Saturday, February 27, 2016

My Writing Process: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

beach, sand, people, umbrellas, blue, sky, sunshine, summer, ocean, sea, water, waves, shore, boatsIn my latest work in progress, I am working on a series of chapters in which the main characters, Harry, Dee, and Jenn, are at the Outer Banks on their first family vacation. In it, Jenn pushes Harry and Dee to investigate an odd incident in which they encounter a boy on the beach and then find out shortly after that the police are looking for him because he's been reported missing. The bigger picture goal of this portion of the story is to set up Jenn's interest in private investigation with the intention of spinning her off and giving her a series of her own in which she investigates crimes on campus when she goes away to college.

But it seemed a shame to simply leave it at that. Yes, the goal would be achieved, but as I initially wrote it, the scene in which they encountered a policeman on the beach was, to put it mildly, mundane. To put it more accurately, it was just plain dull. It was marking time. It was setting up something later, but in a really lackluster way.

beach, sand, footprints, guy, man, people, surfer, surfboard, summerYes, there is a place for the seemingly small, almost forgettable event becoming really significant later. There's a subtlety to it. But this scene wasn't designed to foreshadow something big later in the story (at least not when it comes to Jenn's amateur sleuthing career--but that's another post), so why not make the passage, I don't know, entertaining or something.

So I gave the cop a backstory. And not just any backstory. One that intersects with Harry's. He's an old college classmate. One that Harry didn't like much. Specifically, Wayne McGinnis was widely known as the campus hound dog, without many scruples when it came to whether a pretty girl was attached or not. And when he shows a little more interest in Dee than Harry finds appropriate, things get a little tense. And when the completely-without-guile Dee invites him to dinner, they get really tense.

Is it a coincidence that, in the midst of an ongoing investigation back home into the murder and mutilation of several men who were known to be cheating on their wives, the Shalans run into a person from Harry's past? What do you think? Just like in detective work, there are no coincidences in detective fiction. So why has McGinnis shown up? What's his connection to the case back in Parkersburg? I guess you'll have to wait a few months until the book debuts and find out for yourself.
police car, sirens, lights, cop, crime, driving, speeding, road
So when I moved from a generic, have-you-seen-this-boy cop to an actual three-dimensional character who becomes a meaningful part of the larger narrative, the scenes moved from humdrum to compelling. And now instead of just furthering the plot and establishing information for later in the book and even for other books down the road, these chapters take on an added dimension of intrigue and interest. Intrigue and interest are almost always a good thing.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

My Writing Process: Reaching Critical Mass

chimney, smoke, power plant, industrial, night, sky, dark, evening
It's happened with every book I've written, and now that I'm working on number four, I feel like I can say every book. I'm beyond a trilogy into a series. But what am I talking about? Reaching critical mass.

What is critical mass? According to, the term has its origins in physics: the amount of a given fissionable material necessary to sustain a chain reaction at a constant rate. In other words, once you reach critical mass, the reaction is self-sustaining. It doesn't need any more fuel. It basically runs on its own without any outside interference.

book, reading, learning, study, educationBooks reach critical mass. Books I'm reading and books I'm writing. Or at least I hope a book I'm reading does. I've read stories that ran out of gas partway there. I usually finished them anyway because, well, that's what I do. But a great book has a point at which something happens. An event, a change, a major revelation--something. At that point, the reaction between reader and book is self-sustaining and I better hope I don't have any pressing engagements because I'm going to jettison everything I can in order to keep reading until the end.

I've found that the same thing happens as a writer. It's not always at the same point in the story, but somewhere along the lines, I get captured in the interplay of the characters and the ball starts rolling toward the conclusion and I neither can nor want to stop it. I'm at that point in my new Shalan adventure. I'd been tinkering with it and making some small progress in figuring out the arc to the finish. But something just seemed to be missing.

laptop, computer, business, technology, keyboard, office, desk, workThen a couple days ago, I went back and looked for what it was that was off. I realized there was a gaping hole in the plot that made Harry's journey back to wholeness ring false. It was too easy. He was broken and then, almost overnight, he was better. It just didn't feel right. So I set about filling the hole. In the process I created a new character who will help lead him out of his personal abyss. This new relationship will add a depth of resonance to the story that just wasn't there. It makes all the difference.  

Now that this plot element is clearing up, I'm ready to finish the book. I now have all the players in place. As a result, as opposed to how it is before I reach this point in the writing and sometimes have to talk myself into sitting down to write, now I look at my daily schedule as things I have to get out of the way (kind of like this blog post) in order to have time to write. And that's how I'll be until I get the rough draft finished, at which point I'll be able to take a few days to step away before going back to work on draft #2.

