January 21, 2017

Who or What Pulls Your Strings?

I’m sitting at my computer today, thinking about the world, fearful of the future and wondering who or what pulls your strings. Who and what makes you do what you do? Who motivates you? Having just listened to Meryl Streep’s moving speech at the 2017 Golden Globes, I wondered what went through this great actress’s mind when she took to the podium. I respect her courage.

What made Martin Luther King, Jr. risk his family’s life, his career, his own well-being? What anguish did he suffer before embarking on his journey toward freeing his people? What ignited him?

When I worked as a corporate trainer, I taught motivation. My goal was to help managers and leaders understand how to motivate their employees. Often I would point out that the only real motivator in life is oneself. We cannot motivate others. That fact in and of itself took a great weight off my participants. Clearly, people must motivate themselves. They create their own passions. But, something happens within us that makes that happen.

Writing is a great motivator. So is reading. I get inspired by reading great books. That makes me want to go to my computer and write.

Recently I saw a movie, The Woman in Gold. The story is about an elderly woman who fled Austria during the Nazi invasion. Her family lost all their possessions, including masterpieces painted by the famous Viennese artist, Gustav Klimt. Maria Altman had her own motivations for wanting her family’s possessions returned. What I found interesting is the way the young attorney, whom she asked to help her, became possessed by this case. He came into it indifferently with little hope of success. His original motivator was the amazing value of the painting. After his trip to Vienna and after learning of the plight of his own ancestors, he dedicated himself to the mission of returning the Woman in Gold to its family. His passion overtook that of Maria Altmann. What happened? What tugged at his strings?

Sometimes we cannot pinpoint our motivations or our passions. We simply know we cannot go on without pursuing them. Many a writer has given up everything, promotions, travel, money, to pursue a career that had little hope of success. We know the people who made it. There are multitudes more who don’t. Why? Not for lack of motivation. Not for lack of talent. Often for lack of timing or luck. Nothing more.

What must you do even when the universe seems to work against you?

#MyReview Chains Deserves More than 5 Stars!!!

Laurie Halse Anderson did that in her trilogy beginning with Chains. A National Book Award finalist this book deserves all its awards.

In celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I timed reading this book perfectly. It’s hard for a white person to understand the trauma of slavery, not only among those who lived it but also among those who came later. Being in the skin of this young slave helped me witness the suffering.

So many of us believe our founding fathers were good people. We believe what they said and did was sacrosanct. We’ve honor them and set them up as near dieties. But, in reality they were people. Full of flaws, just like us. Had they lost the Revolutionary War, they would have been shunned and called traitors. Having won, we herald them as heroes.

In Chains we examine what it might have been like during that turbulent, uncertain time to have been a slave. The main character, Isabel, is a negro child, trying to protect her younger sister.

The author did an amazing job of telling Isabel’s story without overdramatizing the hardships. Made it easier for me to read.

The times are tempestuous at best. Finding herself in New York City at the time of the British invasion, Isabel sways from the rebel side to the British side. Her goal is not a country’s freedom, which she recognizes as not pertaining to her, but the freedom of herself and her sister. She’ll risk her life to achieve that goal.

Each chapter begins with a clip from a primary source, a newspaper article, a letter from a patriot or a British soldier, an excerpt from our historical documents. Those headings ground the chapter in history. The author strives to tell Isabel’s story as accurately as she can all these years later.

Thank goodness for those of us just finding this trilogy. Because when you finish Chains, you’ll want to keep reading.

Here are some examples of the beautiful writing:

…Being loyal to the one who owned me gave me prickly thoughts, like burrs trapped in my shift, pressing into my skin with every step.

…There was truth in his words, hard truth, a hammer sticking a stone

…”Gossip is the foul smell of the Devil’s backside,” that’s what Momma always said.

…Her voice sounded raw, like it had been run against a grater.

The absolute essence of this first book is written in these words from Isabel’s mouth: I was changed between two nations.

