On Life

Writing Tip: Making Your Characters and Dialogue Realistic

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Yesterday on Instagram, a fellow writer I follow who follows me back asked for input from other writers. Her question was this: How do you write authentic characters, and then how do you make them sound convincing in dialogue?

As someone who has written three fiction books and teaches the subject of writing, I have some advice I can offer. I may not be perfect, and I may be an indie author, but I think I have some ideas to share that may be helpful. I enjoy offering tips to beginning writers because we’ve all been there. These tips are from experience and encompass the best advice I can give from my own perspective.

First, let’s tackle making characters authentic and believable. To begin, you have to have a pretty good sketch of your character. To illustrate my points, I’m going to use John, a main character from my newest book, Inn Significant. Milly, the other main character, is the narrator, so it’s up to me as the writer to showcase John as Milly sees him throughout the book through her eyes. Let’s begin.

John’s Character Sketch

John is 38 years old. He was in the military and had a couple of heartbreaking and powerfully disturbing experiences when he was overseas flying military aircraft. These experiences haunt John, and while I never come out and say he has PTSD, he has PTSD.  As the writer, I know this about him. This is the makeup of John that leads him to want to live a simple life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland working at an Inn in a small town (where he is from). He wants nothing complicated. He works for Milly’s parents at the Inn and has his own cottage on the grounds. From this point, I made a list of other things John likes in order to “see” him as a character—and to keep me on track as I wrote him. What are some other characteristics about John? He’s kind. He’s helpful. He likes doing things to please others. He likes to sneak into the Inn’s kitchen at night and whip up his grandmother’s muffins for the guests. He is an artist, which is how he relieves his stress. He runs every day. He’s in shape. He has high cheekbones and is tanned from working outside in the gardens. He drinks Gatorade. He listens to James Taylor. He’s close with his family, and he adores his grandmother. He’s respectful. He’s loyal. And he’s always been incredibly fond of Milly, even when she was married (before her husband suddenly passed away). He likes to read, but isn’t a writer. He owns a boat and likes to kayak.

That’s my basic character sketch of John. These were the things I knew about him as I began to write.

Knowing all these things about him helped me write dialogue that works. So how can you write dialogue that works? To me, you know the characters so well that you can picture exchanges happening as if you are watching a movie. You almost have to pretend they are real. How would you like to see things unfold? How would the characters relate to one another? What would a realistic scene sound like?

Keeping these questions in mind will help you write your dialogue scenes in a way that you should write them. And my other big tip on writing dialogue that works is to read it out loud many times to yourself, and if possible, read it aloud to someone you trust to get feedback.

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This is how I imagine the kitchen looks where the muffin-making scene below takes place.

As an example of this, I will share an exchange between John and Milly from my book; this exchange takes place the first night John asks Milly to hang out with him in the Inn’s kitchen and only her second day working at the Inn (she’s filling in for her parents who have gone away for a year). Milly has not been alone with a man since her husband’s death two and a half years prior, so she’s a little awkward and nervous, but trying to relax as he’s baking.

The Excerpt from Inn Significant

I watched John move around with ease, almost ambidextrous in nature, gliding around effortlessly, pulling items and food from cabinets and pantries. He opened the oven to check the temperature. He mixed up a gooey batter in a sturdy, red mixing bowl with a matching red Williams-Sonoma spatula.

“I’m sorry. I already started the process when I decided to knock on your door,” he said. “This batch is mixed.”

He filled the muffin cups with the batter, letting it pour into each cup, and when they were all filled, he slid the entire tin of what looked like perfection into the oven.

“Would you care for a cup of tea?” he asked, attempting to conjure up a British accent. It didn’t go too well, and we both smiled.

“Yes. Decaf, please,” I said, attempting to produce a similar accent in response, but failing miserably at it.

“Got it,” he said as he began making it.

“I feel silly just sitting here not helping.”

“Don’t. It’s my grandma’s recipe, and because a little birdie told me you didn’t try one this morning, I’m going to make you try one as it comes out of the oven. Your mother told me that your writing career began with food reviews. I’m looking forward to your verdict.”

“That was a long time ago, when I actually was a writer and it meant something.”

“I understand,” he said. “But I’d still like to hear your review of Grandma’s muffins.”

“I’m feeling extraordinary pressure to like them,” I said.

“The word ‘like’ shouldn’t be a part of your vocabulary when you’re describing treats you will salivate over,” he said with a wink. “That’s something you do on Facebook. As a writer and former food critic, I expect a far more elaborate and eloquent dissection and analysis of the food from you.”

“I’m better on paper,” I teased.

When the timer went off, he pulled the first batch out of the oven, steam rising off the tops ever so slightly, and then sat across from me at the table.

“Have one of these,” he said, and he placed a hearty, substantial treat onto my delicate plate adorned with roses.

“A crunchy muffin?” I asked. It appeared to be hard on the bottom with some sort of loose, sugary topping that resembled a crumb bun on top.

“Grandma will want to know if you like her recipe.”

