Jann Arden – A ‘Good Daughter’

I’m a writer but I’m also a big reader. I read because it’s like breathing – something that is completely involuntary but necessary for life. I picked this up because – just because. I was so moved that I felt compelled to write a review. So here it goes.

Reading Feeding My Mother by Jann Arden is like having your best friend sit across the table from you, having a cup of tea, pouring her heart out about having a family member with Alzheimer’s. Her book reads like a personal diary, accidentally left out in the open, unlocked, and we peak inside and read her most personal thoughts and feelings. I felt like it was almost too personal and that I should look over my shoulder in order not to be caught in an act of transgression. But the design is deliberate and Jann Arden crafts her story so well that it pulls us into her world as she shares the jumble of emotions that rip at her heart and her soul.

I was captivated; I finished the book in a single day. I hung onto her words. I cried as she retold of the passing of her father, burying her cat, berating herself for being angry with her Mom’s forgetfulness – thinking she was bad person. I laughed at the antics that transpired. The TV remote in the dog food was particularly funny.  Though there is nothing funny about Alzheimer’s. I identified because my Dad had it too; though none of his doctors ever uttered the diagnosis. I felt her guilt/disappointment because like her, my Dad also accused us (me and my siblings) of stealing his money. It’s like a knife to the heart that he would think such a thing.

I’ve always liked Jann Arden’s music. I like her celebrity. But now, I like her as a person too. She is a decent human being. Her song ‘Good Mother’ is a wonderful tribute to her Mom and particularly poignant; though even in the midst of this heartbreaking time for her, she probably doesn’t realize what a ‘Good Daughter’ she is.

Marianne Scott author of Finding Ruby.

 

 

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Unauthorized Rule # 7 – Use Clichés, Jargon, Acronyms and Expletives with Discretion

A writer is someone who sees ordinary people, places, and events in a complex way. My world is filled with ‘what ifs.’ I’m a writer and my motto is: there are so many stories to tell. I want to share those multifarious adventures created by my over active mind. I want an audience to delight in the art of the story. I’ve learned that it’s not only the plot or characters but importantly how you voice a tale that keeps readers invested and turning pages– and the sound, emphasis and personality is what makes our narrative voice distinct and ensures it is unique, fresh and interesting.  The language we use is fundamental to how we bring the voice forth- inserting overused language blends our work into the combined voices of a choir and keeps it ordinary.

Here are some of the key ways we reduce our uniqueness and potentially lose the spark that keeps us singular:

Cliché: a cliché is an overused expression or idea. I think of clichés as common language, everyday vernacular, tired phrases that can be used as filler when creativity lapses or the writer loses energy. It’s not that using clichés is incorrect; I sometime use a cliché in a line of dialogue to reveal a particular quality of a character. Yet while that particular tic can belong to a character, used in the narrative voice, it can undermine the quality and freshness of the writing by being boring. Readers are receptive to the new; regurgitating the old can cause them to fall asleep.

Jargon: I feel somewhat the same about jargon though if you’re writing a detective novel or medical story the use of language particular to the profession is certainly appropriate. But too much jargon can become irritating. Remember, it’s about the story. Don’t distract because you want to show your familiarity with an occupation’s verbal code. If your words don’t move the plot forward – then you’re using jargon as a crutch. Jargon-heavy dialogue can stagnate rather than push the plot forward.

Acronyms: these are another such irritant though sometimes necessary. In Finding Ruby, the background plot revolves around a character named James P. Hollinger who is head of the U.S. Department of Defence (DoD). This same character is closely tied with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations, the FBI. Referring to the full name of these organizations is a mouth full, so in that case the acronyms are handy. They’re used throughout the book because these organizations are present to the point of being characters. So am I breaking my own rule? Perhaps! But, as I mentioned in my blog, “Unauthorized Rules,” rules are meant to be broken.

Then we have the expletive, language for those with limited vocabulary. I like to use specific naughty words for shock value at a point of high tension, such as when a character is overwhelmed or cornered. And, used sparingly and in unexpected ways, I find them particularly pleasing. However, when expletives are the norm for a character’s dialogue and it’s a trait that defines them, then that character needs further development. I’m neither prudish nor puritan, but I believe there are more inventive ways characters can show their vulgarity.

