Call Me Inaccessible

Cell phones are so convenient in real life life and so inconvenient in fiction when you want to strand a city girl on an unlit road in the desert on a cold winter night. So inconvenient when you want characters to be inaccessible to each other. Unless you set your stories far enough in the past, people can be reached and can call for help. Normally, I work the hyper-connected nature of life into my plots, but once in a while I need to cut off my characters’ communication. How can I do it without over-using the obvious and without too much of a deus ex machina effect?

Battery running out? I’ve used it a total of twice, in different books and with different characters, and I think that’s about as many times as I should use it.

Phone lost or stolen? In Snake Face, I have a stalker take her victim’s phone. In Death Omen, I have two children hide an adult’s phone so he won’t receive a call that would get them in trouble.  I think I’ve hit my lost-or-stolen maximum.

Phone turned off while driving?  One of my ongoing characters does this. He doesn’t trust himself to handle any distractions. I leave mine on and ignore it until I can pull over, but I see plenty of people talking on phones or even texting while they drive. They don’t make any effort to be safe. The National Safety Council and the Scientific American both say that hands-free devices are no safer than hand-held phones, but it’s not uncommon to believe that hands-free systems must be safe since they’re often built into new cars. If we’re writing realistically, not idealistically, that means driving isn’t an obstacle for a lot of folks. They can be reached by phone, even with a short delay for the safety nuts like me.

Phone off for sleeping? Maybe. But some people take their phones to bed with them.

No signal? I’m about to use that for the first time. In traveling all over the country, I’ve seldom been in a place with no signal, but when I was doing research for my work in progress set partially in the ghost town of Chloride, New Mexico, one of the many unexpected facts I learned was that there’s no cell phone reception in town or within a ten-mile radius. It makes sense. The town is in a canyon. But it hadn’t occurred to me to use my phone any of the times I’d been there. The museum owner told me about the cell signal problem when I asked about internet service. I’d expected there might not be any, but Chloride stays in touch with the world through DSL internet—and landline-only phone access. (In case you’re wondering: ghost towns aren’t always uninhabited. They are ghosts of their former selves. Fourteen people live in this one.) I’d wanted to have a character get stuck on a country road outside Chloride at night, unable to make a call, and I’m so glad it’s realistic. I’ll be able to set it up as an established fact of life there well in advance.

Have you used up your quota of no-signal events? How about something strange?

Recently, I tried to make a cell phone call to a local business and got the message: “This call cannot be completed as dialed.” I checked the number in the phone book, called again, and got the same message. I looked up the business online. It was still open, with the same number listed. Weird. My bill was paid and my phone was working. I didn’t get bad reception or no reception, and when I tried calling friends, I got the same message. Naturally, I researched this phenomenon. For most people who experience it, it’s an ongoing (though unexplained) problem in a specific place. I was calling from my apartment, where the phone has worked well for a year. Could there have been too much cell phone traffic? In Truth or Consequences? June is the off-season, when it’s too hot for tourists to come to the hot springs. Some locals who can manage it leave town, too. Who could be making all those calls? If I want this mysterious problem to occur in a book, it had better be a frequent one and not pop up out of the blue when I need it. It hasn’t happened to me again, and that’s just too random for fiction. Fiction has to be more believable than the chance events of real life.

Another option for making people hard to reach is to cast low-tech characters. For my other work in progress (yes, I have two in progress in the same series), this works well for my protagonist’s former in-laws. I know people who don’t have cell phones, and some who don’t even use e-mail. One of my yoga students accidentally left her phone turned off for three weeks and didn’t notice. Not everyone who has the technology is particularly attached to it.

Any other ideas? Have you needed to cut off your characters’ phone access and found a creative way to do it?

Lessons from a Flawed-io-book

I seldom finish a book I don’t like, but I recently got all the way to the end of a romantic suspense audiobook that I almost gave up on.  Since I was usually exercising or doing housework while I listened, my tolerance for the book’s shortcomings was greater than if I’d been sitting and reading, and I had two reasons to endure the whole thing:

One: To find out how it would end.

Two: To learn from the author’s mistakes.