—From Inn Significant

 

I remember distinctly when I wrote my first novel, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, and I read a passage back to my husband. I was writing from a 32-year-old man’s point of view, and I needed to know if Michael would say what I had written. I read the passage aloud to my husband, and when I was done, I stopped.

“Is that what Michael would say?” I asked my husband.

“No,” he said. “Michael would not say that.”

“What would he say, then?” I asked my husband, seeking help with the paragraph, especially because my husband happens to be A MAN.

“I don’t know,” he said, “but he wouldn’t say that.”

I reworked that paragraph at least ten times until finally, I read it aloud once more, and my husband said, “That’s it. That’s what Michael would say.”

And that, my friends, is why you seek input from others and why it takes time to write something vivid, meaningful, and realistic.

Now go and get to work.

Stephanie Verni is Professor of Business Communication at Stevenson University and is the author of Inn Significant, Baseball Girl, and Beneath the Mimosa Tree. Along with her colleagues Leeanne Bell McManus and Chip Rouse, she is a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt.

 

On Life

Writing Prompt Challenge

So, last night I posed a writing challenge to see who wanted to try and write a short piece of flash fiction (300-400 words) around a prompt. I posted three. I got no takers. But I did it.

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I chose the third. I love writing prompts because they force you to immerse yourself in a scene, setting, or situation right away. They force you to be creative, and to use your creative juices in the best possible way. The challenge was to write approximately 300-400 words.

Here’s my result of Prompt #3.

The Young King

The young King’s hair was a rumpled mess, his clothes strewn across the floor, his crown askew and hanging off of the chair. The lingering smell of liquor plagued the room as the gold goblet next to his bed sat empty. He had banished everyone from the castle after an evening of dancing and celebrating at two in the morning—rather earlier than his typical four o’clock dismissal. It was nearly eleven, and the sun had risen high in the sky, the morning dew long dissipated from the lawn.

His mother had married his father, the former King, when she was younger than he was now. She had not been pleased with his antics last night. She publicly reprimanded him in front of a few of the guests, and he in turn, had caused a scene. He was twenty-three, and he had become King two years prior upon his father’s passing. She blamed him for the current state of affairs in the Kingdom, for his lack of leadership and foresight, and for his relentless pursuit of young women. She had fought him privately, but last night she could no longer hold her tongue, and she had, in his estimation, embarrassed him beyond reproach.

She stood looking at him now, he squinting at her through the hazel eyes that so often had reminded her of her dear, departed husband. The blinding sunlight, which she had allowed to stream into the room after pulling open the heavy curtains, was causing him to sit up in bed and acknowledge her presence.

“There were vial words said between us last night, most of which, I would like not to remember or repeat,” she said in a tone he fully recognized as one in which you do not offer a response. She was his mother, after all, and while he was by all means a man, she would always be his most trusted advisor and confidante. He felt a sense of regret at what he must have said last evening, but he offered no reply at present. “It’s your choice,” she shrugged. “You can continue with your worthless life, or you can become someone who matters.”

With that, she turned on her heels and began the walk toward the gilded double doors that shielded and separated his room from the rest of the castle. He was not one to apologize freely as his pride and defensive demeanor almost always got in the way of salvaging his relations, but as she crossed the threshold, she heard him call, “Mother—“

Flash Fiction | Stephanie Verni | 410 words


15781589_865992106837911_1585157622209528074_nStephanie Verni is Professor of Business Communication at Stevenson University and is the author of the newly released Inn SignificantBaseball Girl, and Beneath the Mimosa Tree.  Along with her colleagues Leeanne Bell McManus and Chip Rouse, she is a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt. 
To visit Stephanie’s Amazon Author page and see her books, click here.

On Life

Inn-spiration in Inn Significant | Photo Inspiration When Writing Description

The dining room of the Edgewood Manor House in Providence, RI. This is sort of what I picture the dining room at Inn Signficiant would look like. No rug, though. Just hardwoods. But I love the windows and the chandelier. There are lots of chandeliers in the Inn.
The dining room of the Edgewood Manor House in Providence, RI. This is sort of what I picture the dining room in Inn Signficiant would look like. No rug, though. Just hardwoods. But I love the windows and the chandelier. There are lots of chandeliers hanging from ceilings in Inn Significant. Wonder why?

The students in both sections of my Magazine Writing classes can tell attest to what we worked on this week: (1) writing description and detail, (2) storytelling, and (3) finding your voice in your writing. I think about these three things constantly when I write, and as you read in my previous post about being inspired by actual places, the same is true when writing description—you have to “see” in your own imagination what things look like in order to relay them properly to your readers.

I work hard at this every time I write something. I never want readers to feel as if they cannot imagine the setting themselves. It’s our responsibility as writers to leave little grey area where that is concerned.

Writers have different techniques when crafting a story, and we all go about putting it to paper in various ways. When I sit down to write, I have to be fully inspired. Sometimes that means taking copious notes; it may mean being inspired by nature; it may involve conversations I’ve had with folks; and still other times, it may involve the photographs I have taken or have researched online.

