Monday, October 20, 2014

What I Learned From Newbie Writers


You can, it seems, teach an old dog new tricks. I don't mean the one above. That's my dog Bailey. She's as smart as a whip, but at fourteen, she's not about to let me balance a Wishbone on her nose. I am talking about myself here. Let me first stipulate that I am an "old dog" (way past AARP induction age and been published now since 1985). Yet I am definitely still learning new tricks.

This point was driven home to me recently when my sister Kelly and I were up in Michigan teaching a two-day fiction writing workshop at Saturn Booksellers. It was pretty intense and we worked our charges hard, giving them Powerpoints on the twin pillars of plot and character, and on the finer points of transitions, pacing, theme and voice, rewriting, and what "show vs tell" really means.

But we also forced them to actually write, giving them quick exercises on a host of topics. We would show them a photograph and give them the opening line. Then they had five minutes to write to the assignment.  I was surprised at the quality of the short pieces they produced. I think they were, too.

Almost all of them, they admitted, felt bogged down and somewhat defeated by their works in progress -- all for different reasons. But there was something liberating about doing those short-burst exercises that recharged their confidence and got their mental muscles moving again. (For some reason, this photo below, for the dialogue exercise, really inspired some great offbeat writing. Go figure!)

We also offered to critique the first ten pages of their manuscripts. There was some good stuff in their submissions and the mistakes tended to be the usual ones of craft that we here at The Kill Zone talk about all the time. But it was the big-picture issues that I found myself thinking about afterwards. Because even after ten years of teaching, after publishing twenty novels, a novella and a bunch of short stories, this old dog is still learning -- from my students.

Here are my top big picture points from our Michigan workshop.

Chose your entry point carefully


Where do you begin your story? This is, to my mind, maybe the most important choice we make as writers and one I struggled with mightily on my WIP. I changed my opening five times before I finally hit upon the right moment to begin my tale. It's like those astronauts in "Apollo 13": You come in too late you burn up. If you come in too shallow you skim off the atmosphere and fly off into space. Many folks pick a point too early and the reader gets bored waiting for something to happen. This is why prologues usually fail; it's just the writer clearing his throat or doing a backstory dump. Here's what agent Dan Lazar hates to see: "Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes and thinking, staring out the window and thinking, tying shoes, thinking.”  But if you come in too late, you create confusion for the reader aka "coming out of a coma syndrome." (ie where am I? Who is that? What the heck is going on?")

Things to consider when picking your entry point: Early on, tell us who the protag is and make us care about her. Create a conflict for the protag in the opening pages. Establish the stakes. And make the opening scene compelling enough that we must read on. But don't get too clever. Here's Dan Lazar again: "A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue.”

Don't try too hard


Nothing's more cringe-inducing than a writer who's swinging for the fences and whiffing. Whether it's lame humor, groddy sex scenes, overly didactic themes, ten-dollar vocabulary, or cutesy attempts to be different ("Look, Ma! No punctuation!"), writing that calls attention to itself is just...bad writing. Yes, we all admire inventive writing, but there's only one George Saunders. You are not him. Neither am I, alas. Remember what Nathaniel Hawthorne said: "Easy reading is damn hard writing." Just tell a compelling story about characters we care about. Get out of the way of your story. This is something, my friends, that I need to have tattooed on my forehead.

Read. Read. Read some more


Our students, who ranged from a 17-year-old writing vampire YA to a great-grandfather writing a WWII novel, were all pretty good on this account. But we stressed to them that they have to read with an analytical eye, dissecting how other writers spin their magic. I have gotten lazy on this account lately, telling myself that I just don't have time to read. But up in the Michigan woods, I read two terrific books -- Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz and The Blue Hour by T. Jefferson Parker. From Koontz I re-learned  the importance of rich characterization and how to handle an unreliable narrator. (Which I am grappling with). From Parker, I got a great lesson in how to handle dual protagonists. If you want to be a writer, you must first be a reader.

Don't be afraid



One of the hardest things for our students was exposing themselves and their writing. This is why we made them write in class and share. Fear is a common affliction among writers. I'm not immune; I'm afraid I don't have the chops to pull off my WIP story. For the yet-unpublished, the fears are more basic. They are afraid of scrutiny, criticism, ridicule, rejection -- you fill in the blank. I know folks who have slaved for years over their books (aka The Thing That Has Eaten Up Ten Years of my Life) who have never worked up the courage to show it to anyone. Yes, we get personal gratification from the process. But the purpose of writing is communication. You have to put it -- and yourself -- out there.

Make your story compel someone to say, "Wow, that's exactly how I feel." If you do that, well, then you can relax a little. Because you'll know then that you really are a writer. Peace out. Woof.



Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Art of Writing Great Back Copy

Congratulations! You finished your novel! You typed those two sweet words THE END. Right there on the bottom of  your Word doc is that magic line: Words: 96,788.

Okay, now the hard work begins. Now go back and write your book again – this time in 200 words.

Yes, I’m talking about back copy. I know. You don’t want to deal with it. It’s one of those tangential things like publicity, P&L statements, website algorhithms, or finding a good editor, that writers don’t want to think about but know they have to because that’s the way the book business is rolling these days. Writers have become one-man bands. We do it all or we die.

I can hear some of you out there saying, “I can skip this one today.” But you can’t really. Because being able to articulate what your book is about in 200 words or less is really valuable. Why? Here's five reasons:

  1. If you are self-publishing with Amazon, you have to write your own back copy.
  2. If you are querying agents, you have to have compose a great hook for your book
  3. If you are going to a conference and meeting an agent, you have to be able to give a 30-second elevator pitch.
  4. If you’re doing a speech or a signing, you need to articulate what your book's about in two or three sentences.
  5. And maybe most important: Being able to boil your story down to its very essence is a great exercise unto itself, one that will help you understand what, in your heart, you are really trying to communicate. 

Both of my traditional publishers, Kensington and Pocket, let us edit our back copy and a couple times we even wrote it. And we write all the descriptions that appear with our self-published backlist titles on Amazon.  I've written my share of query letters. I had an unnerving 10-minute pitch session with an editor from Harpers at a writer’s conference. And I've sat at card tables in malls trying to talk people into buying my books when all they really want is directions to the Piercing Pagoda.

I’m actually not bad at boiling down a story. I think it is because I made my living for years as a newspaper copy editor and once you get the hang of writing headlines that can be grasped by a guy driving by a newspaper box at 40 miles an hour, well, having 200 words to sum up a whole book doesn’t seem that hard.

But I know it actually is. One of the hardest things to do is to write with both brevity and verve.  As a reporter, I was always way over in my word count and my editor never bought into the Mark Twain quote that I would have written shorter if I had more time. So whenever I see back copy done well, I appreciate the care that goes into. Here’s two off my bookshelf that I really like:
A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones and when the snow falls it is gray. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food – and each other.
   * * *
More than a year ago, mild-mannered Jason Getty killed a man he wished he’d never met. Then he planted the problem a little too close to home. But just as he’s learning to live with the reality of what he’s done, police unearth two bodies on his property – neither of which is the one Jason buried. 
The first is from Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It's good because it captures not just the plot but also mimics style and mood of the novel. The second is from Jamie Mason's Three Graves Full. I like it because it is short and very seductive.

On the flip side, I see a lot of bad back copy out there these days. In the New York Times book review today, I saw an ad for a print-on-demand publisher touting its books with the headline: UNFORGETTABLE STORIES. Here are some sample descriptions:
In the summer of 1863, an eighteen-year-old Amish farm boy feels trapped between his religious heritage and his fascination with the world outside his small Pennsylvania town. His solution is to leave home. And so begins his unforgettable adventure that will change his life forever.
[Title redacted] is a highly engrossing work of fiction, set in the north of England, extrapolated from the realities of the world of front line regional newspaper reporters and the sort of situations they they on a daily basis.
Abused and mistreated, Jane grew up in the field of restraints which she calls a prison. And she hopes there is still an ounce of sanity left in her which leaves her with the choice of breaking away from the [title redacted].
[Title redacted] is author [redacted] new novel that looks into the lives of the people who survived the 1998 Nairobi bombings and how they struggle to cope with the pain and loss.
[Name redacted] returns from the war minus a a leg and discovers that his wife has left him and his engineering business has shut down. Forced to re-invent his life, he and his family battle to overcome war's damage.  
Now, these could be very good novels. But from the blurbs, there is no way to know. None of these entice readers or capture the tone or mood of the books. They are wordy ("feels trapped"), filled with cliches ("unforgettable adventure") , vague on plot points, filled with generalities ("struggle to cope"), confusing, and devoid of any hint of conflict or suspense.

