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The Very, Very Basics of Writing Anything

There are three fundamental elements of every piece of written work—including film, non-fiction and grocery lists.

These three elements must be present or there is no point in proceeding.

In non-fiction, the three elements forming the basics of a book are:

  1. Idea – the Topic
  2. Reason – Information or Add Information
  3. Goal – to Educate or Refute Previous Thinking

9781870206129_bachBefore my publisher, Honno, agreed to consider Parachutes & Petticoats, which I edited with the renown feminist historian, Deirdre Beddoe, we had to convince the board of directors that 1) the Topic, Welsh women’s experiences during World War II, was worth the effort; 2) we could find enough material to make a full volume of women’s autobiographical memoirs; 3) the information we gathered, written by the women themselves, was of sufficient interest and relevance to warrant the expenditure, effort, and examination required to bring a collection of essays by unknown women to fruition.

9781906784119_bachThe resulting request for autobiographical essays brought in hundreds of submissions from women in Wales whose experiences had never been heard. The book was published in 1992, reprinted in 1994 and 2003, with a fourth reprint in a smaller format with minor editorial additions appeared in 2010. The essays that we couldn’t include in the volume were submitted to the National Library of Wales (Llyfrgell Genedleithol Cymru) to become a part of the national archive. Next year, 2017, will mark Parachutes & Petticoats’ 25th anniversary. Though neither edition is still in print, the book is still available at bookstores and online book retailers.

For fiction (of any kind, in any genre, in any medium) they are:

  1. Protagonist – the Hero
  2. Antagonist – the Villain
  3. Purpose – the Goal

For example, in my most recent published novel, Nights Before: The Novel (originally published as a novel in six installments), the above structure works like this:

  1. Protagonist – Jocelyn Tavers
  2. Antagonist – Jason, her ex-boyfriend
  3. Jocelyn’s Goal – to find a replacement boyfriend before the end of the year

Nights-Before-Final200_thumb.jpgThose three elements will not, in themselves, make a full sized story, let alone a full length novel but without them, there’s no beginning, middle or end. Jason also needs a goal to combat Jocelyn’s efforts to reach her goal. And Jocelyn needs a lot more than a boyfriend to make the essentially girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-finds-new-boy story something more than just that.

Though Nights Before is a romantic comedy, there had to be some depth to the story and that called for a secondary goal. This is usually something hidden, even from the protagonist—a long buried pain that has left a wound that will not heal without more pain. Enter an absent parent or two, conflicting potential new boyfriends, torn stockings and a lobster feast, a demanding employer, a car accident and abandonment issues.

With my upcoming American historical novel, Pavane for Miss Marcher, the three elements are shared between the Hero and Heroine, both of whom have Goals and Antagonists out to get them:

  1. Protagonists: Cathryn Marcher / Rupert Smith
  2. Antagonists: Susan Miller / Jericho Colson
  3. Goals: Staying in Maine / Moving to Wyoming

ggncMay2012Both Cathryn and Rupert have Deuteragonist supporters who get in the way for the best reasons and enemies who get in the way for the worst reasons.

The story is set in Maine five years after the end of the American Civil War and I am currently researching and reading on both sides of this terrible conflict in our history. Keeping faith with our nation’s past has complicated the process, especially with such an emotive background that plays an enormous part in our lives 151 years after the conflict came to an end.

With family members from the southern states and a strong New England heritage complicates the story on a personal level as well but I believe a writer’s duty is to write the story that comes from their own heart, regardless of possible consequences. As my mother always said, “Be true to yourself.”

Pavane for Miss Marcher is scheduled for publication in 2017.

Reposted from Classic and Cozy Books Blog, Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Traditionally, graves of Union soldiers were decorated with flowers. The Confederate soldiers were commemorated similarly, but on a separate day. By the 20th Century, the competing days merged into the one we now know, the last Monday of May, the beginning of summer.Every year, we commemorate the sacrifices of our military heroes on two days, separated by six months. Memorial Day is the most American of the two as it was initiated in 1868 as Decoration Day, following the end of the War Between the States (also known as the Second War of Independence), the American Civil War.

