Category Archives: Writing is Life

The Whirlwinds of Life

Life has been a bit of a whir since June. We sold the house, The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and Their Muses) released. We moved. I’ve done author events with several book clubs and library groups. We went down the shore with our daughter and her family, and some friends. Frankie D and I went up to Bar Harbor, where I did an author talk/signing at the Jesup Memorial Library (gorgeous library, amazing town.) Just this past week, my son and his girlfriend came in from Portland for a (always too brief!) visit. They flew out this morning.

In between there were reviews, and lunches with friends; a wedding, family gatherings, and, of course, setting up my new home. Writing has been sporadic at best. For me–a writer who has written most every weekday, 9-4 since 1994–it’s been unsettling, to say the least. Now, next week, I head down to Myrtle Beach, a trip I’m really looking forward to, but it’s another week of no writing, making this shortened week less than productive, too.

Or is it?

I started a new novel back in April. There are two storylines, one that takes place in 2009, the other in 1947. The stories link through two characters–young in 1947, old in 2009. It’s been a struggle to get the two storylines to play nice. I love them both, they just didn’t seem to want to fit together.

And that’s because they really didn’t. Maybe it was all the upheaval, the enforced time away from the writing of it, but this novel proved to me today that it’s actually two. One’s not a sequel to the other–they’re entirely separate novels.

I’d written over 100K words in two and a half months, and the original book was nowhere near done. In trying to integrate the novels, they were both losing something of their voice, their heart. Now I have two novels in progress, and I adore them. The 1947 novel–Thirty Days Dancing at the Edge of the World–comes first. Then St. Simon by the Sea will get its turn. The novels still connect via those two characters, but the connection won’t alter the storylines in the slightest. It’s my hope that, if a reader reads both, they’ll take on an added depth. We’ll see. Maybe I’m just spouting nonsense.

One of the reasons I decided to post this is due to a question I get, every time I do a Q&A with a reading/writing group: Do you ever get writer’s block?

I’ve come to understand that what I experienced with this book that ended up being two, and pretty much every book I have ever written, is what some consider “writer’s block.” I never quite realized that until recently, and I think it’s because I never let it actually “block” me. I chip away, come at it from different angles, and I’m not afraid to shred it all to bits. It makes me get more creative, and tenacious. Writers who hit these walls and let it stop them call it writer’s block. I call it…something else.

Writing can happen in a wave of euphoric genius of putting words on a page that we never actually remember thinking; or it can be the above chipping, shredding frustration. Sometimes, we have to work for our art. No pain, no gain? Yeah, that works.

So, no–I never suffer writer’s block. Never have. Never will. Because if I ever come to a point wherein I won’t put in the necessary effort to get past it, it’ll be because I’m done writing. Period.

 

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Quixotic Drama

I rarely bring up Goodreads or Amazon reviews here on this page. It breaks an unspoken rule, and that fourth wall between writer and reader. Do you hear a but coming? Today, I found something amazing in the review section on Goodreads, and it struck me so completely I had to immortalize it here.

(Not the full review–just the pertinent part)

“What is real; to what extent do we live our fictions; what should be real? Wonderful characters whose souls are stirred by death and words and a past built upon more words and immortal youthful misdeeds. […]this is a book for the spirit and the mind. It is also a paean to the passing of an age of great authors who lived immortally, if not tragically. Kudos to DeFino. I call this category of fiction, Quixotic Drama.”

Quixotic* Drama. As Linus Van Pelt is prone to exclaim, “That’s it!”

This is exactly what I do in all my writing, whether fantasy, romance, fairy tale, or contemporary fiction. Quixotic drama. I have a name for it now. And you know what the old tales say about naming something–there is power there. Great power. I can already feel it thrumming in my fingertips.

In googling the term, I see it’s not quite unique to the world, though I don’t find it in reference to fiction. Whether a thing or simply new to me, it’s magical. The connection to Don Quixote, in all its facets, pretty much says it all.

Peanuts1

*quix·ot·ic
kwikˈsädik/
adjective
  1. exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical.
    “a vast and perhaps quixotic project”
    synonyms: idealistic, romantic, visionary, utopian, extravagant, starry-eyed, unrealist unworldly.