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This is the Sandaway Inn in Oxford, MD. Its property is beautiful and inspired the setting of Inn Significant.

Inn Significant takes place in lovely Oxford, Maryland. The Inn is perched upon the Tred Avon River, much the same way a real Inn is there (the Sandaway Inn); however, I took the liberty to create an Inn through what I imagined in my head, including the cottages on site where the main character lives. I used lots of photographs from research, and what follows are some of the images that inn-spired Inn Significant. 🙂 (Yes, I know I spelled inspired incorrectly there.)

If you choose to read the novel, I’ll be interested to see if what inspired me and what I wrote was similar to what you pictured in your imagination.

There’s no telling–what your imagination conjures up may be even better than what I had in my mind.

This is sort of what I picture Milly and John's cottages to look like on the grounds of Inn Significant. It's not exact, but it's pretty darn close.
This is sort of what I picture Milly and John’s cottages to look like on the grounds of Inn Significant. It’s not exact, but it’s pretty darn close. I imagine there would be more hydrangeas, lavender, and roses brightening up the landscape along with a stone walkway. Maybe even a pink bike with a basket parked out front.
There is no doubt in my head that Inn Significant's library would look like this. OMG. Gorgeous.
There is no doubt in my head that Inn Significant’s library would look like this. OMG. Gorgeous. Sorry, but once again, I have to point out the chandelier. And the books. Oh…the books.
I'm pretty sure it's safe to say that Inn Significant's foyer looks something like this.
I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say that Inn Significant’s foyer would look something like this.
This might be what one of the guest rooms looks like. I described the sheer curtains and chandeliers in every room.
This might be what one of the guest rooms looks like. I described the sheer curtains and chandeliers in every room.
The place where the muffin-making takes place...and where Colette does her thing. I picture it looking similar to this.
The place where the muffin-making takes place…and where Colette does her thing. I picture it looking similar to this.
The outdoor celebration probably looked similar to this. I just love the idea of dining al fresco at an Inn on a river, don't you?
The outdoor celebration probably looked similar to this. I just love the idea of dining al fresco at an Inn on a river, don’t you?
My husband and I stayed at the Carneros Resort in Napa Valley last April. I picture Milly and John's cottages having a patio like this. Being in Napa truly inspired what the cottages in the novel looked like in the novel.
My husband and I stayed at the Carneros Resort in Napa Valley last April. I picture Milly and John’s cottages having a patio like this. Being in Napa truly inspired what the cottages in the novel looked like.
This is Two Meeting House in Charleston, SC. In my head, the exterior of the Inn looks similar to this.
This is Two Meeting House Inn in Charleston, SC. In my head, the exterior of the Inn looks like a combination of this and the two to follow.
This is the White Doe in in North Carolina. This one inspired me too. Love the flowers and white picket fence.
This is the White Doe Inn in North Carolina. This one inspired me too. Love the flowers and white picket fence. And the bike.
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This is the White Hart in Connecticut. You might say this one is inspirational, as well. Gorgeous.

I hope you enjoy Inn Significant, and as well, this little photo-essay of the places that inn-spired my writing.

To purchase via Amazon for Kindle, click here.

To purchase via Amazon in paperback, click here.

To purchase via Barnes & Noble for the Nook, click here.

Have a good weekend, everybody!

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imageStephanie Verni is Professor of Business Communication at Stevenson University and is the author of Inn Significant, Baseball Girl, and Beneath the Mimosa Tree. Along with her colleagues Leeanne Bell McManus and Chip Rouse, she is a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt.

 

On Life

Book Promotion for Inn Significant

It’s looking like my new novel will be available in two weeks. I am down to the last few changes, and soon, my friends, it will be in your hands. I wish the process could be a quicker one (for all of us, believe me!), but producing a novel takes time, especially when you write, edit, design, and market it yourself. That’s why it’s called independent or/or self-publishing. We are jack of all trades when it comes to this hobby.

So today, I’m sharing a promo piece I put together for the book that I’ll be using to help promote it. I got the idea from an advertisement for a grand opening of a flower shop and bakery, and I liked it so much, I thought I’d attempt to produce one that had a feeling of nostalgia. Part of Inn Significant takes place during the Great Depression, so I wanted to invoke a feeling of then and now by using a black and white promo piece.

As always, I’ll keep you posted. And as I try to remember to say every time I get to this point, thank you so much for your continued support and encouragement of my writing projects. I really appreciate it.

🙂

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xx |

Stephanie Verni is the author of Baseball Girl, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, and the upcoming novel Inn Significant. She is also a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt.

On Life

Handling the Insecurities of Publishing A Novel

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It’s a challenging endeavor. I’ve done it twice now with fiction, and twice with nonfiction books. And I’m about to do it again when I release my latest, third fictional novel.

There will always be anxieties that manifest themselves into insecurities about putting our work out there. The tendency to feel nervous about it is normal. We’ve invested a lot of time and energy into our stories, and we hope people will appreciate that time and energy regarding our work, too.