Obviously, reason number one says she did something right. Even close to the end, I had no idea who committed the murders. She laid the clues well, along with effective red herrings. I thought I knew “who done it,” but then I realized I was wrong. It came as a big surprise. I didn’t like the main characters, though, and the writing was noticeably flawed. As I said above, the flaws were educational. Each time I noticed one, I thought: I’d better not do that. Here are some examples.

  • Overused words. Characters in this book don’t turn their heads, shift in their seats, or look around; they twist. “I twisted my neck” occurs particularly often. Between reading aloud and getting input from critique partners, I catch more and more of my habitual words, but I’m afraid I acquire new ones as I cure myself of the old.
  • The descriptions of settings and actions are excessive. Detail has its place, of course. It’s useful that she gives the layout of the male lead’s house, because it’s an important setting as well as an unusual structure. But she also describes the complete décor of a rental cabin we’ll never see again, right down to the color scheme of the braided rug. A man doesn’t simply open a package, he takes a pen knife from his pocket, unfolds the knife, slices the paper diagonally, etc. Sex scenes are so long and so much alike, I could have skipped them and picked up the story again without having missed a thing (and half-way through the book, that’s what I started doing.)  Sometimes it’s okay to tell, not show. Or at least to show a lot less.
  • Not only is the food described in excess detail, far too many scenes take place in kitchens and in bars and restaurants. Yes, we all eat three meals a day, but in fiction, conversations can have more varied settings. Sameness gets stale.
  • Secondary characters keep popping in uninvited, showing up on the street, or in those bars and restaurants, in order to deliver plot points. Some even fly in from another country to have an argument face to face rather than on the phone. Their presence feels contrived. I need to make the main characters’ choices and actions drive the plot,  instead of using too many convenient intrusions.
  • The main characters are stunningly attractive, and yet they eat huge unhealthy meals (always with  dessert), drink a good amount of beer, and they never seem to exercise. How does he have that amazing rock-hard muscular body? How does she have a figure that makes everyone stare at her and desire her? They ought to look ordinary, not above average. I can be unrealistic and not notice—one of many reasons to keep getting multiple critiques. I do plenty of research, but beta readers have still caught things I overlooked.
  • Every single person in the whole book is white. I’ve never lived anywhere so homogeneous, and since I use real towns and cities as settings, my characters reflect the diversity of those places. But do I fall into some other kind of unconscious pattern with my characters? I’ll have to look for it.
  • The book is padded with conversations that could have been summed up in a sentence or eliminated altogether. I suspect the author was so fascinated by her characters and by exploring their relationships that she couldn’t bring herself to kill these long, dull darlings. My pantsing first drafts are full of material like this.  I discover a lot by writing it—but it needs to take place offstage.
  • Characters echo each other’s words. “I saw him.” “You saw him?” “Yes, I saw him.” Even if people occasionally talk this way in real life, it slows down the story. I should start dialogue where it counts, not with the warm-ups.
  • The revelation of who committed the murders comes through a spate of expository dialogue in which the two conspirators tell each other what they already know, having an argument full of “That was our plan” statements. The protagonist is a witness to this, but she’s tied up, and until that moment she never had a clue what either of them was up to. The police show up after she’s heard it all and is in mid-escape. I can’t let the mystery be solved solely by accident and chance. And if I want to reveal a secret or backstory through dialogue, I need to set it up with conflicts, questions, and challenges to bring out the information in a believable way.

I picked up some valuable reminders from this audiobook, and most have to do with cutting and revision. I need to know more than my readers do, and then choose what to tell them and how.

 

 

Disorienting Dilemma

I came across this concept in a textbook on wellness coaching: people are most likely to change when they’re faced with a disorienting dilemma. Immediately, I shifted gears from my fitness professional role to thinking as a writer. Disorienting. I pictured someone unable to get their bearings, losing their sense of direction, and being forced to look at things differently. Dilemma. A difficult choice.  Usually the hardest choices are between two highly desirable but incompatible actions, or between two equally unpleasant actions.

