A Different Sort of Adventure

What is the difference between today and last Thursday? I’d really like to know, but I have a hunch it’s a rhetorical question. Last Thursday, I went to Kellogg Beach, and walked for six hours along Pelican Bay without seeing a single creature except for gulls. Today, there were gulls, but also dogs, horses, fisherfolk, old couples, young couples, and a couple of individuals cloud bathing. (At least I’m assuming they were cloud bathing. They were sprawled on towels on the beach, and there wasn’t a single bit of blue or spark of a sun ray in the sky.) I set out on my solitary walk anyway, but people had driven out onto the sand, so were spread out all along the beach.

No one else was walking, so I still managed to find peace and renewal by the bay, but all the activity made me wonder what brought so many people out to play in the clouds. Maybe it was simply a lemming-type day. People woke up, and en masse, decided to head for that particular piece of oceanside land.

Even the worst day at the beach is pretty spectacular, but nothing happened to make it an adventure. Still, I’ve been having an adventure of a different kind. A literary kind. After years of having no inclinination to write, this weekend, I dug out my moribund dance studio mystery and started working on it. Have the first three chapters written. Amazing!

It helps that the friend I’m staying with is not only my first true fan, but a writer herself. (We met online in a writer’s group seven years ago. It took us all this time to finally meet, and it’s as if we’re old friends. Which, of course, we are.) She’s been encouraging, mostly because she wants to read the book, so I’ve been letting her read my work as it progresses. So far, so good.

(I also told her the story of my grieving woman book I began as a NaNoWriMo project five years ago, and her wide eyed-eagerness to read that finished book made me think it’s time to finish that book along with my other started projects.)

I’ve considered trying to find a writer’s colony or a writer’s retreat to help me refocus on what I want from my literary life, and apparently, I got my wish.

I’d planned to go back to the high desert this week, but I’m staying awhile longer. There are still places around here I haven’t yet seen, parts of the beach I haven’t explored, trails I haven’t hiked. And there are words to write.

Adventure, indeed.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)


Open Sesame!

I had lunch with a friend today, and she asked if I was writing anything, so I told her the story of my grieving woman, one of the two moribund works I’ve been slowly resurrecting.

It was gratifying to see her rapt face as the story unfolded, and her attention gave me a boost of ambition to finish the story. To be honest, though, I don’t need the boost — I’ve been enjoying working/playing with the manuscript.

I say working/playing, because it isn’t work — work connotes toil and energy expended with perhaps a monetary reward at the end, and though I have been working on the book, it hasn’t been work. More like puzzle play. I wrote many of the scenes a few months after my life mate/soul mate died, attempting to deal with my grief and record the pain before I NaNoWinnerforgot some of the particulars. It’s been long enough now that the pain is mostly a faint and bewildering memory, so working on the book, even the agonizing scenes, isn’t a hardship.

I started the novel as a NaNoWriMo project to see if I could meet the challenge of 50,000 words in a month. Despite being a slow writer, I did complete the required number of words, though to do so, each day I had to write whatever scene came to mind. I have a stack of scenes that have to be put into some sort of order before I do the difficult scenes, the fill-in sections, the transitions, the descriptions — all the parts that are hard for me to write but need to be included. That could take a while, since I only have about 40,000 words, which falls short of a full novel.

Now, however, I am typing up what I’ve written and trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. For example, I have a flashback scene that shows her dying husband laboriously filling page after page with what looks like his daughter’s name, and he keeps talking about his “sesame.” (Like my life mate/soul mate, the poor guy is not able to find the correct words to say what he means.)

In another scene, my grieving woman checks his computer to see if she can find his estranged mother’s address so she can notify her of her son’s death, and she comes across a file labeled “journal.” She clicks on the file, curious, because she’d never known him to keep a journal, and finds it password protected. Though she tries all the passwords she’s known him to use, she can’t open the file.

Now here’s the problem — which scene should come first? The sesame flashback or the journal scene? “Sesame” of course, is short for “open sesame,” which is what his poor cancer-addled brain is calling a password, though she doesn’t know that. If the sesame flashback came first, would it be obvious when the journal scene comes around that he’d been trying to figure out the password? If the journal scene comes first, would it be obvious when the sesame flashback comes around that he’d been trying to figure out the password?

Oh, that all my problems should be so insignificantly significant!


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

A Novel About a Grieving Woman

Several months after the death of my life mate/soul mate, I participated in the National Novel Writing Month. I’ve never seen the point of NaNoWriMo — if you want to write, write. You don’t need to be part of an international campaign to foist more hastily written tripe on an unsuspecting public. Still, in an effort to deal with my grief, I’d been trying all sorts of new things, and NaNoWriMo seemed like a challenge. I’ve always been a slow writer, and I wanted to see what would happen if I wrote without regard for any sort of cohesiveness or literary merit. Other people who had participated told me that when you let NaNoWinneryourself go, wonderful things happened, which, in my case, was not at all the truth.

