Goals -In Writing and in Life

By Barb DeLong

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream. C.S. Lewis

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a woman of a certain age. And at my age, I’ve occasionally wondered if I’m too old to handle the traditional publishing rat race, or to learn all the ins and outs of the self-publishing business, what with formatting, uploading, downloading, covers, editing, sales and marketing. It all seems so—complicated. Sigh.

But then I take inspiration from other authors who published later in life, or continued to write and publish into their senior years. Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her sixties when she first published. Richard Adams, who wrote Watership Down, was in his forties and continued to write until he died at ninety. Romance author Charlotte Lobb w/a Charlotte Carter, wrote until she passed away at seventy-eight. There’s a prolific Texas author of erotic romance, Desiree Holt, who published her first romance in her seventies. Yee-haw! So, I will continue to set writing goals to achieve my dream of multi-publication.

A goal is a dream with a deadline. Napoleon Hill

But (why is there always a big but?), a goal means there’s a deadline somewhere in the equation. Whether it’s a contest deadline, critique group deadline, personal or editor deadline, there’s a date that must be met. Therein lies the stress, the fear of disappointment, the fear of failure. I thrive on deadlines. I need deadlines so I can at least attempt to order my life in hopes of meeting my goal. I entered a contest this year at 11:59 p.m. The deadline was midnight. Gulp! Just made it.

A goal without a plan is just a wish. Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I mentioned ordering my life to meet a goal. I always create a detailed plan for my stories and a schedule for writing time. There are pantsers and plotters and those who are a bit of both. I’m definitely a plotter. I can’t write by the seat of my pants. In other words, I can’t just jump in and start typing away on a half-formed story to nowhere. I create character charts complete with goals, motivations and conflicts along with quirks and eccentricities. I use plotting processes such as the hero’s journey and three-act structure. I need to know what’s going to happen in each scene before I write it. Doesn’t mean I keep everything I write, but at least I have a PLAN.

All of this planning and writing takes time. Just because I’m retired, doesn’t mean every minute of the day is mine to do with as I please. Au contraire. I have a retired husband and nearby grandkids. ‘nuf said. I look at my deadlines and backtrack on the calendar to calculate how many words/pages I need to write and when in order to meet that deadline. Oh, life has a way of fouling the best-laid plans, but getting back on track and forging ahead is key to meeting goals.

Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another. John Dewey

Life is a series of goals, and so are writing goals. Yay! Finished the first draft of a short story. Next goal—edits. Next goal—submit to formatter. Next goal—choose a cover. Yay! I won a local contest. Next—submit to a national contest. Next—send out query letters to publishers. Next—write that next book.

The message here is to keep going. Don’t stagnate. Build on past achievements, or perceived failures. Go ahead, set another goal, set a deadline and create a plan. Dreams can come true.

SECRETS AND LIES

by Ottilia Scherschel

I grew up in an era without social media when privacy had high value. My grandmother had rules about privacy. She loved to say don’t air your dirty linen. That cliché translated into a reminder not to talk about personal/family matters outside the family. In reality, the unwritten rule translated into something akin to you can’t tell anyone, and if you can’t avoid saying something when asked, embroider the truth. In my writing life, my grandmother’s rules have come in handy.

Characters in a book have secrets—personal and family secrets—and tell lies. Imagine what I could do with Uncle Vinnie’s story. He and Aunt Hilda had a solid marriage, or so the family thought. Then one day, Uncle Vinnie came home from a business trip to find his house empty. grimace-1299164_640Stunned, he meandered around searching the kitchen cupboards for the pots and pans and Aunt Hilda’s closet for her personal belongings. He finally spotted an envelope taped to the back door. Inside was the deposit book for their joint bank account with the money withdrawn. Poor Uncle Vinnie was left with the house payment and his underwear. We later found out Aunt Hilda ran off with an old high school boyfriend and moved to Costa Rica. Did Uncle Vinnie ever embroider that one?

A story like his creates a whirlwind in my brain. I see the seeds of a backstory for the life of a character peppered with Uncle Vinnie’s emotional ups and downs. Next time you read your favorite author, ask yourself whose dirty linen helped create the characters. I know I would have no stories to tell without airing someone’s secrets and lies.

Where do I get my characters?

by Jill Jaynes

Jill Jaynes

I guarantee that if you ask one hundred writers this question, you will get one hundred different answers, all of them equally valid.

Here is mine.

Since writers write what they know, I’d have to say that my characters must come from what I know.  I know myself, and I know other people. So I think partly they come from inside of me, from who I am and what I feel, and partly they come from the experiences I’ve had with a lot of other people. People I’ve met, and people I’ve only seen. I carry around a whole database of memories, feelings, impressions and emotions that I don’t have to even think about. We all do, actually. Like it or not.

When I get a story idea, one of the first things I do is imagine my main character. I literally get a picture of them in my mind, maybe with just one or two physical characteristics- hair color, height, age.

I have a fuzzy idea of who they are, what kind of person. Are they bubbly and sweet? Reserved and observant? Booksmart or streetsmart? Spoiling for a fight? Not a lot of details, and I don’t plan them out, trying to figure out who they are.

