It always feels good to “win” NaNoWrimo

 

With six days to go in NaNoWriMo, I hit the 50,000 word plateau that brands me a winner and turns my NaNo progress bar purple.  The word count and purple bar shouldn’t mean much.  It doesn’t mean much.  What matters is getting the draft of a novel on paper.  It looks like I’ll need another 20k words for that but we’ll see.  Clearly, though, the end is in site and I’ve got the bones of what I think will be a great story, after a considerable amount of rubbing and polishing on my part.

I hope that your NaNo writing is going well and that you too, will be a winner.

Coexist by Julie Crane

Consider this writing task.  Write a young adult novel with a cast of young girls and the occasional hunky guy.  Have them live in a modern computer world, interacting with each other on Facebook.  Oh, and don’t forget to include an elf war.

How would you do that?  I’d give Julia Crane a call.  She’s got more experience with this than the rest of us and she does an amazing thing: she makes it believable.

Coexist starts with Keegan, an teenage elf and her family who are, not surprisingly, also elves.  Elves have their mates chosen for them and she’s thinking about him, whoever he is.  But elves coexist with normal humans, beings without the powers of elves.  And thus the story begins.

Crane weaves a tale of Keegan’s balancing act between living the life of a human teenager while hiding her elfen heritage, her destiny, and her brother’s destiny, which is to have a role in resolving the impending elven war between the light and dark elves.

I’d like to tell you more but that wouldn’t be fair, would it?  If you enjoy young adult fantasy, get this book.  Read it.  You won’t be disappointed.

I’m An Author – I Make Stuff Up

One of the great things about being a fiction author is that you get to make stuff up, or as Lawrence Block put it, “you get to lie for a living.”  We create worlds, or recreate existing worlds, sculpt characters and provide them situations.  We’re limited only by our imagination.

As authors we’re told to “write what you know” but I write mysteries without having murdered anyone, or even been near a murderer.  I doubt that those writing about knights fighting dragons have experienced their words either.  We make stuff up.

But occasionally this comes back to bite an author.  Sometimes readers believe that we “write what we know.”  And such was the case when my brother and his wife Kathie came to visit (see here for some coverage of that event).  They had both read Her Book of Shadows which made their visit particularly fun.  The setting for my mystery series is Quebec City so as we wandered the town, seeing the sights, I could point out the various scene locations of the book.

Then it happened.  We were walking along my river, the St. Charles River and the topic of cooking came up.  Kathie said, “I need to get your recipe for broccoli chicken.”  Because I’m old and have a hard time remembering my birthday, it took me a few beats to figure out what she was talking about.  Then the light went on.  She was referring to this passage from Her Book of Shadows.

 

From Chapter Seventeen: I chopped the broccoli into small bits, using only the tops of the flower heads. I threw them into a bowl, grated Parmesan into it, added bread crumbs, lemon juice and some olive oil, creating a broccoli paste. I poured myself a glass of wine and added some to my mixture, adding more bread crumbs to maintain the paste consistency.

I sliced into one side of each chicken breast and filled the slot with broccoli paste, closing up the slot and holding it together with a couple toothpicks. I basted the exteriors with a bit of olive oil, sprinkling them with tarragon and a bit of pepper and I set the oven at 350F.

My protagonist, Scott Riker is making dinner for his family and one of the minor themes of the book is that he’s a decent cook.  The problem here is that this “recipe” was a figment of my imagination.  It wasn’t following that advice to “write what you know.”  I was “making stuff up.”  And so I was a bit embarrassed to admit that I’d never made stuffed broccoli chicken, though I was inwardly thrilled that it had seemed so believable.

But I like Kathie a lot.  She likes broccoli and so do I.  So, here’s how to make Riker’s famous Broccoli-stuffed Chicken.  And while I never measure anything when I cook, I did so in this case to provide some quantities:

Ingredients

chicken breasts (3-4)

broccoli (1 cup of broccoli buds)
parmesan cheese (2 tablespoons)
bread crumbs (1 tablespoon)
lemon juice (1 tablespoon)
olive oil (enough to turn the rest into a loose paste)
* I also mixed bread crumbs, parmesan and tarragon for use in coating the exterior of the chicken

The Process

I mixed the broccoli paste in a small bowl.  It doesn’t become a tight paste because of the broccoli but this result can be spooned into chicken breasts that have had a pocket sliced into them.  I apologize that my kitchen isn’t set up for high-quality photography but here’s a photo of the paste to give you an idea of its consistency.

I spooned the paste into the pockets and  basted the chicken breasts with olive oil.  I sprinkled the bread crumb coating* on top.  The chicken was transferred to a lined baking sheet that I’d painted with olive oil so they wouldn’t stick.  This is how they looked as I  stuffed them into a 375F oven.

