Friday, December 21, 2012

Benefactors & Believers

The other day I got the call. My novel made the cut at Carina Press and so I have officially “sold” my contemporary erotic romance.

My first call was to my Mother. She’s been a supporter, cheerleader, critic, beta reader and grammar source since I began to seriously pursue my writing.

My second call would have been to my friend Milton Burton. A writer, an incredible mind, and my biggest fan, I can hear in my mind the big booming voice of congratulations. Sadly, Milton passed away a year ago today, and after nearly five years of support, missed my first publication, and the sale of my first novel.

The third person I told was an attorney at the entertainment law firm where I work. That may sound odd – I told her before I announced it to my RWA NYC chapter mates, or my cohorts on my Yahoo erotic writers’ loop, Let Me Get You Hot & Bothered – but it really is not.
This lady, a wonderful, creative talent in her own right as well as a brilliant attorney, is a member of a select group I came to call My Benefactors. A few years back, she and four other attorneys I worked for pooled their gift one Christmas and gave me a laptop. One of them scoped out the best model, based on what I’d mentioned I was looking for. It was a teary moment and one that I will never forget, because they were all exhibiting their full support for what I was attempting.

That attorney had produced and directed her own documentary while at film school, before law school. Another of the bunch was a stand-up comedian when he wasn’t parsing legal contracts. A third was a screenwriter hawking his own work to Hollywood connections. So they, more than some, perhaps, got me, got my dream and showed me the ultimate in support.

When I gave her the news, she started whooping, yelling, and dragged me out of her office into another attorney’s office to share the news. A third attorney heard the ruckus and came running in, also hugging me in congratulations.

Every single one of the attorneys I work for gave me heartfelt congratulations. Even my one boss who looked askance and asked if I’d gotten a big advance. I have a feeling he was nervous I’d get an E L James deal and leave him high and dry, assistant-wise. It was a delightful way to spend the afternoon.

No one even objected when I was less than functional that day.

Then came the surprise party we were throwing for a paralegal who was off to have her baby. There was cake and cheers, and lots of frivolity.

Suddenly my boss pulled out a bottle of champagne, and they filled glasses and passed them around to the entire department of attorneys and staff, and everyone toasted my book sale.
I hear often of authors, particularly those who write steamy or erotic romance, who have to keep their passion and work secret from employers. Here at my home away from home? Not only have they supported me all along, not only have they cheered my successes as they rolled in, from contests, to completing manuscripts, to sales, but they have told their spouses, who’ve also called to congratulate me. One has offered her husband’s photographic services for my author photo. The attorney who specializes in publishing has offered his help. The Marketing Director posted my news on the Firm’s Intranet calling my book “erotic romance”. My boss also tells everyone that I’m not the first assistant to “make good”, publishing-wise. Because many years ago another secretary stayed late at night to type her book.

She’s a client now: A NY Times Best Seller, with numerous films made of her books starring the crème de la crème of Hollywood talent.

And here at my job, the attorneys for whom I work, and others in the office, all insist they’ll be buying my book the moment it is released, even though they know full well that they’ll be needing those asbestos gloves when they do.

I’m very fortunate that my endeavors need not be hidden. And more fortunate indeed, that my employers are cheering me on.

With good luck, perhaps the success of our genre will make it a respectable pursuit and fewer and fewer authors will have to hide the fruits of their passionate labors from co-workers, friends and family.

For now, I simply thank my lucky stars that I’m already there.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Muse Of Fire: The Magic of Words

“Mind your speech a little lest you should mar your fortunes.” William Shakespeare

Words are the wondrous tools that can make or break a writer’s fortune. Shakespeare was an alchemist with words. He created magic for his audiences and readers alike. No emotion stymied him. No description stumped him. His characters’ names were perfection, his titles resonant.

He is acknowledged to have altered words to suit his purposes, and to create words when none in his repertoire suited his purposes.

