Writing Lessons

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This past weekend I attended a writing workshop hosted by Sisters in Crime, presented by Nancy Pickard. Nancy is one of the founding members and former president of the International level of Sisters in Crime, an organization that supports women mystery writers. She’s also a past board member of Mystery Writers of America. Impressive, right? But you haven’t heard anything yet.

She has numerous awards under her writers belt, among them the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, Barry, and Shamus awards for her short stories–WOW! And there’s more! She’s been nominated four times for the Edgar Allan Poe award, she’s received a Lifetime Achievement award from Malice Domestic, and she’s been a Mary Higgins Clark award finalist.

Who better to learn from? And did she have a lot of fantastic advice!

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In addition to learning how to better be a strong female writer in an industry that leans toward men, I want to share some tips she provided that have served her well in her career.

There are five elements every chapter needs to have–Conflict, Action, Surprise, Turn, Senses.

Conflict: Old reality vs new reality. In the beginning of the story, something happens that changes what was to what is or will be. A template for a mystery novel contains the protagonist living a normal life that something intrudes upon. The protagonist hesitates to move forward but something else happens that propels them forward into their new reality. It will serve you well to include conflict in your first paragraph.

Action:  Action propels each scene into the next one, so make sure it’s present in each scene/chapter.

Surprise:  Try insert a surprise in each chapter, no matter how subtle it may be. The best people to surprise are the protagonist or the reader.

Turn:  Recognize what your character is feeling as they walk into a scene, even if it’s neutral. Make that emotion turn into something else during that scene. The emotional tone should change in your protagonist within each scene so s/he isn’t simply ambling from one scene into the next and out again.

Senses:  This is my favorite and in Nancy’s words, the most important. All five senses–taste, touch, sight, smell, hearing–should be incorporated into your writing. She suggested looking at each scene, and if there’s not a few references to the senses, add them. I wondered how to do this so it was natural and didn’t sound forced and was surprised and how many places I could add some of the senses in the few scenes I reviewed. And it added so much more to my story. If you’re having a difficult time, stop where you are, close your eyes and focus on one of the senses at a time. What do you hear? See? Taste? Smell? Feel? Our group was pretty creative with this exercise!

Special Mentions:

  • Write the letters C.A.S.T.S. on a notecard as well as a separate notecard with each of the five senses. Keep it by your side as you’re writing as a reminder to incorporate all of these elements in each of your scenes.
  • Always check the first sentence. If possible have it contain conflict or one of the five senses.
  • Pay special attention to the first sentence, first paragraph, first scene, first chapter. Take out all the words that weaken your writing–very, that, just, so, etc. Replace weak verbs with strong ones.
  • Backstory and the current one should each be their own story, with a beginning, middle, and an end. Don’t add backstory without a purpose.
  • Take care not to spend too much time setting up a scene. This one kind of speaks for itself.
  • Go deep into research, experiencing all that you can. Ride that train, shoot that gun, visit that museum, really taste that specific food…

And, as always, what can’t be taught but is so strongly felt, is that camaraderie, that support, that creative energy, those things that can only come from being in a room full of writers.

And now, it’s back off to camp. Camp NaNoWriMo, that is. To work on my project, revising book four in the Melanie Hogan mysteries, Shear Murder, by using C.A.S.T. and the five senses. Onward!

Off to Camp

If you have a dream of writing, that’s wishful thinking. If you have a commitment to writing, that’s the way to make your dreams come true.
Nancy Pickard

 

 

 

Camp NaNoWriMo

Off to Camp

So in further explanation from the brief mention of Camp NaNo in last week’s post, what exactly is Camp NaNo? It can be summed up in two words:

Fun Challenge!

Camp NaNoWriMo is a spinoff from November’s NaNoWriMo where participants from all over the world strive to write 50,000 words in the month of November. Camp NaNo is a bit looser. Where November’s goal is to write the first draft of a novel, Camp allows the participants to set their own goal in word count, page count, minutes or hours. The “campers” are also given a place to stay with like-minded campers in virtual cabins, making virtual s’mores over virtual campfires, but having real conversation. Cabin mates encourage one another, share their expertise and knowledge, and new writer friendships are developed.

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I’ve participated in November’s NaNoWriMo in the past (in fact, my first published book, The Inheritance, was born from my very first NaNoWriMo experience), I usually participate in the April Camp NaNo, but I never miss a July Camp. I dust off my lantern, prepare the month before by planning my project and reading what I can. When Camp starts I celebrate with a real s’more on day one (No virtual ones for this part) and at set intervals to celebrate accomplishments along the way.

