It’s exciting to be invited to participate in the Kansas Library Association’s 2016 Author-palooza. In addition to presenting their books, authors are instructed to share their experiences in presenting public programs.
I have been amazed at how many opportunities opened for me after my memoir was released. This is a new chapter in my life, and a very rewarding one to be sure.
Here’s my list of appearances:
In the Shadow of the Wind readings and inspirational programs on grief and healing
October 23, 2014 Grace United Methodist Church discussion
March 7, 2015 Douglass United Methodist Women spring tea
April 25, 2015 Fredonia First Baptist Women spring tea
May 6, 2015 Potwin United Methodist Women spring tea
July 10, 2015 Writers of the Wheat, Sunflower Plaza, Wichita
October 7, 2015 First UMW, Arkansas City, meeting program
October 14, 2015 Rose Hill UMW, meeting program
January 17, 2016 Howard and Severy UMC Sunday guest speaker
January 21, 2016 First UMW, Winfield, meeting program
Suspense Fiction (Sundrop Sonata) and writing programs
May 6, 2016 Winfield PEO: “The Legacy of Words,” featuring the WWII letters of my uncle Lester Harris, posted on my blog.
June 11, 2016 Kansas Authors Club, District 5 program, “Using Fiction Techniques in Writing Memoirs”
October 2, 2016 Kansas Authors Club, annual convention, “Note by Note/Scene by Scene: Crafting a Suspense Novel”
After you complete the novel’s first draft, then what? The next steps are the hardest work involved in writing a book–re-writing, revising, and editing. Check every chapter, every scene, every sentence and every word. This is grueling work but it must be done.
There are some steps to take which will be helpful. They involve calling in the troops. Build a network of folks who will support your efforts, even as you support theirs.
Join a critique group in your writing organization. Reading critically to help others is a wonderful way to learn to look at your own writing with critical eyes. As you help your friends, they can read selections you send them and all of you benefit.
Attend Writing Conventions and Workshops
You should be able to find several conventions or workshops that cater to your interests. Select classes or workshops that speak to your needs. It’s possible you will meet some other writers who will become fast friends. If your local group meets regularly, request programs that will benefit your endeavors.
When you have gone over the draft about fifty times and you think it’s nearly ready for release, it’s time to call in a team of Beta Readers. These would be folks you trust to read the entire novel with a critical eye to find any errors you might have missed. The readers could be fellow writers, but you might also wish to draw from your other circles to find out if you have missed any technical details from their fields of expertise. For Sundrop Sonata I used several writing friends, but also some people who just love to read, a young man who knows personally what it’s like to deal with Asperger’s Syndrome (who is also a gifted writer), a friend who is a native of New York, another piano technician, a drama specialist, and a military man who knows firearms.
Listen and Learn
Once you have delivered copies of the novel, or specific sections, for critical review, the next step is most important. Be prepared to listen to any and all suggestions for editing changes that your valued readers offer. There is probably no book written that can’t be improved in its early phases, and you certainly don’t want to release your book before you’ve done everything possible to smooth over the hiccups.
Much of my research for Sundrop Sonata came through years of full-time work as a rural piano technician. When I tune a piano for a client, the objective is to produce a harmonic instrument, something better than what I started with. Since I’d like the piano owners to call me back again in a few months, I strive for the very best result possible.
Consider that most pianos have 88 keys. What many people don’t realize is that most of those 88 keys operate mechanisms that end up striking and playing 3 strings simultaneously. Thus, on your average piano, for the 88 keys, a piano technician ends up tuning about 220 strings. This number varies due to the design and size of pianos, but let’s just say 220 strings need to be in tune with each other when I’m done with a piano call.
What if I end up tuning 219 strings perfectly, but leave one untuned? I have a piano that is 99.5% tuned. Pretty good, right? Almost 100%.
When I was in school, the grading scale was something like 90 to 100% considered excellent work, and earned an A. 80-89% was a B. 70-79% a C. Remember those days?