I love words and consider sentences a beautiful thing. Clichés, jargon, acronyms and expletives while acceptable if overused can weaken your story. I prefer to use them with great discretion.

 

 

Unauthorized Rule # 6 – Don’t Let Anyone Tell You What to Say, Think, or Write

Subtitle: My Negativity Will No Longer Be Tolerated

There are really only two things that press my buttons: one is being called too sensitive, the other is being called negative. As far as being sensitive, I actually consider the quality an asset to me as a writer because feeling and understanding emotion, whether for me personally or for others, gives me valuable insight into developing the characters for my stories.

Being accused of negativity, however, raises my hackles and arouses my inner Canadian. We are a nice people, and I am no exception. This happened to me recently and I found it very upsetting.

What happened was this: I belong to a fairly new local writers’ group who has a private group on Facebook. In a conversation thread, I called the owner of local book store “stubborn.” I later learned that one of the founders of the group, I’ll call her Martha, removed the post stating that if my opinion were ever to get back to the bookstore owner, it would be “destructive” to the good reputation of the other members of the group.

When I found out I’d caused such a stir, I felt terrible and tried to ask for forgiveness. Unfortunately my apologies went on deaf ears- I was out- putting me in defense mode and making me feel very sensitive. I was caught in a loop.

Martha’s notice didn’t do me any favours. My husband has stage four cancer and I’m having trouble coping with the stress, thinking emotionally instead of logically. In my panic, I had seriously considered that she might be correct and I had done something terribly wrong. Martha’s notice truly intensified my suffering, and I shed some tears. I like Martha, and to be so called out made me feel absolutely awful.

After the dust settled, as I like to learn from my mistakes, I looked at my comment again. While Martha had erased it from the writers’ group, it still existed in my feed. I read it over and over, analysing the so-called “destructibility” of my offense. True, calling someone stubborn isn’t flattering, but the man in question in fact prized this aspect of himself, something he himself once told me. He didn’t give a flip (use the expletive) if people didn’t like his attitude.

I surmised that if he’d seen my comment, it would neither destroy his reputation, lose him business, nor make him take our consigned books off his shelf—selling books is how he makes his living! Local authors also do book signings at his store, which gives him notoriety.

My comment not withstanding, I also advocate for him, frequently posting endorsements about his store and encouraging people to buy their books there, a courtesy on my part that I do because I believe in what we are all doing and that supporting local business is always best. The proprietor of the shop isn’t even on Facebook and can not see what is written about him to be either affronted or thankful.

I’m truly saddened when someone takes issue with my opinion. It is never my intent to offend. My preference is to discuss it, work it out. In a pinch, I’ll take the high road and apologize leaving the matter to be forgotten.

Later on, I reconsidered the situation. I’d offered an opinion, which was my right. Was that actually something worthy of such a severe action? In the thread, we were discussing a suggestion I had made which Flora (not her real name and Martha’s collaborator) objected to. Martha and Flora had responded to my suggestion negatively under the auspices of keeping things “positive,” whereas my suggestion, which was designed to take action, which in and of itself is positive, was viewed as negative because I used an adjective both people decided was not positive. Confused? Me too.

I had been censored, but it seems to me that we rely on writers precisely because they offer up suggestions and voice opinions with a mind toward moving forward and inciting change. And if that is so, then doing such a thing in the company of other writers, particularly those who gather with the express desire to engage in the act and process of writing together, ought to be allowed.

That’s when I realized there was more to this story than the utterance of an adjective that was perceived to be negative.

It was about power. The women were asserting that their mode of communication was the overarching style with which the group needed to comply in order to remain in the group. In a writing group, to be told what to say and that my opinion was not permitted made me question the leadership of the group.

Fortunately having understood what truly was at stake with this whole affair, I gained enough clarity to leave them to their business. Being censored and removed for having an opinion meant this was not a literary organization that valued the true tenants of what literature is for: exploring ideas and possibilities in the human condition and being at least receptive to all stripes of both communication and the engines that generate that communication.

I personally value and welcome debate and argument, free expression being the king pin. I believe that is what creativity and good writing are all about. It is only when everyone’s voice is heard and valued that progress and growth are accomplished.

