Bi-Vocational Author

It has been a blessed weekend. Not much writing accomplished as I became absorbed in the celebration of my installation ceremony. (Yes, it does sound funny. No, I’m not a furnace!)

Photo by  Jeff Lundberg  on  Unsplash

I started on June 1 at my “call” at a new church. I’m slowly learning people’s names, who they are, how they’re involved in the church, why they’re involved in the church, and discovering the needs of the church itself and the needs of the community it sits in.

It’s been an exciting…5 months! Already.

The Installation Ceremony involves not just people who are members or friends of the church, but also the wider church clergy in the United Church of Christ (UCC), specifically the Wisconsin Conference UCC and the Minnesota Conference UCC.

Of course, family and friends also were part of the gathering. It was held yesterday (Sunday) afternoon. It was a very full and fulfilling weekend and weeks before that as I wanted to find a preacher who could speak to the church in this present time as our society and institutions live through these tumultuous times and a pianist who could move us with her playing and a worship service that would be meaningful for the people there.

living from a place of hope

We are birthing something new and I find hope for our future.

Not for a future that moves us back to a status quo but a future re-imagined by the younger generations coming up behind my generation.

Today, Monday, I feel more settled. Something has shifted inside my spirit. I feel ready to enter into this new chapter, this new place marker, this place portal.

It is October. With the colder weather, I’ve already started winterizing—storing deck chairs in the shed, gathering the last of the peppers and tomatoes to ripen indoors, emptying pots of dirt from the summer flowers that have finished their season.

It’s becoming a fallow time. A good time.

Who knows what adventures God has in store for “us” as churches, for “us” as individuals.

I continue to learn to trust in God, to work as God’s partner for the best possible future for diverse people, for the earth as a whole. Life is a blessing.

And now….it’s time to get back…to writing and revising and editing my story.

Down the rabbit hole

I hate it when I lose my first blog post! Yikes. And I didn’t get it all saved to a word document before it deleted.

October has become a busy month in my professional life. I’m a pastor and started serving a new small church in June. I’m only supposed to work 20-25 hours a week. Not this past week nor this coming week! Last week also included the out-of-town funeral for a very dear friend in her late eighties. She was such a vibrant woman, full of zest and fun. She’ll leave a big hole in her family’s lives and I will miss her.


a fish can’t see the water it swims in

Janice Hardy’s post on Friday at the Writers in the Storm blog spoke to me. She described almost exactly what I’ve been doing as I write and edit and revise my story.

I knew I needed more tension. So I added conflict.

I knew I needed more than a societal antagonist. So I added a person who represented that societal evil.

I knew, since I have a braided story, that I needed to create connecting links between the two stories. My crit partners loved that bit.

But obviously, I’m still not getting it all together.

How do I know?

When I draft a query and send it to crit partners, when I put out my first page to be critiqued, I don’t receive applause. Instead, there are many questions and evidence of confusion. Gah!

It’s possible you’re lost because you’re not sure what that main problem is yet, or only have a vague sense of the premise. Being fuzzy about what the goals are will make if difficult to know what needs to happen in your scenes.
— Janice Hardy

Since Janice spoke so clearly to my situation, off I went, down the rabbit holes she provided and one of those holes was a whole warren full of wonderful tidbits of information!

15 Plot Fixers

The rabbit hole started when Janice referred to goals not being fully developed. I checked it out and found a series of blogs about fixing plots by Kara Lennox a.k.a. Kara Leabo. The posts are from 2012-2013 but I wasn’t writing then! The first post is here.

So briefly, here are the potential problems debut authors might be struggling with:

  1. A weak premise

  2. A cute meet does not a plot make (Kara is a romance writer)

  3. Starting in the wrong place

  4. Lack of clear cut goals (and this is the blog Janice referenced)

  5. Weak conflict

  6. Too many conflicts

  7. Stakes are too low

  8. Plot moves too slowly

  9. The dreaded saggy middle

  10. Plot moves too fast (not seen as often as #8)

  11. Predictable plot

  12. Plots that rely on coincidence and contrivance

  13. Loss of focus (episodic narrative style)

  14. Weak black moment

  15. Ending does not satisfy

And there we go! Happy October studies!

Eleanor Oliphant

Gunshots sound from the river. Isn’t it a bit early? It’s not even 7 am yet. I’m sitting here and trying to understand how Gail Honeyman sucked me into the story of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

I started it the other night, went to bed, then woke at 3 am and finished it straight through. I looked at the clock one time and thought, I need to get out of bed but I’m just about done! I finished at 7 am. I don’t like crawling out of bed at 7 am. It throws off my day.

