The Pacific Crest Trail Theory of Writing

A new mystery writer posted an interesting question in a writing group I run. She wanted to know how to make her story unique.

It’s a good question because almost every situation imaginable has already been written. Almost every character is now a cliché because authors have taken the clichéd character, turned it on its head, and created a shadow cliché of the original.

But still, there is originality even in the most banal situation. A situation becomes unique and original if you fully develop the characters and the situation. You give the good guys bad characteristics and the good guys good characteristics. You show why your characters are the way they are, giving them good reasons rather than just throwing them into the mix fully formed. You tie them to the story, making their characteristics an integral part of the plot. When you find that your story is going too much in one direction (straight to the resolution of the plot, for example), you turn the situation and throw more trauma at your characters. What does this trauma do the clichéd drunk cop? Make him or her give up drinking? What does the new trauma do to a clichéd rookie cop? Make him or her stronger, weaker, more determined, go seek counsel from someone who has been a tormentor? And you work against their characteristics and strengths. If the rookie is smart, throw her into a situation where her intelligence is no help. If the drunkenness of the cop is a liability, throw him into a situation where the drunkenness becomes an asset.

You can also find uniqueness in what the characters see. (That’s what made Sherlock Holmes so popular — he saw things differently from other people.)

And you can look at things through a different kind of glass. For example, I lost someone very dear to me a few years ago, and now I cannot write a character that isn’t affected by that grief. For another example, people who hike the Pacific Crest Trail are always afterward affected by what happened to them on the trail.

So, this brings me to the Pacific Crest Trail Theory of Writing. Every year, thousands of people attempt to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the beginning to the end. The trail is always the same. It is what it is. In a way, the people are always the same, too, divided primarily into a couple of groups — the kids (mostly boys) just out of college and older recently retired couples. (Though people from all over the world of all ages hike the trail, these are the two biggest groups.) Despite this similarity, each of those hikers hikes a different trail and a different hike because each one of those hikers has a different motive and motivation, each sees something different, each reacts differently to what they experience.

And so it is with writing — it is the characters, their motives and motivations, how they experience what they experience, that makes a story unique.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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Free Review Copy of Unfinished

Stairway Press has just informed me they have review copies of UNFINISHED to give away! If you would like to review this novel about the secrets a grieving widow uncovers when she goes through her deceased husband’s effects, please leave a comment on this blog. Reviews are to be posted on Amazon and at least one other place, such as your blog if you have one, Goodreads, Twitter, or Facebook. Stairway Press would also like permission to post the review on their website.

The review doesn’t have to be brilliant, just a few words to tell your honest opinion of the book and how it made you feel.

If you’ve already read the book, and have not left a review, please leave a review on Amazon. As Stairway Press said to me in a recent email, “Your book is good. It should please readers and fan word-of-mouth flames. But, it’s just sitting there looking at us as if it expects us to do something.”

So, let’s do something! Even if you don’t want to review the book, please share this post so that it can reach as many people as possible. Thank you.

Click on the cover below to read the first chapter and see if Unfinished is something you’d like to read and review.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

He Loves Her. He Loves Her Not Yet.

I was making progress with my decade-old manuscript until I got to where I just want to end it. I’ve made the points I want to make, and I’m afraid the rest of the story will seem anti-climactic, and yet I need to get my two characters where they need to be — assuming, of course, I can figure where that is. The ending is also dependent on their having a baby, and they just now had sex. So there has to be something happening between now and then.

This book isn’t a romance, though there is romance of a sort in the story. The two start out not liking each other, come to an uneasy alliance and perhaps even respect, and then they make love. I’m not sure I’ve built a strong enough connection between the two of them so that it will seem to the reader that these two are actually in love,  though it doesn’t matter for the story’s sake. I mean, they are the last people left on earth — they are stuck with each other either way.

Still, it would be nice if they did love each other.

In the sex scene, as I originally wrote it years ago, after they’ve had sex, the man tells the woman he loves her. And she admits the same. Nice, right? But if the connection isn’t there, then it seems glib. So I took out those few lines. Then the scene seemed less romantic, so I added them back in. Then it seemed too romantic since up until that time, they had little actual contact, so I took the lines out again.