Words. Such a little name for such varied things. You begin each story you tell with a single word. And then you build upon it, creating sentences, paragraphs, and ultimately collect them in groupings of thousands, which you bind together with your creativity, and present to your readers in the hope that this collection enthralls and entrances.

Words are, literally, everywhere around you, so there is vast opportunity to discover and hoard them. Entire books are devoted to nothing but words: Dictionaries and thesauri abound, each one different than the next. There are specialty books about words: Cultural words, slang words, dirty words, curse words, sex words. There are books by and about word lovers, like Ammon Shea Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. There are linguistic tomes, and studies of etymology.

I grew up in a home where my mother kept her dictionary beside her chair. She never failed to use it on a daily basis, and I adopted the habit. Whether to look up a word I may have stumbled upon but did not know, to check the spelling, determine the correct usage, or find out the etymological origins of the word, I am a dictionary and word lover. Every time I open one of these books I discover another golden nugget of literary goodness to add to my word coffers. At the moment I am especially enamored of ilk, sepulcher, crapulous, dogsbody, Machiavellian and loathsome.

I’ve wondered how many words I know? Hundreds? Thousands? Could it be possible to know a million words?

What words amuse and beguile you? As writers words are our basic stock in trade. We can create nothing without them. They are like amazing puzzles –waiting to be arranged in any one of countless combinations to express your imaginative story. Some words are mundane, some are illuminating. Writing romance fiction we have some unique challenges, as well as some typical writing challenges. We must not be purple prosey. So finding alternative words and phrases to express the heaving bosom or the throbbing manhood or to describe yet again a heroine’s tresses or a hero’s eyes, can require a Sherlockian level of linguistic skill.

Overuse of a word, as Isabo Kelly showed us, a verbal tic, can deaden your writing. Pedestrian or repetitive word choices can lead to flat writing, a failure to communicate crisply, and will stifle your power to sweep your reader along into the world of your story.

Wordsmith and wag, Mark Twain (his own pseudonymous name a word play, as “mark twain” was the cry used by riverboat men when measuring the depth of the water) said: “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

And Anton Chekhov, dramatist and short story writer extraordinaire admonishes writers to value and use their words thusly: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Word choices are the difference between creating characters with unique voices, or caricatures of humanity; the difference between clarity and confusion, boring or electrifying tales, hilarious or dull writing, magical or mundane stories. Word choices enable you to create the perfect title, the perfect character name, and a vast fictional world. Would the iconic southern belle have captured our imagination as well if she had been named “Pansy”, as Margaret Mitchell originally intended? Would Harry’s Hogwarts School of Wizardry be as whimsical were it named Eton? Word choices set our stories – they help conjure time and place and mood and tempo. Words can be alliterative or rhyming. They can create the tintinnabulation of the bells. Or enhance the character of Severus Snape with use of a sibilant name. Unfortunate word choices can make a reader laugh as well. A malapropism when words are confused – the character joke embodied in Richard Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop. Mistaken word choices can appall an editor. Unnecessary verbosity when a single brilliant word will do can turn off both editor and reader. Hackneyed choices, uninspired choices - when there are so many words to choose among, why ever settle for second best?

Ah, but when the words are chosen with love and care? They are like the mixing of the perfect love potion – one that intoxicates your reader.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Muse of Fire: If Shakespeare Knew Then What We Know Now - Science & Writing Romance

Have you ever found yourself reading a romance and experienced one or more of the following: Teariness? Knots in your stomach? Smiling? Arousal? Heartbreak? It could be that the author of that novel was just THAT GOOD. Or it could be partly because of the physical experience of being a reader. It may seem odd, but science and fiction go hand in hand and romance fiction, in particular, in understanding the way people read; which can in turn guide us in how we write.

In Shakespeare’s day science was ruled in large part by superstition. Yet even without a Sigmund Freud to parse the human psyche, he wrote complex characters and timeless stories that continue to be beloved the world over. But what would he have created if he’d had access to the information we have today? Information provided by constantly advancing technology which has uncovered wondrous information about people, the human sexual and romantic experience, and how readers read?