Still, I did finish the word count. (And forgive me if I add that I see no benefit to counting words. What difference does it make if one person can write 10,000 words in a day, while another can only write 100?) What I mostly ended up with at the end of the month were disconnected scenes of a novel about a grieving woman. I wanted to get the emotion down on paper before I forgot the horror and agony of new grief, and that I did.

Well, now I’m typing up those long-fallow pages, and it’s been a surprise. The angst is there, but so is humor. How did I manage to write anything but the most sorrowful prose while still in the depths of grief? For example, here is a passage I typed up this morning:

Amanda made her way to the buffet table. The merry widows were huddled together, poring over the selection.

“Make sure Paula brings her meatballs to my funeral lunch,” Jackie said. “Katherine’s lime mold is something I’d just as soon not see.”

“You wouldn’t see it anyway,” Muffie cackled. “You’ll be dead. I like a good Jell-O mold, especially with marshmallows. Put that on my list.”

“Buffalo wings are my favorite,” Barb said. “They’re messy, so be sure to bring some of those wet wipes. Everyone will be dressed in their best, and I don’t want the men remembering me by stains on their ties.”

Amanda slipped away from the three long-time widows before they could see her. No way could she deal with them today. Usually she saw them as the fairy godmothers in the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty—brightly dressed, rotund, and into everyone’s business—but today they struck her more like the witches in Macbeth.

Would she become like them now that David was gone, with nothing better to look forward to than her own funeral? But there was Sam . . .

Okay, so it isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but it is a lighthearted respite from the rest of the story. I wonder what other gems I’ll find that I’ve forgotten?

At the time I conceived the story, I wasn’t sure where to go with it — hence the disconnected scenes — but I don’t think I need to go anywhere with it other than finishing what I already have: a grieving widow, an angry daughter, a cyber lover, a gun, and hints of evil-doing by the dying husband (a preacher, incidentally, who supposedly led an exemplary life.) Sounds like an interesting story!


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Write the Most Terrible Stuff You Can

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled on a group of writers chatting on Twitter. I’d never really done much with Twitter, never really knew what to do there, but I checked out the chat (discovered one of my Facebook friends there), took a deep breath and responded to a few comments. It felt so good that I made a point of attending the chat again yesterday. (You can find the chat on Twitter at #writechat every sunday afternoon from 3:00 until 6:00 pm ET.)

One guy mentioned that he made a point of writing every day. He said he was afraid if he stopped, he’d have a hard time getting started again. I told him it was a realistic fear since that’s what happened to me. I also said I was recommitting myself to blogging since it wasn’t as big a commitment as writing a novel or even a short story, and that I was hoping eventually I’d get in the habit of writing fiction again. Then another writer (Suzanna) suggested I commit myself to ten minutes a day. Suzanna told us about Natalie Goldberg’s idea of wild mind writing. Pick three words at random, then use those words to write for ten minutes without thinking. Just write terrible, boring things, the most terrible you can. According to Suzanna, it is not about speed, it’s about continuity. Keeping the pen moving.

This really caught my attention. Last year I did NaNoWriMo in the hopes that I’d find the place inside where the wild words live, but I never did.  I did do some respectable writing, so the month wasn’t a waste, but it didn’t accomplish what I wanted. Before that, I followed Julia Cameron’s idea of doing morning pages. Again, I did some respectable writing, but no wildness came of it. But ten minutes a day? I can do that, and I plan to do it for sure. Tomorrow maybe.

Click here to read Suzanna’s article about wild mind writing: Take a rest in your imagination

Getting Sass From My Character

Sometimes when I can’t think of where I am going with a story, I talk to my characters. Sort of. My characters don’t take on a life of their own — I am always aware they are my creations — but sometimes when I begin to make choices for a character, the character seems to be determining her own fate. If a character has a particular daughter, a particular problem, a particular job, then all those things bind the character and make her act a particular way.

In the case of poor Amanda, the hero of my newest work in progress (the one that got its start as a NaNoWriMo project), her life is bound by a dead husband, a rebellious twenty-something daughter, and an online lover she’s never met. Once a preacher’s wife with an entire support system, she now has to deal with everything on her own. In addition, she’s going to have to leave the parsonage where she’s lived for the past fifteen years, and she barely has enough energy to get out of bed in the morning. All these problems bind the poor woman, creating more dilemmas than she can handle. Still, with all her trauma, she seemed boring to me, so I sat her down and tried to find out why I am having a problem with her. Don’t know if I solved the problem of why I find her so boring, but at least I got a better understanding of who she is and where to go with the story.

