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Not Afraid of the F Word
by:  Judy Merrill Larsen
No, it's not what you think . . . I've Faced my fears . . . I'm in my Forties, pushing Fifty . . . and having the time of my life. As a published novelist (Finally), I'm living a dream that began when I was a little girl. Thanks for stopping by.
September 21, 2009

Novel 101 -- Begin Wherever You Start

A few weeks ago, I was a couple of days away from going back to a WIP I'd set aside last April. Back then (last spring) I was going back to the drawing board and completely rewriting/revising a novel I thought I'd finished several times. I finished that rewrite at the end of June, took some time away from all writing (except thinking about it), then did another read-through and tweaked things here or there and sent it off to my agent.

Then I skipped town for a week.

Then I was ready to go back to that WIP. I knew the characters, knew their voices, had the whole story arc in mind.

But, the week I was getting all ready to dive back into Full-Writing-Mode, something happened. Something I had very little power over. Absolutely no control.

A mother started telling me things. She wouldn't let me go. I couldn't ignore her no matter how hard I tried. And, damn, what she had to say was incredibly compelling. I even found myself dreaming about her. Seriously.

So, I started writing her story. And her daughter's. And then, the detective who's working with them started telling me about some of the struggles in her life.

And an image was in the background, an image that lends itself to a really lovely, haunting title.

So, I began writing. Not the story I thought I'd be writing, not even, necessarily where I thought it would start. But I began it. And I've pecked away at it nearly every day since then. It's starting to take shape. The characters are telling me more, letting me into their lives. And I can't stop thinking about them. It's kind of like falling in love.

Scary, thrilling, and never quite what you expect.

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September 14, 2009

My Mama Taught Me Better

What's going on in society these days? I mean really. Look at Kanye West and Joe Wilson (two names that have probably never been uttered in the same sentence before!).

When did rudeness become acceptable? Defensible? The status quo?

When did apologizing become a sign of weakness or backing down?

My mother taught me to be kind. Be responsible. And yes, to stand up for what I believe in but in a civilized manner. She taught me that the world doesn't revolve around me. I passed those lessons on to my sons. I said I was sorry . . . and I MEANT it when I said it . . . when I'd been unfair to them. Or even just short-tempered. I believe that being willing to apologize shows strength and compassion.

Rudeness is never acceptable. Even when I've been treated poorly, it's not okay. I don't want to stoop to the lowest common denominator. I want to rise above it.

Breaking rules is not okay. I learned this one many times, but the best reminder came when I was 16 and had gotten caught going off campus for lunch (something only seniors could do and I was a junior). Since I was the driver, I got three days detention. Since I wouldn't rat on who else was in the car with me they tacked on another two days (I felt sort of noble about that!). When I tried to defend myself to my mom (who wasn't buying any of my teenaged outrage, by the way) by exclaiming, loudly, that it was a stupid rule, she calmly replied that it might well be but I had two choices: obey it or work to change it. Breaking it was not okay. In honesty, I'd like to say I worked to change it, but no. I did get better at not getting caught (it was all in which parking lot I parked in, I discovered).

But, I digress.

Joe Wilson was out of line to yell "You lie!" during President Obama's speech. He could have groaned or booed. That's what the parties in opposition do. And now he's acting like not apologizing makes him more of a man. Uh, no. It makes him look weak and stubborn and ill-bred. His mama must be shaking her head.

And Kanye? Most of the folks nominated for any award DON'T win. That's the law of numbers. And just because you think the voters got it wrong, you don't get to hop up and announce your opinion to the world. You win some and you lose some. That's life. Deal with it without looking like a doofus. Or worse. What must your mama think?

What's happening? Do we need a MOM SQUAD or something to go from town to town and teach civility? Kindness? The Golden Rule?

Shouldn't it come naturally?

UPDATE -- check out my newest blog Just Be Nice and join the movement!

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May 27, 2009

Novel 101 -- Promises, Promises

Hello out there . . . anybody still reading this blog? Can't say that I'd blame you if you're not. I have all these good intentions . . . and I'm apparently busy paving a new road to hell with them.

Anyway, my apologies for so few posts this spring. As I might have mentioned a few times, I'm in the midst of writing a book. Note that I left off the prefix "re-". That was on purpose. I've rewritten/revised/re-imagined this particular MS several times over the past two years. And in April, after some soul-searching, and some "poor me/why me" complaining, and some wine, I decided to undertake it all over again. I blathered about that here.

And ever since, that's what I've been doing. Every morning I trundle up to my 3rd floor office, coffee cup in hand, open my laptop, put my scent-of-the-day candle on my candle-warmer thingie, and start writing. 1000+ words later (or more. Today was 2106!), I run spell-check, hit save, and jot down some notes about where I'm headed in the MS tomorrow. I've told my agent she'll have a finished draft by the middle of July. And now I've also told you the same thing. So I urge you to nag me about it. Seriously. I'm approaching this with more discipline and focus than ever before. Not that I ever thought writing a book was easy. (No, I've done it. I know how hard it is.) But, I'm learning it's not just the book or the writing or the ideas or any one thing. It's all of it and more. The timing has to be right, the story has to be true, and the writing has to have its own voice. Do I think I've hit that trifecta? Yes. Could I still be wrong? Of course. I certainly have been before. But this is what I do. I'm a writer, ergo I write.