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Posting for Posterity

Just putting this here, for posterity’s sake. Dreaming August won the Rone Award for best Women’s Fiction, 2017. For anyone wondering what the Rone Award actually is, look here. Otherwise, just gaze upon my pretty star. Hehee!

Thanks for all the kind words, well wishes, and congratulations! I am still basking in all your love.Rone-Badge-Winner-2017--

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This Moment Changes Everything

I was a little stuck yesterday. Writing the last pages of Thicket Stars, I still hadn’t decided if I was going to let this family break, or keep it together. Neither one felt right, to be honest. I didn’t want a happy ending tied up with a pretty bow, but the evolution of my characters didn’t ring true with abandoning one another either.

Instead of forcing this key moment, I closed out early in the hopes a bit of simmering would work it out. The brain never turns off. I forget what ingredient I’m going to the pantry for between knowing I need it and arriving at the shelves; when it comes to story, my brain is a steel trap…that’s not aware it’s set and ready to spring, but that’s beside the point.

Last night, watching So You Think You Can Dance, Taylor and Robert danced to Change is Everything.  The dancers fight being together, and breaking apart. Absolutely gorgeous, choreographed by Travis Wall to an a capella version of the song. And my brain, ever-working, snapped its spring.

This moment changes everything
The course of blood within your veins
A stranger’s form, your skeleton
See the bones glow as they break free

Long, long and long ago, I was twenty-one, pregnant with my second child, and married to a man who was finding life with a wife and child, a job and another baby on the way terrifying. Claustrophobic. He was constantly battling with his love for us, and his need to fly. It manifested in too many scary nights, wondering when I’d get the call from the morgue. One day, I sat down with him and said, “I can’t do this anymore. Go. Do what you need to. I’ll be here when you’re done.”

That moment changed everything.

He didn’t go. He cried. He told me he couldn’t leave me and our daughter, the baby on the way. He loved us too much. That week was the happiest we’d had in too long. He seemed…good. Happy. At peace.

And then he was gone. Motorcycle accident. Just like that. A week later.  Another moment of change. Isn’t that what life is? A series of those moments.

It all came together last night, listening to that song, watching the push and pull of the dancers, remembering that conversation with Brian. I won’t speak for all writers, but I have no hang-ups about laying it out there on the page, all the gore and the glory of my life, for all to see. Call me an exhibitionist. It’s how I deal. It’s how I make my stories authentic and, I hope, touch my readers.

This moment changes everything. That really is the key to the climax of this story, the answer to the question: Do they break? Or do they heal? I know now. I just wrote it. Well, most of it. You’ll have to wait a while though.

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A Little Something Fun (for a change)

This is the result of a ten-minute* writing prompt in my writing group. It’s cute and silly, and right now, I can really use a little cute and silly.

(*I did edit a little just before posting this up.)

The prompt was: A brother and sister only one year apart in age; what happens when they’re teenagers and dating one another’s friends? When in doubt, go immediately to fairy tale!

***

“Hansel? Who is he?”

Hansel leaned around his sister. The sigh escaped before he could suck it in. “Leave it alone, Gretel. You won’t like him.”

“But will he like me?”

“Everyone likes you. Why do you even ask? Even the witch liked you better.”

“Oh, don’t be silly. She didn’t like either of us. She was just hungry, and you were a little more plump.”

“You were the one with boobs at nine. I was like an orange on a toothpick.”

“Forget about her.” Gretel flipped her flaxen braids. Flaxen. Was that even a word anymore? None of the girls, flaxen-haired or otherwise, would even look his way since the oven incident. In his circles, rescuing was done by a dashing prince, and the rescued a fair damsel in distress. He was totally screwed.

“Come on,” his sister nudged. “Tell me about him.”

Hansel took a bite of his sandwich, stalled by chewing it those 30 chews he got into the habit of making, back in the cage, when every minute outside the oven counted. “His name is Jack. He’s pretty dumb. I heard he traded his mother’s last cow for a sack of beans.”

“Beans? That does sound dumb. He’s kind of cute, though.”

“You’re going through my friends a little fast,” he said. “I won’t have any left after you’re done breaking all their hearts.”

“Don’t be so selfish. I offer to fix you up with my friends all the time.”

