Friday, December 17, 2010

As Stephen Fry Says...

In one of his estimable books, the title of which escapes me as I have just finished too quickly the delightful onion at the bottom of a gin gibson: "Stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once!"

I've remembered, that's from The Liar.

Anyway, go at once to the nearest bookstore and read the first 10 1/2 pages of Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question. If you do not then walk out with the book— paid for, one hopes— you are questionable indeed.

That, folks, is how you do it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hooks & Tags.

Sewing? No. Today I'm talking about query letters and a not-so-fine distinction many new novel writers don't quite see: the difference between a hook and a tag line. The reason fiction writers often miss the difference is that the phrase "tag line" comes from the evil world of screenwriting, and the tag line has contaminated everything.

I'm taking parts of this from a post I made on a thread on AbsoluteWrite. The writer of the original post had a query letter that wasn't getting a good response. They posted the hook from their letter. The problem? Their hook was actually a tag line. I won't use that writer's tag line, but here's something similar:

"Is it worth pursuing your dreams if the search only brings you pain?"

Okay, so maybe it wasn't that bad, but you get the idea. A tag line is something a marketing department comes up with to put on a one sheet (movie poster). It is not the sort of thing that makes anyone want to see the movie (or request a partial) because it doesn't mean anything. It could apply to a thousand different books or movies or TV shows.

What is a hook? In screenwriting land, a hook is a log line. It is your incredibly interesting, infinitely-marketable, audience-ready plot. It is hopefully high-concept. A hook is the one line that makes your would-be reader or viewer or agent say "that's interesting, I haven't seen that before, I have to know how that story turns out." Here are some examples, poorly written by yours truly:

-A young boy discovers he's a wizard and is sent to a secret wizarding school.

-A girl returns to her family home to find a cure for a curse that is causing her feet to turn to glass.

-A five-year-old boy raised in a single room must escape from the man who has held him and his mother captive.

-A young woman falls in love with a man who travels through time.

All are novels, obviously, and most literary fiction. It can be done. A hook is what is driving your book, the underlying question that must be solved. At their best, they give the reader an idea of a unique problem that is big enough to drive an entire plot and get them started thinking about how they would handle the same issue.

As a side note, it's not necessary to have a high-concept hook. In a novel they can be much softer:

-A young man rides his horse away from his troubled family and tries to build a new life in Mexico.

-A man tries to reclaim the love of his youth, having waited sixty years for his beloved's husband to die.

Note that these softer plots may be of less interest from a beginning writer. An agent reading your query letter might not trust that an unknown writer will have the chops to pull those two stories off as well as Cormac McCarthy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

In short, a good hook makes an agent think your book can be marketed, has a target audience, and will sell. It is the heart of your query letter. There's no room in a query letter for a tag line.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I'm a Bigot.

I'll admit it. I am a fiction bigot. I am prejudiced when it comes to what I read. I am on a quest to read the best fiction I can find. So in my prejudice I scour the book reviews and the fiction awards. I'm one of those annoying people at the writers conference standing in the corner with the group leaders arguing the merits or lack thereof of this year's Pulitzer or Man Booker winner. In short, I'm a snot.

I fear I'm prejudiced against books that are— I confess it here— fun to read. The kind of book you can blast through on one rainy day. Granted, some of these books— some of them bestsellers— are, well, rather poorly written. But certainly not all are. There are certainly sufficient books out there that are both well-written and fun. Dare I say— exciting. But when I read them why do I turn into a Puritan trapped in the appurtenances of sin?


The confession is prompted by a quote I read today:

There's a hunger for stories in all of us, adults too. We need stories so much that we're even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won't supply them. - Phillip Pullman.

Have I been fleeing from good stories for fear of reading bad books? My mother never allows my father to tell dirty jokes in her presence, saying she doesn't want that sort of thing in her head. Am I doing the same, with a self-installed warning system that goes off if I'm enjoying myself too much? How did story become the enemy of good writing?

I've mentioned a friend who forgave and enjoyed some truly bad movies (trust me) by saying "it's just a good yarn!" Well, I was looking at the stack of books I read last month that have not yet made it upstairs to the fiction shelves. There are a couple in there that were both literary fiction, both well-written, critically well-received and, well, high-concept. They have a central plot idea that can be stated in a short sentence. They are Emma Donoghue's Room and Ali Shaw's The Girl with Glass Feet. I enjoyed both. And felt guilty.

But turn this on its head. Let us consider Tana French. Wonderful writer of mysteries. Fantastic way with the English language. And her books are as packed with high-concept story as anyone could want. And I feel no guilt reading her books. Is it because they are firmly planted in a genre?

Much as I hate to do it, let me paraphrase George Bush. Or rather, one of his speechwriters, who was writing about the school system with the phrase "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Maybe that's what I have. I pick up the occasional genre novel and am so delighted if the writing is good that it becomes a memorable book. While waves of literary novels pass through to my "already read" pile with little notice and I applaud myself for getting through another award winner.

The entire fault, then, is not in genre. It's perfectly possible to find good and even great writing in genres. What is letting me down is literary fiction. Because in that same stack of books that I finished last month are a couple of books I either shut early or wish I had. They were— I admit it here— boring. One was a recent Pulitzer winner. And the writing— my reason for buying it in the first place— was all very nice and clean, but you know what it wasn't? Good. Great. It was all perfectly functional, but it was bland. Another book I just finished on audio read like a 600-page excuse to insert a couple of dozen of the author's most closely held political views. Views I agreed with and enjoyed and found very clever and worthy, but the other 575 pages? Oy. Stick a fork in it, already.

So I'm sorry, award committees out there in the Land of the Literary, you fail. You are failing miserably. Not just the Nobel committee that says it will never again hand the literary prize to an American, but all y'all. You are suffering from the same narrow-minded bigotry I am. You're awarding too many boring books. Story is not the enemy!

I shall take baby steps to recover. I shall not buy award winners by reflex. I shall trust reviews more than awards, and seek out more reviews from more sources. I shall eagerly await Tana French and Ali Shaw and Emma Donoghue's next books. Heck, I was going to do that anyway.

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

p.s. I have the latest Man Booker winner here in my to-read piles: Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question. It is supposed to be *gasp* funny. Heaven forfend! Man Booker committee, I hereby issue you a temporary reprieve.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Know What Makes You Cry.

When I was a kid, I thought actors were actors because they alone knew how to cry on cue. When you get older, you find things that will make you cry, even when you think about them years later. I have two, one negative, on positive.

1985. I'm doing the tour of Europe. Old-school, I know, but we're doing it on the cheap. Bus tours. A few days in Germany. Two days in Munich. A day at Dachau. It's not out in the woods. Not where nobody could see. It's in the suburbs ten miles outside the city.

Concrete and stone pads showing where the bunkhouses were. I wished they hadn't torn down so much, but I suppose they had to. It looked clean, which is what is wrong.

In the museum. A picture. A mother in a winter coat over a dress, leading her two little girls by the hand. All in their good clothes, hair done, black and white. I stepped closer. The caption? "On the Way to the Gas Chamber."

So that was one time.

2002. May, I think. Walking home from the corner market to my apartment, carrying the New York Times. On the cover, Masai warriors standing on a grass plain, a dozen cows grazing. A son of this village, a student now at Stanford, had carried home the news of the attack on the World Trade Center. And his village elders had voted to give a dozen or so of their most valued cows to the people of the United States, to help them in their time of need. The U.S. Ambassador had arrived to accept the donation.

So that was another.

The thing about this kind of spontaneous emotion is precisely that it is not expected. Or expected, as you would at Dachau— if never in the street outside your apartment— but sudden. Not from memory, from history, but from a picture. Of a mother and two little girls. Or yes, in the street, of warriors and cows.

That's what I want you to know, you writers, you humans. That sometimes, the things that hit us the hardest are the things we did not expect.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Big Man.

