KEEP A TIME CHART: Even if you never mention particular dates in your novels, it’s important that you know the day and date of every scene. You may ask, “Why do I need to know that if it’s not part of my novel?” I’ll tell you why.
When you’re in the thick of writing your book, it’s very easy to lose track of how much time has elapsed between events. In some of my novels, my characters have had such long, complicated days that it’s taken me chapters to describe the action. Conversely, I may skip ahead two weeks, a month, or even years. It all depends on the story.
Every time I begin a novel, I pull out a calendar, and I choose a date. Sometimes it has everything to do with the story and what time of year it is, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s still important. Let’s say your character is an unhappy wife who is keeping tabs on her husband’s whereabouts because she is convinced he’s cheating. In Chapter 7, she’s having lunch with her best friend and telling her everything that she has just found out. Can you accurately have your character tell her friend what happened five days ago, what happened three days ago, and what happened two weeks ago if you don’t have it noted? I sure can’t.
If you keep a dated time chart with a simple synopsis of what happens when, it will save you lots of headaches down the road.
KEEP IT TIGHT: Let’s stay with our story of the woman who thinks her husband is cheating on her. There’s a twist in this story. She finds out that he’s not cheating at all but wants her to think he is because he’s being blackmailed and is actually trying to protect her by letting her assume the lesser of two evils. Ah, the plot is thickening. Let’s say that in Chapter 10, the woman makes a major discovery that changes her perspective on what is going on. Before you create a brand-new character to deliver that information to her, make sure there are no existing characters that can do the job. Don’t introduce your reader to new people if they serve no real purpose and will do nothing more than clutter or dilute your prose. When you use established characters, you may just come up with even better plot twists than you imagined. You may very well need a new character, but take the time to think about it. Keep it tight.
LISTEN TO YOUR NOVEL: Most of us know that it’s very difficult to proof your own work. Your eyes tend to see what is supposed to be there, not what is there. If you have spent an hour reworking a paragraph or speech, you may have become so immersed in getting it right that when you read it back, you don’t notice that you’ve used a particular word three times in two sentences. Unless it’s intentional, it’s not good. Most computers have text-to-speech functions. To review your work, highlight the part you want to hear, place it in a new document, and highlight it again. Then, sit back and listen to your words. If there are words missing, misspelled, or repeated, you will hear them. Listening gives you a different perspective than reading.
You may wonder why I suggested putting your text into a new document. You ask, “Why can’t I just highlight it in the document I’m using?” You can, but as you know, highlighted text can disappear instantly if a wrong button is touched on your keyboard and you can’t quickly hit Control Z (PCs) or Command Z (Macs) to undo. That’s all. It’s just a safety measure to protect what you’ve written.
USE YOUR FIND COMMAND: Do you have pet words or phrases that you tend to overuse? I know that’s always a worry for me. When I’m immersed in telling a story, my brain is focused on the action and sometimes I’m merely serving as a transcriptionist for my characters. Sometimes my editor will catch these repetitions and just as often, I’ll catch them myself. If you’re able to identify words or phrases you might overuse, use the FIND command in Word (or other software). Then, change them or rewrite sentences to avoid them. Just get ’em outta there. And remember, the more unusual the word, the more obvious the repetition.
I’m super excited about the publication of Mystical High, the first novel in my YA paranormal trilogy, The Desert Series. While I’m not exclusively a YA author, my first-written novel, Squalor, New Mexico, is a coming-of-age story, and I’ve been eager to return to the genre again—but in a very different way.
Having a lifelong interest in unexplained phenomena, I wanted to write a novel that deals with many issues that teens face in everyday life, but with a paranormal element being an integral part of the story. As my first three novels are all set in the eastern United States, where I’m originally from, I wanted to write a novel set in California, where I live now. I decided that the Southern California desert would be a great locale.
As in all of my novels, if I write about small towns or specific areas, I fictionalize them, but when I describe big cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles, the descriptions are always from firsthand experience. My descriptions of small towns are usually a hybrid of similar places but are never exact duplications. I’m a fiction writer, after all.
What I never expected to be, however, was the author of a series. I just didn’t see it in the cards. So how did I end up deciding to write a series? Well, I don’t think I did. As I was finishing the writing of Mystical High and falling in love with the characters and the story, the book itself simply told me: “Hey, you’re not quite through with me yet. Not even close. Guess what? You’re going to write a series.”
