Pantsing the Revision

That wasn’t the plan. I was cutting subplots, cutting back to one point of view, and changing some aspects of the crime, and I thought it would all work out in a predicted direction. Then I introduced a certain secret earlier in the plot, and out of the blue, my protagonist, Mae Martin, made a decision that changed everything.

It was a well-timed decision on her part, plot-wise. I’m at the Act Two/Act Three transition point, where the protagonist has to pass through her second doorway of no return. This choice she made, seemingly without my input, will raise the stakes for her exponentially, increasing the risks to her relationships and her reputation. It’s something only she can do, and if she doesn’t do it, there are risks to other people’s well-being. It’s a choice between two “bads.” (Meanwhile, in her romantic life she’s struggling with the choice between “goods.”)

The amazing thing to me about this unexpected turn she took is that it’s going to tie up all the loose ends, when it’s resolved.

At least, I think so.

I keep chapter notes as I go, something like a hindsight outline, noting Mae’s goal for each chapter and scene (I’m writing third person but only in her POV), the disaster or hook at the end, the loose ends each chapter has created that will need to be tied up, and the progress in the main plot and subplots. I suppose I can consider some of those notes a plan, since a few are quick sketches of what I can see coming next, but I can’t see very far ahead. Some parts of the original version have found their way almost whole into this revision, and others still might. I wonder if the end will. I liked it the first time around, but it may no longer fit. One of the biggest mysteries in writing a mystery is how my creative mind works.

A character in the work in progress used a phrase I didn’t expect him to say, referring to certain people as his and Mae’s “shadow families.” In the middle of the night, I realized that could be the title. It fits the plot and also the pattern of my titles: two words with a mysterious ring to them, suited to psychic mysteries without murder. The Calling, Shaman’s Blues, Snake Face, Soul Loss, Ghost Sickness, Death Omen … Shadow Family?

 

Book Club Discussion Questions

 

I recently created a set of reading group discussion questions for the first book in my series, The Calling. An unconventional mystery with a coming of age element, set in rural Northeastern North Carolina, I’ve always thought it had “book club” qualities.

As I wrote the questions, I visualized the revision grid I used while I worked on the book, with the themes and plot elements mapped out, and it struck me that imagining a book club discussion could serve as a revision tool or even a plotting tool (for those who actually plot) for a work in progress.

I was in a book club for many years in Virginia. We read fiction of varied genres as well as a good selection of nonfiction, and we had some great discussions about style, structure, themes, and characters, often disagreeing and enjoying our varied points of view. These are the questions I came up with for The Calling and added to its page on my web site.

How did you respond to the book’s mixed genre? It’s been reviewed as mystery, women’s fiction, paranormal, coming of age, and literary fiction. Did you want it to fit a genre more neatly?

 Mystery can mean an enigma, a puzzle, a secret, or something impossible to explain, as well as a novel about solving a crime. Without a crime to solve, what were the mysteries?

 Were there any characters you had especially strong feelings about? What was it about them that affected you?

 Is there a villain in The Calling? If you think there is, who is it and why do you see this person in that role? If you think there isn’t, explain why not.

 Themes in the story include power, professional ethics, personal fulfillment, and privacy. The questions that follow explore those themes.

  • If you had the gift of the Sight, with the same limits and abilities that Mae has, how would you use it? Would you be tempted to use it in ways that might cause you some ethical misgivings?
  • The nature of Mae’s gift provokes concern about privacy in the course of the plot. Are there ever considerations that take priority over privacy?
  • How does each of these characters—Charlie, Randi, Malba, Deborah, and Mae—approach his or her professional ethics?
  • How did you see the issue of power play out in the story, in both personal and professional relationships?
  • The story takes place before the #MeToo movement. What might be different if it was set in 2018?
  • Mae’s desire for personal fulfillment is a driving force in the storyline. Did you identify with any of the obstacles and conflicts she faces?
  • Religion and spirituality—Christianity, Buddhism, indigenous shamanic religions, New Age beliefs, and more—are important to many of the characters and to the development of the plot. Where did you see religion misused, and where did you see it supporting a character spiritually?

