The Summer of Success

Facing a crossroads at the moment—what step to take next and all that. I’m not all angsty over it, but I have been thinking a lot about the late Donna Summer lately, as a result.

Donna Summer? The Queen of Disco?

First of all, thinking about Donna Summer is not new for me. I’ve had a long time interest in her career and in the singer, herself. I’ve even been known to be a defender of Summer (she’s so much more than disco), because I think her talent was far overshadowed by her persona and by the Super Storm known as Disco that came in and tried, unsuccessfully, to obliterate the Rock and Roll shoreline.

Variety defined her career

Still, I’m more interested in Summer’s genre-hopping than in her music, per se. For instance, did you know she was nominated for 17 Grammy Awards in eight different categories (sort of like fiction genres)? Further, did you know she won five times in four different categories—twice in Inspirational? That’s right, Inspirational. The singer of 1975s 17-minute+ disco moan-fest, “Love To Love You, Baby,” won two Grammy Awards for Best Inspirational song (1984 and 1985).

Conventional wisdom is to not genre hop in the publishing world. There’s greater freedom in music (Linda Ronstadt also played the field, musically). But in publishing, writers are often advised that if they start in romance (or speculative or historical or suspense) then they should stay in romance (or speculative or historical or suspense).

But, I must have a little Donna Summer in me because I don’t want to be constrained in that way. Before we get all crazy, let’s remember that no one is knocking down my door for my next book—or, for that matter, my first book.

But—again—we can look to the diva for guidance. Because “conventional wisdom” isn’t called “conventional-sort-of-good-advice,” you know?

Summer made her mark in one genre—disco. It was the red-hot genre of the time and she rode that horse for all it was worth.

But when the horse started to get hobbled, she made the smart move of wrapping up that era with a Greatest Hits collection, changing record labels, and then came roaring back in 1980 with a rock-pop disc without even a whiff of disco, The Wanderer. And a song from that project earned her one of her Grammy nominations.

What are the lessons for a writer?

  1. Do your homework. Summer worked in Germany and Europe in various touring companies of shows like “Hair” and “Godspell” before connecting with Giorgio Moroder for her first major album, Love To Love You Baby.
  2. Establish yourself as an excellent writer of (choose one: romance/historical/suspense/other) and then, like Summer, work your butt off to make your mark. She released seven disco albums from 1975 to 1979—that’s four years—three of them in a row were blockbuster double albums.
  3. Keep your nose to the ground and your face forward. If you pay attention to the market and publishing trends, you’ll know when it’s time to change genres. If you’re a big enough success, you’ll get your opportunity. When you do, show the same quality, perseverance, and dedication to craft that got you where you are.

That’s the way to build a Hall of Fame career (Summer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013) and do all the things you want to do.

Summer died May 17, 2012, at age 63. At her death (from cancer) she was working on two albums simultaneously—a collection of standards and a new dance music collection.

For the record, Summer’s Grammy wins were for:

  1. Best R&B Female Performance, 1979, for “Last Dance.”
  2. Best Rock Female Performance, 1980, for “Hot Stuff.”
  3. Best Inspirational Performance, 1984, for “He’s A Rebel.”
  4. Best Inspirational Performance, 1985, for “Forgive Me.”
  5. Best Dance Music Performance, 1998, for “Carry On.”

Additionally, she was nominated four times for Best Pop Vocal, twice for Best R&B Vocal, twice for best Rock Vocal, once for Album of the Year, once for Best Disco Vocal, once for Best Inspirational, and once for Best Dance Music.

Not a bad career.

Your turn: So, do you have a little Donna Summer in you?

Mike-9Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as the editor of CHEFS Mix Blog for CHEFS Catalog he is enjoying his playground. Previous playgrounds include being the Managing Editor of the magazine ACFW Journal and the ezine Afictionado for seven years. He also plays with words as a freelance editor and has edited several nonfiction books, proofedited for Abingdon Press, worked in corporate communications, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.

Originally posted on Novel Rocket

Filling Your Well of Ideas

Sometimes I think my idea well has run dry. The plots I dredge up are so spare they couldn’t even flesh out a flash fiction story.