This year I’ll be working on edits and revisions on book four in the Melanie Hogan Mystery Series, Shear Murder. Shear Madness, Shear Deception, and Shear Malice are available here and here. I’ve set my goal at 40 hours, I’ve printed my manuscript and placed it in a 3-ring binder, I’m re-reading the book Revision and Self-Editing for Publication by James Scott Bell (one of the best books on editing I’ve ever found), and I’m ready to roll!

One last thing–Each of the Melanie Hogan Mysteries contains a recipe. Shear Madness, book one in the series, actually contains three! I’m searching for hotdish recipes for my new book. Unless you’re from Minnesota, you’re probably wondering what in the world hotdish is. It’s a casserole that typically contains a starch of some sort, meat, and canned or frozen vegetables with canned soup. Minnesotans can get pretty creative, let me tell ya, don’tcha know. Since the Melanie Hogan series is set in northern Minnesota, the chosen recipes are native to Minnesota (like hotdish) or those that were special to me as a child growing up. If you don’t have a hotdish recipe but want to participate, anything native to Minnesota will do. Nothing with Spam though, please. I’ve yet to see anything that makes Spam edible. Ugh!

I’ll be accepting submissions for the next couple of months, and the chosen recipe, along with the winner’s name, will be mentioned in the book. If you’re interested in participating, send your recipe via email to rjblackhurst0611@gmail.com.

And now it’s back off to Camp!

Campfire

 

Spring has Fully Sprung

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I just love the Crab Apple trees in the spring. The purple, pink, and white flowers aren’t only breathtakingly beautiful, but their sweet, tangy aroma is candy for the nose. (The legal kind!) As I was running this past weekend, I was in awe of how the landscape is painted and planted so perfectly, so pleasing. The patio furniture is out, the sun curtains hung, the grill ready, and flowers planted. Now if I can keep a very persistent robin from building her nest under the awning, we’ll be ready to roll.

On the writing front, another Spring session of Camp NaNo is now over and I met my goal–just barely, but I did. That means the first 40,000 words of book two in the Whispering Pines Mysteries are written. My plan is to keep the momentum going throughout May to finish the first draft. Also I have a story due by May 22nd to a publisher. Getting these two things accomplished while also working my day job as a Paralegal may require a weekend writing retreat where I head to the mountains and hole up, doing nothing but writing. My idea of a perfect weekend! July brings the summer session of Camp NaNo (and my favorite) in which I’ll be revising book four of the Melanie Hogan Mysteries.

May is also when we typically go for our first long bike ride of the season to Confluence Park in Denver. It’s about a 30-mile round trip and exhilarating! The park is home to all walks of life–similar to Boulder.

Do you have any plans for the remaining spring days and for summer? I would love to hear them.

Crab Apple Tree

Unique Boulder

We had family visiting from Minnesota this past week. With all the snow Minnesota has had this spring, my husband and I thought we would treat them to new sites. And the sites don’t get any better–or crazier–than Boulder, Colorado. In fact, Boulder is like it’s own little state. Comments like “Only in Boulder,” “That’s something you’d see in Boulder,” “Of course that happened—it’s Boulder!” And the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder is the cream of the crop.

However, that being said, Boulder is the best place to escape. It’s in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and home to University of Colorado Boulder, so it’s populated with full-of-life college students. It’s home to people who are comfortable being themselves, free from the chains of what society expects us to be. It’s a city that celebrates art and all walks of life, embracing human uniqueness, and holds no discrimination. It’s pure human freedom.

Below is a sampling. The gardening along the Pearl Street Mall was breathtaking, and the rest of the photos–well, there aren’t even words to explain. The pictures say it all.

Enjoy!

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And here’s a little shot of beauty with which to end.  And in the end, I’m all too happy to get home, where I’m free to be me. There’s nowhere like the quiet beauty of home.

And now it’s back off to Camp NaNo to finish up my writing goal.

Have a beautiful week!

Being different gives the world color.  Nelsan Ellis

Nature at its Finest

We spent some time at our place in Estes Park, Colorado this past weekend. In fact, we’re actually there now as I write this post. Before me is the amazing mountainside on the other side of the river right outside my sliding glass door, a cup of coffee at my side, one of my fur babies at my feet. This morning I enjoyed the hot tub right outside my door as the sun rose on the mountaintops. Typically there are a lot of tourists here, as Estes Park is consistently recognized as one of the top visiting sites, but this weekend was quiet and so peaceful. Every time I’m here, I’m reminded how blessed my life is.

Since I can’t seem to get enough of this place and would live up here if my day job and my husband’s commitments didn’t keep us elsewhere, I thought I’d share some of its charm with everyone. It doesn’t matter the season, it’s heaven on earth.

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This is one of my favorite little walkout hiding places. It’s located right off the trail that circles Lake Estes. The lake’s shoreline is about 4 miles.

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A lot of weddings are held here, also on the shoreline of Lake Estes.

