Writing vs Knitting, Different or the Same?

Have you ever found the bag of yarn for an afghan you planned to knit/crochet during the winter months but not the instructions? That’s what it’s like to write a book. Every time you open the bag, it is full of tangled skeins of possibilities, different yarns, weights of yarn, and colors waiting to be knitted into a cohesive whole that matches a picture you’ve concocted in your head.

Add to the various yarns and colors, different sized knitting needles and crochet hooks, the use of which results in different size stitches, different thicknesses of fabric, and different lengths and widths of the finished product that enrich and add depth to the design.

So, you pull out the yarn, decide on the main colors (characters), secondary colors (second bananas), and pattern (plot). You’re knitting this one in twenty squares. You test the gauge of each yarn against the ruler, so you know how many stitches per square, ensuring they will fit together.

Your design set, you wait a day, look at it again and realize square five needs to precede square four, and what the heck were you thinking on square eleven. You move things around a bit, then start. Square one measures the right size, it follows the theme and color scheme, so you move on to square two. About square five, you unravel square two because the pattern doesn’t add to the flow. As you knit, you revise the design, unraveling on occasion, recasting, and reknitting.

When you have all your squares done, you sew them together. And though you took the utmost care with the colors, size, and pattern of each, it turns out you need a new square sixteen to fill a hole in the pattern that foreshadow the red in the last four squares. Now, you have one too many squares. And square six needs more blue, seven more green, and ten through thirteen more white, then you notice that square nine muddles the whole pattern (what the heck is all that purple). You do the fixes, add square sixteen, remove square nine, and voila, you have a gorgeous afghan.

You take it to your knitting club for review. The first reviewer asks why there is so much red, and the next why there is so much green. They shake their heads at your explanation. Steaming, you take your afghan home, hang it on the wall, and stare at it for a few days. In the end, you unravel some red, leave the green, pull out square fifteen, add a new square with a tinge of purple, and try again. Your reviewers love the changes.

You take a photo, write an ad, attach a price, and place it on Amazon. The first Amazon review reads it could have used some red in the square you removed it from at your reviewer’s request, and what about that dropped stitch you missed? You snarl. Then start square four of your newest creation, purling instead of knitting.

You unravel and start over.

Five More Things

It never fails. The draft is finished, time to read it, fill in a few blanks, do a little editing, in hopes you have written an exciting, interesting, charming, slam-bang mystery or thriller. Then —

The same %$%&* word … or the word of the day.

It is amazing how one word that fits a sentence and conveys the perfect image can take up residence in your brain then appear in your text time after time. A breeze can blush, blow, whoosh, loft, so why is it always soughing. The only known cure is a Thesaurus and patiently finding just the right word to replace the word of the day.

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Saying what the paragraph is about, then describing it. It is a habit of mine in early drafts (a bad one) to begin a paragraph with a sentence that tells me what comes next, especially at the end of a writing day. All too often that reminder sentence is still in the final draft.

As in: Cora stepped off the boardwalk and noticed the change in her hometown, followed by —

Men in homespun shirts, pants, vests, and floppy flat caps descended the boardwalk stairs two at a time, scurrying across the street mid-block. They stood in groups chattering away, leaving little room for women to pass. Admiring those women who were young and prettily dressed. *

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What size is it? Big, small, large, medium … far, near. The park was large. Well, in truth it is a 1/2 mile by 1/4 mile wide, with a five-acre pond in the middle. It is so easy to drop big, small, short, tall in as you write, when you could create a picture for readers —

Kanady brushed Cora aside, looming over Mrs. Gibson, his intent to dwarf her clear this time, he asked, “An’, ma’am, what name do you claim fo’ yourself? You who would swindle a whol’ town at $10.00 a barrel.”  *

Enough or too much description, especially clothes and the contents of rooms

In the late 1800s, women’s wear defined class, age, marital status, while men, as men do, wore the same darn thing every day. The variants being whether or not they had their coat on, their vest off, or didn’t bother with a shirt, opting to walk around with the top of their union shirt showing, vested or unvested.

Cora fanned herself with a folded sheet from the day’s newspaper, her bare feet resting on a chair in the kitchen. Her plain gray muslin smock and hair were thick with flour from baking the loaves of bread needed for the reception and the week. *

Clothes define character and set a scene, but when do they interfere with the read? If I start skimming a book, I assume I’ve gone overboard and begin trimming. But I worry that my tolerance is high having made a modest living designing dresses for a very short time. I guess that’s what beta readers are for.

