Oh, the places I go when I’m not writing

I had a blast this past Saturday night and you’ll never guess where. Neither you nor I could have expected me to say I went to an AC/DC tribute band concert, but that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t go as a closet AC/DC fan. I didn’t just happen to drop in. I didn’t do it on a dare. I went as a mom. My oldest son is a drummer, and Fuse Box is his latest band.

It’s always exciting to hear, and watch, him play, but he’s always been in bar bands that covered 80s-90s rock songs. And though his personal tastes were often harder than the music those bands played, I don’t remember him talking about AC/DC. Nor did I ever expect to see him play in front of such a large crowd in a concert venue.

Besides being a proud mom, I enjoyed the show. I was familiar with more tunes than I knew, they sounded great, despite the singer not having a voice all week because of a cold, and once again, I wondered why music is not as big a part of my life as it used to be.

I guess the answer to that wondering is that I write now. The only music I can listen to while I write is classical. Anything with a lyric distracts me. Anything with a beat has me chair dancing. I used to listen to music in the car, but I don’t drive much nowadays and when I do, I usually prefer silence because I’m thinking about what I’m writing.

Besides not having enough music in my life, I really need to get out more—I’m sure I’ve said that before on this blog. Not that I plan on writing about musicians, or concert, club, or bar goers, but you never know when you might see a person who sparks a fascinating character or overhear a conversation that your writer’s mind transforms into a terrific story.

I’m not saying we should cruise high-crime areas or engage in any other dangerous activity, but it never hurts to stretch a little, to toss your net into new waters to see what you catch. That advice is for myself as much as anyone. Fiction writers need imagination, but if we expect others to relate, we need to base that fiction on real life.

Okay, as you probably expected, I’m going to share a short video clip with you—short because I had no idea how long I could record on my phone. Next time, I’ll record at least one whole song. And, of course, they sound better than my phone picks up. Rock on.

When the writing draws you in

I don’t watch TV much. Every season I have two or three programs I never miss. I mentioned my guilty pleasure, American Idol, in my last post. The other shows I follow are dramas. In recent years, I was a big fan of series like Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Lost. Now it’s Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, and Treme. (Hmmm, I guess HBO wins.)

Treme is set in New Orleans during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. The show follows several characters as they try to put their lives back together. I have my favorites, though the writers are capable of changing my mind about a couple of the others. And you never know when they’ll kill off a main character like they did in the first season.

This season, one of the storylines has been about the rise of crime. People who used to feel safe in their homes and places of business are finding the “rules” have changed in post-Katrina New Orleans. I watched one scene with growing dread.

As La Donna turns off the lights and prepares to close up her bar for the night, a young man in a hooded sweatshirt knocks on the window, “We’re closed,” she tells him. He’s looking for a different bar and lost. She talks to him through the glass and gives him directions to the place he’s looking for. Then he asks if he can come in and use the phone. Wisely, she tells him, “No phone.” She asks his name, he’s evasive, and she pulls out her cell phone, telling him she’s calling the police to come down and help him.

The kid walks away. As La Donna’s talking to the police, she waves to friends who’ve called to her as they walk down the other side of the street. She gathers her keys and purse. She pauses for a moment, looks back at the window, then she lifts her chin, tosses her hair back, and walks to the door. The street is deserted now. It’s quiet. The scene is shadowed, reddish, barely lit from the streetlight in front of her, the Christmas lights behind her.

I’m on alert; afraid I know what’s coming. “No,” I say. La Donna opens the door, steps out, and turns to relock it. Before she can, she glances to her right, and the camera pans to show the kid step around the corner of her building. He asks her about the directions again, sounding innocent, but the camera pans back to La Donna and you see the fear in her eyes. A shadow looms behind her. She turns toward it. There’s another man. I speak louder now. “No. Don’t.”

She scrambles back inside, shoving with all her might to close and lock the door, but it’s a futile attempt against the guys on the other side. As they burst through, she backs away, and throws her purse to them. “Take it,” she says, “it’s $200 dollars.”

“Please, don’t,” I plead—with the intruders or the writers or both. I hold my breath. La Donna tries to sound tough, cursing and ordering them out, but her voice betrays her. She stumbles backward, grabs a sawed-off broomstick, and starts swinging. “Yes!” I say, hopeful.

But then, I see the intruders still advancing slowly, quietly, determined. I am crushed.

