Turtle pursuit

I just got back from my third Writers’ Police Academy and I’m still carrying that post-conference glow. You know, the one you get when you learn new things, meet friendly people, eat yummy food and have lots of fun?

I think the most fun this year was driving a squad car around the training track at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. Our hosts for all things police academy rolled out the red carpet, and the orange traffic cones, to let a bunch of writers get hands-on experience just like they give to their actual law-enforcement recruits.

Since I’ve been home — can it really be two weeks already? — I’ve seen notes from fellow WPA’ers about their travel traumas coming and going from Appleton, Wisconsin. In my case, I have none of that. All I need to do is throw my gear in my car and take a leisurely afternoon drive from point A to point B..

My normal trips to Wisconsin are to buy gas, which is usually at least 30 cents cheaper per gallon than it is where I live in Illinois. But I do trek north for fun every now and then. WPA is one of those fun trips.

This year, I learned a lot from my first session to my last. Topics I signed up for this time ranged from body cameras to tribal policing. I also learned a lot about arms in America, how prolific they are and how assault weapons are defined in law. I stepped into a shoot-don’t-shoot video scenario, and would have been shot in real life. I’ve done it twice and been reluctant to shoot both times. And it was just a video! I understand more each time about how officers must feel when they have seconds to evaluate the threat level in any situation.

From the body cam session, I learned the lenses are the extreme wide-angle type called fish-eyes. You know that sign in your side mirror — “Objects are closer than they appear”? The same is true of body cams. I recall some video I saw on TV from an officer-involved shooting. What I took to be an image of someone at least 20 feet away from the policeman (it was a man) could actually have been someone less than half that distance away.

The instructor gave a a few examples, the most intriguing to me from a Florida arrest. The officer with the chest camera stood straight up, turning from side to side a few times, while it was clear that what was happening was on the ground. It all took place in a bank parking lot and a camera on the bank showed the whole picture. I won’t give it away, in case you decided to go to WPA next year.

I have learned so much from WPA in the three times I’ve attended. I hope to be able to go again. Many thanks to Lee Lofland, who has organized WPA and struggled through its headaches for the past 10 years or so. And thanks, too, to the Jason Weber, the public safety training director, and his team at NWTC, for sharing their knowledge, experience and equipment with all of us. Also, thanks to the other officers and agents who come to WPA every year to teach us new things.

Oh, and as for the turtle pursuit — that was my pace around the driver’s training track. My “training officer” encouraged me to speed up. “You have the skills,” he said, trying to encourage me as I wove through a slalom course of orange cones.

All I can say is, not a cone was hurt during my two trips around the course.

Not many can say that.

Way too busy

Last December I agreed to volunteer some time to do a little desktop publishing. I anticipated the job would take about a month, based on experience with similar projects. Who knew I’d end up putting in about three weeks of that month in ten days!

Part of crunch was my own fault. I went on a week-long vacation with my sisters. We didn’t do much, but it was our first get-together in nearly three years. But traveling in the middle of the project made me nervous. And I didn’t have all the materials from other volunteers before the trip.

I got home, dug in and managed to make the printer’s deadline. And I had a little fun along the way playing with pages. But I really hated cramming so much into so little time. I wanted the finished product to look nice. I wanted it to be accurate. And the rush made me change my goal simply to getting done.

Oh, sigh.

There were mistakes, and while at the moment we’re trying to find them and fix them for the online version of the program, the original printing will always have them. Corrections are coming along, but I’m about to hit the road for another conference — the Writers’ Police Academy, this year in Green Bay and Appleton, Wisconsin. It will be my third trip, and I’m looking forward to it.

And, when I get back, I’ll be making the final corrections to the program. Fingers crossed next year goes better.

Rolling hills, steep gullies and fields

Place makes a difference in stories.

