To tell a compelling story…

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You know those t-shirts you can get online with the cutesy slogans, like “Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel” and “I hear imaginary people” or this one, my personal favorite, “Kicking adverbs and takin’ names”? I was exploring Cafe Press today and found this one: “Oh, this is SO going in my next novel” and BOOM!

Inspiration.

Sure, all these T-shirt and coffee mug slogans are fun because there’s some truth in them. Maybe they coax a little chuckle out of us. But this one… oh, this one just grabbed me by the heart and squeezed. What writer HASN’T looked to real life and *clears throat* adapted certain moments to further a plot or play 20 Rhetorical Questions?

What’s funny about this is I didn’t realize how often I do this, how deeply the habit is ingrained in me, until I saw the damn T-shirt. My first conscious recollection of using a real world situation in one of my stories goes back several years, when I was teaching software use. I worked with the world’s most obnoxious consultant. Arrogant. Disrespectful. I so despised this man, I made him a character and then killed him in a novel I never did finish.

But more often, it’s a half-conscious activity, something I do to pass the time while running errands, or waiting on lines. Here are some examples of where my mind goes.

Um. Consider yourselves warned:

A Tattoo on a Throat

While shopping at a Kohl’s department store, saw a college-aged girl with a tattoo on her throat, not her neck, but her throat – the part that’s horizontal when you hold your head level. I couldn’t quite make out the design, but that didn’t interest me. What interested me was why she placed it there. Why not a tramp stamp? Why not put a tattoo on the ankle? What, specifically, about the throat held so much meaning for her, she needed to forever mark it? I live on eastern Long Island and residents here are anxiously following breaking news as police unearthed eight bodies from a desolate stretch of beach. The suspected serial killer is now being called The Long Island Ripper. With the latest news on my mind and then seeing this tattoo on a young girl, my mind spun a back story for her. She was the one who got away. He chased her. He slashed her. But she refused to just lie down and die and fought back. Got away. She got a tattoo of a four-leaf clover to cover the scar his blade left, but also to remind herself how lucky she was.

I have no idea what the true story is. I suppose I could have asked her, but where’s the fun in that?

The Day Job – always a source of amusement

Working in a cubicle environment is kind of like marriage…  except without the benefits. Colleagues sit within ten feet of each other, subjected to whatever we are each enduring at the moment – a bad case of bronchitis, last night’s White Castle belly bombs, dubious taste in music we listen to sans headphones, and of course, our voices. Nothing makes me more homicidal than being forced to listen to a conference call THAT I DID NOT NEED TO.

On the plus side, shamelessly eavesdropping on coworkers’ conversations should keep my back story coffers quite full. Last week, one colleague went home to discover his wife bought a dog without telling him. That got me thinking about a hero who might be a total type A personality, a real workaholic, whose high profile job required so many late nights, his poor wife bought a dog, named it after him, and cuddled up with the dog at night, crying in frustration as the perfect life she’d envisioned with Mr. Type A evaporates.

Another coworker was telling me about an argument she’d had with her husband. He’d picked the children up from school and didn’t notice they had no coats. Monday morning comes and in the rush to get out the door on time, tempers flared when coats could not be found. That’s when the kids mentioned they’d left them in class. My coworker asked, “What kind of father does not notice his kids are coatless in the middle of March?”

This story led me down a whole meandering path. I started imagining a single dad, one trying to do the best he can, but so overwhelmed by the burden, he overlooks the details. I thought of a scene in which his little boy tries to make him breakfast. There are Cheerios and puddles of milk all over the floor. This dad has to be at work by 8, drop Junior off at day care but that doesn’t open until 7:30 and now he has to mop up enough cereal to feed a small country. He doesn’t notice the light go out in the little guy’s eyes… at least, not right away. When he does, he calls in sick and the two watch cartoons and build a tent out of blankets.

There are so many stories out there. What real-life situation is going in your next novel?

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I have a confession to make…  I’m a bit of a practical joker. I like pranks, like unleashing my inner devil.

When I was a manager, I used to prank my staff and encourage them to get back at me. It was a great team-building exercise. One of my writers used to keep action figures on his desk. One night, I swiped every last one of them and then went on vacation for a week. When I returned, I discovered no license plates on my car.

Um. Yeah. Probably took that one a bit too far.