If there was anything worse than being the fair damsel in distress, it was being set up by his dashing prince. Hansel took another bite, another thirty chews. Anyway, Thumbelina was a bit small, Belle was into big, hairy guys, and don’t even get him started on Goldie. What a bitch. There was only one girl he’d even had any interest in, and she’d been sleeping close to a year now. He was pretty sure it was going to last a while more. Maybe Ovengate will have simmered down enough by then to give him a shot.

“Just introduce me.” Gretel smoothed her braids, pinched her cheeks. “Come on. Please?”

“Fine.” Hansel flopped his sandwich onto the tray. He slid along to bench to Jack’s side. “Hey, Jack. Want to meet my sister?”

Jack looked up, a little dazed. “Uh, the blonde over there? Sure. Why not?”

Hansel waved Gretel over. “Jack, Gretel. Gretel, Jack. Now I’m going back to my sandwich.”

Sliding back to his place at the cafeteria table, he listened in, just to be safe. Jack was all right, but Gretel was his sister. And, embarrassing as it was, he did owe her.

“Beans?” Gretel laughed, tossing those braids. “Why would you do such a thing?”

“I’m not sure,” Jack answered. “The old guy was just so convincing. My mom tossed them out the window. This morning, there was a beanstalk the size of a tree. I think there’s something to it.”

Hansel went back to eating. Jack was one of the last of his friends to escape his sister’s attention. There was still Quasi. His place was kind of noisy, but at least they were both outcasts. And thank goodness he had no worries about his heroic yet slightly shallow sister ever being interested in him.

 

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Well, yeah, it does matter

Frankie D loves his Hallmark Christmas movies. I DVR all the new stuff and those we haven’t seen so we can watch one pretty much every night from Thanksgiving to Christmas. It has become a tradition for us. Like most holiday traditions, there’s a fair bit of schmaltz involved. The movies aren’t great, but some are cute. Some are awful, but we can laugh at that. And then there are the ones that piss me off, because they could have been really good, and failed miserably.

Journey Back to Christmas. Even I was looking forward to this one. That darling of Hallmark Holiday movies, Candace Cameron Bure starring as a post WW2 nurse whose husband didn’t make it home. A “Christmas comet” sends her forward 71 years to 2016 and into the lives of a small town cop, his family, and various others.

Time travel. Christmas. World War 2. All the elements were there, and yet, egads, it was awful. Plot holes and tropes and ridiculous dialog that sounded like it had been written by a high school student who really wanted to be funny or dramatic or touching, but wasn’t. The worst was a cardboard busybody character whose only role was to forward the ludicrous notion that Bure’s character was somehow a threat to the town, a character who then vanished in the middle of her “coming around” scene, only to arrive at the end with a changed tune. Few of the little details matched up–like the Christmas star that so importantly tied the gazebo lights to the story being colored in the past, yet white in the future. And the ending was just so…what’s the word? Trite? Ill-conceived? Flat? Completely predictable? How about…stupid? Yeah, really, really stupid. I won’t put up a spoiler. Suffice it to say it was the most ridiculous ending I think I’ve ever seen in my life.

I growled at the television through most of this movie. Frankie D couldn’t even do his fall asleep after the first ten minutes and wake up for the last ten thing, because I kept waking him up. “You think too much about this stuff,” said he. “What does it matter? It’s mindless.”

What does it matter? What does it matter?! It does matter! Shouldn’t we expect a cohesive story that doesn’t require a whole lot of, “It’s okay, it’s just a Christmas movie,” to get through? Why is mediocrity aspired to? Why is a poorly executed product okay? Because it can be? Because people don’t notice? The ones who don’t, won’t, whether it’s done well or not. So why are those who don’t care catered to, instead of those who do?

I don’t like this “mindless” business. Mindless doesn’t mean poor quality. It means being able to just go with it without having to parse things out, without finding the message within. A Christmas Carol isn’t mindless. A Christmas Story is.

As you can guess, it’s not just my rant against Hallmark Christmas movies. This phenomenon is rife in the publishing industry, and very much so in the romance genre. Now it’s spreading to Women’s Fiction. I simply don’t understand why, when it can be done well, and also appeal to all kinds of readers, the industry isn’t insisting upon it?

This is nothing new. I’m aware. Drek has made millions for eons. I just don’t get it. I mean, I do, but I don’t want to believe the implications I’m forced to acknowledge. And now, before I get political, I’ll say–it matters. Quality matters. At least, it should.

