I ventured out of my niche here in SE Iowa to partake in the second annual Okoboji Writers’ Retreat on the opposite corner of the state. This area contains glacier carved lakes and the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, the location of the conference.
I went with my sister, a journalist. We are both freelancers now as we embarked on the four hour drive across mostly rural Iowa.
The retreat was both fun and inspirational. I got ideas about new projects and for better or worse, encouragement to keep using social media. I learned how to make my sex scenes more sensual and met great people, including the owner of this farm and BNB.
Fortunately, the camera didn’t capture me in the links above, maybe because I was sneaking off to buy beer.
After getting much information and meeting people who enriched my life, we headed back to Pella and made a few stops along the way.
How often do you have a chance to see the world’s largest popcorn ball in Sac City, Iowa?
It’s right along highway 20 and you can glimpse it from the road. We stopped and parked behind it. The signage was confusing but it looked as if we were in a little park.
The popcorn ball was made all in one day–June 18, 2016. It weighs 9,370 pounds. This includes 2300 lbs of popcorn. It’s 12 feet in diameter.
We continued on our journey, stopping for mums.
Not willing to let the experience go, I made popcorn balls. It was messy and required vinyl gloves.
In case you were wondering, besides popcorn, a popcorn ball is made from confectioners sugar, corn syrup, marshmallows (optional), butter or margarine, and a small bit of water. I used around 2-3 cups of unpopped corn, weighing maybe half a pound (I’m rounding up to avoid having to use scientific notation or decimals). Think about it before you attempt to outdo Sac City.
Do you remember those high school literature test questions about the novel or story you read for class? Perhaps the most daunting one was, “What was the theme?” You knew what happened and who did it, where it took place and how it ended. But the theme? The “aboutness”? It’s not always easy pick out.
Likewise, you can write the first draft of your story and then sit back and wonder: what’s this really about at its core? Most authors start out with a nebulous idea of the theme of their tale. Yet, rewarding fiction has a theme without shouting about it.
So, what is a theme and how do authors work with theme?
In “Notes on Novel Structure” Douglas Glover says,”Theme as a general usable statement of the author’s belief about the world and human nature. A theme is usable if it incorporates a statement of human desire and a further statement about how the world works to thwart or interfere with that desire.”
John Gardner, one of the best authors to write from a monster’s point of view, gave this sage advice in The Art of Fiction, “Theme, it should be noticed, is not imposed on the story but evoked from within it—initially an intuitive but finally an intellectual act on the part of the writer. The writer muses on the story idea to determine …why it seems worth telling to achieve art—fiction as serious thought.
You don’t start out with a theme necessarily but one will bubble to the surface. How can you as an author determine what your theme is?
•What is my story about? Can I think of a word or idea—like forgiveness, innocence, power, struggle, love, betrayal—that might sum up the story’s “theme?
•Why should readers care about this story? What does it offer them that touches on universal experience?
•What does the story have to say about the central idea?
•What attitudes or judgments does it hint at? What is it saying about how the world works?
Few authors begin with the solid theme. Most begin with a character, a setting, a plot.
One thing I grapple with is helping my publisher convey the spirit of my books. They deal with serious themes–struggle against authority and science for good vs evil. But they poke fun at the absurdity of them.
I’m pleased about the icons in the newer versions of my novels because they are cute and help convey theme.
For example, Mixed In is about autonomy–scientific, cultural, and reproductive. Here’s the icon:
Lost in Waste is about work and consequences of scientific expansion without responsibility to the environment. It’s about greed, pig sh** and pollution and the overcoming power of love.
Wrinkles in Spacetime is about identity–scientific and personal– across time, space, and society.
A theme helps hold a story together, but does it matter if a reader catches the theme? I once had a student who claimed you couldn’t go wrong in Poetry Class by saying the theme of a poem was either sex or death. Another time, I thought the poem Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening was about a busy person taking a moment to see nature’s beauty but the teacher claimed it was about suicide. Clearly, a theme doesn’t need to hit the reader over the head, be noticed by the reader, or agreed upon by different people. Readers can make their own themes, which is some of the beauty and mystery of great literature. But if you, the author, write towards theme, it will help focus your work of art.