That’s not the way it works in the real world. If I tune a piano with 219 out of 220 strings perfectly in tune, and miss just one, I have a piano that is 99.5% tuned. But it is that one sour string that will draw attention, and the pianists will say, “She doesn’t know how to tune a piano.”
In other words: 99.5% is FAILING in the real world.
As writers, we need our work to be 100% complete. If there is one little hiccup, that is what readers will notice. The process of re-writing and revising can’t be more important, and ultimately, it is the author who will receive credit (or blame) for the book.
With piano tunings, there is room for some disagreement about what might be considered “perfect”. Likewise, there are various opinions about choices writers may make that would lead to smooth reading. Absolute perfection is an elusive and impossible goal. Still, you want to smooth out as many hiccups as you possibly can before turning the book loose on your readership.
The month of November is National Novel Writing Month. (NaNoWriMo) If you are aspiring to complete a draft of a story that is forming in your head, I wish you many productive days that result in an excellent book. I hope to be working on a sequel to Sundrop Sonata myself, so let’s write together!
Thanks for taking the time to ponder my musings. Hope you found something helpful in these last few posts.
Within the pages of a suspense novel, readers will be increasingly concerned about several areas of conflict the characters face. This conflict arrives in several categories, or layers.
The obvious first layer of conflict is an external one, where the protagonist and antagonist come up against each other with conflicting goals in mind. They provide a source of conflict for each other that escalates throughout the story until they meet one-on-one and face-to-face with only one of them going to come out okay.
In Sundrop Sonata, the external conflict that Izzy faces starts from the first pages, when Nola begs her to leave the ranch, taking the child Laura along. Izzy is confronted with the need to save the child, though from what she doesn’t really know. Later, through various anomalies she discovers in a number of local pianos, she comes to understand that there is also a threat to the country–her neighbors, family, and friends. Both threats seem to be linked in some way to the same man, Laura’s father.
As the story progresses, a box of unknown substance from a backyard laboratory comes into Izzy’s possession. She doesn’t know what it is, but assumes it could be very bad and should not be left unattended in a crowded parking lot at a music festival. When she learns that her nemesis has abducted her own daughter, the conflict escalates once again. He has made it personal and brought the threat into her own family.
In the concluding scenes, Izzy and Jay meet face-to-face in a dark piano repair shop where she must find a way to stop him and thwart his agenda, or die trying.
Internally, each of the three viewpoint characters faces challenges of their own. Jay struggles with recurring nightmares of his past life. Laura must come to grips with the loss of her mother, the most important person in her young life. And Izzy struggles with self-doubt about her own ability to find the strength needed to persevere.
On a personal level, Jay must face his sweet mother and convince himself that his actions–whether she approves or not–are in her best interest and defense. Izzy faces marriage unrest, compounded by the actions and temptations of another man.
Each layer of conflict for the characters intensifies as the story progresses. Even when young Laura seems to find safe haven with family in the east, it becomes clear that she is not yet safe from Jay.
The ticking clock
The needs and goals of each character, whether external, internal, or personal, have to meet one other requirement. There is a deadline by which everything must happen. As the deadline approaches, the activity escalates as well.
A few years ago, in mid-September, I discovered an interesting plant in my flower circle. It was a thin green spike with a mass of narrow scarlet petals cascading from the top. I’d never seen anything quite like it, though it did resember the pink surprise lilies that bloom in the summer. My first thought was that some of those pink flowers had evolved into this fall-blooming red version. Through subsequent years, I discovered that the red lilies also had a late froth of narrow green leaves that stayed green all WINTER, but would shrivel up and disappear with the arrival of spring. One could forget they were there until September when the flowers reappeared, with no leaves.
I called this flower a red spider lily. The fact that it bloomed in September, coinciding with the local music festival, made it appropriate as a deadline tool in the fictional story. Later, I discovered that I did not have anything unique. There really is a flower, more of an amaryllis than a lily, that other people have also called “red spider lily”. The flower comes from Asia, (how convenient) and its technical name is Lycoris radiata. It was perfect–easy to hide in someone’s flower garden, always blooming at the same time of the year, and hidden most of the rest of the year. The red spider lily became a ticking clock.