About 45-minutes later, this is what they looked like.  Within half an hour they had disappeared and my family was all smiles.

I admit that I do cook, so maybe when I’m making stuff up about Scott Riker cooking, I’m also “writing what I know.”

 

What Drywalling Says About Novel Writing

I wrote earlier about the best writer procrastination tool in the world: remodeling.  It’s occurred to me, however, that lessons from our remodeling project say much about a wannabe novelist approaching their first novel.  So, I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.  Besides, I needed a break and felt compelled to write some words. I hope I don’t get too much drywall dust on my computer as I type. Oops…too late.

My wife and I decided to replace our living room carpets with wood flooring. Then we decided that this would be a good time to paint as well. Then we decided that we should do some remodeling, creating an arched exit into an adjacent hallway and, while we were at it, some other structural changes. And since we were doing all that, I decided that I should do some electrical work too. In the software biz we used to call this “feature creep.”

In many ways this is what a wannabe writer does when he/she decides to write a novel. They get an idea, then realize they need some characters, a location, and some way to develop the idea into a story. They’re not sure how it all works, often will say things like “I’m not so good with grammar” as they launch themselves into the project but, undaunted, they proceed.

We were that way with our remodeling project but said, “How hard could it be?”

Simple tools are deceptive

Beyond the sawzall, hammer, and belt sander required for the structural changes, drywalling amounts to mounting sheets of paper-covered plaster, covering the seams with tape, and then plastering the surface smooth. Easy peasy. How hard could it be?

The tools required are few. A knife is required to cut the drywall and a screwdriver is used to attach it to the wall. Then, simple trowels and sanding materials are required to create a smooth wall surface. Heck the tools just get rubbed on the wall until you’re done. How hard could it be?

Writing a novel is the same way, requiring only a laptop or pen and paper. You just write a bunch of sentences, run a spell check and you’ve got a novel. The budding novelist has already done the hard part – they have an idea. How hard could it be?

In both cases the simplicity of the tool set, however, is deceptive and fools the gullible remodeler/writer into a false sense of security. As it turns out, tools have nothing to do the creative process. It’s true that War and Peace would be shorter if Tolstoy had to write it on stone tablets but otherwise, tools don’t matter.

Jump right in

We took to the task like ducks to water. I am somewhat skilled in woodworking so cutting and mounting drywall was easy for me. Neither my wife or I knew much about drywall “mudding” but she had done some before so she was the expert, until she wasn’t. So we had to stop and read about how to do it. The reading helped considerably but there was still the problem of execution. First we had to undo all the wrong that we’d done. If not for the resultant aching muscles from the work, I’d chalk this up to practice. Then we had to try to do it properly but found that our skills were lacking. It’s hard to understand how it can be hard to make plaster smooth with a trowel but I can’t do it. I need a lot more practice.

This is the same problem a budding novelist faces. It seems like it should be simple enough. Other people do it. You just write a sequence of 50 or so scenes and you’re done. You write the proverbial beginning, middle and end of the novel. That’s all there is too it. But, just like drywalling, developing skills on the fly sounds easier than it is and results are often less than stellar, which leads to…

Fixing the errors

We found that fixing our screw ups took far longer than anything else. We also learned that the last 10% of the job required 50% of the time. We learned that getting the little details right was the hardest and that unless we got them right, nothing looked good.

And sadly, this is the hardest thing for a wannabe novel writer to realize. So many poor stories could be great ones if new writers would simply understand that the details are the most important part of writing. Getting down the bones, as some describe writing a first draft, is a breeze relative to the work involved to get the details right, having characters to come alive, and writing descriptions that stimulate a reader’s imagination. Putting the polish on the execution is the most time-consuming part of novel writing. And just like drywalling, these stages require the greatest skill and knowledge.

Damn, this is taking forever

We learned that because our drywalling skills were limited and because we were constantly repairing mistakes, this job took us twice as long as we thought it would. A professional could have done the job in one long day, maybe two if he took long lunches. It has taken the two of us a week to accomplish. Our lack of skill has been the single cause for our slow progress. Still, we did accomplish it. Next time it’ll be easier.

If one reads what writers write to other writers, one sees this same thing in their words. Seasoned writers talk of being fast, efficient, and writing thousands of words a day. New writers struggle to generate a few hundred. They claim they’re ‘blocked’ and attribute this to some ethereal being rather than the grim reality that they’re bumping up against their skill limitations. These new writers haven’t yet learned the skills that permit their ideas to flow smoothly from brain to paper. But with practice, just like creating smooth walls, a novel will come together with a healthy dose of perseverance. You just might have to read a bit and practice your skills to make it happen

Why we do it

As we stood in the room, looking at our smooth walls and crisp, plastered edges, we could have hurt ourselves trying to pat ourselves on the back, but we were simply too tired to do so. Instead we just smiled at each other and thought about our initial thought. “How hard can it be?”