I’ve been inspired to write mysteries every time I visit Galena, Illinois. It’s not just the mid-19th century rebuilding of an early-19th century town that fascinates me. It’s also the roads I take to get there — the rolling hills and steep gullies always make the drive new to me. I love getting to Stockton and seeing the land dip and open on the west side of town. And then arriving in Elizabeth, with another surprise vista and a curve that — for a brief moment — reminds me of the hazards early settlers faced. And in that, I include the earliest settlers, the nomadic early Americans who followed buffalo, built burial mounds and peopled the region long before my European ancestors even knew the place existed.

I have also been inspired by the vast, flat black soil around the Illinois town where I grew up. Fields that grew corn, peas, asparagus and pumpkins surrounded my home town, a kind of cocoon holding us all together. And those miles of even landscape led me to believe — naively, I know now — that people were also level, the same, with the same opportunities and resources.

The land makes a difference.

For another perspective, take a look at this old post from Writing Rural.

http://www.dailyyonder.com/writing-rural-ron-rash/2015/06/22/7884

Thinking out loud

Can it really be that I haven’t posted anything since November?

I had a goal to post things once a week, and then twice a month, and now we’re into a whole new year.

But I’m a couple of days into a Guppy class on revising a novel and I suspect I’ll be diving under again this month. So I wanted to share a few things before I disappear.

First, I want to mention that I’m a little nervous about my first real foray into revision. For several years, I’ve cranked out a rough first draft of a novel during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November. But my workload and other obligations kept me from doing anything to improve those novels.

Oh, I have actually changed a few words, here and there. I’ve certainly let the novels sit in my mind and stew. I’ve made some notes about what I want to change. I even printed one of them out and started going over it. But it is literally sitting on a shelf in a storage cabinet right now.

Until now, though, I’ve never really devoted myself to going through and systematically rewriting what I finished in any given November. That’s what I hope to do with the help of the class this month.

The first homework assignment was to do a complete read-through of the story we want to revise. I stopped writing it last October, knowing I had some problems to fix. But I moved on to a new first draft. I planned to go back to the October draft in December, but I wasn’t sure how to start. Then a friend told me about the Guppy class and I decided to sign-up and wait for it.

Turns out letting this one sit for three-months was about right. I saw it with pretty fresh eyes when I started reading it last weekend. Fresh enough eyes that a scene I added late in the first draft felt so awkward and forced that I have completely changed my mind about who one of the characters in the scene really is.

I’ve also had it in my head that I needed to write an alternate ending. It’s been popping into my head off and on these last few months. Turns out, I actually wrote it last fall. Well, I wrote a new climax for the book, not a full new ending. I managed to add most of the ending yesterday, after I finished the class homework on POV. (And that — another story — led the instructor to suggest I needed to add more interior dialogue. Not a gap I had seen.)

I debated for a bit about whether to write anything new until we got further into the class. Then I figured since the new ending is technically still in the first draft, I owed it to my self to get it down. After all, you can’t rewrite what you haven’t already written.

The only other thing I’ve done so far is eliminate a character by combining her with another. At this point, it was just making a global name change. But if my plans for this bunch of characters work out, she’ll show up in the next book.

Wish me luck.

A bientôt!

Best year ever

I had an unprecedented NaNo this year.

I’ve been able to write every day, and for long stretches on many of them. I passed 51,000 words yesterday. I am so excited. This story has been writing itself. It’s not done yet, but now I feel like I can sit back and relax for the rest of the month. I should be able to get the actual full draft finished by then.

I’ve joined a couple of new groups dedicated to National Novel Writing Month. And I’m learning that NaNo may be most useful to people who don’t already have a good, regular writing practice. Up until recently, I’ve written when it fit into the rest of my schedule. I considered NaNo a gift to myself, a time when I could steal a couple of hours on many days, and really bank words on weekends.

I guess NaNo plus “semi-retirement” make a good combination for me.

À bientôt

Six days and counting

Last Monday I kicked off NaNoWriMo with a big day and I’ve been riding the wave of a couple of thousand banked words since then. With an extra hour on my clock today, I hope to move a little further ahead.

I’ve been learning some things about my main character and her friends in the past week. It’s the first draft of the second novel in a series I have planned. I just finished the first draft of the first book at the end of October, so I’m not dreaming up new characters — well, some are new; victims and suspects, mostly — or a new environment for them to live in.