In way I am grateful to Martha and Flora who through their censorship have given me the opportunity to be a better writer. I write every day and do so knowing it’s my choice what to say, think, and express. In such a freedom, there is growth for everyone.

 

Unauthorized Rule #5 – Always Put Your Characters in Terrible Danger

Whenever I do a book signing event, after explaining to curious readers that my novel Finding Ruby involves a kidnapping, forced identity change, several shootings, explosions, and a fire or two, I get confused looks. They ask, “How do you think up these things”? and eye me sideways; after all, a person who dreams up such diabolical stuff for her characters must be a creepy sort. Maybe they don’t think I look like a person who has this kind of mind – or perhaps they do.

I laugh and tell them, “I have a vivid imagination.” What can I say- it’s true: I’m a fiction writer of spy thrillers. The genre demands intrigue and suspense and many eventful mishaps. In order to accomplish that, I put my characters through hell.

In my previous blog post, “Don’t Fall in Love with your Characters,” I talk about how hard I find it to put my darlings in harm’s way. Of course I’m protective of them, especially my “good guy” characters. But I’ve learned that allowing my personal emotions to influence the shape of my story only throws up creative barriers. My editor says, “kill them.” You want drama? Then don’t let the reader get comfortable. It’s hard to do, but I’ve found that to be good advice. Being conflicted, I side track myself with a bunch of rather crazy rules I’ve invented in order to maintain a business attitude about writing. Mine are fictional characters and rules are just rules. Creating a protagonist is easy. He/she has a problem that needs to be overcome. The antagonist, well, he/she needs to be defeated.

But what to do with all those “supporting” characters? I consider them fair game. There are so many books with strong opinions as to what the right and wrong things to do with characters are. OK, some of the rules make sense, but for me some of those rules only restrict my creativity. That’s not a good thing because writing is all about inventiveness and originality. Why should I limit myself just because there is a rule that says I shouldn’t do this or that?

Instead, I try to write intelligently, using proper grammar, a follow-able structure, and a clean format. Writers can get discouraged if they feel they are not measuring up to the rules. So I take my own approach. I put my characters, all of them, in dangerous circumstances. Not that my way is radical; I just tell my story the way it comes out, straight from my imagination, dictated by that mysterious inner voice every writer has.

When the conversation with my reader goes on, I explain how in the novel, my female protagonist, Ruby, finds herself in unwanted action whereby a psychopathic killer relentlessly pursues her and her new family, the Drakers. “Oh, that sounds too scary. It would keep me awake at night,” they say.  This gives me pause. While I consider Finding Ruby a complicated adventure in which my characters frequently encounter worst scenario hazards, I didn’t write it intending for it to be “scary.” I wonder if those same people ever tune into the evening news. Now that’s scary! Maybe that’s their point. They want to get away from the fearful events that plague society. With that in mind, I can see where they might love a book description that goes something like this:

Mary has the perfect life in her peaceful suburban Toronto neighbourhood. She has a successful career, and is going to marry the man of her dreams and live happily ever after. The end.

Such a story would never exist, but I understand the impetus to want this. Or maybe these readers are just superstitious and think that reading about awful events would conjure up disaster in their own lives.

However, if your reading tastes run along the lines of stories that don’t put you to sleep the minute you open your book, you might choose stories whose plots make your hair stand on end. I’m not sure how many people go into a bookstore looking for a book about Mary and her perfect life, but I personally wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t want to give that to my readers.

Therefore my rule stands: always put your characters in terrible danger. Finding Ruby is a story meant to entertain. Happily ever after might be a good ending for a fairy tale, but it’d be a pretty lousy ending for a mystery.

Unauthorized Rule #4 – Don’t Be Afraid of Adverbs

Newly inspired writers work hard to get the attention of a publisher or an agent. We can easily be influenced by the opinions of bloggers, authors (famous or otherwise), and agents or editors within the publishing industry who advise on writing style and techniques and what to avoid when submitting your work. One caution we tend to see dispensed with fair regularity is that one ought to avoid adverbs.

