Chapter 2 — Determining Your Role in the Story

This will be a difficult concept for many of you to grasp.

Why? Simply because of all of the myths that have been drummed into us during our entire lives. The big myth here is that your appropriate role as the writer is Almighty Writer on High. (Hear the angelic chorus?)

But if you grasp this concept, it will start you along the path to Freedom as a writer and more fun than you’ve ever had at a keyboard.

And you CAN do what you want. Understand? YOU are the writer. YOU are the boss of you.

You may choose between two roles as you write fiction. Those two roles are Almighty Writer on High and the Recorder. In the interest of full disclosure, these are my terms.

Let me explain both roles.

Then you have to choose.

The Almighty Writer on High

As Almighty (ahem, control freak) Writer on High, you control everything. You carefully outline pretty much every step your characters will take, from the overall goal of the hero to which stumbling blocks the evil adversary tosses into his path and when.

Those stumbling blocks and whatever the hero does to overcome them become the conflicts. Of course, on your outline, you know exactly where they will occur in the story and exactly how he will overcome them. And you know exactly how overcoming each conflict will enable the hero to advance toward his goal.

You know how and where and under what circumstances the great Final Conflict will occur, and you know how the book will conclude.

Goodness. I’m bored just writing about this.

I mean seriously, if a trusted friend tells you about an excellent new book in your favorite genre, you might want to buy it and read it, right?

But what if he tells you every major plot point, every conflict, the climax and then how the book ends?

Still want to buy it? Of course not.

So how can you force yourself to write a story that you’ve already outlined to death?

If you already know every major plot point, every conflict, the climax and how the book ends, where’s the fun and excitement of filling in the details of the story?

Just sayin’. Ever wonder why so many would-be writers think of writing as drudgery?

Of course, I’m talking about those who REALLY see the process as drudgery.

I’m not talking about those who circulate about the release party with one forearm flung dramatically over their brow and a glass of wine in their other hand, pinkie finger raised appropriately.

You know, the ones who are looking for someone, anyone, who will understand (and be impressed with) the terrible suffering they must endure for their art.

Those gentle souls who, despite the fact that they detest the absolute drudgery of writing, simply must shoulder the heady responsibility that has been thrust upon them and blah blah blah.

But I digress.

If you see your role as the Almighty Writer on High, probably you also make certain not to repeat the same sentence structure too many times in a row. (You probably make no allowances for the valuable and intentional use of repetition.)

You probably also count the number of times you use “that” and “which.” If you do not understand the difference between them (there is a huge difference) you even consider alternating them, using one and then the other as you progress through your manuscript.

If you’ve listened to people who have no clue what they’re talking about (i.e., they haven’t published a LOT of novels and stories) you probably also check for the number of times you use “had” and the state-of-being verbs and the “ing words” (gerunds) because you’re laboring under the false assumption that those words create passive voice.

Of course, as you can tell from my tone, they do not.

I could go on. And on. And on.

But the point here is that as the Almighty Writer on High you’re controlling every aspect of the book. You are totally the General Manager of your characters’ universe, and they will say or do NOTHING without your approval.

That’s one way to do it. But let me tell you this:

No good creative writing EVER came from the conscious, critical mind.

As Ray Bradbury said, if you don’t surprise yourself, how can you ever hope to surprise the reader?

And chances are, you know, if you’ve outlined the story? And you know every conflict and every plot point? And you know, like, in advance, how everything’s going to turn out?

Umm, so does the reader. Almost from word one.

And that sound you will hear is your book being slapped shut so the reader can find something more fun to do. Like poking himself in the eye with a stick.

So how do you surprise yourself when you’re the writer? After all, you have to know the story to write it, right?

The short answer is No.

In fact, if I already know a story, I refuse to write it. Writing a story I already know would be zero fun for me. And I’m a writer first and foremost to entertain myself. Or rather, to allow my characters to entertain me.

I’m not the Almighty Blah Blah. I’m the other kind of writer. I’m the Recorder, AKA The Frien’ with a Pen. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

The Recorder (or Friend with a Pen)

When anyone asks me about my writing process, I tell them the truth. I have a two-step process. Ready?

  1. I follow the characters around.
  2. I write down what they say and do.

In other words, I let the characters tell the story they want to tell. After all, they know it much better than I do. They’re actually living it.

As the Almighty Writer on High, you DIRECT your characters to say and do exactly what YOU tell them to say and do.

As the Recorder or the Note Taker or the Friend with a Pen, you control nada.

  • You don’t worry about where the characters or story are going.
  • You don’t worry about what your character will say next.
  • You don’t worry about who the character used to be and who he will grow into.

Your subconscious mind knows all of that stuff is necessary. It will plug in all of that when and where it’s time.

And you? You’re just the conduit. You are the fingers on the keyboard.

You are no more important to the story or the characters than the mechanic is important to your car or yourself.

The mechanic provides the parts and skill to keep your car is running so you have a safe, fun vacation. But he doesn’t tell you where to go and what to do, right? (If he does, seriously, fire him.)

The writer provides the fingertips through which the characters tell a story. That’s it.

When Bradbury was asked how he wrote Dandelion Wine, he said the same way he wrote everything else. He got up in the morning and poured a cup of coffee. Then he sat down at the typewriter (later, computer), put his fingers on the keyboard, and wrote whatever came.

I can hear you saying, “But that’s Ray Bradbury.” The fact is, he wrote that way from before he was Ray Bradbury, when he was around 12 years old.

When you’re the Recorder, you don’t control anything. You resign as General Manager of the Universe. You abdicate the throne of responsibility for (and control of) your characters.

