January: A Prompt in Itself

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Prompt Others; Prompt Myself

I first used the word “prompt” when teaching high school English as an educational tool for students to jumpstart their individualized, brainstorm-like induced stories.

“I remember….” is an often-used prompt for fiction and nonfiction.

A photo of a man standing by a human-made wooden structure with artificial eagles perched by a real eagle’s nest is a visual prompt.

After I left the classroom and pursued my own writing, I joined a newly-formed writers’ group with two former students. I made the third and was happy to follow their rules of organization. We met every Monday at Tim Horton’s. We came with copies, read our work aloud and offered verbal comments.

The final act of every gathering was my favorite. Each of us received a small strip of paper on which to write a prompt right on the spot. We placed it in one of the writer’s fedoras and picked a prompt that wasn’t our own.

The following Monday, we shared the story coming out of the prompt in addition to anything else we’d written.

Just Because I Taught English

Just because I taught writing and wanted to write a novel, I wasn’t exactly schooled in how to accomplish 70,000+ words of engaging fiction.

Short stories were practices in creating beginning-middle-ends, in characterization, in dialogue and narration and in showing description.

I’d take my writers’ group chosen prompt and spend a week on it and have a full story completed by Monday.

After nine months, the group broke up, but I came away with a portfolio of several short stories in various stages of polish. Over the years, I’ve gone back to that file and tinkered with some and submitted some.

A Prompt From Anywhere

Out my window, a dingy white car with a noisy muffler makes its second of a minimum of three daily stops next door. My neighbor is an elderly woman and the mother of the daughter driving up the driveway to check on her.

Or is she?

Prompts come from anywhere and everywhere. As seeds, they bloom stories and stories and stories.

It’s January.

The first month of the year prompts us to make resolutions to rededicate our energies toward specific goals.

I am prompted to exceed my number of accepted story submissions.

Many good memories remain of that early writers’ trio. One of the most significant is realizing the power in the prompt.

I am never without story ideas. And if I get stuck somewhere along a story line, I look around me in hope of a prompt to lead me forward.

“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”  ~Orson Scott Card

 

 

 

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Open Letter of Thanks and Gratitude

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      A Simple Reading Request.

I was asked if I would read a few of my short stories to the members of a local philanthropic chapter. I was delighted.

The chapter is part of the P.E.O, a philanthropic organization founded by seven students in 1869. Today the membership numbers nearly a quarter of a million chapters in the United States and Canada.

Their motto: Women Helping Women Reach for the Stars.

This local group raised money that morning by auctioning off lunches made by each member. The funds build their scholarship program for high school senior girls.

While they ate, I read. They laughed at the funny parts, nodded in the right places and clapped when I was done.

They gave me a thank you note, a gift card and my own lunch. Later I ate chicken salad, fruit soup, mango juice, granola bar and candy in a small, round apple basket.

A Greater Sense of Gratitude.

Today, my written note of thanks was awash in gratitude as I realized how much I need, we need, this PEO chapter of women and all those like it.

More Than a Note of Thanks.

Dear Nancy and Your Friends in P.E.O.:

Please accept my gratitude for giving me an opportunity to share my stories with you.

Getting published is a far more challenging endeavor than in the past, and there are moments when I believe being a taxi cab driver in NYC would be easier.

But putting together the right words in the best place and provoking emotion from a listener is incentive enough to keep working at it.

Nancy and her daughter are perfect hostesses. It didn’t take long to gobble up my special lunch basket, and I think I’ve found a new taste for fruit soup. Your other gifts of thanks were also welcomed.

We’re all hurting.

The world, our country, this city are hurting in many visible and invisible ways. The balance to heal those difficulties comes, in part, from your optimism and effort. 

Thank you for your energy and time.

May your year find you in good health and much joy.

Sincerely.

 

Finalizing the Final Draft

IMG_0412The final draft of my first (as yet to be published) novel is done. Or is it? If you are a future debut novelist, you know how vague the term “final draft” can be when it applies to your own work. Or at least, to mine.

Learning the Craft of the Draft

I hope not to embarrass myself by saying I’ve been writing this mermaid novel for at least four years. [Being Mermaid: From Out of the Sea]  The journey has included taking workshops, seminars, a webinar or two, having conversations with writers and reading or scanning lots and lots of books, blogs and magazines.

In spite of all the information, my early writing felt like a crazy, all-over-the-place groping for meaning and the only way I could go in order to A) learn the fiction writing process and B) get the novel done.

Was it the right thing to do?

Between Draft and Manuscript

Sara Megibow, an agent with KT Literary, spoke at a conference session entitled “Biggest Mistakes” that writers make when pitching or querying a work. In my paraphrasing, one of her reasons for not being interested is the work’s incompleteness. She said, “You’re at draft only. Your manuscript isn’t ready.”

The year was 2013 and I was preparing to pitch my completed manuscript, or was I?

The Early Draft

“A Four-Step Plan for Revision” by Raymond Obstfeld In The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing (Writer’s Digest Books. 2002) elaborates on draft distinctions:

“Early drafts lay down the basic story and characters while the final drafts fine-tune what’s already there.”

