Stephanie Wells Mason

Romance Author

Archive of ‘Writing’ category

Writing: A Symphony in Words

I love music!  From classical to pop, country to alternative; I love all kinds of music!  It’s always been a part of my life.  Starting from a very young age I had the opportunity to learn to play the piano.  Later in school I learned to play the clarinet.  Growing up my house was always filled with music, whether it was one of us practicing an instrument, or something playing on the stereo.  With three older siblings who were also musically inclined, I sat through many youth symphonies.  I remember once when I was really young and sitting still was hard to do, my great-aunt told me a little secret about listening to the music.  She was a music professor and my teacher.  She told me that when I was having a hard time listening, to close my eyes and “see” the music; picture the story in my head that the music was telling me.

I have tried to instill this love for music in my own children.  So much so that each of them has learned to play some kind of instrument.  For my oldest daughter it’s a challenge; she wants to play them all.  But for now, she is concentrating on the violin.  Recently I had the opportunity to attend her high school orchestra concert. Even as an adult I like to close my eyes and “see” the music.  This time when I closed my eyes I could “see” elements of writing.  The different parts came together to create something amazing!

Melody: This is the plot of the story.  Without a plot there is no story, just words.  Just like a melody, the plot is what sticks in your head long after you have finished reading the book.

Harmony: These are sub-plots intertwining with the melody to make it more interesting.  The harmony can spice up an ordinary story into something really great.

Tempo:  This is your story’s pacing.  Is it fast and exciting or slow and gentle?  Does it have a change in tempo or is it one solid race from beginning to end?

Venue:  This is the setting.  Sometimes the place where a piece of music is played makes all the difference.  Classical in the elevator is just boring, but take it to the mountains with wildflowers and waterfalls and it becomes magical.  The same is true of a story.  The setting is crucial.  It takes the reader to some place else where anything is possible.

Instruments:  These are your characters.  Each is unique and adds something to the overall effect.  You might be writing about a soft and quiet person like a flute or a piccolo.  It might be someone who is loud and can’t be missed like a brass instrument.  What about smooth and romantic like a violin or viola.  Mysterious like an oboe or bassoon.  You need a suave and classy guy to make your readers happy?  He’s a saxophone.  A big bad villain?  It’s got to be percussion.

Dynamics:  This is the tone.  Every piece of music makes you feel something whether it’s sad or happy, edgy or soulful.  The tone of a story is the same thing.  Is it forte–gives a real punch to your reader–or is it played with a little more finesse in piano.

Notes:  These are the words.  They fly across the paper, just squiggles, lines, and dots that mean nothing until they are played–or read.

Put all of these elements together and you have a symphony of words.

 

What’s in a Name? Eight Tips for Naming Your Characters

I imagine most people are familiar with William Shakespeare’s famous quote:

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Even if you haven’t read Romeo and Juliet, you’ve probably heard some version of this at some point.  Juliet’s point was that names don’t really matter, but I disagree.  Names definitely DO matter.  If they didn’t, why would people spend months agonizing over what to name to their children?  With the use of ultrasound, it’s gotten so that the sex of the baby is no big secret.  The real excitement comes when the proud parents reveal the name to the world.  Names are so important that publishing companies spend millions of dollars compiling baby name books and advertising gurus make millions off of creating the right name for a product.  There’s also those famous last words of any conscientious parent before their child leaves the house, “Remember who you are!”  Names are important to us; they are a label that says something about us.

One of the reasons I love writing is because I love names.  I only have three children which means out of all the thousands–millions perhaps–of names out there, I could only reasonably use six (I’m not  a fan of five “middle” names; one is good).  I don’t even have any pets to name.  So what’s a girl to do who spent her youth dreaming of all the names she’d one day foist off on her children?  What else…write them.

Names of characters are just as important as the real people in our lives, so it it goes without saying that as writers we need to get them right.  Using the wrong names can turn a reader off quickly (Crime and Punishment?).  The wrong name can ruin a great story (Can you imagine Hortense of Green Gables?).  The following is  my own personal list of do’s and don’ts for finding the perfect name for those imaginary friends we call characters:

1. Originality is good, creativity is not.  We like to think that our character is someone new, never been written about before, and for that reason, they need an original name.  Great.  Search through those baby name books and find one that appeals to you, maybe one you haven’t heard for a while.  You probably should stay away from the top ten list.  But once you find that original name, stick to the original or traditional spelling.  Just like reality, creatively spelled names are annoying.  I once had a friend named Lisa who joked about how unoriginal her name was.  She said she wished her parents would have at least spelled it different–she was hoping for M-X-J-Q–and when all of her teachers called role she wanted the pleasure of saying, “It’s pronounced Lisa.”  True, you can spell a name any way you want and it won’t change what you call someone, but when you are reading and a really great character’s name keeps tripping you up, no matter how much you like the character, you’re bound to hold their name against them to some degree.