Veterans Day (originally known as Armistice Day and Remembrance Day in other countries in Europe) commemorates the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month when the guns went silent at the end of World War I. This holiday evolved from this WWI connection to honor the service of all veterans of the U.S. Armed forces. Memorial Day honors the military personnel who died while serving our country.

Along with many of my fellow Americans, I visited the graves of members of my family who served in the U.S. Army during World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War. To my knowledge, no one in my family died in combat, despite a long history of service in the Armed Forces.This year, unlike so many in the recent past, the United States is not engaged in any major conflict on foreign soil, a reason to think of this year’s holiday as one to be set apart.

Since the 1950s, the Golden Gate National Cemetery has been the resting place of uncles, aunts, my parents and siblings. My father and uncle, both U.S. Army officers, are buried with their wives. My sister-in-law passed away a year before my brother and they were interred together in my parent’s grave.

These vast rows of white tombstones and flags are, at once, a majestic and a sorrowful sight.

This post is in Memory of

  • Moses F Verrill, Infantryman, US Army, 20th Maine, War Between the States
  • Hiram W Verrill, PFC, US Army, WWI
  • Thomas A Verrill, Sr. Captain, US Army, WWII
  • Charles A. Adams, Sargent, US Army, WWII
  • Owen K Nichols, US Navy, Korean War
  • Thomas A Verrill, Jr. 1st Lt, US Army, Vietnam War

And in Honor of

  • Maxine M Dillahunty nee Verrill, 1st Lt, US Army, Korean War,
  • William D. Dillahunty, Airman 2nd Cl, US Air Force, Korean War

And with especial thanks to every one of the veterans and serving personnel who volunteer and are prepared to give their lives to protect and preserve our liberty.

Disappointments come at every juncture of our lives. As children we face rejection as players on teams, aren’t invited to a classmate’s birthday party, fail a test or don’t get the grade we wanted on a paper. These are all learning experiences and prepare us for the inevitable rough treatment we will face in the adult world. As one of the teachers in my children’s school replied to a request that party invitations not be distributed publicly to save the ‘feelings’ of the uninvited, “They have to learn they won’t always be invited. Better they learn it now.”

A hard lesson for a six or seven year old when they are one of only a few who are not going. As parents, we want to protect our children from such heartaches but preparing them for the real world also requires we make some tough choices ourselves. Who among us has not faced the disappointments we hope our children will not? If we remember how our own parents’ handled our disappointment, we may have some insight into establishing emotional resilience in our offspring.

If we are not as fortunate, we may find other sources of support and strength. Motivational speakers and writers provide inspiration and occasionally help us clear the emotional blocks that stop us from achieving the success we want.

Writers are told to thicken their skins. We will need armor for what the world of agents, publishers, reviewers and readers throw in our direction. Several years ago, I attended a writers’ day workshop during which the audience was given a catalogue of the percentages of success of all the millions of us who aspire to publish (and especially to be read).

One statistic was that only 3% of writers are ever published. An even smaller percentage at that time saw their names on the cover of a published book. Self- and indie publishing has made a significant dent in those numbers. What hasn’t changed is the need for armor.

However, no matter what we write or the genre we write in, the foundation of our stories is the conflict of the individual versus the group. Our heroes and heroines stand up to evil and injustice, even if they are borderline immoral (scoundrels, vamps, tarts, disgraced cops etc) in their own right. Most of our primary characters have faced disappointments that have given them a mark which distinguishes them from their antagonists. And how they respond to that disappointment is their defining moment.

8aa17-51jt0rtvrl-_sl500_aa300_In my novel, Wait a Lonely Lifetime, Eric Wasserman sacrifices his best interests to those of his closest friend. Eric has several reasons for this, one of which is his past experience of inferiority in comparison to Steven Langdon’s presumed success.  The truth comes to light when the now divorced Sylviana Langdon searches for the man she fell in love with fifteen years before, surmounting her own disappointment and risking her happiness on the slim hope she and Eric can have a future together.

Although my publisher praised this novel as a ‘terrific romance,’ my armor was dented a little by the occasional harsh review.

I went on to write three more novels and am working on a fifth.