Writing great back copy is a fine art. It's nearest kin might be advertising copy in that its form is short and specialized, and its purpose is to seduce, tease, and make us buy into something. It's no accident that some pretty good novelists emerged from the advertising industry --  Don DeLillo, Fay Weldon,  Joseph Heller.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote streetcar sign slogans for $35 a week. Dorothy Sayers made a name for herself writing a mustard slogan before she got hot with crime novels. Salman Rushdie, who wrote ad copy while trying to finish his first novel, recalls taking a test for the J. Walter Thompson agency where, "they asked you to imagine that you met a Martian who mysteriously spoke English and you had to explain to them in less than 100 words how to make toast." And then there was that guy who started out as a junior copywriter at  J. Walter Thompson, rose to CEO, and turned his ad experience into James Patterson Inc.

So what's the secret? Our own Jodie Renner and James Bell laid out some great tips in a post here last year. CLICK HERE to read it.  And if you want some really helpful tips from a real agent on how to write good query letter hooks, CLICK HERE to go to the Miss Snark archives. But I'd also like to offer up some of my own tips, if I may.

Don't give a plot regurgitation. Give just enough story to hook the reader's interest while you also hint at the larger picture behind the book. Here's a great tease:
From a helicopter high above the California desert, a man is sent free-falling into the night . . . and Jack Reacher is plunged into the heart of a conspiracy that is killing old friends.

Reacher has no phone, no address, no ties. But a woman from his former military unit has found him using a signal only the eight members of their elite team would know. Then she tells him about the brutal death of one of their own. Soon they learn of the sudden disappearance of two other comrades. But Reacher won’t give up—because in a world of bad luck and trouble, when someone targets Jack Reacher and his team, they’d better be ready for what comes right back at them.
Know your audience. Make sure the tone is right. Hit the high notes of your genre or the genre’s tropes. Romance or romantic suspense tends to stress the characters and relationships over plot. Thrillers tend toward the opposite. Just like your cover, you have to convey the exact mood of your story. Use language that appeals to the reader’s emotions. You won't mistake Elaine Viet's Shop Til You Drop for Lee Child:
Once on the fast track to success, Helen Hawthorne is going nowhere fast. Forced to trade in her chic life for a shabby one, she's now on the run trying to stay one step ahead of her past. After two weeks as a new clerk at Juliana's, Fort Lauderdale's exclusive boutique, Helen still feels out of fashion. But in a shop where the customer's collagen lips are bigger than their hips, who wouldn't...
Start with a great headline. If you’re having trouble coming up with the perfect headline, write the body copy first. Later, go back and read what you wrote as if you were a consumer seeing it for the first time. Somewhere, buried in all that copy, you will find your headline. Here's a sample you can find in our special Kill Zone Zone 99-cent Amazon offering Thrill Ride:
A KILLING SPREE. A MISSING BOY
A PLACE WHERE ONLY THE STRONGEST SURVIVE
A deep freeze is bearing down on the Florida Everglades, the kind of brutal storm the locals call a killing rain. For Detective Louis Kincaid, the coldest night of the year has brought a terrifying new chill -- a grisly murder that tightens his every nerve in warning. This is no routine case. It's the start of a nightmare.
Watch how it looks on the page. Is it too long? Are the sentences too long and hard to digest in one quick reading? Did you break it into paragraphs, if needed? Think about the best advertising copy you see. The block of copy must register in the eye as a fast read.

Tell us who your hero is and where we are. It's a good idea to work in your protag’s name, profession, and the location(s) of your story. Readers want to be able to tell at a glance if the protag is male or female, what kind of person it is, and where you are going to take them. Geography is important to many readers. Here's some effective copy from a Steve Hamilton book that does all this and gives us a little backstory:
Alex McKnight swore to serve and protect Detroit as a police officer, but a trip to Motown these days is a trip to a past he’d just as soon forget. The city will forever remind him of his partner’s death and of the bullet still lodged in his own chest. Then he gets a call from his old sergeant. A young man Alex helped put away—in the one big case that marked the high point of his career—will be getting out of prison. When the sergeant invites Alex to have a drink for old times’ sake, it’s an offer he would normally refuse. However, there’s a certain female FBI agent he can’t stop thinking about, so he gets in his truck and he goes back to Detroit.
Don’t give away too much. Good copy writing is a seduction. The back copy should make the reader want more. Think foreplay. One good tip is to pick a spot in the your plot, usually a quarter or a third of the way in, and don’t include anything that happens after that point.
TV reporter Candy Sloan has eyes the color of cornflowers and legs that stretch all the way to heaven. She also has somebody threatening to rearrange her lovely face if she keeps on snooping into charges of Hollywood racketeering. Spenser’s job is to keep Candy healthy until she breaks the biggest story of her career. But her star witness has just bowed out with three bullets in his chest, two tough guys have doubled up to test Spenser’s skill with his fists, and Candy is about to use her own sweet body as live bait in a deadly romantic game – a game that may cost Spenser his life.
Avoid passive voice and weasel words, clich√©s, twenty-dollar vocabulary. Don’t use big hard to grasp words. Again, back copy is like good advertising copy: It appeals to the senses and emotions. You can pile on the details and pretty writing inside the covers.

Hint at what’s at stake. Go back and read the bad examples I listed above. Each of them has the same core problem: There is no defining of the central conflict or what the stakes are. This is a complaint I hear often from agents about query letters. A successful hook in a good query letter works much the same way as back copy does -- it makes the agent want to know more -- NOT about plot points but what this all means for the protagonist.

End with a question.  We see this device a lot in back copy but for good reason. It works. It creates suspense.  (“What will John do when he discovers Jane's deception?”) It hints at future complications (“When their investigation leads them to a city hall conspiracy, can their love stand the test?") It sets up possible suspects, like in this back copy:
On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?
Go for the Big But. This  is a cliche construction in back copy writing, but hey, it works. First you set up a scenario of normality for your protagonist then you use a conjunction bridge to a new development in that person's life (ie a crime) that has sent them on a new course. Go back and look for all the BUTS I have highlighted in blue and you'll see how common this is. Here's a sample from John Creasey's Parson With a Punch:
The Reverend Ronald Kemp came to the East End of London with definite ideas of right and wrong, which was only fitting for a minister of God. But the people of the East End had a few ideas of their own and the Rev. Kemp quickly finds his world torn asunder...
From Michele Gagnon's Bone Yard:
FBI agent Kelly Jones has worked on many disturbing cases in her career, but nothing like this. A mass grave site unearthed on the Appalachian Trail puts Kelly at the head of an investigation that crosses the line...Assisted by law enforcement from two states, Kelly searches for the killers. But as darkness falls, another victim is taken and Kelly must race to save him before he joins the rest...in the boneyard.
From Michael Connelly:
Mickey Haller gets the text, "Call me ASAP - 187," and the California penal code for murder immediately gets his attention. Murder cases have the highest stakes and the biggest paydays, and they always mean Haller has to be at the top of his game. But when Mickey learns that the victim was his own former client, a prostitute he thought he had rescued and put on the straight and narrow path, he knows he is on the hook for this one.
Hyperbole? Heck, why not? It's not uncommon for back copy prose to get a little purple, especially in crime fiction. We see a lot of this kind of stuff: "Time is running out..."  "As the nightmare increases..." "Even as danger mounts..."the shocking truth is revealed." You can use this -- but in small doses, please. Readers will turn on you if they sense you're just throwing a bunch of adjectives at them like "dazzling" or "breathtaking." CLICK HERE to read a bookseller's take on how hyperventilating blurbs turn readers off.  And if you're writing humor, please be careful tossing around stuff like "hilarious" and "side-splitting."

Here's back copy for Sherrilyn Kenyon that's corny as all get out but hey, it works for me:
He is solitude. He is darkness. He is the ruler of the night. Yet Kyrian of Thrace has just woken up handcuffed to his worst nightmare: An accountant. Worse, she's being hunted by one of the most lethal vampires out there. And if Amanda Devereaux goes down, then he does too. But it's not just their lives that are hanging in the balance.  Kyrian and Amanda are all that stands between humanity and oblivion. Let's hope they win.
A few final things to consider as you put together your back copy:

  • When you’re done, read your blurb out loud.  
  • Prune out all unnecessary words. See if you can cut out 30 percent.
  • Go into Amazon and read some blurbs in your genre for good books. Read the backs of paperbacks. Mimic the ones that work. 
  • Run your blurbs by beta readers and see if they salute.
Whew. Long post today. Sorry about that. I would have written shorter if I had had more time.



Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ten Things I Know Now
That I Wish I Had Known Then

It is easy to be wise after the event.”
-- Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes

I realized the other day I am celebrating a landmark anniversary this month. It was thirteen years ago that I signed my first contract for my first Louis Kincaid novel. Also, I am now working on the thirteenth Louis book. I don't know whether this is an occasion for superstition, pride or terror.

But it got me thinking that it's a good time to look backwards. Because over these many years -- working with two New York publishers, at least ten editors and two agents; getting dropped by a publisher, starting over by switching from romance to crime; publishing original books and backlist titles on Amazon; chairing writers conferences, being on Bouchercon panels and being ignored at signings; giving keynote speeches, mentoring newbies and cracking bestseller lists -- after all this, I might have a few words of semi-wisdom to toss out there.

So here are the Ten Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Getting Started in the Writing Business. Oh, and I've includes some contributions from some author friends.

1. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Way back when, I thought success was going to come fast and easy. Now, you have to understand that my naivete arose from the era -- I got my start back in the early '80s when an editor at Ballantine plucked my first romance manuscript from the slush pile. You can't get a toe in the door that way these days. But it came so easy I thought everything after that would. I didn't understand until I got knocked around for four hard years that publishing is a very tough business and that you have to have stamina, faith, a gold-plated work ethic and the hide of a rhino to succeed.

2. No one wants a one-trick pony. I didn't educate myself going in on how agents and editors worked (we didn't have The Google then) so I didn't understand that agents and editors want writers who are looking to build careers. Let's say you catch an agent's eye with your manuscript. You know what the first question out of the agent's mouth will be?: "So what else do you have?" The second question: "Could you make this a series?" And the third: "Can you get it to me in four months?"

3. You have no control over what your publisher will do for your book and they probably won't do much at all. Boy, this was a toughie. It was true thirteen years ago and it's even truer now. I didn't know squat about the business side of publishing when I started out. I found out, through some embarrassing moments, that: Where your book is shelved at B&N has nothing to do with its quality; that your publisher pays to put your paperback in the No. 7 Bestseller spot at the drugstore; that the New York Times bestseller list is not based on actual sales...etc. etc. I'm still coming to grips with the fact that you have to be a business person and take charge of your "products."

4. You have to handle yourself well in public. This goes hand-in-hand with no. 3. Even though the days of big tours and promotion are over, you will still have to occasionally leave the Writer Cave and go out and mingle with the public. You will do signings, give speeches, be on panels, chat up other writers, meet agents and editors at conferences. If you are shy, you are doomed. Sorry, but it's the hard cold truth. Most writers are natural introverts so I know how hard this is. A good friend of mine would literally start to shake whenever she had to be on a panel. Over the years, however, she has worked hard on public speaking and now she delivers confident one-woman workshops on self-publishing. My sister Kelly has also worked hard to overcome this and now she's a terrific teacher. Even if you do nothing but bookstore signings, you still have to go for it. I learned this lesson early from a kind manager at a Barnes and Noble who saw me sitting pitifully behind my stack of books and advised me to stand out, hold out my book, and actively engage people as they passed by the table.

 5. Keep good notes, chronologies, timelines, dossiers. This is crucial if you are writing a series but you need to do it for any novel. If you don't write things down, you will lose valuable time looking up stuff about your characters or plot. I have an old-fashioned loose-leaf binder in which I record vital stats for every character in every book. (And don't think that cameo might not come back in a future book!) Here's my friend SJ Rozan on the subject:
I wish I'd kept better notes.  I have an eleven-book series that I keep leaving and coming back to, two standalones, and, as Sam Cabot, two paranormals in a new series.  That's a total of fifteen books.  Plus about three dozen short stories.  That means I've written about a million and a half words.  It didn't occur to me twenty years ago when I wrote the first book that I might lose track of, say, the names of Lydia Chin's brothers' wives.  In fact I think I might have felt it was overweening, for me to think anything I did was important enough to keep notes on.  Now I find myself rooting through my own work like a squirrel looking for nuts.

6. Don't try to go it alone. You must network. You must find support. And not just from family but from like-minded writer souls. You need to share with others your problems about writers block, your despair over rejection, your happiness when something good happens. You need to know that your problems are not unique and that they can be overcome. I didn't learn this until oh, about book three, when I finally started going to writers conferences. I could have learned so much from other writers! Here's my friend Sharon Potts talking:
I had assumed when I started my first novel that writing was a solitary process and I spent my first year locked away in my garret drinking cheap wine and smoking Gauloises. Just kidding--the wine was expensive and I didn't smoke. Then I discovered Mystery Writers of America and it was a real eye-opener. It was like dropping into a cabal where I was offered the secrets to getting published. But even better than that, by attending workshops and conferences, I learned how to improve my own writing and made friends who were instrumental in my success.  I don't regret the wine, but I sure wish I'd joined MWA sooner.
7. You must read. Not just for pleasure (although that is fine!) but with a cold analytical eye toward how other writers spin their magic. Read widely in your genre, but also outside it because that can make you braver.  Read some bad books, too. You can learn from them and it can boost your confidence. But it's better to read really great stuff that makes you want to stretch your own writer wings. Here's my critique group buddy Neil Plakcy on this subject:

One of the most valuable things I learned in graduate school was to read like a writer — to be analytical about things like chapter length, pacing, cliffhangers, the balance between narrative and action, and so on. That when I see something I admire in another writer, I should analyze it to see how the effect was accomplished. I wish I’d learned that back in college, when I first studied creative writing.

8. Your publisher is not your friend. This sounds bitter but I don't mean it to be. But I didn't understand this at first. And even though writers today are smarter, I think many are a little naive, believing that once they sign a contract they will be "taking care of."  The fact is, publishers want to make money. If you can help them do that, you will have a fine and fruitful relationship. But if circumstances are such that your book does not sell sufficiently, you can be dropped. It has nothing to do with you personally. It may not have anything to do with the quality of your book. Publishing is a business. A business that is now challenged by market forces and going through a wild state of flux. Yes, you can have a good relationship with an editor. But if you want a friend, get a dog.

9. Your worst character traits will be amplified. It's been said that when you get old, you become yourself but even more so. This is true of writers as well. Something happens to otherwise normal folks when they enter the creative fugue state of novel-writing. Maybe it's because, unlike other jobs, we have no easy ways to gauge our success -- no weekly paychecks, no performance reviews, no boss breathing down our necks. Writing is faith-based and lonely. So it tends to magnify whatever is strong -- or weak -- within us. Are you a procrastinator? Ha! Wait until you paint yourself into that plot corner. Are you a conflict-avoider? Well, being at the mercy of a publishing house is going to drive you nuts. Are you a tangled yarn-ball of self-doubt? That first bad Amazon review is going to have you in tears. Are you full of yourself? You will get a quick rep for being a panel-hog at writers conferences and no one will sit next to you at the bar.  Learn where your fault lines are and work with them. Or get a good shrink.

10. You won't get rich. This is a true story: Back in 1982, I read an article in Money magazine about housewives who were making tons of money writing Harlequin romances. (I swear I am not making this up but I think Money magazine was).  I told my husband I was going to write a romance so I could quit my job and we could get rich. I wrote a novel called The Dancer and it got published out of the slush pile (see no. 1). My advance was $2500. I never made any royalties. I didn't get to quit my day job. We didn't get rich. But it did launch my career and though my original motive was shallow and stupid, I did come to realize I wanted to actually be a serious writer. I can't say I still didn't think about getting rich but I found out money wasn't what motivated me. I discovered that writing was the one thing I really wanted to do, and that I had to give it my heart and soul. And after thirteen years, I can look back now and say that wasn't such a bad lesson.

Hey, the mail just came, and guess what? I got a royalty check from Japan! It's for $15.66. That's a decent bottle of Pinot. In honor of my windfall, I will let my old friend Rod Stewart have the last word . Take it, Rodney!

I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger.
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Listening to Your Characters


"I hear voices in my head, and if I remember correctly, I always did." -- Stephen King

So I’ve got my protagonist Clay Buchanan at a critical point in the story. He’s just done something awful, faced his “mirror moment” as James Bell calls it. And now he’s sitting in a dive bar, two sheets to the wind, thinking about what has brought him to this crisis.