2. Stay away from foreign names that no one can pronounce.  Again, it trips up the reader and slows down the story.  Tolstoy was a great writer, but I don’t anxiously pull out my Kindle while I’m waiting somewhere in order to read his stuff–and a lot of that’s because of the names.  Granted he is actually Russian and so are his characters, but it’s so much easier when he gave them nicknames that even us Americans can pronounce.  If you have a foreign character try picking a foreign name that isn’t quite so “foreign,” and maybe makes sense phonetically.

3. Don’t use stereotypical names–unless you’re going for stereotype.  If you have a real hunky guy as your hero, don’t name him Rocky.  And that nerd?  Yeah, Steven Erkel went out with the eighties.  If your characters are real to you, give them “real” names.  Don’t let their name define them if that’s not who they are.

4. If you want to use an unusual name, think about tying it into the story.  Let the readers know why their name is unique.  It will give depth to the character.  I love places as names; London, Ireland, Phoenix, Memphis…my own daughter’s name is America.  In my first novel the entire family is named after places–for a reason.  I was able to make that a part of my character’s identity and motivation.  And even though one of the names was really not my favorite–nor my readers’–I couldn’t change it because that’s just who he was.

5. Don’t use names of people you know as villains or in any derogatory way.  It’s never a good idea to take the name of your next door neighbor whose dog keeps using your lawn as a latrine and turn them into the “Poop Monster.”  Even family names can be tricky, especially if you plan to kill that character or let them die tragically.  That person may just read your work one day and think you have ulterior motives.  Just be careful, you can’t afford to do things unintentionally.

6. Stick to the name.  If you give a character a name, don’t give them a completely unrelated nickname and then switch back and forth.  This is confusing!!!  If you want them to be the nickname, don’t confuse the reader with their “real” name, just use the nickname.  Example:  Scout.  Most readers are familiar with this precocious little girl from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird.  She isn’t anyone else–no one knows who Jean Louise Finch is.  Lee introduced her name, but then left it alone and stuck to one name for the rest of the novel.

7. Avoid using multiple characters with the same name.  This is pretty typical of English historical novels–we all love you Jane Austen–but it can slow a reader down when they are trying to remember who’s who.  Even if there is a familial reason for the same name, think about using a nickname: Edward and Eddie, Robert and Bob, Lucinda and Lucy…I could go on, but you get the point.

8. Strong name–strong character.  Weak name–weak character.  Need I say more.  However, don’t use celebrity names.  George Washington was a great man, but your thirteen year old superhero will never live up to that reputation.  You may be a fan of Katy Perry, but your reader may think she stinks, not to mention her questionable moral standards.

Do you have a favorite character’s name?  What do you love about it?

 

Author Interview with Sarah Dunster

Mile 21I recently had the privilege of reading Sarah Dunster’s newest novel, Mile 21.  It’s a novel about a young woman trying to pick up the pieces of her life after the death of her spouse.  The main character, Abish Miller has to figure out if there is life after death.  And if there is, is there any happiness after death?   In this rich and beautifully written story, life deals the 21 year old BYU-I nursing student a lot of tough cards. When things get just too much to handle, she takes to the road, running. But there are some things you just can’t outrun.  It made me laugh.  It made me cry.  It made me want to keep reading when I should have been working.

Sarah’s first book, Lightning Tree, was released in April 2012.  It’s the story of a young girl struggling to find her place among her foster family  Lightning Treein a Mormon pioneer town on the edge of religious and civil conflict.  At the tender age of 15 she has left behind her country, her parents, and her brother with only her young sister and herself to care for. What Maggie comes to realize is that “family” exists all around her in the form of caring people who are all willing to help her grow into the person God would have her be, if only she will let them.

With two successful novels under her belt–and a recent Whitney Finalist for 2013–I thought it would be interesting to find out more about this author.  I asked Sarah a few questions.  Here’s what she had to say.

1. First tell us about yourself.  Where are you from?  Where did you go to school?  What did you study?  What spurned your interest in writing?