Restraining myself from going back to make changes in the first novel has been one of my biggest battles. I did allow myself to make minor changes — the name of one character is different now, so I let myself do a global replace a couple of days ago. But otherwise, I’ve been making notes.

So far, I haven’t had to bring in the ninjas — a suggestions from some of my long-time NaNo friends about what to do when you get stuck. I know I have to raise the stakes for the main characters as the book goes along, but I don’t think ninjas really fit into my plot.

I’ve also got a rough idea of where I’m going. As I turn more and more into a “plantser,” I find a tendency to figure out what I need and make a Scrivener notecard for it, then go back to what I was doing. I still start out knowing very little. I like to keep things surprising — even to me.

Instead, I’ve been focusing on deepening my understanding of my characters’ back stories. I have a feeling I’ll be doing a bit of that today. I tend to put that in files that aren’t part of the novel, so I don’t usually include that in my word count. It’s legit, but they won’t be part of the final draft anyway, so why put them there now? We’ll see where I am come Nov. 30.

I hope you’re having a good NaNo! And remember, use all the words.

À bientôt

It’s almost time to NaNo

For the last several years, Halloween has been the day before National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) to me.

I am pretty excited about finishing the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on this year. It was an outgrowth of my 2020 NaNo project, and I didn’t spend a lot of regular time on it until September. Since then, I’ve had pretty regular writing sessions on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays. For November (NaNo month), I plan to put in some time every day of the month.

But I did want to pass on a few of the gems from the presenters at Write On Door County’s first mystery writing conference. The ideas weren’t new to me, but the reminders were just what I needed. Maybe you need them, too.

Everyone has a a different writing process

The first panel with the authors who led opening day workshops made that pretty clear. All were published authors, some of many novels, some of few. Some were plotters and some were pantsers. A couple admitted to being plantsers — those who start out with a vague idea, but make plans as they get into the story.

For the first few years I’ve done NaNo, I’ve been firmly in the panster camp, but I’m leaning toward plantser. I finished the first draft of my work in progress because I started figuring out which scenes I still needed to make the novel work. I didn’t write them from start to finish, but I made notes and wrote them whenever I got a fair idea of where each scene needed to go. I did write the first scene first and the last scene last, but that was about it.

Let the reader do some work

Years ago when I took a playwriting course in college, I learned a lesson from the professor. I wrote the last scene of my play with a happy ending — more or less. When he read the first draft, he told me, “You need to give the actors something to do. Why don’t you kill somebody?”

I realized then that acting is as crucial to a successful play as scriptwriting is. (And costuming, stage designing, directing and all the rest….) So, too, is leaving something for the reader to imagine. It’s possible to spell out too much in a story. Pete Hautman wasn’t asking us to be vague, but to leave a little to the reader’s imagination, too. It helps them get involved in — and keep reading — the story. The writer, he told us, must trust the reader to connect the dots.

Downtime counts, too

“Ruminating is also writing.” So said John DeDakis.

While nothing will ever get written without sitting in a chair pounding on a keyboard or writing in a notebook, storytelling begins in ideas, daydreams, imagination. It will take work for most of us to put those ideas into a form that will intrigue a reader. But never discount the time when you find yourself gazing out a window, mindlessly watching leaves fall from a tree or clouds scud across the sky.

We all need to give our creative minds a chance to run free so we can have words to put on pages (or screens).

There was much more packed into two short days, but right now I need to ruminate before I start this year’s NaNo novel.

À bientôt 

Falling into writing … again

I’ve been writing so much, I haven’t written anything here in far too long. I started a couple of posts, then got busy and didn’t finish them. So this is just a touching-base, saying-hello short post to say I’m still here.

I just got back from a great little mystery writers’ conference sponsored by Write on Door County! And I’d like to put some of what I learned in use before I talk a lot about the conference.

But it was an opportunity to enjoy the last of season — for my first time — in the little finger of Wisconsin that is Door County. And to make some new friends in various stages of their writing journeys.

