Plotting while Coloring Fish

Have you ever had one of those moments when you just don’t know what comes next? That moment when you have a plot outline, you know where you are going, but it is not coming together. The moment when you realize a character’s storyline is signaling something is out of whack.

For example, one of my main characters in Pay Back, Laury Cooper, was stuck in the Honolulu Airport for months. Just stuck. Wouldn’t leave, didn’t want to, just sat in a seat waiting for me to send him on his fateful way to Saigon before April 29, 1975. Part of the problem was probably fear of facts; historical fiction can do that, accompanied by images of readers throwing rocks at your books or cursing your name for a truth they don’t accept. Like many topics, Vietnam has that effect on those who lived through the era. The other problem was me; I knew once Laury left that airport, I faced writing his scenes like a fiend in a semi-frenzy, possibly without bathing, until his part of the book was drafted.

It held up the book’s publication. So, recently when one of the main characters in my new historical series started balking about his storyline in book two and refusing to leave another main character’s pantry, it began to impinge on the publication date of the first book in the series. This led to my discovery of plotting while coloring fish. Had I known the technique earlier, poor old Laury Cooper (Pay Back: The Cooper Quartet) would have been on his way from Honolulu to Saigon and the book published on time.

How did I discover the wonder of plotting while coloring fish? I downloaded an online coloring book to my phone for something to do while standing in lines, etc. Quite by accident, I discovered the Zen of it all. With my hands and eyes occupied finding numbered colors, my brain began to noodle over my plot predicament, working it out with each color, my eyes locked on the screen, my senses engaged in the picture filling in before my eyes. Any scientist will tell you that one time is not proof, so the next time I was stumped, I did the same thing, and again, the plot resolved itself, enabling me and the characters to move on.

Which is wonderful, but unless I grab a notebook or run to my computer, my thoughts are lost in the ether even if repeated out loud seven times. I used to be one of the notebook people, spiral-bound notebooks in different colors with the book’s working title written across the front in indelible ink. The troubles with that method are the following: which notebook is the note in, where is the notebook (never where I am), and on which page are the glorious words that take the plot from mediocre to the heights (I tended to write on the backs of pages, up the sides, and in no particular order).

I now have my ReMarkable2 (https://remarkable.com/) at my elbow, not a notepad, not a notecard, or a sticky note. When inspiration strikes, I scribble my brilliance on a page in my ReMarkable, name the file so I can find it, file it under the appropriate book, and keep coloring or keep scribbling depending on where the flow is best, comfortable that my genius has been captured. When I do get to the computer, I prop my ReMarkable on a bookstand, open the appropriate file, and have my thoughts, new direction, and any new text at hand as I write.

I can hardly wait to color each morning. It gets my juices flowing, allowing me to revisit where I left off writing the day before and resolve any outstanding issues before applying the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair and succumbing to the discipline of writing.

And if I get stuck, I can always color fish or birds or flowers or . . .

Five Things . . .

. . . in no particular order of importance and strictly reflective of what’s annoying me about my writing right now, with the full knowledge that we all have annoying habits and weaknesses that we continually battle to overcome. This writing thing is hard, even if 50% of it is applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair.

Describe bit players as they occur. I tend to drib and drab out character descriptions for secondary/tertiary characters, hair here, nose there, expecting the other characters’ reaction to the person to provide the details. It takes so little time to write a description – Mary had bright friendly eyes that tipped up at the ends and a broad happy smile. Now whenever Mary appears, the reader sees Mary. How hard is that?

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Develop a reusable one paragraph backstory for each central character to use the first or second time the character appears in any book in a series. I do fine with the main characters but could do a better job with the supporting cast, especially in Wanee, my small town with its rotating cast of supporting characters. The reader should be able to associate a face, walk, demeanor and history with a name – always. Having just read the latest James R. Benn, I’ll use him as an example. Benn uses the same description for Kaz in every book, but it works, both as a reminder to those who have read the other books in the series and for readers new to Billy Boyle.

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Pick better titles. I’m rotten at this. Rotten. Rotten. Rotten. The world is convinced one of my books is about vampires, another about a horse, and another an entry into a series on using technology. Okay, I didn’t research the titles, I didn’t write to a title, the titles sprang from the text, except the two books named after places, Booth Island and Perfidia (yes, I am aware it is a famous, famous song, my characters dance to it in Barbados, and, yes, James Elroy has a book by that name). I’m just lucky I didn’t name it Pirates of the Caribbean. I need to do all the things I didn’t, and I need reviewers to tell me I’m crazy when I am.

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Have patience with the process. My first draft is a detailed synopsis, like 70 – 80,000 words of detail, many of which don’t belong. The second draft (reworked a bazillion times) is tighter and usually the draft I send to my Remarkable (if you don’t have one get one) for a detailed read, edit, and rewrite. While reading, I forget that I’m working on a draft and get discouraged wondering what clown produced the sloppy book with the gaping holes in the plot. Patience, my dear. Patience, read carefully, edit carefully, fill holes and it will come together. Then do it all over again.