 Now I need to write discussion questions for the other five books that follow. Even if book clubs don’t use them—though I hope they will—I can use them to analyze my protagonist’s character arc and the themes I’ve explored throughout the series. This will lay a foundation for a thoughtful revision of the work in progress, focused on the layers of depth and meaning behind the plot as well as the events that structure it.

*****

The Calling is free on all e-book retail sites through September 30th.

 

 

Getting Unstuck

 

Last weekend, I ran into a fellow writer and asked him how his new book was going. He said it was hard. Very hard. I said mine was too, and he replied, “If they’re good, they’re all hard. Can you imagine what you’d have if you could say, ‘It was easy, I just wrote it?’ ”

When it’s hard, here are some things I’ve found that help me move through the muck:

Trying the scene in a different point of view. (Of course, this only works  if you write in the third person.) Figuring out who has the most at stake in the scene and shifting to their POV can give a scene more energy and drive.

Cutting the last few lines or even paragraphs of a scene or chapter. How often have I said this to critique partners, and how often have they said this to me? “The scene really ends here.”

Revisiting the protagonist’s character arc. What will challenge her to go where she needs to go next psychologically?

Revisiting the protagonist’s story goal. Is the main plot sufficiently  driven by what she wants and what’s getting in the way of it, or have I gotten sidetracked? The fertility of my garden of subplots is astounding, and some of the things that sprout in it are weeds.

Examining the protagonist/antagonist relationships.  I usually have multiple oppositional characters in the way of my main character’s goal, presenting conflicts that push her to change and mature. As with subplots, I have to examine these characters and make sure I haven’t cast  too many.

Doing  an intense writing workout. For example, cranking out a 2,000 word short story in a single sitting. I’d already plotted it while running. I knew the instigating event, the protagonist, the antagonist, the secondary characters who complicate things, the settings, the themes, the ending, and the twists. Was it a brilliant story? No. But it shot me clean through a plot and made me review skills for structuring and tightening a story. I knew intuitively what to skip such as the transitions that were easily implied and the descriptions that a reader would have already imagined. And I have the satisfaction of having finished something. Now, back to the book in progress.

*****

I haven’t been totally stuck, by the way. I have two new releases this month: Small Awakenings, a book of reflective essays, and a boxed set of the first three Mae Martin  psychic mysteries. The boxed set is on sale for $2.99 through the weekend.

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.

What Scares You?

screaming-face

Since we’re so close to Halloween, I thought I’d explore my one venture into writing horror. The plotting workout of going outside my genre was educational, as it made me study the art of scaring people.

I’m at home writing paranormal phenomena. My mystery series features a psychic protagonist and there are ghosts and spirits in two of the books, Shaman’s Blues and Soul Loss. However, their roles are more mystical than frightening, and while the ghost in my prequel short story The Outlaw Women delivers some disturbing news, he’s actually quite benevolent. Mystery involves suspense and tension, and sometimes fear for the main character’s safety, but not the kind of fear that that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

In Stephen King’s analysis of horror, Danse Macabre, he has a chapter on monstrosity in which he examines the fine line between the strange and the monstrous. It’s the walk on that line that I find chilling. When the transition into monstrosity is too extreme, the impact is lost. To me, the scariest part of a horror story isn’t the gore. The blood and guts or weird slime or whatever is supposed to deliver peak terror is usually so over-the-top or icky that I’m not scared anymore. It’s the build-up that creeps me out, the sense that something is wrong at a deep, perhaps supernatural level, making it hard to fight or prevent.

Though I read horror stories occasionally, I never planned to write one. I ended up doing it on kind of a dare. In a discussion with several other authors, I brought up the fact that when author earnings are sorted by genre, the most money was in romance. None of us wrote romance. A horror writer said he’d have to try. I asked, “Horror-romance?” Next thing I knew, we were working on an anthology of horror-romance short stories based on the seven deadly sins. I picked sloth, since it was a challenge. How could I make laziness frightening? And romantic, in a scary way?

