Characters Really Do Have a Voice

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I am now in Dearborn, Michigan finally seeing John, whom I haven’t seen since mid-July.  We both needed to be together and have been fighting off feeling in a funk because of the long separation.   I unpacked the studio work and have everything set up in my studio here to FINALLY get the illustrations finished for A BED FOR LITTLE CUB.

I read two chapters from WYTHE’S END to John and he really likes the story and characters!   This was the first time I read the writing myself since having written it.  And, I must admit that the writing is pretty good.  Definitely needs some polishing and revising, but overall, the flow of the narrative and dialogue really works nicely.  Believable and interesting with just the right among of description so as to not slow down the action.

It’s interesting how each character really does have their own voice.  Once I propel them off onto a journey or scene their dialogue, the words they say, and how they say them, just come out in their voice, not mine.  For me it really does feel like I’m simply recording a conversation that they would have among themselves.

The Road Map that I wrote out gives me the guideposts I need so that I know roughly where the storyline should be heading.  But, I don’t let the Road Map bind me to one route.   Unexpected twists and turns that appear take the story and the characters into scenes that I had not planned on.  And I just let them go with the flow of the story and see where it takes them.

Dialogue is the easiest part of the writing.  It also brings the scenes and action into sharper focus.  I tend to be more of a ‘descriptive’ writer but I’m discovering that dialogue can cover a lot more territory in a more interesting way.   I simply trust the characters and let them speak for themselves.

The most difficult part is making certain that I plant the right clues and hints as to how Phineas is proceeding with uncovering the family’s deep, dark secret.  I figured out early on that by talking to other family members, the older ones, makes this plot foreshadowing work much more easily rather than having him plodding along on his own all the time.

I love this story!   I can’t believe that I’ve already written 175 pages in rapid fire succession.   Another odd thing about writing this novel is that I don’t write in chronological sequential order.  I have the Road Map and each chapter has its own Word document.  I have a basic understanding as to what should happen in any given chapter and find it easy to connect the thread of the story to preceding chapters and chapters that come later that I’ve already written. Each chapter is almost a self-contained short story that is tied to the overall plot.

And, of course, I have my favorite chapters that I can’t wait to write!

Meanwhile, I am pleased to report that I received my very first royalty check for the first novel that I self-published on Amazon!  I was thrilled!   Apparently, the novel is picking up a following and readership without any help from me.  The novel isn’t published under my own name so it depends on word-of-mouth to attract readers.   I think I can how it could be possible to publish my own novels if, for whatever reason, I can’t sell them to publishers.  And being published under my own name will probably help sell more copies than I might expect.

Lesson learned:  Listen to your characters.  Let their voices direct the narrative and move the action along at a pace that suits them, not you, the writer.

The Writing Zone

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When I was in college I read Patricia Nell Warren’s “The Front Runner” and it changed my life forever.  That was way back in the early 1970s when I was young, thin, and had way too much energy for my own good.   Ms. Warren’s book propelled me to buy a pair of good running shoes, a pair of running shorts, and my first tank top t-shirt.  This was my official running gear.

For more than twenty-five years I was a long distance runner and ran at least five miles every day.   A long running day would have me put in at least ten miles.   I averaged 6.5 minutes per mile.  Not a speedy runner, but not the slowest runner either.  Running, like writing, is addictive.  The more you do it, the more you want to do it.  In running you want to improve your time and how far you can run.   Naturally, I started running half marathons and marathons.

The runner’s “high” is a reality.   At the start of each training run it always took me a about a mile to get into my rhythm, slip into the runner’s zone, and literally just run without thinking about running.  When the endorphins kick in your mental state really does give you the sensation of floating above the pavement.  You don’t even feel your feet hitting the ground.   That runner’s high is addicting and it’s what keeps runners pounding the pavement.

Writing is very similar to running in many ways.   Sometimes you just have a hard time getting started.   But, once you do start putting the words in some semblance of order and you see the story begin to take shape, you settle into a writing rhythm, similar to a running rhythm.

It’s difficult to describe exactly what this rhythm is.  For me, it’s when the words simply flow from my brain to my fingertips and onto the laptop screen.  Just like running, I don’t think about the technical aspects of doing the writing.  i.e. typing.  The typing is something I can do automatically with my eyes closed.   I never take my eyes off the laptop screen and just let my fingers fly across the keyboard tapping out the words.

The rhythm comes when the character’s voices become clear in my head and typing out their conversations and thoughts flow easily out of my mind.  When I’m writing a first draft I literally just let the ‘story wash over me’ and write it as it comes.   Later, I can always do the polishing, revisions (if necessary), and rewriting to smooth out any rough spots or fill in gaps that I omitted while in the writing zone.

Like running, writing can be just as addictive.  Once the words start flowing it’s difficult to put on the brakes and stop writing.  As a writer, when I have a clear image of the setting and the characters that inhabit that setting, the individual personalities really do manifest themselves through the words the characters speak.   It’s easy to hear each distinctive voice and what a character would say in reaction or response to any given situation.

The Wythes have become my obsession.  I can’t get enough of spending time with them and seeing where their next adventure might take them.   I had written earlier that I always plot out a road map so that I have some sense as to where the story might go.  But, I don’t necessarily stick exactly to the road map, I give my characters the freedom to more or less dictate their own routes.

For example, I knew that I wanted to have Phin, the fifteen year old narrator of the story, go to Provincetown for Bear Week.  I needed several other key family members present when the conversation took place—meaning, when the uncles Myles and Bertram suggest he might want to go to Bear Week with them.  And, of course, I needed one of the parents present to be part of the conversation to take the side of the opposition to the idea. And which parent would most likely be the one to say “No?”   The mother, of course.

I had planned to have this conversation take place around the dinner table, but that would have meant that there would be too many people who had to be part of the conversation and it would be a bit tricky, and possibly forced, to keep everyone’s views part of the conversation.  The idea came to me that a picnic on Gull Rock, just a few hundred yards off the tip of Wythe’s End would be the perfect place to take just the right number of family members to engage in this important conversation.

The picnic wasn’t on my road map, but it made sense so I let the scene/chapter unfold to see where it would go.   I slipped into the writing zone and the words flew into my laptop and all I had to do was keep track of who was doing what when while the picnic was taking place.   The scene unfolded easily and gave me the chance to plant the seed for the next scene when Phin talks to Pab, the father, before his mother has her talk with him.

In a writing frenzy I wrote the set up scenes for Bear Week—about twenty pages in all.  There will be some necessary revisions and rewriting, but the scene is now out of my head and into my laptop.

Now I can focus on the wild adventures that can, and will, happen in Provincetown during Bear Week.

One of the important elements that I have to keep track of in this story is letting the reader follow along with Phin as he puzzles out what the family’s deep, dark secret is.  At fifteen, he is a sophomore in high school and will have to start planning for the exams that he will need to pass in order to be accepted into Harvard.  He’s an excellent student and one of his personality traits is that he doubts his own abilities and is a bit insecure about his place in the family.  Phin is a conscientious boy who is responsible and can be a bit too serious.  In other words he’s me when I was that age.

In order to plant clues and let the reader discover important hints along with Phin I needed to have Phin spend a great deal of time in the two libraries at Wythe’s End.   The family thinks he is putting in a great deal of extra study time in preparation for his final two years of high school and the difficult entrance exams he must pass.  In reality, Phin is scouring the libraries for clues as to why the “Wythes missed the boat.”

Again, when I was writing the picnic scene several details came out that led me down a side road to seeing more clearly how I can move the central plot line along in an interesting and logical manner.

The Writing Zone is a good place to be, trust me.

The Saga Grows…in secret

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To say I am consumed by the Wythes would be one of the greatest understatements I might ever utter.   I tend to be at my most creative when I am under the most pressure, the most stress and for the past seven months there could not be MORE pressure and stress in my professional life.

I still have not finished the artwork for A BED FOR LITTLE CUB. I have been grappling with negligent accountants, financial statements, and tax matters.   I hate dealing with money, even thinking about money doesn’t interest me.  I’m good at making a decent living as a writer and illustrator, but hopeless at managing the income it generates.  Simply put, money just doesn’t interest me enough to pay sufficient attention to it.

Consequently, I worry about it quite a lot.

When I’m agitated I find it nearly impossible to draw and paint and stay focused on creating the best and most exciting and well thought out illustrations that I can possibly make.  What I tend to do is avoid the drawing board, drink lots of coffee, think too much about the work I’m not doing (instead of just getting it done and moving on to the next project).

Instead I find myself unable to sleep and sneakily thinking about the Wythes and their story.   In my agitation I have already written more than sixty pages of the novel (I think the finished manuscript will be approximately 350 pages), plotted out all the chapters and ebb and flow of the story, sketched out the setting and characters.

I am a fast typist and the mechanics of typing is something I do automatically without having to think about it.  Therefore, when I’m writing I only concentrate on the writing, not the mechanics of writing.   i can write an entire chapter from beginning to end in roughly two hours with the average length of a chapter being about fifteen pages.

I start at the beginning of the chapter and just write straight through to the end when the narrative comes to a natural stopping point.

It just works.  I’m not exactly certain how.  But it does.

I do have a “road map” of the story that I use as guide posts to allow me to move about in the story without having to think about it in chronological order.   Each chapter is a stand alone incident that connects or preceding chapters and lead to the next chapter.   Does that make sense?

As a writer of both picture books and longer novels I simply envision how much time I want to the story to cover, pick a starting point, and simply let the story unfold from there.

For example, I knew that I wanted the Wythes’ story to end at Christmas so I only had to figure out when the story started.   May seemed the most logical starting point for various reasons, arbitrary reasons, so May is the month that the narrative begins.

That leaves with with a number of significant times in the course of the family’s story to make sure are included: Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are obvious highlights in the year. That only leaves figuring out what happens that would be interesting, exciting, unexpected, and propel the plot to its inevitable conclusion for the rest of the months.

And believe it or not, this strategy works.   I’ll give you an example as to how I think as a writer.   The locale for the novel is on a rugged New England coast, a cape.  Naturally, weather plays an important role in a coastal setting.  And if there is a large, rambling house, with secret passages and hidden rooms, and dark secrets, there MUST be … A Storm!  Think of the possibilities.

Here at Henwoodie we lose power every time there is a storm or the wind blows too hard.  We always keep a supply of candles and filled oil lamps and firewood on hand so that we are not caught off guard by the loss of power.  And now that we have a gas stove top we can still make coffee or hot soup.

So, whenever there is a storm there is loss of power.  And what do you/we do when there is no power?  We tell stories in front of a cheery, cozy fire or play board games.

Therefore, in this novel, there has to be a storm that knocks out the power and allows one or more characters to play the role of storyteller.   And what stories do most families like to hear most? Stories about the family, of course!  Especially something that happened in the family a long time ago.

Writing comes easily and naturally to me.  My goal for the upcoming year is to do more writing and less illustrating.  It’s a lot less stressful and a lot less pressure.

For now, I’ll try to get the finished illustrations completed so that I can give the Wythes my full attention.  But like the sirens calling out to doomed sailors the novel beckons me to write “just one more scene, just one more sentence, just one more chapter…”

Here’s a Writing Trick I like to use

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I can’t believe that I am not working night and day in getting the illustrations finished for A BED FOR LITTLE CUB so that I can just get on with writing the first draft of WYTHE’S END or THE WYTHES.  I’m still trying out which title works best.

Instead of just painting my fingers off I am trying to wrap up a batch of paperwork that needs to be mailed off later on today.  And once I finish with the paperwork at night I crawl in between the warm flannel sheets and guiltily spend time with the Wythes.

I’ve written three chapters in secret and cannot tell anyone or discuss them with anyone.  Once I finish the illustrations then I can openly admit to having begun the writing of the first draft for this novel.

Here’s a writing trick I use each time I write a story, whether a picture book or a novel:

I have many reference file folders filled with photos, drawings, paintings, illustrations, etc. that I use for references.  As I am getting to know the Wythes it helps to have a face/reference photo to put with the name.  I have gone through my reference files and picked out the faces that best fit what I think the characters look like.  With these faces in mind, along with the physical descriptions that I create for each character, it’s fairly easy to describe them, their clothes, and so on when writing about them in the story.

The only thing I have to be careful of is to not make all the men tall, dark, and handsome with thick beards!   I do tend to do that. A lot.

The hardest photos to find are of the women I want to be in the story.  I know in my mind what I think they should look like, but finding just the right reference photos has been a bit tricky.  I can’t rush it and I will know the right face when I see it.  In looking through photos of women it did strike me that for the story it would be better if the murder mystery writing aunts are GREAT aunts and more elderly.  This just gives them more character, more eccentricities than two nice looking women in their mid-40s.   Therefore, I decided that if the grandparents are in their late 70s and early 80s, the great aunts could easily be in their early or mid-70s as well.

The nice thing about having older characters in a story is that they can “reminisce” about the old days when they were young and life was simpler.  Of course, when you have elderly quirky characters it helps to have photos of them as young people to show how handsome or beautiful they were then.  The great aunts are no longer sisters, but will be partners.  In many ways partners and lovers are much closer than siblings.   And it is fun to have the allude to their relationship as older spinsters rather than be as openly out and gay as the uncles, who are much younger.

Of course, everyone in the family know the great aunts are lesbians, but it’s never discussed.   Not that the family has any problem with their sexuality, but the great aunts themselves just like to keep their sex lives very private.

Naturally, John is Uncle Bertram and Uncle Myles is an unknown handsome face that I found.  MY likeness will be used for that of Uncle Tobias, who is a bit more cantankerous and demanding.  He’s the “Dutch” uncle of the family, you might say.

The Wythes are taking shape more and more with each passage that I write.  Their story comes easily and once a scene/chapter is being written I just let it take me wherever it wants to go knowing that at some point the chapter has to end with a slight cliffhanger.

Writing in Secret

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Would you believe that I am still working on the finished illustrations for A BED FOR LITTLE CUB?   I lost momentum when I had to stop and deal with a mountain of paperwork and financial statements.  Not fun.  Not how I like to spend my time.

When I can’t sit still enough to calmly draw and paint I prop myself up in bed and write.

Here’s our bed.  I like to imagine that it is a private train carriage whisking me away to Transylvania where I will have some kind of wild, mysterious adventure.

Our bed

And here is our bed in reality.  Messy!

Bed messy

But you  can see how I like to prop myself up on pillows with my laptop on my lap and write in the quietest, darkest hours of the night—usually around 3:00-5:00 am when I can’t quite fall asleep.

Feeling guilty about not painting like a possessed elf I hide in the bedroom with the lights turned out and wonder what the Wythes are up to.   In short, I have started writing the novel in secret.

The writing/story literally just comes to me.  I am beginning to know this family quite well and their quirky personalities are taking shape.   Dialogue, scenes, incidents, weather…all just seem to come naturally and in somewhat of an orderly fashion.  Of course, I have to write down the snippets of dialogue and scenes so that I don’t forget them.

In the late, late hours of the night, or the wee, wee hours of the morning, depending on how you like to look at it, I feverishly wrote two chapters.   And the writing is good!  I haven’t done any rewriting or revision yet, that can always come later.  The important thing was to capture the moment while it was pounding in my head and put the words into my trusty laptop.

I also found the perfect geographical location where I plan to set the story.  It’s close enough to Boston and Plymouth and Provincetown to work for the storyline, but it’s also not very well known so that most readers would be hard pressed to identify the locale.

Google Maps and Satellite Maps are amazing!  To be able to zoom in on a rocky island or peninsula and see every minute detail of the landscape and coastline is fantastic!

As a writer I don’t like to “outline” a book or the plot lines, but I do like to have a “road map” so that I know where the story is going to go, what events might propel the story along in an interesting and unexpected way, and which characters will hold the spotlight so that they can really have their moment of being seen and heard.

Jotting down snippets of conversation or describing a scene is all I need to jog my memory as to what I want to write for any particular section of the story.   Then it’s simply a matter of straining the words, the scenes, the conversations into the fabric of the story, adding the details and letting the characters speak for themselves.

I am discovering that the humorous bits are coming naturally enough, not forced or strained.   I think this story can be quite interesting.

Finally, after I jotted down basic family member characteristics and personalities I let my imagination (and desires) have free rein to go where they will.   For example, if the groundskeeper/handyman, Russ Samson is “hot hottie hot” and brawny, hairy, hardworking, etc. why not let him have height as well.  Why make him 6’2″ tall when 6’7″ tall is much more interesting and surprising and can lead to some very funny scenes!

I love Scotland and Belgium and everything Scottish and Belgian, so why not have the stout housekeeper be Scottish (I do a great Scots brogue and have no difficulty writing in a Scots accent)?  And the cook be Belgian?   I’d rather eat Belgian cooking than Scottish cooking and the scenes between these two could get quite explosive!

This is how I think and work as a writer.  Ideas simply come out of nowhere and I jot them down.  All I need is ONE sentence that will turn into an entire scene and most likely an entire chapter.

WYTHE’S END is going to be a wonderful story filled with love, humor, quirky events, and lots of lively banter.

I even know what the famous Wythe family tagline will be: “Fade to black”.   When you read the book this will all make perfect sense and you will see the humor of those three words

So, for now, I am writing in secret and feeling very guilty about it.

Ollie Dutch hat colour

When you can’t sleep….WRITE!

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Had a difficult time sleeping last night.   Finally turned on the bedside lamp at 4:30, opened my laptop, and started writing.  I wrote first opening paragraphs of Chapter 1 for “The Wythes”.

Chapter 1: Family Secrets is where the story begins.   Phineas Myles is the official narrator of the saga.   His voice rings true and it is his curiosity regarding the deepest, darkest family secret that propels the action and storyline of the novel.

Luckily for me, the story just comes out of the darkness and pops up on my laptop screen.  I don’t worry about exact correctness in the narrative flow or perfect sentence construction.  I just let the story come out and tap out the words as fast as I can.   Rewriting and revisions can always be made later.

After writing the first few opening paragraphs to get the story going I then just write “scenes”.  For example:  Scene: Describe Wythe’s End and the grounds or Scene: Introduce the family members one by one.   The structure of the novel is almost like a screenplay in that the characters don’t have to be introduced slowly in the course of the first few chapters, the first one hundred pages, etc.

This is a close knit family that live together and are best friends so it makes sense to just “introduce” them in a one fell swoop in a clever way.

Having written the opening paragraphs is all I need to remember the voice I want to use to tell their story.  The humor, twists and turns, secrets, discoveries will pretty much come as the story is told.  It just does.  I don’t think, as a writer, you can force humor. If something isn’t funny, it isn’t funny.  Period.

It’s peace of mind for me to have written scenes and lines that I did not want to forget.   So, when I can’t sleep, I live the story in my head, and write the scenes down.

End of story.

Writing at Henwoodie just happens

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Writing at Henwoodie just happens.  And often at the oddest moments.

It’s 4:30 am,Thursday, 11 September.  I can’t stop thinking about the 9/11 thirteen years ago when one of the most horrific tragedies struck New York City and the Twin Towers.  In all these years I still think about the last moments of all the people trapped inside the Twin Towers and how they died.

Fate really does work in mysterious ways.  I had contacted a prominent literary agent in London who was very interested in representing my epic heroic saga/mythology: THE LAY OF MOEL EYRIS: The Saga of the Bear’s Son.  She loved the concept and originality of the storyline and the history of the “Islands on the Edge”.  After reading all the material I had sent to her she was eager to read more, hear more about the project before signing me on as a client that she would represent.

I had told her that I would be in London in February and perhaps we could meet then to discuss her role as my agent.  She said “No, if I’m going to represent you I want to meet in person before then.  I’m going to be in New York in early September.  Let’s meet and have lunch.   Would Tuesday, 11 September work for you?”

I told her that the date worked fine.  I was only a two hour drive from the city.   We agreed to meet for breakfast in Lower Manhattan on 11 September 2001.

The agent, Rosemary Kanter, called me on Monday after she arrived in the city.  She sounded terrible.  After explaining to me that she had bad jet lag and a bad cold she asked if we could meet later in the week instead of the next day.   Again, I told her that my schedule was flexible and that it wasn’t a problem at all.

The rest is history.

9/11 happened.

And I was not in New York City.

It took me several days to track Rosemary down and make certain that she was all right.  As I watched the horror of the Twin Towers burning and people jumping from the upper floors I knew I would be haunted by these images and this date for the rest of my life.

Today is 11 September 2014.  Thirteen years since that infamous day.  I will take time to reflect and remember all the innocent people killed in such a horrendous manner.   When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened his famous “infamy” speech with these words: Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.  September 11, 2001 is another date which will live in infamy for all eternity.

We will never forget 9/11.

Not ever.

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