Can you relate?

The Well of Ideas

The Well of Ideas

Usually what this means is I need to switch from “creative” mode to “ingestion” mode—I need more raw material to draw from. Some writers can create a story idea from nothing except their own imagination.

That is not me. And if that’s not you, too, maybe this trick will help you fill your well.

Feed Me, Seymour!

Much like the carnivorous plant in “The Little Shop of Horrors,” I need constant feeding. Often I chow down on a great novel; less frequently nonfiction fills my gullet.

Maybe it’s my background as a newspaper reporter, but some of the best food for my imagination comes from the news—including quasi news sources like blogs. Because, as Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

When I read news, online or print (broadcast doesn’t work for me), invariably I read an article that sparks an idea or two. Now, I freely admit not all of them will produce even a flash fiction piece, let alone a full-blown novel, but the important thing is I’m filling my imagination. At the appropriate time, several of the ideas will likely congeal together and produce something workable.

But I can guarantee that nothing workable will be produced if raw material isn’t imported into the processor.

Is he talking about you?

What is the cost of living together?

What is the cost of living together?

For instance, I read this commentary from Regis Nicoll the other day called “The High Costs of Living Together.” It included this gem:

In 1969, although the vast majority of people, 82 percent, reported having had sex before marriage by age 30, only 21 percent felt that was morally acceptable.

… Over the next 40 years, as public acceptance grew three-fold (to 63 percent) and (more) people (94 percent) admitted to having “done it,” there was far less social pressure to restrain it or keep quiet about it.

This sea change in attitudes and practices can be attributed to two things: “no-consequence” sex and a morally-compromised Church.

… With roughly 80 percent of the U.S. populace Christian and 94 percent admitting to pre-marital sex, that means that a lot of Christians—very likely the majority—are guilty of sexual sin.

Woah … right? I know a lot of people who will take offense at a study like this. But that’s what makes great fiction!

Is that giving you ideas? (Story ideas, guys, story ideas.) It sure did me. My oeuvre, the framework within which I write, includes marriage, fidelity, trust—and all the antonyms of those, of course. I took the entirety of Nicoll’s piece and fed my imagination with it. Who knows where it may lead, but now that information has been uploaded and is available. (And also stored electronically.)

Fill your well

The point is there are ideas for fiction everywhere if you open your eyes, your heart, and your mind to them. If you read something that sticks with you—good or bad—file that away in your Well of Ideas. Maybe you’ll use it, maybe you won’t. But you for sure won’t use it if you don’t have it stored away.

Obviously our world is ever in need of the transformative power of story—and of Story. What ideas have you picked up from news sources and used in your stories?

Want to play?

Screenshot from Jan. 25, 2014, FOXNews.com home page

Screenshot from Jan. 25, 2014, FOXNews.com home page

Go to the front page of your local paper (or to the home page of CNN or Fox News or your favorite online news source) and read the main story—no cherry picking. Choose one fact or one quote or one idea from that story as your idea seed and freewrite a paragraph or two in the comments.

Here’s my example. I wrote this on Jan. 25 based on a story found on FOXNews.com. The story has changed since that day and my idea seed is no longer in it, but it’s still a good example.

My idea seed: The scene was “believed to be secure” police said in a tweet issued at about 12:36 p.m. Here’s what I came up with:

Ethan was dead. True. He’d been an effective triggerman. Also true. But there were others. Many others.

Captain White’s tweet that the mall was “secure” made Gaston—almost—laugh out loud, but he did not “LOL. When he laughed, and it was rare, it was real not some fake social construct. But that “out loud” part was a luxury he couldn’t allow himself right now. Later? Most definitely.

Stupid twerkers. Ethan got a few, but they’d be back prancing through the mall in their tight clothes and loose morals soon enough. It was “secure,” after all. White said so. Truth. 

So not true.

And then he did chuckle—but quietly. After all, the shoppers trapped in his store from the lockdown were still shook up and hyper aware—no sense in giving them something odd to remember if the police did questioned them.

They’d soon enough embrace again the fragile cloak of security they thought protected them. True, always true.