As I ramp up getting ready for the release of Wrinkles in Spacetime, I’m having a prize giveaway over on Facebook. Do you ever go there? Here’s the link:
What is real and not real at the same time? The answer is: fiction, a literary work produced by the imagination. Fiction is a good way to explore topics and issues in society, or to illuminate your reader without giving them a lecture or a list of bullet points. It’s a way to make your soul grow and connect with others.
You might be afraid to start a story, to even try it. But do. Do start.
In general, a story should open answering these questions:
Whose story is it? (protagonist) Unlike a non-fiction essay, a protagonist is not neutral. A protagonist will have a bias and will elicit feelings.
2. What’s happening and what will happen next? (plot)
Write an opening including all of the above. Put your heart on the page. Risk being sentimental. Don’t be just an observer. Have an action. Have a setting detail. Add an object. It’s your first scene! You’re on your way to writing your first novel.
Believe it or not, having a few restrictions can help you focus your ideas.
I picked up these tips from writing conferences, books about fiction writing, and from teaching short story writing. Hopefully, they will help you write a compelling story. You can always break the rules, but consider these:
Have authority. Know what you are talking about. You may remember taking a quiz about what do you seek most in a mate”? Maybe you said fun. Wrong answer. You need trust. Your readers have to trust you. You need to be trustworthy, to know what you are talking about, and have AUTHORity. When I taught short story writing it was quickly obvious when students had authority or not. One wrote about a town where he’d never been or even researched. When he changed his story to be set in his hometown, it became more detailed and real. Another wrote about a hapless Mexican drug dealer. The story came across as hateful and fake. He wasn’t Mexican or a drug dealer. He changed it to a hapless college student trying to sell drugs. It became more believable.
2. Write what you know, especially what you know emotionally, or what you want to explore. This will help your story be relatable. What about being human can you tell about and relate to?
3. Avoid big reveals at the end for the purpose of shock—story should reveal itself through the unfolding conflict. See plot.
4. Ask if you can help people learn something new, see things in a new way.
5. Once you have a chapter, make it readable.
Are tenses simple and consistent?
Good They sat in the classroom. (past) or They sit in the classroom. (present) I sit in the classroom. (First person present)
Too complicated They were sitting in the classroom.
Is the action efficient? Make sure every action is needed.
Good: The professor sat down and took a knife from her purse.
Too complicated: The professor walked in the room. She took off her coat. She sat in a chair. She unzipped her purse. She reached in. She took out a knife.
Take out junk words and over used gestures, telling words, such as these:
One of the very weirdest things about being an author is spending a year or more writing a novel and not being sure anyone will want to publish it or read it. You’ve got to wonder why a person would ever do such a thing.
Telling a story seems to be part of being human. Our brain edits our experiences to create logical interactions for future reference. We think of ourselves as a hero in our own narrative and one reason to write is to share what we have experienced so others can learn from our mistakes and successes. One reason to read is to learn about the world from the safety of your own chair.
Story is the language of experience. To be honest, being older and an author is not a bad thing. You’ve overcome a lot. But anyone with an experience can share it in a story. Tales of love, adventure, and triumph or defeat evolved to help us explore our own mind and the minds of others. Story is a dress rehearsal for the future that might come. (Mine in particular take this direction.) Stories introduce us to issues we might face someday and the outcomes of various strategies comfortably at home. Stories allow us to explore life and its complexities, to understand yourself and others. Stories help us feel less alone. They can also foster social relationships and give us a window on cultures, promote civic responsibility, and share information. https://education.uic.edu/profiles/rebecca-woodard/
Most importantly, stories entertain. Being entertaining has always been one of my life goals. I started out as a kid writing tiny books for my siblings. Most of them ended with everyone dying. Endings are hard.
One of the fun parts of being an author is watching your book come to life in the hands of skilled professionals. Here’s a peak at the novel coming out this month, Wrinkles in Spacetime.
