Summer Break

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It’s been a long school year, and it’s still not over for me, as I went from Fall to Winter Interim to Spring, and now smack into the Summer semester. Those who work 9-5 jobs (or whatever that is these days) may not feel a scintilla of sympathy for me when I say this, but the myth of instructors being off in the summer never met an adjunct college professor. Summers without work are summers without money, so we keep working right through, in condensed semesters that during the regular school year would be 14 weeks, now cut down to five, with all the same material to cover, and the grading coming three times as fast. In between all of this, I’m working on an edit of a book while my agent shops my latest (bites nails, cross your fingers). In any event, I’m a bit fried, so I’m taking a few things off my plate while I wind down Summer I before heading into Summer II. As well as taking a couple of quick mental health weekends out of this office where I’ve spent too much time this pandemic year. (Really, really, REALLY sick of these four walls!)

Okay, enough the the bitch and moan. Enjoy the summer, and I’ll see you in August. Just don’t forget, writers write, so get cracking.

HOW AUTHENTIC ARE YOU?

Much has been made of Kate Winslet’s Delco accent on the HBO detective series Mare of Easttown. In some circles, like the scorching they gave her about it on Saturday Night Live, they thought if ridiculous. But being from South Jersey, with Easttown across the Delaware River in an county outside of Philadelphia, the accent is more than familiar to me. Although I was born a tad north, people around here, like people across the river, say Trent-on for the capital of NJ (accent on the first syllable, hard “T” on the first “t”, soft “t” on the second), and not Tren-ton. Because of that, we can instantly tell when someone is outside of the area. So when Mare says something like “You gonna go to the store?” instead of “You going to the store?” (we are always going to go, not just going), we know she’s nailed it. She worked long and hard to get that accent right, and from someone whose sound of it is natural to the ear, she got it perfect, right down to the Rolling Rock and Yuengling. (And for the record about Mare: oh yeah, big fan.)

So how do you translate accents to your writing? It’s not really something you can do that well on “paper,” as dropped “g’s” and convoluted phonetic spelling which is out of favor (and for good reason) in this day and age. But word choice is important (such as going-to-go) as well as doing the research to pick up on local terminology. No one around the Delaware Valley (also a localism) would never call pork roll Taylor Ham, or use sub instead of hoagie (if you don’t know what I’m referring to, then that’s a good example of what I’m referring to). But getting authentic also refers to much more than the area you’re writing about. It’s also important to get micro when you’re writing about a specific group or profession.

Winslet’s been praised because she got into the weeds about what it’s like to be a small town detective. This would go for any profession you’re writing about, as nothing says amateur like when you get something that should be common wrong. Such as the weapon an officer carries called a service arm, or their badge a shield. Or take one of my favorites fields of interest – when journalism meets politics. A press conference is a presser, a gaggle is an informal press meeting with the press secretary, and a pool spray is a quick photo op following an important meeting. But these are just a few examples. So, how do we get authentic enough to find them?

Sorry all, but it’s always going to take more than looking things up on Google. The way to become authentic is to become immersive. If you’re writing a detective novel, then find a real detective and ask questions. Read police reports. Watch pressers, as there’s always one after a crime that warrants a huge media interest. I’ve attended writers conferences where there’s actual detectives giving talks, and they will be the first to tell you that what you see on TV or in the movies is bullshit. But books? They’ll admit that sometime they get it right, at least closer to right than a lot of other media. So make a detective happy. Let the one that gets it right be yours.

HERE WE GO AGAIN

the-endAll right. So I’ve finished another book. I submitted the manuscript to my agent and suffered the indignity of writing a synopsis (which, thankfully, are much shorter now, lessening my agony). And today, I even went the extra mile of sending along an overview for a series of other books based on my first book’s theme. So what do I do now? Pop a bottle of champagne and smoke a cigarette like the Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s Misery? Uh, no. I still had to work up syllabi for my two summer classes (this is how we professors enjoy our time off), answer emails, work out, feed the cat, make dinner, etc. Then figure out where I’m going to take this thing next, and what I’m going to do with the next thing. Because let’s get real, peeps. The work of a writer is never really done, not if you want to call yourself a writer.

I’m not knocking it. It’s the life I chose. Writers write, and I have to be frank. It’s been awhile since I’ve gotten anything new out there, and it’s not for lack of trying. So many times I’ve gotten thisclose, but at the last minute the editors say “pass.” Who knows the real reason why they’re not feeling it, why it’s not quite there, why what I’m writing isn’t what they’re buying. You can’t write to trends, because by the time you get it to the editor’s desk, the trend you were writing to has already left the station. The best thing you can do it just write the best book you can. Everyone has a style, and you’ll never get anywhere if you copy someone else’s.

So read. Read a lot. Study your genre and your craft. Be original in your own way of seeing the world. Write in the voice that comes most naturally. Stay away from cliche. Present a professional manuscript. Proofread. Get used to waiting and make a friend of disappointment. Know that every rejection is a badge of honor, but listen to what they’re saying. If you hear the same thing over and over, sit up and pay attention. But never forget that all writing is subjective. It’s never about you personally, it’s always about the work. And for cryin’ out loud — don’t let rejection discourage you. Some the the best and best-selling writers in the world have been rejected dozens and hundreds of times. I know I’ve been, but I still got there a few times. And I will again. I have to believe that. And you too.

So here I go again, putting myself out there. I have to, because who am I writing for anyway? I’ve already read my stuff (TOO many times), so I have to send it out. Rest assured I’ll keep you posted if anything exciting happens and this time, I’m sure it will. And if it doesn’t? Well, you’re just going to have to stay tuned.