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Broad brushstrokes

   It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that Romance fiction is judged the way most things female are judged–with a broad brush covered in rose petals and sparkles. Sugar and spice and everything nice is all well and good, but it’s not all we are, and it’s not all that romance writing is.
   Chick-lit, chick-flicks–yes, such things exist in the exact form you’ve instantly conjured with those terms. There is a place for these lighter-than-air stories crafted to give no more than a moment or two of, “Oh, no–poor character. Her latte wasn’t fat free and now she’ll be all bloaty for her date.” They’re a form of fantasy, maybe a little wish fulfillment in a real life of job, kids, spouses, dog-poop on the carpet and/or dating a thousand frogs in the hopes of kissing a prince. Or worse. I know, when we were going through the worst of the worst, I devoured romance fiction of this nature like a kid on a melting fudg’icle.
   Then there is the rest of romance, the kind that touches on deep, painful, uplifting, complicated and otherwise intense aspects of life. Or death. There is romance set in war-time, in the aftermath of natural disaster, in the quiet and tragic illness of a loved one. There is also comedic romance, suspenseful romance. As a matter of fact, just add “romance” to any genre, and you’ll find excellent examples of what you can easily find. Anywhere. The “romance” part simply means there is a love story at the core, and that those two people will find a way to one another in the end.
   Now, I get it. In this world of self-publishing, there is a whole lot of poorly written stuff out there.And it’s not as if every traditionally published novel is fabulous. I’ve read quite a few stinkers on both sides of that fence. But you know what? Some of that “poorly written” stuff sells really, really well. Why? For the same reason it has since Professor Bhaer admonished Jo March that she wasn’t a real writer until she stopped writing her pirate stories–it speaks to a large number of readers, in language that doesn’t make them feel talked down to, or talked at. It reads the way they speak, the way they relate stories. In short–it’s real.
   Some readers want a more elevated form in their reading, just like some viewers prefer a film that has won awards in Cannes to those that win Golden Globes. And don’t get all wonky about me using the word elevated. I’m not saying one is for dumb people while the other is for smart people. One of the smartest people I know loves the Zoolander movies. Even I, grammar fiend, word-dancer that I am, love me some Tosh.0. Elevated simply means it’s done in an artful, more formal way. It’s almost a fantasy, because few people speak the way such novels are written. There are those who look for word acrobatics, for prescriptive grammar over descriptive. And then there are some who have no patience for such things.
   And you know what else? There’s a whole lot of stuff in-between that satisfies readers on both ends of the spectrum. That’s the beauty of life–diversity. Romance is diverse. There will always be good writing, and bad writing. Romance has its fair share, but defining an entire genre by that share is snobbery, and it’s unfortunate, because there is a whole lot of good stuff being passed over because it’s romance. The ever-growing genre of women’s fiction is growing as it is because people will pick up and be seen reading women’s fiction when they’d never even consider romance. I hate to tell you this, people, but most of what you read is romance. #sorrynotsorry
   This whole thing was sparked by an article shared by a sister-in-romance on Facebook this morning. Here’s the article.
Here, have a cute little crab. Peace out.
VAB

Courtesy of Karin Gastreich VAB16

 

 

 

 

 

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A Few New Things

The novel formerly known as Traegar’s Lunatics and now as The Pen has been marked final. Beloved Agent Janna (as she will forthwith be known) not only guided me to the perfect ending for the story within the story, but for the actual story itself. What I had was fine. Her “what if you did this…” made it amazing. I’m so in love with this book.

We’ve also decided that Helen Mirren will play Olivia in the movie.

The synopsis is written, the query is all ready. After the holiday weekend, it will go off to the list of publishers she and the powers that be at the Knight Agency have generated. And now, the wait.

In the meantime, I’ll work on Undeclared.  It’s up around 25K words. This story is once again different than anything I’ve ever written. There is no romance. Not even the scent of it. I’ve never written anything without it. This one, though? Nope. Ledanora, Nell, Beverly–maiden, mother, crone. I hadn’t planned that when I started this book, but it’s just so right. My subconscious knew, and acted accordingly. I’m in love all over again.

You might have noticed a change here on Modesty is for Suckers…the banner, above. A ridiculously talented and generous friend sketched this of me from a photo on Facebook. I’ve never had anything capture me, who I am, my spirit, as perfectly. It embodies my motto–Modesty is for Suckers. Does that imp look modest about ANYTHING? Nope.