So, if you want to play leave a comment. Or, if you want to talk about where you get your ideas fromhow you fill your Well of Ideasleave a comment.

Well image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net and cbenjasuwan.
Couple image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net and Ambro.

Mike-9Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as the editor of CHEFS Mix Blog for CHEFS Catalog he is enjoying his playground. Previous playgrounds include being the Managing Editor of the magazine ACFW Journal and the ezine Afictionado for seven years. He also plays with words as a freelance editor and has edited several nonfiction books, proofedited for Abingdon Press, worked in corporate communications, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.

Originally posted on Novel Rocket

Writing Lessons from Dogs

Sometimes when I’m goofing with my two dogs, Baxter and Taffy, God will snap his fingers, hold his hand over my nose, and tell me to “Sit. Stay. Listen.” And when I do, I learn valuable lessons.

Almost every morning I have the same breakfast—two slices of peanut butter toast. I love peanut butter. At one point in my (much younger) life, I was going to marry peanut butter. My siblings still make fun of me for this—I do not care.

However, during the year I was working from home as a freelance editor, every morning Baxter and Taffy would come and sit attentively near the table, convinced I would either give them some toast or drop a bite accidentally. Their faith in my generosity (or sloppiness) never wavered.

Image

Taffy, the trusting one

  • Lesson 1: Faith looks a lot like perseverance. If I would sit at God’s feet every morning and believe He’s going to give me something good—even if he hasn’t for a while—then I’m right where I need to be just in case he does. This lesson also applies to prayer requests.

Eventually, the dogs’ faithful attentiveness prompted me—not out of guilt, but out of a desire to share with my faithful companions—to reward their faith with one bite of crust each from both pieces of toast. Every morning.

  • Lesson 2: God does not share his bounty with me (not defined as anything related to money) because I beg, but because I am his child and he loves me.

The first time I offered the dogs their pieces of crust, Taffy came to me immediately, without question, and took the bite from my hand. Baxter held back. He looked at what I offered, sniffed it, and finally took it from my hand, hesitantly, as if he expected me to take it back.

Let me be clear. I am a softhearted man. I have never given my dogs reason to fear me or to wonder if the good I give them will be taken away. We have had Baxter five years and Taffy eight. They know what to expect.

So, they are not reacting to me with trust or hesitation. It is their nature. It’s the way they were made. One trusts completely and has since Day 1. One holds back, assessing and analyzing, and has since Day 1.

Baxter, the hesitant one

Baxter, the hesitant one

(Insert photo of Baxter)

  • Lesson 3: If I immediately take up God’s blessings and run with them in joy—or if I hesitate to accept the good things he has for me, it is not a reflection on God. It is the way I am. The way I was created. My nature.

Yes, I can (with God’s help) change my nature somewhat. For instance, I can train myself not to lie. But my nature—my default position, if you will—is what it is. Without the sacrifice of Christ, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, I would remain largely unchanged until the day I die.

“What do these lessons mean to me, as a writer?” I wondered one day as God held his hand over my nose.

  • My characters don’t have to show a strong, unwavering faith. Few people are gifted with that. But, when they face doubts and have questions, perseverance—moving forward from the last place they heard God—is a form of faith. Taking action based on what they know to be true of God is faith, even if he is silent.
  • Regardless of how much my characters pray for a certain outcome, God is under no obligation to provide it. I do not have to give my dogs crusts—I could give them carrots instead, or nothing. Our prayers do not obligate God; our prayers bring us into alignment with his will.

This one may be controversial, but I think it’s true.

  • My characters should not change by leaps and bounds, but by small incremental, sometimes nearly invisible, steps. Each one’s basic nature is their basic nature.

Can God do deathbed conversions of atheists? Of course. But the more likely outcome is that a lifelong, militant atheist will go to his or her death an atheist. Can an abusive husband experience a turnaround, repent, and abuse no more? Certainly, but the more likely—the more realistic—outcome is that he won’t. People who have been abused or know someone who has been abused recognize this truth.