 

I am from a small town in Northern California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I’m an eight-generation resident to the area. My ancestors settled there in the mid 1800’s. Some of them were gold miners.

 

I went to school at Nevada Union High school! My favorite subject was choir. I had the opportunity to tour Italy with the choir my Junior year–one of the most memorable experiences of my life so far. I always wanted to go to BYU for college, from the time I knew what it was. I did not get very good grades in high school and so it took a year of community college and a year at Ricks (back when it was RIcks) to get me there. I started out as a music major–I wanted to be a choir teacher, but when I discovered I did not have the classical training I needed to keep up with the program, I switched to Psychology and made music my minor. And now I”m a writer! I think my education has really helped me with writing, however. And my last year of college, I took several classes just for fun–two of them were writing classes.  I have always been a writer, however.

 

  2. Your first novel, The Lightning Tree, is historical in nature, about some of the early pioneers in the church.  Was this story inspired by your own family history?

 

The event in the story, that sort of promulgates the whole mystery that leads my main character to search and worry about her past, was directly lifted from my own family history.

 

  3. Your newest novel, Mile 21, is a contemporary drama. Why the change?  With two very different novels, which do you prefer, the history or something more modern?

 

I have always been an eclectic reader. I love everything from classics to silly, 60’s era (clean) harlequin romances. I just love stories and characters and the art of storytelling in every form. My favorite genres are Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Contemporary Womens’ Fiction, and serial mysteries. I plan on writing in each of these fields at some point. And I don’t know if you know that I also write poetry. I love reading creative nonfiction and nature writing (but haven’t really tried my hand at that too much… I find that a bit more intimidating, for some reason.)

 

  4.  In Mile 21, Abish Miller must learn to cope with grief.  You do a very good job of describing what it is like.  Have you had to deal with grief in your own life?  How much of Abish is autobiographical?

The character herself is mildly autobiographical. She’s autobiographical in the sense of, “if I ever did go completely off the deep end in a spiral of self-destruction, what might it look like?” I think most main characters have a bit of autobiography to them. The part that is most “real” about Abish is feelings. I have experienced difficulty and tragedy in my own life, so I was able to write what it feels like to have that sort of upset and coping and grieving in the wake of a life-changing, difficult series of events.

 

5. I really enjoyed the first person present that is the writing style for Mile 21.  You don’t find this in very many novels.  Would you say it was easier or more difficult than writing in the traditional third person?  What made you decide to use it?

 

It is very difficult! First person present is, I think, the most limited viewpoint as far as what a reader can see–because you can only think or see what your main character would think or see. But I also feel it is the most intimate viewpoint; you get fully immersed in the character; their psyche, their story. You get very close to them.

 

6.  Mile 21 was recently nominated and selected as a finalist for a Whitney Award.  With this kind of success, can you share what we may expect next from you?

 

I’m not sure about “success,” but I am very grateful people have liked the book. That is the reason why I write. I like to give people a story that moves them, and that helps them escape or develop a viewpoint or a new perspective.  I just submitted another historical manuscript to my publisher, and I am currently working on two–another contemporary LDS story, and a fantasy novel.

Thanks so much Sarah!  I wish you the best of luck and look forward to your next book!

Here I go again!

Two weeks ago I submitted my second novel to the publisher.  I have been working on it for over a year.  It took up my summer vacation.  It filled my free time with worry, and my work time with anxiety.  When I wasn’t working on it, it was there in the back of my mind, festering like a toothache, demanding to be heard.  People asked how I managed to get this one written.  With a full time job at school and a full time job as wife and mom, not to mention the many other hats I often wear, the answer is…half an hour at a time.  I can’t tell you how good it felt to hit send on that e-mail.  And yet, it’s still there, in the back of my mind–How long until I hear back from them?  Maybe I should have included another scene.  Maybe it’s total garbage and they’ll hate it.  I’ve come to realize that as a writer, this is life.  The questions, the uncertainty, the nagging is always there along with characters that need their story told, landscapes that would make the perfect setting, and plots that constantly twist and turn my mind into mush.  And I love it!

Now it’s time to refocus.  It’s time to get back to blogging (shoot me now please!) and marketing and promoting On the Way Home.  It’s time to think about blog tours, library talks, reading groups and bookstores…all the things that make my insides quiver and my mind go blank.  Sure, I can write a novel.  But can I sell a novel?  This seems to really be the big question in today’s world.  There are many great writers out there, just as there are great artists and musicians.  But as I have learned, it takes more than being good or even great at something to make your dream a reality.  If you can’t get the word out to the world about whatever it is you are selling, it doesn’t matter how wonderful it is, it will go no where.