I just heard a story on NPR about Hawaii's own Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. The wonderful Iz. The tragically dead Iz, who passed away— as had every member of his immediate family— from the consequences of obesity. Iz is famed for his singing and ukulele playing, and is increasingly famous world-wide for his version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

The NPR story was about the recording of that song. Iz showed up at three in the morning at a recording studio that he'd booked over the phone. Nobody there knew him, and were startled by this enormous man who showed up with a battered ukulele. Iz then proceeded to change the lyrics and the music, and the recording that resulted— the first take— ended up sitting on a shelf in the studio for five years. When it finally came off the shelf, it became a huge hit.

The point is that nobody involved in the creation of that song knew what would happen to it. Nobody knew it would be rocketing up the charts in Germany fifteen years later. Nobody knew it would long survive Iz.

The thought here is that we need to take chances. Create without expectation. And to know that anything might happen. Nobody knows what song or what book might succeed, either artistically or commercially. Try. And be good to yourself along the way. We lost Iz at thirty-eight. The whole world will miss him.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Poor Oprah.

She's picked her latest book club selections— two from Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. She must be pretty burned from some of her previous selections. Heck, she helped make one writer famous when he rejected the invitation. Then there were the memoirs-that-weren't. So now she is playing it safe with a writer who is Really Most Sincerely Dead.

I'm guessing she had her staff check to make sure.

Friday, December 3, 2010

There is a Syndrome!

Everything must have a syndrome, yes? If only for insurance purposes. Here I am listening to Oliver Sacks, today's guest on Talk of the Nation Science Friday on NPR, and he mentioned an aphasic syndrome that leaves a patient unable to read but still able to write. Eureka! An explanation for all those would-be novelists who never seem to get around to reading books. It is called Dejerine syndrome or "alexia without agraphia." Apparently we are seeing a wave of undiagnosed infarcts of the posterior cerebral artery. Shocking!

Test yourself. Go read a book. For your health.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

If You Keep Picking, It'll Scar.

I've queried an agent, a new agent, who has been receiving many, many queries. A community has built up on some writing boards of other authors who have also queried this agent. And several of the writers have had the same question for their cohort:

"I've made some changes since I queried Agent X. Should I write to her about the new version?"

They queried too soon. Here's when to query: when you have spent so much time rewriting and editing that you cannot find one more significant (or insignificant) change to make. If you are still reading through your manuscript and still finding problems or things you can improve, it's too soon.

I understand the urge to get your work in to an agent who is willing to consider all comers, but resist. Wait until your new agent's notes will make you crazy because OMG, you know that book is PERFECT!!!

Sunday, November 14, 2010


I remember prattling on about this annual scrum last year. Not sure if I offered the same advice I'm about to share, but here goes:

What writers really need is a NaNoREADMo.

How many of the would-be novelists toiling away out there are going to also read a book in the month of November? Probably only a few, since they're spending every available moment desperately trying to shovel words into their laptops. But what about next month?

We need a month, a long month with not much else going on, in which writers vow to spend as many hours reading as they did in their NaNoWriMo efforts.

How about March? Half the country is defrosting, football season is over, and Easter candy is available in fifty-gallon drums. All the conditions you need for reading pleasure.

Buy a stack of books. Or go to the library. Read. Fill your head with some new words. With luck they'll still be there waiting when November rolls around.

March, 2011. NaNoReadMo FTW.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


There's a thread over on the AbsoluteWrite boards about the appropriate education for a writer. Do you need a college degree? A graduate degree? There are arguments to be made on every side, and I myself have a semi-useless Master's degree in screenwriting. Okay, I'll say that what I learned at UCLA about story structure is pretty darn valuable, but the chances I'll ever be a screenwriter are vanishingly small. I just wish someone had told me that before I enrolled. And if you want to write science fiction, I'd suggest you get a solid science education somehow.

Anyway, here is the answer I gave to the original question:

"You need to be intelligent, experienced, talented, dedicated, and well-read. Of these, well-read is the rarest, dedicated is the most common, intelligent is the most important, talented is the least important, and experienced is the most interesting.

"How you get there is up to you."

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Some Good Writing.

It exists in unexpected places. Here is a good writer who also happens to be an airline pilot:

Friday, October 29, 2010


Okay, I thought I could leave it alone. Turns out I couldn't.

Male writers, attention please. Females, if you're going to do this, stop, but you usually don't...

If your female main character married the nice guy out of college, having failed in earlier, happier times to seduce his Totally Hot Roommate, DO NOT have her climb into bed with said Hot Roommate years later when her marriage is shaky and she's sliding into middle age.

ESPECIALLY don't do it when she is exactly my age.

Just sayin'.


...When the critics say a book's characters are "amazingly true to life!" what they mean is "everything these stiffs do is utterly predictable." Except of course this writer is a favorite of the critics, so they would never say that.

I've only made it through the first two hundred pages, it must be said. Wonderful surprises may lie ahead.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

This One Makes You Taller.

Last post was about the small, so now on to the large. Large ideas, that is. Life under the Big Top. The hard part is erecting the tent when it's just the one of you.

I worry about that last sentence. I trust Christine O'Donnell doesn't read this blog.

Onward. I offer an idea that has recently presented itself: the danger that comes when the majority in a society starts feeling persecuted. When they begin to imagine that "those people" are going to destroy them, whether literally or figuratively. It can get dangerous for those in the minority. If you're thinking of Germany in the early thirties, you see what I'm on about. And if you see it again today, I also think you're right.

I don't know where we go from here, but I hope everyone goes to vote.

Just a thought.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Look How Small...

I've touched on this before. But I am reminded...

I'm reading the newest book by a writer singled out some years ago as the new Golden Boy of literature. As near as I can tell, it's because he can write well and also has very good hair and excellent eyeglasses. The writing well part is the most important, of course.

So, the latest book. Very good. Really moves along, mostly because I'm listening to it in the car (1 1/2 town days and a couple of trips to Foodland), and it does seem to roll by at a steady, cruise-control-regulated fifty miles an hour. Hey, you try living on a small island. And it's good. Really. It's good.

And I'm reasonably sure something will eventually happen. Something was inferred in the first paragraph. That was a couple of hours ago. So somewhere in the next thirty-odd hours something will happen. And until it does, I shall enjoy the really very good writing.

Written in response to a criticism of a young writer for having a fixation on sex and violence in his writing. Surely some doesn't hurt....

Monday, August 2, 2010

Helping Your Loved Ones Escape.

No new agent responses. Note to agents: canned rejections beat silence.

Today's observation #1 - reading a lot is good. Among other things, it allows you to see patterns.

Today's observation #2 - a pattern! This one comes from reading two very good books: Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver and Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. The observation is that there is a way to avoid deciding whether to kill off your favorite character or to leave them to deal with all the terrible things you've done to them during the course of the book. This is the exit, stage left. In both of these books characters vanish into the unknown. In one, the character probably really did escape but nobody knew it. In the other, the character probably didn't escape, but the other characters imagined it was possible. I won't tell you who's who. In both cases, it works.

I find the exit, stage left to be quite appealing. I suppose it comes from all the old westerns, when the good guy slips out the back door of the big party celebrating the victory of the small town over the desperados. He saddles his trusty steed, has a touching farewell scene with the rancher's daughter about why he wasn't made to settle down, and then he rides off into the sunset. She goes back to the party, dashes away a last tear, and gives the town's new young doctor the glad eye.

This ending allows for sequels. I don't think novelists who take this route are thinking sequel, but what this ending does for a novel is carry energy. There's a spark of possibility. More than that, there's a sense of fairness, because let's face it: most of our characters don't deserve the terrible things we do to them. They really don't deserve to be whacked.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I Don't Like What Sucks.

First, a query update. One rejection, one or two that have gone past the "if I like it, I'll respond." A handful still alive, in silent limbo. I'm surprised that the age o' internet has not improved the rate or speed of response. Echo... echo... echo...

And on to what sucks. Disagreeing with a perfectly nice agent sucks. Yes, I've read another post over at Nathan Bransford's blog. A post in which he insists that the one thing a writer should not say is that another writer's work sucks. Particularly if the work is a novel that has found a place in the hearts of many, many readers. Surely if every fourteen-year-old and her mom in the world love a book, the book must be doing something right.