At the moment, those few lines are back in the manuscript.

Ideally, the words of love need to be saved until a time when the characters actually feel more connected (or when the reader feels that they are connected) but those parts have to be written.

I hoped to have the book finished before I took off on my trip, but I’m running out of time, I’m thinking of skipping to the end, giving them their baby, and being done with it.

But no. I’ve waited this long to finish the book, so I might as well do it right.

As soon as I figure out if he loves her or loves her not yet.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Reviewers Wanted!

Stairway Press has just informed me they have review copies of UNFINISHED to give away! If you would like to review this novel about the secrets a grieving widow uncovers when she goes through her deceased husband’s effects, please leave a comment on this blog. Reviews are to be posted on Amazon and at least one other place, such as your blog if you have one, Goodreads, Twitter, or Facebook. Stairway Press would also like permission to post the review on their website.

The review doesn’t have to be brilliant, just a few words to tell your honest opinion of the book and how it made you feel.

If you’ve already read the book, and have not left a review, please leave a review on Amazon. As Stairway Press said to me in a recent email, “Your book is good. It should please readers and fan word-of-mouth flames. But, it’s just sitting there looking at us as if it expects us to do something.”

So, let’s do something! Even if you don’t want to review the book, please share this post so that it can reach as many people as possible. Thank you.

Click on the cover below to read the first chapter and see if Unfinished is something you’d like to read and review.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Group as Character

I’ve been working on my decade-old manuscript, and it’s actually going well. I just have one problem you might be able to help me with.

Several of the characters are part of group, and the group will be disappearing en masse. The fact of the disappearance won’t be shocking because such things have already happened in the story, though it will sadden the two left behind and help set up the final act of the story.

I’ve been mostly developing the group roles and trying to present the group itself as a character rather than the individuals in the group because none of them individually advances the story. Consequently, I haven’t done much besides give the individuals brief profile sketches and conflicts within the group, but now I’m wondering if that’s enough.

Since the story is told from a single viewpoint — the main character — any development of other characters has to come from what that one character can observe. A couple of the characters hate the hero and would not tell him anything, so I haven’t given them much of a background, but should I find a way to tell their backstories? Is it necessary?

WRITERS, how fully do you develop your minor characters, especially characters who are going to be killed off?

READERS, how fully do you want to be invested in such characters? Would you feel more cheated if you had to invest time and emotion in such characters only to find out they weren’t pivotal to the story, or would you feel more cheated by not being able to invest emotion in them at all?

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Polka-Dotted Loin Cloths

I have my decade-old manuscript open on my laptop, so the first thing I see when I lift the lid is the last thing I wrote. And this is what greeted me today:

The polka-dotted loin cloths and cave girl outfits did not disappear, but Bob did.

Seeing that sentence amuses me and makes me excited about working on this new/old book. Not excited enough to actually write, you understand, but enough to keep me thinking about writing. Still, any kind of excitement when it comes to my writing is a good thing.

Actually, I have been writing a few words each day — nothing immortal, just brief bits to connect stray scenes. Much of what still needs to be written are the day-to-day activities of the characters, with enough interaction between the secondary characters and the hero so you get to understand them and their group roles and perhaps care when they meet their ignominious end.

After that, there is the whole last part of the book where the characters that remain find a place to settle down before they are whapped with one final horror.

But, until then, a whole lot of daily details need to be written. Thousands of words worth.

You never know — I might actually write a few of those words today.

Well, perhaps later.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

On Writing: Potential Discrepancies

In a scene in my work that’s still not progressing, I have my characters roaming a hostile landscape in nothing but Tarzan and Jane outfits. Until a few days ago, they wore their normal clothes, including shoes.

Keeping that in mind, can you spot the potential discrepancy in the following excerpt?

Faint screams became deafening as Chet approached. Christopher rolled around on the ground, ignoring Francie’s pleas to hold still. The others huddled off to the side. The eyes they turned to Chet had a blankness in their stare.

Chet rushed to Francie’s side. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. He tripped and fell an hour ago, or maybe two minutes or two hours. Out here, there seems to be no time.”

“Did he break a bone?”

“No. He looks fine, but he won’t stop screaming.”

