Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What a long, strange trip it's been

My internet break has been even longer than I anticipated, turning into quite the saga. I will shortly attempt to distill the saga into a witty, or at least concise, form. And I will soon resume my regular social networking. But I will not be able to go back and catch up on all the blogs and messages I missed, so if you have any news, please leave it in the comments below.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

It's that time again

I'm about to unplug from the online world for a few days, as I do a couple of times a year. Much as I love my virtual networks, I find it valuable to reconnect with the world beyond the screen (and to give my "mouse arm" a rest!). I'll miss you guys. Behave! (Or don't, if what you really need is to cut loose ...)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Second books: E. F. Watkins on genre-switching

Not everyone writes a second book for the same audience as their first book. I'd been hoping that my "second books" series (guest posts by authors about their sophomore books) would be able to feature someone who switched genres. And in walked (or emailed, rather) E. F. Watkins, whose story is below!

And Now, for Something Completely Different...
By E. F. Watkins

My second published book was totally different from my first one. It’s also my only book so far published under my full name, “Eileen Watkins.”

I avoided having to write a follow-up book on deadline because I already had half a dozen unpublished manuscripts sitting around in my files! The first one accepted, by Amber Quill press in 2003, was my vampire thriller DANCE WITH THE DRAGON. Dark paranormal; lots of action; a fair amount of sex and violence.

During the editing process, I discovered that my editor and I shared an interest in the same kind of horseback riding: dressage. She also mentioned that Amber Quill had published a well-received line of romantic mysteries involving horse people, but sadly that author had passed on. She asked if I had even written anything along that line.

Amazingly, I had. A couple of years earlier, I'd attempted a “horse novel” for grownups. My usual paranormal format wouldn’t work, so I tried a murder mystery. I wanted to write about dressage but didn’t feel I knew enough about the rarefied world of horse shows; better just to set it on a farm that bred and trained the animals. To add glamour, I made the horses Andalusians, a breed fairly rare in the U.S. but known for its beauty and spectacular movement.

I added a PG-13 romance between Diego, the hunky, widowed Spaniard who owns the farm, and Kelly, the young American woman who hires on as an assistant trainer. When things at the farm start to go very wrong and it’s clear someone’s trying to undermine the operation, suspicion falls on Kelly. She becomes desperate to clear her name and help find the real culprit.

RIDE A DANCING HORSE is still selling well today, especially on Kindle, even though it’s not the same “brand” as anything else I’ve written. Clearly, there are a lot of other adult readers out there who share my love of a good horse story, especially with some mystery and romance thrown into the mix!

E. F. Watkins is the author of DANCE WITH THE DRAGON (2004 EPPIE Winner, Best Horror Novel), RIDE A DANCING HORSE, BLACK FLOWERS (2006 EPPIE Finalist, Action/Thriller and 2007 Indie Excellence Award Finalist, Mystery/Thriller), PARAGON, DANU'S CHILDREN and ONE BLOOD.  www.efwatkins.com

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Marvelous middles

At YA Outside the Lines, they've been blogging about beginnings, middles, and ends. I've greatly enjoyed the posts, but they've also made me realize I am a somewhat strange creature among writers:

I like middles best.

Writers complain about middles a lot. Most people prefer the excitement, the freshness and potential, of a beginning; or they like the satisfaction of wrapping up a project. Middles often get a bad rap. They're seen as a slog. They're vulnerable to deflation or detours or stasis.

But I think of middles as the real story, the place where everything happens. The beginning and end are there because they have to be. It's like cutting a variegated thread: how do you know where to make the first cut, and the last? If you cut here, you omit that beautiful turquoise shade, but if you cut there, the thread seems way too long ... The search for the perfect place to make that cut is what drives me crazy about beginnings and endings.