When writing a suspense novel, you want to invite readers to continue reading from the very first page. I would even go so far as to say, dare the reader to stop reading! The opening line is critical to keep folks reading and wondering what will happen next. Put a lot of time into crafting the perfect opening line for your story. It may not take you eight years, like it did me, but spend some time on the opening line.
Some of my favorites opening lines:
It was a pleasure to burn. (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
I was not sorry when my brother died. (Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions)
First I had to get his body into the boat. (Rhian Ellis, After Life)
There was a time in Africa the people could fly. (Sue Monk Kidd The Invention of Wings)
Once you have the opening, take care with endings too. Readers should want to keep reading when they get to the end of a section or chapter. Make them wonder how it’s going to turn out. Tease them along by presenting more tantalizing questions or raising the stakes at the close of a scene. It’s kind of like a fishing expedition. First, hook them with the perfect opening line. Then tease them along to keep them reading. Make them turn the pagess
The use of multiple viewpoints in the “sonata format” allows multiple cliff-hangers in each chapter. You can leave one character in a formidable place and start a section with another of the viewpoint characters, moving their story along. Little by little, the questions are answered, and conflicts resolved, even as new challenges and questions arise. The final scene makes everything clear to the characters and the reader as well.
Stay tuned for the final part of this series on Suspense Novels: Polish for Perfection.
The characters you create live the story. There will be major players—the protagonist and her adversary the antagonist, several second tier characters who make appearances to enhance the unfolding drama, and perhaps a host of mostly nameless folks who flit in and out of various scenes.
The major characters, and some of those on the second tier, will face challenges that escalate as the story progresses. Those challenges need to be logical for each character, given their personality strengths and weaknesses.
Each character should have strengths as well as weaknesses. No person is perfect. Neither should a fictional character be perfect—not perfectly charming or perfectly evil. Even the antagonist must have some redeeming qualities.
This is where some folks shake their heads and ask, “Exactly what is redeeming about Jay Pack?”
I admit he’s pretty far gone. But as his story is revealed, it’s obvious that he’s been the victim of bullies around the world. We can empathize with the boy Jay, and realize that bullies can create monsters more sinister than themselves. Jay also has a soft spot for his mother.
The Name Game
Once during a read-around at a writer’s meeting, I shared the opening scene of Sundrop Sonata. Afterwards, another writer came up and insisted, “You have to change her name. There really WAS a Nola Pack in Winfield when I lived there.”
I gave this some thought and decided not to change the name of this minor character. After all, I didn’t personally know a Nola Pack. The person she referred to was an acquaintance from forty or fifty years previously. I picked the name “Nola” from the title of a piano solo I have enjoyed since my teen years, and the “Pak/Pack” name was selected from a Korean/English dictionary as one that would easily be anglicized.
About the same time, I was reading a novel by my friend Mary Coley, in which the bad guy had the same name as my first father-in-law. Was I offended? Certainly not. After all, Mary could not have known this name meant anything to me.
As writers, we have the glorious opportunity to select names for a whole host of characters. Parents agonize over names for their newborns. Multiply that agony by the number of characters in a book and you begin to see what a challenge naming characters can be.
I have a few guiding principles for selecting names. First, I want to stay away from names of people I actually know, or that are identifiable. Second, I don’t want to pick something so unusual nobody can pronounce it. With billions of people on the planet, the idea of picking names that are unique—that belong to nobody in real life—is a long shot. How many people share your name already? Have you ever done a search on Facebook for yourself? I share my name with a dozen or so other women on Facebook alone.
In the selection of character names for Sundrop Sonata, I chose some common first names paired with surnames that sometimes show up in my family history, or in a dictionary, or are cities on a map. Traveling often inspires new words and names for use in the stories writing themselves in my head.