How much time do you devote to the study of human physiology, neurobiology, psychology and sociology when you craft your stories? It is not as far-fetched a question as it sounds. We research sex and relationships, certainly, to ensure honest portrayals of what we write: love. But there is so much more to be discovered; discoveries that can add richness and astute detail and at the same time, be created to be read with the greatest impact.

How much thought do you give to the experience of a reader’s reading of your novel when writing? Not just the craft questions like plot, pacing, grammar and myriad other details: Do you think of how readers read? How the physical act of viewing words becomes recognition and how they engage, and are translated in, a reader’s mind?

In past workshops I’ve discussed the fact that the average reader “hears” the words she is reading, and how that knowledge can help author craft successful passages by choosing and arranging words to maximum effect. In another workshop on the five senses, I pointed out the difference in the way scent is interpreted by our brains from touch, sound and sight; scent is translated in a combination of brain activity, one linking the sensory experience with memory and feelings, making scent an exceptionally powerful sensory detail to use. I am purely fascinated by this kind of revelatory reading, not just for the science but for how I can apply this information to my writing.

Two recent articles in The New York Times, “Your Brain On Fiction” by Anne Murphy Paul (Sunday Review sec., 3/18/12) and “The Brain On Love” by Diane Ackerman (Sunday Review sec., 3/25/12) offer amazing theory and research.

In Paul’s article, fascinating details are revealed. For example, the choice of descriptive words being read alters the neurological response in a reader. Words that invoke touch sensations, “rouse the sensory cortex”. So a choice such as “the singer had a velvet voice” evokes a more potent response than does “the singer had a pleasing voice”. Further, words like lavender and cinnamon and other scent descriptors, elicit a response not just from the expected areas where language is processed, but other areas devoted to scent interpretation. Additionally, words describing motion “stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas”, leading to revelations that these words incite activity in the motor cortex – the area of the brain involved with movement. Final observations indicate that the brain “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life”.

In addition to the physical, there are the social implications. One psychologist uncovered that “there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals”, and as readers we “identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers”. Other scientists have shown that readers learn from their reading and, particularly in social situations, put this learned experience into play in real life (the “theory of mind”). Contrary to the British doctor who was certain that reading romance would make women have unreal expectations, could it be romance novels actually lead to healthier and more successful loving relationships?

Beyond the understanding of a reader’s physical perception, there is also the psychology and sociology of love, sex, romance and human relationships to explore.

Esquire magazine’s April sex survey issue revealed some startling (to me, at least) results: Men actually prefer smaller (albeit “perky”) breasts to more bountiful bosoms. And the preferred sexual position with 30% of the vote is cowgirl (or woman on top) which beat out the old standard missionary position by 2% points. The author’s own informal survey showed that 8 out of 10 men prefer giving oral sex to receiving it.

Another source’s study showed that the first thing a man notices about a woman is a gorgeous head of hair (legs, lips, face and body lag behind). And yet another study showed men react most strongly to women in red.

A past NY Times article discussed studies which provided new information about men, women and physical attraction; information that challenged commonly held thoughts about attraction and desire. Science continues to uncover challenges to long-held beliefs in numerous areas, which shed light not just on human physiology, but on the human experience itself – and how the two are interconnected.

In Ackerman’s article she delves into the new field of “interpersonal neurobiology”, in which studies have shown that people are actually neurologically changed in the course of relationships. Lovers bond in a fashion similar to the bonding of mother and child, and literal physical changes occur in the brain. Science, too, has actually explained the “whys” of the feelings following break-ups that our heart is “breaking”, or you can feel physically ill. Just as a disastrous romance can do that, being in a happy relationship changes the partners’ stress levels, fear reactions and actual physical perceptions. Women in happy relationships were given shocks to the ankles while alone, and their physical reactions gauged. They were then put together with their partner, holding hands and this time the shocks produced much reduced pain responses in the women. In another study, partners viewing a picture of a loved one experienced a “lighting up” of the reward centers in their brains. Ackerman concludes that “Loving relationships alter the brain the most significantly”.

