Seven Things I learned at Write by the Lake Workshop and Retreat

Revision is Hard!

Everyone who writes must revise. It is a universal problem we writers have that we can’t see the errors in our writing or we are so involved in our writing we can’t see when we aren’t saying what we think we are saying. That is why I signed up for a conference in Madison, Wisconsin, last week called Write by the Lake. I’m FINALLY finished writing my book and knew it was time to revise it, but I had no idea where to begin.

I applied to be in Christine Desmet’s master class called Finish, Polish, Publish—Mainstream, Literary, Genre novels. Best decision I ever made. Not only did I meet other writers who were in the same position of revising their pages, but we also were at the same stage of our writing journey and understood the struggles each other faced in the revision process. I never realized how critical that understanding was until this week. All of us were writing different books and fleshing out different genres, but we were tackling the same basic elements in our writing. So here is what I’m working on for the rest of the summer!

What I Learned About Revising My Book

  1. Make Setting Vivid: My setting needed to be almost another character because the book hinges around saving Winterhaven, my main character’s home. I had description in there, but it wasn’t full and lush. I am working on adding more setting details to my book so readers experience the setting with all their senses. I want them to know it as well as they know the characters in my book.
  2. My villain must be in the action throughout the book: My villain is baaad, really baaad. I need to give him more time on the pages so readers can see all aspects of his character, even his tender side. He also must be more involved in the trouble my main character faces. I want him to be a well-rounded character, and I want him to be human rather than a cartoon villain. I’m working on all that.
  3. Backloading: I have learned about this term before, but it didn’t really sink in until this week! I think I must be thick or hadn’t reached the point where backloading mattered. Anyway, I am trying to end my sentences and paragraphs with a “loaded” word. For instance, when I am describing the house in my book on the opening page, I say this: “Deep green ivy crept up the red bricks and into the cracks between the windows and under the eaves where the lead flashing had been removed to make bullets for Confederate guns.” I ended with “guns.” That’s backloading, ending sentences or paragraphs with strong words to add emphasis and psychological impact.
  4. Hooking my reader: This is a tough one, but I’m working on it. To hook the reader, the writer must end the scene or the chapter at a suspenseful or dramatic point. The writer must make the reader want to read on. For example, I originally ended my first scene with this line: “He tipped his hat to her, his expression smug, then cantered back down the sand drive toward River Road.” Bleh!!!! I revised it this way: “I’ll go, Thomas, but this isn’t over.” Much better!
  5. Clear the Clutter: Writing is ALL about voice, and voice is a tough nut to crack. One of the ways to improve your voice is to cut the clutter words from your writing. Words like felt, so, then, smiled, half-smiled, turns, slowly, walked, said, replied, thought, wondered, seems, just. The list goes on. I wasn’t even aware I was using some of these words until my classmates circled them! Do searches for words like this you haven’t even noticed you overused. I bet you’ll be surprised! I was. There’s a lot more to clutter than this, but if you do a Google search for cutting clutter from writing, you’ll have many articles to choose from which help with the concept.
  6. Objects: Make sure the objects you introduce in your book have significance. I introduced a bracelet in my book, but I realized it has no significance. I’ll write it out of my book, but later (about half way) in the story I introduce a handkerchief that my main character embroidered as a child. On her wedding day her nanny gives her the handkerchief back. It comes to represent my main character’s struggles and her home and the people who believe in her, and I need to play up its significance in the story.
  7. Endings: Beginning your book at the right place is important as everyone knows, but ending it at the right point is also important. My book’s last scene is very dramatic: it’s a shootout in which the bad guy is shot, but so is the heroine. OH, NO! Oh, yes. I don’t have enough of a resolution at the end to satisfy readers. Those who read it wanted to know more about the lives of the people who were involved in the story, so I need an epilogue. Christine suggested a point a couple of years from the last scene for the epilogue, so I need to write a bit more for my characters at a future date to complete my story. I’m working on that as well.