And you get down in the trenches and run through the story WITH them. How could anything be more fun than that?

Instead of suffering the unbearable drudgery of having to figure out how this sentence connects to the next one or how his paragraph leads to the next one or whether and where the current scene will fit in the overall story — You. Just. Write.

Next up, Chapter 3 — Story Starters and Where to Get Story Ideas

‘Til then, happy writing!

Harvey

The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.”

Same here.

I am a professional writer. This is my living. If you enjoy or learn from my work, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above. (It isn’t the same as subscribing to this blog.) As an alternative, consider dropping a tip into my Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

Chapter 1 — What Do You Mean, Character-Driven?

Folks, Before I give you Chapter 1, a shout out to an excellent writer, Sara Therese and her most recent blog post, which I hereby declare Required Reading for anyone who enjoys good, strong, emotional writing or Love. You can find it here.

Okay, here’s Chapter 1 — What Do You Mean, Character-Driven?

Staple it to the inside of your eyeballs, folks: All good fiction is character-driven.

No matter the genre, fiction isn’t about the science or the problem or the threat. It isn’t about betrayal or addiction or solving a crime.

No matter how perfect the science, the story is about how the characters REACT to the science. No matter how massive the problem, no matter how dark the threat, the story is about how the characters REACT to the problem or the threat.

Perhaps there’s an unexpected betrayal, a devastating addiction, a horribly heinous crime. The story is about how the characters REACT to the betrayal, the addiction, the crime.

Fiction is about how the characters react and what happens as a result of that reaction.

Let’s play genre by genre.

Writing a romance? In every case, the story is about the characters’ reactions to the problems that are keeping them apart. It’s about how the characters overcome those problems. And it’s about how the WAY they overcome those problems affects themselves and each other.

It’s also about their individual and collective resolve to be together and how that resolve affects themselves, each other, and maybe even their family members. Because maybe the family members are going to appear as the leads in the next novel in the series.

Writing mystery? It isn’t about the body you dropped on page one. In most mysteries, the body and the murder itself is only the catalyst that brings together the characters. But the story is about how the various characters react to the crime, to each other, and to each other’s efforts to resolve it.

Writing science fiction? It isn’t about the science, though readers of “hard” SF are sticklers for the science. But the story is about how the human and/or alien characters react to the science, both when it goes right and when it goes wrong.

Writing fantasy? (Broadly, fantasy is defined as anything that’s outside the realm of physics as we know it.) The fantasy story isn’t about the magic or the fairy dust or the “beam” that can dissolve a human to the molecular level and reconstruct him elsewhere a few seconds later. It’s about the characters’ reactions to the magic or the fairy dust or that seems-like-science-but-isn’t-really stuff.

The Lord of the Rings wasn’t about a great quest. It wasn’t about dropping an all-powerful ring into a volcano. It was about how the quest revealed the strengths and weaknesses of the characters. It was about the ability of the characters to react to whatever enemies they encountered along the way, even when the enemies they encountered were themselves.

Writing the Western? Again the story is about the characters, the good guys with their flaws and the bad guys with their beneficial qualities. In the Western more than in any other genre (in my opinion) whether a character is a good guy or a bad guy often depends on the setting and the circumstances.

For example, in the early part of my nine-book saga, The Wes Crowley Trilogy, a company of Texas Rangers is pitted against raiding Comanches in the Texas Panhandle. The Rangers, naturally, are the good guys. Right?

You might think so, until you see a great Comanche warrior kneeling over the grave of his only son. Or until you see a vaunted old Comanche war chief leading a group of braves into an ambush because that one time he was less than wary as he strived to get them home more quickly. Or until you hear a Ranger, with his final breath, admit to robbing a bank in years past.

Otherwise, in the western as in the other genres, the story is about why the characters do what they do and how they react to themselves and to each other.

Writing 5-flame erotica? It isn’t about the sex. It’s about how the characters perform the various acts of sex and how those performances and the sexual acts themselves affect each character mentally, physically and emotionally.

Writing psychological suspense? This is a really twisted one and my personal favorite. This is both a genre and a technique that you can use in pretty much any other genre on a scene by scene basis. And it’s great fun to write. In fact, as I post this, I’m writing my third psychological suspense novel (my thirteenth novel overall).

But part of the fun is in the details. I write these scenes “into the dark” like I wrote all my fiction. But with psychological suspense scenes, I cycle back over them at least once and sometimes two or three times. Each time I allow myself to peel back another layer on the character’s thought process.

The story in psychological suspense isn’t about the missing valuable object or the kidnap victim or the terrorist who’s about to set off a dirty bomb in Mall of America.

The story is about what’s going on in the mind of the thief of the valuable object and the detective who’s after him. It’s about what’s going on in the mind of the kidnap victim and the kidnapper and the would-be rescuer. It’s about what’s going on in the mind of the terrorist and the shoppers (if they know) and the people who are trying to stop the terrorist or disable the bomb or whatever.

In other words, it’s about what’s going on (the suspense) in each major character’s mind (both the good guys and the bad guys). It’s about how that character reacts to what’s going on in his mind. And it’s about what he or she suspects is going on in the other major character’s mind and how he reacts to that.

As I said, it’s a great deal of fun.

One caution on writing psychological suspense— When detailing the character’s thoughts, you have to go into enough depth so the reader goes along for the ride. The reader must experience the tension the character is experiencing.

But if you go overboard, if you write too many of the character’s thoughts or go into too much detail and the character’s thought process becomes tedious or unnecessarily muddled or unnecessarily repetitive, you will lose the reader.

The key word there is “unnecessarily.” If you want to indicate a character’s confused mental state, letting the reader share in some muddled thoughts is an excellent way to do it.