And this is true for novel writing as well. When you hold your novel in your hand, or load it up on your Kindle, the feeling is awesome. And when you get to that point you’ll also know just how hard it can be.

Canada Post Strike Over – Author Happy

While I wasn’t happy with the way the Canadian government dealt with the Canada Post strike, it has come to an end.  This is significant to me as just before it happened, Amazon’s CreateSpace had shipped me a box of books…my book, Her Book of Shadows .

This is important because I have people waiting for these books, and they’ve had to be very patient as the books have been sitting in a Canada Post warehouse for several weeks.  But they’re here now and I can start sending them out.

Her Book of Shadows – Canada Day Sale

Canada Day Sale  

 

I’ve decided to have a ‘summer’ sales of my eBook, Her Book of Shadows . I’m doing this to formally launch the book now that it’s hit most of the distribution points.  For a limited time, it will be available for 99 cents here..

If you like to read mysteries without serial killers, sex and lots of violence, you’ll like Her Book of Shadows .  This is a mystery that will let you get to know some great characters, let you visit Quebec City, and, it will make you feel good.

 

Review comments:

“This is such a well written mystery, and full of make you laugh out loud lines. I loved the setting of Quebec City, and the snippets of the French language scattered throughout made it so authentic.” — esldonna

“How refreshing to find that Larry Marshall’s first is a who-dunnit in the best tradition of well crafted stories of crime solving.” — Polystamper

“This is a beautifully crafted book, full of interesting convincing detail and engaging characters.” — Janet Guerrin


Book Description:

In Her Book of Shadows, retired cop, Scott Riker, lives with his wife and daughter in Quebec City where he heads a group of interventionists. Directed by Quebec business mogul and philanthropist, Luc Duchesne, the group uses their talents and resources to stand between people in trouble and the criminal elements who would do them harm.

Riker agrees to find Jodie Burke, a teenage girl whose parents say ran away. But when Jodie’s friend turns up murdered on the Plains of Abraham, it becomes clear that Riker faces something more than just a runaway girl. Time is running out and he must find Jodie and prevent whoever is trying to kill her from succeeding.

Riker struggles with his emotional involvement in the case, caused by the similarities between his daughter and Jodie Burke. This, and his attempts to reconcile his risky business with his role as father and husband add to his internal conflicts but maybe the two roles can be compatible.

 

Louise Penny Wins Another Agatha Award

She’s done it again!  Four years, four books, FOUR Agatha awards in a row.  Nobody has ever done this…ever…nobody.

Though Louise would probably not even know my name, I feel especially good about her success as an author.  Sure, she’s a very good writer, as her award winning Gamache mysteries attest.  And yes, she lives in Quebec, like I do.  But what endears me to her comes other things.

The most important is how great she has been towards my daughter, Jodie.  You see, I’ve been a writer and editor most of Jodie’s life, but I wrote columns and articles for magazines – non-fiction.  Jodie was more interested in the magic of fiction and those who created it.   She was interested in become a writer herself.   She was 11 years old when Louise Penny released her second book, Dead Cold and she came to Quebec City for a signing session so I suggested to Jodie that we go so she could meet a “real author.”

Jodie was so excited and I’m sure she thought she was going to get to sit around with this ‘famous’ author telling tales and getting advice.  I remember hoping that she wouldn’t be disappointed by the brief time she would likely have with Louise as she had her sign a book.

But Louise was, well, Louise.  She was so gracious, somehow making every single person feel as though they were important to her.  And she started asking Jodie questions about her writing.  Louise gave Jodie a big hug.  By the time Jodie left she felt she had a new friend and, frankly, I think she did.  Louise insisted on a photo with Jodie.  It’s one of Jodie’s prized possessions and I present it here.

Jodie’s now sixteen and she has become a superb writer, in both French and English.  She’s less sure about being a writer as a profession but, as I said, she’s only sixteen.  We’ll see.

As we’ve attended all of Louise’s annual signings here in Quebec I’ve learned from her.  She doesn’t know that, of course.  Her books have taught me much about writing, telling a story that doesn’t draw on violence and chase scenes for its appeal.  Rather, Penny novels draw on underlying themes and characters that involve you in their lives.  Though she writes murder mysteries, she’s also writing ‘feel good’ books.  But Louise has taught me much more than that – much more important things.  She’s taught me kindness, humility, and how to value readers.

Thank you, Louise, and congratulations on your Agatha.  Here’s hoping that Trick of the Light garners a fifth.

Cheers — Larry