Attend a Writing Conference

If you are a writer serious about your craft and haven’t attended a writing conference before, I urge you to sign up for one as soon as possible, preferably one of the UW Madison Continuing Studies conferences like I did. I’m partial to those. I found my voice there. Here’s the link. http://continuingstudies.wisc.edu/lsa/writing/wbtl/index.html  Christine Desmet is an awesome teacher and writer as are Laurie Scheer and Bridget Birdsall, the other members of the staff there. They are all published writers. In fact, Christine just signed a three book deal! Her first book of the three comes out in September. They are cozy mysteries set in Door County, Wisconsin, the Cape Cod of the Midwest. Here’s her website if you’d like to keep up with her release dates and any other news she might share! http://christinedesmet.wordpress.com/

Attend a writing conference at least once. I promise you will be inspired and energized afterwards.You will take your writing to the next level and spend quality time with wonderful people who think the way you do. Feeling like you’re among your own people is invaluable!

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Leading With Values

I was checking my email today after being away from home for a week without my computer and ran across a suggestion from Twitter to follow Geoff Talbot. When I looked him up, I found his wonderful blog called Seven Sentences: Daily Inspiration for Creative People. His blog appeals to me for a couple of reasons. First, most of his posts are only seven sentences long, not a lot of time lost reading on a busy day, and second, I learn something when I read his posts. The post I read today made me think about something that has been bothering me.

He said, “It is the curse of our times that we are led so frequently by our emotions and that we lead so infrequently with our values.” You can read the whole post here: http://sevensentences.com/2013/06/06/be-of-good-character/

I agree with him. I think we react with our emotions often without thinking, and I think the media has caught on and exploit people in the midst of their emotions. If you’ve ever been in a difficult situation, you know you need some privacy to sort things out, to figure out what you think and process what happened according to your values so that you can make sense of the situation. You do not need someone to shove a microphone in your face and record for the world your “reaction” to an event.

In our Youtube generation and digital age, I think people don’t value their privacy, and that’s a shame. In fact, I think people have abandoned values and principles as old-fashioned and outdated. Our society seems to value “emotion” more than it does thoughtful reasoning or prayerfully considered action.

Think back to nearly any tragedy covered in the news. When disaster strikes as in the tornados in Moore, Oklahoma, the media traversed the area to document the “emotion” and “reactions” of the survivors while they were still raw and incredibly vulnerable. What they found with most of the people there, however, was that their emotion was apparent (How could it not be?) but most of the people they interviewed were governed by a solid foundation in their faith. They knew, because they had faith, that God would help them recover from the destruction all around them. They generally didn’t bemoan their condition, they didn’t declare themselves victims, and they had compassion for those who were in worse shape than they were at that moment. In fact, it seemed to me that the media were a bit nonplussed at the lack of “emotion” they were able to exploit!

This documenting people’s emotions and reactions to an event has become the norm for the media, an exploitation of people which to me is troubling. What troubles me further is the willingness of most people to allow such an intrusion in their lives. The media ask questions of vulnerable people trying to get them to bare their souls to increase ratings on national TV. They ask prying, inconsiderate questions designed to elicit tears. And when the person they are interviewing succumbs to tears on camera, the media zooms in for a close up and reacts with a voyeuristic glee that they were able to push someone to cry on TV. What would we call someone who did this outside of the media? Think about that for a minute. Would you allow someone to question your family or your best friend in such a way? And yet, the media continue to do it. I find prying into the lives and privacy of people who have experienced tragedy absolutely appalling. When did reaction and emotion become news anyway?

As for the news anchors who adopt a sad face in any tragedy and say their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims? Well, forgive me if I’m skeptical, but I wonder if these people actually do pray. What they do in their broadcasts nightly is cover and, in fact, support the destruction of Christian principles and values in our country for the sake of political correctness. What they do is malign those who publicly espouse their Christianity. Do you doubt that? Just take a look at Tim Tebow, for example.  I believe the media do their best to promote and support policies that run counter to the traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and values that have been the underpinnings of our society for two hundred years.

So yes, I believe what Geoff Talbot says. I don’t know if he would support what his words inspired in this post, but I think it’s still incredibly important that we who do hold our values highly and try to live our lives according to them defend our stance and continue to assert our way of thinking. It is quickly disappearing. We are being cowed into submission. Daily we see ourselves being labeled as divisive, bigoted, small-minded, and non-inclusive. I could go on, but I think you understand what I mean.  We should all try to think through our emotions before we become fodder for the news media. And we should lead with our values.

