Six Sentence Sunday - Opening lines

 This is an idea I've toyed with. Not actually a WIP. At least not yet. Sometimes I write the opening for a story idea that intrigues me and that's what this is.

"You're going to meet the man of your dreams real soon, dear."

Skylor hoped it was a pep talk; one of those "don't give up on love" spiels people were prone to when you were getting divorced.

"It could be any time, but it will definitely be soon."

Oh, no! Pep talks never included "definite" time frames.

"Have you been calling the Psychic Network again, Mom?"

Would this appeal to you?

Other six sentence excerpts of mine can be found here.

If you want to see more Six Sentence samples, go here for the list of this week's participants.

If you want to participate in the future, here's a FAQ.

Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell - A Review

Plot & Structure: (Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish) (Write Great Fiction)Plot & Structure: Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish 
by James Scott Bell
Writer's Digest Books

I've seen a lot of writers referencing this book and I had it on my shelf (with a bunch of post-it tags marking various pages, which is always a good sign), so I thought it was time to let you know what's on those pages.

What does the book address?
The book starts with the basics: What is plot? What is structure? Each gets a chapter where it's discussed at a pretty basic level. This segues to how to find ideas to write about. Most experienced writers have no problem coming up with things to write about, but our ideas aren't always complete or compelling enough to support a novel-length story, so I see some potential value here. Another chapter deals with how to craft an opening for your story. Openings can be tough (at least they are for me) and any tool for helping here is always welcome. Next comes chapters on middles, endings, scenes, complex plots, character arc, outlining, revisions, plot patterns, and common problems and cures.

You can easily find entire books that deal with each of these subjects in great depth, so the question becomes: Does this book have value? Does it have anything to offer writers who are beyond the novice stage? I believe it does.

Though there's not much that's going to be new for a serious intermediate or advanced writer, Bell presents each issue in a way that provokes thought. For instance, the three things that he says you need to give the reader in Act 1 are:
  • A compelling lead character
  • Whom the reader bonds with
  • And whose world has been disturbed
That's basic stuff. A novice writer might not know it. More advanced writers will, but it doesn't mean we don't need to be reminded once in a while.

I do like what he says about exposition in the beginning of a story: most of it can be cut away with impunity and not lose the flow of the story. He goes on to give the three rules he lives by:
  1. Rule 1: Act first, explain later. Begin with a character in motion. Readers will follow a character who is doing something, and won't demand to know everything about the character up front. You then drop in information as necessary, in little bits as you go along.
  2. Rule 2: When you explain, do the iceberg. Don't tell us everything about the character's past history or current situation. Give us the 10 percent above the surface that is necessary to understand what's going on, and leave 90 percent hidden and mysterious below the surface. Later in the story, you can reveal more of that information. Until the right time, however, withhold it.
  3. Rule 3: Set information inside confrontation. Often, the best way to let information come out is within a scene of intense conflict. Using the characters' thought or words, you can have crucial information ripped out and thrown in front of the reader. 

Again, basic stuff, but good stuff.

If you're like me (and I'm curious to know if how-to writing books elicit a similar reaction in you), when I'm reading a book like this, I usually have a particular story in the back of my mind. As I read about different approaches to something like how to open a story, I'm mentally trying that approach in my head to see if it strikes sparks. I wonder would this hook the reader better than what I'm doing now? Or would this give the story more depth? Or how would this opening resonate with the ending? 

So I would recommend this to novice writers. For more experienced writers, I would say it's a good way to review what you already know and, if you're looking for something to stimulate ideas for how to handle stories, it wouldn't hurt you to have this, but it's not something that you absolutely must have.

If you've read this, what's your opinion of it?

If you'd like to see reviews of other writing sources, go here.

Six Sentence Sunday - Third Time's the Charm

The excerpt I've chosen for this week is from my WIP as last week's was. The focus here is on setting the atmosphere of the tabloid. For those who don't know (or don't remember), Cleo has been forced by circumstances to leave her old job for one that pays better. Too bad it's at a tabloid.

Her time at the Phoenix Sun had inured her to the sounds. The phones, keyboards, and voices were the sounds of a newsroom breathing. She forced her mind to go blank and just listened to the noise she normally filtered out. She was surprised to realize that, if she ignored Jackson telling someone how to spot an alien, they were the same sounds that filled the bullpen at The Sun.

Maybe it would be all right after all. No place that produced those reassuring noises could be so bad, could it?

I hope you enjoyed this tidbit.

Other six sentence excerpts of mine can be found here.  

If you want to see more Six Sentence samples, go here for the list of this week's participants.

If you want to participate in the future, here's a FAQ.

