Thursday, April 15, 2021

Ask Us Anything About #Writing with Amy Shamroe and Our Blogging Team

Dani: Dear readers, today we welcome Amy Shamroe to the Blood-Red Pencil. Amy, tell us a bit about your writing project.

I have worked in books pretty much my entire adult life (bookseller and book festival organizer). As one might imagine, I have been a voracious reader since I could first read, too.
Despite that, when I was sitting in my living room working on designing an ad for work and an idea of a book popped in my head - not just a book, but a series - I was both excited and scared. Like many I have daydreamed here and there and toyed with ideas, but suddenly I could see my main character and her love interest detective. Her character and personality were so clear, I swear I could hear her voice. And so was the time period - the 1920s. Living through a pandemic now certainly certainly makes that time period so relatable. But it also has so much to work with - the losses from the war combined with the wealth and excess of the new decade. The changes in everything from music and literature to social norms. I am venturing to bring her and her very interesting friends to life.

So here are my first few questions:

What advice do you have to first time authors to stay inspired? Life can get in the way of a lot of things, especially something you are trying for the first time and not sure how it will go. What can I do to keep myself keeping at it?

Make it a daily ritual to write, and think of it as a gift to yourself. Even if you only spend a half hour at lunch writing, or an hour before bed, this is your time to create something precious. Do it for yourself, before anyone else, and without regard for any long-term goal. Enjoy the process just for itself.

I think having an accountability partner is very important. It could be a fellow writer, your best friend, or a writing group that you can be a part of so that you can share your journey. I think it's also important to create a space in your world that is delegated to your writing. It could be an actual room, it could be a closet that you put a desk and chair in, it could be a lap desk that you purchase to put your laptop on, as long as when you see this item or are in that space, you know it is time to write. Also, it is important to think about your day-to-day activities. It would be a good idea to sit down and journal what you do throughout a week. You want to put in the times that you eat your meals, take care of children, go to work, play on social media, Etc. Doing this will allow you to find time that you can reclaim to use for writing. For example, many of us spend a great deal of time on social media, and we could easily carve out 15 minutes or 30 minutes or even an hour a day or every other day for our writing instead of for being on social media.

Commit to yourself to show up every day. That's all you have to do: just show up. Make it your priority, before browsing the internet, checking social media, answering emails. What does "show up" mean? That's something you get to define. Everyone is different, and it's a muscle you need to develop. So a beginner writer might not be able to pound out 4000 words a day, but they could do 100 or 200. Some days might be really bad and "showing up" could simply mean opening the file on your computer, reading through some of what you wrote, and making a quick note about what's next. Showing up every day allows the work to stay in your mind, which is how you maintain momentum even when life gets in the way.

Many folks subscribe to the "show up every day" philosophy, and there's definitely something to training your brain to recognize: It's three o'clock: writing time!

But for some, that just doesn't work, so then you have to find something that will. Maybe every day is too much, what with all the other responsibilities. If so, then how about once a week? With Zoom and so on, there are all kinds of "write-in" groups one can join that meet at various times of the day or night. (My local Sisters in Crime and local California Writers Club chapters both have such.) 🙂 I find having writing buddies who nag me, who are willing to brainstorm, is extremely helpful in keeping the writing on track and keeping me inspired.

How do you keep confidence in your ideas? As someone who has read her entire life, I write and work on character development and then have moments of "Does that sound too much like X character or Y series?" No one needs to reinvent the genre wheel, but no one wants to be a hack either ...

One thing I like to do is keep affirmations around my writing space. These affirmations speak to me being a great writer with an active, unique, and creative imagination. I recite these every day, especially when I sit to write. I also get very drill sergeant on myself and say, "Shonell, stop and write, now!" I do this because it's important to get out of your thoughts and into your writing.

Keeping our confidence level high is always a challenge. One thing that helps me is going through an older manuscript and finding a passage that just sings. I marvel that I wrote that and let that euphoria bolster me. I love to find such passages in books I read, which is why this works for me. That doesn't mean that the confidence doesn't ebb and flow, but to succeed we need to keep on writing.

