There are at least three ways to approach it:
3. Underplay it. Use short, simple declarative sentences. Think Hemingway.
A couple of years ago, I was running in my neighborhood when I fell, cracking the bridge of my nose, and scraping my face, hands and knees. I knew it was bad when I saw the expression of two guys I waved down to ask for help. Here are three ways to describe what happened.
Slow it down
Oh no, she thought, not her face! – then there was the solid surprise of her nose meeting the unmoving sidewalk.
And still April fell. Her front teeth hit the concrete, wavered, decided to stay put.
Finally she was still, face down, unmoving on the cool Sunday morning.
Make the reader fill in the blank
Underplay the prose
The sidewalk had lifted at an expansion joint. Her toe caught the crack. She fell very hard. She lay on the cement. Maybe she was okay. It was just a fall. She started to move but something grated inside. Her mouth tasted like rust.
Next to her was a bush with white flowers. She stared at it. Her vision was growing dark at the edges. The bush would look good in her garden.
She closed her eyes and was still.
Five miles up the road, he opened the window and threw out the first of Karen Reid's teeth.
She swam against the grain of the ocean, using a short and sharp stroke and a smooth kick.
She did not see the murky shape drifting toward her. It was more than half-submerged, and it had eyes. When she barged into it, the silent mass reared up.
Her scream was muted, most of it locked in her throat.
On the beach, her sons threw sand at each other and the man with the device unearthed a nickel. The lifeguard rearranged his legs in a way that the girls below could see the filled harness under his neon swim trunks. A stray cloud blotted some of the sun.
Now most of my books - I’ve had 17 published in 15 years - are written under contract, which means they have a fixed due date. (Although I still sneak off to work on a “spec” book now and then, like a married woman making out with some hot guy from her Body Pump class in the parking lot of the gym.)
My current writing process is:
- One year before the book is due: I have plenty of time. And I deserve to relax after how hard I worked to get the last book done. I might make some notes and brainstorm a little. After I clean out the basement.
- Nine months before: This plot idea is intriguing. The characters are starting to seem like real people. Maybe I should create a thorough outline instead of just plunking away at it.
- Six months before: The outline is finished. This is going to be so easy. I should outline all the time! I’ll just take it step by step, like paint by numbers. The book is practically going to write itself now that I have all the hard work done. I think I’ll call my friend and go out for ice-cream to celebrate.
- Three months before: Holy crap! This outline doesn’t work at all. And why do my characters keep doing things I never planned on them doing? This one guy was meant to be a secondary character, but for some reason he thinks he’s the real love interest. And my main character refuses to do this one dangerous thing the outline says she should do. She says it’s a bad idea.
- Two months before: I will never be done in time. Never. The only way I can do it is to write two thousand words a day, every single day. Didn’t manage more than three hundred today? No problem, I’ll make it up tomorrow.
- Two weeks before: There’s too much blood in my caffeine stream. I’m writing like a mad woman. But I can do it. If I just give up on this sleeping thing.
- Due date: There. Finished. Is it any good? I’ve read it over, but to be honest, I have no idea. I hit the send key. I really should celebrate. Or work on that other book that’s due. But how long has it been since I swept behind the couch?
- Current Location:Maplewood Coffee & Tea
- Current Mood: content
- Current Music:Tired Pony
(Guess what doesn't have a safety? That was the end of this book for me.)
With a little bit of time, you can figure out nearly anything without having to step away from your computer. Like:
- Do red-tailed hawks eat road kill? (If fresh, yes).
- Does Oregon pay for braces for kids in foster care? (No.)
- What time are trial advocacy classes at the University of Washington. (Late afternoon.)
- What testimony did the original grand jury hear in the Phoebe Prince case? (Actually, I couldn’t find that, which makes sense. Grand jury testimony is sealed. Still I would like to know more.)
Pulled out everything from underneath my kitchen sink, crawled into the space, and taken a picture to prove to one of my editors that yes, a body would fit under there.
Asked my kajukenbo instructor to drag me across the room, his hands underneath my arms, so that together we could figure out how a character could fight and get away.
Spent a day with a criminalist at Forensics Division of the Portland Police.
Faced down armed muggers, home invaders, crazy people, and robbers - all while armed with a modified Glock that uses lasers instead of real bullets. I did this at a firearms training simulator facility (the only one like it in the world that is open to civilians) which, lucky me, is just 20 minutes from my home. You interact with life-sized scenarios filmed in HD. The scenarios change depending on what you say (for example, “Hands in the air!”) and where your shots hit (a shot that disables versus one that injures). Meanwhile, the bad guys are shooting back. If you choose - and I do - you can wear a belt that gives you a 5000-volt shock if you’re shot. The facility even offers a simulation that is nearly 360 degrees, so you feel like you are standing in the middle of, say, the convenience store or the parking lot. This teaches you to look behind you for that second or third bad guy.