Instead, I start writing them onto the page, putting them into a scene to see how they will react to it, I see their personality develop as I do this- but it is more like recognizing them as they reveal themselves, than making them into something.

I had this one heroine, early in a story development of a historical romance, who wore a hat in a scene. I first described the hat as a plain, brown hat. Very simple. I stopped in my literary tracks. I knew, without needing to examine why, that this heroine wouldn’t be caught dead in an ugly hat. I knew that about her, even though I’d never thought it through in any organized way.

Likely, I may base my character on someone I’ve known or seen. Like movies about dysfunctional families- we recognize all of those characters. We probably have some of those relatives. Heck, we may even be one of them.  We have all met certain “types” of people, that come with a basic sort of set of rules about how they interact with the world around them. These are fun frameworks to start with and explore, maybe even dig deeper into and blow up that careful façade the rest of the world sees.

Here’s where the internal component kicks in.  It’s kind of like Carl Jung’s theory of dream interpretation (sorry, psych major here): every person, every thing in your dream represents something of you. I think that is a little how I create emotional reality of my characters.

When I write my character into a situation, challenge them with difficult situations, new ideas, I stop and imagine how they feel. That’s the part that comes from inside. I have to feel that emotion with them, put that down on the page. Make them human. If I don’t, the reader won’t feel it, and they won’t care about what happens next for that character.  That part comes from me, for sure.

All in all, I try not to overthink it, and let it flow as organically as possible. When I have a story idea, there is already a perfect character for it. I just have to wait for them to show up.

TELLTALE HABITS

by Ottilia Scherschel

My father was a businessman who carried a small notepad in the inside pocket of his suit jacket. He dutifully wrote down the names of people he met and things he wanted to remember. To this day, I carry a notepad in my purse. I know I could enter important information in my smart phone, but the habit I picked up from my Dad has stuck with me.

I recently jotted something in my pad while at a luncheon. A woman at my table said, “You must be a writer.” My taking notes confirmed in her mind I was a writer. Her statement made me think about what gives us away in life, those habits that tell others about who we might be.

I met a woman at a cocktail party recently who wore a silver lanyard with a small pen attached like a piece of jewelry around her neck. While we were getting acquainted, she wrote something on a napkin. I hoped it wasn’t her grocery list. “Are you taking notes?” I asked.

She chuckled. “It’s a bit of dialogue.”

“Something I said?”

“No, but you triggered an idea.”

“For what?”

“An article. You see I’m a columnist.”

I should have guessed she was some kind of writer. Why else would she need a pen around her neck? “Tell me about the article,” I said without revealing I too wrote.

When planning a novel, I spend considerable time choosing habits for my characters with the idea in mind that these should disclose something about them. I’ve even done the reverse by making a list of habits I wanted a character to have and then creating that character from the list.

Look around. Everyone has habits. What can you tell about the people you see? And what do your habits say about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s Nothing as Constant as Change

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I’ve thought a lot lately about how my life has changed over the past few years. A few of the changes have been a bummer, but most have been good. I try to be an optimist, but a lot of the expected changes have come fraught with anxiety at the mere thought of what was to come. For instance, my husband and I put the old house we’d lived in for over thirty years up for sale. Talk about angst, gut-wrenching fear and the emotional highs and lows as we willingly leaped on that real estate roller coaster and rode it, white-knuckling, all the way to our bright, airy, little townhome in our desired neighborhood. It was the longest coaster ride of our life, lasting almost one year.

But, just as most women forget the pain of childbirth and say hey, let’s have that fourth child, we decided to remodel the 1994 kitchen in our new home right away. Like not even two weeks after we moved in. We’re at the “fraught with anxiety at the mere thought of what was to come” stage. We bought our ticket for another coaster ride.

Change is what drives our lives. It’s what gets our juices going and emotions flowing. Endeavors and decisions and dreams fuel change. It’s what the books we read and the movies we see are all about. Simply put, a character comes up against a problem, makes a decision on how to solve it, and in the process of trying to solve it, changes something in her life. The soul-deep, satisfying stories show the character as one way in the beginning, and changed in some way by the end.

Look at Laura Drake’s first published book (a Rita winner), The Sweet Spot. At the start of the story, literally in the first couple of paragraphs, we learn that her heroine, Charla Rae, has a problem with Valium that she uses to try to numb the pain of the tragic death of her son. Divorced and attempting to keep a bucking bull ranch from going under, the inexperienced Charla Rae faces one hurdle after the other. And you just know she still loves her philandering ex, but refuses to admit it to herself. I’m sure I’m not spoiling the story, cause this is a romance after all: Charla Rae gains a level of expertise on the ranch, faces her demons of grief and guilt, and rekindles love and romance with her ex. She is not the same girl she was at the beginning of the story. Soul deep and satisfying. I highly recommend it.

