Monday musings: When characters surprise the writers

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Photo by Helen Haden / Flickr. Creative Commons.

Writing is a surprising art form, often for the writers themselves. Often, characters seem to come up with their own dialog, or make decisions that the writer had not planned on.

For example, Mother Tiana, a character I created late in my first novel, surprised me toward the end of The Bones of the Earth by defying the main villain with a statement about people being under spells or enchantment: “Your mind cannot be dominated unless you consent to it.”

Huh.

Other BestSelling Reads authors have had similar experiences. Here is their virtual conversation.

How have the characters you created surprised you over the years?

Raine Thomas: Even though I create detailed character sketches before I write a book, my characters love to surprise me. My character Skye, in the Daughters of Saraqael Trilogy, for example, revealed that she could teleport in the midst of me writing her book, Foretold. That completely took me by surprise, and it took the book in a wonderful new direction!

Claude Bouchard: Of the various characters in my Vigilante Series, the one who has surprised me the most is Leslie Robb, who first appeared in book five, 6 Hours 42 Minutes. Leslie, a bright, attractive, redhead of the lesbian persuasion, was an accountant employed at a bank where a heist took place. As was the case with other bank employees, hers was supposed to be a passive role, limited to that particular story.

However, Leslie turned out to have much more drive than I originally believed and pushed to the forefront to become a central character.

DelSheree Gladden: I get to know my characters as I write their story, and I’ve had many times were what I originally planned simply did not work, because my beginning idea of who is character is turns out not to be who they are at all. When writing the Date Shark Series, in book one I had a side character that was flirty, arrogant, and bit of a player. As soon as I started the second book in the series, with Guy Saint-Laurent as the main character, my entire concept of him changed. When he meets Charlotte, the connection he feels with her brings up difficult memories, reasons behind his blasé attitude about relationships and self-centered viewpoints. Those surface qualities became just that, a façade rather than his true character. What I intended to be a light and funny story turned into a deeper exploration of the hurt and pain that shapes a person.

Raine Thomas: An example of something not going as planned pertains to the end of my book, Shift (Firstborn Trilogy #2). As I neared the book’s conclusion, I realized that I had to leave a big part of the storyline as a cliffhanger leading into book three. I actually hate cliffhanger endings and couldn’t believe the characters were leading me down that path, but that’s just what they did!

Over a series of books, has the personal growth of a character surprised you in any way?

Raine Thomas: I believe (and have been told by my readers) that my writing has developed over the course of the various series I’ve written. As I’ve grown more confident in my storytelling and gotten to know my audience, my writing has tightened up and developed right along with me. While this may not be surprising to other writers, it has been a surprising, positive outcome that even applies to my life outside of writing fiction.

Claude Bouchard: By the end of 6 Hours 42 Minutes, not only had Leslie firmly made her place, she had also guaranteed herself substantial spots in future works. Since, Leslie has been a solid member of the team in each of books six to thirteen. I never saw it coming.

DelSheree Gladden: Writing Guy’s character in Shark Out Of Water (the second book in the series) taught me how important it is not to force a character into a particular box. Their story will be so much better if they’re allowed to tell it themselves.

Have your characters taught you anything?

Raine Thomas: My characters have taught me that the stories are theirs, not mine. I like to plot my novels, but every time I have, the characters have taken the story in their own direction. They’ve also inspired me, as they’re all strong and remarkable in their own ways.

Scott Bury: Many writers refer to their books as their “babies,” but it seems that the characters are the children—we create them, but then they develop minds of their own and continue to surprise, exasperate and delight us.

Claude Bouchard is based in Montreal, Canada. Two of his Vigilante novels were included in the pair of blockbuster 9 Killer Thriller anthologies, the second of which made the USA Today Bestsellers list in March 2014.

Raine Thomas is the award-winning author of bestselling young adult and new adult fiction. Known for character-driven stories that inspire the imagination, Raine has signed with multiple award-winning producer Chase Chenowith of Back Fence Productions to bring her popular Daughters of Saraqael trilogy to the big screen.

DelSheree Gladden lives in New Mexico. The Southwest is a big influence in her writing because of its culture, beauty, and mythology.

Scott Bury can’t stay in one genre—his books include historical fantasy, children’s stories, paranormal romance, thrillers, mysteries and memoir.

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Monday musings: Writing style

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I think the first time I noticed a writing style, an author’s distinctive voice, was in Grade 5 when I read “Riddles in the Dark,” where Bilbo foils Gollum in The Hobbit. Since then, I’ve always valued an enjoyable writing style, sometimes more than the story.