No, it's not.

I won't say to a new writer that their work sucks. Because they are learning. My work sucked when I started, and I'll be the first to admit it. I wrote a great deal that did not even begin to rise to the mark. I'll note that even if someone had pointed out the glaring badness of my work I would have kept going, first because I agreed and second because I loved learning the craft and knew I'd get there eventually.

Do I think there is anything wrong with pointing out that the writing in certain popular novels is bad? Nope. These writers are in the major leagues. Their agents and editors ought to be willing to hold their clients' feet to the fire. And these writers ought to respect their craft a bit more. Yes, you may have come up with an idea alluring to the pubescent set or the infrequent reader of fiction, but that does not mean you executed it well.

It's not just the books about Jesus' kids and the creepy pedo-vampires here. I've been disappointed by fantastic writers and called it like I saw it. Even the best can have off days, and off novels. Sometimes they suck. I refuse to participate in the self-congratulatory "good effort, gold star for everybody!" culture. Because yesterday I picked up Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses and it is so good that my jealousy and respect cannot be measured by any caliper known to man. Lordy, can that man write.

Gold Star.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Query Update.

I have queried four agents thus far, all good matches to the book, all reputed to respond quickly. I have had not a single response of any kind from any of them. I have written a synopsis, and can now head out for those agents who wish to receive this particularly hideous form of written communication.

Hope I can at least score a rejection or two before I grow old and drop dead.

And as for the very persnickety requirements agents have for submissions? Those hoops we must jump through? You know: "if you do not have a Serious Adult Significant email address we will not respond"?

Two of the four agents thus far have had MailerDaemon or "mailbox full" responses to query emails.

Am I very concerned that I minded every P & Q in those submissions? Yeah, not so much. Do I like being lectured about professionalism by folks who can't keep their inbox in order? Nope.

Echo... echo... echo...

Friday, May 28, 2010

This Seems About Right.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Dragged to a Halt Again...

Sorry about that. I'm involved in a weird project in Second Life (a non-disclosure agreement spares you the hideous boredom of my explaining it), and all my time has been sucked into a virtual void.

No news on the query front. I am working on my A-Team, Oh, Please submission list. And I have a can of chocolate frosting ready for the first rejection. That was my old rule: whenever a rejection came in I got a can of frosting. I had to have another query in the mail by the time the frosting was gone. With e-submissions I might have diabetes by the time this is over.

Speaking of optimism, I wanted to mention one important fact about novels: there is at least one good reason why any novel ever written should fail. One absolute, everyone-knows-it truth that should lead to rejection for any book. It's different for every book, of course, but you can come up with any number of them:

"I'm sorry, Mr. Faulkner, but readers in the north don't want folksy southern tales these days."

"Ms. Rowling, YA readers are girls. They want female main characters."

"Get out of my office and go learn how to tell a story, Mr. Joyce."

It's easy to get wrapped up in all the reasons a book shouldn't work. And it's a good thing to bear in mind while waiting for agents to give you a bunch of new reasons you've never thought of why yours won't.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Where the Rubber Hits the Road.

Or something like that involving a fan, which is less inspiring and hopefully less apt.

The first query is out. I do like the email query. It does add the terrifying prospect of the auto-reject, but so far all is quiet. I have a list of a few agents I'm going to query individually for a while, then I'll put together some multiple submissions. I know it's not the way you're supposed to do it, you're supposed to do multiple submissions from the first, but hey, why not lower my odds right from the start?

The query is under 200 words, which works. I think. I hope. Sigh.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


When the previous post, well, posted, a little ad popped up in the margin next to "View Your Post." It said "Ask a Real Estate Attorney."

No! No, don't do that!


A Pause for Real Advice.

Also the result of some of the PublishAmerica disasters: if you are offered a publication contract, get it reviewed by a publication attorney. Not any attorney. Not your sister-in-law the real estate attorney or your cousin the divorce attorney. You need an attorney who knows publishing. Because there is a difference, a ginormous difference, between a contract that is legal and a contract that is good. Publication attorneys may not come cheap, but you should look for a bargain here about as much as you want to look for a bargain neurosurgeon. This is your career.

With my contract, I engaged the services of the excellent and patient Greg Victoroff of Rohde & Victoroff:

And I will do so again, with luck.

Please do not risk your novel on a contract that your sister-in-law thinks "looks okay."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Well, thirty-five hours later I have finished listening to the audiobook of Roberto Bolaño's 2666. The book started with a group of literary critics searching for an author who did not want to be found by a group of literary critics. Then that section ended and we got into a couple of parts about the serial killings of women in northern Mexico. Then the last sections had to do with the author, his sister, and her son.

And then it ended.

Good writing, and all that. And lots of it. The book is nine-hundred pages in print. And a great reputation. Lots of folks raved about this book.

Why, oh, why?

It was well written. The literary critics' part was a lot of fun, for folks who find that world amusing. The serial killing part was a grim recitation of the real-life events going on in Mexico. The last part had a bunch of well-researched WWII information. Put it all together and you get...

Well-reviewed literary fiction. Which I read and mostly like. I'm trying to read the best that's out there. I want to understand why some books are celebrated and others are pulped. And this one was the talk of the town. But when it ended, I must have had the same look on my face that a dog gets when it hears a high-pitched noise. Wait, what?

My favorite single part of the book was the eight-minute-long afterward. I was told that the title referred to the year 2666, which lay in the future for each of the five sections of the novel. This, I was told, leant each section perspective.

Whatever. I was also told that the unusual ending, which came along as though mid-sentence, was exactly what Bolaño had in mind. No, he wrapped up 2666 just before his early demise, but it is what he wanted. It's over, finished, done. If you think it sounds cut off, it's because you are an inexperienced reader and unworthy. Go read his The Savage Detectives. You'll see.

Which was excellent, because I happen to know that Bolaño's family recently found a sixth section of 2666. How finished does that sucker sound now, o critics? Put that in your postmodern not-a-pipe and smoke it.

I've downloaded The Savage Detectives for my next listen. Sigh.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Yes, they have announced the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes. And the fiction prize goes to... Um... Folks, they are really giving the Nobel Prize for Literature a run for its money. I would have thought the Pulitzer folks would try rubbing the Nobel people's collective noses in it and start awarding their prize to America's best-known and most widely-lauded writers. And every few years they do award a Cormac McCarthy or a Philip Roth. The rest of the time they seem to be racing the Scandinavians for the title of "most lauded novel you've never even seen in a bookstore."

I get only the most minute credit this year. I have one of the finalist's novels on my coffee table, in the to-read pile. That's Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Great title, by the way. In any case, I do prefer it to the other finalist title, Love in Infant Monkeys, by Lydia Millet. That comes surely from that old study that found baby monkeys would rather cling to a soft, warm artificial mother than to a cold, hard phony mom that offered food. This is for the same reason that I don't sit on the kitchen floor next to the refrigerator. Well, not all the time, anyway.

On to the winner! Dang, I had to look it up again. Congratulations to Paul Harding, for his novel Tinkers. I like this title a lot, mostly because I once had a cat named Tinker. But this book is not about a cat. It is about three generations of men, grandfather, father, and son, and their quiet lives in New England.

The sound you hear is John Irving kicking himself in the head.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Is it Over?

There is a rumor afloat on various agent blogs that the love affair with supernatural romance may be ending. Is it possible? Are we moving away from the teenage girl and the vampire, werewolf, demon, angel, fey, ghost– I'm running out of critters here, and so are a lot of writers who make up their own whatevers. That quiet young man in the back of the class, with the unusual features and really interesting manner of dress, who in a moment of crisis saves the heroine or her little brother and thus begins the Great Romantic Adventure.

Hard to imagine anyone growing tired of reading that over and over, isn't it? Well, apparently the appeal is beginning to dim for many agents. Now if readers still clamor for these stories editors will keep buying them, and agents will have to keep looking for them. But folks, they are growing weary. The same-old-same-old? Isn't going to work much longer. I know I've been atop this particular hobby horse before, but I keep reading not-good query letters on review sites, and I want to offer another instance of what goes wrong for would be twinkly-vampire-romance authors.