And repetition,when it is necessary and when it is used right, is a very valuable tool in writing these kinds of stories and scenes. But if it isn’t used right, that sound you hear will be books being slammed closed.

If your genre isn’t listed above, that’s all right. You probably can see the pattern. Apply it to your genre and see what you think. Stories in all genres are character-driven.

I’ve written novels, novellas and short stories on every genre listed above except Romance and Mystery. Although many of my novels and stories have a strong romance element, and many booksellers consider Psychological Suspense a subgenre of mystery (I do not).

Notice that all of the genres above (with the exception of Science Fiction) are also aspects of fiction. That is, they can be included in other genres. A Western can also have heavy elements of Romance, Psychological Suspense, Magical Realism (fantasy) and so on. The only aspect of fiction that trumps all others is Science Fiction. If a work has a strong SF element, it is an SF story.

What About Plot-Driven Fiction?

Yeah, that isn’t actually a thing. No, seriously.

I’ve heard some say a story is “plot driven.” But even if you want to give them that, what drives the plot? The characters.

Ray Bradbury, perhaps the greatest writer of all time, and certainly one of the great writers of all time, said plot is the footprints the characters leave behind as they run through the story. Get it?

Here, read it again. Plot is the footprints the characters leave behind as they run through the story.

Leave behind?

Yeah.

Plot isn’t something to be planned out and meticulously followed. What’s the fun in writing a story you already know?

When anyone asks me about my writing process, I tell them all I really do is follow the characters around. Then I write down what they say and do. I let the characters tell the story they want to tell.

After all, they know it much better than I. They’re living it.

Fiction is about characters.

Fiction is character driven.

That’s it for Chapter 1. If you believe there’s something missing, please comment in the comments section below. I’ll either add it or explain why I didn’t.

Next time, Chapter 2: Determining Your Role in the Story

‘Til then, happy writing!

Harvey

The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.”

Same here.

I am a professional writer. This is my living. If you enjoy or learn from my work, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above. (It isn’t the same as subscribing to this blog.) As an alternative, consider dropping a tip into my Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

 

Writing the Character-Driven Story: Introduction

For these special posts, I’m providing only an excerpt via email. Please click Read More or Read On near the bottom of the email to read the entire post at the website.

Remember, you can get this and other of my works by subscription now at a substantial savings. To learn more about that, click the Subscribe to My Work tab on the website.

About the Blog Version

Writing the Character-Driven Story is going to be both an ebook and (probably) an online audio lecture. My publisher, StoneThread Publishing, probably will release it as a print book too.

But first I’m posting it as a series of chapters on the Pro Writers blog on my website. At any time until it’s published, you will be able to visit the tab that says Writing the Character-Driven Story and read the chapters free of charge.

You may also copy and paste the chapters into a document for your personal use if you want to.

However, please remember that all content on this blog is ©Harvey Stanbrough in the current year. I ask that you do not share what you copy from here with anyone except perhaps your significant other. And of course, if you quote from any of this material, please be sure to attribute authorship to me and to HarveyStanbrough.com.

As you read the chapters on the blog, I encourage you to leave comments in the comment section. I also encourage readers to read not only the chapters, but the comments as well. Often the comments will provide, or evoke from me, additional information that was not in the chapter originally.

One note— If you choose to comment below, you are granting me permission to use the essence or the whole of your comment in the ensuing b0ok(s) and/or audio course without monetary remuneration. I will not identify you by name.

If you want to leave a comment but you do NOT want me to use your comment, please put a sentence to that effect in the comment itself. I’ll be happy to omit it from the published version.

Introduction to the Actual Book

The very first thing you should know about this book, Writing the Character-Driven Story, is that the title is intentional. You’ll notice it isn’t called Writing the Character-Driven SHORT Story.

That’s because it’s equally effective for writing short stories, longer stories, or novels.

It’s great for flash fiction, which I always have defined as double-digit fiction, meaning it can be no longer than 99 words, not including the title.

It’s also great for short-short stories (the short-short), which is what many today are calling flash fiction or quick fiction or sudden fiction or whatever. Doesn’t matter. You can call a duck and eagle, but it will still be a duck. For me, the short-short is from 100 words up to 1,999 words.

And if you use the techniques in this book, you can effectively and more than efficiently write anything longer: the short story (2,000 to 6,999); the long short story or novelette (7,000 to 9,999); the novella (10,000 to 24,999); or the novel (short novel, 25,000 to 39,999; novel, 40,000 to 80,000; long novel, over 80,000).

Before you ask, these lengths are not “official” in any way. They are my own defined lengths. I use them only to determine approximately how much to charge for electronic and print editions of my own work.

But back to the techniques in this book. Will I guarantee they will work for you?

No. Not unless you’re asking me, for you and for your writing career, to be what a Personal Trainer is for a professional athlete. I mean, I can’t even guarantee that you’ll sit down and put your fingers on the keyboard, so I certainly can’t guarantee anything beyond that.

What I can tell you is that if you DO sit down at the keyboard and if you DO use the techniques in this book, you will have a great deal more fun than you’ve ever had with your clothes on. So that’s pretty good, right?

Definitions

Different writers and different writing instructors sometimes use different terms for the same thing. For example, what others call a “narrative beat” I call a “tag line.” If you don’t know what those things are, chances are you would benefit from my book, Writing Realistic Dialogue & Flash Fiction and/or my book, Punctuation for Writers, 2nd edition.