Another way to look at how characters change in stories is to consider – are you ready for it? – Transformers. Yes, those vehicle-robots in the movies and comic books. Take the autobot named Optimus Prime. In the movies, the identity he presents to the world is that of a red and black Peterbilt truck. Utilitarian, strong, solid, worker bee. But given the right motivation, he can rearrange all those Peterbilt parts to become the supreme ultimate, save-the-world hero of Optimus Prime. He always had, deep in his metallic essence, the soul of a hero. Maybe that was kind of a stretch, but it was fun to think about.

Identity to essence, to use the words of Michael Hauge, master story guru, describes a character’s arc from the beginning of the story (the identity she shows to the world) and her essence (who she really is revealed). The trials and tribulations she faces throughout the plot peel back the layers of her psyche to finally reveal who she really is.

Think about the major changes in your own life. Did you learn something from them? Did you find out you were a lot stronger than you thought you were? Weaker? What is your favorite keeper book? I bet one or more of the main characters went through a soul-deep character arc.

Let me leave you with this little nugget about change to think about, because deep in my essence, I’m an optimist:

Change comes bearing gifts.

by Barb DeLong

How’d I get the idea for this book? By Jill Jaynes

Jill Jaynes

So this is a little embarrassing.  The inspiration for my newest book, “Pirateless in the Caribbean,” was a ponytail. And it came from an ex-boyfriend who didn’t even have one.

He wasn’t an “ex” at the time, in 2013- he was quite current.

So, I was a couple of years out of a divorce and swimming along in the dating pool. I was taking a shot at couple-dom with a nice Jewish man I’d met. We circled each other warily when we weren’t giving into the excellent chemistry, trying to get a feel for all the places we might overlap comfortably while keeping an eye open for the land-mines on the borders of compromise.

Anyway, he was intrigued with my writing, not that he had any desire to write, but he had artistic creativity and he loved to brainstorm plot ideas. He was great fun to do this with, because he came at things from a completely different angle than I did.

In any case, I had shared with him my plan to write a series of stories about people who shared one common friend with a magical gift, and then each met the love of their life as a result. All the stories could be totally different from each other, in place and theme.

I don’t remember actually how he came up with the pirate idea, but as soon as he did, he declared the pirate must have a ponytail. And that was that. I don’t know what it was, maybe a wish-fulfillment fantasy of a man with thinning hair, but  he could not let that ponytail go.  I wasn’t even writing that story yet- I was still writing my first story and was immersed in swords and Historical European Martial Arts.

He hounded me about that ponytail for most of the five months we dated and I kept it in my closet of intriguing ideas, thinking that a modern day story about a pirate might call for a Caribbean vacation setting.  It was a good idea, a better one than the relationship as it turned out.

A few months after we broke up, a country song came on the radio that sparked that little ponytail into the full-fledged plot of my next story. Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane” was just the ticket – my heroine was going on a deluxe Caribbean vacation she did not want to take- no way, no how.

I set the ideas on “simmer” while I finished my other work in progress, letting a plot evolve that would put my unwilling character in a first class seat to meet the love of her life- a pirate.

I have no problem at all thanking my ex-Mr happily-for-now for the great idea. As another story-teller once reminded us, “Life is like a box of chocolates.” Dig in and enjoy.

I think it worked out rather well, but you can judge for yourself when “Pirateless in the Caribbean” goes up for sale on June 17th on Amazon and many other places ebooks are sold (you can pre-order on May 1st).

Creating My Worlds

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My sister and I at an Orange County Chapter of Romance Writers of America Meeting

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Our Writing Something Romantic Sisterhood

Someone once asked me how I create a world for whatever book I’m writing at the time. Since I write historical romance, you’d think the answer would be simple – research. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

While I do spend a considerable amount of effort studying the history of a particular time and place, I also must create fictional characters who have a backstory which shaped them. Every important character has a family. Fathers and mothers leave their imprint on their children, for good or bad. Brothers and sisters play an important part in each hero or heroine’s childhood. Qualities – positive or negative – instilled by parents or mentors become lifelong traits.

Let me give you an example.

In Promise Me, a story set in the Regency time period, Court Shelburne nearly loses the love of his life through his unreasoning jealousy. His lack of trust begins early on, when his mother is too involved with her current lover to return home to the bedside of her dying son – Court’s older brother. That traumatic event is the catalyst for everything that follows.

Now, I don’t start out by telling you, the reader, that’s why Court feels unworthy of love. Or why he’s so quick to believe that Philippa has betrayed him with his best friend. All we know for certain at the beginning of the story is that Court believes he holds the moral high ground – while at the same time he’s plotting his coldhearted revenge on his faithless wife.

However, things are not always what they seem.

When first creating a story, I ask myself: What secrets are they (hero and heroine) keeping from each other? These secrets often stem from incidents in their childhood.

But not always.

In Lachlan’s Bride, set in the reign of James IV of Scotland, Lady Francine is keeping a secret belonging not to herself, but to her sister, who’s died five years before the tale begins. Yet at the time of the story’s events, the concealment of the past becomes pivotal to the continued safety of Francine and her daughter.

Once again, I don’t tell the reader at the beginning of the romance that Francine is boldfaced lying to Lachlan MacRath (and everyone else).

But in the end, of course, all will be revealed.

Kathleen Harrington