Not getting chosen for the volley ball team or not receiving an invitation to a sleepover is good preparation for the knocks we all face when we begin our professional work. Being shielded from any negativity in our formative years makes us weaker and more vulnerable to the real hurts coming our way.

Either that or we seek safety in the group, subvert our thoughts, talents and futures to the will of others, too delicate to face opposition and too easily damaged to be of use to ourselves or our society.

* * *

All of my novels are available on AllRomance eBooks, Amazon, Barnes&Noble, iBookstore, Kobo and Smashwords, as well as many other related sites. Further information is also available on my website, Leigh Verrill-Rhys.
af595-salsanewebook200ThisCantBeLoveCoverFinal200_thumb.jpgNights-Before-Final200.jpg

I started school a year later than my first grade classmates because my family had moved from Maine, where children don’t go to kindergarten. I had also come from a rural village where our nearest neighbor was a quarter mile down the road.

Adjusting to city life was made a little easier by the nearby Golden Gate Park, living in the working class community of the Haight-Ashbury and across the street from our church, Hamilton Methodist.

My first year in school presented the wonders of learning as well as the constrictions of sitting at a desk when we were called in from the yard. In Maine, I had had years of nearly complete freedom to roam as far and as wide as my pre-schooler legs could carry me.

My independence and self-reliance did not prepare me for the urban school experience. During that first year, a girl twice my size approached me during recess and told me she intended to beat me up after school. She did not offer a reason.

Fortunately, self-preservation is a primordial, embedded instinct. At the end of the day, I was out the door and on my way home as fast as my first-grader legs could go, my would-be assailant left behind but not forgotten.

Like any six-year old with parental overseers, I told my mother.

For the next few weeks, my mother walked me to school and came to meet me at the end of the day. This was a chore too many after a while. I also became disenchanted with the restrictions, as being walked to and fro limited my opportunities for adventure and exploration.

By mutual agreement, my mother sent me on my way alone. Since my personal nemesis had not forgotten her threat, I was careful to rush in to be among my fellow six-year-olds and to rush out with the same intent. Sometimes, there is safety in numbers.

From somewhere, I had the notion that I had to confront this girl. Armed with nothing more than fear and a straight back, I asked her “Why do you want to beat me up?”

She accused me of snitching to the teacher about something she had done. I declared that I had not. And that was the end of weeks of anxiety and self-inflicted trauma.

I wish I had the ability to garner the courage, at every juncture, my first-grader heart gave me, but as we grow and experience more of the dangers of interpersonal communication, the stakes are higher, the outcome less certain and often more costly.

The sense of betrayal and the equal sense of guilt, the vague sense that we must have done something to warrant the bullying, compound to confuse and enervate our stronger selves.

Bullying from family members, friends and co-workers presents so many more difficult possibilities, making a quick getaway seems the safest, most logical answer but at what cost to our sense of self-esteem and worth? The humiliation of being victimized seems to stick around a lot longer than a sense of triumph but it is the fleeting triumph that gives us the strength to overcome the next time.

And so, the bullies in my novels are vanquished and their intended victims get all they want and deserve from a life well-lived. Writing is a brave act in and of itself. The real bullies in our lives will never know, but we do.

I wrote this post in April 2014, on my usual 4th Tuesday of the month, for Classic and Cozy Books on Blogspot.


…And what?

Why do we tell stories? For me, this activity became a lifelong occupation from the age of three. One night, I woke from a nightmare that, to this day, fills me with dread and a feeling of sick emptiness. I crawled into my parents’ bed for safety. I had no words for the terrible dream or the terror I felt.

Instead, I told a story to my wakeful father about the house I wanted to live in when I grew up. My father was a carpenter, so it was possible to believe he would build the house for me. Concentrating on a future possibility took me away from a present danger.

From that night on, I found great comfort in using my imagination to tell stories about an alternative reality. I spent long hours alone, content to fill my thoughts with the people and events I created, and ‘rewriting’ the endings of movies I had seen. During my teenage years, I added drawing to my work box of tools but the stories still took place in my head.

Not long after this, my first year in high school, I moved to another state. I made two friends in my new high school, both of whom had a similar story-telling penchant. We told each other stories, interactive between the three of us, exchanging ideas and characters, building worlds around make-believe situations. In my second year in high school, back in California, I continued this collaborative effort with other friends and again during my early college years.