Don’t use surnames for characters that end in s such as Jones – it just makes plurals and apostrophes a nightmare. I know it, but I keep doing it. Then I just plow ahead through the draft, soon I have a sloppy mix of s, es, ‘s, s’ and es’ soup that defies copyediting.

BONUS:

Quit clipping sentences in fight scenes. They end up reading like someone announcing a prize fight. I write them as I envision them, my eyes closed, my fingers in high gear, and I guess in staccato bursts. Not only do the scenes end up choppy – they are exhausting. Maybe that’s a good thing, like being in a prize fight. Hmmm?

Well – back at it!

Print the Legend?

Midway through the second novel in my new series, I realized I needed to do more research. So, I stopped before my character’s zeal to confess his backstory irretrievably misdirected my story and the series and did more research on the Civil War.

My challenge is the character’s story involves a man the North made into and still believes was the great monster of the Civil War, while the South still calls him a hero, and the military still studies his genius. Bedford Forrest was not a West Pointer, he was not the son of Southern aristocracy but of a poor farmer who died leaving him head of the household at fifteen, he was semi-literate, and as a man made his living as a slave trader. The question is, when politics define history, what story does the storyteller tell?

I admire James R. Benn for his myth regarding Eisenhower’s distant nephew that fuels the Billy Boyle series, it is plausible, a bit humorous, and works. But who didn’t like Ike? Or am I that old? Though Ike fiddled around with his MTC driver, he never became the subject of the teeth-gnashing yellow journalism Forrest did after the “massacre” at Fort Pillow. One could argue that if most of the troops protecting Fort Pillow had not been black, the ruthless overrun of the fort would not have made the front page of abolitionist newspapers and the New York Times.

The massacre at Fort Pillow was a gift to the North. It proclaimed a Southern monster days after the 13th Amendment passed the Senate, energized Lincoln’s base in an election year, helped the 13th Amendment through Congress, and reinvigorated the Northern fight as Lincoln let Grant and Sherman loose on the South. Though excoriated, General Forrest put the skeer in the Northern generals and keep them skeered, raiding Union stockpiles, burning bridges, and winning battles against long odds right up to the end.

After the war, every time Forrest’s influence rose, the Northern press dredged up Fort Pillow, proving Reconstructionist-era politicos were as afraid of him as their generals had been during the war. Did his decision to lead the nascent Ku Klux Klan help public perception? Of course not. He lent his skills to the fledgling organization to get a Reconstruction Governor out of the Tennessee State House. When the Governor moved to the US Senate, Forrest resigned his leadership. That Klan disappeared after a few years to be reborn in the 1920s as the terrorist Klan we know.

Even now, the Northern legend that the South’s best general was a murdering, slave-trading monster is accepted fact. How then does my character tell a believable tale of an eleven-year-old boy riding with and cared for by Forrest after the boy’s father dies in battle? Will readers accept my character’s backstory, will they label me an apologist, will they ban the book? In the current climate, anything is possible.

My character stands by his story, though the other characters in Illinois in 1876 will not believe it any more than they would now. But it is an opportunity to air both sides of the argument for and against a brilliant, complicated, profane man who managed hell so well both Patton and Rommel studied him.

So, getting back to the title of this blog, at the end of John Ford’s movie The Man who shot Liberty Valance, when Jimmy Stewart’s character finishes telling the truth about Liberty Valance’s death, the newspaperman taking notes says, “When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.” In that story, a tough, irascible man does the right thing to save a man he considers better than him. The act changes the trajectory of both their lives forever. Forrest’s “legend” changed his life and the trajectory of this country, as well, otherwise, historians say, we might have become the Confederate States of America. There is a story there.

Just Checking – Grammar Checkers

I am a famous comma masher. Once I’m in the groove, I tend to put commas where my head stops and let my gerunds run wild like mustangs on the plains, resulting in images like one my mother once blurted out: I saw an eagle driving down the road. I teased her mercilessly for years, not anymore. My challenge is ensuring commas are where they need to be and not where they’re not. So, I use Microsoft Editor and/or Grammarly to keep me on the straight and narrow (or arrow, as a friend believed, an image unto itself).

For fun, I ran two draft paragraphs through Grammarly and Microsoft Editor. One thing is clear; they rely on different stylebooks with commas and semi-colons coming and going between them.

ME vs. GRAMMAR CHECKERS – The apps’ suggestions are in parenthesis after my text; Grammarly (G), Editor(E),both(GE).

“You,” Cora called, “Despite the signs set out earlier, our water is for the boarders (borders GE) here. It is not public. And we have sick in this house (, G) so I cannot attest to the water’s cleanliness.”

One man backed; the others stood their ground. “Can’t be both, (; G) either its good water for your boarders (borders G) or it’s bad,” one of the two said.

And another . . .

A skinny body in faded tweed pants ran up the street (, G) calling her name. Cora waited until Tommy Newsom reached her, flushed from his run, his plain face sweating under a ragged straw hat, dust (, E) and dirt billowing behind him.