I can still remember another story from my elementary school days: Ray Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn.” On foggy nights, a lighthouses’ foghorn draws a dinosaur like creature out of the depths of the ocean, whose voice sounded like a foghorn, too. I can remember the emotional impact on me of Bradbury’s beautiful prose describing the sound of the creature’s call, the loneliness and unrequited love it felt when it realized the tall, deep-voiced lighthouse was not another like itself.

Later, I discovered Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, a novel that one of my teachers remarked no 15-year-old should read. Its frankly sexual content was a bit much for a teenager, but I savored the eloquent descriptions that set every sense on fire.

As a teenager, I got into science fiction and fantasy, but found the styles of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were not as appealing, anymore. I liked a lot of the work of Philip K. Dick, although I found the quality and the style uneven.

I found Larry Niven’s style in his Known Space series was an almost perfect combination of description, action and interesting characters. His Gil the ARM series was the first example I found to combine science-fiction and detective stories, and that led me to Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammet and Ross MacDonald.

What do I mean by style?

For me, style involves mechanics like sentence structure and length and the variation in that; pacing of action and speech; and word choice. But it also grows out of the author’s choice of point of view and how detailed and lengthy their description is.

As a teenager I reveled in rich descriptions. Since then my tastes have, I like to flatter myself, become more balanced. I value complex, interesting and believable characters, people who are vulnerable and flawed and not always admirable.

But most of all, I like a good story, something that takes me somewhere.

In terms of more modern writers, I like the way George RR Martin combines evocative description, dozens of captivating characters and, most of all, many interweaving stories, each of which is compelling on its own.

Toby Neal is another writer who excels by creating characters you can connect with, and putting them in a story you cannot put down. She’s also expert in describing the setting—although she has a huge advantage, living in Hawaii. I also have to mention something that I find Neal does better than any other contemporary writer in English that I have found: she writes a socially and ethnically diverse cast of characters that accurately reflects the world we live in today.

Gae-Lynn Woods’ Cass Elliot series brings a large range of subtly-drawn characters into a story so dark, I couldn’t stop reading it.

Samreen Ahsan has created a unique style by blending Islamic mythology with contemporary romance, wrapped up in lush descriptions.

Dawn Torrens’ characters, Amelia and her family, as well as her stories, are drawn from the author’s own experiences.

The late Kathleen Valentine was an original writer. One of the more unusual aspects of her style was to write romantic stories about people older than their midlives—most romance is about young people.

I’m now reading Caleb Pirtle III’s Place of Skulls, where magnificently compelling and flawed characters in a detailed, horrifying setting drive three interwoven stories. I can only put it down when forced to.

Elise Stokes, Alan McDermott, Renée Pawlish, Emily Kimelman, DelSheree Gladden, Claude Bouchard, Raine Thomas, Frederick Brooke, Seb Kirby—in fact, all the writers in this group share that ability to create unforgettable and believable characters and put them into situations where you just have to find out what happens next.

The evolution of taste

Like everything else, my taste in literature has evolved over the years. I don’t read as much science fiction or fantasy as I used to, although I still enjoy a good mystery.

But one thing hasn’t changed: I love a writer who can use original prose to bring me into the story along with, or inside, characters that fascinate me.

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How have your tastes in writing changed over time? What do you find most important in a writer’s style? Leave a comment below.

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Monday musings: Chandler had it easy

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By Scott Bury

This post is re-blogged from Scott Bury’s blog of February 15, 2016.

I’ve been re-reading Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels in a probably vain attempt to capture the mood and inspiration to write my own crime fiction, and when I compare Chandler’s prose to 21st-century mystery, thriller and crime fiction, it seems that Chandler’s challenge was less than today’s writers’—or at least, very different.

The Big Sleep was Chandler’s first full-length novel, and the first to feature the tough, cool and sarcastic private eye, Philip Marlowe. The book became a bestseller quickly, and I think part of the appeal was the titillation factor: Marlowe finds the daughter of his client drugged, sitting nude in front of a camera. In 1939, drugs and pornography were very racy stuff, stuff not talked about in polite society. So racy, in fact that in the movie version made in 1946, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, that the Carmen character was wearing a “Chinese dress.” There was no mention of pornography, and the homosexual relationship of two minor characters was completely left out.