Enjoy this wonderful series, titled Seeds of America. If it doesn’t win the National Book Award, it certainly should have!!

Click to Order all three books!

Unconventional Uses of Point-of-View

In my last post, I talked about how to avoid abusing point-of-view.

I call it cheap writing because the author simply jumps from head to head. It is easy and takes no creativity. When forced to stay in one head or in the head of a particular character throughout a scene or chapter, it’s harder to create a full story. Authors must use creative means to do that. It’s more work, harder and much more enjoyable for the reader.

They do this with a subtle purpose, not just to be different. As long as the method does not distract the reader, it’s perfectly fine to try some of these unconventional techniques.

Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about.

In the book, Leaving Time, Jodi Picoult uses the first person point of view for four different characters. She introduces the characters at the beginning of each chapter with their names. But, the chapter is told from the first person point-of-view. So, when Jenna talks, she says, “I went to the school…” This is a very different approach to what might be more common–use the third person. When alternating points-of-view are told in a story, most authors chose the third person. It was a general understanding that first-person is only used when there’s only one point-of-view. That rule, however, is changing. Why might Jodi Picoult choose this method instead the third person? My guess is she wanted to bring the reader closer to those four characters. She wanted them to feel, hear, see, taste, touch what those characters felt, heard, saw, tasted and touched. And, the method worked.

Another example of a creative use of point of view was adopted in Clare Mackintosh’s book, I let You Go. In this book the author uses the first-person point of view for two characters, the protagonist and the antagonist. She uses the third person for the police. Again this is a very unconventional use of point-of-view, but it clearly adds tension in a suspenseful book. The reader is kept at a distance from the police (where the reader ordinarily feels safest) and is brought in closer when put in the minds of the victim and the perpetrator. When things get the hottest, most scary, Mackintosh has the reader where she wants them, in the mind of the one being pursued. Very clever. And, again it worked.

My last example comes from The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. This book is told from the point-of-view of Death. Here we have an omnipresent point-of-view, one of my least favorite, but it’s done in such a creative way that the reader never believes the author is talking to us. Instead, we hear from the characters, in their points of view with the occasional asides from the omnipresent Death. For me, as a reader, it made the difficult times easier to bear. It made telling a harsh story easier to stomach. I can’t imagine how Zusak came up with the idea of telling the story from the point-of-view of Death, and my hunch is the first editors he sent the manuscript to, rejected that method. But, thankfully, he went with his instincts because this is an excellent book told in a masterful manner.

Creating the plot, characters, setting and overall story aren’t the only choices authors must make. How to tell that story is another important choice.

What are some examples of the use of point-of-view that you’ve found to be unconventional but effective? Share those with us!


The Messiness of Point of View

It  is distracting and cheapens the writing. That doesn’t mean I don’t like hearing what other characters are thinking. There’s just a way to do that correctly. As a reader, I love the way writers are experimenting with point of view and are trying a number of new, previously unorthodox things.

Here’s an example. Years ago when I wrote an early version of the e-Murderer, I thought I’d write the book in the first-person from my protagonist’s point of view. But, at the end of each chapter, I included a third-person point of view from the mind of the killer. Not much, just enough to add creepy suspense.

I did this and sent the book out for consideration. It came back with the note that I must decide to either write in the first person point-of-view or the third. I couldn’t use the format I described above. Reluctantly, I took out those bits from the murderer’s mind. Many edits later, I wished I’d saved them. Those snippets gave me more insight into the mind of the killer. Furthermore, many writers are doing what I’d wanted to do all those years ago. Liane Moriarty, for example, tests the reader’s attention by adding bits at the end of chapters or at the beginning (depending on the book) from different perspectives. The chapter progress, however, moves linearly. Very clever.