“Miss Countryman, please,” he pulled on the sleeve of her dress. “Please, I just come from the undertaker’s, ma’am. Two men brung (brought GE) Mr. Kanady in there, (; G) now he’s layin’ all white like the rest of them (the GE) dead bodies. He don’t (doesn’t GE) belong in (delete in, G) there, not with them. He’d rise if he could. No matter if’n he was dead or not.”

COMMENTS and OBSERVATIONS

My observation is that in its drive to be the go-to grammar app for business, Grammarly has become a swampy bog for storytellers. I miss the early versions of Grammarly when you could check grammar, spelling, or punctuation one at a time. Not anymore, now it gloms onto your file and drills through your text relentlessly totaling up the error count while reconstructing sentences, seeking improvements such as the house’s door instead of the door to the house. There is, in my head, a place for both. But then, it is my head, which may or may not be a safe or sane place.

It used to be easy to add a word to Grammarly’s dictionary. It isn’t now or I just can’t figure it out.. So, Grammarly endlessly corrects perfectly correct words (boarders) and colloquialisms every blooming time they appear. Unlike Microsoft Editor which learns boarders is a word after the first correction, much appreciated since one of my main characters runs a boarding house with boarders.

And, charmingly, Grammarly offers irrelevant word options such as president, chairperson, or head as an alternative for a chair (he sat on the president) to freshen up your text. Or, as it did two paragraphs above, suggests the text read: the house’s door instead of the entrance to the house. Microsoft Editor does no such thing. But is Editor as good as Grammarly at catching what needs caught? Know this — Editor is not as intrusive or overwhelming. Grammarly will happily inform you that you have 2,400 errors in 80,000-words when most are repetitive or irrelevant, as above. My immediate response is the desire to slit my wrists followed by the resolve to drill down through the text — days— to find the nuggets which, in all fairness, are there.

GRAMMARLY or EDITOR

I leave it up to you to decide which is best or whether you even want to bother with either. As for me, I reckon until the next best thing comes along, a quick run through Editor or a slog through Grammarly is better than ending up with an eagle driving down the road.

The Big Dream for Amazon – Amazon Reads

Remember when Amazon first began? The company’s one goal was to be the biggest book store in the world with enough books to fill the coliseum. Well?

It is, but it isn’t.

Have you ever tried to find a book on Amazon by the title alone? I did recently and was provided a whole array of sponsored electrical equipment and beauty products before the book’s cover appeared. Well, actually all the books with similar titles appeared, the book I sought among them.

In my dream world, Amazon goes back to its roots and splits into separate websites, such as: general retail; groceries, and bookstore. So, as a reader, I can sign on to a site called Amazon Reads or Books and wander the shelves, if virtually, without inundation by merchandise sellers and all the other piffle you get when you sign onto your Amazon main page.

Amazon has the chops to do this, and I believe book sales would increase because us poor readers could actually find the book we want, instead of being bombarded with books of no interest and unrelated products from random departments, including bras, electrical generators, and bamboo sheets.

I am talking about a nice, clean site for books, like the wonderful old bookstore in San Francisco, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books. You sign-in, a published today feature lets you know the new books in the genre you most often buy, from there you type in the book you seek, and up it pops. Any book advertising runs down the side of the screen, including bestsellers and sponsored book ads. Other books with similar titles appear after the book you seek, not before it.

On this dedicated book site, when you type in the author’s name all of that author’s books appear, uninterrupted by sponsored books, sponsored products (like bread pans), or whatever the heck else Amazon is pushing. This would be great for those who write in more than one genre because someone who reads your cozy mystery might see a cover, read the description, and decide to buy one of your very un-cozy thrillers.

In addition to finding books by author, readers should be able select and search in more defined and specific genres according to their taste, such as cozy romantic suspense, not-so-cozy romantic suspense, and not-even-close-to-cozy romantic suspense.

On a personal level, I don’t mind other related books appearing in my searches, I might find something I like, but they should come after the book I’ve asked for and not include sponsored ads for books from a different genre like vampires, fifty shades of whatever, and the dystopian world of aggrieved youth. Call me cockeyed, but I think a search for a Vietnam thriller should not result in a screen full of sexy vampire books, vampire books should remain among the undead.

And as I wrote last year, without a consistently applied scale, reader reviews should stop —now (both number of stars and quantity of reviews). Books aren’t camping equipment. We used to buy books by word of mouth or by discovery, Amazon’s review system is an antithesis of this, squelching triers. I have read, as I am sure many of you have, books by bestselling authors with a gazillion reviews all swearing the book is the best thing ever when the book was garbage. In fact, I left a one star review for a bigtime author in nearly those words. Truthfully, I was harsher. And likewise, we have all discovered/taken a chance on/read books without reviews that were to die for (and probably didn’t leave a review when we should have). Hopefully, we touted the book and author to all we met, and in our blogs or newsletters.

Amazon favors the big names and big spenders now, just like the publishing houses did before Amazon came into the world hoping to be the biggest book store ever. Sales is their king, but I suggest that book sales would increase for Amazon if they ran a bookstore where readers could find the book they want to buy with ease (not the DVD version, the Amazon Prime version, or the game version) whether hardcover, paperback, e-, online or audio — and without bedsheets or vampires.