In a time when people make their own sex videos and publish them on social media, naked pictures are no grounds for blackmail. Today, it’s almost impossible to shock or titillate an audience merely by hinting at a character’s homosexuality.

Shockers sell books

No, this is not a Nicholas Sparks “white people almost kissing” theme. This is as steamy as Hollywood got in 1946.

New writers who reach bestseller status often do so with a taboo subject. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo launched Steen Larson into international fame with its depiction of Nazis in modern society, child sexual abuse and a main character with Aspergers Syndrome. To Kill a Mockingbird wrote honestly about racism in the American South. The Virgin Suicides’ eponymous theme was something that no one wanted to talk about in the early 1990s. All these books were the first novels published by their respective authors.

The problem with shock as a literary device is it only works the first time. Writers of popular fiction have to keep upping the ante. Occasionally, I toy with the idea of writing a noir detective novel for the 21st century. Which means I would have to trawl the seedy underside of a big city and bring to light the dirtiest laundry of wealthy society, and the desperation of those clinging to the edge of their economic class.

But for shock value, it’s hard today to expose sins worse than what we read in the news: sexual abuse of children by clergy; self-proclaimed moral guardians having sex with strangers in public washrooms; institutional racism and sexism; wars being fought over made-up crimes. And of course, the biggest and most damaging sin of all: the manipulation of the economy to impoverish a once thriving middle class by transferring their wealth into fewer and fewer pockets.

How to shock?

I could probably dream up some horrible new crimes, something to surely shock or perhaps titillate an audience. Beyond the potential damage to my own psyche, I hesitate to inspire some twisted reader to emulate my fictional horrors.

And that brings up another question: should I write to shock? I write to tell stories, to present characters reacting to situations, not to horrify my readers.

Which means today’s noir writers are spending more psychic time in deeper, dirtier dungeons than ever before, writing about more damaging sins.

Raymond Chandler. Image courtesy Venture Galleries

Does the noir mystery translate to the 21stcentury? Sure. Plenty of writers have published these dark, moody mysteries with flawed characters who succumb to all sorts of temptations since 2000. But it seems to me that the crimes are grislier, the suckers more depressed, the gangsters more bloodthirsty and the femmes even more fatal.

I was right. Chandler had it easy.

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Monday musings: Lessons learned from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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By DelSheree Gladden

I’ve been on a quest to read some of the classics I should have read by now. Actually, I listen to them on audiobook while I run, but same difference. I wanted to read classics not just so I know what people are talking about when these books come up, but because reading is one of the best ways to improve your writing, so why not learn from the masters?As Stephen King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I’ve got the writing a lot part down, but I’ve neglected reading lately, particularly classic literature.

stephen-king-read-a-lot-quote

So, on to Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This was a different type of book than I’d normally pick up, but my friend Denise recommended it so I thought I’d give it a try. This is a coming of age story, but it doesn’t really have a focused plot. The reader simply follows the characters’ lives for a certain period of time. I have to admit, it wasn’t one of my favorite books for that reason. I like a clear-cut storyline I can follow.

However, I found the book absolutely fascinating from a historical perspective. If you want to know what early 20th century life in Brooklyn was like, read this book! I don’t write historical fiction because it is way too much work. I’m not willing to put in the research, time, and effort to do it justice, so I leave it to those more capable. If I were ever going to write historical fiction, though, I’d use this book as a guide.

Aside from the careful attention to detail in this book that made it so fascinating, one of the most poignant lessons I learned from this book was the importance of writing realistic characters, and I mean realistic to the point of almost being painful. Because this is a historical fiction novel meant to capture the great difficulty most poor Brooklynites faced in the first few decades of the 1900s, it truly delves into the awful situations of the time.

Spoilers ahead

There were times the family has so little food, they would play a game pretending they were explores at the North Pole waiting for supplies to arrive-slowly starving in the mean time. Sometimes the rescue didn’t come quickly.

The mother, Katie, admits not only that she loves her son more than her daughter because he is an easier child and different enough from her that she can understand him, but also that her marriage choice has left her facing a bleak future of staying with her drunkard husband and carrying the family largely on her own.

Francie, the main character, is often told by others that she’s barely pretty enough to be considered passable. It breaks your heart when she falls for the first guy willing to dote on her and ends up bitterly heartbroken when she realizes how cruel people can be.The handsome, charming Johnny, a young man teen girls dream of being swept off their feet by, doesn’t turn out to be Prince Charming at all. He’s a drunk who folds under pressure, never wanted the children he has, and despite loving his family, is incapable of being the father or husband his family needs and deserves, and dies young and penniless.