Chet knelt on one knee by Christopher, then immediately jumped up, his kneecap burning as if impaled with a thousand splinters. Gritting his teeth, he limped to a hassock-sized rock, perched on the edge of it, pulled his knee to his chest to study it, but could see nothing out of the ordinary.

“. . . wrong?” Francie said, the rest of her words drowned out by Christopher’s screams.

Chet glanced at her and found her looking at him, a crease of concern between her brows.

“I don’t know what’s wrong.” He exaggerated the words so she could read his lips, and touched his knee to show here where he hurt. The touch made him gasp with pain. He turned his knee toward the sun to get a better look, then he saw them—hundreds of tiny blond filaments sprouting from his skin. They came out easily; the hard part was finding them all. What were they? Leftovers from a furred plant that had disintegrated in the heat? Not that it mattered where they came from. Just something else to watch out for.

When he could finally touch his knee without hurting, he hunkered by Christopher’s side and began removing the filaments. Francie’s eyes grew wide with comprehension, then she too set to work.

Christopher’s screams subsided to sobs then whimpers.

I’m sure you didn’t spot the discrepancy. In fact, I didn’t either at first. So, here’s the problem: they aren’t wearing shoes now, right? And had been wearing them until a few days previously? Which meant their soles weren’t yet acclimated to walking barefoot. Then why didn’t all the characters feel the splinters on the bottoms of their feet?

That’s as good a starting place for today’s writing session as any. Now I just need to figure a way around the problem. And hope there aren’t any more potential discrepancies.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Room For My Book

I don’t know what happened to today. The hours simply evaporated. Now should be the time for relaxing, but I need to do all the things I should have done earlier. (Such as writing this blog.) I did go out sauntering with my backpack, so that’s something, but I got back almost eight hours ago and did . . . well, obviously, not much of anything.

I did finish reading the last of what I had already written of my manuscript, but I am still having a hard time putting myself in the proper frame of mind for writing. I simply cannot hold the whole book in my head as I did when I first started writing. I was younger then, of course, and at the time, didn’t have much in my head. It’s not that I didn’t have things to think about; it’s that I couldn’t think about all the things that were going on in my life, such as Jeff being very sick, our business fading, our savings about gone. So I wrote. (Silly me, I had the idea that writing would solve our financial problems.)

Now, I have to keep a closet in my mind filled with the new dance I’m learning for a performance this June — if I don’t keep it available, the steps will slide right out of my head, and that won’t do at all. There’s a shelf somewhere in the back of my mind for my Pacific Crest Trail research, and that shelf looks like a hoarder’s shelf, with stuff falling all over the place. And then there’s a whole room set aside for things to do before my May trip to make the journey safer and more enjoyable. I’ve closed the door, but I still know the room is filled with items screaming for attention.

I’m sure there are several more shelves, closets, and storerooms in my mind containing stuff I can’t yet clear out, but at the moment, the lights are off in those places, and I can’t recall what I should be remembering.

Is it any wonder there’s no room for my book?

I might have to go back to the way I started writing — by hand. It’s a lot slower than typing, but it allows me the time to arrange at least part of the book in my head so I can move forward with the story.

Still, this time spent rereading what I’d written has helped me understand why I left the work idle for so long — every one of my other novels has an element of mystery. With a mystery, you know how the story is doing and where it is going. When the mystery is solved, the story ends. Without a mystery, I’m not sure what I am doing, not sure where I am going, and don’t know how to end it. (Well, that last one is a lie. I know the ending.)

For as old a manuscript as it is, the writing isn’t as jejune as I expected it to be. I did find a lot more “was”s than I use now, and too many scenes started with “he did this” or “he did that” rather than something more compelling, but over all, I’m pleased with the book and excited about working on the story again.

I hope I can keep the excitement when I actually start writing.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

First Day of My Novel Writing Month

Yesterday was the first day of my novel writing month, and as you can see from the following timeline, I went right to work!!

5:30 pm Got on computer. Checked emails.

5:40 pm Checked Facebook. Made a couple of comments and responded to a message.

5:45 pm Played game of Solitaire.

5:48 pm Exchanged texts with a friend.

5: 53 pm Played another game.

