Romance Is In The Air

I was originally meanin’ to get this posted on Valentine’s Day, but life is what actually happens while you’re making other plans.  (Namely we here in Riney County have us about four feet of snow on the ground to shovel out from under.)  Anyhow, snow’s shoveled and it’s time to get back to writing – and blogging!

At least this time it hasn’t been a year since my last post.  Ahem…

So, it appears my “horror” story is now a total romance, with comedy and comedic horror elements mixed in.  Like I said, life is what actually happens while you’re making other plans.  I didn’t set out to make it a romance, but my number one rule for writing is have very well-defined characters, and then let the character write the novel, not the author.  If your characters are interesting enough, they’ll write the book for us.  I’m just about finished with re-writing the pivotal scenes that make the romance (and “the sizzling romantic-triangle”) the main focus of the book, and with any luck, 2015 WILL be the year you see the first story of Riney County on the bookshelves.

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Rumors of My Demise…

… have generally  been rather well documented.  I am, however, very much alive despite my absence for more than a year.  I hit a rough patch on the story of the folks in good ol’ Riney County that necessitated considerable rewriting.  (Now of course all this here story about Riney County is true-like(TM) so it was, um, research.   Yep, a rough patch what lasted a full 14 months, but it’s all done now. The scene in question is where are hero goes into the lair of the beast itself to confront it, and has to muster up the courage to do so, which ain’t really like him.  So this was the “apex” of the story, a major scene that deserves – no, needs – to be done just right or the rest of the story won’t make much sense and won’t be rightly believable.   At one point I’d chucked the whole thing for a few weeks, givin’ up on it, but these folks around here all have stories to tell (some scary, some funny, some sentimental, some downright stupid, and all true-like(TM).)

One thing I learned is, if a scene ain’t working for you no matter what you do, it may very well be that the scene ain’t wrong – it’s just the wrong scene.  Don’t be afraid to chuck the whole thing out the window (make sure it ain’t the window what has the air-conditioner unit in it), and come up with a whole new thing that you like better.   Chances are, if you like it better, not only is it a better scene that you SHOULD use, but your readers is for sure gonna like it a lot better too.

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“I’m Not Dead Yet*.”

“I’m getting better*.”  Well shucks, school’s done hit me like a ton of bricks.  Shot out of a battleship’s gun.  In a tornado.  (Hard, fast, and very painful.)  But Jimmy Earl’s still alive and kickin’, just doin’ more teachin’ than writin’ as of the past few weeks.  But I’m still breathin’.  I’ve been working on the romance angle of the story, adding in not just one but three whole new chapters/scenes about the story’s ill-fated love-triangle.  And you know what – it’s downright fun!  Maybe I need to change the title of this here blog; on account of it’s not solely hillbilly horror anymore and got a fair does of romance in it now as well.  (Actually, I have a confession to make – as you fine folks have no doubt already surmised, this here story’s more of a comedy/adventure than horror.)  Fortunately, we have excellent romance bloggers here at WordPress, such as Christina Cole’s fine blog, Christina Cole Romance, which I follow and heartily recommend.  Anyhow, blog on, and I hope to check back in soon!

* “I feel fine… I feel happy.”

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Getting My Act Together: Act II

Howdy folks!  Nope, Jimmy Earl ain’t dead, sorry to disappoint.  I’ve wrapped up a couple more scenes since we last chatted, and now I’m startin’ the second act of my story. Closin’ in on the halfway-point of the novel, figuring around 70,000 words or so, that’s a pretty big milestone here at Hillbilly Horror.  Many Mountain Dews and Moon-Pies were consumed in celebration.  The bad news is that the semester where I teach here in Riney County is about to start, so that’s been takin’ up my time gettin’ ready for the classes that I teach.