On a trip to Chicago, a group of us bought a bike lock and chained the boss’s treasured Aeron chair to his desk. In return, he managed to get the entire team calling me Queen of Quality, which morphed into Two-Q. There was even a caricature. I thought it was funny. So, they kicked things up a notch. The trip to Chicago was to unveil a new business process. One of my writers decided not to follow it. I was almost apoplectic while editing his work and then he pulled out the ‘right’ book.

He got me good.

Last year, one of my coworkers called me Grandma and I was so upset by this, I tweeted about it. A twitter pal suggested I peruse a website of office pranks. I did and flipped the offender’s Windows desktop upside down when he left his desk for a second.

A second is all I needed. For anyone interested, hold down the Ctrl+Alt keys and press the arrow key.

It took four software professionals nearly thirty minutes to set it right.

He now fetches me chocolate like a good little minion.

So, in honor of April Fool’s Day, are you the prankster or victim? What classic pranks still make you laugh? I may want to.. .you know… test drive one…

… or six.

A tweet earlier this week about spending summer days reading, then pretending to be a favorite character zapped me back to my childhood when I used to play Nancy Drew.

My mom taught me to read when I was very little, perhaps four, and firmly planted the seed for a life-long love of reading. I remember coming home from the school library one day with my very first novel. My mother’s eyes lit up. It was Nancy Drew’s Secret of the Old Clock. She had to help me with some of the vocabulary but from that first one, I was hooked. From Nancy, I moved on to Trixie Belden, The Hardy Boys, and even tried some non-fiction books like Karen by Marie Kililea

But Nancy and I, oh, we had a special connection. These were mysteries and I loved a good puzzle, felt smug when I figured out the answer before she did. I looked forward to the first week every month when a new Nancy Drew book arrived in the mail. I eventually collected the whole series, which my sister would later sell on eBay. (I never did get a share of those profits.)

Few of my friends shared my love of reading so no one really understood the lure books held for me, or why I idolized Nancy Drew. I was in elementary school and Nancy had A CAR. I’d never left my neighborhood and Nancy had adventures in places I hadn’t yet heard of. It would be many decades before I found kindred spirits in the form of my Twitter Book Club. Back then, it was just me and a very active imagination.

On Saturdays, my dad always took my sister and me to his parents’ house while my mom was at work. They lived at the bottom of a steep hill in College Point, a Queens, NY neighborhood right on the water, in the shadows of the Whitestone Bridge. My belly would flip like riding a roller coaster. When we felt our bellies rise, we knew the bottom of the hill was just seconds away and we were there.

Their’s was an old house with a tire swing in the front yard and a tall lilac bush in the back to which my grandfather would lift me up so I could get fresh blooms in time for Mother’s Day each year. The inside was creaky and full of doors with crystal faceted knobs that never latched unless you turned them just right. The house had three doors – the obvious front entrance, a side door at the top of a steep set of stairs leading to the basement and a basement door that opened to ground level.

The garage was detached and off-limits. My grandfather was a mechanic and his garage was filled with hydraulic jacks, pneumatic tools, and a bucket of gasoline he used to wash his hands. I used to think it was magic how greasy blackened hands emerged from the bucket entirely clean. I remember this because I love the smell of gasoline and would sneak into the off-limits garage as often as possible, imagining myself hot on the trail of a mysterious suspect escaped from River Heights. The satisfying crunch of gravel under feet walking the driveway always gave me plenty of warning to either hide or escape out the side door right where The Rock was planted.

In the center of the back yard, a large boulder poked up from the crabgrass. It was gray and glinted in the sun. It was good for sitting on or leaning against. I always wanted to dig it up but my grandparents only laughed and said I’d be digging a swimming pool if I tried. I used to imagine there was a treasure chest under the rock buried there from a pirate pillage centuries before.

On the desk just inside the front door of the creaky old house with the crystal faceted doorknobs that never quite closed properly, was an honest-to-God magnifying glass, just the same one Nancy herself would have owned. Even though I wasn’t supposed to, I’d swipe it and tip-toe down the steep basement stairs, through the cold stone cellar, looking for clues. I found a link to a silver chain once.  It further convinced me there was treasure under that rock. I found a shovel in the old cellar and started digging. I made it a few inches deep and all I found was more rock.

Tired from all that sleuthing, my grandparents would make us lunch. Cold cut sandwiches or homemade pizza my grandmother cut into slices with a pair of scissors. And then the ancient refrigerator squealed as my grandfather tugged open the door and grabbed dessert.  The house was not air-conditioned so we’d sit out front on the porch swing. They’d watch the world go by and I’d open the book I always brought with me and read, happily savoring my ice cold Hershey bar for dessert.