Query: Heroine of Supernatural Romance Novel is much sought-after by two different supernatural young men. Yes, two! Oh, has that happened before? Moving on... Something Terrible happens to Our Heroine. Some third supernatural party harms her. Our Heroine, presumably recovering from her injuries, stays home while Superswains One and Two go out to track down the bad guy and wreak revenge.

Problem? Our Heroine stays home. Not okay. Protip for the day: whatever happens in your book, write your query letter in such a way that your main character, Our Heroine, is not only active throughout, but is driving the story.

I once had a class at UCLA from Jodie Foster's former producing partner. She had a rule: if your main character could get on a bus and head off to Mexico at any point during the story, you do not have a story.

Our Heroine might as well have gone to Cabo to recuperate while her erstwhile supernatural boyfriends ran the plot. That is not the way to attract the attention of a reader, or of an agent suffering from a bad case of vampire poisoning.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Know Thyself!

A wonderful sentiment, a brilliant piece of writing, and as usual I'm talking about something else. Something simpler, which makes a change.

You are the writer.
You are not the publisher.

Yes, this post is the result of another snarl with PublishAmerica defenders. I've been talking to a few writers who insist that PA's business model is much smarter and that PA is more likely to prosper than is any given commercial publishing house. Well, yeah, they're selling books back to their writers at exorbitant prices, jacking up shipping costs, eliminating editing, using clipart covers, and even forcing their writers to call a 900-number to place orders. This is to say nothing of the "we'll send your book to fill-in-the-blank for only x-hundreds of dollars!" Of course they're making money. They "published" 234 books last week. If I kept selling you the Brooklyn Bridge I might be rolling in dough, too. And if you kept buying it, well, you haven't researched my activities very thoroughly, have you?

My publisher went bankrupt at the end of 2008, in the thick of the economic meltdown. They lost a lot of money trying to publish books the right way. And they did everything right. It ended badly, and I feel sorry for them. But I had a great time. I got paid, my book is beautiful, any mistakes in it are mine alone because they edited and copyedited the bejeezus out of it. I got to go on a great book tour. I've walked into bookstores and found my book on endcaps. Good times.

If my publisher had spent less on my book (they spent $25,000) and those of the other writers they published, they might still be in business. PublishAmerica spends about $300 per book, according to one calculation. Should that be celebrated? No, folks, it should be shut down. The one thing that absolutely should not happen is that PA writers should defend PublishAmerica.

You are a writer. Your job is to preserve, protect, and promote your writing and your career. Not to do the same for your publisher at the cost of your work. Publishing is a business relationship, not friendship, and not family. You may not even have the same publisher next time. Heck, I know I won't!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Misunderstanding.

A small observation of an under-appreciated story technique: the misunderstanding. Because it is something I see quite frequently in excellent novels and not so much in, well, less-than-excellent novels. I used it myself once to create a relationship-, soul-, and happiness-shattering moment in a screenplay. Someone said something about a rock and someone else thought the person was talking about him and, well, seventy years later it ended badly.

So just a thought for a late Sunday. Make sure your characters are not only not always right, not just mostly wrong all the time, but that occasionally they mishear something, misunderstand something, or make a mistake or three. I was lucky when I was young to read Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, which centers on the main character making a mistaken assumption. Read it. Then go mess with your characters.

Happy Ishtar.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

It's Simple, Really.

Writers are over-thinkers. We knew that. What they most over-think is publishing. I've been talking to a few folks who opted for (or were tricked into) self-publishing their books. Now they explain their choice (or fate), and it always goes along the lines of the impossibility of getting an agent or an editor to look at their work. Of the Vast Conspiracy that surely exists to keep unknown writers from being published.

Let me say it simply: all you need to get published is a book that someone in the publishing world thinks will sell to the public. You don't need to be a celebrity. You just need a book that will sell. Yes, it is surprisingly hard to do that. It is hard to write well. Harder than most people think. It takes time to find the person who will believe in your book. But that's all there is to it. There isn't a magic code word to get past the gates. There are no gates.

Write. Don't waste time and energy believing in conspiracies that don't exist. Don't spread them around the Internet and mislead other writers.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Fantastic Journey.

I went to the other side of the island today. As small as the island is, this is an epic journey. And as I was riding along admiring countryside I hadn't seen since I was a tourist, I realized the importance of setting and scale in fiction. Does your story have major, nation-breaking stakes? Espionage and terrorists and corrupt governments? Well, I'm guessing it's not set on Kauai. It's probably set in New York City and London and Timbuktu. What if your story is about a family crisis, a boy and his dog, or maybe a diary someone shouldn't have read? That one probably doesn't span the globe. It probably spans a small town in the midwest.

Think about your setting. Settings. If you can pull off the mismatch, and launch a successful tempest in a teapot, I shall cheer you on. But avoid the common error of trying to make a story seem larger and more important by inflating the settings. This is a mistake made in science fiction and fantasy all the time. If you need to spring a prisoner from the federal pen, there is no reason to locate that prison on the Moon. Trust me, there really isn't.

I'm still trying to find a story to fit Kauai. It's small, but it carries the risk that almost everyone out there has an idea of what Hawaii is. Anything I can say will be familiar but not a match to a reader's understanding. It's too unique. And heck, it's cute. It's a lovely place with lovely people. When I first moved here the police blotter included loose cow reports, and who am I to comment on the moral turpitude of farm animals?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Do Not Want.

I was wandering a bookstore looking at the new fiction yesterday and found a couple of things that reduce a novel's appeal for me. One is a trend I thought would die out years ago: the New Age-y Title. Examples:

Like Water for Chocolate
Water for Elephants
The (insert archaic job title)'s Daughter

Even Marquez is guilty:

Love in the Time of Cholera

There was a new one yesterday:

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Honestly, if anything will make a reader long for Olive Kitteridge, this trend is it. But then I noticed something else. Read the precis on the inside flap of too many novels and find this:

(Character name) is haunted by (choose: his past, the accident, memories, etc., etc.). In short, pick anything except a ghost. So here is a plea from a potential reader. If your character is haunted, have it be by a dead guy. I'm tired of ennui and angst. I can supply my own, thanks. If there really is a ghost, carry on.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It's (Not) Raining Men.

Tragic, I know, but nobody talks about the landing. Or the cleanup. But I'm not talking about the weather. I'm talking about the reader.

There's a discussion going on in the world of writing, and certainly in the world of publishing: where are the male readers? Specifically, where are the young men?

There is a perception that young men don't read, and I think the perception is accurate. First, let me say that most people of every age and gender don't read. They watch TV, spend time on Facebook, play video games, watch movies, whatever. But when you look at the few, the proud, the readers, there is a missing group: young men. I have offered the theory that they are drawn more by World of Warcraft and porn than to fiction, and I think that's part of it. More of it is probably down to the unsolvable problem of excitement.

Reading used to be the main source of excitement and adventure for those of us who were not going to sign up to crew a clipper ship or be discovered as the missing heir of some remote kingdom. As time passed, war fiction and science fiction could still provide surrogate thrills to the young man struggling with high school or college or a first job. Then came all the other draws: movies, television, video games, and the Internet. Sorry, books, but for the casual reader you can't compete.

You're mad now, but it's true. Only the die-hard readers remain. And people who want something more sedate, like romance, or more difficult to replace, like epic fantasy.

So the young men aren't reading. Young Adult fiction is, for the most part, female-oriented. Fantasy is read by young women. Romance is almost entirely read by women. Yes, older men are still reading. They are reading what they have always read: science fiction, war fiction, literary fiction, and non-fiction. But what happens when today's leveling-up WoW young men replace the former D&D-playing older men?

I visited a couple of bookstores last Wednesday. One was the Lihue Borders, and as I surveyed the new and notable fiction, I realized that most of the books were written by women. And I also realized for the first time that my favorite author list split pretty evenly between the genders. Think of what the literary world looked like fifty years ago, and you'll see some major positive change for women writers.