Redemption is still redemption even in (and sometimes especially in) those smaller life changes that pull our characters not in a new direction, but just slightly off the course they were on. Even a tiny course correction, over time, will significantly alter a character’s destination.

Resist tying up all the loose ends and ending your books with everyone happy and in harmony with God. The Word tells us the world won’t end that way. Why should our books?

Your turn: What writing lessons have you learned from your pets?

Mike-9Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as the editor of CHEFS Mix Blog for CHEFS Catalog he is enjoying his playground. Previous playgrounds include being the Managing Editor of the magazine ACFW Journal and the ezine Afictionado for seven years. He also plays with words as a freelance editor and has edited several nonfiction books, proofedited for Abingdon Press, worked in corporate communications, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.

Originally posted on Novel Rocket

Invisibility is good

shocked“The story in this book is fantastic!” Rowlf exploded. “I can’t put it down.”

“Oh really?” Cyndy interrogated. “I found it annoying to read because of all of the oddball speaker attributions.”

“That’s because you have no vision,” Rowlf interjected. “This writer is being experimental.”

I’m proofediting a book right now for a publisher that is full of attributions just like these. It also has no discernible POV, switching within scenes to whatever character is most convenient at the time (head hopping)—or even to omniscient.

So why do I like the book? And what lessons can you learn from it? See my post today at Seriously Write, one of my favorite writer’s blogs.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Mike-9Michael loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor here at WritingOnTheFineLine.com, where he often takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.

Quote It! Writing and Editing

maugham460“If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.”

–Somerset Maugham, 1874-1965, British playwright, novelist (Of Human Bondage) and short story writer.

Cherryh_CJ“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”

–C.J. Cherryh, a United States science fiction and fantasy author who has written more than 60 books since the mid-1970s, including the Hugo Award winning novels Downbelow Station (1981) and Cyteen (1988).

This is one of the things I love the most about writing and editing–the complementary nature of the two skills. As an editor, I never think, How can I change this piece of writing?

No, it’s more a question of How can I polish the gems already here to help them sparkle as brightly as they can? As a team, writers and editors don’t work for each other, they work for the reader–without whom, the best writing and editing is for naught.

Your turn: How do you prefer to work with an editor?

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Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Mike-9Michael loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor here at WritingOnTheFineLine.com, where he often takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.

What next, you winner?

Winner1It’s an unfortunate truth—if there are writing contests, there will be people who do not win them and most of the time those people will be you and me.

So know going into it that, when it comes to writing contests, the odds are against you winning. Does that mean you shouldn’t enter? Not at all! But what it does mean is you need to enter contests for the right reason—getting that invaluable feedback. If you win, great! In fact, stupendous! But if you don’t, what can you learn from your contest scores?

Read more about contests and writing today in my post over on Novel Rocket!

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Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Mike-9Michael loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor here at WritingOnTheFineLine.com, where he often takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.

Quote It! Writers and Food

Today, three great quotes from authors that connect writing and food–the two essentials in any writer’s life!

Food fuels, literally, my writing. But, in many ways my writing also fuels my eating. I find when I’m about to give birth to a new project, I crave my comfort foods–chocolate (of course), and the three P’s: pasta, pizza, and popcorn.

jamesPatterson“Am I tough? Am I strong? Am I hard-core? Absolutely. Did I whimper with pathetic delight when I sank my teeth into my hot fried-chicken sandwich? You betcha.”

― James Patterson, who in the past three years, has sold more books than any other author (according to Bookscan), is the author of the top-selling Alex Cross detective series that includes Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls, both made into films. To date, Patterson has had 19 consecutive #1 New York Times bestselling novels.

davidmamet“We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.”

― David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) and Speed-the-Plow (1988), and the screenwriter of The Verdict (1982) and Wag the Dog (1997).

jrr_tolkien“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, (1892 – 1973) was an English writer, poet, philologist, and university professor, best known as the author of the classic fantasy works The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

What are the foods that fuel your writing? What food do you turn to when things aren’t going well? When you’re about to kill a character, do you amp up the caffeine? What are your food and writing connections?

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Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Mike-9Michael loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor here at WritingOnTheFineLine.com, where he often takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.