In college, my first choice of a major was art but, finally, writing emerged as my true avocation. Once the decision was made, I entered a phase of my education that was so incredibly rich and textured, I have continued learning ever since. Fortunately, writing is an art form that demands constant discovery.

But why do I write? One answer is clear: not for the money!

Our ancestors told stories to explain the mysteries of the environment, for comfort, for entertainment during the long dark, winter nights. Our own reasons for story-telling are similar. In antiquity, knowledge of the forces of the universe were explained by the imagined existence of magic and the supernatural. How is that different from our own society’s love affair with Dracula, Terminators, Angels and the Once Upon a Times of 21st Century entertainment?

What was formalized by Aristotle and Euripides is our premier source of coming to terms with a universe we understand only marginally better than our cave-dwelling progenitors. The depth and breadth of human imagination, and the drive to express it, cannot be contained, no matter how frequently a story is told. Everyone of us has our own, individual interpretation of events. If our telling strikes a chord with others, we have succeeded in expressing a basic human truth and kept the terrors of dreams at bay.

Ye Old Tea Shoppe?

Ye Old Tea Shoppe?

My mother seemed always to have an answer for every state of the human condition. A turn of phrase, an adage, an idiom, a quotation that addressed a predicament in which I or my siblings found ourselves.

One of these is well-known and the photo here begins as my mother would have, but goes on to encourage hatefulness in the guise of ‘cool’ or ‘clever’. But not representative of an establishment that I feel comfortable entering.

I first saw this advertising board earlier this month. As I write, the sign is still there. In the shop today, there were two male members of staff. At the beginning of this month, the staff member was female.

This is not the first time this shop has ventured into the realm of nasty in hopes of catching the eyes of what, to my mind, must be equally nasty patrons. However, I pass this shop twice a day and very rarely do I see any patrons inside.

Although I am a tea-drinker, I give this place a miss. In any case, this seems like the kind of business that does not welcome people like me as customers.

My philosophy is straightforward and one I learned from my mother when I was a nasty fourteen year old: “You get more flies with honey.” How we treat one another matters. What we do and say to one another defines us more than what we accomplish or possess.

Perhaps, if the owners of this tea shop put out inspiring, educational or encouraging messages, the staff wouldn’t be wasting their time coming up with hurtful witticisms. They’d be too busy providing service to enthusiastic tea-drinkers.

Smile and say hello. It’s painless.

Writing!

And as soon as I had thought of the title for this blog, I recalled an encounter that made a mark and was instrumental in guiding me forward.

Years ago, I attended a literary event and had a conversation with an escapee from a New England family. I believed, being also from New England, we might have a common ground or two. We did, but not as I initially expected.

Aside from our Downeaster background, we both put pen to paper. I had a few short stories in small literary magazines and a prize or two (magazine subscriptions, nice writing implements—they all count!) to my credit. My eastern compadre had not yet committed to his chosen art form sufficiently to venture into the public arena.

In fact, he had difficulty admitting he was a writer, certainly not by acknowledging his desire to engage in the enterprise by speaking its name. When asked what he did, he made a gesture with his hand of writing in the air. When asked what he wrote, he muttered, “My dreams.” And he meant exactly that—not a list of goals or wishful future accomplishments.

He spent his days recording the activities of his sub-conscious.

At this point in my life—graduate student working an 8-hour nightshift—I didn’t have days or much of nights, but finding time to write was not a problem; I didn’t do much else.

My fellow writer lived on an allowance from his family and had all the hours of the normal day but could not commit to his chosen vocation without embarassment. He may now be a bestselling author or a billionaire or the CEO of his own company…I pass no judgment, only speculate that his family may have been instrumental in his lack of confidence.

I sympathize. My mother’s response to my announcement that I intended to be a writer? “Don’t be ridiculous.”

I blazed on regardless—not without many moments (read that as YEARS) of self-doubt. I am still learning my craft, even with ten novels and three volumes of nonfiction, I can never know enough but I do sometimes wonder if my mother was right.

But then again, I know she was only looking out for me.

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