À bientôt!

Don’t write words. Write music.

– Patricia Skalka

Big small changes

(S. Boehlefeld photo)

Who knew a keyboard could make so much difference?

I ordered a new wireless keyboard to use with my laptop. I’m trying to adjust to a work-at-home in retirement schedule and, even though I’ve been using my laptop almost daily since the first COVID lockdown, I only acted on the impulse to add a keyboard last week.

I’ve had the laptop for a few years and, frankly, I’ve never loved the flat keyboard. Oh, I guess I got used to it, but I like this one better. I can look straight at my screen, which is a plus.

But that’s just one small change I’ve made lately. A friend of mine, Sharon Michalove, has been sharing links for online write-ins. And the latest has been to a group called The Creative Academy for Writers. I’m not sure how old the group is, but the founders seem properly to bill themselves as “your friendly, neighbourhood accountability, craft and strategic author mentors.” And yes, they’re from the “neighbourhood” up north. I think they’re all from Vancouver, B.C., but I’m sure they’re all Canadian. The academy is a full of folks who are equally friendly, full of enthusiasm and ready to share tips as they learn them.

So far, my biggest involvement is taking part in their writing sprints. I’m in one as I write this post. They have a “writing room” that’s open 24/7 and several scheduled group sprints every day of the week. (And I’ve already talked about how much I like writing with groups.)

I joined a weekly motivation and accountability group. I’ve only been to one session so far, but I love the format. They start with a “win” from the previous week and end with a goal for the next week. We celebrate every win with jazz hands, as people politely mute their microphones during the meeting. In between wins and goals, members can bring up questions or problems they may be having with their work-in-progress (that’s WIP to some), and the host and others offer suggestions and encouragement.

I also signed up for a discussion for cozy mystery writers, but that’s not until next weekend. I’m looking forward to it.

So, what’s the bottom line from all these changes? I have a specific daily word goal in order to finish my first draft by Oct. 31. I’ve written a couple more scenes in the novel, and figured out a few more that I need. And as soon as I finish this, I’ll be back working on another one.

So, hurray for big small changes!

À bientôt!

Writing groups vs. writers’ groups

(Photo/fauxels from Pexels)

I just spent a stormy Tuesday evening writing with a half-dozen friends. I am always productive when I write with others. I also do pretty well when I write alone, but when I’m with others I’m less inclined to let myself get distracted from the work.

And, based on our conversation after we wrote, I realized I hadn’t articulated my goal in extending the invitation for others to meet me at a library. I know others aren’t as starved for writing time as I am. I’m working to change that, and joining groups that write is one way to do it.

For the last several years, my first writers’ group has hosted a writing day once or twice a year. We have a space we can use that’s big enough for our group members plus 10 or 12 additional writers. We’ve never needed more space than that. And it was perfect for social distancing the last few times we hosted the day.

We gather about 8:30 a.m. and pack up about 4:30 p.m., with an hour at lunch to socialize. That’s a pretty long day for writing, and twice a year seems like enough for something like that.

And since COVID, the magic of online meeting software has opened up a world of write-ins through two groups I belong to — Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. They, of course, offer far more than some group write-ins.

I’m not sure why I like write-ins so well. The only thing I can attribute it to is the years I’ve spent writing in newsrooms. I used to have trouble writing in those wide open spaces, but once I learned what background noise I could ignore and what I needed to heed, I found buckling down at deadline was easy.

I can imagine that there is something to having all those people involved in the same effort that put us all on a writing “wave length.” And I like that wave length.

As for critique groups, those have a different aim, and I haven’t done as well in them. I think part of my problem has been not having enough time to devote to reading others’ work — on top of the paucity of my own writing time. But I realized immediately that reading is a crucial part of critique groups. I dropped out of them.

Now that I’m moving to full time fiction writing, I think I might be ready to become a better member of a critique group. All I need to do is figure out a critique group formula that works for me … and a handful of other writers, too.

In the meantime, I’m taking full advantage of my writing groups. And I love the folks who are willing to write together.