My fingers are poised over the keys, waiting...

Waiting for him to tell me what is on his mind.

((((Silence))))

Clay? You there, buddy?

(((Cickets)))

Dude, I really need you to talk to me.

(((Goin’ dark)))

Oh man, is there anything worse than characters who won’t talk to you? It doesn’t often happen to me but when it does, it brings my writing momentum to a screeching halt. It is something I can’t just “write through” and hope I can go back and fix it later. Because when a character refuses to reveal himself to me, refuses to let me inside to hear his thoughts, I lose the heartbeat of my story.

Most writers, I think, hear voices in their heads. Yes, we visualize our stories, seeing the action unreeling in our heads like movies. But we also hear the speech and thoughts of our characters, as if we are mere conduits for voices that seem to have lives of their own. Writing is, after all, just "a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia,” according to E.L. Doctorow.

Hearing voices is on my mind of late not just because of my recalcitrant character Clay. But also because I read about a fascinating project called Hearing The Voice. As part of medical project on auditory hallucinations at Durham University in the UK, researchers are surveying novelists about how they experience their character's voices. They've gathered info from more than 100 authors, including Hilary Mantel, Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens.

And here you thought you were the only "loony" one.

The questions are intriguing: What does inner voice actually "sound" like? What is like to hear your characters or subjects out loud? What do writers do when they can no longer "tune in" to their inner voice? (Hello? Anyone want to interview me?)

Here are some interesting findings:

  • Writers tend to "experience their primary and secondary characters differently.  They have a sense of "inhabiting the interior life" of their protagonist and of looking out at the world through their eyes. But they report that secondary characters tend to be experienced visually.

  • Many writers are unable to "see" the faces of their protagonists. The main character often registers as a blank – or, in one case, pixelated like a censored photograph.

  • Writers' engagement with their inner voice, and the role it plays within the literary-creative process, changes radically over the course of their careers. Early on, they report little separation between their own thoughts and those of characters. Over time, however, writers report that the inner voice becomes more complex, taking on echoes of other voices harvested from life and literature.

I am not talking about "the writer's voice." That is your style, the quality that makes your writing unique to you. It conveys your attitude, personality, and way of looking at the world. I’m talking about your character’s voice. This is the speech and thought patterns of your narrator and others who orbit around him or her. Each character you bring alive on the page must have her own distinct voice. It is one of most vital – and maybe difficult – elements of great fiction. No two characters should sound alike.

You make your characters's voices come alive on the page two ways: through dialogue and through thoughts (sometimes called interior monologue). No two people talk (to others or themselves) the same way. Every person has his own distinct vocabulary, rhythm, dialects and tone. Other things that make voice unique: age, geography, intellect, education level, and -- yes, I'm going there -- gender.

A teenage girl living in the farm town of Morning Sun, Iowa, is not going to sound the same as a elderly Creole dockworker from New Orleans. A British solider in World War I is not going to sound the same as an American Vietnam vet.  If they do, well, you the writer are not listening.

I'm reading a terrific book by Thomas Cook called Sandrine's Case. (It was an Edgar best novel nominee last year but Cook's stuff is always good. His characters live on after you close the book). Here's one dialogue snippet:
“Worked up?” I offered a vaguely contemptuous snort. “I feel like Meursault in The Stranger.”
“Be sure you mention that to the press, or better yet, the jury. I’m sure they’re all great fans of postwar existential French literature.”
Which one is the supercilious college professor and which is the lawyer whose wife sends him to work with tuna sandwiches in bags? And here's another:
“My grandfather would have shot you with one of the dueling pistols I still have,” he said. “But I fear I lack the courage required to defend my honor.”
This is another professor but in the legato rhythm, ripe vocabulary, and fey tone, Cook has conveyed volumes about this man's background (genteel Southern) and personality (timid cuckold).

Here's another example, this time from one of my favorite movie scripts:
Crash Davis: After 12 years in the minor leagues, I don't try out. Besides, uh, I don't believe in quantum physics when it comes to matters of the heart.
Annie Savoy: What do you believe in, then?
Crash Davis: Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. [pauses then winks and walks away]
Annie Savoy: Oh my. Crash...
Nuke LaLoosh: Hey, Annie, what's all this molecule stuff?
In this exchange, we find out all we need to know about the intellectual level of these two baseball players.

Maybe we should also take a quick look at the mechanics of how we convey character's voices. Dialogue mechanics are pretty straightforward. But I find some inexperienced writers have trouble with interior monologues. Maybe it's because dialogue is SHOWING, but to convey a character's thoughts, you must move into narrative mode, which technically is TELLING. And many writers believe that will slow things down too much. I disagree. A good interior monologue  gives the reader a window into a character's soul. Yes, you can convey what a character is thinking or feeling through speech, facial expressions and movement. But sometimes readers also need to "hear" what is in their heads and hearts. It cements the emotional bond.

Interior monologues can be short or long. Short ones are one- or two-sentence thoughts inserted into an action scene or dialogue. Long interior monologues can go on for paragraphs or pages and because they slow the pace, you have to be careful where you put them.

Another mechanical consideration: Do you use "I thought" or "he thought" or do you simply signpost a thought with italics? I like to use both. Here's a sample from my WIP, the thoughts of my stubborn character Clay:
YOLO. It was a dumb name for a restaurant, he thought. But then when he glanced at the matches he had snagged from the hostess he saw that it stood for You Only Live Once.
He ordered a Martin Mills bourbon. Hundred bucks a shot, but he wasn’t paying. He took a sip, closing his eyes in pleasure at the caramel taste.
Carpe diem, baby.
I used both techniques in the same interior monologue. Why? Clay's thoughts about the restaurant are illuminating but sort of mundane, so I think "he thought" is sufficient. But by setting the "carpe diem, baby" off in itals, I am trying to say something unique about Clay's rather louche personality. It's a grace note, a kicker, an extra beat. If you use this, I recommend you set it off on its own line. And use it only for special moments or emotion, humor or info. By all means, write:

Oh God, what have I done? 
But never:
I think I’ll have egg salad for lunch.

Some moments call for you the writer to directly “speak” what is on the character’s mind. I call this intimate interior narrator. You don’t use itals or attribution but when well rendered, the reader feels a psychic connection with the character.
Alex stared at the back of Buchanan’s head, a spasm of disgust moving through him, like that time that rapist had reached through the bars of the Tallahassee jail and grabbed his arm, grinning and saying he had never touched that little girl. Alex had gotten the man off. Two months later, he quit his public defender job and signed on with a small Orlando firm specializing in corporate law. It wasn’t only for the money. He just wanted to feel clean.
   
Even though this is me, the writer, in narrative mode, I am deep within my character's psyche as he has a key memory, hence the slightly run-on stream-of-consciousness rhythm. If I were in an action scene, however, the rhythm would be staccato and tense.

And speaking of my characters, Clay decided about a half-hour ago that he was going to start talking to me again. Originally, I  had thought his mirror-moment had left him depressed. Then I thought it had left him angry. Well, I realized it was neither. I was confused about his motivation and well, I wasn't really listening to him.

Now I can't shut him up. So if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to chapter 22 before he decides to clam up again.

 Carpe diem, baby.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Where Are All the Good Old Tear Jerkers?

Have you ever cried reading a novel?

No, I don't mean your first draft. I mean, has someone's work moved you to such a point that you shed real tears? Movies...that's easy. We all have our favorite cinematic tear-jerkers. Here's just a few of mine:

Breakfast At Tiffany's: Holly searches for Cat in the rain.
Roman Holiday: The Princess and the pauper Peck. Hopeless love.
The Vikings: Kirk Douglas gets his Viking funeral.
Field of Dreams: Costner plays catch with his father's ghost.
Sophie's Choice: Stingo reciting Dickinson over the death bed.
Spartacus: "Please die, my love... die, die now my darling!"
The Incredible Journey: Yes, even the old dog makes it home.

But the number of books that have made me cry I can maybe count on one hand. I cried when Jack the dog, reaching old age, had to be put down by Pa in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Books. I cried when Charlotte the spider died (but her babies lived on!) I remember reading Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club on a plane and when I got to the scene where the mother explains why she abandoned her babies by the side of the road, I had to go hide in the bathroom and compose myself.