But I’ve been workin’ hard on the big “break-out” action scene a lot these here past few days, and wanted to share some of the thinkin’ that I’ve been puttin’ into this very complex scene.  First, a little bit of background on the scene itself.  Basically, it’s a jailbreak scene, wherein the two heroes bust into the Riney County jail to break out their mutual love-interest in their ill-fated and downright awkward love-triangle.  So right off the bat, you know there’s some serious tension goin’ on, with one of the heroes pretty upset at havin’ just found out his best friend has designs on his girlfriend.  Now don’t that make for some interestin’ dinner-table conversation?…  So now these two best friends that have had a major fallin-out gots to bust out the girl (who, by the way, is pretty much the main character now, on account of how her personality has pretty much taken over the story, which like I said in a previous post came as a very pleasant surprise to me.) That leads me to my first little tidbit of a revelation for this here post:

Every word and every action by every character must be consistent with what that character is thinking and how that character is feeling at that exact moment.  When I write a line of dialogue, even if it’s just one word like “Hello,” then that there word’s gotta be run through a filter of thought and emotion.  How does this character greet somebody when they’re feelin’ happy?  And how do they greet somebody when they’re mightily pissed off instead?  Also, what’s on their mind when they say that greeting?  Are they really focused on the person that they’re greetin’?  Do they like the person that they’re greetin’?  Askin’ questions like that will make a simple “Hello” turn into something more akin to this if the character is pissed off and distracted:  “Louie Dale nodded at Vernon with a barely perceptible nod, his angry eyes barely making contact.”  Same exact social interaction, but now with a strong undercurrent of emotion (eyes not making contact, insinuating dislike), and thought (being distracted, just a nod instead of speaking.)  Basically, for everything your characters say and do, when writing them, get in their mind and know what’s goin’ on in that brain of theirs before writin,’ feel what they feel and think what they’re thinkin’ when you write what they’re doin’ and sayin’.

Next up, as a corollary to the previous tidbit, is a little trick I’ve come up with durin’ my years as a commercial artist – listen to music to get in your character’s mood.  I ask myself when workin’ on an advertisin’ campaign “What music does my target audience listen to?”  I extend that in writin’ to marketin’ as you can well imagine.  For this, I listen to the music that my characters would listen to.  As mentioned before, I do a metric crap-ton of research on all characters before I write the first page of a story, and one thing I spend a lot of time on is what music they listen to.  Now for Riney County, that’s easy on account of everybody listens pretty much to ZZ Top.  So, for the months that I’ve been workin’ on this here novel, I’ve listened to pretty much EVERY ZZ Top song, ever.  Over and over.  (Seriously, in Riney County, we sing “Gimme All Your Lovin’ in church, I kid you not. Reverend Stonewall knows how to rock the house.)

Lastly, when writin’ action scenes, even if you don’t want to include a lot of detail, HAVE a lot of detail at least in your mind.  For this here jailbreak scene, the two male leads is up against the evil sheriff, rescuin’ the female lead from an unjust imprisonment.  (Well, there’s a WHOLE lot more goin’ on than just that, unknown to the two male characters, but to find out just what, you’ll have to read the book when it’s out.)  So, I’ve got the county jail all mapped out, all three floors, where the furniture is, everything, mapped literally down to the square foot.  If possible, have photos, so you can see what your characters see (which is a good idea for even non-action scenes, like a romantic conversation at a Paris café, etc.)  For this scene, I know now where the bulletin board is (good for knowing what a stray bullet’s gonna hit when the lead starts flyin’), I know how many steps it is a character has to take to go around the front counter, where the firearms locker is, where the desks are to take cover behind, etc.  This allows me to literally plan the action sequences down to the split-second.  By the time I’m writin’ what’s goin’ on, it’s like I’ve seen it in a movie, frame by frame.

That brings me to my last revelation for the past few days, another rule that I have for myself – before you write it, “SEE” it.  I’m a pretty visually-oriented person, so I try to visualize everything in my mind before I write the scene.  I like to say that I have to think of the story as a movie that I’m writin’ the novelization of.  I know the colors of the walls, where the rust is on the car, what type of breed the dog in the front yard is in the distance, what the weather is that day, etc.  It’s a lot of work, but over the years it’s really become a lot of fun, on account of it involves a lot of intense “creative day-dreaming.”  As an artist, I even do a lot of sketches, thumbnails really, with lots of notes.