Death Omen, book six in my series, ends with the protagonist, Mae Martin, in a disorienting dilemma in her personal life, a side effect of resolving the mystery. I intended to pick up her story over a year later and get on with the next mystery, after this romantic dilemma had been partially resolved, and after one of the men involved in her difficult decision has been through a serious illness and treatment. I didn’t plan on taking readers through that rough ride with him, or through intertwined the ups and downs of the love story. But a friend who follows the series said over dinner last week that I had enough material for a whole book in exactly the stuff I’d planned to skip over.

She’s right. I’m excited about the setting and the characters in the year-and-a half-later book, and I’ve already completed the first draft, but I had a problem skipping so much, and it nagged at me during that draft. How much backstory did I need to explain the way Mae resolved her dilemma? Should I let readers simply guess some of what happened while she had two men in her life? And was I absolutely sure how it would turn out, if I didn’t tell the story?

Years ago, a critique partner warned me not to coddle my characters. If there’s something painful and hard coming up, put them through it. And I’ve followed that advice—until I almost didn’t. The completed draft has to wait and become book eight. I have to write the “gap story,” putting Mae and the men in her life in the middle of a mystery that challenges all of them, while one the men is sick and while she’s sorting out her choices in love and commitment. It will only make everything they have to do that much harder. I found an instigating event in my “scenes to recycle for unknown stories” file that perfectly sets up the mystery I need to involve all three of them in yet another disorienting dilemma.

 

Bad Actors

Mysteries, even the lighter ones, touch on the darker side of human nature. There is a wrong to be righted, not just a puzzle to solve. Since I don’t write about murder, I alternate between what I think of crimes of the spirit and actual crimes. The antagonist is usually based on someone who made me angry, created a sense of outrage, or gave me the creeps. In The Calling, Mae Martin encounters a professor who appears to be unethical in his relationships with female students and colleagues, and there’s a dark spiritual power around him as well. Shaman’s Blues starts with missing people, one who may be connected with a ghost, and one who claims to read auras and gives strange advice. She was inspired by someone I met many years ago in Santa Fe and never forgot—because people seemed to believe her, despite the dubious nature of her guidance. The exploitation of others’ spiritual longings and desire for healing is a theme I explore often. Living in New Mexico, where alternative medicine and spiritual seekers are a big part of the scene, I’ll never run out of material. There are many excellent practitioners here, but there are some questionable ones as well.

Because of the hot springs, the land where my home town, Truth or Consequences, is situated was a healing place for the Apaches long before Europeans arrived. Visitors come here now for retreats and to recover their health and peace of mind. I set my most recent book, Death Omen, here, for that reason. Some of it takes place in Santa Fe and on the road, but much of the third act takes place in one of Truth or Consequences’ hot springs spas. The antagonist claims to be a healer and a visionary who can see past incarnations. If she’s not what she says she is, her followers may be risking their lives.

*****

Shaman’s Blues, book two in the Mae Martin series, is currently on sale for 99 cents.

Small Change, Big Change

When I started improvising my current work in progress, I had a seed for a plot in mind, but it changed directions because of one small thing. My first-round chapter-by-chapter critique partner told me that the name I was using for a character’s business, Minerva Press, is a real publishing house. No big deal, I thought. It would be simple to change it. She would name her small press after a lesser-known goddess. Having already established that this character was part Finnish, I picked Loviatar, a Finnish goddess, from the pantheon of my search results, though I had no idea why anyone would name a business after her. She’s a dark goddess, the blind daughter of death, the bringer of scourges into the world.

Rather than reject this goddess, I kept reading about her. Something told me to stick with her.

One article mentioned that that Loviatar is popular with black metal musicians. What, I wondered, is black metal? At the time, I didn’t know the difference between black metal, heavy metal, death metal, thrash metal, melodic death metal and Viking metal, or that most of these genres even existed. The next thing I knew, I was watching such bands on YouTube and digging into Nordic black metal and the world view of that culture, finding some unexpected connections with (not kidding) the Romantic Movement and Shelley’s views on Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost. My character is a poet, and faculty advisor to a poetry club. With the name of her small press, her backstory changed. Her situation of danger changed. The motives of her enemies changed. The only thing that didn’t change is my taste in music; I didn’t become a fan of black metal when she did.