If you would rather listen to me blather on about such things, you can sign up for some of my Audio Lectures over at HarveyStanbrough.com/lecture-series. The courses are not expensive, and once you purchase one (or more) you may listen to them at your leisure, as many times as you like, as often as you like. You can also get those through subscription. Oh, and the Writing Realistic Dialogue course (Course 1) includes Punctuation for Writers. Okay, end of advertisement.

But here and now, just to be sure we’re on the same page, are my definitions for the following terms.

Story Starter — This is a catalyst to get you to an idea. It can be an idea born whole (a character with a problem in a setting) or it can be only a character or a problem or the setting. It also can be a lyric from a song or a line of dialogue or a sound or a smell or another physical stimulus.

Idea — This is a catalyst to get you to the keyboard. Nothing more, nothing less. An idea typically consist of a character with a problem in a setting.

Hook — This is the first striking sentence or paragraph. This is the first bit that forces the reader to read the next sentence, and the next, and the next.

Opening — This is the introductory scene, in which the reader is introduced to a character with a problem in a setting. That’s it. And the problem doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story.

Beginning — This is the first roughly one-quarter of the story. The beginning leads up to the first try-fail sequence. (Note that the beginning and the opening are not the same thing, although in a story of the right length they could be.)

Middle — This is the second two quarters (the middle half) of the story. This is the series of try-fail sequences.

End — This is the final one-quarter of the story. This is the final big try-fail or try-succeed scene and the big climax.

Validation (Resolution/Dénouement) — This is a few sentences or paragraphs or pages that serve to wrap up any loose ends. This is the part of the story that tells the reader it’s all right to close the book.

Setting — This is the locale in which the scene takes place.

Scene — This is what happens within a setting.

That’s the intro. If you believe there’s something missing, please comment in the comments section below. I’ll either add it or explain why I didn’t.

Next time, Chapter 1: What Do You Mean, Character-Driven?

‘Til then, happy writing!

Harvey

Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

If you enjoy my work, I hope you’ll also consider subscribing. For info, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above.

If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

Announcing a New Subscription Service

Hi Folks,

This is a revised post from earlier.

First, if you’ve ever felt you’re starting too late in life as a writer, please visit Dean Wesley Smith’s post on the topic. You’ll be glad you did.

Second, the next post in Pro Writers, probably around the end of this week, will be the Introduction and maybe the first chapter of my new nonfiction title, Writing the Character-Driven Story.

I will post successive chapters here, free, on my blog until the whole thing is finished and ready to be compiled and published. Until then and for a short time longer, you’ll be able to access it at the self-named tab on my website.

Afterward it will be available in ebook and probably print over at StoneThread Publishing and through your favorite vendor. So stay tuned for that. It will also be available through my new subscription service. (grin)

I make part of my living as a professional fiction writer and part as a nonfiction writer. In this Pro Writers blog and in The Daily Journal over on HEStanbrough.com, I do my best to pass along what I know and what I learn about writing as I go along.

I enjoy sharing that knowledge, and both blogs will be forever free of charge for as long as I keep writing them. However, for those who want more, today I’m announcing a new subscription service.

To see the subscription levels, please visit Subscribe to My Work. Clicking this link will open a new page.

If you have any questions about this new subscription service, please ask in the comments section below.

Otherwise I’ll be back in a few days with the first installment of Writing the Character-Driven Story.

‘Til then, happy writing.

Harvey

Something New

Hi Folks,

I’m about to try something I’ve never tried before.

One of my goals this year is to write at least six nonfiction books on writing or publishing.

To help me achieve that goal, I’m going to publish them right here first, on this blog, one chapter at a time and free of charge.

I will announce each book here when I start it. Then, each time I finish a chapter of the book, I’ll post it here, free, for everyone to see.

I welcome your comments on each chapter.

I also welcome you to copy and paste each chapter and the comments if you want, into a document for your own use. However, please remember that all content on this blog is ©Harvey Stanbrough 2016. I ask that you do not share what you copy from here with anyone except perhaps your significant other. And of course, if you quote from any of this material, please be sure to attribute authorship to me and to HarveyStanbrough.com.

When I’ve posted all the chapters and get the book back from my copyeditor, I’ll take those posts down. After that you’ll be able to buy the ebook and the print book at all the usual outlets.

But again, you can read it all free before that. All you have to do is show up. (grin) And of course, if you want to drop something in the kitty on your way out the door, donations are always welcome.

(Actually, I’ll have a pretty exciting announcement regarding donations soon as well. Stay tuned.)

The first nonfiction book in my lineup this year is Writing the Character-Driven Story.

I presented a whirlwind one-hour session on this in Green Valley sometime last year. Of course, I couldn’t begin to cover everything I wanted to cover or everything the attendees needed to hear.

Well, now I’m going to correct that oversight.

I’ll begin posting the chapters for Writing the Character-Driven Story right here sometime in the next few days. I suggest you watch for them. (grin)

While I’m posting the chapters of this book, I will not be posting my normal posts on the 1st, 11th, and 21st. But I suspect you won’t miss them once you start reading the chapters.

Hey listen, if you have friends who are not yet subscribers to this blog, NOW would be a great time for them to sign up. Lots of good free stuff coming your way. (grin)

That’s it for this time.

See you next time with the Introduction and maybe Chapter 1.

Happy writing,

Harvey

Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out or just click paypal.me/harveystanbrough. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much. If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

My appreciation to Dean Wesley Smith, from whom I flat stole the idea of putting up chapters of my nonfiction books here as I write them. Thanks, Dean.

Being Martha Ramis

being-martha-ramis-180At Bible Mission Church in Springer, South Dakota, the church secretary, Martha Ramis, lay yesterday’s mail on the corner of the pastor’s desk as usual, then turned away.

Was that a draft?