The early 1900s in Brooklyn were a harsh time period. Betty Smith doesn’t sugarcoat it to give readers a nice, feel-good story. She highlights the unfair struggles real people face, the crushing mistakes they make, the regret they face over unrealistic or selfish choices, and the often bleak hope they hold onto that things will get better.

Lesson learned

If your goal is to tell a realistic story, develop characters who are deeply flawed, make choices they regret, face unfair situations, and are sometimes unlikable. In other words, write real realistic characters.

USA Today Bestselling Young Adult and Romance Author DelSheree Gladden loves books—reading them and writing them.

DelSheree lives in New Mexico with her husband and two children. When she is not writing, DelSheree is usually reading, painting, sewing, or working as a Dental Hygienist.

Get to know more about DelSheree on:

And follow her on Twitter @Delsheree.

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Monday musings: Three things’s I’ve learned from writing

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By Eden Baylee

This post is re-blogged from Eden Baylee’s entry on her own blog of June 29, 2017.

1. The process of writing means more to me than the finished product.

I’ve gone back to reading several of my old works. Admittedly, some pieces are cringeworthy; others still resonate true today. This comes as no surprise, really. The familiarity of what I’m reading allows me to bypass the story and concentrate on elements of craft. I see things differently than when I first published in 2011.

When I was a non-writing reader, the rules of grammar and punctuation only came to light if I saw an obvious error. Poor sentence structure, the overuse of adverbs, word repetition, etc., were but fleeting impressions.

Now, I’m more focused on how a sentence can be improved upon. This is probably why writers are advised to read — a lot. We feed off and learn from the writing of better authors.

Although completion of a short story, novella, or novel is cause for celebration once it’s published, it is no longer mine. The process of writing is what is important from a learning perspective, and remaining attached to a story after it’s made public serves no purpose.

2. The more I write, the more I learn about others and the less I know about myself.

Writing fiction demands that I look at the world through the lens of others, to inhabit my characters in order write their stories.

By gaining insight into others, I’ve discovered how little I know about myself.

Allow me to explain.

Because I must expand my imagination to write fiction, I sometimes question if it is truly me who comes up with the stories. In the genre of mystery and suspense, I’ve researched by reading a lot of true crime. It’s not surprising I’ve filled my mind with some awful images. That I am also a news junkie only adds to the chaos inside my head.

It’s great for fiction, but not so good for maintaining daily calm.

To stay grounded, I meditate and do yoga. In meditation, all kinds of thoughts come up. I simply observe them, attaching neither good nor bad feelings toward them. Acceptance of these thoughts trains my mind to stay calm and be in the moment. This translates to a more easygoing manner outside of meditation, and hopefully, more awareness.

Yoga serves to strengthen my physical being, which is intimately connected to the mind.

To create believable characters, it’s necessary to nurture them to behave in a way that might be contrary to my own behaviour. The important thing is staying true to myself when I’m not in my fictional world.

3. Writing can be all encompassing.

Writing absorbs me when I’m “in the zone.” At these times, I don’t need food or sleep, and I avoid all distractions. My only purpose is to ride the creative wave for as long as it will take me and as far as it will go.

It doesn’t happen too often, but it’s an amazing feeling when it does.

What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from writing? Please feel free to share in the Comments. 🙂

Eden Baylee left a twenty-year banking career to write and is now a full-time author of multiple genres. She has written three collections of novellas and flash fiction: Spring Into Summer,  Fall into Winter and Hot Flash.

In 2014, she launched the first novel of her trilogy with Dr. Kate Hampton—a psychological mystery/suspense called Stranger at Sunset. In addition to working on her next novel, Eden created Lainey Lee for the Lei Crime Series, a feisty divorcée who finds adventure and romance in Hawaii. Her novellas are available on Kindle Worlds.

An introvert by nature and an extrovert by design, Eden is most comfortable at home with her laptop surrounded by books. She is an online Scrabble junkie and a social media enthusiast, but she really needs to get out more often! Connect to her via all her networks. She loves talking to readers!

Eden can be found on

her BestSellingReads page   |    her Website   |    Facebook   |   Twitter   |   LinkedIn   |    Amazon

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Monday musings: Share your summer reading list

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Summer. Forest fires and wildfires on one side of the continent, floods on the other. World conferences on terrorism and climate change.