My grandmother died in 1996 and my grandfather passed in 2003. I bought a Hershey bar and slipped into the casket with him before it was closed.

Of my two sons, only one is a reader, but instead of The Hardy Boys, he leans to Harry Potter and Eragon.  As he grows, I’ve proudly noticed his tastes mirror my own. He’s read my YA selections. I’ve gotten him hooked on The Hunger Games trilogy. He’s devouring Book 2 now. But as much as he enjoys reading and discussing these stories, I’ve never noticed him playing with them, acting them out, as I did when I was young.

I wonder why? I’m sad that he won’t have the kind of warm and comforting memories I do of my early reading adventures – for adventures is just what they were.

For years now, I’ve been carrying on the tradition of rewriting the classic Clement Moore poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.  Sometimes, I tailor it to the job I’m currently working. Other times, I revise it according to some personal triumphs.

This year, I thought I’d make it an ode to YOU!  My cyber-buddies. The problem is, I’m ill and am so behind on Christmas preparations, I don’t have time to finish it. I’m posting it anyway. Let’s all finish it, together! In the comments, take a turn writing the next verse. I wanted to add YALITCHAT and ASKAGENT and a bunch of others, but… at this rate, I’ll finish it next Christmas.

There are no rules. Reference a favorite tweep or book you read, a blog that you like or even a hashtag. Just have fun with it.

Merry Christmas to all and to all, a good night!

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all over the net
All the writers were busy, writing one last vignette
The manuscripts were saved on disk drives with care,
In hopes that publishing deals soon would be theirs.

Characters were nestled all snug in our minds,
While visions of action-scenes played out in kind.
And Sean in his bucket and Bill in his cap
Had just settled their BRAINS for a long winter’s nap

When out on the screen there arose such a twitter
I sprang to my desk to see what transmittered
Over to my laptop I flew like a flash,
Clicking on Windows, overflowing my cache

The light on the shelf that hangs over my screen
Gave special attention to a particular stream
What, ho, is this? A new Don’t Pet Me blog post?
Alas, no. What a pity! They keep me engrossed.

I squinted and stared and moved closer to peer
Was it a DM? An RT? Drat! It’s unclear.
I donned glasses, wished for a Jeff Somers tweet bomb
To tease or to share, he always tweets with aplomb.

No, it’s Twitter Claus! A spam bot, of course,
It should send presents, spread cheer, or books to endorse!
Send a new pool to Patrick and more bacon to Bill
For Matthew, give steam-powered gizmos that trill

For Sean, a new head – he keeps losing his own
To the Shark, send queries – but not on the phone!
To Dan, a best-seller when his book is released
For Trisha and Jeannie, a book sale would please!

For Kelly and Karla, a two-for-one-deal
We’d like nothing better if Owen could be real.
For Candace, put New Medicine under her tree
But if you can’t manage that, then just send Brad-y.

Grab a few bags of Cheetos for this one.

This month, Bookhungry members read The Host, by Stephenie Meyer and before you let out a groan based on your Twilight perceptions, let me say up front, this was a decent story with a light science fiction scent that reduced me to tears at more than one point.

The eponymous host refers to one of the few remaining ‘wild’ humans who continue to thwart the essentially peaceful takeover of Earth by an alien race of parasitic worms. The story begins when the human body of Melanie Stryder is prepped for surgery… the transfer of alien Wanderer’s worm-like form into Melanie’s body.

But something goes wrong.

In most transfers, including all of Wanderer’s previous lives, the host consciousness is erased. Killed. But Melanie refuses to sign over ownership of her body to the despised worms who have already taken her entire family except for her little brother, Jamie. Melanie and Jamie have been living on the run, sticking to shadows, for a long time when they encounter Jared, another still-human resistance fighter. Jamie and Jared fuel Mel’s will to live but when she is captured and prepped for transfer, thoughts of them keep her consciousness stubbornly anchored to her body.

When Wanderer awakes in her new host, she is deluged by both Melanie’s memories and her fury. Here’s where things get interesting…  in a clever twist that has us sympathizing with the aliens, Meyer uses not Melanie but Wanderer to narrate the story, giving readers insight into what shapes the “souls” and their takeover of our planet. A peaceful race, the “souls” simply require host bodies in which to experience all the universe has to offer. Wanderer has lived many lives over hundreds of years. Despite taking over bodies, theirs is not a violent race. There is no crime, no violence, not even a need for money.