She turned back to glance toward the window.

No, the blinds were down and the window closed. Probably just her imagination from having recently come in from the cold.

She reached up to clasp her heavy brown coat near the collar as she turned to move through the door, then pulled it closed behind her.

Back in her own office—the pastor’s outer office—she removed her coat hung it on the free-standing coat rack next to the pastor’s door. She took off her matching hat and hung it over the hook that held the coat, then crossed to the chair behind her double-pedestal cherrywood desk.

Once she sat down, she swiveled the chair to face at right angles to her desk and leaned forward slightly over her laptop. It was balanced on a pull-out typing platform. Above it, at eye level if she were standing up, a print of Christ on the crucifix gazed balefully down at her. The bulk of her ancient desk lay to her left.

She glanced up and smiled pleasantly. Quietly, she said, “Now Lord, at least you’re already in Heaven. Why the stare?”

The print was canted slightly, not hanging straight as it should. Well, she would remember to straighten it the next time she got up. She nodded at the figure on the cross. “I’ll fix it next time I get up.”

Then she leaned forward again, her index fingers poised over the keyboard as she read to refresh her memory.

Ah yes. She’d left off right after the paragraph about the Ladies’ Auxiliary breakfast. She still had to add the introduction about the Bazaar and then the sections about the bake sale and the silent auction. And then, of course, the very special keynote address.

She frowned at the keyboard.

The hardest thing to learn about this newfangled machine was not to hit the Return key. She glanced at it and scowled. Well, the Enter key, when she reached the end of a line of type. The pastor had reminded her to hit that only when she reached the end of a paragraph.

Using this thing was a little like magic, but it wasn’t good magic. When she used a typewriter, the little ding at the end of each line and paragraph seemed like a reward. This thing was silent, even when the sound was turned on, even when she hit the Return—no, Enter—key at the end of a paragraph.

And the whole process resembled typing only in that it managed, somehow, to put letters and words on the fake page on the screen. There was no paper to touch or feed, no ink to smell, and no ding. No clacking of the risers striking paper. The whole thing was cold and impersonal. How did anyone ever put part of themselves into what they wrote on one of these things?

She thought again of the canted print on the wall above her and smiled. “Well,” she muttered, “we all have our crosses to bear.”

She leaned forward slightly, put her index fingers in the appropriate position on the keyboard, and typed the heading: Ladies’ Auxiliary Breakfast and Annual Fall Bazaar.

She leaned back in her chair again.

Oh, it would be quite the spectacle this year. Between Mrs. Ramis’ own special apple-tort, peach-premium and pineapple-upside-down pancakes and the other possibly less-desirable items the other ladies pitched in, it would be quite a breakfast.

And the Bazaar itself would be truly spectacular this year too.

There would be the usual smattering of baked goods. Of course, most of them would be a bit disappointing after Mrs. Ramis’ secret-recipe pancakes from the morning. But they would be adequate. And the silent auction probably would go at least as well as it had the past several years.

But this year—this year, the reverend himself would deliver a keystone speech.

She leaned forward again and, with renewed vigor, went back to tapping out the draft of the church newsletter.

After a few minutes she finished the introduction to the Bazaar section.

Next?

The bake sale and the silent auction would run concurrently. Which to type first?

Food leads to food. She could bridge the Bazaar introduction by going from the pancake breakfast before it to the bake sale afterward.

After all, the silent auction would lead to a veritable climax, a culmination during which winners were announced. And then what would surely be a heavenly keynote. Was there any possibility the pastor might bomb? None.

But no time now to get sidetracked with all that.

Food leads to food. Yes, that was the way to do it. That’s what she would do.

Again she poised her index fingers just so, then hunted, pecked and tapped until she got through the segment on the bake sale. Finally she sat back to read over it.

There was one paragraph reminding likely contributors which items were perennial best sellers. Cookies packaged three to a bag sold best. Cake was a close second when it was pre-sliced and when small paper plates and plastic forks were provided.

A second paragraph discussed best practices in pricing. The lower the price, the lesser the implied quality. Especially if the prices were lower than the customer might pay at the IGA for a similar product. Even though those mass-produced cakes and cookies were little more than poison repositories and collections of preservatives.

A third paragraph suggested what to do with the inevitable leftovers. There were always leftovers, most notably at the far end of the table. But the Food Pantry was only a few blocks down the street. Not that she’d ever seen the inside of it. All of her baked goods always went quickly.

She sat back and looked at the screen with a sense of satisfaction. There. Less than two hours after she’d begun, two thirds of the Ladies’ Auxiliary Breakfast and Annual Fall Bazaar segment of the newsletter was behind her.

She looked to the left to glance at the clock on the wall. Almost 9 a.m. She stood an excellent chance of finishing the entire segment before the pastor arrived for the day.

She leaned over the laptop again, index fingers poised for action.

But when she was only a few lines into the first paragraph about the silent auction, the front door to the rectory blew opened. A blast of chilly air swirled in past it.

Mrs. Ramis started at the sound, then spun left in her chair.

Just as the door slammed behind the Reverend Joseph McGinty.

He strode across the room and past the opposite end of her desk on his way into his office.

She turned farther in her chair, following him with her gaze, and smiled. “Morning, Reverend.”

But he held up his left hand like a running back stiff-arming an astute free safety. “Not now, Mrs. Ramis.”

And he flashed past her.

In the next instant, his right shoulder flexed beneath his coat as he turned door knob to his office. Then that door slammed behind him too.

The smile still on her face, Mrs. Ramis shrugged, then turned back around in her chair to face her laptop.