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Bear frequent the area so these are located everywhere. Last fall as we were walking the fur babies in the early morning hours at our place, we ran into a mama and her two babies in our parking lot. That was a little too close for me!

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The art of fly fishing has always fascinated me and is on my bucket list. Someday. This river connects to Lake Estes. I’ve never fished here–yet–but rumor has it there are Rainbow trout, Brown trout, Sockeye salmon, Yellow perch, and Cutthroat trout.

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The mountains in the back of this photo were breathtaking on my run this morning.

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This beast was unconcerned with the growing crowd around him last summer.

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This duel was right outside of our sliding glass doors last fall.

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This beauty was allowing us to admire him this afternoon.

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We hiked this trail last summer. It’s located in Rocky Mountain National Park. Our place is a mere 1/2 mile from the entrance to the park.

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This is off the same hiking trail last summer in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Now it’s back to camp. Camp NaNo, that is. Book two in the Whispering Pines Mysteries is well underway. And no surprise, it’s set in the Colorado mountains. But I need to step it up a bit if I’m going to meet my goal.

Have a beautiful week.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. John Muir

 

Writers and Writing

Conference

Is there anything more intoxicating than being in a room full of motivated writers? If there is, I can’t think of what it would be.

This past weekend I was fortunate to attend a writing workshop in Denver, Writing Commercial Fiction, by Jeffery Deaver, hosted by Rocky Mountain Chapter Mystery Writers of America, and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. This was my second time I was blessed to learn from him, the first being at the Colorado Gold Writer’s Conference. What a talented, generous, wonderful man!

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The five hours were packed with useful information, no fluff, no time wasted.

He started with general rules of writing fiction which included:

Define your goal as a writer, remember your mission, writing fiction is a business, adopt the mint-flavored business model (as an author it’s our job to give the reader a pleasant experience, mint vs liver-flavored toothpaste), the subject of your story and what it should be about, plan your book or story ahead of time (he’s a huge advocate of outlining and research and completely convinced me to put more time into each), and know your craft (from style, prose, grammar, punctuation, syntax, the publishing market, and technology). He touched on being aware of your shortcomings, the importance of rewriting, continuing your education via classes and conferences, that rejection is a speed bump and not a brick wall (something we can all benefit from to remember) and take your time in all aspects of writing. Hurrying the process will only result in a lesser quality piece of written work.

From there he spent time on the four elements of a story:

Plot – Continually introduce conflicts. Every scene needs to raise questions. Aim for the WOW! factor. He suggested holding off on answering those questions as long as possible. Unresolved anticipation is good, but never leave a conflict, clue, or subplot unanswered. Every question needs to be answered at the end of the book and every clue resolved. He talked about adding subplots, humor, and even a few fun facts. He explained the importance of using plot reversals and how to energize the middle of the book. I was surprised (pleasantly so since I’ve always struggled with the 3-act structure) that he doesn’t believe in the 3-act structure but rather a linear structure with a series of ups and downs. He talked about the need for surprise endings, that your twists need to have consequences, and the necessity of creating risks for your characters by incorporating physical threats, death, or a loss of something, whether it be love, friendship, a career, or any other loss that’s significant to a character. He touched on using the Goldilocks principle when incorporating research–not to little, not too much, but make sure it helps the story and furthers the reader’s understanding.

Characters – It’s good to have a protagonist with flaws but s/he needs to be likeable, don’t create passive characters, observe people constantly to make your characters better, give them quirks and tics, the best way to reveal a character (telling the reader directly, describe the appearance, thoughts, and feelings, using dialogue, through the character’s actions, and through others reactions). And we can’t leave out that even the villain needs to be a little likable. Shoot for compelling characters instead of interesting.

Setting – The setting is essentially another character but less important than plot and character. The plot should be developed first, then populated with characters, then setting comes into play. He stressed the importance of doing your research on settings. Boots-on-the-ground research is best, but if that isn’t possible, use the Internet.

Dialogue – Don’t over explain during dialogue, write as if someone is talking (use contractions and break the rules of grammar), match the characters with their dialogue, and when using a dialogue attribution “said” and “asked” are best.

This is only a brief explanation of topics covered. Each section was chock full of information, suggestions, examples, and personal stories. And when I asked if I could record his presentation, he was kind enough to allow it. That’s generosity, folks! His passion for his profession is hugely contagious. (How’s that for the ole ly adverb?)

Numerous members of my Sisters in Crime-Colorado writing group attended as well. (I’m third from the right with the cut-out shoulder shirt). To say it was beneficial to us as writers is an understatement. If he’s ever presenting at a conference/workshop in your area, I highly recommend any and all writers to attend. You won’t be sorry. It will be a mint-flavored experience!

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And now it’s back to Camp NaNo where I have a manuscript vying for my attention.

Write on. Have a beautiful week!

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
― Mark Twain, The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain