Quo Vadis?

Quo Vadis is a Latin phrase that was used as the title of a book and later, a movie based on the book. I didn’t like the book much and wasn’t fond of the movie, but I’ve always liked the phrase. Quo vadis is usually translated “whither goest thou?”

Whence and whither are not much used in English these days, and I’m a little sad about that. They would make it so much easier to ask “where did you come from” and “where are you going to” without leaving you with that awkward preposition stranding–that is, when a preposition is far from its intended object. We do it all the time in spoken English: what are you talking about; what is he up to; this bed looks slept in.

Editors can get touchy about stranding, which can lead to authors getting touchy in return. In response to a zealous editor who tried to remove all the dangling prepositions, an author (it is attributed to Winston Churchill) wrote, “This is the sort of tedious nonsense up with which I will not put.” This response clearly demonstrates that getting too crazy about rearranging sentences to avoid stranding can make them sound pretty silly.

In trying to minimize the use of dangling prepositions, I’ve discovered that often my preposition is hanging out there because I’m using the wrong words. By using a different word or words, the problem goes away, and the writing gets better. Instead of saying “where did I come from,” my character might actually be asking, who were my parents or what was my country of origin or something else entirely. When I find myself using one of these terms that strands my proposition, I ask myself what am I really trying to say? Is there a better word or phrase that removes the problem and says more clearly what I’m trying to convey? Did I really mean “this is nonsense I won’t put up with”, or did I want to say “this is nonsense I won’t tolerate”?

I am not likely to be using whither and whence in my writing any time soon (unless I’m writing something historical), but I will be trying to keep my sentences undangly at the same time avoiding rearranging them into silliness. But sometimes, you just have  to let your prepositions hang out.

Image: Quo Vadis, Jonathan? Jonathan Hutchins at Danebury Hill Fort, Hampshire, England. By Marilyn Evans

You’ve Got to Call It Something

The first thing someone asks when they find out you’ve written novel is “What genre?” Readers, publishers, book sellers, everyone wants to know what kind of book it is. It’s got to have a label. Beloved Lives was a reboot of a horror story but ended up being classified as paranormal romance with some suspense thrown in for good measure.

Some writers resist the pigeon holes they are slotted into. Margaret Atwood long insisted she did not write science fiction. Certainly Cat’s Eye is fiction, plain and simple. The Handmaid’s Tale could fairly be called dystopian future fiction, but she insisted,  “Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians.” She seems to have accepted the label in the end as she has accepted so many awards for her superb writing.

When you write in a genre, you are expected to at least try to stick with it. It is apparently literary suicide to follow a paranormal, romantic suspense novel with, say, a Regency romance, a historical fiction, a mystery, or a space opera. Sadly, those are the novels that are currently agitating to be written in my poor, beleaguered brain. In fact, I’ve already written the space opera although it needs a lot of rewriting and editing. The research for the Regency romance is done, and the book itself is about a fourth drafted. The historical fiction has caused a mountain of research documents to clutter my life. The mystery is about half done.

My husband, bless him, said he reads novels by people who write three or more a year. He was right, of course. Why couldn’t I go ahead and write a paranormal romance to follow my first one? Trouble is, I didn’t have a single idea for the plot, the characters, or the location. Or did I?

I had this idea some time back for a story about a couple–but why did it have to be a couple? What if they became a couple during the course of the story? Suddenly, I was mugged by ideas, hijacked by locations, pestered by characters. The words started falling out of my brain and into my computer as fast as my little fingers could type. I wake up every morning eager to write instead of struggling as I had on some of my recent projects. Almost as quickly as problems come up with the story, the solutions present themselves. I’m really enjoying writing this thing. It may not be a good book, but, like Beloved Lives, it’s being fun to write. And best of all, it’s a paranormal romance with elements of mystery. Or at least that’s how I’ll label it. Because, you’ve got to call it something.

Image: Tamara experimenting with the horror genre.

Tamara J. Sanchez at Powell Gardens.  Photograph by Jonathan Hutchins.

 

 

About Time

I’m always amused when someone in a film or TV program says something like, “We’re going to blow up in thirty seconds”, then the characters proceed to talk, argue, vow undying love, or whatever for a full minute before the bomb is defused in the last seconds. I’m waiting for someone to put a stop watch on one of these encounters and blow them up in the predicted thirty seconds while they are in mid sentence. I always feel a little cheated that their thirty seconds are longer than mine.