Careers for your Characters - Florist

A few years ago, another writer wanted to write a character who was a florist and she put out a call asking if anyone could tell her about the business. Since one of my focuses is interesting careers, I thought I'd include here the information I shared with her. It's been a number of years (we won't go into how many) since I worked as a florist, and I imagine some things have changed, but I'm also sure a lot hasn't.

This would be a great job for a character if he or she needs to be out and about at various times during the day, so let's talk about the details of the job. 

The biggest part of the florist's business is funerals. The florist who gets the order for the "family flowers" (the casket spray is always ordered by the family) is the main florist for the funeral. (You need to be properly solemn when dealing with the family, of course.) Being the main florist mean it's this florist's responsibility to get all the flowers from the funeral home to the cemetery. That means you're there at the back door, waiting for the funeral to end. As soon as the mourners have left the main room, the funeral director opens the back door, you race in, load everything into the van, and race off to the cemetery, usually with your emergency flashers on, to set it up before the funeral cortège gets there. Cops tend to look the other way if you speed a bit because they know what's going on. Ideally, you should be unloaded and be gone before the cortège arrives. If you meet the cortège on the way back, you would, of course, pull over to show the proper respect. There was one occasion when the florist had an accident en route--slick roads (people are so nice though that they took the flowers to the cemetery.)

Also, I had an experience I'll never forget. I used to deliver flowers to one of the mortuaries and, if it was late in the day, the garage door that I usually went in was closed. One of the guys said, "Go through this door when the garage is closed." The first time I did, I found myself in a small room, a sizable bouquet in each hand. Against the opposite wall was a body on a gurney with a sheet pulled up chest high. Now I'd been doing that job for a couple of years and mortuaries didn't bug me at all (I even lived next door in a house owned by the mortician), but some primitive emotion kicked in. I sidled around the wall to the door that led to the slumber room, the reptilian core of my brain convinced that the body would reach out and grab me. I NEVER did that again. I always went through the garage even if I had to open it.

Another time, we had orders for special flowers for the casket spray. They guy's wife had died, and he wanted something really unique, so he spent a lot of money and his order included Birds of Paradise among other things. These were not flowers we carried regularly, so they were a special order. And they didn't come in in time. We did the best we could, but it wasn't what he ordered, and I'm sure the boss took a loss on that one.

Funerals are also where you'll use the flowers that are "older" because they're at their prime and you want them fully opened so they show at their best. (For other occasions, you want most of the flowers still at the bud stage so the enjoyment lasts longer.)

Holiday seasons:
  While it's lovely to get flowers for no reason, a florist can't live on that kind of business. Events are what keep them going, so below I've listed the common occasions that prompt folks to send flowers.

The big holiday is Mother's Day. It's huge. Way more than Valentines Day. You can easily put in 12-hour days, and they often hire extra help to drive the delivery van.

Thanksgiving you do a lot of centerpieces. At Christmas, it's wreaths and centerpieces. Weddings year round, but June and July tend to be thicker with them. Hospitals all the time. Church flowers in the winter (in summer, people tend to pull from their garden.) Potted Easter Lilies at Easter.

What can go wrong?
One of the problems involved in delivery is catching folks at home. Back then, we had a threshold. Any order over a certain amount, we delivered without a fee, but I think a lot of the florists now charge extra for deliveries. Once, after I delivered flowers, I backed into a low, brick wall. A section of the wall fell over. Fortunately the customer wasn't upset (it had happened before.)

Another time, the delivery was out of town and it was winter. After an extended search, I found the place and then promptly got stuck in the snow. The search probably wouldn't happen today. They probably have at least a TomTom to help the drivers. You really did learn to find addresses though. That's a skill I still use.

If an arrangement includes roses and they don't all open as they're supposed to, you get complaints. Some roses smell more than others and some open prettier than others. That's why I love yellow roses. They always seem to have more scent than the other colors and open beautifully. Our standard colors were white, red, pink, and yellow. White is always popular for weddings, and a lot of times we'd also get coral, and "sterling" (lavender.)

It's probably one of the industries where you really don't get that many complaints, because except for funerals, it's a feel-good industry. 

The competition:
And florists are generally friendly with the other shops in town. They loan flowers back and forth if one comes up short (usually that's caused by a large funeral order.) I could, however, easily envision a grudge starting between two shops, which could get quite nasty as they compete for business. (Just a thought.)

Florists often employ one or two high school kids part-time. It's cheap labor and they can easily be trained to do simple bouquets.

Custon made or FTD?
Most arrangements are custom made. People will sometimes order specific flowers to be included or excluded (FREX, some people associate carnations with funerals so don't want them in other arrangements.) FTD is the big association that allows you to go to your local florist but get the flowers delivered anywhere in the country. Most flower shops are members. Before the internet, the orders were always done by phone from one florist to the other, but I'm not sure if that's changed. With FTD, you can pick the arrangement you want from pictures and what's delivered should match the picture (but may vary--they specify that on the website). For custom orders, the customer will often just say how much they want to spend and leave the choice of what to make to the florist.