  1. Writers must stay in the character’s mind throughout a scene or a chapter. If the writer hops from one character’s head to another from paragraph to paragraph or sentence to sentence, it is unacceptable in today’s writing worlds. Here’s an example of what not to do: He loved to drink red wine while eating, but he sensed her disapproval. Just as he took a sip, she frowned. Why must he always have wine with dinner? she thinks. Notice how we began in his mind and then moved to hers. Anytime a writer does this, he or she is head hopping.

  2. If you write in the first person, you can only allow the reader to hear that character’s thoughts. Furthermore, what is learned in the story can only be detected by the first-person character. In other words, I can’t experience something unless I’m there or I hear it from someone else. The writer, therefore, must think of clever ways to get information to his/her main character.

  3. If you write in the third person, you have the same restrictions as if you were writing in the first person. The difference is, there’s a bit more leeway. The he or she of your story can only think their own thoughts. They can’t jump into someone else’s head. But, it’s easier to go from one character’s head to another in different scenes or chapters. It is in this point-of-view (third person) that I see the most mistakes with head hopping. Here is where the writer must be especially cautious. For example, if you are describing the character’s appearance, you must do it in a way that character thinks. Not what everyone else may think about that character. You cannot say, “She had beautiful hair that shimmered in the sunlight” if you are in that person’s head. You could say, “She hoped her hair might shimmer in the sunlight and attract his attention.”

  4. The omnipresent point-of-view is passed. There was a time when most books were written in the omnipresent point-of-view–that is the author talking to the reader. In today’s writing world, this convention has disappeared. Readers no longer want to hear what the author has to say. Instead, they want the author to show us through the characters.

In my next post, I’ll share some creative uses of point-of-view by some of today’s best authors.

Anyone Can Write Goals–AccomplishingThem Takes a Lot More!

Before I started writing full-time, I was a communication coach. One of the things I did with my clients was to help them establish their goals. What did they want to accomplish? What was holding them back from their dreams? What would it take for them to accomplish their goals. It’s one thing to set goals. It’s quite another thing to achieve those goals.

They tell their friends about new resolutions for the year. The gyms fill up with these good intentions. By February all those people vanish. Where did they go? Why didn’t they maintain their resolutions?

If you ask these people why they slid from their good intentions, they’ll tell you life got in the way. They didn’t anticipate a new job or a new baby or a sick parent or whatever. In truth, the resolution wasn’t really a resolution. It was something they felt they needed to do, but they weren’t really committed to it.

If so, here are some things you can do to make the goals happen.

  • Set your goals with clear outcomes. If your goal is to lose weight, I’d ask you to tell me how much weight and by when. Your goal then becomes: I want to lose five pounds by the first of February. That’s a clear goals with an outcome.
  • Once you set the goal, visualize actually achieving it. Imagine getting there and how that will feel. For example, if you set a goal to remodel your kitchen, imagine that new kitchen. Try out the new cabinets. Walk on the newly refurbished floors. Then, record your feelings. How did that newly remodeled kitchen make you feel?
  • Ask yourself what might stand in your way of reaching your goals. What obstacles might you encounter along the way? Once you know what those barriers are, you’ll be more likely to scale over them. For example if one barrier to weekly posts on your blog is that you don’t know what you’d post about every week, then write out a list of topics that will carry you through the first several weeks or months.
  • Find a buddy or partner to hold you accountable for your goals. If you try to do it alone, you may not ever get there. If your goal is to go to the gym once a week until March, find a friend with a similar goal. If your goal is to write a chapter a week in your new novel, ask a friend to regularly check to see how you’ve done.

Anyone can list goals and set resolutions. Accomplishing those goals is quite another thing.

Next year at this time, you’ll feel successful and ready for the next leap.

What suggestions do you have to help people accomplish their New Year’s resolutions?

Can You Judge a Book by its Cover?

I’ve joined a new blog team with monthly themes. This month #Inkripples is talking about book covers. Check out the other bloggers and what they have to say about book covers at Mary Waibel’s World at Katie Carroll Observation Desk and at Kai Strand’s blog.