But until then, if you're my friend in real life, just be prepared for me to be making excuses when you invite me to do something. I'm sorry, but I can't--I'm busy writing.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Gifts Ungiven, Finale

Here you are folks, the third and final installment in my short story, "Gifts Ungiven." If you're completely new to this blog, you might want to back up and read parts one and two. Otherwise, this post will probably make no sense whatever, kind of like turning on the TV to a movie you've never seen with thirty minutes left in it. Except, unlike regular TV, there are no commercial interruptions. But in case that's just too much work, here's a thumbnail sketch of the story so far: Evan, an awkward middle school boy, tries, but fails, to give a Christmas gift to the girl on whom he has a crush. As a result, his life takes on a pattern of safety. He marries a woman he doesn't really love, but who seems to fit, and takes a job that pays well, but isn't what he really wants to do. Then he gets an invitation to his 25th class reunion and decides to go in the hopes of at least seeing Renee, the woman he wished he'd had the courage to reach out to all those years before. What happens at the reunion? Read on to find out.

gifts, presents, christmas, bow, ribbon, silver, red

He was greeted by Deb, who had been the president of their class as well as the head cheerleader. He was amazed to find she’d barely aged. He wasn’t sure if it was amazing genes or remarkable plastic surgery. Probably both. He wandered toward the bar to get a drink, stopping to say hello to a couple of guys he’d known from choir.
He turned, drink in hand and looked at the crowd. Many faces looked vaguely familiar, like people he knew who’d been put in makeup to look older. He wondered at how quickly 25 years had passed. And at how little those 25 years had meant. As he said hello to former classmates, he wondered if everyone in this room had led such safe, empty lives. He’d lived a good life. He’d made lots of money. He didn’t love his wife, but they were friends. Well, sort of. He treated her well and she reciprocated. He gave to charity. He went to church.
Before he could ask himself the question he wanted to avoid, his mind was brought to a halt. There she was, seemingly having been frozen in time. Her eyes still sparkled. Her smile still took his breath away. Even her signature ponytail was still there. The only addition was the ruggedly handsome man at her side, his hand on the small of her back. He was taller than she and they were clearly a couple. She nuzzled back against his chest and they shared a smiling whisper followed by a gentle kiss. But then, to his great surprise, she locked eyes with him. She smiled even more broadly and waved. He shyly waved back. She leaned in and whispered something to her husband. He smiled and nodded. They made their way across the ever-more-crowded dance floor to the bar.
“Evan,” she said, hugging him warmly. “I’m so glad you came. I was excited when Deb told me your reply card came in.”
“Me too. Thanks. And who’s this handsome guy?”
“Evan, this is my husband Derek. Derek, one of my oldest and dearest friends, Evan Wilson.”
“Glad to finally meet you, Evan,” said her husband. “Renee talks about you all the time.”
“Wow, really? Even after all these years? What’s to talk about?”
disco ball, lights, dancing, nightclub, dark“Oh, it’s always some funny comment you made in class or some goofy thing you did on senior day or how you were always such a good friend.”
Evan was genuinely gob smacked. He had no idea he’d had such an impact on anyone’s life, much less hers. He was, as he’d seemingly been when around her all through school, rendered speechless. Finally, he managed something feeble about being the class clown.
“Well, we’re going to have a dance,” said Renee. “Save one for me, Evan?”
And with that, they were on the dance floor. It was a disco song that had been big when they graduated, but they deftly did some ballroom dance, the name of which escaped him. She was light on her feet and they moved effortlessly together. They were synchronized. They were happy. He was hollow.
Not really a drinker, he uncharacteristically ordered a second martini and found a table in a quiet corner, away from the crowd. The first had tasted like gasoline, but he was getting used to it. He found if he sipped and swallowed quickly, it wasn’t so bad. As he managed to put away the last few drops and put his glass on the table, he looked around. He wasn’t drunk, but the room was taking on a shimmer.
A slow song started. “Well,” said Renee, who had somehow magically appeared by his side. “How about that dance?” She held out her hand. He automatically took it, following her to the dance floor. She put her hands around his neck. As he placed his hands on her waist, he wondered how long a human being could survive without oxygen.
“So,” she said, “how’ve you been?”
“Okay. You look happy.”
“Yes. Derek’s great. My kids are great.”
She had kids. He’d always wanted kids, but he and his wife just never seemed to get around to it. “How old?”
“Derek Junior is twelve, Camille is nine.”
“Boy and a girl. Matched set.”
“They fight like cats and dogs, but they love each other.”
“That’s great.”
They danced a little in silence. He had nothing to tell her about his life. “Where’d you meet Derek?” he finally asked.
“Can I make a confession?”
“I’ve just always felt like I need to tell you this for some reason. I’m not sure why.”
martini, drink, alcoholHe wondered what she could possibly need to confess, but he nodded to let her know it was okay to go on.
“I had the biggest crush on you all through junior high and high school. I always hoped you’d ask me out. I had a feeling you liked me too, but I was too shy to say anything.”
His brain swirled; his stomach lurched. She—she, had liked him?! Between the alcohol and the sheer shock, he was pretty sure he was going to pass out.
“Evan? Evan? Are you okay?”
Her face grew fuzzy and disappeared, only to be replaced by that of Mr. Beck. What was Mr. Beck doing here? And where was here? It looked familiar, like a place he’d been a million times, but long, long ago.
“You really need to give her that present.”
He looked around. It was eighth grade. Fourth period had just ended. He could still hear the echo of her lilting laughter fading down the corridor.
“Renee!” he shouted, bolting out the door, gift in hand. She turned when she heard him call out, her face puzzled, but congenial. A smile danced across her lips as she saw the gift he held out in front of him.
 “Wait! I have something for you. And—and I need to ask you a question.”
shoeprint, footprint, snow, ground, winter, cold
If you want to read more of Evan and Renee's story, check out soon. Part one of my next story will be there any day now. In it, Evan takes Renee for her first ever sled ride, and it doesn't turn out exactly as planned.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Post for Writing Wranglers and Warriors: Today is National What?