Are novelists more leery of the "cheap" reaction of tears? I think that is certainly true in crime fiction today. It is rare to find a novel, in these days of neo-noir aping and dick-lit posturing, that appeals to the emotions. We deal with the themes of death and loss all the time. We describe blood and guts with clinical accuracy. Why do we pull our punches when it comes to showing the emotional outfall of death?

I don't believe it is just because movies are visual. What is more powerful than the blank screens of our own imaginations? I think it might be because today's crime writers are leery of being labeled as soft when we go into matters of the heart. But to my mind, something very special happens when crime writers decide to write in a minor key.

Time out! Quick music lesson here. There are basically two ways you can compose something -- in major and minor keys. And they sound distinctly different. In the western musical tradition, major-key music is played at times of celebration (think of Mendelssohn's Wedding March or Happy Birthday), and fun times (Celebration by Kool And The Gang). Minor-key music is used to mark mourning (Chopin's Funeral March), heartache (Back To Black by Amy Winehouse) and despair (Gloomy Sunday by Billie Holiday).

That memorable score to The Godfather, the one that captures the despair, bloody history, horror and complicated family love? It was written in C Minor. Now here is how it sounds when rewritten in a MAJOR key (Listen to just a couple seconds and you'll be shocked.)

I'll make him an offer that he...aw heck, on second thought, buy the old man a new horsey. ((Sunshine, lollipops and tommyguns every day...)))

Excepting many cozies, the tone of most crime fiction is minor key. (Although I find it interesting that the haunting theme for Dennis Lehane's dark classic Mystic River is in C Major. Maybe because director Clint Eastwood wanted to go against grain and convey majesty and hope?) If you want to continue the music analogy, even romantic suspense doesn't shy away from a darker feel at times. Yet I have found few crime novels that had me reaching for the Kleenex, that elicited from me a genuinely earned emotional response. Here are a couple:

Silent Joe by T. Jefferson Parker. The hero, a victim of child abuse, hunts for a kidnapper but every path leads him right back to uncovering the secrets of his own childhood. Sparse as a haiku but powerful and haunting.

Sandrine's Case by Thomas H. Cook. Beautifully written like all his works but what starts out as a mundane murder trial with a semi-repulsive protag becomes a wonderfully humane love story. Think Gone Girl with a heart.

Lisey's Story by Stephen King. Not technically a crime novel but I'm including it anyway here. It took me a while to get into this book, which slides back and forth between the real and woo-woo worlds as it tells the story of a wife coping with the aftermath of her writer-husband's death. It is slow-building but powerful magic, King writing in B minor, about gently accepting one's fate.

A pretty short list.

I had a conversation with a high-placed editor at a New York cocktail party last year. She told me she has noticed two trends in crime fiction recently: the decline of hard-boiled "guy books." And the continued strength of romantic suspense. Now, let's not kid ourselves. There is some terrific hard-boiled stuff being written right now, books that don't turn up their noses at emotions. Likewise, there is some utterly putrid romance suspense on the shelves these days, stuff that gets everything about police procedure and forensics wrong and gets really treacly about the romance part. But where are the crime novels that hit you in the heart?

Maybe I am wrong. Or just reading the wrong stuff. What has gotten to you? What has made you cry? Movies are easy. But give me some books as well.

Or am I wrong in my belief that there is still room for well-wrought (as opposed to over-wrought) emotion in today's crime fiction?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Riding Out the Rough Spots


This has been the week from hell. I don’t know what else can go wrong. Here’s what has happened so far:

I hit the wrong button and deleted chapter sixteen and had to recreate it from memory.

I got to chapter eighteen and realized a scene I had written back in chapter five, which I was certain was absolutely brilliant, now makes no sense and I have to cut it.

My plot timeline is out of whack and I have lost three days somewhere, sort of like Ray Milland in Lost Weekend but without the gin anesthesia.

I did a virus scan and it came up with 778 “issues” but apparently none of them are fixable unless I cough up $69.99 for the Super Anti-Spyware Deluxe Version.

I tried to vacuum my crumb-ridden keyboard and sucked up the 4 and + keys.

I really need a vacation. The kind of vacation where I can get away from everything, including my WIP aka The Thing That Is Devouring My Soul. We all get to this point at times, right? (If you don’t, I don’t want to hear about it today, okay?) We get discouraged, disoriented in plot hell, doubtful of our talent, and desperate to just get the damn thing finished.

This is the nature of writing. It isn’t always sunshine, lollipops, rainbows, and brighter than a lucky penny. Often, very often, it is long slow slog where the words come hard and the joy comes even harder. This is where I am this week.
 
But here’s the thing: When you’re in a trough, like I am right now, you need to remember that it’s temporary. You need to know that if you just ride it out, you will end up on a crest again where you can survey the wider sea and regain your bearings. I need to be reminded of this every so often. We all do. So I made myself a list. It’s a list of the things I really love about this whacked out business. If you have something you’d like to add, please share.

TWELVE COOL THINGS ABOUT BEING A WRITER

You can drink on the job and no one makes you pee in a bottle.
You can write off trips to New York.
You don't have to wear a bra at work.
You get to kill people you hate and not go to prison.
You can have mind-blowing sex with whoever you want and not worry about rubbers, disease or your spouse leaving you.
You get to read fan letters (I answer every one I get and save them forever like old love letters.)
You get to be in the Library of Congress. (In 1983, I went there and asked for the librarian to bring me a copy of my paperback romance. She did. Quite humbling.)
You get to walk into a tiny bookstore in Moose-Butt Maine and see your book on the shelf. And then find out the old lady behind the counter has read your entire oeuvre and remembers each character better than you do.
You get to live inside your head for days, weeks, months, at a time and not get carted away in a white jacket.
You get to find a note taped to your bathroom mirror from your spouse or kid saying, "I'm proud of you."
You get to do something that gives others pleasure.
You get to do something that gives you joy.
Thanks for listening. I feel better now. Hit it, Lesley!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Kids and the Writing Life


“When people say they don't have time to write with small children, well, for me it was the opposite. I didn't write anything before I had them. They gave me that.” —Toni Morrison

I don’t have kids. Would I be a better writer if I did?

Let’s leave that one for you shrinks out there for the moment. I have my own ideas about it, which I will answer at the end. Normally, a topic this personal wouldn’t even be on my writer radar; you guys know I prefer stomping around in the weeds of craft. But I read an interesting blog over the weekend by the novelist Lev Grossman called “Fatherhood Ruined My Life Plan – And Made Me The Writer I Am.” Here’s the money quote:

 When I came back to my book, after Lily was born, I saw it for what it was: cold, dull, lifeless, massively overthought – a labyrinth with no minotaur inside. I told myself I was just taking a break from it, but the truth was I binned it and started something new. I picked up an idea I’d had years before but hadn’t taken seriously at the time, because it was fresh and weird and risky and different from anything I’d ever tried before. Six months after Lily was born, I took a week off from work to explore it, and I wound up writing 25,000 words in five days. I’d hit an artery, and the story came surging out hot and strong. Not only was it the most productive week I’d ever had, I enjoyed it more than I’d enjoyed doing anything for literally years. I was more proud of it than anything I’d done in my entire life.
Something was afoot. I was waking up. Somewhere inside me the emotional pack ice was cracking and melting, ice that had formed long ago in the Fimbulwinter of my childhood, and feelings that I’d been avoiding for decades were thawing out and leaking through, both good and bad: joy, grief, anger, hope, longing. I was like some frozen extrasolar planet, where even gases exist only in neat, handy solid forms. But now I was warming up, and buried things were surfacing.
Interesting stuff. And it poses a question for writers. But not the obvious one about how do you find the time and energy to write when you have kids? But rather:  How do life experiences mold our fiction? Grossman's essay is part of a book called When I First Held You: 22 Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. In it, writers such as Dennis Lehane, Rick Moody and Justin Cronin talk about the transforming power of parenthood. To be honest, most of it is of the pedestrian "you can't be cool with drool on your jacket" variety. But there is the occasional insight about the writing life.

What interests me most about this topic is the deeper question that Grossman is getting at: What are the primal forces that make us open a vein and bleed our emotions onto the page?

I used to work in the newspaper business. Every reporter and editor I knew either wanted to write a novel or already had tried to.  After I got published, I read quite a few manuscripts as favors to friends. For the most part, they weren't bad. But something was always missing. For a long time I couldn't figure out what it was then it hit me: The writers were not willing to expose themselves emotionally on the page. Journalism trains you to be detached and impartial. And you can't be that way with fiction. Unless you are willing to crawl inside another person's head and heart -- and muck about in all the messiness, gore, grief and passion that is there -- you can't make characters come alive on the page.