She quietly hummed the tune to “Bringing in the Sheaves” as she redirected her attention to the newsletter. She had to finish at least the current paragraph. This was an important issue.

The Ladies’ Auxiliary Breakfast and Annual Fall Bazaar was a great deal more than the sum of its parts. It was also the focal point of the church membership drive. And this year, the membership drive was even more important than supporting the Ladies’ Auxiliary.

Everyone who attended the breakfast, everyone who bought a baked good, and everyone who bid on the items in the silent auction would be asked their name, email address and telephone number. They would be entered in a special drawing to win an as-yet unspecified prize. And that list would form the basis of the church recruitment roll.

Membership had flagged in recent months. Well, membership growth had flagged. They hadn’t lost members, except the three who had gone on to their heavenly reward. A few of the elders had tied the seeming decline to the good reverend himself. All because growth had been more or less steady at a rate of one new member or two every month before he had accepted the call of the Springer Bible Mission Church.

But really, was it his fault three people had grown old and died? There was simply no excuse for it. Certainly it wasn’t owing to any disrespect or dislike in the community of the reverend himself. Nor was he to blame in any other way for the decline in new membership. He certainly wasn’t off putting. Not with those looks and that voice.

Though she couldn’t say the same about that wife of his.

Oh, she looked fine in that superficially pretty way all young women do. And her voice was pleasant enough, if curt the few times Mrs. Ramis heard it. But Marianne McGinty rode into town on a high horse, it seemed, and thus far she had refused to climb down. If she would only help her poor husband more, probably the church wouldn’t be in this bind.

Marianne McGinty seemed stand-offish, especially for a pastor’s wife. She was in church every Sunday of course, but she most often came in late and took a seat in a back pew. Not up front, as would a more supportive wife.

At first, Mrs. Ramis thought maybe she was remaining at the back so she could more easily take her place alongside her husband near the exit after the service to speak with the members of the congregation on their way out. That was one of the usual roles of a pastor’s wife. But more often than not, when services let out she was nowhere to be seen.

Not that Mrs. Ramis would ever make a point of checking up on the pastor’s wife. That was neither her business nor her proper place. But on more than one occasion, strictly by coincidence as she glanced around from her own seat in the front pew, she had noticed that Marianne McGinty was up and gone long before the final Amen had a chance to echo.

And outside of church, the other ladies seldom even saw her, much less had a chance to speak with her.

Mrs. Weatherby had spotted her once in her front yard, or so she said, tending to flowers. The story was subject to suspicion, of course, because Mrs. Weatherby was getting along in years. Besides, Mrs. Ramis could hardly imagine Marianne McGinty tending to anything other than her own image in a mirror. And Heaven itself knows looks aren’t everything.

In any case, before Mrs. Weatherby had been able to make a u-turn at the end of the block and drive back to the pastor’s house to say hello, Marianne McGinty already had ducked into the house.

Even setting aside Mrs. Weatherby’s age and probable lack of mental acuity, that certainly sounded par for the course for Marianne McGinty. Why, Mrs. Ramis herself had run into the pastor’s wife on one occasion at the local IGA. Being the friendly, outgoing person she was, even aside from the fact she was the church secretary and doubled as the reverend’s personal secretary, she made a point to smile and say hello. Strictly as an act of friendship, of course.

But Marianne McGinty had visibly straightened as if startled. Then she nodded stiffly and muttered “Hello” in response without the faintest hint of a smile before hurriedly—and pointedly—turning away to inspect a bin of Idaho russet potatoes. And anyone with any sense could plainly see those potatoes were fresh and all but perfect. There was nothing to inspect.

No, Marianne McGinty wasn’t friendly at all. Nor supportive of her husband in his role as pastor.

And that was part of the role of any wife—to be supportive. Wasn’t it? Even the bible itself said as much.

Not that Mrs. Ramis always agreed with biblical precepts, especially that bit about men being the heads of everything and the women filling less-important roles. She had a mind of her own, after all.

But she had spent a great deal of time in prayer on the matter and she was comforted to learn that God had His reasons. He had even seen fit to divulge them to her, at least enough to ease her social conscience.

Eventually He led her to understand that gender roles make perfect sense. After all, it was a given that it was the women’s task to blend one generation into the next and ensure the continuation of God’s plan. There was absolutely no arguing that point, and who would want to? Women were the link to the future from the past.

Men were more useful in dealing with the immediate, more utilitarian matters of the present, whether fighting wars or delivering sermons or protecting and safeguarding their women. Which is to say, their future. So again, it all came back to the women.

Likewise, men were tasked with both letting go of the past and not looking too closely at the future. Privately, Mrs. Ramis thought they probably couldn’t handle it, but she didn’t ask about that in her prayers.

And besides, those gender roles seemed perfectly natural to Martha. They were everywhere repeated in nature in the lesser creatures of the earth too, weren’t they?

So women’s lib or no women’s lib, women couldn’t realistically bridge the past to the future and dabble in the bland, day to day matters of the present, could they? Of course not.

But they could be supportive of their men. They could provide comfort and ease of mind. As surely as women bridged one generation to the next, so could they smooth the rough spots their men encountered in their day to day struggles as they dealt with matters of the present.

And that’s where Marianne McGinty fell down. Hard. It all fit together very snugly in God’s plan, but that was a plan Marianne McGinty apparently didn’t know much about. The same plan her husband, the Reverend McGinty, was following as if he were on rails. It was all very sad.

Why, the Reverend McGinty himself was a perfect example of the man fulfilling his role in dealing with the more mundane life things. His task, his immediate life calling and utility role, was to spread the Word of God.

Not that spreading the Word of the Lord was a mundane thing, but compared with ensuring the continuation of the species—well.