I predict that trend will continue. But I don't think we'll see this wonderful balance last long. I think we will tip to more women writers of literary fiction. Vastly more. A few reasons here:

1. Publishers know there is a wave of young men out there to whom they can't sell a book at gunpoint. Think they will make a major effort to solve this problem, or will they instead try to reach the reading women? Publishers are trying to survive; they have to serve the largest possible audience. I'm afraid the current generation of young men, and the future generation of older men, has been written off.

2. Do men, especially young men, want to do "girl stuff?" Nope. So what happens in twenty or thirty years when the majority of writers in every genre except science fiction and war fiction are female? What happens when the majority of literary fiction writers are women? Think young men will aspire to join that rank as they once did?

3. Think the Nobel Prize committee, which has already declared that it will never again give the literature award to an American, will be more or less likely to give the prize to a man? You'd better be from an oppressed community, buddy. Yes, we are all made stronger by recognizing the breadth and depth of human experience, but cutting off one group completely is a mistake.

Last Wednesday I also visited a used bookstore that sorted literary fiction by gender. Yep, male writers on one side, female writers on the other. Strangest thing I've ever seen. We're supposed to be on a level playing field in literature. Our only chance is to help the reader reach for a book without thinking of the gender of the writer. We can't risk making the male reader look down that aisle and see "girl stuff."

I suppose, in the end, that's the point I'm trying to make. I hope we aren't losing a generation of men. I hope we aren't losing men entirely.

Monday, March 8, 2010

You Should Do This.

Dont'cha love shoulds? Don't they just wreck the peaceful enjoyment of your hobbies? All the shoulds: should pay your taxes, should replace the roof, should feed the other humans in your house. Such a time-consuming bunch of tasks.

Here's one that isn't. It's one every writer should try:

Take one chapter of your book.
Remove all the adverbs.

That's it. That's all. Use your Find function and look for -ly endings. You can leave "family" in there, and "only" if you must. Everything else must go. See if your work doesn't sound more rigorous and professional.

Try it. You'll like it. Yes, you can feed the other people in your house first, if you must.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I Will Never Do This.

Writing groups, conferences, and forums all have their own personalities. If a writer is lucky, he or she will find a community somewhere where they feel they belong. And he or she will also find a few where they don't feel they fit, and figure out why, and learn something.

I like Nathan Bransford's forums, but I don't fit in there. Part of it is chronology— I'm a decade or two older than most of the folks over there. Then there's the fact that my reading list does not overlap with theirs. Mostly it's something I've seen in post after post that drives me straight up the wall. Posts like this one:

"I know we're told never to use Crappy Writing Technique X, but Writer Joan Doe uses it and sold a zillion books, so I'm going to ignore that advice."

Followed by a dozen "me too" or "you go, girl" posts. No matter how egregious the writing technique, how epic the fail, some will embrace it. Or rather, not bother to root it out of their own work.

Three thoughts:

1. It is true that any bad writing technique can be found in the work of some successful writer out there. It is also true that successful writers can get away with things that new writers cannot.

2. It is true that I feel a certain level of sangfroid in reading posts by new writers who are cheerfully deciding to hobble their chances by ignoring their craft.

3. I will NEVER agree that you can let craft go and ignore problems just because someone who has already earned their publisher a pile of money has let their work slide.

Now get back to the hard work of writing well.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fiction and the Stages of Grief.

Hello again. Sorry for the delay. I do enjoy the writery bit, but it's Second Life that pays the bills, and I've been to a three-day conference in-world and then been doing a little bit of work. Terrible thing is work, but at least I don't have to get off the couch.

On to the writing part. I seem to have survived the online discussion of that vampire book. My explanation that it's not to my taste as I don't care for adjectives, adverbs, twinkly people, 700-year-old high-school students, and the creepy subjugation of women, seems to have gone over well. It's just not on my reading list.

Which made me think about my reading list. Active novels are Roberto Bolaño's 2666, John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River, and Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. So far we have serial killers and literary critics, industrial accidents, and school mass murder. A cheery lot, that. Actually, I'm finding 2666 to be wonderfully funny, but that's probably just me.

So why do I want to read this stuff and not something a bit more escapist? I was pondering, and that's when I thought of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. Anybody who ever took Intro Psych in college knows the name. She introduced an orderly chart of the stages of grief. Get a bad diagnosis? You'll first deny it, then get angry, then try bargaining with any available deity or fate, go on to get depressed, and then find acceptance. You may also remember jokes about people jumping off tall buildings and managing to complete all stages in ten seconds. Maybe you don't if you went to college after 9/11.

Moving on. What I have learned from my experiences with real-life grief is that the stages don't actually come in order. You can have all five in less than three minutes. They come at you when you don't want them, and the last one in particular never seems to last very long. The orderly system is chaos, and even Kübler-Ross called bullshit on the whole thing when she herself was dying. Funny thing, perspective.

What has this to do with fiction? Well, not to beat a horse facing a serious diagnosis, but life is full of occasions for grief and suffering. Life is hard. Whether you're a high school student being told that your geometry final will make-or-break your getting into the college of your (parents') choice or an adult who spent the day sorting her taxes and wishing the new roof could be deducted as a medical expense, much of life is, to put it bluntly, a bitch.

Again, what has this to do with fiction? I believe that fiction helps get us through the night. What we're reading can tell us where we stand on the stages of grief. Do you just want to ignore what's flying at your head? A little denial for just a little while? Escapist fiction. Shiny supernatural sophomores. Down the other end of the scale, you might want to see other people struggling, and you're reading literary fiction. You are suffering, but you are not alone. We are billions of Tolstoy's unhappy families in an endless archipelago.

One of the best critiques I've ever read of a novel was for Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron. I think it was from the Chicago Tribune. The reviewer called the novel "a primer for the survival of the human soul."

That's all writing is, folks: the most important thing in the world.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Revenge of the Itty Bitty.

As I've mentioned, I read literary fiction. This morning was the weekly Big Moment-- the New York Times Sunday book section. This is where I fill my to-buy list, along with the finalist lists of the big awards. No, I don't get invited to parties.

I had a crisis concerning today's book section. Why are the stories so small? Life in a small New England town? Life in a rural post office? Life on an apple farm? Don't get me wrong, writers like Marilynne Robinson are among my favorites, and she delivers quiet, invisible-from-the-sidewalk rural domestic drama like Brett Favre delivers touchdowns. And if further developments from Yoknapatawpha County became available, I will stand in line.

But why is it all like this? What happened to the big subject? I realize I'm mostly talking about great war books: Andersonville and The Naked and the Dead, big political subjects: All the King's Men, and what today you would call pseudo-celebrity books: The Great Gatsby.

Now we have the small subject. I think the issue is genre. As in, we have so freaking many now. Perhaps it's the mega-bookstores. They have to divide their shelves somehow. Perhaps it's that no bookstore that wants to stay in business will put up a section saying "hey, this is good, read this instead of the one you came in to buy!" in case the majority of their customers want the biblical conspiracy bestseller instead. About all you will encounter along that line is the dog-eared shelf notes in independent book stores announcing "Pete Recommends!" And then you just hope that Pete isn't the kid snapping his gum at the front register.

It's marketing and sales. Bookselling for a big outfit is not about serving frequent readers so much as it is about making it easy for infrequent readers to participate in whatever the current cultural phenomena might be. We can be lucky that books still play any part in that dynamic. If "everybody" is reading a certain book, it has to be on the front table, ready for easy consumption. And then the writing has to allow it to be easily consumed.

So the writers of genre novels have been packaged out of literary fiction. I adore genre writers who write well. Heck, some of them are great. I mentioned Anne Rice yesterday, who has written some passages I still remember and revisit. But my concern is that fiction is being Balkanized. Face it, if you have a string of genre bestsellers under your belt, how hard do you have to work at your writing? At what point is that a waste of time, when your next deadline is in six months? We all know stories of writers who hire "coauthors," credited or uncredited, who do the not-so-heavy lifting in the books they churn out two or three or more times a year.