It’s no wonder that in summer, readers like to choose lighter fare. Romances, mysteries, thrillers. At the beach or on the dock, in the backyard hammock or on the cottage porch, we’re supposed to be reading books that don’t tax our minds and souls too much. We’re supposed to be on vacation, taking things easy, enjoying the weather and the outdoors.

But is that trope really true? Sure, I remember seeing lots of mysteries held up by people on lounge chairs by the ocean. Clive Cussler, Lee Child, the awful E.L. James, David Baldacci — thrillers and romances and books that do not ask you to think too deeply. But also, I have seen people reading more serious books, like The Girl on the Train or The Couple Next Door.

Various newspapers and blogs also recommend a wider range of books, from The American War by Omar El Akkad (if that one doesn’t make you think about our modern world, I don’t know what will). And of course, The Handmaid’s Tale is playing on TV right now.

How heavy are these books?

The thing about serious books is that many of them could be classified into a genre, which some readers and critics—and writers—describe as not as serious. Not “literary.” But many genre books have also turned out to be serious, to have an impact on the culture. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road can be seen as part of the post-apocalyptic science fiction genre, but it’s a deep, meaningful story about a father and son. Margaret Atwood has written several books, including The Handmaid’s Tale, that definitely fit into the science fiction category.

Independent authors are usually seen as definitely working within genres, and from a marketing point of view, that makes sense. The romance genre, for example, by far outsells, as a whole, every other category of fiction, including “serious” literary fiction. So do mystery and action thrillers.

Blurred lines

The thing is, the high walls between genres are also breaking down. Writers are mixing up mysteries and science-fiction, thrillers and fantasy, and let’s not forget the burgeoning paranormal romance genre.

I myself like to blur the lines between genres. I have been working intermittently on a novel that combines the spy thriller with occult horror, called Dark Clouds. I have published one chapter, the introduction, as a short story. You can find it as Dark Clouds: The Mandrake Ruse.

BestSelling Reads members, independent authors, are not only skilled within their genres, but challenge the genre definitions with books that break the rules, cross genres and keep you from putting their books down before you get to the last page. Eden Baylee’s A Snake in Paradise and Charade At Sea, for example, combine mystery with adult-oriented romance. Renée Pawlish’s Reed Ferguson series moves the noir mystery into the current century, with a heaping helping of humor. Toby Neal and Emily Kimelman have teamed up with the Scorch Road series, combining the post-apocalyptic and serious romance genres. Samreen Ahsan has created a brand new genre, paranormal romances based on Muslim themes, in her Prayer series.

And there’s more.A Silent Prayer cover

Each of these books does more than combine genres: they create something new, something exciting. A new kind of adventure for the reader.

What’s on your summer reading list?

Are you sticking with the easy reads, the reiterations of the same stories, or are you on the lookout for something new, fresh and original? Share what you want to read through the hot and quiet months, and we’ll send you a free e-book.

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Monday musings: Coloring in the literary map

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Photo credit: Porsche Brosseau (Creative Commons)

The beginning of July is the opening of a season of national celebrations. For writers and readers, it’s both an opportunity and a danger.

July 1 last Saturday was Canada Day, the celebration of the establishment of Confederation in British North America in 1867. Of course, tomorrow is the Fourth of July, the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The 14th is Bastille Day in France, the observance of the beginning of the French Revolution that eventually would make France into the democracy it is today.

Wikimedia Commons

Around the world, there are national celebrations coming up in July: Rwanda, Armenia, Algeria, Venezuela, Argentina, South Sudan and South Korea are just some of the countries are celebrating some kind of national, independence or some kind of national creation event.

July is a busy month for patriots.

Opportunity

For writers and readers, the annual national celebration is an opportunity to explore what it means to be a Canadian, American, French, South Sudani or whatever you are. To examine what makes your country what it is, to look at the successes and failures of the past, the opportunities and threats. To connect with fellow citizens, and to engage with others around the world.

Danger

The danger is obvious: an orgy of embarrassing boosterism, of “we’re the best,” and disrespect and rejection of other countries, cultures and ways of life. Even more dangerous is the insistence of a particular definition of a single, narrow aspect of a culture as the only legitimate one.

When this becomes the basis of a story, book or movie, it’s embarrassing. When it becomes the basis of a political movement, it’s destructive.

So what’s the solution? To me, it’s always been to broaden my view, to learn more about as many different people, countries and cultures as I can, to seek the commonality and the constructive everywhere. It’s one reason I like to travel.