5:58 pm Opened a document in MS Word and started this list.

6:00 pm Finally opened manuscript. Yay!

I made the few edits to the manuscript that my first reader found, scanned the last bit that I’d written all those years ago, and finally remembered What the Screams Were All About.

The last time I looked at the manuscript, it seemed as if I’d postponed writing a needed chapter between my poor character running from a horde one morning and waking up to screams the following morning, which I did not want to write so I put the book away again. On rereading the screaming excerpt, I realized an interim chapter would dilute the impact of the screams. (Probably why I hadn’t written the chapter in the first place, though it’s hard to remember when the manuscript is more than a decade old.)

Oddly, not writing the chapter makes me feel as accomplished as if I’d written. More so, actually, since it’s what the story needs.

Although I’d added only a few words to the book, by 7:15, I felt as if I’d done a whole days work.

So far, today all I’ve done is write this post about writing my book. Does that count as my writing stint for the day? No. I didn’t think so.

I’ll get started right away.

Oh, wait — is that the ping of a text I hear?

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Una Tiers Interviews Madame ZeeZee

Interview by Una Tiers, author of LETTUCE READ WILLS, DOROTHY DAISY, NOT SAFE FOR THE BANK(ER), JUDGE vs NUTS, and DIE JUDGE DIE, available at http://amzn.to/1cOxMz6

I want to introduce you to my fellow writer, Pat Bertram. She has authored several books and is a particularly generous person when it comes to helping authors. Today I’m interviewing one of her most recent characters, from her book, Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare.

Welcome, Madame ZeeZee, and thank you for taking time to sit down with us. For those who aren’t familiar with you, you run a successful dance studio where there was a recent murder of one of your students. Since that time, inconsistent stories about you have surfaced. I’m certain you would like to set the record straight.

Inconsistent stories about me? I never heard any. Too busy with my studio, I guess.

We notice that you don’t advertise for new students. How do people find you?

At the beginning, it was word of mouth, but after the murder and all talk on Facebook and Twitter and the local newspaper, I got a lot of new people. Most left after a few classes. People today have no discipline. They think they can come to class and start dancing with the group without even learning the steps.

Madame, rumors are that the dance studio is owned by a reclusive retired movie star who values her privacy. Please give us a hint of who it is.

Retired movie star? No. Retired professional dancer? Yes. You want a hint of who owns the studio? It’s me. And I’m not reclusive. I just like being quiet when I go home after work.

While you’ve always denied being related to Shirley Maclaine, are you sticking to that story?

Of course I’m sticking to that story. It’s the truth. I’ve danced with Shirley, but I’ve danced with a lot of other people, too, like June Allyson and Dick Van Dyke.

You rarely dance with your classes. Do you practice alone or take classes elsewhere?

My dream is to go back to Hollywood and take classes when I retire from my studio, but it’s too long a commute from Peach Valley. I do dance with my classes, especially the more advanced ones. We perform at luaus in the summer and on various other occasions, so if you know anyone who’d like to hire us, let me know.

We understand you’ve been married several times, would you tell us the number or if it is indeed over twelve?

What? You must have me mixed up with another Madame ZeeZee. I’ve only been married twice.

Would you ever relocate for love?

No. I’m happily married. And even if I weren’t, I wouldn’t relocate for love. I’m too independent, I guess. Besides, my house is exactly the way I like it, and I intend to stay there until the end.

How many countries have you lived in as an adult?

As an adult? One. Maybe two depending on how you define “lived in.”

In the book, Pat seemed to blame herself for the deaths of your dancers. Do you blame her, too?

Pat thinks too much. She needs to learn to just let things go. If I blamed her, I’d have to blame myself and all the rest of us who talked about killing Grace, but it wasn’t any of our fault. Well, except for the murderer. She was totally at fault.

If you could choose one author, living or dead, to read about your story, who would it be?

Pat Bertram, of course, but she wouldn’t need to read about my story because she wrote it.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Yes. Never stop dancing.

Thank you, Madame Zee Zee.

And thank you all for visiting with Madame ZeeZee and Una Tiers. Be sure to check out Interview with Fiona Gavelle, a Character in “Judge vs Nuts” by Una Tiers.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.