I took a continuing education class over the summer to beef up my computer skills and as I talked with some of the others in the class, one of the continuing complaints was, “I didn’t know when I became a musician, an artist (or baker, or candlestick maker) that I had to become a businessman too.  I just want to paint!”  Which is exactly how I feel.  I just want to write.  I want to focus on my characters not my blog.  I want to talk to other writers about perfecting my craft, not about marketing strategies.  I don’t want to have to divide my rare and precious time between writing and selling.  The one I love, the other I hate.  But the fact is, I can’t do one without the other and have any kind of success.  Writing without promoting yourself would be living like Emily Dickinson.  She did a lot of writing in her life, but no one knew who she was until she died.  I don’t want to wait that long!

So I am recommitting myself to the whole package.  It scares me and it’s hard for me, but nothing that is worth it is easy!  So with my morning Zumba done, followed by a generous slice of pumpkin pie (I know, don’t say it), I’m ready to begin again!

The Support of Friends

If I was a drinker, I would raise a glass of champagne in a special toast to all my amazing friends and thank them for their support.  But since I’m not, you get a blog post dedicated to you instead…A million thank you’s to all my wonderful friends!  You are amazing and I couldn’t do this without you.

In the past week I have met with three book groups between Oregon and Washington organized by great friends.  Months ago when I asked anyone if they were interested in doing something like that, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  It wasn’t because I didn’t think my friends were willing to help me, more that I couldn’t imagine enough interest in my writing.  I’ve quickly learned that my imagination is sorely lacking.  I am overwhelmed by the response I have received from so many.  I have met lots of terrific people, made new friends, and had a blast doing it.  I’ve also learned a great deal.

Most importantly I’ve learned I’m not alone in this.  When I set out to write a book I really kept it to myself.  Aside from a few friends and my family, I didn’t tell very many people about it.  I think I was afraid people would criticize, maybe not to my face, but let’s face it, how many people have dreamed of writing a book only to never actually do it.  And how many more have started one and never finished?  Probably even more.   Even when I learned I was going to be published I wasn’t comfortable talking about it for fear of criticism.  But this experience has shown me that people are far less likely to criticize and more likely to support you in your endeavors if you give them a chance.  Sure there are the occasional sour grapes in the bunch, but most of them are sweet.  In fact, I can honestly say everyone I’ve encountered has been amazing, offering encouragement and applauding me onward.  They are as anxious for my success as I am and are helping me achieve it. I’m also learning to talk about myself.  I have issues with recognition, but I’m getting better at accepting it gracefully.  It’s hard to answer questions about yourself, especially when you’ve never thought about them before.  Talking to people about my experience, my writing process, my character ideas and more has forced me to look inward and really hammer out those responses.  I know myself better now than I ever have.

Thanks again to all my friends, family and readers.  You make it all worthwhile!

Fiction as real Life

I really do hate the newspaper, just like the character in my book.  But with nothing else to do on my lunch break at work, I often find myself perusing the pages of our local paper.  One of the reasons I dislike it so much is that it is always sad and depressing, not very uplifting.  Once in a while I might find a funny comic strip, but they are rare gems.  The one thing that I do find extremely funny, however, is the police roundup.  I don’t know if all papers do this, I never read it enough in my other locations to know, but our local papers always have a section where they print excerpts from the 911 emergency line and/or police responses.  Some of the calls are absolutely hilarious.  It is unbelievable what people will call the police about and is usually worth a good laugh.  Yesterday while reading  I found this little gem:

“A thoughtful paperboy flagged down a deputy to get help for a man on College Avenue who had fallen down and was bloody.  The man was given assistance and later transported to the hospital by ambulance.”

If you’ve read my book you’ll see the significance.  Maybe there’s a future inheritance for this boy.  It just goes to show that fiction is is sometimes real life.

 

 

 

A Pond Full of Scum

I have had a fabulous weekend at the 2013 LDStorymaker Conference.  I’ve learned so much and met some great people.   The cogs in my brain are spinning out of control and I hardly know where to begin to process it all.  The information, I’m sure, will prove to be invaluable to my future writing.  But even more valuable, perhaps, is the perspective gained about writers in general.  There were some really talented writers there; big names with best selling books.  They have every reason to stand up and say, “Hey, look at me, look what I can do!”  They were all too nice to be that tacky, but many did share their underlying insecurity over the big question:  “Am I good enough?”  At one panel, in particular, an accomplished writer, Julie Wright, shared her feelings, saying even now there are times when she feels like pond scum.  Not that I want anyone to feel like that, but it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one.  Moving forward I hope will be easier now.  When I’m second guessing my abilities and having confidence issues I can feel comfort in the fact I’m not the only scum in the pond!