I may have a title for the story that’s evolving: Dark Goddess.

Strangely, many of the plot elements fit better into the new version of the story than the old one. Clues that I’d planted, puzzling myself, fell into place. If I’d finished the first draft before sharing chapters, it would be a different story. Maybe I still would have liked it, but it would have been lighter, less complicated, and more predictable. And I don’t ever want to be predictable. Even to myself!

 

Butt in Chair?

As a yoga teacher and a retired professor of Health and Exercise Science, I tend to consider how everything I do affects my body. Following the adage to “write what you know,” I made my protagonist a fitness instructor and personal trainer. It’s easy for me to understand her work and her interests. And yet, I have to sit down to write those books, and sitting isn’t good for me. This holds true even though I get plenty of structured exercise.

Writers are often told to apply butt to chair to be productive, but getting one’s butt out of the chair is just as important. According to a number of studies, sitting slows our thinking. “When a person sits for more than ten minutes, the brain downshifts, and it becomes more difficult to pay attention … The brain is least productive when sitting.”*

Movement brings blood flow and nutrients to the brain. Most of us have brainstorms while doing active things, from walking and running to housework, but we need to sit at our computers to record those inspirations. Once we’re seated, we may lose some of our brilliance if we don’t get up often enough, so here are some quick tips for keeping your brain and body energized.

  • Make it necessary to move. I used to have a motion sensor light in my office when I was a professor, and I had to get up every twenty minutes to keep it on. Now I keep my tea or water on a table a few steps away from my desk, and I have to stand and walk a little to get a sip. It doesn’t inhibit productivity; it keeps it going. (And keeps me from spilling beverages on my keyboard.)
  • Set a timer for every ninety minutes to two hours to remind yourself to be active for at least two minutes. Walk up and down the stairs or around the room; put on some music and dance; or do some pushups, squats and lunges. Another option is to bookmark some short yoga videos on your computer, and use those for a movement break if you are already experienced in yoga.** (The shortest ones on the Yoga Journal site are five minutes, and the longest are twenty. My favorite teacher on the site is Jason Crandell.)

Yoga may feel especially good, because sitting can affect our muscles as well as our cognitive clarity. People who sit a lot often feel discomfort in their backs, necks and shoulders. If your chair makes you sit with your thighs higher than your hips, this position flattens the lumbar curve, and your back muscles may object. To correct the problem, pad the back of your chair seat with a firm blanket or pillow so your sitting bones are slightly higher than your thigh bones.  Another source of sitting discomfort is typing and reading with the head and shoulders in a forward position. The neck and upper back feel strained from hours of supporting the ten-to-twelve pound weight of the head. (Imagine holding ten-pound dumbbell a few inches in front of your body for several hours. Now you know why your neck is tired.) The following series of movements is designed to help you find true neutral again, and not let your desk posture become unhealthy.

Step one: Stand up. Lift your toes, not the balls of your feet, and notice how your femurs (thigh bones) shift into the back of your hip sockets. Many people stand with their femurs pushed forward, so this may feel odd, but just breathe yourself taller, floating your ribs off your hips to decompress any feeling of excessive backbend in your spine, then gently firm the lower belly without crunching the front of the body or restricting your breath. Don’t suck in or tuck under. Stand like a young, healthy, active child whose posture is as yet undistorted by desks and cars. Put your toes down and sustain this posture.

Step two: Roll your shoulders around, making big circles four or five times forward, then backward. Notice where they feel at home, and then slightly draw your shoulder blades together until you feel wider and more spacious across the chest. Breathe into the space between your shoulder blades without losing the strength there or the heart opening.

Step three: Gently, poke your head out like a turtle coming out of its shell, and then pull it in like turtle going into its shell. Find neutral. It may be further back than you think. From neutral, lift your chin just enough to feel the back of the neck shorten. Then, drop your chin enough to feel the back of the neck stretch. Again, let your head find neutral. Your ears should be aligned over shoulders, hips, and ankles, with your chin parallel to the floor. Holding neutral alignment, tip your right ear to right shoulder, pause, and then tuck your chin toward your collarbone. Go back to the neutral side-tilt and use your hand (not the muscles you just stretched) to put your head on straight. Repeat on the left. This is safer for your neck than rolling. Ahh. Just did it. My posture feels rejuvenated.