Where do the flowers come from? Are they billed or do they come COD?
Florists have regular suppliers, so they bill the account. We always got our order in on Tuesday, so it was an intense day, because yes, you do need to get them into water immediately. You learn how to treat each type of flower. FREX, rose stems are recut (to give them a fresh cut) on a slant. Mum stems are crushed. You have to know each type because they'll suck up water best if they're handled correctly. They come in large boxes, and ours came by bus. If you're in a cold weather climate, you pick them up as quickly as possible in the winter because of the low temperatures.

What are the usual types of flowers stocked by the florist?
 Chrysanthemums are big. They're a versatile flower. Lots of different types: pom mums, spider mums, football mums, daisy mums. Miniature roses and miniature carnations (you see them a lot going to the hospital for new babies). Irises, tulips, and daffodils in the spring. Lilies, especially at Easter but also for funerals. Gerber daisies. Seafoam. Stephanotis. We'd also have greenery to add to the arrangements. Leather or asparagus fern for roses. Baby's breath. Eucalyptus for exotic arrangements. One other flower we carried all the time was gladiolas.  They're used a lot in funeral and grand opening arrangements because they add a lot of size at a reasonable cost. There was actually a gladiola farmer in our area, so when they were in season, we had black glads. Gorgeous flowers. "Black" flowers are actually a very rich, very dark purple and are my favorite color of flower. I have both black tulips and irises in my back yard. (Haven't been able to find a source of black glads.)

Exotics would be the Birds of Paradise and calla lilies.

Potted plants as well (mums, daylilies, cyclamen, hydrangea etc) Also  green plants. I don't know if terrariums are still big. They were once. A full service florist will also have silk arrangements.

Around Prom time, orchids and gardenias (my favorite--they smell so good). Homecoming, football mums. The miniature roses and carnations also make nice corsages.

For Grand Openings, large flashy bouquets are the norm.

Mylar ballons are also a standard in the industry now.

Oh, and when you've worked there for a while, people walk in and comment about how wonderful it smells, but sadly, you can't smell it anymore.

A typical day:
First thing we did was check the obituaries. I know. It sounds morbid, but that way you're ready when the calls for flowers start to come in and you know which mortuary is handling the funeral. We'd cut out that section of the paper and post it by the main phone so the information was at hand when you got a call. I don't know how they handle it now that so many city papers charge and so many people don't put in an obit. Maybe they check the website for the local funeral parlors, or maybe the funeral parlors send them emails.

If there's a funeral that day, you make whatever floral arrangements you didn't make the day before and deliver them to the mortuary. You do try to stay on top of those and some may have been delivered the day before, especially if there was a viewing. 

If there's a wedding, you make those flowers and deliver them. Wedding flowers can be an intense job if it's a large wedding. Everything has to be just right and this is one event that can come back and bite you if you screw up.

If there's none of that, you look at the orders that need to be delivered that day. One of the things I always liked about the business is that it was so varied. You could get out of the shop a couple of times a day to run the deliveries. There's almost always a couple of runs to the hospital. Either get well flowers or bouquets for new mothers.

Phone work is also a constant. People often call in with their orders (so you have multiple phone lines). In the old days, we'd bill them, but I'm sure now it's probably done by credit card. Often they don't really know what they want so you'll walk them through it. The season often dictates what you sell: spring bouquets vs fall colors. You also write the card for them if they order over the phone.

If it's a dead sort of day, you make silk arrangements or you might redo the display window. Lots of opportunity to be creative. You also might dust, including dusting/polishing the green foliage on potted plants.

About once a week, you water the plants. You'd also clean out the cooler once a week. We had a display cooler with a backroom. That way all your best flowers are there to be seen, but the ones past their prime (that you'd use for funerals) aren't on display. The ones that are really past their prime, you throw out. Potted plants past their flowering time are often given to the employees. Oh, and potted plants usually are delivered by a local supplier and the best ones end up at florists. Secondary grade go to other stores. (Just as truly prime beef goes to restaurants and not-so-prime goes to the grocery stores. Yeah, I know what they advertise. It ain't so.)

The art of the florist
One thing that might be handy to know is the art of arrangements. You want pleasing proportions. There's a geometry to floral arrangements, but styles change even in this industry, so I recommend visiting the FTD website to spark ideas. Youtube is also a great resource and you'll discover that floral arrangements aren't that hard.

If you've had an interesting job and would like to contribute to Careers for Characters, drop by here. Links to other careers already featured are there as well.   