Even if you gave ten writers the same basic plot and number of characters, each story would be unique: different voice, view of the world, opinions, descriptions, dialogue, and themes. No two stories are identical unless someone plagiarized. 🙂
The characters you come up with and their interactions will be your unique stamp on your work. Plots very often turn out to be similar (Georges Polti posited the 37 dramatic situations theory in the 19th century), but, as Diana said, every writer approaches these core plots differently, and every character responds differently. As long as you, as the author, are fascinated by your own characters that will carry you through the doubts. If you think they seem too close to characters you've viewed or read in other stories, think about what aspect or trait of that other character might have stayed with you and why. Then think about your character's back story and how it must be different to the other author's character. How does your character's history change their point of view and their response to situations? How did they get to be like so-and-so if they didn't have the exact same set of experiences? What did happen to your character?

And in the first draft, what is most important is that you love your own characters. So what if they might seem like someone else's? For now, don't even think about it. The time to critically examine that is in a revision. Just love them as they evolve in the first draft.

Is it better to just get scenes/plot points down and come back and fill in details or to spend time on everything you write in the moment? (i.e.- get it all down NaNoWriMo style and go back and bulk it out or maybe spend two days on two pages getting it all down)...

The better way is the way that gets your story finished. I like developing outlines that are a bit in-depth with notes about what happens in particular scenes, things characters say and do, etc. Doing this gives me visuals to jump into when I begin writing the story in earnest.

For a beginning writer, I would highly suggest learning to plot to start with - simply because this will save you time in the long run. Experienced writers who write to a "formula" (eg., genre conventions, like a cozy murder mystery or a romance which each have certain steps that tend to fall into place and everything else just fits around that framework) can get away with just letting it unfold as they write, because their minds are filling in the structure and characterization behind the scenes. But if you were to mess up in the first draft because you hadn't planned it out well enough, that means a lot of editing and rewriting much of the book when you could be working on the next book in the series instead. I recommend studying the books "Save the Cat Writes a Novel" and Gail Carriger's "The Heroine's Journey" to get a solid handle on plotting.

Plot? What means plot?

A patch of dirt in a graveyard with a headstone on it? 😅
I am big into some form of outline with basic plot points. Divided into three "acts".

Oh, I'm so done with not outlining properly. Retrofitting an outline into a manuscript that's already written is a total pain.

Back-outlining is a great exercise though.

Yep, eye-opening. But the cutting and rewriting that goes with it: not so much fun.

I believe in the conflict outline and the bare bones plot. There is no point wasting time on characters, plot devices, descriptions, line editing, and proof reading for it only to get cut later. Better to “imagine” your way through the basic bones then go back and flesh them out once you have a solid skeleton.

My suggestion, and one I tell my editing clients, is to get the story down first. Write forward as long as the creative juices are flowing. Refining the story and the prose come in the second and third drafts. Don't shortchange your baby by only writing one draft and considering it done. So much can improve with careful rewrites. Choosing new refreshing words and phrases instead of the first ones that come to mind. Cleaning up awkward dialogue. And plugging up holes in the plot. But first get the story down.

Hmmm. Lots of interesting responses here! I start with a synopsis... usually five to ten pages that is mostly "here is the plot." Then I dive in and see where the writing takes me. Usually I follow the synopsis for a while and then... something unexpected happens! Oh boy!... and off I go, four-wheeling into uncharted territory (occasionally checking the synopsis "road map" to see if I'm more or less heading in more or less the same direction).

The past few books, though, I've been stopping short of halfway to make "chapter notes." These notes are the basic plot/character points I need to hit to reach the end, roughly divided into chapters (usually what happens is what I think will be one chapter ends up being two or even three). Those notes help me deal with the dreaded "muddle in the middle," where I *freeze* and wonder how the heck I got here and how I'm going to get out! 🤣
As for writing individual chapters, I let them flow, and sometimes I stop and research some quick bit I need. Sometimes I mark it with TK (to come) and rush forward.

Dani: What about you, readers? Do you have any advice or suggestions for Amy as she embarks on writing her first book? Please leave us a comment. We'll have more questions from Amy soon!