As I was writing this post, an article on my favorite blogger’s site, Jane Friedman, popped up. “How to Finish Your Book in Three Drafts” is great material and great timing by Stuart Horwitz who calls “the first draft the ‘messy draft,’ which is all about getting it [the story] down .”

I was definitely messy as I wrote, rewrote, ditched, scratched out a section of, scratched out a lot of sections of, returned old material to and started all over again.

The Final Draft

When the beta readers had done their work, I revised again and again.

At last, my final draft was done, the one Stuart Horwitz calls the “polished draft,” which [had been] all about making the story “good.”

I was ready to query and pitch my manuscript.

When the Story Goes Nowhere

My mermaid novel received mild interest.

One queried agent asked for the whole book after reading the first fifty pages before it was rejected. Another agent was excited about my pitch but later turned down the novel. An editor said it wouldn’t get past “acquisitions.”

I knew I was getting close but also felt something may still be lacking. Perhaps, as Sara Megibow had told a large audience of writers that year, the error may be in my thinking the novel was a manuscript when it remained a draft.

Final Draft as Plural

I was back at the books, blogs, workshops, etc., to seek an end to my story. To stamp FINAL on the final draft.

Raymond Obstfeld said, “Although the phrase ‘final draft’ suggests the last time you’ll revise, that really isn’t the case. Final draft really refers to the final process of revising.”

Seek Professional Help

A professional editor is currently reviewing my mermaid novel as the journey continues.

Afterward, I will be back at it again. This time will be the final, final draft.

Thank goodness, I really believe in my mermaid novel and will do all I can to learn how to tell her story most effectively.

 

“Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then, when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity, edit one more time!”  ~C.K. Webb

 

 

 

 

Where Will She Sit on the Shelf?

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I’ve sat in on enough writing sessions facilitated by writers, agents, editors and other workers in the publishing industry to know that if my book doesn’t conform to market standards, good luck on getting it published.

Today’s post is on meeting that challenge and moving forward.

Maybe a Story Really Does Tell Itself

My original intention when I began telling my mermaid story was for it to be a romance. A beautiful fishlike young woman washes ashore where a beautiful young man discovers her and along the way love arrives.

The story didn’t unfold as I’d planned.

My mermaid remains a young female but her story focuses on her journey toward the realization of who she is and where she belongs in the ocean world.

A young man is a part of her narrative, along with issues of ocean pollution and extinction and motherhood and love.

Genre Dilemma

My novel is complete. But what kind of novel is it?

Paranormal?

Romance?

Contemporary?

Women’s Fiction?

Adult Mainstream?

All of the above?

None of the above?

I can’t imagine anything worse than a story being refused because the marketing department has no idea how to advertise it and the bookstores have no idea where to shelve it.

What do I do?

Change the story?

Keep the story?

Forget the story?

Advice from Experts

I expressed my dilemma with book editor, Rebecca Heyman. Her response was a recommendation to read three novels. One is Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

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Erin Morgenstern’s story doesn’t fit a standard type; it’s fantasy, romance, maybe even steampunk.

No spoilers here: In Night Circus, two old competitive peers, artists in magic and illusion, pit their apprentices against each other for an eventual showdown.

The story itself is magic. It enchanted me with its vivid details, compelling storytelling and mystical tone.

The structure of the story is also as unique as the tale itself.

Have readers found this strange, unusual novel in their bookstores, real or digitalized?

They certainly have.

Forging Ahead

My focus now isn’t on whether or not there’s a specific shelf for my mermaid novel but on how compelling and memorable my story is for the audience who will read it one day.

 

Earth Day. Ocean Day.

DSCN0146Today’s post honors Earth Day.

I doubt I can say anything new to the discussion of the need for people to be better stewards of the Earth.

In my research of the ocean in hope of creating an authentic feel to where my mermaid characters live, I’ve understood how beautiful the sea is and how endangered it’s become–more than I imagined.

I do what I can to aid those with power, money and connections who work toward a more pristine sea, purer air, cleaner soil. May their service continue and their successes be many.

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”  ~Rachel Carson

 

 

 

Being Mermaid: Manatee Born

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I’ve written a yet-to-be-published novel about a mermaid in today’s ocean whose story is as much about being a woman as it is about being a mermaid, maybe more. Being Mermaid: Creating Story

I’ve spoken about worldbuilding in previous “Being Mermaid” posts. Today’s focus is about the mermaid herself.

Characterization

Characterization is an element of the writing craft referring to the description of the characters in a story, which can encompass a wide range of personality traits, actions, looks. My mermaid character needed to be as plausible as possible, so I went looking for researched facts and my imagination to develop this half-fish, half-human creature.

Mermaid as Manatee

As legends go, sailors on the old wooden ships declared they’d seen mermaids, and in some stories they’d said they were sung to and lured into the sea, whereupon these mermaids would attempt to drown them. Such deadly woman-fishlike creatures were also called Sirens in mythology Being Mermaid: From Out of the Sea

Have you ever seen a manatee? Hard to imagine anyone, except maybe a sailor who’d been on the sea for months and months, could mistake a manatee for a mermaid.