But there are no guarantees. Some people will love it, some will think it’s just okay, and some will downright dislike it.

It’s the way of the world, people. We all can’t like everything.

Nevertheless, I have to quell my fears. I’m more nervous about this book than I have been about the other two simply because it is my third. And as a natural course of progression and as someone who puts undue pressure on herself, I hope this one will be received as well, if not better than, the previous two I’ve written. “Whether you think you’re brilliant or think you’re a loser, just make whatever you need to make and toss it out there,” Elizabeth Gilbert tells us in Big Magic. “And always remember that people’s judgments about you are none of your business.” It’s great in theory, but tough to put into practice.

However, I think it’s important to adhere to this advice when you are making any kind of art.

Gilbert further goes on to say this:

“If people enjoy what you’ve created, terrific. If people ignore what you’ve created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you’ve created, don’t sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you’ve created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest—as politely as you possibly can—that they go and make their own f—ing art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.”

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Recently, I watched the Oprah one-hour interview with J.K. Rowling that was filmed during Oprah’s last year of her show. I have to admit, I’m sort of obsessed with this interview. In it, we hear Jo Rowling tell stories of the backlash she took from writing Harry Potter, from those who thought writing about Black Magic was horrible for children, and from those who think children’s imaginations should be limited. It made me further understand what someone told me months ago, and honestly, I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. She said,

People are entitled to their own opinions, but that doesn’t make them right.

And so, I’ve decided that despite my nervousness about reaction to my own storytelling, it’s what I have always wanted to do, and so I do it. I’ve always had this passion deep down inside of me. Ever since I was in middle school, I knew I wanted to write and tell stories. So all I can offer readers is my authentic self as I tell these stories that brew in my head. That’s what I’ve got.

As Gilbert says, “Just say what you want to say, then, and say it with all your heart. Share what you want to share. If it’s authentic enough, believe me—it will feel original.”

And so it goes.

Originally yours,

xx |

Stephanie Verni is the author of Baseball Girl, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, and the upcoming novel Inn Significant. She is also a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt.

 

 

 

On Life

Friday Fiction | She Said, I Know What It’s Like To Be Dead

Ebenezer Scrooge

If you love the classic story of A Christmas Carol featuring Ebenezer Scrooge like I do, I hope you’ll be amused by today’s Friday Fiction.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I posted a short piece of fiction. I haven’t written flash fiction is so long. Today, I’ve attempted to write a short fictional story using a prompt from Brian Kiteley’s book, The 3 A.M. Epiphany. If you are a writer, and you don’t have Brian’s book, you should get it along with the sequel, The 4 A.M. Epiphany; they both contain writing prompts to get you thinking—and writing.

I worked hard this summer to finish my third novel, and I hope to have that out to you in January. In the meantime, Kiteley asks us to simply start the beginning of the piece with the following words that he pulled from lyrics written by Lennon and McCartney: She said, I know what it’s like to be dead. Here we go, as I beg Dickens for forgiveness, and allow Ebenezer Scrooge to say it like it is…from his perspective and not that of a narrator.

SHE SAID, I KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE DEAD

She said, “I know what it’s like to be dead.”

She scared the Dickens out of me when the clock struck one, and I cowered under the covers. She was a frail looking thing, and I wondered what exactly her last meal had consisted of before she arrived at her current state. I thought about what I had eaten earlier: methinks it was a bowl of broth with a bit of bad beef in it. Marley had screamed at me at the top of his lungs when I questioned the integrity of his ghostliness, as I defiantly blamed his apparition on what I had previously consumed. However, seeing this petite, white-haired woman made me wonder just how long dead she was. She stood there staring at me, motionless, as her white garb gently floated around her body.

“What is it like to be dead?” I asked, hearing the words echo in my bedroom chamber.

“You tell me, Ebenezer,” she said. “It seems that something inside of you has been dead for some time.”

I had no idea what she meant, as the last time I checked, I had been very much alive. I took immediate offense to her statement.

“And how is it that you are abreast of my current disposition, Madame?” I retorted.

“Death does have some benefits, Ebenezer. Your behavior has indicated much to me over the years. And you didn’t always have such a miserly and miserable approach to life.”

I felt this apparition’s presence as an annoyingly bothersome invasion of my privacy, like a wart that wouldn’t go away. The last time I had a woman in my bedroom had been many years ago, before my sciatic nerve became an issue, and I can assure you things didn’t go too well. Prior to that, I had lost my one true love, Isabelle, because I apparently worked too much trying to make the perfect life for the two of us. She was ungrateful for my dedication to the future we had planned together, and mentioned on too many occasions that I was ignoring her and her needs. I struggled to find truth in this statement. Hadn’t she liked the fur muff I had given her? The angel brooch? The plethora of books to fill her shelves? How many more material things does a woman need, and how could I have devoted more time to her when I had to keep the counting house afloat? Truthfully, I hadn’t had too much luck with women, and I was assuming the same was going to be true tonight. I’d forever sworn them off and vowed to live in solitude. Hence, my particular vexation at what I was dealing with presently.