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Poetry is Just Not My Thing

Even if I admit to being deeply moved by Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb, delivered with such stirring passion at President Biden’s inauguration, poems are still not my thing.

And even if I have a favorite poem that I’ll read again and again, specifically The Calf-Path by Sam Foss, poetry does not regularly call me to read or write in any of its forms.

Counting syllables to create a meaningful haiku does not feel like fun. Even if I wanted to write more ambitious poems, I’d have to go back and learn the basics all over again. Any little thing I might have learned from my college class has long ago been deleted from memory.

For me, National Poetry Month is less exciting than some of the other national month options. Did you know that April is also National Fresh Celery Month? I thought not. I love celery, especially with cream cheese. Or peanut butter.

April is also National Humor Month. Humor has carried me through the last year via television comedy and the antics of my cat and dog. I’m even writing humor these days (in a cozy mystery).

But back to poetry. I tried to write a few poems way back in the old days. They were terrible. I still have them in my box of unpublishable stuff to remind me not to do that ever again.

Those who find joy in reading and writing poetry are special people. A few of my friends have been writing poems for many years. They know what they’re doing, and they do it well enough to get published.

I’ll be satisfied if I can occasionally write prose lyrically. But it won’t be poetry. For me, April will have to remain more about fresh celery and humor.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017), a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Book Awards. This novel is now available in a large print edition, ebook and trade paperback. Her short story, “Good Work for a Girl,” appeared in the Five Star Anthology, The Spoilt Quilt and Other Frontier Stories: Pioneering Women of the West, released in November 2019.

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy, and brown tabby Katie Cat.

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was interviewed for the Colorado Sun’s SunLit feature that you can find at the Colorado Sun website.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman

Why I bought the book: Magic Lessons is a prequel to the book Practical Magic. I am ashamed to admit I had never read Practical Magic (which I have now remedied along with book two in the series The Rules of Magic and a third will be out later this year The Book of Magic). I will likely purchase her entire back list and add her to my top favorite writer list. I had enjoyed the 1998 movie with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock.

Magic Lessons traces the origin of the Owens bloodline starting with Maria Owens in the 1600s and her mother Rebecca. Rebecca leaves her daughter Maria with a woman named Hannah Owens, so she can chase love. Thus begins the Owens women's fraught entanglement with romantic love which seems doomed to bring them sorrow even as they help other women with their relationship woes. Hannah teaches Maria to always love someone who loves you back. However, like her wild mother, Maria falls for a weak man who leaves her pregnant and alone in the world. Maria follows him to Salem Massachusetts where she gives birth to her own daughter, Faith. Faith is kidnapped by a woman desperate for a child as Maria is on her way to the gallows to be executed for being a witch. Maria escapes and spends years searching for her daughter.

From an analytical standpoint, Hoffman does several things that would make me set aside another book. The story is related by a distant omniscient narrator like fairy tales of old. The characters are spoken of, not spoken through. The entire story could be considered telling not showing. There are historical information dumps and long lists of magical potions and plants. I admit I skipped over the lists. The book would be a great research source for anyone interested in writing about magic and folk cures in the 1600s. The story also has some interesting history about New York City. 

However, the haunting story weaves a magic of its own. You care about the women trying to find their way in a world where they have no real power, except for the ability to practice the "natural arts" they are born with. It is a beautiful treatise on what constitutes love and what people are driven to in the name of it, how the heart sometimes wants what it shouldn't have and often regrets it. It explores the love of a mother/mother figure for her child.

The use of magic is described in enchanting terms. This is not the special-effects laden, wand waving kind of magic from modern cinema. It is a history lesson about folk wisdom, herbal lore, and incantations. It is a story about the danger of superstitions and the power of emotions.

I was caught up in Hoffman's story spell and could not stop reading until The End. I highly recommend trying it, even if it isn't your usual cup of Courage tea.

You can pick up a copy on Amazon: in paperback or Kindle. 

You should check out her back list while there too.

Posted by Diana Hurwitz, author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.