Articles and books on these subjects can prove wonderfully enlightening for a writer who seeks to imbue her human characters with as much complex subtlety as possible, while engaging her readers on every level, from the conscious to the subconscious. So the next time you spy an article on science – don’t automatically pass it by. You never know what you’ll learn!

Can you imagine what amazing use Bill S. would have made with this knowledge?

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Muse of Fire: Beware The Ides of March - Shakespeare's Villains & Creating Great Antagonists

“I am determined to prove a villain … plots have I laid, inductions dangerous…So speaks Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s, and dramatic literatures – most villains characters. He is the Rambo of antagonists, and a perfect example of the value of crafting a strong adversary to ensure powerful conflict and a titanic battle for your heroic protagonists.

Richard’s villainy consumes the play and his plotting touches everyone in his sphere, and some, like Anne, who’d prefer to be as far removed from his sphere as possible – a vain hope unfortunately. Yet in true romance style, Richard (though he’s Shakespeare’s protagonist in the play) gets his fated comeuppance – in addition to the various human adversaries, he is ultimately brought low by that classical antagonist: Fate – “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

Creating strong, powerful, cunning, dastardly villains or antagonists is a must in romance. Whether in a romantic suspense where the adversary is a real villain with homicide on his mind, stalking the heroine, whom she and her hero must best in bloody, mortal combat, or a fantasy wherein the lovers are up against the power and weight of magical plotting by denizens of a rival kingdom, or a contemporary category story with a hostile takeover adversary who must be bested in the boardroom, the strength of your novel’s villain determines in the large measure the intensity, and strength, of your conflict. Which leads to a riveting story readers cannot put down.

Shakespeare has peopled his pantheon with villainous characters of every stripe: Richard III, Iago, Lady MacBeth and the Mr., Shylock, Brutus, Gertrude and Claudius, Goneril and Regan, and “Measure for Measure’s” Angelo. Men, women, Mother Nature makes an appearance on several occasions (“The Tempest”, “King Lear”) and as is evidenced in “Richard III”, even Fate plays a major adversarial role. These characters present a master class in the crafting of that dark force you must set against your heroic tag team. And further, they provide great examples of classic motivations: Lust for power, greed, jealousy, revenge, lust and that pure Machiavellian sociopathic drive that is such fun. Iago is a wonderfully sinister example as he drives Othello to murder. While Othello commits the crime in a jealous rage, it is the cold calculation of Iago as he plants the insidious seeds that is really chilling.

Lady MacBeth is a mere manipulator by comparison, but while she admonishes her husband to “Screw your courage to the sticking place and we’ll not fail!”, once he has carried out their plan, her resolve disintegrates into madness over the deeds. It is a great example of macabre hand-wringing perfection as she bemoans, “Out, damned spot! Out I say!”.

A more benign villainy is that perpetrated by Lear’s daughters, Regan and Goneril – though in our story, Cordelia would naturally emerge victorious in that sibling grudge match.

Even the whimsical Puck plays the antagonist as he sets humans and gods on a merry love chase in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

Henry VI, as in many an historical romance or sci-fi opera, is up against an entire kingdom, which challenges rouses Shakespeare’s royal hero to towering, heroic heights:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!

. . .

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

Set it anywhere you like, that is major conflict and sets the stage for wonderful acts of courage on the part of your hero!

The canon of the Bard on Avon is a go-to-guide for villainy and conflict. Hannibal Lecter is no match for the “crook backed” King Richard himself. So get thee to a library (or B&N or Amazon) and grab a play, any play, and start plotting your OWN dangerous inductions!