Okay, that’s a LOT of jabberin’ for one day.  Time to get back to work!  Now, get out there and write, my friends!

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Know Your Characters Like You Know Yourself

To me, one of the best things about writin’ is the characters. I think more than anything else, I rate a book or movie on how well defined, consistent, and realistic the characters are. (The other top rule bein’ that the plot must be 100% logical with no contrivances nor coincidences, but more on that in a later post.)

When I write somethin’ of my own, I have a few major rules (of which sometimes I break, as you saw from my previous post, much to my misfortune.) One of them there sacrosanct rules is that I have to know my characters as well as I know myself before I can use them in any story. I’m beyond obsessive about that, actually, since the characters in my fiction are the parts of the story I enjoy the most. I have to know how they talk, what sort of clothes they wear (right down to the brands and where they shop for those clothes), their hair styles, their daily routines, their family life, how they get along with their parent(s) and siblings, their life stories (obviously), their job, their co-workers, what sort of vehicle they own, what their house or apartment looks like and how well (or not) it’s kept, their pets if any, what they like to eat, what music they listen to, their social and political views and opinions, who they’d vote for and why, what religion they believe in if any (and why, or why not), what ticks them off, what scares them, what makes them happy, and what they want most out of life. Actually, there are a lot more things that I have to know about a character than just this small sample, and I literally spend months per each single character defining these things and many more, before I even start writing them into a story. I have folders (well, nowadays megabytes) of information on them, drawings of them, and so on.

That’s why I’m tickled pink today, because as a result of this obsessive character development that I do before writin’ begins, when it comes time to write their dialogue, the characters pretty much write their own words for me, through my hands as I type. I’ve picked up on their speech habits, favorite expressions and figures of speech, how they construct their sentences, etc. More importantly, though, I know them enough to know what they’d want to say in any given situation, and sometimes that’s not what I expect or even want them to say. A third rule is that I let my characters respond as they “want” in the scene, since I know them (hopefully) so well by the time I put them into a story. So sometimes, a character will say or even do something that I didn’t see coming, maybe even something that changes the plot. And that happened yesterday and this morning as I wrote. The love interest in the ill-fated love-triangle has without a doubt the strongest personality of any of the characters, and it was as much a delight as it was a surprise to see her come into fruition in her first scene. (Oh, that’s another rule of mine – a love interest, male or female, can never be in the story just so that the main character has somebody to save, love, etc. If the love interest isn’t going to be a very well-defined character, make the hero/heroine single and just get on with the story without an extraneous character as “window dressing”.)

Now I have to change the story just a bit, because one of my characters changed it for me. What can be more fun in writing than to actually watch a story that you’ve set in motion unfold in ways that you didn’t expect, taking the story to new and even better places?

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Checked Out: Library Scene FINISHED

Hooo-weee!!! A major triumph for hillbilly horror today! I finally beat that dang-blasted library scene what had been ailin’ me for durn near two weeks. (On account of it bein’ all dialogue, and at first not very excitin’-like.) By adding a sub-plot (that remains unresolved until a later scene), and adding a character that we care about (the poor librarian, now a tragic figure instead of a caricature), the problems were sure enough solved. So I celebrated by hoppin’ in the ’88 Pontiac Fiero GT and grabbin’ some chow at the Riney County Godfather’s – what better way to spend a Saturday after finishin’ a tough scene!

Jimmy Earl's 1988 Pontiac Fiero GT

Jimmy Earl’s 1988 Pontiac Fiero GT

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It Was the Librarian

Well, my trouble with the current scene I’m writin’ has been mostly solved. Turns out I forgot a very important rule: Even in a comedy (even though every bit of this here story is true, mind you), you must have your readers actually CARE ABOUT the characters. If you ain’t interested in your characters, and find them fascinating, your audience won’t care at all for them. This here is a serious drawback to the enjoyment of the story. The top priority in any fiction writing is to create an EMOTIONAL RESPONSE in the reader to your work. Whether it’s to thrill them (Tom Clancy), scare them (Steven King), make them laugh (Janet Evanovich), or make them feel happily romantic (Emily Brontë). In non-fiction, EDUCATING the reader is the goal, but in fiction, EMOTIONS are the bridge that connect the writer’s goals to the reader’s satisfaction (or lack thereof, if the reader doesn’t feel an emotional response to the work.)