If you encounter a book with character names you recognize, don’t take it personally. Just enjoy the story.
Somewhere in the writing process, the writer must decide which character, or characters, will tell the story. I struggled a long time with this, writing and re-writing the opening scene about fifty times over the course of eight years. I couldn’t seem to get beyond chapter one.
Then, in a writing workshop, I encountered the idea of using several viewpoints, and even different voices. The use of three viewpoints answered my challenges. Izzy’s first person narrative is mingled with the thoughts, plans and dreams of two others in third person (Laura and Jay). There were just too many things Izzy would not have known that were crucial to the story. Yet I found it impossible to tell her story in anything but first person.
Thus, Sundrop Sonata is written with three viewpoints and a mix of first and third person voices.
A good friend reviewed the novel in the Piano Technician’s Journal. In her review, she raved about the “sonata” format, using this trio of voices. A sonata is defined as “a musical composition, usually for solo piano, in three or four extended movements contrasted in theme, tempo, and mood.” With the three different voices filtering through the story, each chapter becomes a literary sonata, or sonatina, with the entire novel a sonata.
The sonata idea worked quite well in several ways. I’ll share some of them in Part 3, Conflict and Suspense.
After the Kansas Authors Club convention in early October, some participants asked if I would post the content of my class online. The next few posts are in response to that request.
I didn’t set out to write a suspense novel. There was a story in my head and it needed to be told. The genre identity was a puzzler for me. People suggested it would be classified as a mystery, and in a very broad sense, I suppose it is. But in a traditional mystery, the reader is presented in the beginning pages with a crime–often a murder–and spends the rest of the book analyzing characters and clues to figure out whodunit.
That’s not the way it is in Sundrop Sonata. The reader knows early on whodunit but the protagonist does not. Indeed, the poor protagonist isn’t even sure what’s happened. The reader knows. The character doesn’t. This keeps the reader cheering for the innocent and naïve protagonist, wanting her to figure it out before it’s too late.
At the same time, nobody knows why the antagonist has acted so irrationally. In this story, motive is a mystery. The answer is to be revealed as the pages unfold.
How would you describe the difference between a mystery and a suspense novel?
I like to think that from my very first memory, I have been conducting research for fictional stories. Everything I have ever done, every place I have toured, every age I have lived through–all things are ripe for plucking and setting into a new story.
I have lived almost my entire life on farms or in rural Kansas. But I have traveled extensively throughout the North American continent, as well as a few other places. My interests are many: music–piano music, handbells, symphonies and folk instruments as well. I like the instruments themselves, especially piano technology and construction.
I have a deep love and respect for nature and the environment fostered from many camping vacations in the great outdoors. I chose science as a field of study in college, earning a bachelor’s degree in geology.
I have always loved to read, which led to my interest in writing. And I am a spiritual person with a focus on supporting and uplifting folks, especially those whom others may have looked down on.
There are snippets of all these interests in the pages of my books. I never really know when a tidbit from my scientific training, for instance, may collide with my love of music to weave a new thought into the plot of a developing story. It’s much like making a quilt–you find patches from various scraps of the past and stitch them together into a new creation.
To write a novel is to make a quilt from patches of the past.
What are the areas you take special interest in? What experiences filled your life that will provide background and ideas for your writing projects?
Given that each of us has different interests and different experiences, even if we start out with the same premise, we’d end up with an infinite number of fresh new stories. If I were to suggest that you take a product you know and love that is often imported from another country, and make that product a vehicle for smuggled goods, what product would you choose? What is being smuggled into the country? How would it be hidden? Who is going to discover the plan? And what will they do about it?
No two quilts would ever be identical. We’d all have different stories to tell.
I did not have a chance to say anything at the awards banquet Saturday evening in Lawrence. Ronda Miller gave a nice introduction and then handed me the certificate for the 2016 J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award.
