Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Plot Threads in Grandma's Attic

To create a metaphor, fiction plot threads are like the things in grandma’s attic. They are the sought after surprise treasure, the unfulfilled dream, the neglected memory, and the meaningless clutter packed away in a close location seldom visited.
Let’s not get into a circular debate on how many plots exist nor trod again the ground of Aristotle.  Plot threads are not fully developed plots, but the idea with loose ends, the construct without the “struct.” They are the ideas scribbled on Post-it notes, in the margins of manuscripts, in the disjointed computer file, on the back of a used envelope. Once thought promising, they’ve languished in limbo. The trick upon discovery is to jog the memory to re-ignite the treat or magical journey once envisioned.
How do you evaluate?
  1. Remember your writing genre. A tidbit about Uncle Tom could fit well into a memoir, less likely to be crammed into a coming of age story if the thought highlighted his birthday party with seventy burning cake candles. If the thread drives a gruesome unhappy consequence, likely not destined for a romance with its required happy-ever-after required ending. Introspective thoughts not likely a suspense or action tale.
  2. How much setup is required? If the thought requires loads of explanation, that was probably the reason it lingered unused. Likewise, if the thought in the light of day is frilly, fluffy, and weighs less than a feather, give it a puff of air and send it on its way.
  3. Is its question banal, stupid or inane?  That should not disqualify it. There are many successful selling stories based on characters doing outlandish things. How else would there be comedy? The underlying question is not the outlandish nature, but reader believability that a person would do such a thing. How many stories are based on a misunderstanding? Several. And, what should be instantly cleared up is dragged out because a second outlandish circumstance is added, and then another, then another, until it’s hard to remember who or what started the eventual multi-car pileup.
  4. Can the idea be combined with another to give a new twist? This is not to be coy and create deception or false suspense. The reader hates deception and artificial manipulation by withholding information to keep the reader disorientated. Would your revisited thought require you to write artificially hiding relevant facts or parcel out information piece-by-piece staying true to the perspective of the protagonist? The latter definitely preferred. Great inventions came about because a thinker combined two existing familiar concepts into a third. A thought of a grandmother exhibiting at a county fair combined with a winning race car driver can morph into Formula One or stock car Grandmother using the race circuit to win money to pay for her granddaughter’s life saving operation. Envision the conflicts. A family who thinks it’s too dangerous. How does granny learn to drive? The values of yesterday that would keep women next to the stove versus becoming breadwinners. The chauvinistic racecar driver who thinks it a hoot to let Grandmother behind the wheel. Then there’s the competitor who doesn’t play fair and rigs the carburetor.
  5. Tossing out an ill-defined thought is the hardest part of evaluation. Besides wrong genre and other handicaps noted above, the best solution might be to consider the thought to be what would be classified as attic clutter. If it never had any usefulness, has become outdated, and/or now represents a fad that has run its course, get on to better ideas. Never chasing a fad is always good advice.
Should one have never begun to collect thoughts in the first place? No. While it may not be conscious, the thoughts can generate new growth in your mind, become the bridge to better and more complete ideas, and/or fertilize existing thoughts. Memory experts say that human beings remember things better if engaged by more than one sense. Thinking is one sense. Writing down a thought another. Speaking it out loud is a third. Reading it at a later date is a fourth.  Utilize the practice every day. Then on that one rainy day when the outside world doesn’t attract, rummage through the figurative Grandma’s attic. Who’s to say you didn’t pack away on a scrap the Pulitzer Prize winning idea?
 For murder/mystery not in Grandma's attic visit A Body To Bones

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Apple in Book Selling

Never a day goes by that one doesn't hear the old adage about apples and oranges and how they don't mix or that one shouldn't mix them. Well, I don't grow oranges but do have an apple tree. I look at it periodically, especially in the morning. Today, the sparse fruit left reminded me not of the absence of oranges but how best an author can maximize sales of his or her creation. Weird? See if you can follow this logic.

Each year I don't harvest every apple and do leave fallen ones on the ground. I do this to share the fruit with creatures that provide moments of joy and, frankly, those that do not but provide the protein for the joy producers. The apples on the ground are attacked by squirrels and chipmunks that scamper to and fro. There is one squirrel who is very economical. He (or she) leaves the bitten apple on the deck railing next to the tree to return a day later for further bites. That is if the morning doves (I say plural because they always seem to come in romantic pairs.) don't peck it to nothing first. The sharing squirrel is nonplussed for he (or she) commandeers another apple and the second core replaces the first. Birds feast on apples still clinging and dangling in the breeze sweeping through the tree. Fascinating to observe a swooping blue jay land as if a dinner bell rang. An apple skin once pierced becomes home to a variety of insects. If the apple falls, the insects ride the fall and bump to continue the feast.

How does this apple adventure provide a book selling metaphor? In a grand scheme it symbolizes that you must offer your books for sale in a multitude of places for your potential customer is in varied places. I leave apples at the highest, weakest branches. They are safe from the larger animals, but accessible to the smallest creatures. I leave apples near large branches, mostly horizontal, for tree-climbing poachers. Thus, make sure your books are available in niche locations as well as the major bookstores, including brick and mortar as long as they last. If you abandon the brick and mortar, they surely won't last. Remember the squirrel sharing the deck rail bounty. Your book is like an apple in that you have more than one and can place a new copy in the place where the prior one sold.