If you’d like to take a gander at a broader spectrum of bad guys, there are any number of plays with terrific adversaries throughout drama. The threat of Nazi’s is the crux of Lillian Hellman’s “Watch on the Rhine”, and in her “Children’s Hour, it is a cold and cruel society set against the two young teachers. A town willing to go to extreme lengths figures in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s “The Visit” as well, and again in Tennessee Williams “Sweet Bird of Youth”, as they castrate the anti-hero, Chance Wayne. Judge and jury square off in Ayn Rand’s “Night of January 16”. Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is a great manipulator. It is the hand of fate, however, who hovers over some tragic folk – Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and Lola and Doc Delaney in Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba”. Williams has a great hand at the macabre too, with the driven villainy of Mrs. Venable – who out-villains even the carnivorous pre-teen cannibals in “Suddenly, Last Summer”. Familial adversaries abound, as well, from the classic “Antigone” and “Oedipus”, to O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude” and “Desire Under the Elms”. The classic canon gives us infanticide and that complex murdering mom, Medea. Family dynamics, coupled with addiction and madness drive the characters in O’Neill’s masterpiece, “Long Day’s Journey into Night”. Add: Amadeus, The Petrified Forest, and Glengarry Glen Ross and you’ve made a good start.

Now create villains that make your readers root for your lovers – even as they fear the worst!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

O, For A Muse of Fire: Shakespeare’s Inspiring Love Scenes

Like a Costco of love scenes, Shakespeare has something for everyone. While there is no sex on the page, there is plenty of innuendo. Some rowdy, some sly, some witty, love scenes of every flavor abound from passionate, lusty, or dark, to outrageously funny, poignant, or earnest.

Shakespeare’s lovers are virginal youths, gods and goddesses, attractive opposites, and murderous spouses. The wonder of Shakespeare’s characters in love, coupled with his brilliant language – that can be bawdy, or transcendent – is something you will be struck by again and again. You’ll never fail to find gems within his work that will inspire your own creation of both evocative love scenes and rich characters.

Revisit the most famous, and oft-quoted, of his plays – “Romeo and Juliet” – and you’ll be wallowing in romance, love, desire, and rapturous words of love. He captures with eloquence the youthful energy and passion of the pair. Witness the speeches of Romeo and his Juliet where their impatience and lust are so evident. Romeo’s famous Act II, Scene II speech “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks, It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.”, conveys his emotions and hormones running amuck. And Juliet, as she awaits the return of Nurse, her agitation blatantly clear, bemoans, “O, she is lame! . . . Had she affections and warm youthful blood, She would be as swift in motion as a ball;”. Later, the all-encompassing power of her love is laid out for the reader in Act II, Scene II with its stunning conclusion:

“…Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
O, I have bought the mansion of a love,
But not possess’d it; and though I am sold,
Not yet enjoy’d. …”

On the opposite end of the love scene spectrum, you have the witty adult banter replete with sexual innuendo, foreplay if you will, between Kate and Petruchio, in “The Taming of the Shrew”. This famous meeting is a terrific example of Shakespeare’s bawdy bent (Act II, Scene I):

Kate: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
Petruchio: My remedy is then to pluck it out.
Kate: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.
Petruchio: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting?
In his tail!
Kate: In his tongue
Petruchio: Whose tongue?
Kate: Yours, if you talk of tales; and so farewell.
Petruchio: What, with my tongue in your tail?
Nay, come again,
Good Kate, I am a gentleman.
Kate: That I’ll try

For the author crafting love scenes reading the plays of Shakespeare provides a bountiful wealth of inspiration.

In addition to his plays, there is also the breathtaking beauty of his poems and sonnets – rife with intense romantic emotions. The most famous, perhaps, Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), presents a lover’s litany to his lady of all her beloved characteristics. But my personal favorite literally chokes me up. In a few short lines it expresses the all-encompassing power of love:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

To paraphrase Portia, I rest my case.

P.S. Of course, among the canon of dramatic literature, lovers and love scenes abound. For other tastes, you might try:

“Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” – a great exploration of post-coital emotions by John Patrick Shanley

“Talk To Me Like The Rain and Let Me Listen” – a lyrical outpouring between 2 lovers exposing their deepest longings, by the master, Tennessee Williams.

“Frankie and Johnny In The Claire du Lune” - Terence McNally’s quiet exploration between two strangers, hesitate, ordinary, who succumb to loneliness and longing. This is an exquisite, passionate play, as lilting as the song the title it references.