A Magical Moment

Often I find living so far from my family difficult. Southerners are not a roaming people, at least they don’t travel up north very often. So I have been the one to make trips back and forth to see my family. One very important trip, however, was one I didn’t make in time. I didn’t make it home to see my daddy before he died. Many father’s days have come and gone since then, but I never forget him or how much I loved him. And I will always regret not being with him when he passed away into God’s hands. But God, I’m sure at my father’s insistence, granted me one blessing: he allowed my daddy to communicate with me after he passed away.

After my daddy died, I felt his presence near me several times but mostly in dreams or some dreamlike state in which consciousness floats just out of reach but sleep recedes. The last time I had one of those episodes, I woke with a terrible longing, missing my dad like he had only just passed.

Though we had disagreements regularly before he took ill, we seemed to have made our peace in the last couple of years of his life. We talked often on the phone and shared a love of conservative politics and good Southern food, especially peaches and barbeque. We exchanged recipes, and I treasure those, especially his barbeque sauce recipe. That one I can only make here in Wisconsin in warm weather because I have to open windows so the vinegar doesn’t sear our sinuses.

The other loves we shared were animals and gardening. I’m so thankful he was around when my two beloved cats died within a week of each other at age 16. He knew how I felt and, though he couldn’t hold me across the miles, his love transmitted itself through the phone lines in that soft Southern drawl of his. He was my daddy; I needed him, and he was there.

Daddy was a doctor, a healer and a nurturer when he obeyed his better instincts. He was also an animal lover and a gardener. He fed hummingbirds from numerous feeders on his deck at his house on Lake Sinclair and would name the different varieties. He especially loved the ruby throated ones. He grew azaleas, hostas, hollyhocks, and daisies among other flowers at his house and even sent me some of his hardier perennials which I grew in my gardens at our old house.

It was in that garden amongst his flowers when I experienced a magical moment. After waking from a disturbingly realistic dream about my dad not wanting to die but being called to heaven anyway, I felt as though I had lost him all over again. Knowing I wouldn’t go back to sleep, I rose to find it was already almost six o’clock, nearly full light. I put on my scarlet bathrobe and shearling slippers then headed down the hallway to the stairs.

I turned to grab the hand rail to go down, but my foot slipped and I missed the step bumping down the first three or four stairs on my rear end. Upset as I was by the dream, I started to cry because the fall had scared me and it hurt. Prairie Dawn, my chocolate Lab, came to investigate, consoling me by licking my face, so I decided to let her out for her morning turn about the yard. I sat on the front porch steps feeling sorry for myself. I missed Daddy horribly and put my head on my knees.

Over my sniffles I heard a humming noise, low at first but getting louder. I looked up to see an iridescent blue hummingbird with very dark eyes flitting from one flower to the next up the curved walkway toward me. I sat very still. It came closer until he hovered within a foot of my face. He hovered there looking at me, and I was overcome with the feeling that Daddy was trying to communicate with me, to tell me not to grieve, that he was okay. As soon as that thought entered my mind, the hummingbird flew away without stopping at a single flower.

I stared after it and felt such a rush of love and peaceful gratitude, like God’s hand had reached out and touched my heart. For a moment time stopped; the sun shone golden through the crisp September air and lit the purple flowers of the hostas and set the purple cone flowers aglow. Just as suddenly, the spell was broken. Prairie Dawn jumped up the steps of the porch and ambled over to me. The world was with me again.

I thank God for the moment he granted me, the peace he allowed me to feel knowing my daddy was safely with him. I couldn’t be with my daddy when he died and I have always felt I should have been. But at that moment I knew Daddy didn’t mind. He knew I loved him, and God allowed him to remind me just how much he loved me. I know I’ll never stop missing him. He and I were connected through life, through some mystical quality that manifests itself through heredity, through blood, eye color, particular gestures. We were connected spiritually through love, through God and His tender mercies.

God allows us to remember the good things about our loved ones when they die, and the bad just don’t seem to matter. I believe what remains of a person when they die is pure love, the essence of God which we discover quite by accident and which blesses us and renews us, a benediction and a promise of paradise, that mystical other world of which we can only dream.