The Best Opening Line Ever? Not Really. By Amber Foxx

I cut what I had thought was the best opening line ever written, making a major change in my work in progress, the eighth Mae Martin psychic mystery. A critique partner loved the line, too. It was fun, attention-grabbing, intense, and colorful. But the event had nothing to do with the mystery or with either of my lead characters’ goals. It was an external imposition that required a reaction, and I couldn’t make it work as a thread in the story. The advice to authors to “kill your darlings” is so wise. Cutting that line (and all the forced plot turns it required) was like pruning an overhanging branch that was blocking light on the real nature of the story.

Now I’m reconsidering an important question: where does the book really begin? Is the whole first chapter necessary? Maybe chapter three in the current draft should be chapter one. It was, before I got so attached to that opening line.

After a certain number of revisions, I reach a point where I question every scene in the book and every angle of the plot. I’ve saved three earlier versions in case they’re actually better than I thought. But as I reviewed my notes on the first version, I realized why I cut and changed so much of it. The odds are, what I decide to remove or alter now, I probably should. With several of my books, only the characters, the setting, and the basic nature of the mystery—a missing person, a family secret, art fraud, fakery in spiritual healing, and so on—stayed the same from first draft to final. The work in progress is set in a New Mexico ghost town. The mystery is about paranormal investigation and a woman who claims she’s being haunted. Everything else about the book may be different by the time I finish.

Free and Discounted Books

I’m sure a lot of us are reading on a tight budget and will be for a while. The first Mae Martin Psychic Mystery, The Calling, is still free. Prices have been lowered to $2.99 on the other books in the series. You can also read them through Scribd, an unlimited reading subscription for e-pub e-books, which is offering a free one-month introduction. If you’re not going out much, you can do quite a bit of reading in a month. Stay well.

 

The Same Only Different, by Amber Foxx

Every plot is the same. But they’re all different. If the story is written well, the reader is aware of the difference, not the sameness. The sameness is structure. No one looks at a dog and says, “How boring, it’s got four legs and a tail.” That’s the structure. What we notice is the difference. My friend Bob’s dog is golden brown and sort of dingo-ish. He says she looks like a kid’s drawing of a dog. She has a black spot in the middle of her tail and another one in the middle of her tongue. She loves all humans, dislikes other dogs, hates skateboards, and is scared of cats. It’s the differences that makes her interesting.

A trail I like to run is the same 1.5 mile loop every time. I go up the same hills, around the same curves, past the same desert shrubs, three times per run. It’s not boring. The plants change with the seasons. Wildlife varies from day to day—the creatures I see as well as the tracks others leave in the sand. In the winter, I encounter other people. In the summer, I only meet lizards and jackrabbits.

A freak snowstorm this month dumped five or six inches in one day. (I should add that all snowstorms are freaks in southern New Mexico. We can go years with only a few random flakes.) The same mountains I see every day looked entirely new, with snow on their contours and ridges outlining textures not normally visible. Turtleback Mountain’s Turtle seemed to be wearing pinstripes, a nice look on him.

Normal winter temperatures are in the fifties and sixties, and the next day went right back to normal. The remaining patches of snow from the day before changed not only my running pace on the trail but my perception. Most of the snow had melted, but I came across islands of it I had to detour around, going off the trail to avoid slipping. If thorny plants denied me that option, I had to slow down and walk through it for a couple of steps. The detours gave me the unexpected perception that certain features of the land were the trail, when they were actually smooth, flat, winding channels where water had run. Several times, I nearly followed one, then realized I was heading off into unmarked areas.

The second lap was faster with more snowmelt and fewer detours. Footprints became sun-warmed hollows of open sand. On the third lap, I only had to go through one stretch of snow with no way around it. The same only different.

And this, of course, is a metaphor for the craft of writing.

 *****

Images of Turtleback Mountain and of cactus in snow are by Donna Catterick, whose photography is on the covers of Death Omen and Shadow Family, books six and seven in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series.

Book one,The Calling is free now through April 23.

Obeying her mother’s warning, Mae Martin-Ridley has spent years hiding her gift of “the sight.” When concern for a missing hunter compels her to use it again, her peaceful life in a small Southern town begins to fall apart. New friends push her to explore her unusual talents, but as she does, she discovers the shadow side of her visions— access to secrets she could regret uncovering.