In celebration of my upcoming release, I’ll be writing about the author life this month and how you, too, can enjoy it and get started on it yourself, if you haven’t already.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, the bigger they are the harder they fall. It’s true. Isaac Newton discovered that force equals mass times acceleration or F=ma. But you’ve never heard the bigger they are the faster they fall. There’s a reason for this. Acceleration due to gravity (falling to Earth) is a constant which doesn’t depend on mass. Yes, somethings encounter air resistance but masses of the same shape and air resistance hit the ground at the same time when dropped from the same height. Recently, I visited the birthplace of the scientist who convinced people of this truth, Galileo Galilei.
Galileo was born in Pisa. The airport there is named after him along with a highway to get there. He’s much more famous for perfecting the telescope and convincing people that the Earth travels around the Sun, but the Leaning Tower is where he did his weight dropping experiment. And it’s a delight to behold. I visited there along with several family members, including kids.
Galileo has been called the Father of Modern Science. He questioned the idea that the sky is heaven and a perfect sphere made of crystals from which God sits and looks down on us. His telescope showed imperfect things in the sky such as sun spots and mountains on the moon. He even showed that Jupiter had moons–breaking the crystal spheres and that Venus had phases as if it was going around a light. In fact, the planets going around the sun explained Mercury in retrograde better than the planets traveling around the Earth on the crystal spheres. He noted that the Milky Way was stars. Wasn’t the sun a star as well? Of course, this was heresy. God was in the sky–not the Earth! God looked at all of us from his heavenly perch. Galileo dared to write it all out in a what I would call a satire in Italian for the public to read. He was put under house arrest for it and made quite famous.
But upon my visit, I had some trouble finding Galileo souvenirs, even close to the famous tower where he dropped his weights and observed them fall at uniform speed, despite being different masses. One shop owner showed me soccer jerseys and Einstein and DaVinci T-shirts. Others had nothing at all related to the Father of Science.
You could however, get seafood pizza and pasta made with boar meat. My dining companion dislikes seafood, but it didn’t stop me.
At last, I found a plastic bust of Galileo in a specialty shop. The shop was right on the street where he was born.
There is quite a lot more of Galileo to see in Italy (click here) including his middle finger (in Florence aka Firenze) and his lantern in Pisa. We didn’t do it all but if you are a die-hard Galileo fan, I recommend a trip to his beautiful native land.
We still see plenty of science denial with regards to covid and climate change. The rich and powerful want inventions, not science’s truths. The thing is, the truth usually comes out, if you have time to wait for it. For now, light a candle for the truth. It needs it.
Recently, an acquaintance lost a political primary. He dared to not vote the governor’s way just once and groups backing her mounted a smear campaign, and won. They accused him of supporting porn in school libraries.
People in my hometown have a porn obsession. You can’t walk your dog without seeing a sign like this. They think porn is in the library. It’s not. The book they are worried about is a coming of age tale regarding someone who decides to be asexual.
Of course, porn-mania has been used in the past to ban birth control. And in my first novel, Mixed In, any unmarried man is assumed to be a pervert. Calling someone a pervert is a sure way to shock those around them and rally people against someone.
My own definition of porn is that it is sex that involves exploitation vs mere erotica. Most people now days call erotica “porn.” It’s confusing to have such a vague term blanket something so emotionally charged, but I’ll try to discuss some concerns about run of the mill porn/erotica, leaving out child porn and sex offender material, which most people can agree is bad and is a sign of severe mental illness. We are talking about BOOKS here so, hello Lolita, here’s looking at you. And we won’t get into PornHub, which exploits people to make a buck. We are discussing library books.
The University of Northampton writes, “Our findings overwhelmingly evidence that attending drag events has a positive impact on happiness and mental well-being. People feel that they can express themselves in a non-judgemental, safe space where they can escape from everyday life and feel a sense of joy and liberation. With the absence of events over the past 18 months I’m sure this impact on mental well-being resonates with many people.” The people who perform generally experience feelings of well-being, although they might have injuries during the performance.
The ironic thing is, hostility creates an environment where all sorts of bad behaviors come bubbling out of damaged people. It’s kind of like spanking, which can create hostile and even deviant adults.