Image result for christmas holly sketch

“So—do you have a name?” I asked.

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

“That seems way too formal for this uncomfortable moment of familiarity and intimacy, wouldn’t you agree? You don’t have another name?”

“In life, my friends called me Eunice.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Why?”

“Well, that wouldn’t have been a name I wanted to be called in life,” I said.

“I beg your forgiveness, but Ebenezer isn’t that much better.”

“I like it fine,” I said, “though most people just refer to me as ‘Scrooge.'”

She scratched at her brow. She seemed a bit unnerved by my candor. I wasn’t often one to mince words. I’d always appreciated a direct approach in all of my interpersonal relationships, no matter how brutal it might come across, like when I scolded Bob Cratchit earlier for wanting to leave early on Christmas Eve, or when my nephew Fred begged me to come for Christmas dinner. What’s wrong with wanting to spend my only day off during the month of December alone?  I’ve got a stack of books to catch up on and I’d heard from reliable sources that Fred’s wife’s cooking left many leaving her dinner parties either still hungry or sick.

“I don’t mean to be rude, but is there a point to you continuing to float above my bed? Marley said you have something important to show me.”

“Yes, Ebenezer. I was sent here on the matter of your redemption,” she said.

“So, what you’re saying is that I have no choice in this matter. I must go with you, relive my past, and see how I could have improved?”

“That’s correct,” she said.

“That sucks,” I said. “Who really wants to go back and relive every single detail of a life lived? Most of it will be utterly mundane, with good and bad bits thrown in for excitement. It’s going to be so depressing.”

“One could approach it that way, or one could look at it as an opportunity to see that change is possible and that one really has had a wonderful life.”

“Ah, Eunice, I believe you are confusing two classic stories.”

“You are quite right, Ebenezer. Now do shut up and take my hand and let’s get this over with.”

***

xx |

Stephanie Verni is the author of Baseball Girl, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, and the co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice.

 

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On Life

Day Trip to Oxford and Easton, Maryland (where my new novel is set)

DSC_0143My mom and I typically spend a day together before my kids get out of school for the summer, and today, our day trip took us to Oxford, Maryland. This trip was for fun, but it was also for another reason: we had to do a little research because my new novel takes place there. I like to use the names of real places in my settings to make the fiction feel as real as possible. Therefore, it was up to us to do some legwork so I can finish writing this novel and keep it as true to the setting and feel of Oxford as possible.

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As I have been hunkered down writing for the last couple of weeks, and as I still have much more to go, I will stop blogging and let the photographs speak to the sweetness of the places. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Oxford is located on the Eastern Shore of Maryland near St. Michaels and Easton. All three towns have beauty and charm all their own, and while we didn’t spend time in St. Michaels today, we did have lunch in Easton and shopped in a few of the boutiques.

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I can’t wait to finish writing this novel. I’m excited by the storyline, characters, and even the cover, which I recently designed. Now for the photos, as I get back to writing…

P.S. That’s my mom standing near the harbor area where the ferry comes in in Oxford.

OXFORD, MARYLAND

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EASTON, MARYLAND

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signatureStephanie Verni is the author of Baseball Girl, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, and the co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice.

 

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On Life

That Magic Moment When It All Clicks—Writing A New Novel

Barbara-Kingsolver***

Here’s how this story goes…

Beneath the Mimosa Tree at G&RI published Beneath the Mimosa Tree in 2012. Baseball Girl followed three years later, and this week I am celebrating it’s one-year anniversary as it launched last March 6. At the time I began writing my first novel, I had simultaneously started writing another bit of fiction. When I had to make the choice between the two in which to fully invest my time, I picked Beneath the Mimosa Tree because it had been a story that had lodged itself in my brain for 20 years. I have no regrets about publishing it, and I always feel a sort of sentimental sweetness about that book.

BaseballGirlAfter Beneath the Mimosa Tree was published, I went back to the “other” piece of writing. Standing at about 43,000 words (which pretty much equates to almost half of a novel), I stopped writing. Something wasn’t working for me. That is when my dear friend, Julie, said to me quite frankly: “I don’t know why you don’t write a book about baseball.” You see, Julie and I worked in baseball together for many years at the Baltimore Orioles and were both directors of departments. The idea whet my appetite, and I found myself abandoning the other 43,000-word work in favor of what became Baseball Girl, a multi-layered love story about a female professional who secures a job in professional baseball in the front office of a baseball team after the loss of her father. I was thrilled to write this storyline because I could base some of the characters’ stories on real-life work experiences that my friends and I had while working in the sport while fictionalizing much of it as well. It was great fun, and I’m pleased with the result of that work.