“Fool For Love” – Again, this Sam Shepard play is sizzling with erotic tension and action between the two incestuous sibling lovers.

“Desire Under the Elms” – Like some other plays of Eugene O’Neill, “Anna Christie” and “A Moon For the Misbegotten”, “Desire”, with its theme of forbidden lust and love, is a deep and dark exploration of the human heart.

One of the most tortured pair of lovers in all of dramatic literature is Tennessee Williams’ very own Maggie the Cat and her husband Brick. The dynamics of familial pressures on a couple, Brick’s tormented secrets, and Maggie’s unrequited lust for her handsome husband are brilliantly explored. And perhaps the universal desperation of lovers’ can be summed up in Maggie’s classic speech:

“You know, if I thought you would never, never, never make love to me again – I would go downstairs to the kitchen and pick out the longest and sharpest knife I could find and stick it straight into my heart, I swear that I would! But the one thing I don’t have is the charm of the defeated, my hat is still I the ring and I am determined to win! What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? I wish I knew . . . Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can . . . Later tonight I’m going to tell you I love you an’ maybe by that time you’ll be drunk enough to believe me…”

Friday, June 1, 2012

Heroes Found - And Lost

I like my heroes flawed. Conflicted, tormented, filled with issues, dark desires, contrary natures and imperfect. Paragons of heroic virtue bore me. In all the books I read and enjoy most the heroine (often flawed in her own ways) recognizes the hero’s flaws – but also the rock solid man beneath those flaws. And she is strong enough to love him in spite of them and help him become a better man in the bargain. If he has no reason to grow, why read the book?

Four years ago I discovered two heroes. Six months ago today, I lost them both. Sheriff Bo Handel, of Cado County, Texas populated several Southern noir crime novels, and a number of short stories. He was not a romance hero. Bo was older, a bit out of shape, and not as handsome a devil as we expect in our romances. But he had all the makings of a true romantic hero. He had flaws, but had faced them. He was brave, courageous, loyal and compassionate. He was a sexual animal true to his woman, a younger female deputy in his department – while never forgetting the memory of his deceased wife. He was good with a gun, fearsome with bad guys, and a force to be reckoned with by the foolish, ignorant, lazy, stupid, criminal and stuck-up. He was not above blackmailing a corrupt politician – but only to get more money for the salaries for his officers. He did not always equate right and wrong with what was necessarily legal or not. But his choices were always what he knew was honorable in his heart. His creator had hopes for a film option for his stories, and relished the thought of Tommy Lee Jones being cast as the crusty lawman.

Bo Handel was also not a surprising character to be have sprung from the fertile mind of my real-life hero, Milton T. Burton, of Tyler, Texas. Milton possessed many of Bo’s own qualities, from his diverse interests, feisty sense of humor, ill-tolerance of the fools of the world, and his treatment of women. And in truth, Milton himself possessed great vocal similarity to Tommy Lee Jones.

Milton passed away on December 1, 2011, after fighting valiantly against a series of ailments, including a hospital acquired infection, that in the end wore out his considerable, but not unlimited, strength. I was able to speak with him one last time two days before he died. I think he knew then that he wasn’t going to make it, but he never made a complaint. That’s certainly my idea of a hero. Before he died, he told his daughter that he had lived a good life. And while I knew of the trials he’d suffered, I knew too of his staunch love for his family, the joy in his diverse friendships, as well as the tremendous pleasure he took from the simplest of things – good food, good books, rousing conversation, the arts including theatre and music, as well as great films. He was tough, but funny, a redneck intellectual, and a curmudgeonly but comforting man.

Milton and I met, if you will, on a writers’ forum. He said he liked my sense of humor, and that I, too, was a writer, and invited me to a forum of his own, unlike any other, and I met a number of other wonderful, eccentric folk, thanks to him. He started asking my opinion of his writing, and from there it was off to the races. We began talking on the phone, and once we developed a personal relationship it was as if we’d been friends for years.