Two of my writing pals have recently posted about their own writing processes (and hey, here's a shock, more eloquently then I have), so I urge you to check out Kristy's post and Patry's whole cool new blog.

Now, I ask for a bit more indulgence . . . I'm off to make myself some iced coffee so I can go sit on my porch and read what I wrote this morning. I'll be back to posting more regularly one of these days, too. But for now, my writing energy is focused elsewhere.

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April 8, 2009

Novel 101 (Starting Over)

I know I've been incommunicado for a few weeks now.

But, like spring, I do believe I too am emerging from winter and hibernation, tossing off some covers and turning my face towards the sun.

I've been doing lots of reading, a little traveling, and am in the process of wrapping my head around a new way of looking at things, particularly my WIP.

I think one of my strengths as a writer is how I capture the quiet moments of my characters, their introspection, their "resting." And that's all well and good, but in and of itself it isn't enough. As one of my most trusted readers/editors put it, I need to "earn the resting" and I need to earn it through action.

I know this, I really do, but I don't always do it. I can fall in love with my own paragraphs, sometimes, to the detriment of the whole. Last week I was talking to high school writers (one of my favorite things to do) and I found myself saying, over and over, "No matter how beautifully written a scene is, if it doesn't move the plot forward it has to go." They'd nod at me and jot down my words (almost like they thought I knew what the heck I was talking about) and it made me feel all professional (which is nice) but when I was driving home and thinking about it I realized that I needed to hear that advice more than those kids did. I need to listen to my own pearls of wisdom. And put them into action.

Next week (or maybe sooner, depending on how the week plays out), I'll be opening up a brand new document. And I'm going to allow the "what if's" to fly across the page. I'm going to earn my resting. I'm going to be open to the possibilities of magic in the world of my characters. I'm going to be prodding myself to know that it's in the characters' doing that emotions are elicited and honest and true. I'm going to be relentless that every scene -- action and quiet -- has to move the plot forward.

Because while the resting is important, I need to remember that growth is an action.

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March 5, 2009

Finding the Right Words

As a writer, I spend my days with words . . . trying to find the right ones, the best combinations, the perfect order. Do I say it this way or that way? It can seem like a never-ending puzzle. It can make me crazy.

But when they all fall into place, when the words arrange themselves, magically it might seem, even lyrically, I remember why I love what I do.

I need to remember the words of wisdom from E. B. White, one of my writing idols, who was advised as a young newspaper reporter struggling to tell a story, to "Just say the words."

This has been on my mind lately for a few reasons. One, I'm in full-on "writing mode," completely rewriting a manuscript. New POV, one narrative voice taken out (but reappearing in a different form), major changes throughout. It's exhilarating and terrifying. And words matter. Every single one. But I'm trying not to overthink it. I'm reminding myself to Just Say the Words.

The second reason this has been on my mind is because, as part of my participation in a Writers Week Celebration at a nearby high school in April, I was asked, "What's the best line you ever wrote?" (This was for the author information page.) I flipped through my book. Even looked at various blog posts. There are lines I like, lines I think capture a moment or a feeling. But when I looked at them in isolation, I thought, hmm, not so much. I'm not sure this one line is the best. One line kept popping up in my thoughts, but I thought it was probably too simple. Or not professional enough. So, in my e-mail to the director of the program, I was very apologetic about it, sort of made a little joke, and promised him I was working hard to come up with a better line. I didn't want him to think it had been a mistake to invite me to participate. But you know what? He wrote me back and said he thought the line I'd given him was perfect. So, I told him thanks, and to go ahead with it.

I'd Just Said the Words and hadn't even realized it.

The best line I've ever written?

"Love, Mom."

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A R C H I V E / H I G H L I G H T S

It Might be a Small World, but I'm not Multilingual!
originally posted: April 15, 2008

Remember guidance counselors back in high school? Remember being told there were certain skills we'd definitely want later and so we should take those classes now? Classes like typing and Spanish or French? Remember also thinking those same counselors were older than fossils and what did they know?

Or perhaps that was just me.

But here I sit, wishing I had learned to type. (Okay, yeah, so I do have my own system. Speedy, yes, but inaccurate as all get out. Not the most practical situation for someone who puts "Novelist" as her occupation on her tax forms.) Um, and perhaps also wishing I'd learned to speak (beyond asking, "Cerveza, por favor") and read a language other than English.

Because I now find myself in the interesting situation of being blogged about in other countries (Sweden, believe it or not!) and having no way of knowing what's being said. And of getting copies of my book in languages that weren't even offered in my high school (so, that gets me off the hook at least a little bit, right?).