I’m not cold hearted!

My book has been available for two weeks and I’m now getting some feedback from friends.  It does my heart good to hear people say not only that they liked it, but that it made them cry.  I cried when I wrote parts of it (not that I let anyone see that, I was home alone).  It feels really validating that I could express those emotions, feelings, and ideas with words.  That I could actually touch someone’s heart.

I am not a very emotional person, or I should say, I am good at keeping my emotions hidden.  I come by it naturally.  My family is not very demonstrative.  We’re close but we all have  difficulty expressing our feelings through outward displays of touching and/or words of affection.  My husband’s family, on the other hand, are constantly hugging, holding, and saying I love you.  They cry at the drop of a Hallmark card.  At family events we joke about it and of course, they cry as we do.  I have become the designated spokesperson because I don’t cry.  Most of my in-laws can’t complete a prayer without getting choked up.  My brother-in-law labeled me the “cold hearted one” (all in good humor).  And that is what I tell people; I’m just cold hearted.

The truth is though, I’m not.  I feel things, I just don’t show things.  Not even to those closest to me.  But when I write, I can put all those thoughts, feelings and emotions into my characters.  Essentially, I can hide behind them and no one will know how I feel, because it’s not me, it’s them.  That’s also why when my book was finally accepted for publication I had several moments of panic to think that people would be reading it and finding out about the real me, which I’m so much more comfortable keeping hidden.  Having someone say they cried when this or that happened in the story, it’s like a connection is made.  I may not actually be putting my arms around someone. or crying with them, but we’ve connected emotionally.  It does my cold heart good!

Editing vs. Gardening

Recently I spoke with a cousin who is also writing her first book.  As we talked about the process, the ups and downs, the conversation turned to editing.  We mutually agreed that editing and being edited is a hard thing.  When you write, you put so much of yourself into the story, whether through personal experience, similar experience, or just plain effort.  Through the writing process, you live the story; fiction becomes real and non-fiction is relived as you share with your audience your story.  It all becomes very personal.  It’s your baby!  And then, like any anxious parent on the first day of school, you send it off for review, hoping the editor will treat it kindly.

This whole process is not unlike a recent article I read. (Ensign, April 2011, D. Todd Christofferson)  The article describes a conversation with a currant bush and the gardener who owns the bush.  After cutting the overgrown bush down nearly to the ground, the bush complains, “How could you do this to me? I thought you were the gardener here.” And the gardener lovingly replies, “Look, little currant bush, I am the gardener here, and I know what I want you to be. I didn’t intend you to be a fruit tree or a shade tree. I want you to be a currant bush, and someday, little currant bush, when you are laden with fruit, you are going to say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Gardener, for loving me enough to cut me down.”

I think this is editing in a nutshell.  Sometimes the story we’ve written isn’t the story we meant to tell and the editor is there to kindly cut us back down to size.  They know best, what will be most effective, what will appeal to the audience, what is totally irrelevant to the story.  It’s painful.  But it’s necessary to turn the story into a beautiful work of prose.  Thus, so many books with page-long acknowledgements, thanking their gardeners!

Lions and Tigers and Bears! Oh My!

Where to begin…?  I feel a bit like Dorothy who suddenly finds herself in the strange yet intriguing world of Oz when she turns to her dog and says, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto!”  I don’t have a dog, and I haven’t ever been to Kansas, but my world has been hurled through the hurricane of publishing my first novel and finally landed in the digital world.  I’m convinced if I follow the yellow brick road  of e-books, blogging, and tweeting I’ll find my way back to my own comfort zone.  There’s a wicked witch of doubt hot on my trail though and I continually have to outsmart her.  So far, thank goodness,  there are no flying monkeys in sight!

All writers want to publish (OK, maybe not Emily Dickinson, but everyone else).  That’s the ultimate objective in writing–having someone read it.  And not just read it, but like it.  So you write, and you hope, and you wait. And wait. And wait for someone to read it–the right someone.  And when finally they do, it’s amazing!  It’s unbelievable! It’s overwhelming!  There’s contracts to sign, edits to make, cover designs to pick, publicity to arrange…I don’t even have any ruby slippers!