The Apache concept of bear sickness, a condition of unnatural lethargy, struck me as good starting place. Loss of control at the mental level, the feeling that something is invading and taking you over against your will, would have to be terrifying. I explored other Apache myths about bears and came up with a horror story without gore, an appropriate choice for the author of series of mysteries without murders. I was working on Ghost Sickness at the time, which is set, in part, on the Mescalero Apache reservation, so I used that locale—the same powwow, and even a couple of the minor characters from Ghost Sickness— in my horror story. When it turned out to be too long for the anthology, I set it aside for a while. Last year I released Bearing as a stand-alone for Halloween. Most people have liked it and found it creepy or chilling. However, the only review on Barnes and Noble says “Not at all scary.” The same things don’t frighten all of us. What gives you a good scare?

Bearingbearing-copy

 A tale of paranormal horror based on Native American myths.

Mikayla, young Apache woman attending a powwow with her family, becomes entranced by an outsider, a Cree man who shows up without his Apache girlfriend. As her fascination consumes her, Mikayla changes in ways both pleasurable and frightening, powerless to overcome his dark magic until it may be too late.

*****

The Calling, the first book in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery series, is on sale for 99 cents through Oct. 28th on all e-book retail sites.

Hidden Tracks

Amber in tree final I have files with titles such as “Accidental Shooting Settlements” and “Art Authentication” as well as “Pricing Art” and “Parrot Questions.” I finally deleted the one on 1989 Aerostar vans. The struggling old van made it through Shaman’s Blues and Snake Face and retired, with no one commenting on how I’d handled its various mechanical problems. That’s how it should be. I want to hide my tracks. Readers usually shouldn’t be paying attention to my research, but since this is a blog about writing, I’m going to go backstage and show the process.

Readers notice all the scholarly articles in The Calling. This book may look as though I worked harder on research compared to the rest, but in fact it was the easiest. I didn’t venture outside my areas of expertise, and I set it in places I knew well.When I lived in Norfolk, I’d visited a number of alternative healers there and several psychics in Virginia Beach—out of pure curiosity, with no idea they would end up as background for a book.  An important character in this story is a professor in health sciences and so am I. To find the material on alternative medicine and research in the field, all I had to do was relocate the right articles. I knew where they’d been published and I remembered the content.

More often, I don’t realize how much I’ll need to know about a subject until I’m into the first draft of a book. I immediately start keeping research lists, things to look up or ask experts about, and I dig into these questions as I go along.

When the character of Jamie showed up in Shaman’s Blues, I read books about current Australian Aboriginal culture in order to understand his roots. I studied Aussie slang and was blessed with an Australian critique partner who could tell if I got it right. And then there’s his van. It’s close to being a character in the next book, Snake Face. I took notes during Car Talk. I looked up timing belts and timing chains, I looked up the last year that these vans were made with carburetors, and I looked at pictures of their engine parts. A musician who had toured with a band read the manuscript to make sure I portrayed life on the road correctly. And I consulted a couple of lawyers about a major plot point. I double-checked some details of the medical treatments and outcomes for a particular injury. And I searched out the name of a Greek drinking dance. This is, I think, typical in the creation of a book, more typical than the ease with which I could pull together the seemingly obscure scholarship in The Calling.

For Soul Loss I reread some books on neo-shamanism to refresh my memory of a strange workshop I once attended as part of a conference, and I researched Tarot cards and Cochiti Pueblo beliefs about the dead. I also had to find out what was involved in setting up a festival. For Ghost Sickness I had to study up on parrots, since several play roles in the story, and also looked into rodeo injuries, and many matters related to art. Even though I’d set the story in familiar places, I revisited the Mescalero Apache reservation and took a careful, observant walk through Truth or Consequences to make doubly sure that certain events could happen as I wrote them. I could go on and on. It’s amazing what I discover that don’t know—or what I’ve forgotten that I thought I knew. But that list with the heading “Look Up” eventually gets crossed off and ideally readers have no idea I had to work so hard on that van. All they need to care about is the character driving it.