Accolades

A debut novel for its Glaswegian author, the book has garnered many accomplishments:

  • as a Work-in-Progress, it shortlisted in the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize

  • the winner of the Scottish Book Trust’s Next Chapter Award in 2014

  • became the focus of an 8-way auction at Frankfurt Book Fair

  • the winner of the 2017 Costa Debut Novel Award

  • the Debut Book of the Year, Overall Winner, and Marketing Strategy of the Year in the 2018 British Book Awards

  • the 2018 U.S. Audie Award for Fiction for its audio version

  • a #1 New York Times Bestseller

  • and a Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick, whose company bought the film rights

a stranger enters her world

In several websites I scoured, it’s listed as Women’s Fiction, Literary Fiction, and Contemporary Romance. One source wrote, Move over Ove, (in Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove) there’s a new curmudgeon to love.

Story type? It’s a “stranger enters her world” book and a “journey to discover herself” book.

I gravitate toward these genres and types.

In terms of movie or television mash-ups, I’d say it combines the nerdy quirkiness of The Big Bang Theory and the makeover, inward as well as outward, of Pretty Woman.

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.
— Penguin Random House

What compelled me to read?

I connected emotionally with Eleanor. I rooted and cheered for her to engage more fully in life, to triumph over the baggage of her past.

I liked the bits of humor that came through, whether from a ridiculous situation she found herself in or from something she said in response to the events around her and Raymond’s comeback.

In the beginning, her world is constricted—to work and colleagues whose socialization habits mystify her and the kindly store owner where she buys her food and weekend allotment of vodka. As we read the book, her world keeps expanding. She blossoms.

story structure itself

I liked the pacing of the story. (there are no spoilers in this list of structural moments)

  • The hook on the first page presents us with a contrast. She’s self-sufficient yet nine years ago, she showed up for her job interview with “a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm.”

  • By the end of Chapter 1, we have a hook to take us through her gradual metamorphosis. She has found the love of her life and “Mummy was going to be thrilled.”

  • At the 12% mark (Inciting Incident), she has met the stranger, new IT colleague Raymond and they’re waiting to cross the street when they notice an old man carrying carrier bags opposite them, who falls backward and lays still.

  • At the 25% mark, (Doorway 1), she and Raymond meet with Sammy in the hospital, where she’s wondering, strangely enough, if she should help out by bringing him food to provide him better nutrients. “That seemed to be the sort of thing a woman of my age and social circumstances might do. Exciting!”

  • I’m not sure that the 50% mark (which ought to be the mirror moment) is in the right point, if we’re rigid about it. Although it does have a moment where it shows her craving for companionship, “I felt like asking Raymond whether we should keep walking, walk over the rolling greens, keep walking till the birds fell silent in their bowers and we could see only by starlight.”

  • Around the 75% mark (Doorway 2) , Eleanor enters a new place that connect her to times from her childhood.

  • The climax is perfect as she faces her antagonist.

  • The resolution includes this beautiful phrase: “The moment hung in time like a drop of honey from a spoon, heavy, golden. “

Although some of the other critiques found the book depressing (and it does deal with a heavy issue that is depressingly real), I found it uplifting and a joy to read.

What are your thoughts? Is this a book that appealed to you?

By the way, the gunshots…it wasn’t too early. I discovered that hunting waterfowl is allowed along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin from a half hour before sunrise to sunset!

reading books

Last week, I read a book with two timelines woven together, present-time and WWII-time, and I’m trying to figure out why it did NOT work for me. I ended up skimming then skipped the WWII timeline. I also ended up doing a quick read of the present time.

Was it me? Or was it the book?

I read the 200 plus ratings on Amazon. Seventy percent gave it a 5-star and twenty percent gave it a 4-star.

Obviously, I’m in a minority.

Many people liked the characters and enthused about the plot and the history. Some wanted more of the history (and I’m thinking…really?).

People made comments such as: writing captivated me, thoughtful and well-written, quick paced and interesting, truly moved by the historical portion, unforgettable, wanted to know what happened, highly recommend.

Photo by  Richie Nolan  on  Unsplash

WWII over saturation?

I read WWII stories because my Work-in-Progress has a WWII story braided into it. And I’ve read these historical stories from the Point-of-View of a German, a French, a British, a Lithuanian, a Prussian, a Polish… So maybe I’ve read too many because that part of this author’s book felt “done” to me. Been there. Done that.

In fact, literary agent Kristin Nelson wrote a column in August on the 12 Trends in the Query Inbox. Her fourth point?

WWII…still getting tons of queries for WWII stories. Almost all the submissions we’re seeing in this space are for the adult market. For the record, I love stories set in this time period. After all, E.R. Ramzipoor’s THE VENTRILOQUISTS releases in August. Still, it has to be a standout story.
— Kristin Nelson

Yikes! A standout story? How daunting is that? All of this does not bode well for me as a tentative, attempting to be a debut author.