Yet, there had to be something to the stories, and the legends were where I sarted to develop the background character of my mermaid. As a result, three main aspects of a manatee’s life became a part of a mermaid’s life: diet, environment and reproduction.

Vegetation Diet

Like manatees, the mermaid characters eat strictly sea plants, particularly the sweeter seagrasses.

Temperature

Manatees have a wide range of travel in the U.S., going as far north as the Carolinas and west to Texas but they tend to live mostly in and around Florida’s waters and canals, especially during winter. The key to their envrioment is the temperature of the water. They can die from cold stress if water temperatures drop below 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

Manatee facts have become a part of the mermaid’s character as well. She is more at ease in salt water than the versatile salt or fresh water manatee, but a mermaid cannot survive long if the ocean temperature drops below 68 degrees Fahrentheit.

To ensure the lifespan of the mermaids in my novel, I’ve located them on an isolated island in the Caribbean Ocean, unless something freaky happens to drop the temperature.

Reproduction

A significant issue in my mermaid novel is the role of the female mermaid and her ability to reproduce, the key to the survival of any species.

The mantatee gives birth to one calf every two to five years; twins are rare. After a gestation period of almost a year, a mother nurses her young for one to two years before the baby becomes independent.

Reproduction is a problem for the mermaids on my made-up island of Little Mangrove. A mermaid has an on- and off- fertile cycle. If she does get pregnant, her gestation period is one year, and she cannot become pregnant again until two years after giving birth. Twins are a much-heralded birth when they occur, which, like the manatee, is rare.

About that Tail

A manatee is a slow-moving, gentle, playful animal who normally swims at three to five miles an hour but can hit up to twenty miles per hour in a short burst. Its tail looks as thick as its fleshy, barrel-shaped body.

A mermaid is not the same, except for having a tail. Somewhere along the evolutionary trail of the mermaid, she grew fish scales on her bottom half, not the fleshy skin of the manatee, and though the mermaid has a tail, it is lighter, filmier and more fishlike than a manatee’s.

A mermaid swims fast, very fast, able to keep up with the dolphin at twenty-one miles per hour and the shark at thirty-one miles per hour. However, some of the big game fish, such as the marlin at fifty miles per hour and the sail fish at sixty-eight, can out-swim a mermaid in the long run.

Building Character

Building characters is a challenge for any writer. Sometimes the details of a character’s life come quickly; othertimes, there’s a lot of research necessary to make a character believable, especially when that character is a mix of legend, heresay and reality.

“Believe in your character. Animate (or write) with sincerity.” ~Glen Keane (Animator for Walt Disney, incuding “The Little Mermaid.”)

[Photo credit: Andrew Imanaka vis VisualHunt.com]

 

 

 

 

Being Mermaid: Creating Lore

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I’ve written a yet-to-be-published novel about a mermaid in today’s ocean whose story is as much about being a woman as it is about being a mermaid, maybe more. Being Mermaid: Creating Story

Worldbuilding is an element of the writing craft referring to the creation of an imaginary world within which the characters live. Today’s post is about lore, the accumulated knowledge and tradition held by a group that’s passed from generation to generation in the oral tradition.

Mermaid Lore

What is the history of my mermaids? How do they know where they’ve come from and what is important in their lives? How do they share their stories? express their beliefs? What are the traditions and rituals that set them apart, as a family of mermaids and as one mermaid from another?

Before I began to work out the answers to these questions, I knew for certain there would be no history books, journals, diaries, nothing written. Mermaids do not write or read.

What they would do is express music.

The Oral Tradition

The term “oral tradition” is a means of passing on one’s heritage only by word of mouth or example.

To specialize the oral tradition for my mermaids who, in part, stem from the mythology of Sirens Being Mermaid: From Out of the Sea, I focused on music. Rather than talk about their past, mermaids sing, chant and use body movement.

“Subtle flips of her tail and twists of her arms and hands emphasized specific notes and images.” ~from When Oceans Sang (working title)

Every aspect of a mermaid’s life resonates music. The family sings praise as the sun rises and sings hope for a safe sleep when the sun sets and the moon rises. They have songs about the taste of sweet seagrass and enjoying freedom. Music reflects their moods and expresses their history.

A Mermaid’s Personal Lifesong

The mermaids of Mangrove Island know the lives of the past and present mermaids. How?

As a mermaid ages, she chooses from the experiences of her life and creates lyrics and movements to express them, called her lifesong.

“Her personal lifesong ebbed and flowed with her movements.” ~from When Oceans Sang (working title)

The song is as individualized as she is.

The Eldest female mermaid and the Elder male mermaid possess the longest repertoire of mermaid lore because they know the personal lifesong of each member of the family.

A lifesong is s key aspect of the death ceremony. As a mermaid’s body is taken to the bottom of the sea in a ritual I’ve described as “Born of the sea; given back to the sea,” the mermaids sing her lifesong in honor of the being she was among them and will continue to be thereafter.

Creative Challenge

The creative juices are at work here as I imagine a family who lives in the ocean and communicates through music. From conception until death, a mermaid expresses herself through song.

Music is the strongest link to mermaid lore.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”  ~Phillip Pullman (The Golden Compass)