Every day, often several times throughout the day, I’d be greeted by Milton’s basso profundo, “Howdy, how you be?” greeting. Inconsequential topics, jokes, a good meal, a great video discovered, and most often, writing discussions were what we talked about. Our friendship morphed slowly, sweetly, into something more, though we never had the chance to meet. His Texas drawl and his belly laugh brightened many dark times for me, and he never failed to offer his sympathy, advice and support when I needed it. He also nudged me mercilessly about my writing if he felt I wasn’t producing. I was his reader, his cheerleader, and press rep. He called me his girlfriend, and I called him my man. Silly perhaps for 2 physical strangers, of more than a certain age, but true. His daughter, at the end of his days, told me she knew how very much I meant to him, and that I had added a great deal of enjoyment to his life.

So fictional Texas hero Bo Handel has ridden into the sunset. Alive on the pages of Milton’s published books, and the unpublished manuscripts I’m fortunate enough to have, yet no more adventures lie in store. Because my very own Texas hero is gone, too. Milton’s author’s bio said he’d been variously a college professor, cattleman, and political advisor but he’d been far more. He was most certainly flawed and would be the first to admit it. He was tortured, too. By his own mistakes, and by the bad hand fate had sometimes dealt him, most importantly in the death of his young son, George, who he mourned until the day he died. But he triumphed against adversity by sheer dint of willpower. He was a great friend, a generous mentor, a devoted father, beloved grandfather, and mischievous lover. And I know that of great importance to him, Milton was simply a superb storyteller. He never quit writing. He finished the final galleys of his last book, Mortal Remains, literally days before he went into the hospital. It was his swan song, and I know it would have pleased him had he known it would be his last work.

Over the years, Milton sent me dozens of photographs. I have saved them all, but I keep one of the last ones he sent me close at hand. It is a picture of his writing desk where he nurtured his fertile and creative imagination and wrote great tales of good, evil, men, women, and the world he loved.

Above his desk hangs the Confederate flag. On it sits, among the writing implements, his pipe. Against the desk lean his crutches.

I keep this picture close because I miss him. And because whenever I look at it, I can hear him say in his twanging growl:

“What have you written today?”

Friday, May 25, 2012

Mining Drama for Writing Gold

Many of you have heard me mention my experience with (as an actress for 20 years), and use of, dramatic literature as a tool in my own fiction writing. In my dialogue portion of a past workshop, I stressed how valuable I felt this experience was in learning to craft effective dialogue in fiction. As plays do not have narrative, the full weight of the storytelling lies with the dialogue. In my workshop on “voice”, I used the example of Shakespeare’s use of word choices in helping to define his characters including sibilant “s”s in Richard III’s dialogue, which lend a reptilian quality to his speech. And I’ve always been a fan of Shakespeare’s deft hand with description – in the often used form of the prologues - as in this segment of the Act IV “Henry V” Prologue, in which we’re swept into the scene with just a few lines:

From camp to camp through the foul womb of night
The hum of either army stilly sounds,
That the fixed sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other's watch:
Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
Each battle sees the other's umber'd face;
Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
Piercing the night's dull ear, and from the tents
The armourers, accomplishing the knights,
With busy hammers closing rivets up,
Give dreadful note of preparation:
The country cocks do crow, the clocks do toll,
And the third hour of drowsy morning name.

or a Chorus, as used in “Romeo and Juliet” to convey “fair Verona, where we lay our scene”.
In studying dramatic works, you can uncover helpful clues and guidance for every aspect of narrative fiction, from plot to characterization, to description, theme, conflict – in addition to dialogue. Plays are the short, sweet, easily dissected lessons to study that might aid you in your own writing.

My favorite playwright, William Shakespeare, provides a cornucopia of material for study. His plays represent storytelling of every stripe, including romances, comedies, tragedies, histories, and even paranormal tales. They’re rife with great ideas and examples for writers.
Look at plot. How many of you have been asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”. Folks are asking you, of course, how you come up with your plots. I’m not talking copying, of course, or “stealing” the plots in their detailed entirety. But you CAN be inspired by elements found there.