But now, finally, all these years later, something has clicked, and I have dusted off that neglected manuscript that I put aside twice. I know exactly what I want this story to be, how I want the characters’ lives to unfold, and I feel a real sense of purpose for this project. I attribute this light bulb’s illumination to the fact that I’ve been reading a lot again for pleasure, and this breadth of exposure and interpretation has helped me form clearer ideas for the arc of the story, the depth of the characters, the humor I want to infuse into their situations, and the picturesque quality I want to bring to the storyline. I am not afraid of deleting much of what I have already written and blowing it up and starting all over again.

Ideally, this should be the life of a fearless writer–and a good editor. Get rid of shit that is not working and start all over again. And so, the job is in front of me, and I welcome it with open arms.

hemingway

As writers, sometimes we sit and wonder when the big “ah-ha” moment will come to pass. If we sweat about it too much, it may never flutter down from the creative hemisphere and grab us and shake us and say, “Um…hello! There’s a big idea here and you better grab it before it goes off searching for someone else to write it.”

 

About Creative Writing, Books & Flim

What Writers Owe To Themselves

Creative JuicesWriters—Do you do some of your best thinking in the shower? Typically, my best ideas come to me at the most inopportune moments when I do not have paper and pencil handy, like when I’m commuting or observing something with a cart full of groceries or taking a walk through the neighborhood. Sometimes the creative juices flow when I’m not prepared to greet them, much in the same way a hostess of a party who is still in sweats and inappropriately dressed as her first guest rings the doorbell is not ready.

These creative juices are important, and if we are lucky, they flow directly and consistently into our writing, which led me to this morning’s thought.

What do we, as writers, owe to ourselves?

Admittedly, while it would be nice to be regarded as the Hemingway of our generation or be as prolific a writer as Nora Roberts, I think that what we owe to ourselves more than anything is to tell a story for which we feel some passion, and tell it well.

That’s it.

Tell the story, feel something for it, and tell it well. For the love of it.

Passion

The most successful authors believe in their work, are validated by what they write, and are compelled to communicate this creativity to readers. Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, said, when asked about his novel, “The thing to remember is I thought nobody would read the book—a 500-page book set in Nazi Germany, the narrator is ‘Death,’ you think, how do you recommend that to your friends? I thought no one’s going to read this. I thought, well, I might as well do this exactly how I want to do it, and follow my own vision for the book, and write in exactly the style I want. That’s when it really took off. So, I think half of writing a book is just forgetting that there is even a world that exists beyond the book.” His commentary is spot on, and a good piece of advice to remember when we write.

What do readers want? Readers want to be entertained, they want to be connected to the characters, and they want to feel something for the work when they close the book.

We owe it to them to tell the best story we can.

It takes a special type of person to write—and write continually—especially when we don’t know if five people or five million people will read our work. I’ve said it a hundred times to students, to book talk attendees, and to people who ask me why I write, and my answer is always the same: because I have a story to tell, and ultimately, feel moved enough to tell it. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how many people pick it up, but rather that those who choose to read it enjoy it.

As recording artist Sam Smith says in his song “Money On My Mind,”

I don’t have money on my mind.

I do it for the love.

We owe that to ourselves.

About Creative Writing

Make Us Care

While there are so many insightful tips on how to tell a good story, at the core of it all is to make the reader care. In a 17-minute speech on TED, Mr. Andrew Stanton, Academy Award winning screenwriter for such films as “Finding Nemo,” “Toy Story,” and “Wall-E” who also voices the character “Crush” from “Finding Nemo,” explains his wonderful tips on storytelling.

Writers of all kinds should take heed of Mr. Stanton’s advice, which he explains with examples. As my class took notes on his wisdom, I wrote them all down as well; it’s a reminder and a usable checklist that writers can use refer to when evaluating their own work.

His tips are as follows:

1-Make us care (about the plot; about the characters)

2-Make us a promise (deliver us something meaningful)

3-Make us work for our meal–writers do not have to spoon-feed your readers/viewers (we can make our own decisions)

4-Carry a strong theme throughout (the story should always, in some way, be cognizant of the theme)

5-Make us wonder (asking questions is a part of curiosity/intrigue)

6-Use what you know (use your own experiences to tell a good story)

Take a look at his video. I’m so thankful for for Ted.com and the ability to share valuable information we can all learn from.

(Warning: The opening joke in the video is not PG…play it when your young kids are not around).

 

 

 

 

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On Creative Leadership, Creativity, and Nonsense

I like Nonsense

* * *

For the last couple of years, I’ve become very interested in researching what it takes to be a creative leader. Malcolm Knowles wrote a book entitled, “The Adult Learner, A Neglected Species.” From that book I’ve conducted research on creative leadership and what it takes to be a creative leader, both in business and in our own creative lives. I’ve presented this research at a couple of conferences, and I look forward to further pursing the ideals of creative leaders. Folks such as Steve Jobs, Sandy Lerner, Richard Branson, and JK Rowling have all served as inspiration for these presentations I make.

When looking at the commonalities among creative leaders, there is one thing that they all have in common: they all do not fear failure. They understand the need to be innovative, and why one cannot be afraid to be innovative.