Time and timing are important. The entire human race is a bit obsessed with time, or so one would think, based on the monumental sites around the world dedicated to tracking seasons, sunrises and sunsets, and so forth. Humans have been finding ways to measure time for centuries. Some insist it is the one dimension that defines all the universe and the phenomena in it.

Recognizing the importance of the logical use of time for actions and events, many books about writing well tell you to create a time line as part of your plotting and planning. This helps keep story lines straight and tells you who is where when. Realistic spans of time for actions and events can keep disbelief at bay.

I recently read a mystery that had actions taking place simultaneously at different locations with different characters who would all be meeting later down the road. Each change of scene and chapter was headed with the location, date, and time. This took skillful plotting of both action and time by the author, added greatly to the suspense in the novel, and helped me keep track of what was happening where.

My novel, Beloved Lives, takes place, for the most part, between Mother’s Day and July 4th, and the required me to do some adjusting as I fit the actions to my dates of events. There are also flashbacks that cover many decades and even greater spans of time. At one point I was counting out years between events and determining what might have been going on in the world during those times. All of this was important, at least to me, in keeping as faithfully as possible to a span of time that wouldn’t challenge a reader’s credulity.

In one of the stories I’m currently writing, I’ve gotten all messed up on seasons and actions. I’ll need to go back and get it straightened out with a detailed time line before I go much farther. Otherwise, someone may get blown up in mid-sentence, or worse yet, I may make my readers unhappy. That would never do.

Quite a Character

I recently finished another book by one of my favorite authors, C. J. Box. I first encountered his books at a gift shop in Yellowstone National Park, a wild and beautiful place where the action in his stories takes place from time to time.

C. J. Box has written a series of mysteries with a protagonist named Joe Pickett, a Wyoming game warden with a loving family, a dedication to his job, and a talent for destroying pickup trucks. Box has also written some stand alone mysteries. I say mysteries, but they are suspense novels as well, packed with action, wilderness locations, and great characters.

One of the things I love most about Box’s writing is his masterful way of introducing characters. I have to admit this is something I’ve struggled with, because I’m never fully comfortable telling what a character looks like right off the bat. I’m not sure why that is, except maybe it always seems a little artificial to me. But readers want to know who they are dealing with, and how will they know unless the author tells them?  Why not give them what they want?

When Box introduces a new character, you not only know what the person looks like, you know what kind of person they are likely to be and how they are likely to act as the story unfolds. Reading Box is a master class in character description. For example, when a man walks into a ranger station in Yellowstone to confess to killing four people, the ranger sees “a big man, a soft man with a sunburn already blooming on his freckled cheeks from just that morning, with ill-fitting, brand-new outdoor clothes that still bore folds from the packaging, his blood-flecked hands curled in his lap like he wanted nothing to do with them.” That right there is the way I’d love to be able to write.

It’s been said over and over, but it bears repeating: reading good writers makes you a better writer.

Keep writing, Mr. Box. I’ll keep reading.

My Personal Writer’s Retreat

Once a year I fly down to Tucson, Arizona, to visit my best friend, Chris. She is well acquainted with a couple who spend part of every year in Italy, and who graciously allow me to stay at their house while I’m visiting. Most days of my week-long stay, I spend the morning writing, doing research, and generally tending to the business of being a writer. The rest of the time, Chris and I walk, visit places like the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum (where we see folks like this Mexican gray wolf), and eat and drink to excess. And we talk. We talk a lot.

Chris is  a great sounding board for my ideas and plot lines. She has a good understanding of human nature (she has a master’s degree in psychology), and sometimes keeps me from veering off in the wrong direction. Having someone to bounce ideas off of and to do reality checks for me is a pretty wonderful thing for a writer.

Having a week of undistracted, uninterrupted writing is a pretty wonderful thing, as well. When I’m home, I am likely to have cats on the keyboard, dirty dishes or laundry that won’t shut up and leave me alone, and a thousand other distractions great and small. When I’m home, I sometimes find I have to remove myself to the pubic library or a coffee shop to really focus and get things done. When I had to take a friend to the doctor’s office, I got an amazing amount written sitting in the waiting room. I doubt they’ll let me camp there on a regular basis to write, but it goes to show that writing can be done anyplace, if there are few enough distractions. And some days, writing at home just rolls and everything that might seduce me away from my keyboard falls away.

I like my visits every year to see Chris, but I’m not a real fan of deserts. I can appreciate the beauty of them, especially when seen through the eyes of someone who lives there, but I prefer the woodlands of the midwest. Still, there are some beautiful things in Arizona. Not least of these are the clear, cool nights when millions are stars are visible in the sky. As a place to visit a friend, write, and soak up the food and culture (we saw a pretty great chamber music concert on Wednesday), I think Tucson will stay on my list of best places to work at writing.