Happy Independence Day! Eat well, stay safe, and have fun!

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That Something Special Raven Mentioned

Last week I blogged about the Medicine card readings we did, and that I got Raven. It pertained a lot to Chris, and the fact that I explain away all things that might bring me comfort, but there was more I wasn’t at liberty to discuss at that time.

“…something special is about to happen…Can you accept it as a gift? Or will you limit the power of the Great Mystery by explaining it away?”

A few weeks before VAB, I came to the decision that I would attempt getting a literary agent. Traegar’s Lunatics was nearly finished, and it’s good. Really good. Way different from anything I’ve ever written. I wanted to query presses that don’t accept unagented work. I mentioned it to someone, who mentioned it to someone. This led to that and I was put in touch with an fabulous woman from The Knight Agency, a literary agency that happened to be on my “first ten queries” list. It was ridiculously serendipitous from first moment to last, and I spent a good deal of Dollbaby Week explaining it away. My manuscript wasn’t even finished! I wasn’t even looking yet! It all seemed way too easy.

But that was explaining it away–something I did all week, whenever I got an email that should have sent me over the moon. It couldn’t be real. It just couldn’t! My dolls–beloved women!–lovingly informed me it wasn’t easy getting here. I’ve spent years learning, making my way along this path, writing and writing and writing. Learning more. Treading further and farther. They were absolutely right. I’m here. Now. And I need to own the fact that I worked hard to get here. A little serendipity isn’t impossible, it was absolutely earned.*

I am now represented by Janna Bonikowski of The Knight Agency. I am over-the-moon happy. She loves my story, is excited about it, is already planning for it. And she’s given me feedback that, if we parted ways right this moment, I’m indebted to her for. I’m looking forward to this new part of my writing journey.

*Of course, I did promise her and the others at The Knight Agency access to the time portal in the woods behind my house. That could be problematic, but a deal is a deal.

time portal

The time portal. I know it looks like an old outhouse, but it’s the portal, I swear.

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Here’s the thing about novellas…

Those of you who’ve known me for a while have heard this rant before–Novellas, they’re not what you think they are. They’re not–I repeat, not–about word count. Novella means new* in Italian, not, as many think, little novel. Suggesting a novella is a short work of fiction between 20K and 40K words is like saying a sonnet is simply a poem composed of fourteen lines. As Canadian author, George Fetherling said, (in his essay, Briefly, the case for the novella) to reduce the novella to nothing more than a short novel is like saying “a pony is a baby horse.” See? It’s not just me.

Why do I get such a stick up my ass over this? Because this isn’t a grammar rule in flux, we’re losing an art form, a beautiful art form, and that just hits me in the writerly gut. The world of literary fiction knows and holds the difference when it comes to categories and prizes, but the genres and the general populace don’t, and that’s the danger–because a lie believed by the masses becomes the truth.

Very briefly, it is structure that defines a novella, not word count. There are no designated chapters in a novella, rather they are presented as a whole divided by white space to designate a significant shift. (Though, to be fair, I have seen novellas utilizing chapters.) Plotwise, it ends quite close to where it begins. In fact, little can and usually does change if at all. The form concerns itself more with the character development, the evolution (or devolution) of that character, than it does on plot conflict. The internal vs. the external. Novellas tend to begin close to the precipitating incident, but skip back and forth in time, filling in background. They usually end on the moment of climax, on the brink of change.

I recently came across this diagram that shows the structure in a visual way:structurenovella

See how it climbs, then how quickly it falls? The reversal (something that happens to change the action’s direction) in the rising action is intrinsic to the structure. I thought that was pretty cool. So I’ll end this here, having gotten it off my chest, and will leave you with a few examples of actual novellas you’ll have heard of:

Breakfast at Tiffany’s ~ Truman Capote

A Christmas Carol ~ Charles Dickens

My Mortal Enemy ~ Willa Cather

Animal Farm ~ George Orwell

Ethan Frome ~ Edith Wharton

The Old Man and the Sea ~ Ernest Hemmingway

Shawshank Redemption ~ Stephen King

The Stepford Wives ~ Ira Levin

The Picture of Dorian Gray ~ Oscar Wilde

 

*I’ve recently seen it as “little novelty,” but that’s no more right than “little novel” is.

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