Accusing people of being deviants by applying your own vague definition of it is hostile and harmful. It’s encouraging authoritarianism. In fact, banning art and authoritarianism go hand in hand. As for drag, it’s pretty harmless, even an art form. It might even make people laugh at the absurdity of gender norms. Which will in turn, fight misogyny. Or at least, we can hope.
The answer to all of this is to do whatever it takes to put a damper on hostility. Like with this nice sign:
My publisher is getting ready to release Book Three in my Unstable States series this August. I’m grateful to my publisher, City Owl Press, for helping me push through a bad review on the first book and thankful for all who believed in this tale which must be told.
The premise is: the Midwest (specifically Iowa) becomes the willing victim of an autocratic agricultural government, which breaks away from the US and its freedoms.
Each book is stand alone and told from a different perspective. Book 1 from that of an outsider who gets mixed into trouble, Book 2 from a citizen who wishes to elevate her status in the society, and Book 3 from a scientist who reluctantly hatches a plan to save a friend in need.
I wanted to show people questioning a society where there is no concept of public good and I wanted to show this without blaming religion or having blazing gun battles.
What you will find:
Satire. Makes fun of unstable authoritarian dictators and their slavish followers all the while pretending to be Iowa nice.
Corn, hogs, & water pollution. This series pokes fun at “big ag” in the Midwest.
Romance, body parts mentioned. These stories are sex positive but I’m not sure I could write a totally serious sex scene. In fact, sex scenes are meant to be absurdly technical, Masters and Johnson style. This is a satire.
Scifi, science, & gadgets. But you won’t have to be a science-nerd to enjoy them. For example: wouldn’t you enjoy having a No-Regrets, which will scan potential partners for STIs and detect pregnancy early? I think we need one of these asap. And how would you get rid of a giant lagoon of hog shit? What would you do if ordered to create a homunculus? These require some scientific know how.
I’m posting today because the first book, Mixed In, is on sale. Here’s a universal link. It’s got a bad review that follows it everywhere due to misunderstanding. It’s NOT a torrid romance, it’s more of an informative rom-com or a Shakespearean style comedy with social commentary. Think Don’t Look Up or maybe How I got Drunk and Saved a Demon. If that’s for you, click the link or message me and I’ll send you a copy free of charge. This week only, while it’s on sale.
For the past two days, I’ve woken up, smelled the outdoor air, and was greeted with an acrid smell. Was it a local factory? My underarms? It was clearly some type of air pollution. Air pollution is one of my pet peeves. Iowa is a state with more air pollution than most. What was the smell? Why should we care? Here’s why:
There are no doubt worse things you can do to your lungs than apply hair spray, especially on occasion. However, you probably should wear a mask when applying spray. For a lot of reasons, avoiding the Fox News anchor look is good for your health. That’s not nature, it silicone.
When it comes to Greek/Roman mythology, nothing makes me more angry than the story of Medusa. Although the myth changes throughout history, Medusa was punished for being raped in Athena/Minerva’s temple, and that punishment was to have her hair transformed into serpents along with the power to turn people who looked at her to stone, although it’s not clear if she could control this power. She becomes ugly and alone.
It’s always a good idea to take a look at the symbolism behind a story. When the myth was first told, snakes were the symbol of rebirth and favored by the god Bacchus/Dionysus. We all know him, that god of wine. Snake hair with a stone-cold twist could thus possibly be a symbol of someone uptight punishing another for being too free and not protecting her innocence.
The hard partying festival of Bacchanalia, a Bacchus party, occurs right now, this week in April. It began a couple thousand years ago as a female only festival in Rome and morphed into a mad orgy, drawing the ire and later suppression tactics of respectable citizens. (You can almost draw parallels between Medusa and Eve here. This is a story about a female who should not have eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, perhaps.) One could say it’s Medusa Party Week for outcasts everywhere. Either she was birthed from terror or is a terror herself, but raise a glass, read a provocative book, and celebrate the gorgon, cuz Medusa has been reborn and she’s got a following.