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├ęs, 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!