And I'm tickled beyond reason with the idea that somewhere outside of Amsterdam, folks are kicking off their wooden shoes and curling up to read my words in Dutch. But I can't help but wonder how closely some of my carefully crafted prose has been translated. Do my alliterative phrases sound as lyrical in Finnish? And just what are the reviews extolling? Or lambasting?

So, if any of you are fluent in German, Swedish or Dutch, give me a holler and I'll send you one of my copies and you can report back. I'll make the same offer for Finnish and Complex Chinese characters (what does that mean?) when those versions arrive on my doorstep.

And finally, here's another neat picture:

a basket of books for a bookclub I donated for a silent auction at an author luncheon which was held to raise funds for Juvenile Arthritis my buddy Jen Vido in Maryland was helping organize.

To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, Oh, the places these books will go

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Novel 101 and etc.
originally posted: March 31, 2008

Singing "Flew in from Richmond V-A American Connection" just doesn't have the same ring to it as "Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC" (3 points to the first one to identify song AND album!), but those are the lyric that've been running through my brain since I arrived home yesterday afternoon. I'm planning a post about my fun in Charlottesville later this week, with pictures, but until then, you can read Therese's account here. I'll just mention, very quickly, the grapefruit martinis rocked!

Last month I wrote about my buddy Laura Bradford and her efforts to raise awareness and money to fight Multiple Sclerosis. Many of you asked how you could help. Here you go . . . On April 13 I'm joining other friends and writers to walk with Laura -- you can join us from afar by making a pledge to our team -- we've nearly reached our goal of $2000.

Now, updates to my WIP, tentatively titled Spinning. One nice thing -- for a writer -- about traveling is the dead time/thinking time. Waiting in the airport, killing time in the hotel room (I mean, you can't drink grapefruit martinis all the time!), sitting on the airplane after I've finished the crossword puzzles I brought with me. I even had an 80+ minute car drive that gave me more pondering time. As I've mentioned, I'm trying to think through the whole story arc as fully as I can before I hunker down for the bulk of the writing. Here's what I've figured out/learned about my writing process:

~I'm not good at waiting when the characters start talking to me. So, I've written a prologue (just 2 pages, but still) that's already been vetted and approved by a talented and brilliant writer (Hi Amy!). I'm still committed to working out the story arc, but when the words come bubbling up I can't just shove them back down.

~Narrative Voice/POV is all. I spent much of my "thinking time" rolling options around and trying them out. First person? But that's going to be complicated since I want to show this story through three different characters. So, I'm leaning towards 3rd person for all three. Next to work out . . . do they each get their own chapters? Or will I just vary it by scene? I even toyed with the idea of having each one tell a third of the story -- first Maggie, then Jim, then Grandma, but I knew I needed to have a rationalization for whatever device I chose. And I've decided since they are all in it together, growing, changing, learning, I'm going to let them tell it as naturally as I can, which to me means the POV will shift within chapters. Stay tuned.

~Each book chooses the way it's going to be written. Yesterday, in the airport, I did something I've never ever done before. Sitting at the gate, waiting, I opened up my laptop and wrote 4 pages of chapter one. Yes I did. I know writers who say they can write anywhere. I've never been one of them. I like my talismans: crisp new legal pad, new package of Uni-Ball pens, good coffee, a quiet house. In cold weather I sit in the living room by the fire. In warm, I'm outside on my front porch. I write the first draft in long-hand. But yesterday, I was in the airport (Gate A-1), announcements blaring out, a couple behind me bickering, no ink pens or legal pads handy. But, earlier that morning an opening scene had been playing over in my mind. And I didn't want to just jot down notes. I didn't want to wait. I wanted, no needed, to capture it. Right then. So I typed. My fingers flew. And while I know it's not yet where it needs to be, I also know where I'm going.

~Don't throw too much away in the first draft. I'm a good censor. A good editor. I can always pare away a scene, lop off an unnecessary paragraph. You need to lose 20,000 words? I'm your girl. But I think I've often done too much pruning in the first draft which makes more work in the later drafts. So, yesterday, on my drive, I'd thought of two competing motivations my character has to explain one action. I examined each one trying to decide which one to go with, which one to throw out. But then, I decided to be madcap. Yup, you heard me. Write it with both. Start the scene with one, by the end, the other motivation prevails. And it was more complicated, but so's the moment. It gives more depth. It explains things. It's more human.

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A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R

I'm a mom and a wife, a recently published novelist and a former teacher.

I grew up moving across the country every four years or so. I was born in Whittier, California, then traveled to Northbrook, IL (explains my baseball allegiance), Upper Saddle River, NJ (explains my passion for Springsteen), back to Northbrook, then to Dunwoody, GA (where I learned to appreciate the cadence of my favorite writers). Finally, I landed in Madison, WI for college and discovered home.

I now live in St. Louis, MO with my husband, our five kids, a really sweet (but very dumb) golden retriever and a diabetic cat.

Over the years I have worked as a waitress, grocery checker, copy center clerk, deli clerk, sales clerk, substitute teacher, and English teacher.

Check out my website, too.