OKAY, CONVINCE ME NOT TO GET VACCINATED. GO!

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Got my second Pfizer shot last week and I’m really glad it’s over with. I feel good about getting it, and while I had some trepidation, it was never enough to cause me second thoughts. Now that I’ve had them, it made me think of the medical professional I had a chat with a couple of weeks ago. When I asked them if they had gotten vaccinated — because they were about to get intimately acquainted with a vulnerable part of my body — they were vague about it because they said it was “a personal decision.” I beg to differ. Unlike cancer or heart disease, which a body develops on its own, viruses are contagious. They seek out new hosts. My body can only get it from another body. So your “personal decision” ends when it comes in contact with me. Your body may also come in contact with someone who has yet to be vaccinated or someone who can’t. And a big population of “can’ts” are young children who are ending up sicker and with more long-lasting consequences than older people. So to those who won’t get vaccinated, to those who may carry the virus but never get symptoms, ask yourself if you’ll be able to live with your “personal decision” if it causes illness or death to someone you love. Aren’t you willing to do anything you can for them?

TIPS FROM THE MFA PIT – PART 12

Looks like it’s the end of the semester, though I have just enough time to include one more tip from the MFA pit. I know I haven’t been very timely about passing them on earlier, then two weeks apart you get two, but it’s been a very busy semester, and all of a sudden you look up and BOOM – it’s almost summer. Well, not quite, but close enough in college time. Anyway, this week’s tip look at two topics, the question of character growth over the course of a narrative, and how much info to disclose along the way. Get my side of the argument, then you decide…

Most writing instructors will tell you that a protagonist – or an antagonist – need to show growth over the course of a book. You’ve discovered a read can still be enjoyable and engaging without it. But even if there is no growth, there should be change, in the sense that we get to know their motivation, or perhaps they do, over time. They may not change or alter their behavior, but perhaps they alter someone else’s. Hannibal Lecter certainly wasn’t going to change in The Silence of the Lambs, but he sure as hell changed Clarice. And there’s no doubt that a good villain is just as enjoyable – sometimes more – than a hero. I suppose more than anything, there has to be movement, in one way or another, not only with the story unfolding, but also in the way the story evolves. And in how much is disclosed to the reader.

I’m a firm believe in only disclosing information on a need-to-know basis. Let on what is essential in telling your story while still keeping the reader guessing. Unless we’re writing in omniscient narration, we’ll shouldn’t ever see “Little did Alex know, but he was about to…” This is not Stranger Than Fiction (one of my all-time favorite movies). Drop those breadcrumbs, let the reader feel like they’re part of the process. One of the best books I ever read that did this was Burden of Proof by Scott Turow. When the murderer was finally revealed I literally gasped. I was surprised, but all those breadcrumbs tumbled into place. Each step toward the eventual conclusion, or the solving of the crime, has to also fall in line with the logic of the person acting it out. No “deus ex machina” or Dickensian surprises. The actions taken by the protagonists and antagonists have to make sense both to the characters’ personalities as well as make sense to the story. It’s okay to surprise your readers, but make sure their gasp is one of delight, not disbelief.

Until next semester — happy writing!

TIPS FROM THE MFA PIT – PART 11

Once again another edition of real-life writing in a real-life MFA program. As we’re approaching the end of the semester, I’m giving some advice to a mentee in genre writing, who’s address the topic of writing humor, among other things, like reentering the world after lockdown…

I think we’re all suffering from Spring Fever in all in variant forms. Down here in Jersey, every branch and stem burst out in buds this week, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching my husband drool and drip from every exposed orifice. Plus Monday, I had my first COVID-19 shot. I must admit, I was a little nervous (never enough not to get it), but I’ve had very little side effects beyond some arm soreness from the injection site, and feeling a bit draggy the next day. I go back in three weeks for my second and hopefully, will be equally lucky  that time. It’s going to be weird to not have to be on-guard constantly, and the world seems to be growing a bit wider every day. Makes one wonder how we’ll be reflecting on – as well as writing about –  this past year in the years to come.

Speaking of reporting, Carl Hiaasen recently retired from his long-time position as columnist and report at the Miami Herald. His final column bemoaned the sorry state of journalism, and as much as I love his writing, I couldn’t bring myself to read it, so depressed as I am at the decline of local news. My first two years as an undergrad were spent as a journalism major, and although I’ve always saw reporters as something mythic, I could force myself, at that tender age, to be pushy enough to actually become one (I don’t think I’d have a problem with it now). In any event, Carl Hiaasen is equally adept at writing pathos as he is comedy, but what I really admire about him is the wonderful way he writes dialogue. The man’s a master at it, and if you take away anything from his writing, it’s how he can push the plot along with it. And yes, he’s funny, laugh out loud sometimes, and as preposterous as his plots can be, he somehow makes them believable with the seamless way he weaves reality into it. Florida, it seems, is his first love, and he never strays far from it.

Funny you should mention funny! Humor is DEFINITELY harder to write than serious. We can always summon up feelings of sympathy or danger or even love, but making something laugh is probably the hardest thing out there. So take it as a great compliment if someone says you’re funny. If you weren’t, they most likely wouldn’t mention it at all. Actually making someone laugh is like inducing an involuntary reaction. It’s a talent and if you have it, by all means, indulge it!

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Who’s funny? Am I? Sometimes I am when I try to , and other times I am when I’m not. It’s all subjective, but one thing it can’t be is forced. If it is it just comes out pathetic, and there’s nothing funny about that!

Seriously Snark

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