Gift or curse? When an extraordinary ability intrudes on an ordinary life, nothing can be the same again.

The Mae Martin Series

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

 

 

Less Time to Write=New Perspectives

I’ve been busier than usual with community activities, recertifying as a fitness professional, and researching and planning the switch to an electric car. Time well spent, but meanwhile, book eight in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series has been getting about an hour a day of attention. I don’t feel like a full-time writer.

On the plus side, when I’m less wrapped up in the book, I question everything about it. Does the plot really work? It has to be meaningful, not just a puzzle being solved. How does it further the lead characters’ series arcs? How does the very nature of the mystery challenge their development? How does it interact with their personal lives?

Then there’s this question that comes up with every book: Is the antagonist character too much like prior antagonists?  And how does this new enemy make the perfect opponent to fit my main characters’ strengths and—even more important—their flaws?

How many components of the plot need to change? Are there aspects of it that might turn off my long-term fans? If I feel it doesn’t sustain visionary fiction element of the series, my readers might think so, too. I have to create stakes that are  serious as death without the threat of murder.

This blog post was my “thinking aloud session.” I’ve got some revisions to make, but I’m more confident of them now. Thanks for listening!

It’s Finally Happened … by Amber Foxx

I have a post due, and I have no idea what to write. I got Shadow Family back from my editor, after the usual back and forth about what to rewrite and why, and now I’m going through the book for the last time with her changes. The last time before sending it to my proofreader, that is. And then I’ll look it over again once those corrections are in. The upside of all this is that I’ve practically memorized all my books from so much repeated exposure to every page. I’m not likely to forget details that could affect the next book. I maintain a file of master notes on the series just in case, keeping track of characters’ ages, birthdays,  and unique mannerisms, names of minor secondary characters, family trees, and more, but I have the file of my protagonist’s personal memories and life experiences in my head. Okay, back to work. My readers are waiting for this book to come out.

 

Changing Pace by Amber Foxx

I sent Shadow Family, the seventh Mae Martin Psychic Mystery, to my editor at 3:30 a.m. Monday September 16th. I lived with this book for seventeen months from first draft to hitting send. I was immersed in it for weeks nonstop as my deadline approached, hardly getting out except for running or teaching yoga, while I worked through feedback from multiple beta readers and critique partners. After that round of cuts and revisions, I read the whole book aloud, acting it out as if recording an audiobook in order to make the final adjustments. For a few days after I hit send, I had to remind myself not to read a finished scene aloud as I worked on the next book. It’s useful later in the process, but it slows me down when I should be letting my imagination fly. And I’m still reminding myself not to perfect every line. After all, I may end up cutting it.

I’m experiencing something like the disoriented state of mind that used to hit at the end of a college semester when I’d turned in final grades and had no more faculty meetings to attend, no deadlines, and practically no schedule. Open space in my life and in my head. Having time to catch up on my neglected social life feels wonderful. I’m also free to explore and experiment with the new work in progress, discovering its themes and its depths, surprising myself as I go. After the perfectionism of the previous weeks, it’s liberating. I’m free to mess up!

At this moment in my life as a writer … by Amber Foxx

At this moment, nearing midnight, I’m stuck on a certain paragraph in chapter twenty-nine. It’s Act Three. The tension needs to be high. But I can’t skip my protagonist’s inner processes, either. She has to think, feel and plan. Is the paragraph too slow? I like the section before it and the section after it, but this transition is a clunker. What if I move the middle line to the end? How much can I cut and still make sense? Should I just skip it and move on? No. I’m revising. I’m not letting myself off the hook. There could be some error of logic, some failure to follow my character’s heart and mind, that will affect the validity of the subsequent part that I— so far—like. (How many times have I cut something I loved because it no longer worked after I fixed what came before it?)

I tried rearranging the lines. Not much better. Maybe I can cut the whole paragraph. Replace it with one tight sentence once I grasp what the scene needs as a transition.

I could say more about this battle with the paragraph, but I have to get back to it.  That’s what’s happening tonight in my life as a writer.

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?