The J. Donald Coffin Award is intended to honor the best published book written by a member of Kansas Authors Club, within the last two years. This annual award is determined by independent judges who read the books submitted for consideration.
The trio of judges this year had this to say about Sundrop Sonata.
“It was captivating from the get-go and the intensity did not let up. There were many sub-stories going on simultaneously.”
“The multiple story line is what kept my interest and drive to keep reading and finish to uncover the resolutions. It was a hard book to put down.”
“I loved the portrayal of the child with autism, the piano notes and references, the insights into a unique job, the slight hint of romance, the twins who were separated, the murder, and the international plot that wrapped all of it together. This was a well-woven, intricately written book.”
It is an honor to receive the 2016 award for Sundrop Sonata. If I’d had the opportunity, here is what I might have said:
I am always amazed at the doors that open when I follow my dreams. At one point in my life, decades ago, I would have described myself as the world’s shyest person. I could not have dreamed of a moment like this. It just wasn’t possible. Even answering a question aloud as a high school student had my heart pounding so hard, I could hardly say a word. But I could write them.
Then I learned that life is short, and when opportunity knocks, you better respond, even if it goes against the core of your being–even if it’s the hardest thing in the world for you. And once I took that step, the doors opened.
Writing frees my soul. I’m never happier than when I’ve wrung the words to a particularly vivid scene onto a blank page. But then I found that after I wrote a book, people began asking me to speak.
Imagine that. Me, the shyest person on earth. However, the rewards of stepping out of my box, of trying something new, can be very worthwhile. It’s invigorating to meet folks who relate to experiences I have had, who know what it’s like, who are opening doors of their own.
I am not the first person to note that it takes a village to write a book. KAC is an important part of my village. Friends who write can offer each other valuable support, critique, and encouragement. I have learned a lot listening to honest suggestions from my writing friends. And I’ve learned even more reading their drafts and offering ideas to polish their work.
Thank you, KAC. Thank you, to the family of J. Donald Coffin. Thanks to my team of reviewers. Thanks to Ronda Miller whose sneaky little request for me to teach a class on suspense fiction preceded this award. (What? Public Speaking?)
Thanks to my family, several of whom attended the banquet with me. My sister—traveling across two states to attend the banquet. Cousins who opened their home to host the family this weekend. Special thanks to my husband, for offering ideas and tips in his specialty areas, for putting up with me and my crazy schedule, and for clearing his schedule to attend the banquet with me. He brought our live-in grandson along—thanks to the little guy for helping me in his special 6-year-old way.
To my fellow writers, I’d like to say, “Write those words whispering in your heart. Let go of them, and may many doors open for you!”
The Walnut Valley Festival, 2016, came to a close Sunday, September 18.
Hardy folks who stayed the course through a week of weather contrasts once again headed home after filling their souls with uplifting music and cameraderie. After downpours upriver flooded the traditional Walnut Grove and Pecan Grove campgrounds, campers re-located to various places including the city lake. Folks braved more rain Thursday and Friday, to welcome sunshine on Saturday all day long. Children exhausted themselves with outdoor play on the hillside at Stage 2. And the musicians raised roars from audiences hungry for a fix of favorite musical entertainers.
I was reminded again how this festival is a most appropriate setting for several final scenes in Sundrop Sonata. Music brings harmony to our lives in more ways than one.
As darkness descended over the festival grounds, a full moon rose over Stage 1 during the final 2016 set of John McCutcheon, Tom Chapin and a whole group of related friends making music for their fans. Their new song, written especially for this year’s festival, says it all.
Midnight tonight marks the end of August and ushers in a new September. I’m ready. This is the season of red spider lilies, of music and the Walnut Valley Festival, of adventure in a new school year, and piano conventions in Indiana.
If you seek a diversion and a suspenseful adventure story about pianos, piano tuners, and their families and friends, there is not a better time to read this book. After all, the red spider lilies (lycoris radiata) will soon be in bloom. Get yours before the lilies fade!