Bertram: I can’t get into writing your story. You’re nothing special, just a woman grieving. Boring.

Amanda: Sam thinks I’m special and unique.

Bertram: Who’s Sam?

Amanda: Don’t you know?

Bertram: Of course I know. I created him. I just wondered if you knew.

Amanda: I know he’s a special man. We met online at a support group for people whose mates are dying of cancer. His wife and David—my husband—were both told they had three to six months to live. Having something so real to talk about cut through all the usual crap people go through when the meet, even online, so we got to know each other very quickly. And we fell in love. Took us both by surprise. Neither of us were looking for that, and we didn’t know you could develop such powerful feelings without ever having met.

Bertram: What happened to Sam’s wife?

Amanda: She rallied. Is in remission right now. Still not well, but doesn’t seem to be terminal. Sam is staying with her. We want to get together, but he lives halfway across the country. In Ohio. I need so much to feel his arms around me. I am stunned by the depth of my grief for David. I thought I was over him—he took such a long time to die, you see. Over a year. I thought I’d finished with my grief and moved on, but when he died, it felt as if I were dying, too. If I didn’t love Sam, I couldn’t have gone on.

Bertram: I don’t understand how you can love one man while mourning another.

Amanda: I don’t understand it either. Sam says I’m a complicated woman. He says that there’s a part of me that will always belong to him, a part David never knew. Apparently I need to men to fulfill me. Yet here I am . . . alone. And grieving.

Bertram: What part belongs to Sam?

Amanda: The passionate part. I always thought I was a passionless woman—I’d have to be, being David’s wife. He wasn’t much for sex. I think it had something to do with his childhood, something that happened to shape his life, but he never talked about it. I’ll find out, though—it’s important to the story. See, when I find out that he’s different from the man I knew, then I panic and wonder who I am. For most of my adult life, I defined myself by my relationship with him. He gave my life focus and meaning. Which is why finding out the truth about Davis is important. I need to know who he is so I can find out who I am.

Bertram: And who are you?

Amanda: I don’t know. Isn’t that your job, to create me?

You can read the entire conversation here: Pat Bertram Introduces Amanda Ray, Hero of a New Work-in-Progress

NaNoWriMo Winner!

This might be Black Friday for you, but it’s a red letter day for me! I actually wrote 50,408 words so far this month, which makes me a winner of NaNoWriMo. (National Novel Writing Month.) Although I already validated my entry, I’m going to continue writing the rest of the month because half of the challenge for me was to write every day in November.  The final part of the challenge, digging for buried wisdom hasn’t happened — but I did find all those words, and that’s a major step for me. Haven’t written that much in years!

No Wisdom, Just Words

I’ve been sticking to my self-imposed writing schedule this month, doing a blog a day (sorry to all my subscribers who have been getting an email each day announcing a new post. I promise I’ll go back to my more sporadic posting next month). I’m also racking up the word count on my novel for NaNoWriMo.

I normally don’t obsess over word counts. The way I figure, I either write or I don’t, the scenes are either workable or they’re not. But this month, it’s about the word count. I hoped that by writing so quickly I couldn’t stop to think, I’d stir up my depths, and words of wisdom would automatically appear on the page. Nope. No wisdom yet. Just words.

I did have an odd experience this morning, though. I sat down to write a scene for my grieving woman book, and ended up writing a scene for my poor old work-in-pause, an apocalyptic allegory.

Makes sense, I guess. That novel has been rattling around in my head for years. I started writing it months before I started this blog. Since then, I’ve dealt with three deaths (none of them mine), learned how to use a computer, learned how to navigate the internet, made dozens of online friends, started a dozen blogs (most of which are now clogs — abandoned blogs clogging cyber space), participated in hundreds of writing discussions, gotten three books published, edited those three books plus a fourth (which will be published in the spring), spent hundreds of hours trying to promote those books without actually promoting them (the only thing more annoying that a full email inbox is an inbox full of annoying emails), and  . . . well, you get the point. I’ve been doing everything imaginable except working on my WIP. So today — ta da! A couple of scenes for that book appeared instead of the one I planned to write for my grieving woman book.

I always liked the idea of working on whatever book stood out most in my mind when it time to write each day, but I never tried it before. It might help put the fun back in writing, and who knows what I’ll end up with!

There’s Plenty of Grief to Spread Around

I’m participating in NaNoWriMo, trying to find a new way and new reason to write now that my life has been turned upside down. I never liked wasting my writing — I liked to think that whatever scene I wrote had a place in the story. Writing comes hard for me (even when I’m playing the quantity game rather than the quality one) so writing for writing’s sake was never on my agenda.

This month, though, is all about the words, so it doesn’t matter whether the scene works or not. It doesn’t even matter if I scrap most of the book. It’s important just to write something so that when it comes time to put the story together, I will have bits and pieces to work with.