“Really? I’m going to write a series? But—”
“But nothing. Just get to work.”
And here I am, publishing the first book in a trilogy and happy to say that I’ve already written 25,000 words of number 2 and am over-the-moon excited about it.
Every novel in The Desert Series will be able to be read as a standalone novel. However, the secrets and revelations will be even juicier to those who have read the previous novels.
Now, let me tell you about Mystical High.
In Mystekal, a small, dying town in the Southern California desert, only 75 students attend the old, sometimes creepy high school dubbed “Mystical High,” where strange things have been known to happen. Jessie Dalworth and Jinxsy Patterson are juniors and lifelong best friends. At home, Jessie deals with the pain of an absentee mother who has abandoned the family for the lure of Hollywood; Jinxsy contends with a 17th “birthday present” she never wanted or expected.
Meanwhile, at school, the unexplained activity begins to escalate when Jinxsy keeps seeing a long-haired guy in the hallway checking her out. Jessie can’t see him, but her younger brother, River, can.
Then, in English class, a stapler mysteriously flies off teacher Eve Carrow’s desk, hitting a student in the face who has just mouthed off to her. The beloved teacher is in the unenviable position of having her brute of a father as principal, so she hates sending any student to his office. As Principal Ernest Carrow begins to terrorize Eve and others more openly, something or someone unseen decides that it’s payback time.
School is getting stranger, and Jinxsy and Jessie are faced with mind-boggling changes in their home lives that complicate everything. When a string of shocking events expose explosive secrets, decades-long mysteries are finally revealed.
Great to see you here. Let’s see. Where do I start?
First, I’m really excited to present the new cover for my 1970s coming-of-age novel, Squalor, New Mexico. I’d like to thank the super-talented Lisa McCallum for designing such a perfect cover. (You are the best, Lis!)
To celebrate the new cover, I will be selling the Kindle edition for only .99 on Amazon.comuntil the end of September, 2013. (While this is just the link for the US store, the book is discounted in all Amazon stores all over the world.)
Now, let’s get down to business. Why does my Young Adult novel have such a downright bizarre title, especially since it’s only peripherally about squalor and not at all about New Mexico?
The seed for the title/book began in my childhood. Every time I heard it said that someone lived in squalor, it sounded like a place to me. For years, I had the identical notion every time I heard the word: “Is Squalor a town?” “Is it a city?” “Where is it?” The word “squalor” nagged at me. The universe and the word were trying to tell me something. (“Write a novel! Write a novel!”)
It was then that I decided that I wanted to begin a novel with the sentence: “My aunt lived in Squalor.” I had no idea who the main character would be, who her aunt would be and why said aunt would live in Squalor, but it all began from there. I built a 159,000-word book (445-pages) completely around my desire to use that opening sentence. Though it is not specifically stated, the book is set in the 1970s in an east coast suburb.
The first page of the book explains the unusual title:
My aunt Rebecca lived in Squalor. I first heard my mother and my aunt Didi discussing this one day when I was nine. I was supposed to be in my bedroom doing homework, but I snuck down the back stairs into the kitchen for a McIntosh apple and an Oreo cookie. Mom and Aunt Didi were close by in the dining room, huddled together at the corner of the table, as they often were, and they were talking about Aunt Rebecca. To me, the most curious thing about Aunt Rebecca, whom I had never met, was that Mom and Aunt Didi only brought her up when they thought no one was listening.
“I’m sure she’s still living in squalor,” Aunt Didi told Mom authoritatively. “Unless she’s screwed her way out!”
I had no idea what all that meant, but it seemed like such an odd thing to say that I was willing to take the risk of letting my presence be known and ask.
“What’s squalor, Mom?” I said, walking into the dining room.
“Goodness, Darla!” Mom said putting her hand to her throat. “How long have you been listening?”
“Not long. I just came down for an apple.” (I thought it best not to mention the cookie.) “What’s squalor, Mom?” I repeated.
Aunt Didi, knowing Mom would be loath to answer my question, took hold of the reins for her. “It’s a town in New Mexico, Darla. It’s an Indian name.”
Mom looked at Aunt Didi in amazement. I figured she hadn’t known what it meant, either.