For some, becoming a parent might be the catalyst to make this happen. Years ago, I read an essay by Michael Connelly in which he said that having a daughter made him a better writer. (Sorry, I can't find it). It also changed his character Harry Bosch. Nine books into the series, in Lost Light, Connelly gave Bosch a daughter he didn't know about: Here's Connelly on the why:

Up until Bosch became a father, I had been creating a character who viewed himself as being on a mission. He was someone who was skilled enough and tough enough to go into the abyss and seek out human evil. To carry out this mission, he knew he had to be relentless and bulletproof. By bulletproof, I mean he had to be invulnerable. Nobody could get to him. It was the only way to be relentless. And this idea or belief bled into all aspects of his life. He lived alone, had no friends, and didn’t even know his neighbors. He built a solitary life so that no one could get to him. All that suddenly changed in one moment (one page) when he locked eyes with his daughter in Lost Light. Harry suddenly knew he could be gotten to.
Did having kids (fictional and real) make Connelly a more humane writer? I don't know. It made him a different one at least.

I might be wrong about this (and I hope you all will weigh in), but I think this question is different for women writers. I think women look at the effects of children on their creative life more practically. Some claim it forces discipline. P.D. James, mother of two, got up at 5 a.m. every morning to find time to write. The novelist Candia McWilliam once said, “Every baby costs four books.”  I asked my sister and co-author Kelly if having kids (she has three) makes you a better writer. "Only if you write tragedy," she said. (she was joking. But barely.)

I do think the fiction of women writers is maybe uniquely shaped by motherhood. Jane Hamilton's novel A Map of the World is about the effects of the drowning of a child on a family and a community. Jacquelyn Mitchard's bestseller The Deep End of the Ocean is about a kidnapping. Both were written after the authors had their children. Who can say if the stories were possible before that?

Abby Fruch's novel Polly's Ghost is about a woman who dies in childbirth and returns as a ghost to guide her son. Fruch has said she "softened" after her daughter was born and couldn't read anything violent. She rewrote her novel Blue Water to change its theme from betrayal to forgiveness.

The poet A. Manette Ansay wrote a fascinating essay called "Drowning the Children: To a Writer, Interruptions Are Life. Yes, she talks about the time suck that kids create. But like Lev Grossman, she taps into a larger realization. After having kids, she says...

...I found myself louder and more unkempt than I used to be, more interested in food, physical activity and sexual pleasure, more interested in the physical pleasure of words, their sound and sensation in the mouth and throat. The poems I had written before were tentative and cerebral; the new ones were confident, maybe funny, and full of physicality. Being with children made me matter-of-fact. Like dogs, babies and small children don't swerve from their attention to the present moment and they take no shame in the expression of strong feeling. They have an undisciplined sense of humor. Having children didn't give me confidence in my writing but I learned to write whether the result would be good or not -- as parents, too, we learn to abandon hopeless perfectionism.
Boy, I can relate to that -- the idea that writers need to live in the moment and give up the idea that they can make everything perfect. Like I said, I don't have kids but after I adopted two stray mutts, I did learn to slow down and savor a nap in the sun. (That's my snoop doggies above) And where once I couldn't go to bed if there was a dirty glass in the sink, now I don't sweat dog barf on the sofa. I write faster, enjoy the process for what it is, and I no long try to torture each sentence into perfection.

A couple years ago, Amanda Craig created a dust-up when she wrote in the Telegraph that bestselling Irish author Maeve Bichey would have been a better novelist if she had kids. It was a snarky thing to write and I don't agree.  Because here is where I come down on this whole thing:

Having kids might make you a more honest writer. As Lev Grossman says in his essay, "You can't bullshit a baby." (Or your readers). But I don't think making a baby will make you a better writer.

I truly believe that your unique voice is the sum of all your life experiences, but that what really makes you a good writer is being able to tap deep into your powers of empathy and observation.  Then having the courage to cut open your vein.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Are you ready for your mystery agent date?

I was at a writers conference recently and after my panel was over, a woman came up to talk. We had met the previous year, and she wanted to thank me because evidently I had said something that inspired her to quit her soul-killing job and finish her book.

Now, I remembered her but I didn't remember what I had said to her. If you read this blog regularly you know I am a realist about this business so I'm pretty sure I didn't pull a Pollyanna with her. I'll do what I can to encourage other writers just starting out, but I won't give false hope because that is just cruel.

So last week, I didn't really know what to say to this woman. I mean, just because I might like skydiving and have managed to get seven or eight jumps under my belt, I'm not going to push someone else out of the plane. Only they know if they have the guts and can afford the parachute. But she was very excited, and said she was very happy with her decision, so we talked some more.

It went something like this:

"So, are you submitting it yet?" I asked.

"Oh yeah," she said, "And I got a letter from Big-Name Agent at the Gigantoid Talent Management. He asked to see some sample chapters."

"Great! That's farther than most folks get," I said. "What about the others?"

"Others?"

"Other agents. What did they have to say about your query?"

"Well, I only sent out two. And Big-Name said he had to have an exclusive. So I'm not doing anything until I hear back from him."

"Oh," I said. "How long has Mr. Big had your chapters now?"

"About four months."

Okay...can you figure out where I'm going with this?

This woman had worked hard for three years to write her book. She had gone to writing conferences and workshops. She had done her homework. She had quit her job so she had enough time to follow her dream. (Don't worry; she had other means of support, so that's not the issue here).

But then she fell for the first guy who said "maybe." As in, "Yeah, maybe we'll hook up. Maybe I'll give you a call someday, baby. I don't know when exactly -- maybe even never. But in the meantime, I don't want you to talk to any other guys."

Now I realize Mr. Big was her Dream Date. And it's easy to get blinded by good biceps and blue eyes. Or in this case, a 212 area code and a client list heavy with bestselling authors. But would you wait around for this guy?

Of course not. If your book is finished and you're ready to send it out into the cold, cruel world, why would you do anything that lessens your chances of success? Finding a good agent -- no, let's correct that; not just a good agent but the right agent -- is maybe the single most important business decision you make as a writer. This person will be your advocate, your guide, your champion, your career-coach. And the best agent for you might not be Mr. Big at Gigantoid Talent Management. The best agent for you might be Miss Sincere at Small But Personal Inc. Maybe even Mr. Cassius at Lean And Hungry House. But most definitely, the best agent for you is the one who sees something so special in your work that he or she plucked you out of the 200 to 300 queries they get every week. The best agent for you is someone who will believe in you even in those dark moment when you don't even believe in yourself anymore.

Exclusives are bad things -- for writers. Why? Because you are giving that one agent the power to tie up your manuscript for months. Odds are, the sample chapters you sent will be rejected. (Maybe for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality remember). But by agreeing to an exclusive, you have lost six to eight precious months in what is a long and tortuous process even in the best of circumstances. Until an agent agrees to take you on as a client, they just don't have the right to control your work like that.

If you won't take my word on this, I bow to a higher source. Here is Miss Snark Literary Agent on the subject.:
"Exclusives stink...To ask an author to tie up his/her work on open ended terms is disrespectful and counter productive. It's also a lazy ass way to do business. You can't provide her an exclusive read and you shouldn't. If she doesn't see the merit of that, why would you want to work with her?"

Worse case scenario: No other agent is interested. She is back sitting by the phone waiting for Mr. Big to call.

Best case scenario: She gets responses from forty agents who want to see her sample chapters. Then ten want to sign her up. She now has the luxury of choice. She can talk to them all, make a measured thoughtful decision and find the agent who is the best fit -- for her.

I wouldn't sit home waiting for Mr. Big to call. Don't know about you, but I had enough of that crap in high school. So don't give away your power to the first pretty face that says "maybe." Beneath that pretty face there could be a true Poindexter.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Write crap and grieve!
Write? Crap! And grieve...


The other day I caught an interview with Tony-winning playwright Terrance McNally. His new play Mothers and Sons is now on Broadway and he and its star, Tyne Daly, were talking about it:

Daly: Terrance is great at punctuation.
McNally: Punctuation is very important.
Daly: If you follow what he does, it’s like a musical score.
McNally: That would be in my notes, that it’s a comma not a semi-colon. I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon.
To which I said: “Yes!”