But I also tried to analyze it beyond my saturation in WWII stories.

Characterizations? Extra subplots?

There’s an elderly character in the present timeline of this story and I didn’t understand why this character, after remaining adamant for decades about an issue, all of a sudden “pop” and changes their mind. I didn’t see any foreshadowing, that person was not a main character so the reader had no access to internal thoughts and the main character did not seem to dig too deeply into that change.

The other piece that distracted me in the present story was a side plot that tried to add mystery, extra suspense to the suspense that was already in place from the main plot. I did not appreciate this side plot because it took away from getting to know the major characters better.

Perhaps that was the biggest piece that disappointed me. Not having enough time within the main character of the present day story. I have become used to a “deep” point of view and a focused novel that keeps to a main plot and any subplot reinforce that main plot so that I am totally involved with the main character’s life and feelings.

A book with feels

Sara Gruen’s WWII book, At the Water’s Edge, had this deep point of view and that focus.

We stayed in Maddie’s point of view the whole time. The reader was exposed to her internalization—her emotions, her thoughts, her senses. Gruen’s story really captivated me and kept me up the night I read it.

Of course, it also helped that the majority of the story took place in Scotland, a country where I lived for a couple of years and I miss it dearly.

Summarizing

At any rate, lots of food for thought as I think about revising and refining my Work in Progress!

How about you? Do you stop to analyze why some stories, that you figure will really grab you, fail to do so?

Focus: Questions and Answers for First Page Reading

Writing a stellar story is hard work.

Image by  Mabel Amber  from Pixabay

Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay

That would be why I have no published novel. The more I learn, the more I realize what I don’t know.

A few weeks ago, a literary agent invited regular followers to submit the first couple lines of their first chapters. After 20 entries were placed, the comment section was closed.

My submission? Let’s just say I did not do well. (How long have I been at this writing gig?!) In other words, my first couple of lines did not intrigue and, in fact, confused the reader. Not good.

Help!

First Page Questions

On Jane Friedman’s blog, Peter Selgin offers occasional first-page critiques. On September 4th, after sharing a first page sample that had been submitted, he wrote:

The effectiveness of an opening comes down to questions. The questions are always the same: who, what, when, where, how, and why? What varies is which questions are raised and answered and to what extent.
— Peter Selgin, The Challenge of Sensational Openings

Basic, right? But I obviously, I still need basic!

How many Questions to Answer

How many of the six questions—who, what, when, where, how, and why—shall we answer? As you have guessed, readers are more intrigue by unanswered questions and will read further to discover answers. But there is a need for balance.

  1. Answering too many questions—risks giving the reader too much information and decreasing the desire to read on as tension is deflated.

  2. Answering too few—risks confusion or sending the reader in the wrong direction.

What Questions to Ask

The other piece that Peter Selgin focused on was which questions we even wish to ask. We certainly do not have to have all six on the first page.

Which questions we ask and which ones we will leave unanswered depends upon the genre of our story. If we’re writing a mystery or a thriller, focus on the what question and let the search for that answer lead the reader through the story. To ask what, focuses the reader on a situation, a plot.

I’m writing women’s fiction. The most important part of my story is the main character. (That’s not to say thrillers and mysteries do not care about characters but their spotlight is aimed more at plot elements). Since readers of women’s fiction wish to connect with the main character, then I need to focus on the who and the why questions to draw a reader through my story.

Peter Selgin puts it much more eloquently than I have. I invite you to read through the two samples and the critique he offers for first pages on the September 4th blog.

Blink! Summer's over!

Wow. Summer went fast, didn’t it?

Most of my head space was involved in learning the new parish I am now serving: the people, the town, their joys, their concerns. So blog writing and story writing went floating downriver without me!

But I did get some reading in, fiction and non-fiction. How about you?

Photo by  Clay Banks  on  Unsplash

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

New Favorite Stories

  • At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

    …oooooh, Scotland, wealthy American trio, the Loch Ness monster, a brusque Scotsman, a couple of fey occurrences, set during WWII. What’s not to like?

  • The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

    …when a book starts off with somebody’s ashes traveling alone in a biscuit tin on a London train without a ticket, I’m intrigued.