After doing these activities, sit again and see if you can maintain neutral posture, or at least return to it frequently.

Have fun, healthy desk-dwellers. Let me know if you have questions. And share your ways of staying alert and energized despite the butt-in-chair aspect of being a writer.

*Eckmann, T. The Smart Way to Move, IDEA Fitness Journal, Sept. 2017, pp. 44-51.

** Beginners in yoga should start with a qualified, attentive teacher, not a video. Most “beginner” videos aren’t suited to a real beginner, and having someone present to give you suggestions and feedback is important when you’re getting started.

*****

As well as being the author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mysteries, Amber Foxx is certified through the American Council on Exercise as a group fitness instructor, health coach, personal trainer, and Mind-Body Specialist.

Mae holds two certifications, group fitness and personal training, and tries to keep her psychic work separate from her fitness work—not always successfully. You can how she gets started in both lines of work and how those careers collide in The Calling, book one in the series.

Thank You for Not Enjoying My Book

Since my turn on this blog comes around on the fourth Thursday of the month, every year I get to explore a new facet of gratitude on Thanksgiving. This year, I asked myself, what’s the most unusual thing I’m grateful for? How about thanking someone who didn’t like one of my books?

As a member of Sisters in Crime, I’ve stayed in the Guppies subgroup, short for “great Unpublished,” long after moving out of unpublished territory. Like many authors, I find the group’s benefits too valuable to leave behind. One benefit is the opportunity to do a manuscript swap with another author and give each other feedback. In addition to getting input from my regular critique partners, I always seek out at least one new critique partner or beta reader per book, someone who is not familiar with my series.

This time, I did a swap with an author who turned out not to like my work, and I didn’t like hers. It was great. Since neither of us was wrapped up in plot and character, we saw all the technical problems each other needed to address. She noticed some things the other six people who gave me feedback didn’t. They were following the story, turning the page, emotionally involved, and wondering what would happen next; she was disengaged. Though I continually get better at weeding out my crutch words and my over-used habitual phrases, certain ones are so natural to me they become invisible. But they were visible to her, and likewise her habits were visible to me. She also noticed where I needed clearer time transitions at the beginnings of chapters, where the background was unclear, and where a long chapter should break in two. I thank her for not enjoying my book. She helped make it better.

This was the second time in writing my six-book series that I’ve had this experience. Years ago, I swapped an early draft of a book that later evolved into The Calling with a woman who didn’t even finish it. Her assessment was harsh, not as tactful as the Guppy guidelines suggest we should be. My prior swap partner on that manuscript liked my characters so much, the plot and pacing weaknesses didn’t register with her. This ruthless second critique motivated me to study plot and structure and then revise from the ground up. After that, I reworked the book chapter by chapter with a critique group. The final product has been well-reviewed, and bears little resemblance to the version that my swap partner so disliked. I am grateful to her for tearing it apart.

Of course, I’m equally grateful to critique partners who did like my books. It’s useful to get insights and suggestions from someone who enjoys the work in progress, noticing where it could improve but also telling me what they find effective. When my critique partner who didn’t like the book still said that the end of Death Omen made her cry, I was sure I’d done something right.

Death Omen

The sixth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

 Trouble at a psychic healing seminar proves knowing real from fraud can mean the difference between life and death.

At an energy healing workshop in Santa Fe, Mae Martin encounters Sierra, a woman who claims she can see past lives—and warns Mae’s boyfriend he could die if he doesn’t face his karma and join her self-healing circle. Concerned for the man she loves, Mae digs into the mystery behind Sierra’s strange beliefs. Will she uncover proof of a miracle worker, or of a trickster who destroys her followers’ lives?

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.

Buy links and preview

Book one in the Mae Martin Series, The Calling, is currently free on all major e-book retail sites.