Writers are creative by our own right. We create settings, worlds, characters, and stories for readers to become lost in and swept away in between the pages of what we write. We rely on our creativity, and when we have written our stories, we must not be afraid to say the following:  “It is what it is–it is my work, my creativity at hand, and I stand by it,” and then let it go and do its thing.

That's me...editing some nonsense. :-)
That’s me…editing some nonsense. 🙂

As I approach the final stages of editing “Baseball Girl,” and begin to prep it for Amazon, I can only echo the words of Dr. Seuss. I like creating nonsense. It’s my nonsense, and there’s really only one person I have to please in the end, and that’s myself. Making it the best piece of creative work I can, and not being afraid to fail is all the nonsense I am responsible for. What happens after that, we shall see.

When JK Rowling first wrote “Harry Potter,” she said this:

“I just write what I wanted to write. I write what amuses me. It’s totally for myself. I never in my wildest dreams expected this popularity.”

That is how I feel as well. If we try to write for other people and what they want, we will end up with a messy-mess of writing. Write what pleases you. Write the book you want to read.

That is the creative responsibility we are accountable for, and the only nonsense that makes sense.

DSC_0619
When Jenny was trying to take my photo for “Beneath the Mimosa Tree,” I gave her some nonsense.
About Creative Writing, Beneath the Mimosa Tree & Publicity, Fictography

Fictography #19: Beneath The Mimosa Tree (An Excerpt)

Beneath the Mimosa Tree. Photo Credit: Jennifer Bumgarner.
Beneath the Mimosa Tree. Photo Credit: Jennifer Bumgarner.

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/FICTOGRAPHY/ def. — The intersection of photography (submitted by readers) and fiction (written by me!).

As I was combing through my photographs this morning, I came upon Jennifer Bumgarner’s shots from our cover shoot for “Beneath the Mimosa Tree.” There are so many gorgeous pics she took, and they are wasting away in a file on my computer. I decided to use one of her photos for today’s FICTOGRAPHY segment—a photo that was captured as a scene from my novel—and I pulled that part of the story from the book. Therefore, today’s FICTOGRAPHY is an excerpt from “Beneath the Mimosa Tree.”

To set the stage, Michael and Annabelle are in high school in this scene. They are both seniors. They live next door to each other and Michael has always had his eye on Annabelle. She has not thought of him romantically to this point, but rather only as her neighbor and friend. It is a Friday night, and she is alone in the house with a broken foot. She hears a noise coming from outside, and calls over to Michael’s house. His parents are out to dinner with her parents, so he comes over to the rescue. And the rest, as they say, is history…

* * * * * *

BENEATH THE MIMOSA TREE: AN EXCERPT

With Michael’s flashlight as our guide, we made it out to the garden, and there was the possum, scared and stuck. His mouth was open, and he was shrieking, but it came out more like a growl and a hiss.

“I’m going to try just gently wiggling the wire with the broom so I don’t scare him more than he already is. I may be able to loosen it.”

“Is he bleeding?” I asked, now worried about the little creature.

“No, well, maybe just a bit. It’s not bad from what I can see in the dark.”

Michael jiggled the chicken wire fence with the broom, but the possum still was scrambling to get out, his screech silenced by our presence. Michael grabbed the pliers and pulled the top part of the wire. Still nothing. The possum was caught.

“What if you bend the opposite sides outward and I pull the top part. Do you think that would work?”

“Maybe,” he said. “Let’s try.”

We tried that, but to no avail. “Let me see the broom again. I’m going to wiggle this part one more time,” he said.

And with that, the little possum was freed. It gave out a final cry of relief, and scurried back to the brush, and hopefully to a family that was waiting for him.

Michael looked at me, his dark eyes wide, his flashlight still our only source of light besides the patio lights in the distance. I gave a laugh, and said, “Whew, that was something,” and then he moved close to me so he could help me back to my house. I hopped on one foot up to the concrete patio.

“Thanks for coming over. I would have been freaked out if you hadn’t been home.”

“I can understand why,” he said. “Wanna have a beer with me? I’ve got a little stash out in the shed. They might be a little warm, but a beer’s a beer.”

This was an odd proposition coming from Michael, my neighbor since we were both five, the son of my parents’ best friends. He and I had always been friendly because we had no choice; we were often thrown together for various functions. It wasn’t unusual for us to have conversations around our families, but at school we rarely communicated at all. He must have seen the quizzical look on my face, because he pulled out the patio chair and told me to sit. “Wait here for a minute, and I’ll be right back,” he said.

It was difficult to say no to him, because he was probably one of the nicest boys I knew. He wasn’t pompous and arrogant like other boys. He didn’t play on the football team, but rather on the golf team, and his grades were stellar. And so, that night, I didn’t say no to him. Instead, I waited on that patio chair for what seemed like ten minutes, until he appeared with a wheelbarrow draped with a blanket.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Get in,” he said.

“In that?”

“Am I holding something else for you to get into?” he shrugged.

He helped me turn around and I sunk my butt down. I was laughing. This was hilarious. “Lift your feet up a little,” he commanded.