And the reverend not only served his role, he did so with aplomb. He was an excellent messenger in both form and deed.

In form, at a strapping six feet three inches and probably around two hundred very trim pounds, he was an impressive man. Not that looks counted for a lot. But his flock was composed of human beings, and human beings are an impressionable lot.

He was trim from his size-eleven feet—they must be at least size eleven—all the way up. He had broad shoulders, practically no hips to speak of and a flat profile from the lower part of his torso all the way down past—well, all the way down.

And the way he walked! His confident, center-of-attention stride forced all eyes to him when he entered a room. And there, those eyes would encounter a feast.

With dark, conservatively cut hair, those Pacific Ocean blue eyes and that chiseled, strong jawline and chin—a chin that even had a little dimple in the center of it—he inspired confidence in everyone around him. And of course it was all topped off with a smile that could easily land him a job doing commercials for dental services.

She stared for a moment at the screen of her laptop. What was she doing again?

Oh yes. The newsletter. This one was important. Second only in importance to the newsletter for next month. That one would announce the Christmas program. But she would get it done. In her long tenure as the church secretary, never once had she missed turning out a newsletter on time.

She sat back in her chair and imagined the pastor’s long strides. How he would look as he came through the double doors at the front of the auditorium to present the keynote address.

The way he walked, with insistent perfection.

The heel of the first shoe that struck the floor would announce his arrival. Then, with that perfect form, he would weave his way through the press of sinners and past the myriad tables to the podium at the front of the room.

But his form was only the appetizer.

And the man really was perfect in form and deed. The pastor. As a pastor, he was perfect in form and deed.

In deed—well, simply put, he would deliver the perfect keynote address. He would say the perfect words in the perfect order to grow their membership.

And how could he fail? His throbbing, smooth, deep baritone carried the Word of the Lord every Sunday with undeniable authority. And with a timbre that—well, as if it were being delivered by the archangel Gabriel himself.

She shifted in her chair.

When the multitude of heathens at the Bazaar heard him speak, most of them probably would sign up for a church membership on the spot. If for no other reason than to guarantee a place in the pews come the following Sunday.

There you have it. The man could as easily be a model, appearance or voice. He would undoubtedly be in high demand even at the top agencies. Yet he was humbled—and with just the right amount of humility—by his calling to spread the word of the Lord. Oh, the Reverend Joe McGinty was a man to be reckoned with. One who commanded the attention of others.

And a man like that should have a more supportive woman at his side.

One who cooked and served his supper.

One who commiserated and strived to allay his problems, not add to them.

One who rubbed his tired size-eleven feet and gladly did whatever else she could to soothe his journey.

But instead, he had Marianne. More’s the pity.

The woman couldn’t even be counted on to support him by so small an inconvenience as arriving a little early for a church service and sitting in the front pew. Even when her own husband was delivering the message! There was no telling how she treated him in private.

Mrs. Ramis sighed as she considered her poor pastor.

His must truly be a heroic struggle, and even more so at home than out in the world. Very sad.

And today, of all days, he obviously had something far out of the ordinary on his mind. Today, with the Ladies’ Auxiliary Breakfast and Annual Fall Bazaar and Membership Drive—she hastily retitled the lead story for the newsletter—a scant two weeks away, he was troubled with some terrible external matters.

But far be it from Mrs. Ramis to poke her nose in where it didn’t belong. She had quite enough to deal with in getting this newsletter out early enough to have a positive effect.

She straightened in her chair and poised her index fingers over the keyboard.

Whatever it was must be an external matter, for everything within the church ran like a well-oiled clockwork with a tightly wound spring. Besides, if it was something to do with the church, he would have talked with her about it.

Wouldn’t he?

Again, she sat back in her chair.

And whatever it was must be terrible because he always had a moment or two to chat on his way into his office. Occasionally she thought he might be a bit taken with her. Even a pastor is only a man first, after all. And he was well aware Mrs. Ramis was a young widow at only 42, which made her only seven years his senior.

Why, often he would stop to say hello even when he could plainly see Mrs. Ramis was busy. Of course, she always allowed the interruption. That was her job as the church secretary and her role as a woman. But this was the first time he’d ever simply flashed past with hardly a nod.

There definitely was something going on. Something external, and very probably something terrible.

And as usual his wife was nowhere to be seen.

Still, she had her duties.

She straightened again in the chair, then reached up to touch her hair.

But when she finished the newsletter, perhaps she would tap on the door and see whether he might want to release part of his burden. It was the least she could do.

A mental image flashed through her mind. She flushed pink and raised the fingertips of her right hand to her mouth. Quietly, she said, “Oh!” She shook her head slightly, then blinked and giggled.

Listening. Listening, of course, was what she meant. Allowing him to release part of his burden through the simple act of listening. That was the least she could do.

But not until she finished the newsletter. First things first.

She leaned forward again and put her fingers on the keyboard.

Now, where was she?

The door to the pastor’s office clicked and swung open. “Uh, Mrs. Ramis, do you have a moment?”

She swiveled around in her chair, her eyebrows arched. She was flush for some reason. “What? Oh, I mean, yes.” She touched her hair. “Yes, of course.” She put the heels of her hands on the seat of her chair and started to rise.

He held up one hand. “No, that’s fine. I just wanted to say, about the door.” He jerked one thumb over his shoulder. “The uh—the wind. It came in through my window and slammed it.” He forced his best smile. “Just wanted you to know nothing’s wrong.”

Her shoulders sagged the tiniest bit. “Oh. All right.” Then she smiled, raised one hand and giggled. “Well, the Lord be praised.”