Why? For one reason, we’re writers, not artists. How are we supposed to come up with a cover that tells our story? It’s hard enough to write a short blurb to describe a 300 page book. But, creating an image that tells it all keeps me up at night, tossing, turning and worrying.

What exactly is the book cover supposed to do?

  • Give the reader a glimpse of the story inside
  • Help identify the theme or genre of the book
  • Attract readers to the book and to want to read more
  • Create the “image” for the book

Need I say more? With all those jobs, finding that perfect book cover is indeed a challenge. With my first books which were nonfiction and published by a large publishing house, I had little to say about the cover. In fact, my first book cover was chosen by the publisher, and I could only okay it. My second book had two choices. By the third book, they gave me a bit more input and three choices, but I couldn’t tweak the choices. Notice, how little involvement the writer has!

With my fiction books and a smaller publisher, I had more input. I was assigned a cover artist. She asked me to identify the images that tell my books story. That was harder than having no choices! I struggled with that question. She also asked me what colors represented the theme of my book. Colors represent themes? Again, not being an artist all this was baffling. Nonetheless, she took my meager suggestions and created a magnificent cover. One that did everything I wanted. She did the same with my second book, which I thought would be much harder to depict. For my third book I worked with a different artist. Again, I had to share my meager observations about the book. From that she tweaked and worked till she came up with the perfect cover.

They know how to take pieces of information and turn them into just the right image. Writers are more verbal than visual. That’s another reason we have such trouble with the cover. Artists, however, can capture that visual with amazing skill. I bow down to them.

So what about you? Do you judge a book by its cover? Maybe now that you understand how hard it is to create the perfect cover, you’ll be less picky. Yes? Probably not…

BTW, here are some my favorite book covers. Two are mine. The rest are not. 

What Are Your Writing Goals for 2017?

As each day passes us by, we often wonder what we’ve accomplished from day to day. Many of us are simply trying to stay above water. Keep all the pieces in place–whether it’s that demanding job with ridiculous deadlines or food on the table and kids delivered to soccer games. Those of us who are also writers, worry about the words we’ve put on paper. Have we accomplished any more than an outline? How can we squeeze in our writing goals among the many demands facing us from day to day?

Let’s not let that happen when 2018 dawns (right around the corner, I might add). When my niece told me she wanted to go to nursing school, she said, “But, it will take me so long. I’ll be thirty by the time I’m finished.” My response to her, “You’ll be thirty anyway. You may as well be thirty and a nurse than thirty without realizing your dream.”

Sometimes, we become discouraged because we have such a long road ahead. As a novel writer, I know all about long roads. If I wrote short stories, that would be different.

To accomplish the goal of writing that novel, we must say, “Do I want to face the next year still saying I want to write a novel? or Do I want to face that year saying I did it?” The new year will come anyway.

Here are my goals for 2017:

  1. Finish the current manuscript I’m working on which is the third installment in the Jenna Scali series. The working title is A Painting to Die for. My goal is to get a clean, completed copy to my publisher by the end of January and to see it published by the fall of 2017.
  2. Finish my current work-in-progress. It’s a stand-alone mystery, working title Five Cans of Crazy. Complete the first draft by the end of February and prepare it to send to my beta readers by the first week in March. See it published by January 2018.
  3. By fall of 2017, draft another installment (perhaps the last) in the Jenna Scali series.
  4. Go to one major writers conference during the year.

There you have it. Now, that I’ve written them down, I have no excuses.

Let’s hear them.

#MyBookReview The Storied Life of AJ Fikry

This is a hard review to write. I found The Storied Life of AJ Fikry entertaining, but with major writing flaws. The characters are interesting if not too well developed. I couldn’t really see the main character (AJ Fikry) in my mind’s eye. Nonetheless, as a reader, I wanted good things to happen to him and to those people close to him.

I found the police chief, Lamboise, the most interesting and the most visual character. Nonetheless it wasn’t until late in the book that I learned he was bald.