So where’s the conflict?

Glad you asked. It’s bad enough Wanderer has to live with Melanie’s voice in her head but it gets worse when her Seeker, a type of cop in Wanderer’s world, suspects something is amiss. Wanderer and Melanie work together to “go native” and escape the Seeker, finding their way to the hideout of the last pocket of human resistors where Melanie believes Jamie and Jared to be. Wanderer is not exactly well received.

Most of the humans, Jared included, want to kill her but Melanie’s uncle, who leads the group, suspects Melanie may still be in there somewhere and keeps Wanderer prisoner. Living among violent humans terrifies Wanderer but soon, she develops friendships with them, even falls in love and a few of them with her. I enjoyed how Wanderer, Melanie, Jared and another human develop a sort of Venn lover’s triangle with Melanie/Wanderer at the center, since two of them occupy the same body.  Readers witness the internal struggle Wanderer has with Melanie, as well as the external struggles she has with pretty much everyone in the hide-out.

I won’t divulge anymore of the plot but will say this. The story admittedly moves slowly but seeing our world through Wanderer’s second-hand eyes makes you wonder if we deserve all that we have. There is also a satisfying resolution to an impossible love triangle. Sweetest part? When Wanderer exclaims, “Cheetos? Really? For me?” like she’d been handed a precious jewel.

I’d give the story 3 out of 5 Cheetos, er – stars because it was long and a bit slow but once it got started, it pulled me in. But you don’t have to take my word on it. Go read the rest of my Bookhungry team’s reviews!

Pardon me while I blow the dust and tumbleweeds off the blog. Ah! That’s better.

Yes, I’ve neglected the blog and I’m sorry for that. November was a busy month but the good news is I finished National Novel Writing Month! (Pause for a brief fanfare.) NaNo, for those unfamiliar with this insanity, is an entire month dedicated to ‘literary abandon,’ according to the website. Participants have thirty days to commit a 50,000 word novel to paper – er, computer. There’s no ‘winner.’ It’s like the NYC Marathon. The win is in the finish. And yes, we’re all well aware that the finished product is well, crap.

This was my first NaNo attempt. I’m normally a dedicated outliner. I don’t write a single word until I know who my players are, what will happen to them and how their story ends. NaNo forced me to try “pantsing” and while it was much like flying without a parachute during the event, it nevertheless taught me a lot. I worked on a brand-new premise for which I had no plot, no research, no title, and no ending in mind. All I had was a character, a beautiful girl whose disfiguring injury gives her the chance to stop living her mother’s dream and start living hers. She was just one voice in my head begging me to write her. So, I did. About 2,000 words every day for thirty days.  About half-way through the month, I cursed when the panic set in. How will this story end? If I can’t envision that, how can I write it?

I did write it. One word at a time. Is it crap? Yep. But that’s okay! This is NaNo. I figured I’d end up tossing whatever came out of the thirty-day-trial into the trash.  But I haven’t, not yet.

Why? Because not all of it is actually trash. There are some great moments in there, moments where the words flowed, the characters came alive, the action thrummed and the emotion sizzled.  Somewhere along that thirty-day journey, the title appeared in a flash of brilliance (she says modestly) – PAST PERFECT. Deana, the beautiful girl, has a particularly strong mental voice for me. There was one night where she would not let me sleep. I’m not kidding. The voice in my head literally would not SHUT UP until I agreed to write things her way.  She wanted to sleep with Adam. I wanted this to be a YA novel and keep sex out of it but she wasn’t just persistent, she was downright adamant about it.

It’s one of the best love scenes I’ve ever done. It’s hot (whoo, boy, it’s hot) but it’s also sweet and awkward and painful because that’s what Deana and Adam are about.

During a recent conversation with twitta sista Jeannie Moon, I had a small epiphany. NaNo isn’t about quantity and literary abandon and even crap. Not really. No, at its heart NaNo is a personal competition – a marathon of sorts that tests your ability to trust your own instincts. Mechanics like plot and structure evolved organically during the process. I focused on one thing – Deana’s voice – to see how far it could take me. Amazingly, it took me all the way through the story. There were nights when the words surged. They sustained me for the nights when a single paragraph felt like childbirth.