After sending the editorial letter, Editor 4 hands off the manuscript to Editor 5, who serves as both copy and line editor (usually those are two different people). A few times, she has questioned the veracity of things I write, asking if it’s really true or possible. I welcome that. So much fiction, especially mysteries and thrillers, is riddled with errors about police procedure, weapons, or investigative techniques. Once she asked if a woman's body really could be jammed under the kitchen sink - so I took everything out of mine and crawled in to prove it.
All of my editors have been good - but in different ways.
I love martial arts, an idea that would probably really surprise anyone I went to high school with, where PE was the only class where I ever got a C. (In my nightmares, I am still being taught a dance to Winchester Cathedral by Miss Fronk, who only shaved her lower legs.)
My gateway drug was a kickboxing class, where I found out I love hitting things as hard as I can. The teacher was also a kajukenbo instructor, and I ended up taking kajukenbo for about 18 months. I had an orange belt and was training for purple. My sifu even helped me figure out what moves my character could do in various situations in The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die.
When he stopped teaching, I started taking kung fu at the Westside Academy of Martial Arts (which also offers cross training, so our sifu often throws some in at the end of a session). I love sparring, learning techniques like the spinning back fist, and going up against guys who are a half-foot taller than me. I'm even getting better at grappling. I hold an orange belt and hope to test for purple soon.
What I've learned
Martial arts have helped me be a better writer (after all, mysteries and thrillers often contain an element of violence), as well as a stronger and more prepared person.
Women often deal with threats, even physical ones, with social behaviors. We ignore the people who threaten us or try to appease them. We try to ally ourselves with the person who made the threat by acting like we are really on their side.
But you know what? These skills won’t work on most predators. They won’t work on the person who sees your purse or phone as something they must have – and sees you as about as valuable as the packaging they originally came in. They especially won’t work on a predator who only wants to take you to someplace private so they can hurt, rape or kill you.
Sparring and grappling have taught me what it feels like to get hurt or simply experience the surprise of having someone attack you. Getting hit in the face or even having your hair pulled is shocking. In our culture, even close friends don’t touch our faces. Once you’re no longer a little child, no one even pats you on the head. Knowing a little something about surprise, pain and fighting back helps me write about them.
I can write authoritatively about fear, about how things blur, about the way people move and hold their bodies and eyes and mouths. I can tell when someone is about to hit me and where. The eyes focus, the breath catches and the shoulder drops or the hand goes back.
I also know how to hurt people – and that means my characters might be able to do it too.
A future book idea?
In a weird twist, a man who was looking for girls and woman to abduct was killed by police right outside my kung fu school a few months ago (you can even see my car in the top picture). He had already kidnapped a teenager from Paradise Tan. She was only able to escape by jumping from his moving van while still bound with duct tape. I am thinking there might be a book in there someplace. Like what if he had taken a girl from the school?
I own both these books - the approach is so similar. I wonder if the designers are aware of the other book. One's a mystery, one's a YA.
I turned that book in on June 1. The editor has already given me edits (she's fast!) and she loves it. For the first time in literally years, I've got some free time. I want to take a step back and look at my my one wild and precious life (to paraphrase poet Mary Oliver). I want to decide it's "okay" to read more for pleasure, or even to watch one of the many TV programs I've only heard about. I want to get myself back in balance, instead of to always be working.
What things do you wish you were doing?
They form a line on their hands and knees, wearing painter’s padded kneelers and leather gloves and they crawl forward shoulder to shoulder. They never touch what they find, so they don’t enter the chain of evidence. They are taught to look directly in front of them, as well as above them and behind them, to make sure they don’t miss, say, a knife someone sunk into a tree trunk. The rule is, if they can’t see through it, they have to go through it, because they know that often a bad guy will discard evidence in a place he thinks no one would ever go, such as a blackberry bush.
So this book is about three teens. Alexis is tall, pretty, quiet, and poor. She joined SAR in the hopes that it will look good on college applications in a few years. Alexis also has a secret: her mom is bipolar. Ruby is a bit of an odd duck, who knows she’s different but doesn’t understand how to fit in. She likes unusual gum flavors, continuity errors in movies, and true crime. And then there’s Nick. He’s a hyperactive daydreamer who dreams of joining the Army, just like his dad, who died in Iraq.
The real SAR
Monday June 9
YA Book Nerd
Tuesday June 10
The Book Addict’s Guide
Wednesday June 11
A Reader’s Adventure
Thursday June 12
Friday June 13
Monday June 16
Reading with ABC
Tuesday June 17
Wednesday June 18
Thursday June 19
Tales of a Ravenous Reader
Friday June 20
Adventures of a Book Junkie
Lisa Madigan (Lisa Wolfson) died from pancreatic cancer in February 2011, just 8 weeks after she was diagnosed. She had had breast cancer 20 years earlier, and accepted more than most of us that life does not last forever.
At 33, Bridget Zinn was young enough to be my kid. She died in May 2011, again from colon cancer. (Don't tell let anyone tell if you if there is blood in your stool that you are too young to have colon cancer.) Her 2013 book, Poison, was just named a Oregon Spirt Honor book, as was The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die.