Photo: Wilerson S. Andrade Creative Commons License

The previous editor of this blog, Kathleen Valentine (RIP) had a project to read a book from a different country every week or month or so. It’s a great idea, and something I have been toying with for some time.

I have read books by authors from

  • Canada (well, duh)
  • the U.S.A. (hard to avoid)
  • Mexico (completing my North American coverage)
  • the U.K. (also hard to avoid)
  • France
  • Germany
  • Columbia
  • Russia
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Australia
  • Israel
  • Yemen
  • Spain
  • Sweden

Fifteen out of 196. Not a good proportion, so I am going to start trying to expand that.

How many countries can you color in on your literary map?

What about you, readers?

If we were to color in countries on a map where BestSelling Reads member authors live, we’d have four to shade. This is something we’re working on expanding.

But what about you? How many countries can you color in on your map of literary exploration?

Share in a Comment.

 

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Monday musings: Travel and inspiration

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“Where do you get your ideas from?” Cecily Pigeon (or maybe it was Gwendolyn) asked Felix Unger in Neil Simon’s play, The Odd Couple.

It’s a question every writer gets. While Felix, who wrote news for TV, could answer “From the news!” for fiction writers, it’s more complicated—and, I think, more fun.

There are any number of things that can spark an idea for a creative writer of fiction—or even non-fiction. Sights, sounds, smells, stories, experiences; the way a shadow moves over a wall as a car’s headlights sweep past; the way a friend hesitates before answering a question; the shouts of spectators at a football game; even the way clouds move across a darkening sky.

I just returned from a trip to the Czech Republic, where so many sights, sounds and experiences sparked ideas for different types of stories, I could barely write them down fast enough to remember them. In fact, I’m certain I’ve forgotten a lot.

Have you ever done that writing exercise, where you base a story on a picture? Here are a few images that can prove evocative.

This is an old palace in the Moravian town of Telc. Castles and palaces are easy. What does it make you think of? A story about a princess and a cruel king in medieval times? How about lost treasure buried deep in hidden passages, or a horrible family secret?

Here’s a picture taken from the plane on the way back. Those are the mountains of Greenland—yes, Greenland! This can evoke stories of lost explorers, or refugees fleeing persecution in a warm climate. How about a story about climate change? Reach deeper: the relationship between humanity and the infinite.

Here’s a shot of street performers in Prague. What story would you write about this? What if I told you they were playing “Stairway to Heaven”?

A new story

My favourite story idea from this trip to Prague came like pulling on the tiny end of a thin thread. You know how it is: First, the bit of thread you can reach is so short, you can barely grasp it. Pulling on it is as likely to make it slip from between your fingers as to pull it longer, but bit by bit, you get a better grip. Then it comes out, faster and faster, fuller and fuller.

I had an idea like that after attending a “black light” performance, a uniquely Prague form of entertainment. Not so much ideas of events or characters came from that, but more a feeling that Prague evoked in me: a city that at the same time presents mystical, almost magical impressions, as well as a long tradition of modernism and commitment to science, rationality, humanism and science.

What about you? What inspires ideas for stories in your mind? Do you have a picture you’d like to send to your favourite author to see what they might come up with? Leave a Comment.

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Seven characteristics of successful #writers that cannot be taught

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By Toby Neal

This post originally appeared on Toby Neal’s blog on September 21, 2016.

Seven characteristics of successful writers cannot be taught—but they can be learned and developed until they become the habits that are the bedrock of a successful artist practice in any field.

