to this month’s co-hosts, JH Moncrieff, Madeline Mora-Summonte, Jen Chandler, Megan Morgan, and Heather Gardner!

June 7th IWSG Day Question: Did you ever say “I quit”? If so, what happened to make you come back to writing? My answer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fdcIwHKd_s

Seriously, I’ve never given up writing, though I have put a project on the back burner when my daily life became overstuffed with job/family demands. Speaking of…

In a recent online discussion over at the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, (another fine group I highly recommend to writers in that genre), some wise writer said, “We’re all just working out our own stuff.”

So, I have this protagonist named Lola. She’s fifty-five, and is my fictional role model. At least, that’s how she began. But a gleaming, perfect role model isn’t as interesting to read about as someone with problems—lots of relatable, complicated problems, with roots deep in her past.

I’ve recently worked my way through Lisa Cron’s game-changing craft book Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. Her main point: Story is not about what happens, it’ about what those events mean to the protagonist, and how they cause her to change.

I’m using Cron’s techniques to rework a half-completed novel, and it’s coming together in ways that have eluded me until now. I can now see a steady march of cause and effect based on Lola’s inner conflict in the story. Huzzah!

But in digging into Lola’s past and her mistaken beliefs, I’m seeing unsettling parallels to my own, ahem, issues. Up until now, I’ve believed that Lola was connected to me only by a few superficial details: hair shade, retired teacher, love of belly dancing, artistic pursuits. But in creating a more fleshed-out inner conflict for her, I’m having epiphany after epiphany.

For example: Lola has not spent as much time as she’d like on her artistic pursuits, and she’s blamed the demands of job and family. Of course, this leads to resentment about those demands. Zounds, that’s me!

Writing is therapeutic, but until this experience I’ve thought of that truth mostly in terms of writing in a journal, or creative non-fiction. It turns out that I’ve actually been processing lots of my own internal conflicts via my fiction.

Well, duh! I don’t call myself a late-blooming rose for nothing. Do you see reflections of yourself in your fictional characters?

 

I love a fresh start.

Summertime on the Puget Sound

We’ve had a cold, soggy spring in Tacoma. Most days, the sky and the Puget Sound have been a uniform shade of gray. At long last, the springtime sun flirts with us from behind the clouds, bringing promise of a new beginning.

The other day, I was reading a social media conversation among writers about fear of the blank page. Many find it hard to begin a new project, intimidated by all that white space. Me, I love a clean slate, a fresh start, a wide-open vista of endless possibilities. I love to sit down at my computer, or outdoors with my notebook, and just blather forth. Blah, blah, blah! Natter natter natter! Etc., and so forth, and so on!

I love that part.

Imagining scenes and characters and writing them down is easy and fun—for me, anyway. The hard part is cleaning it up and making sense of it all.

Right now, I’m working my way through the craft book that has my writer friends all a-twitter: Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. My half-finished mystery story needs a good clean-up, afflicted as it is with my usual slow-paced start, over-abundance of characters and side-plots, and protagonistic pontifications. So far, I’m finding Cron’s approach very helpful, like a stern but sympathetic teacher who raps her ruler on my desk every time she sees my attention start to wander.

Another fresh start that’s beckoning is summer break. My giddy anticipation of the end of the school year is more than a bit ridiculous, considering that I teach only five hours per week. But still—the promise of summer glimmers on the horizon: warm, lazy, self-directed days, unimpeded by commuting or lesson plans.

And I’ve decided not to accept any teaching jobs next year, having remembered the hard way how much prep time goes into each lesson taught. I only have so much focus and energy per day, and far too much of it has been spent on finding or creating materials for French instruction. Hats off to elementary and preschool teachers. Having stood briefly in your shoes, I have more respect than ever for the sheer amount of work you do to keep those little ones excited about learning. Y’all must be mainlining caffeine to do that all day long.

This detour back into teaching has sharpened my awareness of how much I enjoy writing. If I ever hope to publish my work, and I do, I need to devote my high-energy time to that pursuit. Lesson learned.

So, here’s to a new season and a fresh start.