Did you notice that I used an exclamation mark there? That is because when I heard McNally talk about punctuation, I got really, really excited. Because I am one of those old-fashioned writers who believe that all those little marks we pepper in our fiction:

. ; : ? ! ( ) , “” 

all those little marks make a big difference. So forgive me if I go in the weeds today (yeah, I know, I do this often) but I want to talk about getting the little stuff right.

But first, I’m thinking we need a definition of “right.” Because even though we know we need to be up on our grammar so our editors will accept our manuscripts and our readers won’t flame us with Amazon one-star reviews, we also know that when it comes to fiction, rules can be bent.

In fact, sometimes they need to be bent. Sometimes, you the writer are going for a particular mood or effect or style, and if you do that with confidence, then grammar police be damned!

Take a look at this opening line of a famous book:

Marley was dead: to begin with.

That’s the opening line of A Christmas Carol. I’m not sure what Dickens was trying to do with it, and technically it’s a misuse of the colon. It probably should be “Marley was dead, to begin with.” But that’s flat and prissy. That oddly placed colon is like slamming up against a brick wall in the fog. I think it works in a weird sort of way. (Hat tip to blogger Kathryn Schulz for this example).

Here’s another strange one that I’m sure you’ll recognize:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Again, misplaced commas, an inflamed colon, fragments and a plethora of periods. But it is music, no?

One more and then we'll move on:

Grogan’s is not the oldest pub in Galway. It’s the oldest unchanged pub in Galway.
While as the rest go
     Uni-sex
     Low-fat
     Karaoke
     Over-the-top
it remains true to the format fifty or more years ago. Beyond basic. Spit and sawdust floor, hard seat, no-frills stock. The taste for
    Hooches
    Mixers
    Breathers
hasn’t yet been acknowledged.

I can just hear the grammar gurus grinding their teeth over that one. This is from Ken Bruen's Edgar-nominated The Guards. This is classic Ken, a style that ignores convention to create its spare lilt. Like George Saunders and Joyce Carol Oates, Ken plays with sentence structure, indention,  and makes up new uses for all the old punctuation symbols. Because when he hears his story in his head, he hears a singular rhythm that you or I would not if we tried to tell the same story set in that Irish pub.

But here's the thing: (colon!) These writers all knew the rules before they broke them. Charles Ives was a church organist before he broke away to write The Unanswered Question.

Picasso painted this

Before he felt free enough to paint this

William Strunk, the éminence grise of grammar, says: "The best writers sometimes disregard the rules. Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules." Or, as I often tell folks in my workshops: Don't start juggling machetes if all you can control is two tennis balls. So maybe we should take a moment -- pause em dash -- to look at some of those little marks and decide which ones we can play around with without slicing ourselves to bits.

The Period

This is my favorite punctuation mark. It is concise and emphatic without being overbearing. You always know where you stand with periods. Periods give you simple sentence structure and clear syntax. Periods can also create lovely sentence fragments, which can be a nifty stylistic tool. You can write a really great novel with just periods, quotes and maybe some question marks. Unless you're James Joyce. Cormac McCarthy once said of Joyce: "[He's] a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate."  But hey, Joyce is juggling chainsaws in Ulysses. Don't try this at home.

Commas

Wars have been waged over the poor comma. Some people are very strict about them, sticking them in every little compound sentence crevice. Others feel less is more, that fiction's narrative voice allows you the freedom to "feel" your way around a phrase without the pause a comma injects. If you publish traditionally, your editor will have style manual and will inflict many commas on you. Some are bad:

Woman, without her man, is nothing

But some are good:

Woman! Without her, man is nothing.

The Colon

This is a pretty clear-cut fellow. It introduces text that amplfies something previously said or it tells you a list is coming up. I don't think colons have much place in fiction, except maybe for that second use. A colon finds a better home in non-fiction. I think a better, less stodgy substitute for the colon is:

The Em Dash

I adore the em dash because to my eye and ear, it feels more like people really talk and think. Our thoughts tend to move forward and there is something pure and lively about seeing this   —  instead of this :  A colon bring your eye to a stop while a dash implies there is more movement ahead. Two examples:

“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds: the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit.'

“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds — the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit."

I think the second is better because it is dialogue. You also can use the em dash to show an abrupt break in the dialogue, when one person is cutting off another:

“Define insubordination.”
Louis wet his lips. “I did something — ”
“I don’t care what you did. Define the word.”

Which leads us to the ellipses. It's a cousin of the em dash in that you see it used in dialogue often. But there's an important difference. Whereas a dash implies an abrupt break in the dialogue, the ellipses implies a trailing off. It can also imply a slowing of thoughts.

“Why didn’t you quit?” Jesse asked quietly.
Louis shook his head. “Can’t...”
“Why?”
“He’s still out there.”


The Exclamation Mark

This thing can be like a rabid ferret...hard to control. Yes, you need a rare one to convey extreme emotion. But like a dash or italics, it can lose its effectiveness if you overuse it. As Elmore Leonard said: "You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful."

And last but least:

The Semi-Colon

I saved this one for last because I hate the damn things. Semi-colons are like some professor-types. They've got an inflated sense of importance from living in the academic world. Or maybe they're like literary novelists who like to go slumming in crime fiction. I think I've used maybe two semi-colons in sixteen books and both times I had to take a shower right after. I am not alone in my attitude. Let's go back to what the playwright Terrance McNally said for a moment: "I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon."

My friend author/teacher James Bell calls semi-colons the eggplant of punctuation. Why are semi-colons bad? Because the beautiful business of fiction is replicating real life on the page and in real life people don't think or talk in semi-colons. Unless they're using emoticons. And c'mon, don't you want to punch out those people anyway?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Is your book tone deaf?


I don't get to read for pleasure often, so when I ducked away to Sanibel Island last week, I took a couple paperbacks and my Kindle, all loaded up with stuff I've been meaning to get to.

It was like a unleashing a starving stray dog on a smorgasbord table. I finished Joyce Carol Oates's short story collection "The Female of the Species," woofed down a couple old John D. MacDonalds, Tom Franklin's "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" and Gilbert King's "Devil in the Grove."

When I ran out of stuff, I turned to the shelf of ratty paperbacks in our rented bungalow. There was a book by an author I hadn't heard of before. I love discovering new authors, so I read the back copy. Good premise. I skimmed the first page. She had me. I took it down to the beach, lathered up with sun block, and settled in. I was ready. I wanted to be seduced. The first chapter was really good. A female cop, a grisly setup, a clear narrative voice, taut writing that teased me to turn the page.

So I did. And damn, I wish I hadn't because things went downhill fast. This female cop suddenly turned into a blithering mess. Worse, her ex-boyfriend came sniffing around and after she took him back, he took over the case. HER case! Suddenly, this cop -- traumatized though she might have been -- allowed weasel boy to take charge of everything. Worse, the writer LET HIM DO IT! Every time there was a new twist in the case, it was weasel boy who led the charge. Where was our heroine? Weeping and whining on the sidelines, a pathetic Hamlette, torn by indecision.

The thing degenerated into a mass of bad romantic cliches. Complete with a see-it-coming-a-mile-away pregnancy that by book's end gives our girl a good reason reason to quit her police job and make waffles for weasel boy. I was furious. Do you ever have the urge to throw a book across the room? I was sitting on the beach and would have heaved this one into the sea oats but I might have hit a turtle nest so I got up and threw it in the Dumpster.

Why?

It wasn't because I hate women in distress books. The female in jeopardy is a standard of our genre and in the right hands, this can sometimes rise above cliche. But this author was dishonest. She started out with a premise that promised a woman of strength and depth. And I had expectations that this character would rise above her awful trauma through her own grit and courage. As I read this book, I found myself thinking about another book I had read, Theresa Schwegel's "Officer Down," which won an Edgar. This author also had a damaged heroine whose lover muscles in. But Schwegel let her heroine solve her own problems. The woman cop wasn't waiting for Dudley Do Right to right her ship.

In the end, I decided I was angry about this other book because I had been misled. I don't begrudge readers romantic escapism. Hell, I used to write it. But this book was so schizophrenic it was like the first three chapters were written by Germaine Greer and the rest by Phyllis Schlafly. (Yeah, I'm showing my age there). If your setup is a dark tale of a woman cop's redemptive journey, you can't switch tones mid-book and start going for the Rita Award.