I suppose I've come around to my earlier post about celebrating the bad books that earn money to support the rest, but I've also drifted from my opening question: why is literary fiction, particularly contemporary American literary fiction, all set in Lake Woebegone?

One interesting aside: this limitation seems to be avoided in Europe by writers like Umberto Eco, Ali Shaw, and Susanna Clarke, who are exploring fantastic and supernatural storylines and remaining on the literary fiction shelves. A trend worthy of watching, reading, and celebrating. They are shockingly high-concept...

So what about America, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average? A couple of things. There's the cultural egalitarianism (I don't want to finger the rabid and malignant self-esteem movement that makes all books equal, except I just did). Go in the bookstore once a year, pick up whatever is on the front table in the tallest pile, buy it, and you're a reader, and if you say it's the best book you read this year the store buyers are listening.

I will also blame short story prejudice. There's a small population of writers who can get short stories published in the important magazines and journals. If your name isn't Annie Proulx or Tobias Woolf or whoever, don't bother sending your short story to The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly. No soup for you. And what do editors say about publishing short story collections? Get them published in the big magazines first. You see the problem.

So what if you're a great writer and you have a bunch of ideas for short stories that will never see the light of day? Well, you are going to be told one thing: Write a Novel. So those ideas that could find full flesh in ten or twenty pages are now going to press in 250. You're good, so you can pull it off, and I will buy it, read it, and love it. You didn't want to turn your excellent idea for a war story into a novel and end up in the military fiction section. So it's the post office story.

Yes, there are exceptions. I loved Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, about the Vietnam War. The qualifiers here? Iowa Writers' workshop, published short stories, short story collection, film adaptation, then Tree. Heck, he was even born in Germany, although I believe he now lives in Lake Woebegon.

At the end of this tome, the conclusion is that we are looking at the return of the short story, but in long form. Ladies and gents, I give you the revenge of the itty bitty.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Some Good Stuff.

My mother had an English teacher who never let them use the words "stuff" or "things." I didn't, and this is da kine:

Link to page two at the bottom.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Oh, I'm in Trouble Now.

I'm sure you enjoy the forums over at Nathan Bransford's excellent blog as much as I do. But why, oh why, do I get into it with people on forums? The topic du jour was everyone's current favorite vampire series. Okay, not everyone's. Back in the day when I was reading about vampires, it was Anne Rice for me. I partook, and oh, did I enjoy. I wasn't a big fan of Lestat. He was a bit too wild for me. Armand was my favorite. Good stuff, and good writing. I still peruse sections of Queen of the Damned, The Body Thief, and The Vampire Armand, just for the pleasure of the writing.

So what is about to go wrong for me over at Nathan's place? Well, some people were discussing everybody's fave LDS vampire tale, and I waded in with a few opinions. I'll be honest; I could not get past the first page of the first book. A description of clothing and weather? All on one page? Be still my heart. I didn't follow the story much until the movie came out, and then I did a little research about the entire series. I found a detailed plot summary. My reaction ran along the lines of "Wait, what?"

I remember Anthony Bourdain describing his first taste of iguana tamales. He said they made him want to "stick my head in a bucket of lye and jump off a cliff." I was also reminded of the reason my mother won't let my father tell dirty jokes in her presence: "I don't want to have that kind of thing in my head."

Yeah, like that.

I know what you're thinking: "That's a good story, Grandma!" And I admit it, and it is my point: I am too damn old for that vampire series. Not because I'm not interested in the age group; the protagonist of my new novel is thirteen. I am too old as a reader.

Through high school, I read science fiction. Through college, I read plenty of romance novels (as I remember, you order them by the pound). But the day after I graduated from college I went to the excellent Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara and bought Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. From that day to this, in the fiction category, I have read almost nothing but literary fiction.

That's more than twenty years.

If Armand returns, I'll be there. Otherwise, I'm sorry, but there is no going home again.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Not the ability, the game. You know the one. Trying to find matching pairs from a grid of face-down cards. Here's a star, there's the other star. Now where did I see that chicken? I used to be pretty good at it, when I had all my OEM brain cells.

Writing fiction is a game of concentration. Here's what I mean. The book I'm writing right now, like all novels, is made up of thousands of bits of information. Scenes, gestures, emotions, moments. Two of those moments involve someone eating a small piece of rock (long story). The moments are separated by quite a long stretch of time. The main character does it the first time, in a desperate moment of hunger, and somebody else does it later in a moment of compulsion. The second moment is witnessed by the main character.

This explanation so isn't helping...

Here's my point: seed your fiction with moments that will resonate later in the story. With luck, your reader will remember when he or she sees it the second time. I hope my second scene will make a reader feel again how desperate my main character was and is. I call it a game of concentration, but such elements are really echoes through the story. Resonance. Your reader will feel smart for remembering. For finding the missing card.

One thing I'll say is not to put the matching cards too close together. I'm reading a book now that has as a title another childhood game. The author chose to build up the metaphor of the title within the story, then immediately went into a scene that involved the playing of the game. It felt too planted, to didactic. I as the reader didn't have to do any work. There was no spark between the scenes. By sitting next to each other, by touching, they had discharged all their energy.

Make your reader feel clever for finding the matching card they haven't seen since early in the game. They like to work. Promise. They love to find that chicken.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What Are the Odds?

I stumbled across a blog entry the other day asking the question: What are the odds of landing an agent? The writer provided some links to agent blogs, pointing out the dismally small number of new clients most agents take every year from the avalanches of query letters that come in their doors. Six new clients in a year of 38,000 queries? Ouch. Plus, we can assume that most of those new clients came from recommendations and conferences, not from queries. That's just how the business shakes out. Pretty bad, right?

Well, no. Because books are not widgets. They are creations of (hopefully) talented, intelligent humans. So how about changing the mindset a bit:

If you write a terrific novel and send a great query to an agent who is looking for just that kind of book, and who knows several editors who are also looking for that kind of book, your chances of landing an agent are wonderful.

If you write a terrible novel and send an awful query to an agent who wants nothing to do with your kind of book and can't name a single editor who wants anything like it, well, your odds are infinitely bad.

It's in your hands.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Subtle Much?

How fine the line between telling and showing. From the editing today, the opening sentence of a chapter:

Tell: Writing fifty-two hundred letters takes a long time.

Show: Writing fifty-two hundred letters took a long time.

And that's still telling, when you think about it. I could show every minute of it and bore you to death. It's narrative summary rather than immediate scene, which is always more tell-y. But it gets the story down the road and gets the writer out of it.

Part of the reason I find present tense a bit icky, I'm sure. That and reading way, way too many screenplays.

Friday, February 12, 2010

For a Good Time, Read...

Go to the bookstore. Find the hardback version of Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna. Turn to page 186. Read page 186-187. The section title is Coyoacán notebook. Cry, because you will never read anything better. Then get yourself together, take the book to the register, buy it, and read the whole thing.

This kind of writing is why many writers don't read while they are writing. Because it is too damn depressing to think how far our writing is from hers.

This is why you must.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Privacy, Please!

I started wondering why people enjoy the Nanowrimo process so much. It isn't natural for most writers to write that much that fast. Not many people get to lie on the couch all day like I do and stare into space until the words come along. Which means most Nano-ers are cramming letters on the page after work or class and around the family and other commitments. Not the most congenial writing environment. Combine that with the other problems Nanowrimo poses and I wonder why people do it. Surely the discipline of a ridiculous deadline can't be the only thing. You're supposed to like writing, folks. If you don't, you're really not going to like being a writer.

No, I think it's the community. Writing is a lonely business. I'm lucky; I'm one of the pure introverts. Most people aren't. Most people don't like closing themselves up all alone for hours and days and weeks on end. And yet that's what writing a novel requires. Part of the fun of a writing group is that it kind of qualifies as writing activity, but you don't have to be alone. So along comes Nanowrimo with its forums and community, and suddenly you're almost writing with other people in the room. People who understand.