New-to-Me Mysteries

  • Hangman Blind by Cassandra Clark

    …a medieval mystery and a series

  • Charmed Bones by Carolyn Haines

    …a fun read from the Sarah Booth Delaney series

Some Lighthearted Reads

  • The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory (a romance)

  • Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick (a modern woman’s story)

  • Enchanted, Inc. by Shanna Swendson (a paranormal series)

  • The Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harm (modern woman’s story)

  • The Cavanaugh books by Stephanie Laurens (historical romance)

  • Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith (exactly as its title explains)

Some Heavier Reads

  • Normal People by Sally Rooney

  • One Day in December by Josie Silver

  • The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Non-Fiction Reads

  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

    filling in my missing history knowledge, this is a great book about the African American migration from the Jim Crow south (1915-1970s) in their quest to live free of discriminatory practices and lynchings

  • Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

    I enjoy anything Brene Brown but I didn’t get to finish this as there’s a waiting list for it so I’ll need to check it out again or buy it, however I did download a few of the worksheets from her website

  • Atomic Habits by James Cleary

    fascinating take about how to change our habits

  • Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

    hmmmm, thought-provoking read about how landscape influences our politics

How about you? What books did you have a chance to read this summer?

chimney leak

It’s spring here in the upper Midwest. At least until Wednesday and Thursday.

All of the snow is melted except for the small pile on the north side of my deck. The neighbor’s crocuses are blossoming. My tulip and daffodil greens have appeared. Rabbits are having a heyday eating some of the fresh greenery and the tender tips of my lilac bushes.

But we are predicted to receive a lot of snow on Wednesday.

roof+construction.jpg

Thank goodness, I found a carpenter last fall to repair my chimney leak. It’s warm enough today and tomorrow for him to get the work done that needs doing, before we have more snow on the roof!

Moving on

Not much revising happening on my story right now. Lots of unfocused thinking, what with wrapping up my time of serving at one church and preparing to serve another church.

At least, I don’t have to think about moving into a different home. I only have to pack up an office and shift it to another office. I am going to really miss the people at my current church but I look forward to making new relationships and helping another church continue their desire to be relevant for the future that is coming at us.


First Page Critique

I’m still in the midst of a life pattern change and so my restlessness is affecting my ability to write (Yea. I guess that’s an excuse, isn’t it? As good as the dog ate my homework.)

The KillZone blog, where mystery writers take turns writing columns about the craft of mystery and thriller writing, has an excellent first page up by an anonymous author today.

dxl-544057-unsplash.jpg

photo by DXL from Unsplash

And Debbie Burke gives an excellent critique of all that the author does right! A bit different from other blogs or submissions where suggestions are for how to improve the first page.

So head on over, read the sample, the critique, and the commenters takes on it. Lots of learning there.

Studying and Art

A writer’s life is made of millions of minute observations which we then try to successfully capture in words. Writers want (don’t we?) to infuse our sentences and paragraphs with the five senses to convey what’s going on around us. Not all five at the same time on every single page! But woven throughout the story, whether it’s flash fiction or an epic Sci-Fi, we use the senses to envelope the reader within our world.

Paintings and photographs invoke the sense of sight, gardening and cooking the senses of touch and taste and smell, while music and the wind and the wandering rivers or brooks or streams give us sound.

Let Us Feast

photo by Juan Ignacio Tapia from Unsplash

photo by Juan Ignacio Tapia from Unsplash

Writing a novel is a feast because an author wants to lay claim to and use all five physical senses in our story. We want to help readers crawl into our imagination, into a world they maybe have or have not ever dreamed or thought of, to take readers outside of the normal, routine life and live in the skin of another being.

There is of course, more to the world than the concrete, the physical, which we take in through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and touch.

There are the emotions evoked, the spirituality that gives meaning. These are sometimes hidden deep within the subtext of a story but in other stories may be very visible.

So, in lieu of writing on my story, at least at this moment, I am studying:

All is fodder, as Barbara O’Neal shares in her Writer Seeks Experiences column on Writer Unboxed.

We never know where the mysterious unconscious will lead us as we gather bits and bobs of lived experiences and attentiveness so that we may craft stories that will enthrall ourselves and our audiences.

Brilliant Flash Fiction Humor...

There are wonderful 100-word stories on Janet Reid’s blog today. They sure filled my Monday with laughter.

Online Community

Between the community among her blog commenters and the sharkly wisdom and passion Janet, literary agent, shares with newbie writers, it’s a great blog to follow regularly for writer-wanna-be’s.

The reason for this weekend’s contest is one of the regular’s consistent calisthenics in using the words Janet assigns us to place in the story. He had to use (and other’s could at their own discretion) two extra words in his story: fortissimo and marzipan. Check out Janet’s reasons and rules for the Stymie Steve Forti contest.

There is some inside language. In particular, the winner received Janet’s vote as s/he made a cat the heroine of the story. Janet referenced Her Grace, the Duchess of Yowl (DoY). Regular readers of the blog know that Janet regularly cat-sits the DoY. Janet herself is no slouch in telling amusing stories whenever the DoY is living with her.

frost on a window

frost on a window