I took certain liberties in this project. For example, I left myself notes where research would be needed to fill in gaps. Deana and Adam are both burn unit patients, so I needed to know about burn therapy like debridement, compression dressings, and so on.  I also left notes where I stopped and picked up again the following day. This turned out to be tremendously valuable in December, when I began re-reading the manuscript. With my start and stop points marked, it’s been easy to see where I was too tired, too stressed to write well and where I was on a writing roll.

I enjoyed NaNo. I’m glad it’s over, but I’m happy I tried it. I’m proud of my efforts. I admit, Past Perfect isn’t perfect. But it can be. I have learned to trust my instincts.

A few weeks ago, Twitter sister Jeannie Moon, who works as a school librarian by day, asked me if I’d be interested in letting a few of her students have a go at my YA manuscript, SEND. I leaped at the opportunity to get feedback from my target audience and happily sent SEND (ha).

Jeannie arranged for several students and teachers to assemble in the school library Thursday after class. I took the day off and arrived shortly before two PM, hanging out in her office until the students arrived. I’d been too excited to sleep the night before and found it hard to sit still. When a student poked her head into Jeannie’s office and asked, “Oh, are you The Author?”, I lit up like a Broadway marquee.

The Author.

My God, are there any more thrilling words? Okay, I suppose The Lottery Winner might be one. And the time Jeff Somers called me Genius was pretty cool, too. But this…  well, nothing compares. I tingled for the rest of the afternoon.

In total, I met four students and two teachers who read or are reading SEND. And they didn’t just read, they highlighted and circled and underlined and flagged and wrote lengthy notes. But this exuberance and enthusiasm paled beside their intelligence. What a bright group of young people. I am beyond impressed.

One of my biggest concerns while writing SEND was whether I’d done enough to ensure Dan sounded like an eighteen-year-old guy and not his forty-five-year-old female creator. The group enjoyed Dan’s voice but dinged me in a few places where “Patty” spoke. “No guy uses the word bliss,” said the only boy on our panel. And the girls all said, “More cursing!” This thrilled me, as Dan, my MC, speaks almost entirely in F-bombs in my head but I’d sanitized this draft because I thought the language might be considered too offensive for my YA audience. One of the teachers suggested peppering my dialogue with a lot of “likes” for more realism. As our discussion progressed, everyone began counting how many times we used “like” in a sentence. I think the record was three in one sentence. The kids even recommended titles I should read for good examples of a strong male teen voice. I dutifully took copius notes.

The kids were extremely complimentary. I think they needed to warm up a bit to make sure I wasn’t going to burst into tears if they said something bad. Interestingly enough, the group was split on my use of chapter titles: the adults loved them, the kids HATED THEM. I’m not exaggerating. This was the note on the manuscript: “HATE THESE.” The same distribution occurred regarding my use of an Epilogue. They weren’t thrilled with the dual voice technique I use, either, but I think I may have sold them on it after our discussion. We even talked about changing a character’s name, and adding more “horror” and “angst.”

I love how honest the kids were with their feedback. They told me what scenes they adored, showed me what scenes created confusion and even the ones that I now know can come out.

But the bestest of the best part? When I heard this:

“I fell in love with Julie and Dan.”

“I want to set my daughter up with Dan.”

Swoon.

I am so proud of how SEND turned out and thanks to Jeannie, her students and teachers, I can now make it even better.


I’m moving! Bookmark the new URL.

I'm in the process of transferring To Tell a Compelling Story over to my new website: www.pattyblount.com
Bookmark the new link in case I never learn how to redirect.

Hi! Welcome to my blog. I’m Patty.

I'm a writer represented by Denise Little, The Ethan Ellenberg Agency. I love to tell stories, to boast about my sons, to indulge in a serious chocolate obsession. (I often combine these passions.)

During the day, I write software user guides, but at night, I let my hair down... and write whatever I want. (I know. You expected something else. Sorry.) I'm currently working on a YA story about sexting gone horribly bad called SEND. I use this blog to explore my passions.

Contact me at pattyblount3 at gmail dot com.

You're also welcome to link to, quote, or cite anything you find here. You're NOT welcome to copy it outright for your own use. 'Cause that's plagiarism, no matter what you heard on the internet.

We’re Book Hungry!

My twitta sistas and I were chatting one day a few weeks back and thought, "Hey! We should start a Book Club!" So, we did.

Watch our blogs; we're each posting our reviews blog-fest style!

Kelly Breakey
Abby Mumford
Alyson Peterson
Cynthia Reese
Elizabeth Ryann
Karla Nellenbach
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