There's also a more mysterious thing going on. Writing is a profoundly private act. Go to any talk given by a writer and they will always be asked about their "process." How do they write? Do they outline, do they have a place they go to write, does their family help or hinder, how long does it take, how many drafts? It is artistic sausage-making, yet everyone wants to see how it's made. Yet none of the answers will, in the end, answer the question "How?"

Here's a picture; we haven't had one in a while. It's an unusual locale, the library of the WGAw building in Los Angeles, looking out at the intersection of Fairfax and 3rd. Across the street is the Ross that blew up in the Summer of the Methane Leaks. I took this picture at the start of the first ever 24 Hour Screenwriting Marathon. A bunch of us locked up at noon one Saturday and tried to finish screenplays. I was one of the few who got a rough draft out of it. But a good time was had by all.

Look! Writers writing! I still don't know how they do it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Love That Bad Book!

I talked to a couple of writers' groups and a writers' conference while I was out on my book tour. One of the groups was actually a screenwriting group, since that's a part of my background. I made a couple of predictions early in my talk:

1. Paul Blart, Mall Cop, opening that week, was going to earn more than $100 million total box office.
2. A second release that same weekend was going to make $100 million in its first week and no one there would be able to name it.

I was right about both. Blart minted money and nobody in the audience knew that a long-anticipated expansion to World of Warcraft was due out the next day. Entertainment is a wide, wide field.

I don't know if anybody cared about the point I was making, but I did spark some anger from at least one person. How could I cheerfully anticipate the success of a movie like Paul Blart, Mall Cop? Surely it was just another sign of the hideous degeneration of Hollywood and civilization in general. I mean, honestly, kids these days! Why couldn't I promote something good?

As it happens, this occurred during the run up to awards season and there were some quite good movies in the theaters. So I asked the gentleman in question how many of them he'd seen. Answer? None. But you have them on your Netflix list, right? Right.

So we come around to my point and how this applies to the title of this post. We should love and adore a movie like Paul Blart. We don't ever have to see it, but it cost nothing to make and made a lot of money. It paid for three or four excellent small films that nobody went to see, but put on their Netflix list. Every successful movie should be good news for a film lover. They keep the studios open and the Panaflexes turning.

Now when you see the pile of that terrible, dreadful book on the front table of the chain bookstore, and see the crowds of screaming teenage girls and their creepy mothers outside the premiere of the movie made from that terrible, dreadful book, be of good cheer. Think of the share of the money earned going to good writers for good books. Maybe yours!

I also enjoy thinking that my tax dollars go to the Hubble telescope program. Try it; it helps.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


I realized yesterday that I completed a Nanowrimo, in a way. Writing the second half of the current book took a bit more than the entire month of January, and added 49K to the existing 47K. So pretty close. And here I've always taken a somewhat dim view of the whole "write a novel in a month" scene. Not because I don't think it can be done, or the product won't be worth keeping, but because 50K isn't a novel in most genres and because I think it inspires a lot of bad habits.

First, the 50K problem-- that's about two-thirds of a short novel in most genres. If you write a complete story at 50K, and it's a mainstream adult genre novel, something will be missing. There are lots of folks who talk about adding material to a short novel, but unless you're completely re-conceiving and rewriting, how the heck do you do that? Very hard to do without tossing out your 50K, or at least treating it as some kind of über-outline for your story.

So Nanowrimo leaves you with a bit of a pig in a poke. It's not a novel, and it's not something that can be easily turned into a novel.

Second, the bad habits. Like thinking you can write a good novel quickly. Heck, any novel quickly. Yes, there are folks who can do it. I don't know of any, but I'm sure they are out there. I'm sure that somewhere there is a writer who has successfully written and edited a novel in one month that went on to critical success. But I don't know of that person. I've never heard that story.

My worse concern here is that writing a 50K story gives a new writer a false sense of the structure, pacing, and complexity needed in a novel.

Maybe what the Nanowrimo needs is another month. Take October. Two months should give a writer enough time to produce a rough draft of the proper length, if they hustle. And then they need another six month rewriting festival. But that shouldn't start right after the completion. Put the novel away for a couple of months. Then start on the rewriting. Then you'll need time to get the novel to your trusted readers, get some feedback, do some more rewriting...

Maybe we need a Nanowriyear.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


I'd like to talk a bit about editors, and since it's my blog, I think I shall. I mean freelance editors here, the folks you can hire to do anything from correcting your spelling to reworking the structure of your novel. Most work in the spelling/grammar/punctuation area— the mechanics of language.

A common question writers ask is, should they hire a freelance editor to go over their novel before submitting their work? After all, these folks are expensive. Are they worth it?

Well, here's what you need to do: if you can afford an editor, can you afford ten or twenty times their fee? Because here's what is going to happen: your agent will likely ask for rewrites before submitting your work to editors, and editors absolutely will ask for rewrites, many many rewrites, before publication. Are you going to hire that editor every time you rewrite your manuscript?

Spend the time to master the language before submitting your work. Build up your internal editor. This is part of mastering the craft. And actually, I'm suspicious that if you haven't got sufficient mastery, you aren't reading enough. You should be able to hand over a manuscript with, well, how about one single misspelling.

*&#*$*@& cryotome.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Cool Stuff You Don't Know.

New writers get in trouble sometimes. Heck, they should get in trouble all the time; that way they'll have things to write about when they're old writers. But I digress...

The trouble I'm thinking of today isn't the fun kind. It's the trouble-in-the-writing kind. And this trouble comes right up front. We're talking backstory, folks.

My new book starts with my main character waking up in a hospital. He's English, so that should be "in hospital." He's had a seizure, but I make reference to a previous accident he suffered at some point in the past. The accident becomes something important the reader knows nothing about.

When do I tell the story of the accident? Page 227.

Note that I did not tell the reader the whole story of the accident on page one. Or two. Or five. And in that way it became The Cool Stuff You Don't Know. And this is very important stuff in your book. It obviously functions in every mystery novel, because ordinarily someone is dead right up front, the writer knows who did it, and they do nothing but not tell you for three hundred pages. Very cool!

For some reason, lots of new writers don't buy this idea (unless they're writing mysteries, one hopes). No, these are the new writers of Everything Else. And when you start reading their novels you get, right up front, their main character's life story.

Don't do this. Here's what you do: make whatever is happening right up front as interesting as you can. Go ahead and mention some interesting mystery (the dead person or The Accident), but don't rush to fill us in. Keep us in the immediate scene of the story. Just show us what's happening, make us interested, and we'll get to page 227.

Want to read a writer who is terrific at writing The Cool Stuff You Don't Know? Tana French. She starts one big mystery in her excellent first novel, In the Woods, and you still don't know the answer to it at the end of her second book, The Likeness. And it works! I'm not suggesting this technique will work for most of us, nor am I saying that I'm not hoping that the meta-mystery will be solved in her third novel, but keeping some secrets works very, very well.

So don't tell us everything up front. Think of your reader as a blind date. Your blind date doesn't want to know all the gory details that first night. And you don't want the reader going off to the rest room and never coming back.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I Feel Pretty!

I read a lot of queries for fantasy novels. No, they don't come my way; I read them on various writing forums. I don't know if it's that fantasy writers use such forums more than other writers or if there are just that many more fantasy writers out there these days. I fear it's the latter. No real surprise there, after a decade of LOTR, Potter, and that vampire series. I just read another such query, and had a realization:

Special is hard to do. By Special I mean your main characters who discover they have magic powers, are elves, fey, vampires, werewolves, or whatever the term is that you've invented for them. I see a lot of neologism in this area. Special is Harry Potter, obviously.

Not-Special is easier. Not-Special is Frodo Baggins, an everyhobbit with a big problem to solve. Even better is Sam Gamgee, a hobbit of no advantage whatsoever who gets stuck helping with someone else's problem and makes it his own.