I always knew the mother and daughter in my story didn’t get along. The mother needs someone who will argue with her, someone who has no sympathy for her grief. I’ve been assuming that the daughter found out about her mother’s cyber affair and accused the mother of being a hypocrite, and that is how I wrote the scene. Now I know that when it comes to grief, there’s enough strife to spread around, so I could probably leave the daughter in the dark about the affair.

Real mothers and daughters (not just storybook mothers and daughters) don’t see eye to eye when it comes to grief. Daughters often feel as if their mothers are carrying on too much, since grown children may come to terms with their loss easier than spouses do. Grown daughters often feel as if they’ve lost both parents when the mother becomes steeped in sorrow. Sometimes the conflict goes the other way, with the mother feeling estranged from the daughter especially if the daugher did not visit the sick father very often. (Not everyone can handle seeing a person dying slowly and in great agony and would prefer to remember the person as healthy and vital.) 

Grief should bring families together, but often it tears them apart. All that anger surfacing. The denial. The recriminations and guilt. Not everyone goes through the stages of grief in the same order. Nor do they go through them at the same time or with the same intensity.

With so much emotion to deal with, it does seem as if the daughter doesn’t need to know about the affair. In fact, I’d just as soon she didn’t come to visit her father while he was dying, at least not toward the end. A friend of the mother’s stopped calling too, which left her to deal with her dying husband without much of a support group. Which is why she had to find it online. Which is where she found her cyberlover.

If the daughter doesn’t know, though, I’m not sure how the mother will explain to the daughter why she’s taking off to meet the guy, but maybe the estrangement between the mother and daughter is such that no explanation is necessary. I’ll guess I’ll have to wait to see what happens when I finish the book.

Amanda, Amanda, Amanda

Since writing during this month is about word count, not producing a finished work, I haven’t spent a lot of time or thought on visuals to ground potential readers in the scene, I just jumped in with the character and started writing. During rewrites, I’ll go back and add the setting — it’s not a good idea to start every every scene with the character’s name (though many writers do it). Here are some of the sentences I temporarily used to open new scenes. Poor Amanda.

Amanda opened her husband’s closet and stared at his clothes, wondering if she’d ever be able to get rid of them.

Amanda pushed the grocery cart through the aisles, looking for foods that didn’t remind her of meals with David, but every time she reached for a can, bottle, or box, her stomach clenched. 

Amanda checked her emails.

Amanda went from eating nothing but yogurt to eating cookies, candy, cake, crackers, chips — anything she could grab and eat without cooking or having to sit at a table to dine.

Tired of crying, of holding the shattered pieces of herself together, Amanda hugged David’s robe-wrapped ashes one more time and climbed out of bed.

Amanda stared at her reflection in the mirror. The woman looked familiar, as if she had known her intimately long ago, but the woman seemed to have nothing to do with her todays.

Amanda felt her life, her love for David rewinding.

Amanda checked to make sure the box was empty.

Amanda woke to light seeping in from between the slats of the closed blinds.

Amanda wandered through the house, seeing not the shabby furniture, the shelves overloaded with books, the 20-inch out-of-date television, but the home she and David had created.

Frenzied with grief-induced adrenaline, Amanda yanked open the door to David’s closet and slammed his underwear into a garbage bag.

Don’t Mess With a Grieving Woman

This is an excerpt from my NaNoWriMo novel:

Amanda was fumbling in her purse for her keys when a voice said, with low-toned menace, “Give me your purse or I will kill you.”

She jerked her head up. Standing between her and her Corolla were two men who looked barely old enough to shave. One jiggled from foot to foot like a child who needed to go to the bathroom, but the other stood firm, his hands steady on a gun.

The scene didn’t seem quite real. Perhaps she’d wandered onto a movie set? She looked around. No cameras. Just the two men standing before her in broad daylight.

Was there such a thing as narrow daylight? She giggled at the thought. Then stopped abruptly. I really am going crazy.

“What’s with you, bitch?” screamed the man with the gun. “Gimme your purse or I’ll kill you.”

“Promise?” Amanda said, clasping her purse to her chest.

The jiggling man lifted his hands and pointed a finger at her like a gun. “Yeah, we’ll kill you, bitch.”

“Okay.” Amanda stared at them, hope blossoming in her chest. God provides, David had been fond of saying. Maybe God was providing a way out of her grief.

The hand with the gun began to waver.

“Do it, man,” yelled the jiggler.

“Yes, do it,” Amanda said softly.

“I’m out of here.” The gunman took off running.

The jiggler danced in place. “Where are you going?”

“She’s crazy. Or a cop.” The words floated back to them from between a pick-up and a mini-van.

The jiggler looked longingly at Amanda’s purse, hesitated, then trotted after his companion.