Another Six Sentence Sunday

I've been neglecting my blog. It's not intentional because I actually enjoy it. I do have a good excuse however in the form of a prescription from my doctor. The new medication is doing good things, but one of the side effects has been that it makes me tired. And when I say tired, I mean that if I'm not on the move, I'm ready to crawl into bed. I've spent so much time sleeping that I think I was contemplating trying out for the Olympic Sleeping Team, but my body seems to finally be acclimating, so I plan to get back on schedule with the blog.

A Six Sentence Sunday seems like a good way to start, so let's do it.

This is from my current WIP. A little background is in order.

Cleo's journalism carreer was going well, but personal circumstances force her to take a job that paid more than she could ever hope to make where she was. To her mortification the job is at tabloid. This tidbit comes from her first day on the job. She's just been introduced around and given her cubicle. She knows she'll be learning the ropes from Alec, a fellow "reporter" who she can't help but notice is on the hunky side. (Must be those well honed powers of observation that makes her a good reporter.) She's been looking at past issues of the tabloid, and in a moment of despair, lays her head on her desk.

"Contemplating suicide already?"

Startled, Cleo jumped into an upright position so hard her chair nearly tipped over backwards. She grabbed the desktop with both hands to keep herself from going ass over teakettle. When she was sure she was no longer in danger of showing the world the color of her thong underwear, she discovered that, sitting in her chair, her eyes were level with Alec's crotch.

He apparently found uncoordinated women a turn on, because he either had a hard-on that would choke a giraffe or he stuffed his pants with rolled up socks. Given the environment they were in, her money was on the socks.

I hope you enjoyed this tidbit.

Other six sentence excerpts of mine can be found here.  

If you want to see more Six Sentence samples, go here for the list of this week's participants.

If you want to participate in the future, here's a FAQ.

You Don't Have to Live This Way

Most writers have day jobs. Even if your day job is staying home with the kids, most of us have other things we must get done. It's not all champagne and keyboards.

When we get home from our day jobs, we have laundry, cooking, and housework that needs to get done. We have to renew our driver's license, pay the bills, replace the computer that just crashed, shop for clothes and groceries, and all the other mundane tasks that are part of life. And then we have to find the time and energy to write.

How do we do it? Well, sometimes we don't. Sometimes those other things in our lives sap us of all our energy.

That's what I want to talk about today because that's where I've been living for the last several years and I know the odds are good that some of you out there also struggle with this, so I thought I'd share my story because I want you to know that, if you're in a similar situation, you have options.

First, I want to say that I love writing stories. I love sharing the characters in my head. If I could write for a living, retirement would be something other people think about. I'd write until senility sets in. And who knows? Maybe that would unlock even more interesting stories.

But for the last several years, the environment at my day job has been redlining my stress levels. It's not the work. I've been doing that long enough that it's gotten a little boring. It's a couple of the people, one of whom, sadly, is our department manager. I could go into how narcissistic and insecure he is, how he'll throw his staff under the bus to avoid blame, how he'll stand outside a cubicle to eavesdrop on conversations, but what it all comes down to is that none of the staff feels safe at work. We constantly have to watch our backs. Most of us also cover each others' backs, but it's unfortunate that we need to. The real problem is that the unrelenting vigilance has a price. When you walk out of the office at the end of the day, you're exhausted. 

I have no doubt that my problem isn't unique. It doesn't matter if the stress comes from your work environment or if it comes from financial strain or from difficult personal relationships. The effects of excessive stress are cumulative. Even if the stress level remains constant, the longer you live with it, the worse its impact becomes. Some people get weepy. Others drink. Some get angry. Some eventually become suicidal. I'm one of the angry ones.

So I've been walking around, feeling trapped by the economy and angry at my boss for making me feel this way, and it slopped over onto other aspects of my life. I became pessimistic and cynical about everything. I wanted to come home and work on my current story but I didn't have the oomph to write more than a few lines at a time. Instead, I'd play mindless, repetitive games on the computer, trying to anesthetize my emotions. It didn't work worth a crap. I was angry ALL the time.

The final straw was when I realized that the idea of walking out of that office for the last time, even if I only had unemployment to fall back on, caused a bubble of joy to rise up in my chest. The feeling of joy had become so unfamiliar that it shocked me.

I spent about three minutes marveling over this strange emotion before I picked up the phone and made an appointment with my doctor. He gave me a prescription for antidepressants. Now I've never been a fan of "better living through chemistry"  but I have to say, "God bless my doctor." After a minor adjustment to the dosage, life is worth living again. I'm coping with work. I'm working on the first round of editor requested revisions, and I'm finally starting to get excited about becoming a published author.

The point of all this is that if you're in a toxic environment, if you possibly can, get out. If it's not possible, understand that you don't have to live with the emotions you're feeling. There is help, but you're going to have to reach out for it. It's not ideal. You shouldn't have to medicate yourself to get through the day, but sometimes you need a life preserver to get your head above water.