Writing Wednesday — Dan Blank

Most of the books I’ve mentioned in the last few weeks have been reference books or craft guides. Today I want to spotlight Be the Gateway: A Practical Guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and Engaging an Audience, by Dan Blank (We Grow Media, 2017). I first encountered Blank and his work on Writer Unboxed, a terrific group blog that mixes writing craft, promotional advice, and inspiration. He no longer blogs there, but writes a weekly newsletter to which I subscribe. Blank works directly with writers to, as he says, “develop their author platforms, launch their books, and create marketing strategies that work.” (More on his website.) His newsletters and his book are not places to learn technical details of SEO, how to increase your Facebook following, or how to build a website. Instead, he focuses on giving writers ways to develop connections with their readers. As I said last week in raving about Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction, readers read in part for an emotional experience. If you give it to them on the page, they’ll read your next book. And if you market and promote your work with that same goal, istarting by dentifying your passions, why you write, and what experiences you want to give your readers, you’ll not only connect with them, you’ll enjoy the process.

Wow. Believe me, it’s true. That’s a big part of why I’m doing these Writing Wednesday posts. Sure, I hope you’ll buy my books. But I also want to share some of what I’ve learned in the process of writing and selling them you, and engage with you in the process. Because that’s a big part of why we’re driven to create, isn’t it?

The Saturday Creativity Quote

WPA stairs, Bigfork MT

“You must listen to your inspiration. You must let your inner vision be your Pole Star…. You must never be deflected by unpleasantness…. Although it may not be apparent to others, your duty will become as clear to you as if it were a white line painted down the middle of the road. You must follow it, Flavia…. Even when it leads to murder…. If you remember nothing else, remember this: Inspiration from outside one’s self is like the heat in an oven. It makes passable Bath buns. But inspiration from within is like a volcano: It changes the face of the world.”

— Aunt Felicity to Flavia, in The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan C. Bradley

Law & Fiction–Stupid Criminal Tricks

A continuation of an occasional series of, well, things you shouldn’t do.

From the “You got through dental school, but you didn’t think this was a bad idea?” files: According to The Missoulian newspaper, three men from Utah and Idaho were cited for cooking chickens in a thermal hot spring in Yellowstone National Park in August, 2020. Two spent two days in jail and paid fines; the third—the dentist—avoided jail but paid a larger fine. All three are banned from the park for two years while serving unsupervised visitation.

“A park ranger heard that people with cooking pots were hiking toward the park’s Shoshone Geyser Basin. The ranger found two whole chickens in a burlap sack in a hot spring. A cooking pot was nearby, Yellowstone spokeswoman Linda Veress said,” according to the newspaper.

According to this piece from the Yellowstone National Park Trips website summarizing the dangers of the more than 10,000 geothermal features—hot springs, geysers, steam vents, and my personal favorite, stinkpots, many are literally boiling. One’s as hot as 250 degrees. Not a good place to soak your feet, as another tourist attempted to do. (In a cooler but still hot spot; he survived, with extensive burns.)

Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up. But have fun trying!

Writing Wednesday — Garner’s Modern American Usage

Decades ago, in college, we were all required to buy Fowler’s Modern English Usage, originally published by H.G. Fowler but then in a 2d revised edition by Sir Ernest Gowers. It was brilliant, and it didn’t always make sense to my ears because — well, because I am an American. And my idea of “modern” wasn’t quite the same as old HG’s or Sir Ernest’s.

So I was elated to discover Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan Garner, published by Oxford University. (Shown is the 3d edition, 2009). It’s modern. It’s American. And it’s just what every writer needs. It even includes a “language-change index” which does exactly what it says.

I am certain HG and Sir E would approve.

The Saturday Creativity Quote — The Boss

Reverie of Golden Light, Jeanette Rehahn, pastel on paper (collection of the author)

When asked he how still finds inspiration for songwriting after 50 years on the job, Bruce Springsteen said “You have your antenna out. You’re just walking through the world and you’re picking up these signals of emotions and spirit and history and events, today’s events and past remembrances. These things you divine from the air are all intangible elements: spirit, emotion, history. These are the tools of the songwriter’s trade before he even picks up the pen.

“People who are very attuned to that atmosphere usually end up being artists of some sort. Because they’re so attuned to it, they have a desire to record it. If that desire to record it is strong enough, you learn a language to do so. Whether it’s paintings, films, songs, poetry….

“My antenna is picking up so much information, I need to find a way to disperse it. So, I needed to learn a language that does that. And the languages of art, film, records, whatever you want to call it—all those languages do that. And you get to pass it on to your listeners or fans. That’s how it begins.”

– Bruce Springsteen, in an interview with Robert Love, AARP Magazine, Oct/Nov 2020

Writing Wednesday — Using tradition to shape plot and character

Vase painted by my paternal grandmother; photo by my cousin, mystery author Laura Childs

This is a season that is particularly shaped by tradition. We celebrate some of our most important holidays and holy days in the last quarter of the year, as autumn becomes winter and we turn the page to a new year.

But this year, traditions are dramatically changed. Travel is harder, public events are limited in size, individual gatherings and celebrations are being reshaped.

And that has me thinking of the role of tradition in story. Think about it in the story you’re working on. How do traditions influence your characters? How guide or frustrate their choices? How create—or recall—tensions between characters, or within them?

Which character assumes the family will always gather at her home? Which character resents that, resists it, has always tried to change it, and finally circumstances allow the change—but what now? Whose help does she need? Who refuses to give it? What does she feel compelled to do, but unsure that she can succeed?

Who absolutely will not hand over the star that always goes on top of the Christmas tree, because it’s always been on her tree because we’ve always gathered at her house.

Who tries to interject new traditions? Who feels rebuffed, rejected, relegated to the kids’ table?

Tranquility, oil on canvas, Tabby Ivy (collection of the author)

I’m speaking both literally and metaphorically here. Traditions aren’t confined to the holidays and holy days, or to family gatherings, and you needn’t be writing about the pandemic to ask your characters these questions. Think about how your characters respond to traditions and to changes. Consider how the usual ways of doing things have influenced the interactions between spouses, sisters, business partners, or rivals—and how changes in the traditions affect those interactions. What ripple effects occur when one person decides to think or feel about “the way things are” or “the way we’ve always done it”? What does that character do as a result, and how does another respond?

And if you find yourself singing a particular song from a Broadway musical, go for it.