The scene cuts away. I won’t tell you the rest. I just wanted to share how good writing grabs me, pulls me in, and makes me feel it. That’s how I want to write. That’s how I want you to write. Let’s do it.

Treme photos credit: HBO.
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Oops … I embarrassed my mother!

“Linda used the F-word in her book! And here I’ve already told my friends at church to read it.” This is what my mother said to my sister in a wake-up phone call yesterday. I had sent my mother a copy of Brevity, and she started reading it as soon as it arrived. My sister works nights, and I can imagine my mother watching the clock until she thought it was safe to phone my her.

My mother is 87 years old. She’s also forgetful. I warned her mine was not a book her elderly, Christian friends would like. (Though they probably all watch the same soap operas she does, and you can see and hear “everything but” on those.) But she’s proud of me and couldn’t resist a little bragging—at least that’s my take.

Once upon a time, I was in a critique group session when the topic turned to the advisability of using four-letter words in your writing. At that point, the most vocal opponents had read only chapters of Brevity that contained PG dialogue, so I cringed when I heard them express their opinion that only weak writers resorted to using curse words.

Don’t get the wrong idea. My writing is not rife with words to turn my mother blue. Out of 87,351 words, I used some form of the “F-word” 13 times. Even damn appears only 21 times. I don’t think that’s out of line for contemporary fiction aimed at adults.

I do not cuss—all right, I slipped once and said, “Damn it!” But I see nothing wrong with my characters using expressions that would come naturally to them. Renee, one of my Brevity characters, is a streetwise bar waitress. She’s outspoken and has a temper. I think it would be laughable if she said, “Oh shoot!” or “You darned jerk!” or even “That frickin’ idiot.” In other words, she wouldn’t speak like me. I don’t even use the euphemism frickin’.

So yeah, I embarrassed my mother, but she still loves me. I think.

Your turn: How do you feel about “street language” in fiction? And why?

 

How comfortable are you in your fictional world?

When we write fiction, creating the world in which our story takes place is in our hands. I enjoyed writing The Brevity of Roses because I loved all three main characters—and had a good time with a couple of secondary ones too. I also loved “living” in the primary settings—a beautiful Tudor-style mansion with gorgeous gardens and a cottage by the sea. Those things made up for the painful scenes I had to write.

Now, I have to decide which of three books I’m going to work on next. I’ve changed my mind several times while I’ve been busy getting my last novel ready for publication. Soon, it will be time to start serious work and I still don’t know which story to go with.

One would be rather pleasant to write … well, no suicidal characters, or tragic deaths, and just one abuse-scarred psyche to deal with. The other two are much darker—but for different reasons. Neither would be particularly pleasant to write, but I’m wondering if they might be more satisfying to have written.

For any of the three stories I have to choose from, the book world will be more meat and potatoes and less dessert than Brevity’s world. But maybe that will help me develop more writing muscle. So which to choose? Eeeny, meeny, miney, mo …

Your turn: How often does your writing create a comfortable story world? Do you ever deliberately create a world that forces you to explore people, places, and ideas outside your comfort zone? Do you like to combine the two and set a challenging story in a pleasant or familiar world?

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Writing out the darkness

I’m still reading my completed novel with red pen in hand. This is the last time—until an agent or editor asks for changes. And yes, I said that before, but this time I mean it. It’s past time to move on to the next novel.

I’ve been plotting the new one in my head for months now. I know my main character well because she was a minor character in the last novel. She was a middle-aged woman in that one, but this story will start with her at age twelve. I “see” the other characters, and have written brief sketches of them for my file. I know how the story begins and ends. I’ve drafted several key scenes. One, I wrote yesterday.

It was not an easy scene to write, and I doubt my critique partners will thank me for it, but it’s crucial to the story. In fact, there are a few very dark scenes in the beginning of this book. That’s something I’m concerned about balancing out because of a recent reading experience.

I appreciate the author’s talent, but the story is so depressing I fear there’s little chance of a happy—or even hopeful—ending. I’m not sure I’ll finish reading the book. Not that I require my reads to have happily-ever-after endings, though I admit I’m partial to endings with at least a glimmer of hope things will work out well. I think the problem with that novel is more that I don’t care much for the main character, so I’m not as willing to walk through the darkness with her.

With that in mind, my goal is to make my main character sympathetic and weave a little light through the darkness, so I don’t discover I’ve written a book readers would despair of finishing. Let’s see if I can pull it off.

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