In case you're new to my blog, I am also a contributor to a blog group called Writing Wranglers and Warriors. It's a collection of writers from all over the country. We take turns posting about anything and everything. Sometimes it's author-y type things, but it's just as often whatever we find interesting in general. For my post on Wednesday, February 10, I made what I've recently learned is a listicle (list-article hybrid) on observances (some important, some less so) that take place on this day, week, and month.

Click here to read it on Writing Wranglers and Warriors.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Gifts Ungiven, Part 2

Here is part two of my short story, "Gifts Ungiven." In this episode, so to speak, we find out just who it is that has encouraged the protagonist, Evan, to give his gift to Renee, the girl of his dreams. And we also find out if he actually does give her the present and the results of his decision. If you want to go back and read the beginning of the story, simply scroll down to last week's post first.

“Oh, Mr. Beck. Didn’t know you were here.”
“I noticed.” He straightened papers on his desk. “I hope you’ll give her the present you have in your left coat pocket before it’s ruined and you fail science. You’re okay and all, but I’m not interested in having you again next year.” Sitting at his desk, he opened the bottom left drawer, retrieving a brown paper grocery bag, from which he pulled two sandwiches, an apple, and a foil-wrapped can of Tab.
“I don’t—I mean—how did you know?”
“Be a fool not to. I’ve seen you start to give it to her every day since December first. The only mystery is how she doesn’t know. If she doesn’t.”
Not sure his legs would keep him upright, Evan flopped back in his chair. “You think she knows?”
“She’s a girl. Who knows what they know?”
“What if she won’t take it?”
“The sun will rise tomorrow.”
But at that moment, he knew he would never give her the gift. He was just too big a coward. His eyes burned and he wished he wasn’t a boy so he could cry, but he was so he couldn’t. That night, he took the present from his coat and tossed it under his bed to join its compatriot.
The next year, she was dating a new kid, so he didn’t have to bother buying a gift to not give her. He didn’t want to hate the guy as he walked around the halls with his fingers entwined in hers, long and slender. It wasn’t this guy’s fault. But he hated him anyway. He wanted to punch him in his smug little mouth.
High school was not much better, for him at least. Renee remained his friend throughout, though she dated other guys. He pined over her to his best friend regularly, complaining every time she started seeing a new guy.
“I know,” said his best friend Joey as they walked into theater class one day. “How can she do this to you, when she has no idea how you feel?”
“Shut up.”
“Let me talk to her.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why not?”
“That’s no better than giving her a note asking if she likes me, check yes or no.”
“Well, at least you’d know if you did that. You’ve been sulking over her since seventh grade.”
“What if she says no?”
“Like Mr. Beck always said, the sun will rise tomorrow. Life goes on. You find some other girl to whine to me about.”
But that was just it. Maybe life wouldn’t go on. As long as he never asked, she could never turn him down. And if she never turned him down, the chance was still there. His brain told him this made no sense at all, but his pathetic, romantic heart always won the argument.
engagement, ring, marriage, couple, love, romance, people, woman, man, kissingThe summer after his freshman year in college, he met a girl. She wasn’t Renee, but she was pretty and talented and, best of all, she was forward enough to ask him out. So they started dating. The Christmas of their senior year, he popped the question. It was kind of just a formality. They’d shopped for rings together. She didn’t trust him to pick out one she would like. She was probably right. The one she liked was nothing like he would have picked out for her. This made him wonder if he really knew her.
He was pretty sure he didn’t really love her, but they made sense. He liked her. They got along and liked a lot of the same things. Frankly, they’d been together in every sense of the word almost since their first date, so they were essentially married anyway. Why not make it legal? Especially since they’d had a few pregnancy scares.