If I have an idea for a story about, let's say, a bunch of people trapped in a burning building, the middle is obvious, and it will be full of action and suspense. For most of this story, people will be running around trying to put out the fire or escape from the building (or both), and they will probably discover things they didn't know about themselves and others in the process. There's the middle. But where should this story start: When the fire starts? Or before, to show how and why the fire starts? Or when the fire's already raging? If it starts before the fire, how long before the fire? These are the kinds of questions I ponder with beginnings. I'll have similar trouble with the end: Does the story end right when the fire is out? Or is there some time for the survivors to process the aftermath? Who makes it out of the fire and who doesn't?

Usually, I can start writing as soon as I have a good beginning--and by good, I mean one that excites me enough that I have the energy to move on to the next sentence, and the next, and the next. Certainly I will flounder in the middle, and take some wrong turns, and get stuck. But the middle is where everything's in play, where patterns emerge, where suspense builds.

Monday, August 15, 2011


Sometimes a manuscript reaches out its tentacles and says, "You are mine," and you follow it to its undersea cavern and explore the treasures and troubles hidden there. You're completely immersed.
I shall be up for air soon.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Revision requests

Sometimes, instead of getting an offer or a rejection from an agent or editor, a writer will get a revision request. This usually means that the agent/editor is intrigued by the project and finds potential in it, but sees a substantial amount of work before the project is saleable.

In the absence of an offer, the author doesn't have to revise; she is free to take her project elsewhere. But she may decide to try the revision, especially if the editorial suggestions ring true.

A couple of things to remember in these situations:

--If the story just needed a few minor tweaks, the agent/editor probably would have offered. Therefore, it's likely that considerable changes are expected.
--The revision is likely to need work on more than just the specific examples mentioned in the request letter. The agent/editor is probably looking for a true "re-envisioning," a multi-layered improvement.

Suppose the letter says, "I think Michael needs to be a stronger character throughout the book. For example on page 47, he gives way to Trudy, and on page 121, he again lets others drive the plot." It may be tempting to make a change on page 47 and another on page 121, and call it a day. But "throughout the book" means just that, and pages 47 and  121 are just examples, meant to illustrate the problem. The agent/editor doesn't expect to provide an exhaustive list of everywhere in the story that Michael needs to take charge; he/she expects the writer to do that.

In some ways, a revision request is a test: can the writer handle the kind of editorial work required to get a book into publishable shape? Does he take the initiative on making the story better everywhere he can? Even when a publisher acquires a project, there is a fair amount of editing still ahead for the writer. A writer who is ready to tackle that work is more likely to be ready for publication.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

More opening lines (third person this time)

The last time I did a post analyzing opening lines, one commenter noticed that my examples ran heavily to first-person stories. This is probably because my tastes as a reader run heavily to first person. But I do have some third-person books hanging out on my shelves, and in response to a special request, here are third-person opening lines:

Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.
--James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain
What I like about "everyone had always said" is that it sets us up for a "but ..." In other words, it signals conflict.

After all, it was the seventies, so Allen and Betty thought nothing of leaving their younger daughter, Jamie, home alone for three nights while they went camping in Death Valley.
--Jessica Anya Blau, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties
We're instantly tipped off that this is the story of a permissive family, set in the 1970s, and viewed through the filter of a much later time. There's a hint of trouble here already: young girl home alone for three nights! (Notice that: not days, but nights--which are, presumably, more dangerous.)

When the windshield was closed it became so filmed with rain that Claire fancied she was piloting a drowned car in dim spaces under the sea.
--Sinclair Lewis, Free Air
This is the story of a young woman driving her father across country--around the time of World War I, when there was no interstate highway system, most roads were mud, and cars were not the button-operated, computerized machines they are now. The first line plunks us right down in the car next to Claire, and its reference to undersea piloting gives us a whiff of adventure.

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old.
--Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding
A classic, "this is where everything changed, and this is where the change started" opening.

In the few days between arrival at Harvard Law School and the first classes, there are rumors.
--John Jay Osborn, Jr., The Paper Chase
Right away, we know where we are. The very name "Harvard Law School" is weighty, and now we're about to hear the rumors that arise from, and feed, the students' nervousness.