That’s usually not a problem for me. I like to understand what the various characters are thinking and feeling. The problem was when the author head-hopped. That is, traveled from the mind of one character and into the next from paragraph to paragraph. I found that distracting and troubling. For that reason and the lack of character development, I will only give this book three stars.

The section where we read the young teen’s essay was really boring. There was nothing in it that we didn’t already know and little that would have qualified that story for even third place in the competition. It would have been better to suggest the content and let the reader imagine the story.

I loved all the information about books and the love of books and reading. I enjoyed the thought of living over a book store on a remote island in New England. How quaint! What happened to the characters and how they changed also intrigued and pleased me. In other words, it’s still a good read.

But, if you’re looking for a light distraction during these holidays, give this book a try. BTW, it’s on the NYT best seller list. I suppose being a best seller doesn’t mean the book has to be well written!

I May Be A Good Writer, But I’m a Lousy Editor!

I know some writers are also good editors. They catch every little comma error or word left out. They see all the echoed words and shake their fingers at me when I misspell so common a word as “quiet.” What in the world was I thinking? My fingers dance across the keyboard without a thought. They are responding to the musings in my head as fast as they can. But everyone knows that we think faster than we can type. Don’t they? So, why not be more forgiving for us writers who are lousy editors?

Okay, if you’re Stephen King or Mary Higgins Clark you are lucky enough to have tons of line editors. Those little nerds who read your entire book backwards to catch mistakes. Me, I could read my book backwards as easily as I could back my car down a curvy mountain. I’d go off the cliff for sure! No, I don’t have the resources for such fine tuning. So that means I’ve got to do the best I can myself.

Here are some of the problems:

If the word you meant was quite and not quiet, you’ll read quite. Yes, you will! Unless you read the book backwards. It’s very hard not to read what you think you wrote. At least, it is for me.

We read our books much faster. So, that means, readers will catch something that was just said that I, the writer, won’t notice. I have a day or two between those passages. So sorry. But, I didn’t catch that.

Yes, there are some definite rules, but everyone seems to tout theirs as the most conventional. Do you put a comma after a long introductory prepositional phrase? Do you put commas before the and in a series? And, btw, who cares? My rule is if there’s a misunderstanding, put a comma. Help the reader out. If the reader has to stop and re-read something, then you probably need a comma or to re-write it.

I love the forrest too much. My mind wanders when I’ve read something for the umpteenth time. And, believe me, I’ve read my works at least a million times. So…

If you found typos in this post, then, good for you! You’re better than I am.

What about you? Are you good at editing or is it the bane of your existence?

My Best Book Ideas Come from My Friends

Indeed, my book club has unearthed a few, but the very best books are those my friends recommend.

I’ve thought about this phenomenon. I read book reviews. I study what people are reading on Goodreads. And, I do read what my book club assigns me. But, it’s my closest friends who are my best resource.


Maybe because they know me and know what I like. I think I know myself, but in truth, maybe my friends know me better. Here are some of the wonderful books I found through recommendations from my friends:

  1. All the Light we Cannot See. As most of you know, this one became a Pulizer Prize winner. I read it before it got that distinction because a friend thought I’d like it.
  2. Still Life with Bread Crumbs. A very good book that left me wanting to read more by Anna Quindlen.
  3. The Hare with Amber Eyes. This was a fascinating book about pieces of decorative art I’d never heard of. It took me from France to Austria to Japan.
  4. The Lost Painting. Jonathan Harr did a great job with this nonfiction piece. I learned a lot about the life and painting of Caravaggio.
  5. The Orphan Train. A piece of our history I knew nothing about, but told in a fictional account.
  6. A Man Called Ove. My recently review calls this a book that floored me.

These are just a few of the great reads my friends have led me to. I’m sure there are many more, but one thing is for sure. When one of my friends says, “You really need to read…” I will perk up. They are more often than not right!

So, here we are at the end of 2016. And I just want to say thank you to my friends for so many great reads.