(This is a continuation of the previous post about the story behind Sundrop Sonata.)
How did you decide on the “sonata” structure?
The term “sundrop” has almost always been part of my working title. The “sonata” part kind of fell into place after writing friends axed earlier titles. For years, I thought of the novel as The Sundrop Conspiracy. The “conspiracy” part was a bit much, so I tried Ebony, Ivory, and Mystery. That didn’t seem quite right either. On a whim, I proposed “Sonata.” A musical term, ripe with metaphorical implications for real life, “Sonata” seemed to stick.
What drew you to the suspense genre? How did you approach the particular challenges of that genre? How did you build your plot?
I didn’t actually choose the suspense genre. I think it chose me. This story grew in my mind and I was compelled to write it. People kept calling it a mystery, or a cozy mystery. But it wasn’t exactly a mystery. I had a story and I wrote it, then I had to figure out what kind of novel it was.
The plot built itself. My imagination went to work on that road trip long ago, and by the time we were home again, the story was basically there. Given the recent terrorism against the US, I wondered what other forms of attack might be possible? What might those with a grudge against the country be able to dream up that would remain unnoticed by the population until it was too late? What kinds of things might be smuggled into the country? I knew that many pianos in today’s market are imported. I also knew there are lots of places to hide things inside a piano.
I have found interesting additions in quite a few pianos, though nothing sinister to the best of my knowledge. But what if someone with an ax to grind had access to pianos heading into the country? What if they slipped something inside those instruments? How would anybody ever know? The same would be true for automobiles, or electronic equipment, or anything that is imported from other countries.
I re-wrote the beginning of Sundrop Sonata about fifty times, learning something not to do each time. I went to writing workshops, joined writing clubs and critique groups and listened to what everyone had to say. After outlining the story structure, I went to work with daily writing sessions, and revised the original many times to come up with the published version.
Any advice for others interested in self-publishing?
The literary world has changed a lot since my attempts to write during my young adulthood. I realize I no longer have decades left to piddle around. I finished writing Sundrop Sonata as well as In the Shadow of the Wind, years after their seeds were planted. I revised and edited them many times, trimming, tightening, and clarifying each time.
I pitched each book to editors and agents at conventions and workshops and actually had several professionals express interest. Each book attracted small presses and I was offered contracts. The contracts had me doing all the footwork and editing, but the publisher would get all the rights and 85% of the royalties.
I figured if I was doing all the work, why not take the next step and independently publish? It’s fairly easy to do that these days. Many big name authors started out self-publishing and some continue to publish and represent their own work. I was fortunate to have an experienced mentor, Paul Bishop, a California author with many detective novels to his credit, (and a cousin-in-law of mine as well). Paul gave me excellent advice and guided me through the steps toward the Lionheart press.
To self-publish, you need to be clear on your motives for writing. If you are doing it for the money, don’t. If you are writing because you enjoy the process and you have a story to tell, give it your best effort and offer it to the world of readers. There are lots of readers out there, but there are also lots of books to choose from. Take the time and effort to make yours the very best it can be, offer something different, but still polished. See what happens.
You have to believe in yourself first. I have always thought Sundrop Sonata was a good story—a great story. I put my best effort into it and I enjoyed it very much. After all, I write first for myself. I hope to spend my retirement years doing something I thoroughly enjoy. If others enjoy the story, that’s a great reward in its own way. If other women, other piano lovers and music lovers, or those with adventurous hearts rave about the story, that is a bonus. I am honored when enthusiastic readers tell their friends about Sundrop Sonata.
Will there be other novels?
I certainly hope so. I have some threads of ideas percolating for about three more in a Sonata series of novels. I just hope they don’t each take a dozen years to arrive! I better get busy.
(If you are curious about what the Walnut Valley Festival, red spider lilies, music on the prairie, and open pasture gates have to do with pianos, murder and mystery, read Sundrop Sonata to find out. If you enjoy the story and you think others would also, post a review on Amazon or share this blogpost with your friends.)