Caldwell turned and as he turned his ankle received an arrow.
--John Updike, The Centaur
Boom, here's a problem in line one: this guy has just been shot with an arrow. Wait--an arrow? What century is this? As it turns out, the story takes place simultaneously in 1947 Pennsylvania and somewhere in the world of Greek mythology, and the wounding of a public-school teacher with an arrow provides a flavor of both worlds at once.

It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.
--Lois Lowry, The Giver
There's nothing like fear to draw a reader in. Knowing that Jonas is scared arouses our sympathy and our curiosity at the same time.

One summer two boys and a girl went to a foster home to live together.
--Betsy Byars, The Pinballs
A basic stage-setting beginning. There's no doubt what this story is about, or who the main characters are.

Each type of substitute teacher had its own special weakness, and Jacob Wonderbar knew every possible trick to distract them.
--Nathan Bransford, Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow
Many of my examples are from older books, so I decided to pull out the most recently-published third-person book I have in the house. This opening tells us who the main character is, and it sets the tone of mischief right away. We know that this character is going to do things, to take action.

It can take us a little longer to get to know our main character in a third-person opening, because the first line introduces us to the narrator's voice rather than the character's voice. Yet the narrative distance is pretty close in Free Air, Jacob Wonderbar, and The Giver: we're already getting a sense of the characters. In many of the other openings, we've started with the camera zoomed out, and we may get to know more about the setting first. But those are options in third person that don't really exist in first person, where the narrative distance is almost inevitably tight.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tips for drafting

Stare at the wall as often as necessary.
Listen to the character, not all the critical voices in your head.
Try something new.
Let yourself feel.
Be patient.
Have fun with it.

YMMV. Feel free to disregard any or all tips at any time.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The why behind the wanting

We've all heard that the main character in a book should want something (and ideally, that the other characters should want something, too). But some critique feedback I got recently made me ponder the question: Do we have to know why the character wants it?

I threw out the question on Twitter and, although that's hardly a scientific poll, the responses I got were overwhelmingly YES. There were qualifications, caveats, and exceptions: We may not need to be told outright, but we should be able to figure it out. If the goal is something obvious like self-preservation, we may not need an explanation. But even in cases where the goal might seem obvious (fabulous wealth, for example), we probably do need to understand the character's motives.

After all, most of us would probably like to be wealthy or at least comfortable, but where do we draw the line on what we might do to reach that goal? Work 80 hours a week? Work at a job we hate? Break the law? Kill someone? And then there's the question of what wealth means to a given character. Is it the ability to buy lots of jewelry, or a dream house, or pay off medical bills? The ability to never have to worry about where the next meal is coming from? The ability to have political power? In other words, does the character equate wealth with safety, or power, or revenge, or attention, or love?

For every external goal a character has, there is often an underlying psychological motive. The more deeply rooted that motive is, the more we are likely to care about the character's quest, no matter what it is.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Fine-tuning: concrete examples

When the overall arc of a story is satisfying, and the characters and the setting all seem to belong, then the writer often turns to fine-tuning. Here are some examples of the fine-tuning I do:

made a crackling noise

made a whooshing sound

gave a smile

I heard her fingernails clicking against the tabletop
her fingernails clicked against the tabletop

I wondered if he liked me
Did he like me?

These are examples of pruning out filter words, bringing us one step closer to the action. Sometimes I leave in filter words because the narrator is using distance as a defense mechanism, and that's part of my intended characterization process. But many other times, I prefer immediacy and directness. Once I had some good editors point out these weak phrases, they started jumping off the page and waving their little serif hands at me.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Second books: Marie Lamba's long and winding road

This is the latest in my series of "second-books" guest posts, about writers dealing with the "What next?" after their first books come out. I consider Marie's story to be especially inspiring, and I'm glad she agreed to share it!

My Long and Winding Road to OVER MY HEAD
by Marie Lamba

Let's face it, for some second books the path to publication is twisted and uncertain.

My first novel, What I Meant…, was accepted by Random House in a 2-book deal, and I was thrilled! The first novel was scheduled for 2007, and the second for 2008. So in 2006 I began writing my second book.