It’s unfortunate that adverbs have become the pariahs of the literary world. They get such scorn from so many, it’s as if using them can ruin your writing career. It seems nowadays writers have erred on the side of overly spare writing in an effort to strike those modifying words from the record.  It’s said that words ending in “ly” weaken your story and tag you as an amateur of the craft, someone not yet ready for the privilege of being published because you fortify your wimpy action statements with modifiers.  After reading Stephen King’s memoir/book on writing, On Writing, one would imagine the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Hey, he’s what one might call a household name in the literary world, so when he pipes up with such a dictate, we should assume it to be true.

But the road to hell? A career ruiner? That’s an awful lot of power to assign to the use of a legitimate part of speech. From where did this paranoia originate?

I believe that contempt for adverbs is contrived, something invented to encumber the newly initiated. Creating fear around appropriate language is like handcuffing the able bodied simply for what– crowd control? After all, so many people are writers nowadays or at least aspiring ones.

Come on, people! Have some back bone. An adverb is a perfectly appropriate writing tool. However, I agree that using adverbs effectively is quite another matter, something that requires writers to be thoughtful about selection, placement, and frequency. As in my first blog about, “Show Don’t Tell” it’s primarily a matter of not imposing upon our reader.

I’m one of those writers who likes “ly” adverbs. I especially like to use them in my first draft. Adverbs free me from overthinking my stories to the point where I would get hung up on which words to use. I use adverbs with impunity in my first iteration because sometimes rules can unconsciously encumber a person’s creativity.  Hmmm… unconsciously – good adverb. See: adverbs don’t have to be the poor relation of the grammar family. They indeed have their use. So I no longer suffer from adverb anxiety.

Yet I appreciate that the rhetoric has created the great adverb debate. To use an adverb or not to use an adverb? Perhaps Shakespeare would’ve approved. It’s not until my first edit that I take careful note of whether or not each adverb is appropriate. Sometimes it is; sometimes it’s not. The nice thing about writing is that your first version will never be your final product. Let your adverb be like an exotic spice, that if left to deepen its flavour will either stand alone and be a triumph, or will coalesce with the other spices into something exquisite.

The one exception to my “free to be you, me, or adverb” is with dialogue tags. That’s where I draw the line because when we assert how something is said or done in a dialogue tag, it intrudes on the reader’s experience of hearing or experiencing that moment herself.

Ex: “You’re always telling me what to do and how to act!” Mary said angrily.

It stands to reason that the writer should ensure that the dialogue itself indicate the tone of Mary’s voice and her emotion. Meaning any additional adverbiosity in the tag is redundant. Why would you have to “tell” the reader that Mary is angry? It should be so evident that the reader implicitly gets it.

On the other hand, let’s be a little softer on ourselves. I mean, let’s say you did use an adverb there. Would the reader slam your book shut and say in a huff, “Well, this writer is using adverbs, and I’m not going to take it anymore”? Probably not. It’s just that dialogue is something we like our readers to play out in their minds using the words provided to form pictures of the written scene, and for that reason, the tag should be as unobtrusive as possible. But really, there is nothing grammatically wrong with the sentence. My deepest apologies to Mr. King, but we must be allowed our own style and expression. It’s our readers who will be the ultimate judge.

I may not be a grammar guru, but I am mindful of the rules. I understand why so many prominent writers caution against their use, but I say free to be you and me. Sometimes we have to trust our own ears and that means using adverbs where appropriate. They are a proper part of speech, and best of all, they are not illegal.

My next post focuses again on my characters. That rule is going to be a lot of fun: Rule # 5 – always put your characters in terrible danger… even if you love them.

by Marianne Scott author of Finding Ruby.

 

 

Rule #3 – Be Descriptive But Don’t Over Describe

In order to get our readers’ attention, writers not only have to make readers feel like they are present in the scene, but we also need to entice them to stay and continue reading. Personally, I love it when I sit down to read a book and find myself transported into another world, and my own around me vanishes as I turn the pages.

How does this happen? Perhaps it is a matter of conditioning: avid readers may have an easier time being captured by words and passing into a fictional dimension. But writers have to ensure all readers- from avid to dabbler- can be held and even arrested by the world of the story.