You’ve heard the lament, “She stole my idea!”. But the fact that another author’s story has a similar skeletal structure – i.e. plot – should not concern you. After all, there are a finite number of plots and it isn’t the plot, but the full expression of your story adorning that plot – the story flesh on the plot bones – that make the difference between stories with similar plots. And if you pare down a plot to a one-line description? “Guy meets girl, they fall head in heels in love, but their families don’t get along. Can they overcome the objections to have a happy ending?” That can be the plot of “Romeo and Juliet” – or a contemporary romantic comedy set in 21st Century Manhattan. Though the number of plots are finite, I’m guessing the number of permutations manifest in those plots is not.

If you come up with some “blurbs”, it is easy to see the universality of plots:
“The eldest daughter of a wealthy nobleman is considered unmarriageable. He connives to get her married to a rich man from out of town. Will it be oil and water? Or will the two find love?” [Could be “The Taming of the Shrew” . . . or any number of Regency romances.]
“A murder victim’s son seeks revenge while the woman who loves him tries to hold onto his tormented heart. Will his obsession blind him to her devotion?” [“Hamlet” – or a romantic suspense thriller?]

“A sinister, powerful man is willing to murder to capture an innocent woman for his own. Will she survive his attentions?” [“Richard III”, or a Gothic romance, dramatic historical romance OR paranormal romance?]

“A lusty holiday celebration is the backdrop for mismatched lovers, jealousy, and woodland trysts. Will true lovers be united?” [“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or a Nina Bangs paranormal romantic comedy?]

When you boil down the most basic description of a plot it is easy to see just how interchangeable those basic elements can be with any genre, including romance!

In fact, there has long been debate as to how many basic plots there are. From a single, universal plot – as explained by Joseph Campbell, the “monomyth”, also referred to as the Hero’s Journey, to 3 plots (The Basic Patterns of Plot (Foster-Harris), 7 (The Seven Basic Plots: Stories and Why We Tell Them, Cristopher Booker) , 9 (James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure), 20 (Ronald B. Tobias’ 20 Master Plots), 36 (The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, Georges Ploti) and 69 (Rudyard Kipling’s though they were not apparently delineated).

“Romeo and Juliet” utilizes the time honored trope of the star crossed lovers as the crux of the plot. R&J is the classic, but the plot of lovers kept apart by some inexorable force, in this case feuding families, is absolutely paramount in every romance novel. There must be that almost insurmountable conflict that keeps the lovers apart, which keeps readers fretting that the love will not survive. (We know they will, but the best stories are the ones where we actually think they MIGHT not get their HEA!). Scottish historicals, for example would be lost without the use of the warring clans to which the hero and heroine belong.

I’m not advising copying from Shakespeare, but instead read through the canon in search of time-honored elements that you can adapt for your own purposes. The loyal best friend (Mercutio), the confidant or mentor (the Nurse), the sets of parents attempting to reinforce the conflict. Or a different sort of use. I recently finished reading a romantic thriller, in which the hero and heroine are separated - star crossed - by two segments of the enemy. The hero believes the heroine has been killed but a double-agent slyly lets him know the truth by referencing Romeo & Juliet – a clue that informs the hero while it appears his love is dead, she is not, so he fights on to rescue his woman.
If Shakespeare’s not your cup of mead, there are dozens of other playwrights whose work can serve this same educational purpose. Try Tennessee Williams’ “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof”. Maggie and Brick are star-crossed lovers of a quintessentially American breed. Or for even more bite, Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with its “before” and “after” view of the dark sides of marriage. Or George Bernard Shaw’s Brits, Anton Chekhov’s earthy mortals, Sam Sheppard’s incestuous couple in “Fool For Love”, or Lanford Wilson’s tormented eccentrics, Wendy Wasserstein’s urbanites or Neil Simon’s comedic canon.

Trust me, there’s a play for every plot, and every taste. Each one a master class in storytelling.