So they married the summer after they graduated college and they moved to the next town, where she took a job in a bank and he went to graduate school. They stayed there after school when he was offered a lucrative job with a prominent advertising firm. She took a better position with another bank just a block away from his office. They commuted together every morning and every evening. It was comfortable. It was nice. It was boring, but where, outside of romance novels, is it said that marriage is supposed to be all fireworks? A firecracker or two would be nice, though.
They had their work, which paid well, so they had a nice big house in the suburbs with plenty of room for her to have a music studio. She’d dreamed of going to Nashville, but banking paid better. He also had an office, where, when he wasn’t working on an ad campaign, he wrote plays. No one ever saw them, but he must have written dozens.
And, after a few years, it just got easier to have separate rooms. He was a morning person and was always up hours before she was and it always irritated him when she came to bed and woke him up at night, so a room for each just made sense didn’t it? If they wanted to make love, one of them could go to the other’s room and then go back for sleeping. In theory, at least. It seemed neither was very interested anymore.
One day in his 42nd year, he stopped at the mailbox before going into the house after work. Among the bills and junk mail was a letter from his hometown. The name on the return address sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place it. He opened it to find an invitation to his 25th class reunion. He hadn’t been to one since he graduated. His wife had gone to a different school and they didn’t live there anymore, so there seemed no need. He’d essentially left that life behind. Especially after his parents died, there just seemed no reason to go back home.
mailbox, steamBut something made him check the yes box on the response card. He wasn’t sure he would really go, but maybe he would. For reasons he couldn’t explain, even to himself, he kept the card a secret from his wife. The next morning he told her he was going to look for something in the car before they left for work. He wasn’t even sure she heard, but he took his keys out as if to get in the car in case she had. But instead, he walked to the end of the drive and put the card in the mailbox, lifting the flag so the mailman would know to pick it up.
Weeks passed. He couldn’t put the reunion out of his head. He tried to tell himself it wasn’t because of Renee, but down deep he knew the truth. Finally, he decided that, if for no other reason than that he could quit worrying himself over it, he would go. But how to go without having to take his wife? He didn’t want to lie to her. He didn’t love her, but she didn’t deserve dishonesty. He finally decided there was nothing for it but to tell her.
“I’m thinking of going to my 25th high school reunion,” he said one day over breakfast.
“Do I have to go?” she asked over the Wall Street News.
“No, I don’t suppose.”
“You sure you don’t mind?”
“Yes, it’s okay.”
So the problem was solved for him. Finally, the time for the reunion came. He was more excited than he thought was probably appropriate, so he did his best to keep it from her as he packed for the trip. He kissed her on the cheek and climbed in the car for the two-hour drive to his old hometown.
hotel room, bed, pillows, frames, decor, furniture, curtains, laps, window, tv, televisionHe’d made reservations in a nice historic hotel in downtown, one he’d never even been able to afford even to eat in while he lived there, let alone spend the weekend. It was as nice as he’d always imagined. He unpacked, showered, and got dressed for the first event of the reunion, a mixer and dance at a local country club. As he shaved and combed his hair in front of the bathroom mirror, he wondered if she would even be there. Was she married? Was she thinking about him? It dawned on him that this was a dramatic event only in his mind. She never loved him. She never even knew he loved her. To her, they were just pals. He almost talked himself out of going, but decided he’d come this far, so he just needed to see it through.

Does Evan see Renee at the reunion? Find out next week in the thrilling conclusion of "Gifts Ungiven."