The necessary ingredient is vivid description. It’s not enough to talk about a character or a setting. Readers need to be able to identify personally with a situation in a story, to actually see themselves in it,  an unnamed extra, standing on the sidelines and hearing and seeing firsthand what is happening or developing in the plot. Here is where skillful crafting comes in: by choosing the right descriptive words to form subconscious pictures, like a movie of the mind, we can create sensorially vivid environments for the reader to come inside.

It’s a fine line between too much and too little detail. Sometimes in an effort to provide all the sensorial information necessary to put our readers into our headspace, a writer can go overboard with description. Painting the verbal picture is more than pulling out your dictionary of adjectives and stringing a series of them in front of every noun in your book. Consider the image above. There are several things going on. How would you go about describing so much detail?

“The red, pink, white, and orange beds of exotic flowers mixed among the dark green, chartreuse, emerald leafy grassy background of the garden was a testament to the expert, meticulous, obsessive dedication of the caretakers of Butchart Gardens in Victoria, B.C. who plant and maintain such a wonder of splendid beauty.”

Oops! I think I just exhausted my reader. Excessive use of adjectives or other modifiers are not the answer. Choosing your descriptors is particularly important when you consider what your story is about and how much weight to lend to each detail. This garden could be the setting for an intriguing plot. Yet while it is important to make the setting as vivid as possible, the actual landscape is not a part of the developing story.

Now consider the image as a place where an encounter with a villain is about to take place, the protagonist having been lured by a text message from a stalker to a specific spot for an exchange of information… or worse.

“Standing at the top of a staircase that led down to the noose-like pathway flanked by a patchwork of flower beds in full bloom, Tamara scanned over the exotic specimens laid out over Butchart Gardens for signs of her stalker. She paused before descending into the colorful valley of plants and shrubs. Beyond the gardens, the mountains were framed by a misted sky. She shivered despite the warm morning sun while she verified the message on her cell phone. “Meet Maurice by the Sequoia grove just past the totems.”

When a setting has numerous components and a lot to look at/hear/smell, it’s easy to get excessive with adjectives. But adjectives alone don’t do the trick. Without the photo, you might have understood the visual content of the scene, but that pile of adjectives that focuses on the visual robs the reader of learning what the mood of the moment is. Which version moves the story forward? Relevance is what is at stake.

When describing a setting, adjectives are less important than capturing the essence of the setting through the context of the moment in the story. In “…pathway flanked by a patchwork of flower beds,” the metaphor is more descriptive than had the colours of the flowers been defined. Also, “the noose- like pathway” is foreshadowing that this encounter might not be entirely a casual or friendly meeting.

Dialogue can also have a descriptive component to it. When you read a line of dialogue, can you hear the speaker’s tone? Does the dialogue support the description of the character? In my novel, Finding Ruby, my villain betrays his creepy inner demons through innuendo. What better way to “show” his evil character? Consider this example:

“Retired,” Felix huffed. “You and all the others are traitors. You abandoned the agency and you betrayed your country. You’re all cowards leaving before our job was done. Now I’m going to make sure you’re all going to pay for abandoning your country – and for abandoning me.”

Ahem. Do you think this guy might have issues? Great dialogue enhances descriptive content.

In my next blog post, I’ll talk about using adverbs in dialogue tags. Are they really needed? It’s more than just what your characters “say.” Indulge me, please. Adverbs are highly controversial. Watch for my next post for a great debate.

 

The Unauthorized Rules of Writing, Rule #2 – Don’t Fall in Love With Your Characters

MarianneScottwriter

Rule #2 of “The Unauthorized Rules of Writing”

When you say it out loud, this sounds like a rather ridiculous rule. Characters are not people. At least they don’t have physical substance. They sort of talk and walk around in your head. They are non-entities, figments of a writer’s imagination; so how on earth can a writer become attached to them in a personal way? That’s a hard question to answer. All I know is that as I was writing my first novel, Finding Ruby https://www.amazon.com/Finding-Ruby-Marianne-Scott/dp/0995877300/ref=dp_ob_title_bk, I kept running into a wall known as writer’s block. I knew the plot. I knew the ending (sort of) and I knew that the excitement had to peak and wane. Yet, there I was in front of my computer dumb as a doorknob without a single idea as to how to move the story forward. I lamented to my editor, Jenna Kalinsky. What…

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