Now and just …

When an author uses now as in now, he turned, it jars me out of the past-tense narrative, as though this particular action is happening right now and the next has occurred. But because it bothers me, I avoid doing it. As a word now is easy to overuse and can be a lazy habit in both narrative and dialogue. Not that now doesn’t have its place, as in:

He is now interested in flies, seeking to discover what local flies come and when on bodies left out in the weather.

“Just now, I was on my way to The Courier when I saw Cora run into the fray. What was I to do, let the horsemen and their horses trample her?”

The same for just and I’m as guilty as can be of overusing it. I work hard to get it out of my text. Like now, it has a place, just not all over the place

The collarless dress with no ruffles or lace had a slight bustle in the back, just clean straight Methodist Sunday-go-to-the-meeting-house lines. *

And that’s five

Another five things may crop up, but until they do, this ends my current gripes with my writing.

* All quotes are from, A Convergence of Enemies, the second book in my Wanee series, currently in search of an ending that makes the author happy.

Suggestion: If you are in the mood to dive into a Vietnam Era based family saga, try the Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet: Dead Legend, Head First, Pay Back, and Don’t Tell, available on Amazon. If you are a fan of wartime stories and sweeping family sagas, this wide-ranging epic delivers a heady mix of intrigue and history that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Stories that got away & the Second Hook

My drafts tend to start out with a smart-alecky tone that slowly gets less and less so as I write. It is a mental exercise that helps me warm up to my characters. I’m used to that. What I’m not used to is a character who wants to stay funny. I’m several chapters into a book featuring a young clothing designer who wakes up in an alfalfa field after a convention ‘meet and greet’ in Kingston, Ontario. What’s written is a hoot. And there it sits. Waiting for inspiration, a different plot, another alfalfa field? Or maybe it was just a bad idea, after all one of the protagonists broke free to take on a key role in Booth Island.

Ever since I gobbled up Max Brand (The Gentle Gunman and . . .) and Alan LeMay (The Unforgiven and . . .) westerns, I have wanted to write a western. A dinner with Louis L’Amour at the Top of the Mark in San Francisco further fueled the fire. In those days, I was very up on the sheep wars and Billy the Kid so L’Amour and I had a great chat, during which he shared that Sam Elliot and Tom Selleck exemplified the characters in his books. If you haven’t read Hondo (also a great John Wayne movie) or Conagher do, they’ll hook you. As for my brilliant career writing a western mystery/thriller, it may still happen via one of the protagonists in my upcoming Wanee series.

Just like I still want to place Laury Cooper (Cooper Quartet) in Nîmes, France in 1970 and see what happens next. It would be weird though, since it would make the Quartet a Quintet and fill in a gap in the early years of the series. But still . . . what’s stopping me, read on.

A few years ago, I planned a mystery/thriller series that followed a farm woman sent from the East to marry a cousin living on an Illinois farm. I had the plot hook for ten books, beginning in 1850 through 1870s, the research started and had a line on the rest. I knew the farm, the crops and stock, and the land because it was based on the farm my father’s family settled. I loaded my research and notes to my OneDrive, put my hands over the keys of a blank screen and nothing. Why?

I’m not sure, but I suspect as Margaret Lucke (House of Desire) pointed out in a recent conversation, I needed a second hook to set the tale in motion. With the hook set, the characters feel free to inform themselves and whisper their stories in my ear until their words flow onto the computer screen.

Cover in waiting

As it turns out, like the protagonist from the alfalfa field, my farm woman migrated herself to Wanee, a fictious small northwestern Illinois town, set the first plot in 1876, and named herself Cora. Her brother Jess lives on the farm she was supposed to inhabit. When the series begins, nineteen-year-old Cora’s thieving mother deserts her, saddling Cora with debt and a boarding house with one boarder. Cora, who dreams of the single life of adventure and mystery, struggles to pay off her mother’s debts in a village troubled by post-Civil War growth while dreaming her dream of escape.

Cora’s story starts in Unbecoming a Lady, the first Wanee mystery, out soonish. The second book A Convergence of Enemies will follow next year. And Cora is currently whispering her third adventure to me nightly with help from a few Wanee friends, that’s what a second hook (in this case a disappearing mother and a restless town – is that two hooks?) can do.

Now Calypso and Grieg from Saving Calypso have something in mind, but they await a hook, I told them that and they both gave me that look. Sometimes stories don’t get away, they just wait for that second hook. And sometimes they do and should.

All books are available on Amazon, except Unbecoming a Lady. Find me at my website dzchurch.com and sign up for my shared newsletter there, too, or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mysteryhistorysuspense.

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!