And on Facebook

And now my blog is connected to Facebook as well as Twitter. Aren’t I the social networker?

Strange things happen to me when I go to Tucson. But I am getting a lot of work done on my next novel while I’m down here. I’ll tell you all about it in my next post.

Treat Night

When I was  kid, one night a week my dad would let us stay up late to watch scary movies and eat junk food. We called it Treat Night, and the treats included pop (I’m from north Missouri so it’s “pop”, not “soda”) and ice cream, a candy bar, or popcorn. The movies were the Universal Studios horror collection released as Shock Theater for television syndication. There were about 50 classic films, and most were black and white.

Our local host was Gregory Graves, the wonderful Harvey Brunswick in a fright wig and with black circles drawn around his eyes. Gregory was funny and a welcome  relief when things started to get a little too scary. I have to admit, the seven year old me had a little bit of a crush on Gregory.

One of my favorites of those old 1930’s and 1940’s movies was The Mummy, but I also loved Dracula, The Wolfman, and Frankenstein. When, many years later, I saw Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, and David Bowie in The Hunger, I thought the film brilliantly re-imagined the vampire legend. I hoped someone would do something similar for my other favorite films. I had an idea about how I’d like to see The Mummy done, but I waited to see what would happen.

When reboots of the various films started to come out, I thought they were fun, but they weren’t how I would have done it. That’s when I took matters into my own hands. The result was my version of The Mummy rebooted, my book Beloved Lives.

I’m happy to see that late night scary movies are still going on, with crazy, over-the-top hosts. I hope a new generation of kids will be inspired to write their own versions of the classics and keep them fun and fresh to scare us anew as we eat our junk food and huddle together on the sofa.

Writing and waiting for the seed catalogs

The folks replacing the water lines on our block are taking a day off. I suspect it’s due to the black ice on the streets and the wrecks all over Kansas City. My husband is working from home so there’s one less thing to worry about. The cats are snoozing, thankfully not on the keyboard. I’m wrapped in a blanket, sitting at my computer, and trying to figure out how to blog.

They tell me all authors need to blog these days. I’m game. I’m always happy to talk about myself–no false modesty here. Problem is I’m a bit of a Luddite. Still, I’ve managed to get a book published, or so they tell me. It was all done electronically, so I think it went through as expected. I’ve seen the Amazon page for ordering it and told all my friends, hoping they’ll tell their friends. I haven’t actually held a copy in my hands yet, but that’s coming. I hope.

I take a lot of things on faith. I assume my editor is going to pay me. I assume what I write will be read by someone. That’s why Facebook is good for me: I get a thumbs up or comment that indicates what I sent into the ether was read. But even if I got no feedback, I’d still write. It’s a sort of disease. Or obsession. Or hopeful dream.

I write the way I plant seeds. Seeds look like dead things, dry and lifeless, but they do contain life. I plant them and wait, taking it on faith that something will happen. When the green shoots start coming out of the ground I never quite believe it’s real, never quite believe that dead thing I planted has become this tender plant that will grow into flower and fruit. It always seems like a small miracle.

When I write, I begin with an idea. Oddly, the title often comes first. As I write, I add, discard, embellish, strip, and rearrange words, thoughts and ideas. I give the preliminary mess to friends who nod sagely and hold their peace. Sometimes they make helpful suggestions, but relying on my friends for constructive feedback is sort of unfair. They are my friends. They kind of have to be nice to me. Some might be brutally honest, but that’s not the way to bet.

I like writer’s groups, but good ones are hard to find, and sometimes don’t last long.  I’ve had the great, good luck to take some writing classes with writers and teachers who have helped me tremendously, but in the end, I have to be my own harshest critic, exceeded only in harshness by my editor, and I have to have done the hard work before she ever sees it. It’s not unlike the hard work that goes into preparing the soil in the autumn and the early spring before the seeds go into the ground. Even after the green things break through the soil, the flower and fruit is a long way off. Like watering and weeding, there  is more editing, proofing, and all the rest of the attention that is required to get to the harvest.

I haven’t made it to the harvest yet. I still have to promote the book, try to arrange signings, and maybe give some interviews, if I’m lucky. And blog. They tell me I must blog. We’ll see how that goes. I suspect I’m going to have fun doing it, and I take it on faith that someone somewhere will read what I write.