Over the months that I’ve been writin’ this tale, I’ve made a still-growin’ checklist of some things to do when developing characters:

  • Make them have some sort of ongoing challenge or difficulty or weakness/vulnerability that makes the readers feel sorry for him/her. (This can also be overdone, and ain’t always appropriate though.)
  • Use quirks, like commonly-used speech idioms and expressions in their dialogue. Don’t tell the readers that the character has these idioms, just show them. That way they get to know the characters just like getting to know people in person, gradually but more realistically. I’m no fan of the writer interjecting fifteen pages of biographical material out of no-wheres when a character is introduced, like suddenly interrupting the story with something that reads like a danged Wikipedia article, completely breakin’ the pace of the story. This here to me is like watchin’ a movie and all of a sudden the movie stops when a new character comes on screen, and the director appears on-screen instead, and reads an article on that character’s life up ’til this point in the story. How would I have known any of that information if I was in the story? And putting that information on screen in a movie, or in a long biography in the middle of the plot, takes the reader/viewer OUT OF the story. Let your readers and viewers learn just as if they were in the story, because that’s the job of every writer – to put the reader IN the story.
  • Use personality and biographical idiosyncrasies. (Mostly for comedies though, and this can be overdone, which is what happened with the librarian character.)
  • Make them be very noble and selfless/altruistic, or at least good people. This is sorta in direct opposition to the first rule above, but the overall gist is to make the heroes and other character basically GOOD people that you would like, or at least respect, if you met them in real life, and they seem real, meaning not entirely perfect.

So now my librarian is less of a comedic caricature and more like a real person, much more interesting, and I’ve also added a sub-plot about the challenges that the librarian faces (see my previous post about sub-plots.) I hope to get that entire chapter now written by the end of the week.

So, drop me a line or a comment on tips you have on writing YOUR characters; I’m always up for swappin’ advice, notes, and experiences. Thank ye kindly!

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Every Scene A Story

For darn near a week now I’ve been strugglin’ to write that one scene in the library, you know, the one where our heroes learn some important clue or somethin’ similar about the town’s history. I just ain’t been in the right from of mind for it, even though I always write with a pretty well-detailed outline with plenty of notes. It hit me last night why I was puttin’ off writin’ this here scene.

It’s boring.

So that’s why I’ve had a realization – if a scene is boring to you as the writer, it for darn sure’s gonna be borin’ to the readers. Whether it’s the action and/or the characters involved, boring is boring, to readers and writers alike. That there bein’ the case, on account of that each scene has to be more than just “I wrote this ’cause it has to happen to move the story along.” So, how am I gonna spice that scene up, to make it stand up on its own, and be interestin’?

Add a FUN sub-plot to each scene.

Nothin’ fancy, nothin’ major. But there should be something mildly interestin’ and/or amusin’ goin’ on, maybe sorta in the background, that starts in the beginnin’ of EVERY scene and gets resolved by the scene’s end. Now, what that sub-plot’s gonna be, I ain’t rightly figured out yet, but that’s today’s job, well that and lunch with the family, which I’m about to be late for as I write this here blog.  Gotta run!

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Yeee-Haw!!! My First Blog!

Howdy!  Jimmy Earl Burke comin’ at you from the Internet! This here’s my first post, so don’t expect nothin’ fancy of it. I’ll be updatin’ my blog here about my upcoming novels, set in my home town of Riney County, Kentucky. Them stories got monsters, vampires, werewolves, zombies and other strange goings-on that us Riney County folk have endured for as far back as any of us can recollect. My first novel’s about half-ways done, and should be finished by the end of this here year (that being 2013.) Feel free to drop me a line, stay in touch, follow this here blog, and send me some Mountain Dew and Moon Pies if you have a hankerin’!

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