He canted his head slightly, then nodded. “All right.” He closed the door. Gently.

She turned back to the keyboard.

Definitely something external to the church. And definitely something terrible.

Probably that Marianne McGinty.

* * * * * * *

 

Stopping Points

Hi Folks,

Okay, first, wishing you a Happy New Year. May it be everything you want it to be.

As I write this, I recently visited Dean Wesley Smith’s website (link below) and read some of the comments there. The comments are almost always as informative as the posts themselves. In fact, I regularly pass along tidbits from his site over on my Daily Journal. (Subscription info below.)

To sign up for my diary of a professional writer’s journey and learn by osmosis, click The Daily Journal. Today all the numbers reset to zero. Come along and watch them grow as I head for my goal of one-million published words of fiction in one year.

In one comment, the writer asked whether there was some workshop she could take to get her over places where her writing grinds to a halt: a sticking point.

But let me start at the beginning.

One massive sticking point that is common to almost every writer and almost every novel is the 1/3 point in the novel. That’s where the new and shiny has worn off. That’s also where the critical voice starts to creep in. The writing feels and looks like crap. It’s horrible. Nothing the novelist does seems to work. And on and on and on.

Many, many novels die at this point. This is the point where the writer puts the unfinished story in a folder for “later.” But most often there is no “later.” Most often, the story just dies.

And the writer has just taught his subconscious that what he wants to do is write 1/3 of a novel and then stop.

Most writers also believe this was only a fluke, that it will go more smoothly next time. So they come up with another bright, shiny, new idea and off they go, fingers flying over the keyboard.

Then they get to the 1/3 point. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I experience the same thing in every novel I write. I also experienced it at the 1/3 point through the 9-book series I wrote over the past year. As I wrote above, this is a common sticking point.

The commenter on Dean’s post wrote that at that point she wanted to go to the beach, build a bonfire, beat her computer to a pulp and toss it in. The one thing she didn’t mention was Writing.

I’ve discovered only one way to get over that sticking point. First, forget the beach, the bonfire and all the other stuff.

Sit down at your computer and put your fingers on the keyboard.

Read back a little way in the story to get back in touch with it. If you see something you want to change, a word here and there, do it as you read forward. (Caution: don’t allow your conscious mind to have you check for sentence structure, how many times you use “that” in a paragraph, etc. That’s all stuff to make you stop writing.)

And when you come to the place where you stalled, Just Write the Next Sentence.

Now the secret is to write whatever comes. Don’t think about it or analyze it. Just Write It. Don’t wonder where it’s going. Just Write It.

Then write the next sentence. Then write the next sentence. Before you know it, the story will be flashing past and your fingers will be moving over the keyboard almost faster than you can think.

You will be surprising yourself with characters, situations, and more that probably you never would have thought of with your conscious, critical mind.

My other personal big sticking point is when I realize I’m boring myself to death as I’m writing.If you get bored while you’re writing, read on. I have a fix for that too, not that you’ll like it. (grin)

When I get bored with the story as I’m writing it, IN EVERY CASE that has been because somewhere back in the story, I let my conscious mind tell me “Hey, you need to put in this character type or you need to insert this situation.” It’s always a character type or a type of situation that I’ve written before, so I’m comfortable with it.

Get it? My conscious mind is trying to protect me again. Writing this character type or situation is SAFE because I’ve done it before. It’s much safer than just trusting my subconscious and writing off into the dark.

Now notice that I’ve been practicing writing off into the dark (allowing my subconscious to tell the story) since April 2014. Yet I still have to guard against my conscious, critical mind horning in.

For me this sort of thing usually happens when I’ve hit the end of a scene where another character or two are planning a face-off with a bad guy and I don’t know who the bad guy is. Then I get worried and want to manufacture a bad guy. Again, wrong approach! That’s the conscious, critical mind.

This actually happened to me yesterday (as I write this) in my current novel. I was bored with what I was writing. Then I realized the symptom.

So I stopped and backed up until I found the place where I had allowed my conscious mind to force a particular character type on the story. I deleted everything from that point forward (a little over 4600 words). I had struggled through writing those words over two days. But “struggled” is the key word. I should have recognized the problem sooner.

Then I got up and took a short break.

When I came back, I put my fingers on the keyboard and wrote the first thing that came to mind. All I knew was that it had to be about a guy, the potential bad guy.

After that, over three sessions, I wrote just under 3,000 words and there’s no end in sight. And the character is a REAL bad guy and one I would never have come up with in my conscious mind. In fact, there might be a whole other novel waiting in the wings about this guy, or his type.

UPDATE: I had hoped to finish that novel by yesterday, December 31, but now it looks like the characters will close it out today or tomorrow. That’s fine. I love writing off into the dark. (grin) The characters and story constantly surprise me, and that means they/it will also surprise the reader. That’s what makes for return readers.

The entire key is learning (over and over again) to Trust yourself (your subconscious) to tell a story.

Now most of you reading this will come up with an excuse to justify NOT doing it. In fact, most of you won’t even try it.

That’s fine. Every writer is different, and being free of all the silly myths about writing is a truly frightening thing. Do what works for you. Seriously. This blog is worth precisely what you choose to pay for it, whether in time or money.

I’m just sayin’, what Dean’s preaching on his site really does work.

Until next time, happy writing.

Harvey

Here is a direct link to Dean’s website. I recommend you check back every day. Seriously.

To receive a free short story every week in your email, click Story of the Week.

If you want to learn the nuts and bolts of writing (and even Writing Off Into the Dark) from a valid source, check out my Audio Lectures.

Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out or just click paypal.me/harveystanbrough. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much. If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.