Tone is so important. And it's not really the same as mood. Tone is the narrator's attitude toward the subject -- be it playful, ironic, dark, hardboiled, romantic -- whereas the mood is what the reader feels by virtue of the setting, theme and voice. And I think tone is something often overlooked by some beginning writers. You, the writer, have to know in your heart what kind of book you are setting out to write. And then you should bend all the powers of your craft to that end. Poe called it Unity of Effect and wrote about it in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition." He believed that a work of fiction should be written only after the author has decided which emotional response, or "effect," he wishes to create. And once that was decided, everything else -- theme, setting, characters, conflict, and plot -- should serve the effect.

We do this via the countless choices we make as writers. What words we use, what imagery is in play, what the sentence structure is, what details we put in (as well as those we leave out). Here's a visual.:


Both are photos of the Everglades. I'm choosing them because I also went on a "swamp walk" hike in the Corkscrew Swamp this week. The first photograph is by Susan Schermer. The second is by Clyde Butcher. Schermer's is lush and color-saturated, with emphasis on the birds and setting sun. Butcher's is desolate, empty of all apparent life and in stark black and white. The first is somewhat sentimental; the second almost existential. Both artists made choices about what details they wanted to include -- or leave out -- in their work, how they lit their landscapes, the types of trees, the quality of the water.

Same subject, different tones. Each is successful in its own way. But you can't mistake one for the other.

So what's my point? I'm not asking anyone to buttonhole their work. It isn't necessary to try to psyche out editors and the folks who shelve the books at Barnes and Noble. (Is this neo-noir? Is it chick lit? Is it teen dystopia? Do we even care anymore?) I'm not even talking about all the sub-genres we tend to impose upon crime fiction. Some of the best stuff being written in crime fiction right now crosses so-called divides and genres.

What I am asking for, I think, is consistency. And honesty. Be honest with your readers. I don't mean be predictable. Being honest means finding a tone for your work and sticking with it so that the reality you create on your pages is believable and satisfying. If you want to write romance or romance suspense, go for it and do it well.

But don't promise me Katniss Everdeen and then give me Donna-Too-Dumb-To-Live. The book will end up in the Dumpster.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Why you need an editer...er, make that editor


Editors have been weighing heavily on my brain of late. Mostly because right now I don’t have one. And don't it always seem as though you don't know what you've got til it's gone?

Kelly and I are between contracts and are working on a stand alone that is sort of different for us. So we don’t know if it will ever find a home in the traditional publishing arena. This is fine with us. It’s exciting (and scary) to work without a net. We haven’t done this in more than a decade, so I remember now what many of you are going through – that feeling of walking alone in a dark forest, not knowing for sure if you are on the right path.

But I also read a couple of things this week that got my brain churning about the value of good editors.

I read a comment on a writing blog from a self-published author who wrote: "When I finished the novel, I put it into the hands of a few big-time publishing houses. They all told me the same thing. 'We like the writing, but in order for us to sell it, you have to rewrite this and rewrite that, then send it back to us.' I wasn't about to start rewriting my book so that maybe some traditional publisher would take it."

And, I just got an email from an unpublished writer whose manuscript I critiqued for charity a while back. This writer had a good idea, an engaging character, even a nice voice. But all that was obscured by the usual craft problems (wavering POV, throat-clearing opening, unclear physical action, too many characters introduced too quickly, adverbitis...) But this writer stuck to it, rewrote and rewrote, got an agent who made her rewrite some more. She just sold that mystery as part of a three-book deal and was writing to tell me the good news.

Which of these two has the right attitude? (Put aside the question of whether you should go traditional vs self-publishing for a moment). This is not a trick question. It if were, why don't more writers get it?

You need an editor.

I need an editor.

Every writer needs an editor.

Now before I go any further, let's get our terms straight. I don't mean a copy editor (the comma and lay/lie arbiter). I am talking about the first reader of your book after you turn it in, the person who can tell you if you've tangled your plot in digressions, misunderstood your hero's motivation, or picked the wrong bad guy. The Big Picture Guy or Girl who understands what you are going for in your book and helps you get there.

Let me get back to my own experience for a moment. Because we collaborate, Kelly and I edit each other's writing. But we know that isn't enough. We know we need the entity we have come to call The Cold Third Eye.

Why? Because we, like all writers, we live our story with every breath we take, intimately for months on end. Every day, it is playing on those screens in our heads, and we can see everything so clearly. But as with any writer, there is often a disconnect between that screen and our fingers as they hit the computer keys. Something misfires, something is lost in translation.

That is where the Cold Eye comes in. This is the person who tells you where you have gone astray. The Cold Eye (aka the editor) usually communicates in the form of the dreaded Revisions Letter, a document that can run as long as a legal brief and be just as scary. Even more scary these days with the advent of Word Review Mode. Now, getting this feedback is tough and sometimes writers get a tad defensive about it. Here are the kind of comments you might see in a revision letter -- and how some writers might react:

Editor: Think about making this a prologue.
Author: What? Prologues are strictly bush-league! It's the crutch of every bad writer! I won't do it! You can't make me!

Editor: I think X is a wonderful complex character but her relationship with Y is underwritten.
Author: But X doesn't really love Y, so it's supposed to be without passion!  I'm not writing romantic suspense here! Geez...

Editor: Is all this stuff between Y and Z necessary? Cut as much as possible.
Author: But I need this scene because it illuminates Y's motivation while introducing two quirky secondary characters who help convey the small-town setting!

Editor: Unclear whether X or Y is asking this. And they just don't seem to be as concerned about the evidence tampering as the reader will be. This whole plot element doesn't land properly.
Author: Doesn't this guy watch Cops? Police do this kind of stuff all the time! It's completely believable!

Editor: Timeline problem: Is this the same day or a week later?
Author: This is a simple linear plot! A ten-year-old could follow this, for god's sake.

Editor: "X pursed her lips." You use pursed lips too many times.
Writer: (sigh...)

Editor: Think about making this an epilogue
Writer (Gigantic sigh...)

Okay, for the record, these are actual comments from one of our editors for our book A Thousand Bones. His revision letter was seven pages, single-spaced. And you know what? Once we got over ourselves and went back into the manuscript to see what he was talking about, we realized he was spot-on about everything.

Chapter 1 works better as a prologue, making us rethink the advice we have given to other writers over the years that prologues don't work. Sometimes they do. In other words, there are no fast rules.

The romantic relationship we had set up in our book WAS underwritten. Our experience writing hard-boiled stuff had made us squeamish about mucking about in such emotions, so we had tried to ignore it. Result? Anemic character development that didn't set up the impact we were going for at book's end.

The scene he asked us to cut with our beloved quirky secondary characters was nicely written but useless. We had fallen in love with the sound of our own words and disobeyed one of our own prime tenets of crime writing: If it does not advance the story in some way, take it out.

The part about the evidence tampering? Technically, we were right in that the scene we had written was true to life. We knew this; we had done our homework. But sometimes the truth isn't true in fiction. If your reader can't buy into the reality you are creating on the page, you have to bend reality enough to make it feel right and help your plot. Or as Stanley Kubrick once said: “It may be realistic, but it's not interesting.”

The timeline problem our editor noted? Here is the perfect example of author blindness. Kelly and I saw our story perfectly in our heads. We had even story-boarded it and charted the timeline on a graph. But the way we had written it was confusing, and we couldn't see it. You have to slow down and stick in enough time and place signposts so your reader doesn't get lost. Lost = confused. Confused = angry. Angry = book thrown across the room.

Pursing lips? Well, that's our Author Tic. Every writer has one or two. You just don't see 'em. The Cold Eye does.

And yes, we changed the last chapter to an epilogue.

So, what's the lesson here? Find your Cold Eye. Unfortunately, it may not be easy. Being published by a "real" publisher is no guarantee you'll get a talented editor. And in today’s Wild West self-publishing world, there are some scammers out there ready to take your money for no real help. Our own Jodie Renner had a great post on this recently. Click here to read it. And some editors, truth be, are just bad and meddling. Raymond Chandler once wrote to his publisher:
"Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive."
But that rare good editor? That person won't kill your style. But neither will he tell you you're brilliant (that's mom's job) or that your stuff is a million times better than James Patterson's (that's your hopeful spouse). A good editor -- your Cold Eye -- will tell you how to be better than you already are.

I leave you with one more quote, this one from James Thurber:

"Editing should be a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The [editor] should say to himself, 'How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?' and avoid 'How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?'"

P.S. I have no editor for this blog. It is self-published. Any mistakes are mine alone, God help me...