It is extremely worthwhile to remember that an apple is available for multiple days before it becomes enriching stomach food. Thus, your book should be displayed and available for a potential customer to come once, twice, or more. An insect can't eat the apple until it gets help, usually a bird nibbling that breaks the skin and allows entry. Likewise, one customer making a purchase can open the doors of additional selling opportunity when the original idea of purchase wasn't available.

While there is a limited time for this year's apple crop, the good thing to remember is that the tree, like your mind regenerating new ideas and plots, will grow a new apple crop this upcoming season. The customers, old and new, will be back. If you keep talking up your book, like apples, the word will spread that there is a feast to be enjoyed by all. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Life's Hidden Secret

Each day made Samuel crazy. His constricted way of life. He wanted to be wasteful: eat half a sandwich and throw the rest away, rip to shreds T-shirts when one hole appeared or trash paper clips still capable of holding multiple paper sheets together without leaving rust marks. Those were simple thoughts to distract from what really bothered him: meal leftovers. Tallied bread crusts saved to fill a measuring cup for pudding, hamburger crumbs glued together with ketchup three days after grilling, and limp celery stalks, oh, how he hated celery.

Samuel's best friend Ernie commented one day while both jammed sandwiches into mouths like squirrels reacting to the first blast of cold winter air that life had been good to them since automobiles still broke down even in an economy hurting from recession and they were there to fix them. Samuel had to agree, but he recognized Ernie only perceived the upside of a seesaw destined to bump the ground again.

Samuel recalled a decade prior when he'd been eighteen and Dad would be in blue jeans, green flannel shirt and baseball cap bending next to a hot sputtering hard-starting lawn mower. Mom would be in a house dress, mixer blades whirling and a raggedy, threadbare dish towel posed at the ready. With the immediate chores accomplished, both would turn to fixing things. Mom held nails while Dad pounded, a repaired curtain rod securely attached. Next came the screen door, the radio batteries, the hem on a dress shortened to be stylish in length even if the material faded and old-fashioned. Nothing discarded  We were keepers, Dad said. Waste not, want not, chipped in Mom.

Samuel gulped the last dry bread crust and bore his eyes into Ernie's gaze. "I want to be wasteful," Samuel said. Forget saving. The envisioned trumpet announcing affluence meant Samuel could be wasteful. Things could be thrown away for a hefty bank balance meant more could be obtained when needed. He dreamed of life with buldging pockets straining to retain wads of folded C-notes. An unending line of credit always paid off without interest. Neighbors envious of a new car each fall.

Reality intruded upon Samuel the day an ambulance whisked his Mom to the hospital. The doctor's notification finally received that he could visit her room; Dad, teary-eyed, disheveled next to the bed. When Dad moved to allow Samuel to squeeze next to Mom's bedrail, the room's window allowed the heavenly sun to explode its warmth upon Samuel. Mom's lips formed words of love before her chest became still. A green line ran across the bedside monitor screen. Dad pulled the monitor's plug from the wall socket.

The pain of learning that life is not infinite, but finite, overwhelmed Samuel. While he may have known of the inevitability of human fraility in the deep recesses of his mind, it never choked him as hard as it did in Mom's hospital room. Mom would never again be a help to her family, or him especially. The extended usefulness of material things would slowly ebb away with Mom not there to add sustaining life.

Dad said one thing to Samuel that reverberated like a Christmas bell. Mom was happy, he said, because the family provided meaning and emotional nourishment.

Samuel knew that wasn't Mom talking about the wash machine she complained of frequently, nor the socks that needed constant darning, nor the stretching of meals with pasta the last week of each month. Those were not heading her list of importance. The smile across Mom's face the brightest when she reminisced about reading Samuel a story when an infant, the hugs from Dad each time he left for work or family holiday celebrations and the handmade ornaments.

The love expressed through human acts that didn't require expensive payment were the currency that required keeping. Samuel made a mental list of family and friends to be thankful for. He'd keep them front and center in his life. The material things no longer cluttered his dreams or longings.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Lesson From the Geese

As each migrating goose flaps its wings, it creates an "uplift" for the bird following. By flying in a "V" formation, the whole flock adds a seventy-one (71%) percent longer flying range that if each bird flew alone.

LESSON: People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier when they travel on the thrust of one another.

Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to fly alone, and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front.

 LESSON:  If we have as much sense as a goose, we will stay in formation with those who are headed where we want to go.

When the lead goose tired, it rotates back into the formation and another goose takes over at the point.

LESSON:  It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks, and sharing leadership because people, like geese, are interdependent upon each other.

The geese in formation honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.

LESSON:  We need to make sure our honking from behind is encouraging, not something less helpful.

When a goose gets sick or wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow her down to help and to protect her. They stay with her until she is either able to fly again or dies.  Then they launch out on their own, either with another formation or to catch up with the original flock.

LESSON:  If we have as much sense as geese, we'll stand by each other like they do.

Adapted from: "A Lesson from the Geese." Text originally appeared in November, 1986, edition of Nebraska Synod (ELCA) Update, where it was credited to Milton Olson, one of the region's directors for outreach.

Author Donan Berg's latest murder mystery, Baby Bones contains no honking geese, but does contain suspense and human drama. He's the author of prior novels Abbey Burning Love, The Bones Dance Foxtrot, and his debut A Body To Bones. Click on novel title to obtain more information. Previews of all novels available in book section of http://www.amazon.com/ . Search for Donan Berg. Your comment to any blog posting encouraged.