  • The successful writer is a keen observer of everything around him. Writers notice things: the way a closet smells of cedar, mothballs, and the unique stench of crumbling old photographs. They see the gilt hairs on a centipede, the gleam of a lost marble in the grass. They feel the chill of dried sweat on the inside of a parka—and everything, simply everything, is something that might be useful for story.
  • The successful writer is dangerously curious. Curiosity is a quality that cannot be faked or taught—but it can be cultivated. Curiosity drives the questioning mind to relentlessly ask: what if? Why? How does this work? Seeking answers is the stuff of story, legend, art and invention—and while not every question may be of interest, an inquiring mind can be nurtured (particularly in children. But that’s a topic for another day.)
  • The successful writer has talent plus passion. Talent cannot be faked. Some people just have an innate adeptness with words, with paint, with a musical instrument—they perform in their area of passion easily, gracefully, naturally. But those who succeed don’t just have talent—they can’t NOT do their art. Oh, the stories I could tell on this one. My early ambition to be a writer was actually crushed by the careless comment of an adult I respected at a party before I left for college. “What? You want to be a writer? You’ll never make a living doing that.” I was forty before I began to really put that all-to-common sound bite behind me, and for a while I grieved for all the time lost. Eventually, though, I could see all the ways that I was writing all of my life, and none of it was wasted. Even when a creative’s sublimating, their passion oozes out in that church newsletter, that nursery mural, that ditty on the trash can at the bus stop. They must, and they will, come what may—and eventually the universe shapes itself to support that unyielding passion.
  • The successful writer learns from criticism (but never gives up.) Rejection is inherent to any creative enterprise. As my editor Kristin Weber said, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.” Creative fields are also filled with what Julia Cameron, in her groundbreaking The Artist’s Way, calls “shadow artists.” These are blocked creatives, who, instead of doing their own art, have instead become the tastemakers, the critics, the professors and teachers, the reviewers. That’s not to say everyone in these roles is a shadow artist—no, far from it! But you’ll know the shadow artist by the brutality and cruelty of their attack, the mean-spirited belittlement of their judginess. They cannot hide their bitter jealousy, and its toxic venom burns the tender young artist. Put on your armor, take your hits—and be humble. Learn from the criticism, do that next edit, go the extra mile to perfect the work with grace and thanks—but never let anyone’s bad review make you give up.
  • The successful writer is not afraid to be alone. Art is, and writing particularly, a solitary pursuit. Even co-writing, which I’m doing now, is still me on my side of the world writing my words alone, and my co-author on hers writing her words, both of us dumping them into a shared story (alone) and then trying to make it all hang together (which can definitely be harder than working alone!) A taste for one’s own company is very much a characteristic of the successful writer. You can learn to do this by taking small retreats and learning to sit with the silence, learning to build an inner self sufficiency—and the writing or other art will deepen as a result.

    My work area, surrounded by special objects.

  • The successful writer focuses and finishes. It’s not enough to flit through life, beginning novels, getting forty pages in, and abandoning them out of boredom (as I did.) It takes commitment to focus, persist, follow the rabbit-trail of an idea, capture and nurture it, weed, water and feed it, trim, groom, and harvest the fruit of it—even if that particular novel ends up in a drawer, becoming fertilizer for the next one. Focusing and finishing are important habits that separate the wannabes from the doing-its. Learn to focus and finish, even if it doesn’t come naturally—there are apps, books, techniques available. (Look up Pomodoro Method, and the book Steal Like an Artistby Austin Kleon, for ideas.)
  • The successful writer is persistent. The single greatest characteristic needed for success in any creative field is persistence. It can make up for a multitude of sins, including lack of talent, having no ideas, being a sellout, an idiot, a messed-up neurotic with a mental health disorder, a drunk or a dilettante. If you refuse to give up, and just keep coming to the page day after day after day, you will improve. You will succeed in becoming the best writer you can be.

As I write this, I am on vacation in the wilds of British Columbia, a location I chose because of its optimal writing opportunities and with which my family cooperated because they love nature too, and fishing, and trees and eagles and the sound of the tide turning. But today I am happily alone, delighted with the idea of a long stretch of uninterrupted writing before me, and amazed that its my writing paying for it all. I wish I’d known thirty years ago what I know now, and share with you freely. But only you can believe in yourself and your passion enough to make room for it to flourish. I hope you will.

Toby Neal was raised on Kauai in Hawaii and makes the Islands home after living elsewhere for “stretches of exile” to pursue education. Toby enjoys outdoor activities including bodyboarding, scuba diving, photography and hiking as well as writing. A mental health therapist, Toby credits that career with adding depth to the characters in the LeiCrime Series.

Get to know Toby on her:

And follow her on Twitter @TobywNeal.

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Monday musing: Writing, like life, depends on which road you take

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By Caleb Pirtle III

This post originally appeared in Caleb and Linda Pirtle’s blog on February 22, 2017.

Writing is like life. You can take any road you want. Each has a different story.

Each choice has a consequence you have to live with for the rest of your life.

“WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?” I asked the old man sitting in the back chair at the back table of a writer’s conference.

He looked at me strangely, a puzzled expression on his face.

“Writing?” he asked.

“Writing a novel,” I said.

“Do you know anything about life?” he asked.

“Not a lot.”

He shrugged as though I was helpless, and he was probably right.