“Oh,” I said. And then I took a bite out of my apple.
“You have a book report due tomorrow,” Mom said.
“I know,” I said, taking another bite.
“Well, you’re not going to get it done standing here, are you?”
“Please dear,” Mom pleaded softly. “Go upstairs and finish your—”
“But Mom, I really want to know what—”
“Darla!” Aunt Didi screamed. “Listen to your mother. Go upstairs, now, and finish your book report!”
“All right. Forget it!” I said indignantly. “How am I supposed to learn stuff if I don’t ask?”
So, friends, now you know. Squalor, New Mexico began as a lie told to a child to quell her curiosity and ended up being the unlikely symbol for all of the lies, secrets and twisted truths that can destroy a family. It is a coming-of-age story shrouded in family mystery, and yes, I’ll admit it: it has a very strange title.
Note: In the not-too-distant future, the paperback edition of Squalor, New Mexico will be republished with a new cover, too.
How many of you remember being read to by your mother or father when you were a child?
When I was a child, I remember my mother reading poetry to my brother and me, and as I grew up, I remember her writing it. During her 20s and 30s, she wrote hundreds of poems. In her late 30s, she went back to work, and her love for writing poetry was set aside.
My mother, Dr. Jean Lisette Brodey, a retired Temple University journalism professor, is now in her 80s. About a year ago, I asked her where her poems were, and she said she feared they were lost. I knew they were not, as I’d seen them in her house. During a visit back to Philadelphia in September 2012, I found the poetry and began making plans to choose 50-some poems for a small collection.
That is how the book My Way to Anywhere began. Most of the poetry, expressed through imagery, abstract concepts, and word portraits, is about people who affected my mother’s life. My favorite poem in the book is called “An Ending.” It is a poem that tells of the death of my mother’s friend’s 27-year-old husband who died of cancer.
Here is an excerpt:
Why do we rend the days with our grief?
He would not have it so
For he respected life
Too much to bewail its passing
And death was too obscure
To have a place in his philosophy.
The thing has been decreed
(he would have said)
So if you have to pause
Let it be to reason
Not to mutter or complain
Then go on to ponder things
That somehow can be explained.
Death is a void, that’s all.
He would not toy with idle questions
For reason was his god and he was twenty-seven.
On a lighter note, there is a section of the book called FOR CHILDREN. Here is one short poem:
A wondrous number is 2.
There’s so much
2 can do!
2’s less than 3
2’s more than 1.
2 is an awful lot of fun!
My Way to Anywhere is not my mother’s first book. In 1983, through Westminster Press, she published Mid-Life Careers.
JAY LENO AND THE CHICKEN WINGS
The heading above is probably the last thing you’d expect in a blog about my mother and her poetry book. Well, let me explain.
When Mid-Life Careers came out, my mother did a great deal of publicity for the book in Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles.
One of her bookings was on an early morning Los Angeles talk show, and Jay Leno was one of the other guests. I have no idea why, but Jay was cooking up chicken wings on the show. My mother had five minutes to talk about her book, and while on the air, Jay came over to her and said he’d like “the doctor” to taste his chicken wings. My mother wasn’t about to give up her five minutes tasting Jay’s chicken wings and promptly declined, whereupon Jay called her a “party pooper” or something like that. After that, she was never a fan of Jay’s. I think she’s gotten over it, though. But I do remember having to rip off the cover of her TV Guide when he was on it. (And yes, it was the very same cover seen below!)
On a New York talk show, my mother was lucky enough to be a guest along with legendary singer Eartha Kitt and after the show enjoyed a wonderful lunch with her.
But the most memorable moment after the publication of Mid-Life Careers was seeing a downtown Philadelphia bookstore filled with copies of her book. What author wouldn’t love that?
Throughout her career as a tenured professor at Temple University teaching public relations, my mother won many prestigious awards, including induction into the Philadelphia Public Relations Association’s Hall of Fame.
PLEASE MEET DR. JEAN LISETTE BRODEY
Well, enough of my reminiscing. I have interviewed my mother for this blog, and I do hope you’ll enjoy meeting her.
When did your love of poetry begin?