He wheeled me over to his back yard where he had arranged a little picnic under the mimosa tree that ironically we had given his family as a gift for their one-year anniversary in their home. It was a lovely tree with a large canopy, though its leaves were tucked in for sleep. It still had some pink blossoms, even in the late summer, though they were not as vibrant as they once were. There was a six-pack of Bud on the blanket and Doritos and salsa in the jar. The flashlight was on and sitting on the blanket like a candle. It was pretty cool.

“Come on,” he said, “come hang with me. I’ve got nothing to do and apparently neither do you now that the possum has left you.”

“You mean now that we have saved the possum from death in a vegetable garden.”

“Correct,” he said. “Come sit and put your leg up.”

He took the blanket that was in the wheelbarrow and folded it up to form a pillow. “See,” he said. “Foot goes here.”

He popped open a Bud for me and then one for himself. I didn’t like beer very much, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I took a sip. We weren’t legally supposed to drink alcohol at seventeen, and a lot of kids had been looking forward to their eighteenth birthdays until this year when Maryland law raised the drinking age to twenty-one. But kids still got their hands on beer and Boone’s Farm, which I’d sworn off for all eternity after a crazy night and consumption of almost an entire bottle earlier in the summer.

Surprisingly, it was going down rather smoothly, and I’m not sure if it was because I was in unfamiliar territory alone with Michael or because I was extremely flattered by his attention and creativity. I’d never seen him quite so innovative and expressive. It was almost as if I were sitting under the tree with a whole new Michael.

“So, have you applied to any colleges yet?” he asked me.

“I have. All local ones. You?”

“Yeah, I have, too. I just sent one off to NYU, which is my first choice, Fordham University, and Columbia University. I hope I hear back soon.”

“All of them in New York, right?”

“Yes. I want to be a journalist, at least that’s what I think right now. Anyway, I love it here, don’t get me wrong, but I figured it would be cool to live and go to college in New York. I don’t think I could get bored there at all. Plenty of museums and sports to keep somebody happy along with school.”

It was quiet for a minute, the chirping of the crickets taking center stage. The sky was clear; as we looked straight ahead, the stars were out and seemed to be winking at the river. “So how did you kill your foot again?” he asked.

“Stupid, really. I landed in the wrong position when I came out of a back-handspring. My foot was forced sideways.”

“See? That’s why I stick with golf. If you get hurt in golf, you deserve the injury.”

That made me laugh. He was funny, but I already knew that about him. He always had a good sense of humor; there’s was a nice, easy way about him. My father perpetually raved about Michael. “Did you know Michael said this?” or “Did you know Michael won an award?” Blah, blah, blah. My dad adored him, and I always assumed it was because he never had a son of his own.

“So what are your big plans for senior year?” he asked.

“I don’t think I have any big plans, but thanks for making me feel bad about it,” I teased.

“How can you have no big plans? You’ve got to have big plans! This is your senior year of high school. It’s never going to happen again in your life. You have to do something really fantastic, something memorable…something you can tell your kids about when you’re old and gray.” He took a swig, stretched out on the blanket as he turned to see my reaction, and waited. He was wearing blue jeans and a gray Naval Academy t-shirt. His flip-flops sat on the edge of the blanket. “Come on, you’ve got to come up with something.”

“I don’t know!” I said, laughing again. “What are your big plans? What will you tell your kids?”

“I couldn’t tell you. I have absolutely no idea,” he said.

“Oh, but you’re pressing me to come up with something creative. Nice…”

“Well, I just think planning is important to the success of one’s own life,” he said. “That is, unless you want your parents to plan your whole life for you.”

I laughed at him as he pontificated on life’s big issues. “What are you saying?”

“I don’t know. It just seems like our parents like to drive the bus, you know? They always seem to want to steer me in the direction they believe I should go.” I couldn’t have agreed with him more. I felt exactly the same way. He continued, “I mean, when have we ever been able to talk like this when they’re around?”

“You are right,” I said, feeling a little bit lighter in the head than when I had first rested on the blanket. “It’s just how they are.” We both thought about it and sipped our beers. “Speaking of our families, can you believe my family gave your family this tree? I mean, look at the size of it now. I remember us giving it to you and our dads digging the hole for it. Sometimes that feels like it was just yesterday. Other times, it feels like it was a lifetime ago,” I said.

He was watching me intently, listening to my words, my thoughts. The moon had just appeared over the Severn, and I looked over at him that night and examined his wavy dark hair, his brown, big eyes, and his nice build. Had I lived next door to him all these years and never noticed him before? Or were the beers I’d been drinking affecting my perceptions?

He sat up and moved his body closer to mine, the two of us sitting with our feet outstretched, mine on the makeshift pillow, his extended out, his hip and hand brushing up against me.

“I have an idea of how we can make senior year memorable,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Come with me out on the boat tomorrow, just you and me. Our parents are going to the Navy Football game. We won’t tell anyone, and you and I can take her out. What do you say?”

“And my foot?” I asked.

“It’s welcome to come too,” he said.