“Learn about life,” he said, sipping on a free cup of cold coffee. “Then you’ll know how to write a novel.”

He paused and watched a spider meander aimlessly across the ceiling.

The speaker droned on.

Hadn’t said anything yet.

Doubted if he would.

“It’s all about choices,” the old man said.

“Life?” I asked.

“Novels, too,” he said. “Stories are about the choices we make. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

“What kind of choices?” I wanted to know.

“When I was a young man,” he said, “I could go to work, or I could go to college. I had a choice to make.”

“What’d you do?”

“Went to work.” He shrugged again. “Couldn’t afford college.”

I forgot the speaker.

I gave the old man my full attention.

“If I hadn’t gone to work,” he said, “I would have never gone to Oklahoma City.”

He grinned.

“If I hadn’t gone to Oklahoma City,” he said, “I would have never gone into the Boots and Saddles bar.”

The old man leaned forward, his elbows on the table.

“If hadn’t gone in the bar,” he said, “I would have never met Mary Ann McClure.”

He was cleaning out the cellar of his memory now.

“If I had never met Mary Ann McClure,” he said, “I would have never quit my job and took the train to Omaha.”

“Why the train?” I asked.

“Didn’t have a car.”

“Why did you leave Oklahoma City?”

“Mary Ann McClure was a married woman.” He took another sip of his coffee. “I had a choice to make. I could stay, or I could run.”

“Was she worth fighting for?” I asked.

“She wasn’t worth dying for.”

“You think her husband would have killed you?” I wanted to know.

“He had a choice to make,” the old man said. “He could shoot me, or he could forget it, forgive Mary Ann, and let the whole sordid thing go.”

“He didn’t let it go, I guess.”

“Shot at me twice.”

“Did he hit you?”

“He wasn’t much of a lover, Mary Ann told me. He was an even worse shot.”

“What happened to Mary Ann?” I asked.

“She had a choice to make,” the old man said. “She could stay with him or leave.”

“Where would she go?”

“Certainly not with me.”

“How about divorce?”

“That was his choice.”

“What did he decide?”

“He and Mary Ann took a second honeymoon to Estes Park in the Rockies,” he said. “Love is a wonderful thing. So is forgiveness. They went hiking early one morning. She came back. He didn’t.”

“She kill him?”

“She said he fell.”

“Did they ever find the body?”

“The Ranger had a choice to make,” the old man said. “He could investigate a crime or spend the night with his primary suspect.”

“What’d he do?”

“Never found the body.”

“Anybody ever look for it?” I asked.

“No reason to.”

“Why not?”

“The missing man was never reported missing.”

The old man grinned.

The speaker was through.

And so was he.

I looked at him strangely, a puzzled expression on my face.

“Do you expect me to believe all of that?” I asked.

“Don’t care if you do,” he said. “Don’t care if you don’t.”

His grin grew wider.

He stood up and ambled toward the back of the room for another cup of coffee.

“That’s the choice you’ll have to make,” he said. “When you come to a crossroad, it’s all about choices.”

“How will I know which road to take?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “There is no wrong choice, but each choice has a consequence you have to live with for the rest of your life.”

Those were the last words I heard him say.

I waited for him.

There were other questions I wanted to ask.

But he was like the man on the mountain.

He didn’t come back.

In my Ambrose Lincoln series, Ambrose never knows which road he took until it’s too late.

Caleb Pirtle III is the author of more than seventy books, including four noir thrillers in the Ambrose Lincoln series: Secrets of the Dead, Conspiracy of LiesNight Side of Dark and Place of Skulls. Secrets and Conspiracy are now audiobooks on audible.com. His most recent novel is Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever.

Pirtle is a graduate of The University of Texas in Austin and became the first student at the university to win the National William Randolph Hearst Award for feature writing. Several of his books and his magazine writing have received national and regional awards.

Pirtle has written three teleplays for major networks. His narrative nonfiction, Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk, is a true-life book about the fights and feuds during the founding of the controversial Giddings oilfield in Texas. From the Dark Side of the Rainbow is the story of a woman’s escape from the Nazis in Poland during World War II. His coffee-table book, XIT: The American Cowboy, became the publishing industry’s third-best selling art book of all time.

Pirtle was a newspaper reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and served ten years as travel editor for Southern Living Magazine. He was editorial director for a Dallas custom publisher for more than twenty-five years.

Get to know Caleb on his:

And follow him on Twitter @CalebPirtle.

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