Running out of Gas:  I plotted out the sequel to be about Gina, the best friend who had been acting weird. I called it What I Did… I wrote 50 pages and just stopped. There was nothing wrong with what I wrote. But I quickly realized it wasn't the story I wanted to tell.

Detour:  I started again. The second incarnation was called What I Said…, and it was about Sang (heroine of the first book), and what happens when she falls for a 20-year-old lifeguard. Of course she's at odds with her Indian dad over this. Plus he's got his own problems: dealing with his brother being ill, and trying to keep this secret from his kids. The plot had passion, forbidden love, lies, loss.
By August I had 75 pages. The editor emailed me her schedule. Could I deliver the completed manuscript by September? In three weeks??? But what about that January 2007 date in the contract? Turns out that was more a guideline. I negotiated for six weeks.

The Fast Lane:  Every day I woke up, sat in the chair and wrote and wrote. I'd never felt such pressure. What if the words didn't come? I couldn't dwell on this. I couldn't dwell on anything. My fingers flew. My ass hurt. My family ate takeout. To my amazement, the words did come. The plot took shape. This book was even stronger than my first.
I delivered the manuscript on time, and my editor loved it. The book went through editing. The cover was designed. All good, right?

Total Breakdown:  It was summer 2007, three weeks before my first novel came out, when my book-writing world crashed to bits. My second book, What I Said…, was cancelled. Just like that. With the book business starting to shrink, my debut novel was one of the first Random House titles not picked up by chains. Plus, my editor was leaving the business and my book was orphaned. So it was over. Nothing I could do. I could keep my advance.
Devastated. Only word that fits here. I didn't know such things happened to writers, to books that their editors loved, to books that were contracted, for God's sake. I fell into serious mourning, and slid the manuscript onto my shelf like it was a child's coffin entering a crypt.

Arriving at Last:  Flash forward four years. Changes in ebooks and P.O.D. make it possible for an author to create a beautiful product and reach the world. What I Meant… is in its third printing, Publisher's Weekly called it "an impressive debut," and readers continue to ask for more books about Sang and her friends.
I pull the manuscript off the shelf, removing it from "the crypt" and read through it. I love this book so much, it hurts. It makes me laugh out loud, and in the end, cry. Like Sang in this novel, I decide to "take the plunge." I rename the book Over My Head, because I like this title better. I have the cover and the interior professionally designed, and at the end of June 2011 I publish it myself!

Finally this book can come to life in the minds of others. Finally this journey is over, with the happiest of homecomings.

May your book publication path be smooth and may the publishers meet your every need. And, if they don't, may you know it's never the end of the road. Safe journeys, everyone!

Marie Lamba (www.marielamba.com) is a full-time writer whose work appears in national magazines including Writer's Digest and Garden Design; she is published in the anthology Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering (Wyatt-MacKenzie). Her short story "What I Did…" will appear in the anthology Liar, Liar! (Mendacity Press) this fall. Marie lives in Doylestown with her husband, two daughters and one rather too interesting poodle.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Revealing just enough

Beginning writers (and not-so-beginning writers, for that matter) are often inclined to tell all, to explain everything. For example: "The reader has to know that my main character lived in a yellow house with petunias in the yard until he was seven, and that he had a cat named Mortimer, and that he broke his arm in the sixth grade."

Well, maybe the reader needs to know all that, but probably not. Meeting a character is like meeting a new person in real life. We don't expect everyone we meet to sit down and recount his or her life story to date. If there's something really big in this person's past, especially something that relates to us, we need to know and we tend to find out fairly quickly. But mostly, we make up our minds about people by watching them in the present: observing what they do, how they treat us and others. We can get to know characters the same way. Bits of the past will come to light, especially if we get very close to a character, but they will arise naturally.

Readers also engage with a text more when they get to put some of the pieces together themselves. Part of the delight in reading is filling in the blanks, constructing an inner world. In fact, there is a whole group of readers whose enthusiasm leads them to continue filling in blanks on a much grander scale: writers of fanfiction.