When I was about five years old, my mother read Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses to me. It was better than hearing a story. The rhymes delighted me, and I found them to be lots of fun. Because the poems were read to me on a regular basis, they became a part of my young life. I still remember some of the poems by heart, such as “My Shadow” and “The Swing.”
Do you remember when you wrote your first poem?
I don’t remember my first poem. But when I was in the first or second grade, I wrote a poem and showed it to my father. I told him that I had written it, but he didn’t seem to believe me. He asked me again if I had written it and then asked me if I had copied it out of a poetry book. I was pleased that he thought it was that good, but I was also hurt that he didn’t think I had written it.
Did any of your grade school teachers recognize your talent for writing poetry?
I can’t recall which grade it was, but I had a teacher named Mrs. Schulke who liked my poetry so much that she had it illustrated by a talented student named George Logan and put it together in a book for me.
Did your love for poetry continue throughout junior high and high school?
Yes, as a matter of fact, under my photo yearbook in Philadelphia’s General Louis Wagner Junior High School, I stated that I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up. I didn’t really know what journalists did; I just knew that they wrote. And I figured that they wrote poetry.
I remember writing poems for special occasions. A poem I wrote for my aunt Nancy is still in my head. It goes like this:
On Christmas and your birthday,
Any occasion of the year,
You can always depend on stockings,
That come from Nancy dear.
You earned a degree in journalism from Penn State University. What did you hope to do with your degree?
I wanted a job that involved writing, but I had no specific expectations. At a local youth hostel, while attending a meeting for hiking and camping enthusiasts, I met a man who was a job recruiter. Through him, I was hired at the Frank H. Fleer Company in Philadelphia. The company manufactured Double Bubble gum, and I was hired to edit the company’s internal publication and to write facts and fortunes for bubble gum wrappers. During my three years at this company, I got married and then became pregnant with the person interviewing me right now.
When did you seriously begin writing poetry?
Once I stopped working outside the home, my love for writing poetry became more intense.
How did you judge your own work? Did you think you were a good poet? How does one define “good” in terms of poetry?
The answers are complex. For every poem I wrote, I had a general idea of what I wanted to say and how I hoped readers would perceive it. Even though I wrote in abstract terms, it was always my hope that my words would stir the reader. My right to use the label “poet” often changed depending on my own feelings about a poem and other people’s comments. Sometimes how I felt had nothing to do with the poetry and everything to do with what was going on in my life.
You felt very strongly about the widow of poet Edgar Lee Masters, Ellen Coyne Masters. She had a great influence on your work. Please tell us more.
I met Mrs. Masters at Penn State (Ogontz campus), where she was teaching an adult class in reading literature. When I first saw her, I had strong negative feelings. But those feelings changed very quickly into positive ones. She had a strong personality, and I suppose not knowing her at first, I perceived her differently.
Shortly after meeting her, I read her late husband’s masterpiece, Spoon River Anthology, which is a collection of fictional epitaphs about a community called Spoon River. I was inspired by the work of Edgar Lee Masters. I even wrote some fictional epitaphs of my own in the same vein. [Two of them are included in My Way to Anywhere.] I also was inspired to write poems about the poet and his wife.
Mrs. Masters was gracious enough to look at my poetry from time to time and encouraged me to write more. Positive reinforcement from her gave me an incredible joie de vivre.
Do you remember the first time one of your poems was accepted for publication?
Yes! My family and I had been away on vacation, and the post office was holding my mail. When I went to collect the mail, I saw a letter from a national poetry magazine. I opened it up and found out that it was an acceptance. I was overjoyed, thrilled, and, most importantly, felt like a poet.
Who are some of your favorite poets to read?
My favorite poet is Wallace Stevens. I also love Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, Walt Whitman, James Joyce, e. e. cummings, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Theodore Roethke, William Wordsworth, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and, of course, Edgar Lee Masters.
Your poetry is now being published some 50 to 60 years after you wrote it. How does that make you feel?
Wonderful. I had stopped writing poetry after I went back to work. Several years later, I earned my master’s and doctorate degrees in education and worked until retirement as a journalism professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, so there was no time in my life to pursue poetry. Having this collection of my poetry published now makes me realize how important poetry has always been to me.
Thanks for a great interview, Mom!
September 14, 2014: It is with a very heavy heart that I must add that my mother died on April 30, 2014. I was blessed to be with her at the very end.