What is wrong with special? Why did I stop reading today's query letter the minute the teenage girl main character discovered that she was secretly Special, which happened in the first sentence? Why could I not even continue long enough to find out what this morning's neologism meant? One reason is that there are thousands of these Special teenage girls out there. Here is who she is:

A quiet girl, bookish, doesn't fit in with the popular crowd, probably has family trouble (missing parent is common). She's probably lower-middle class or poor, and doesn't have the latest cool electronic gadgets. Heck, she has no friends or only one who is an equivalent social pariah; who would she text? Often picked on at school, subject of ridicule, obviously uncomfortable with the relaxed sexual mores of the other students. Appearance-wise, she might wear glasses or be forced to wear hand-me-downs or charity-shop finds that don't fit. She's uncomfortable about her figure, which is quite nice. She'll have one flaw-that-isn't, like green eyes that are a little too big, or set too far apart, or an untamable cascade of chestnut-brown hair. You know, a real dog. If the author is extremely daring, this poor girl might be ten pounds overweight, which in these books means she's 120 lbs. at 5' 4".

And then her weird uncle who has been living in Paris but really was prowling the alleys of Eastern Europe shows up and tells her she's the crown princess of an empire of werewolves, or whatever. He may give her a Special ancient book or amulet just before disappearing or dying mysteriously.

I'm not saying there isn't an audience for this; there obviously is, but it's like the audience for romance novels that are utterly predictable: it's not a challenge, it's very hard to do in an interesting way, and there are a lot of us who wish it would go away.

So how do you make Special work? J.K. Rowling is the master of this. Was Harry Potter the average eleven-year-old when the series started? No, he wasn't. He had magic powers. Heck, he was the Boy Who Lived, Special among the Special. Her trick to Special is this:

Piling On.

Harry wasn't just like every other kid. He was essentially a slave to the Dursleys. Rowling's touch was comedic, but the situation was not. Harry was so far down in life that no reader envied his place in the world and every reader wanted to see the Dursleys get what was coming to them. By the time the first owl showed up we were all rooting for Harry. By the time Hagrid appeared, we were thrilled to hear that Harry was Special.

So there's one trick. If your Special character is specially burdened among the Not-Specials, you increase the chances that we'll cheer when their Specialness is revealed. The other method, which works less well, is to make the Specialness seem like something negative. Finding out you're part werewolf might be bad; I don't know, not my area. Why this doesn't work quite as well is that your readers like the idea of being part werewolf or they wouldn't have bought your book. And they know you're going to make it cool somehow. It's like the romance writer who says "he wasn't her sort of man at all! She hated him!" Yeah, yeah, get in bed.

The more successful approach is usually to go with Not Special. Your main character is not a werewolf. Not even a little bit! She isn't fey, isn't an elf, isn't a vampire, isn't a princess of anywhere in this world or the next. Neither is her weird uncle. He's just weird. She might find a magic ring, only for the love of god, don't make it a magic ring. And when you're creating her, please avoid making her "the novelist at the age of sixteen." Because yeah, I've seen that movie, too.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Writer Paranoia.

Back still out, still on the rocks on the couch. And today I finished the rough draft of the new book. Almost a thousand words longer than the last, but 150 pages shorter because there's so much less dialogue. Final count is 96,420, which leaves much room for slash and burnage.

The paranoia part? The first thing I did when I was happy with the last phrase of the last sentence was to google it and make sure it hadn't been used before. Nope, it's all mine. Well, 80% mine, 20% Rilke's.

You'll see.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Think Big.

Since I have suffered a beer-related back injury and cannot treat it with either beer or a pain reliever of choice due to upcoming blood donation, my only choice for evening activity is blogging and a bit of Top Gear in the background. I am utterly marooned upon the couch.

Sounds like I've been into the beer anyway, don't I? Nope. Just a splash of sludge out of the bottom of the bottling bucket. Big times here on a Monday night.

Ow... I moved.

Anyway, on to the writing bit. I'll probably be finishing the rough draft of my new novel tomorrow. All I'll need to do is peel the rind off it, which shouldn't take too many months. And then you'll get to watch the enjoyable agent-querying process right here on the ol' blog. I have name #1 picked out, but I won't spoil the suspense. The last time I queried agents, it was all snail mail, which meant you had at least a couple of days of that fun lottery-ticket feeling before the rejection arrived. Now we have email. I might fail within moments!

So the desultory rambling leads to this: I'm going after good, old-fashioned commercial publishing. I'd prefer trade paper to hardback this time, since I think that's the future of the physical book. But I want a physical book, and I'd like to clear all those high hurdles on my way there.

I am thinking big. I want all writers to think big. This post was inspired by a new kind of post I've been seeing on writing boards:

"I've just finished editing my novel. I've been thinking about, or do you think e-publishing on the Kindle is a better way to go?"

That, my friends, is thinking small. One step up is the small e-publishers, PODs, etc., and upward from there. My question is, why are writers starting at the bottom? This is where the ego-protective lies along the lines of "agents don't read queries" and "nobody publishes unknown writers" do their damage. It's nonsense. Big agents sign and big publishers publish unknowns all the time.

So think big. Shoot for the top. Go for your dream agent. Run at that high hurdle.

I used to be pretty good at the hurdles. When I had a spine.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

And Now We're Alone.

J.D. Salinger died today, as you've certainly heard. On NPR they were asking people what they remembered most about Catcher in the Rye, and the answer was mostly about the voice. They asked about his other writing and what was best remembered was thematic: childhood giving way to mental illness and doom.

I read Catcher in the Rye first, like you do, and went on to read everything Salinger wrote, unless of course the mystical pile of unpublished manuscripts exists. More than voice, I remember the feeling of Catcher in the Rye, the unstoppable emptying out of magic that is the end of childhood. The vague, dull amnesiac horror of approaching adulthood. If nothing else, I knew forever that someone understood.

I'll never read Catcher in the Rye again. Because I don't want that feeling to change. I'm still out there on that cliff, too, and I'm not coming inside. Not even when it gets dark.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Got a care package from home today. Life on the north shore of Kauai ain't exactly roughing it, but there are a few things that can't be had, so my dear mother sends along packages. Today's included a few news clippings about Haiti and such, and then I fished out the last torn square of newsprint and turned it over...

There was a poem for a man who died eleven years ago this month. Frank McConnell, gentleman scholar, professor of English at UCSB. He was a rare genius, an expert in Science Fiction and a biblical scholar. He was married to a woman who already had a young son. They were not married very long when he died, and for the last eleven years on the anniversary of his death she runs a picture of him with a poem in the News-Press. Here is this year's poem:

(As sung by Nancy LaMott)

As I remember him, he had a gentle way.
He was so bright of mind, I can't find words to say.
He turned the darkest day into a world of gold.
He made things younger when they were growing old....

As I remember him, he was a loving man.
I knew it well because where he was, life began.
And though I loved the boy for just a little while,
It was so wonderful. It was so beautiful.
As I remember him, I smile.

Me again... As I remember him, he was a drinker and a smoker, he was round and wore seersucker suits in spring and only got his hair cut every six months or so. He got red in the face when he laughed, and he laughed a lot. He'd stand on the stage in front of three hundred students, light a cigarette, and say "screw 'em, I got tenure." He gave away the trick ending to Citizen Kane to the entire class, because if we hadn't seen it by the time we got to college we deserved what we got. On the class before Halloween, which was always wild at UCSB, he gave us a wonderful talk about being careful, and told us that we were the same person sober or drunk, and to not pour excuses out of bottles.

Frank McConnell was also someone none of us knew. He was someone worthy of a poem in the paper every year. Someone who became a loving dad to a young boy and an adored husband to his wife. Everyone loved the part of him they knew, and we all knew different parts. As wonderful as he was in the lecture hall, and in the pub at the student store afterward, he was, I suspect, more wonderful at home.

That's today's lesson. I didn't invent the idea that nobody knows who anyone else is when they are alone, or in the privacy of their own thoughts. I didn't come up with the statement that every marriage is an unknown but to the two people involved. Every family is a mystery to outsiders. But I want you to think about that when you're writing. Some of the most dramatic, most terrifying, most astonishing writing is not about dead bodies and bombs and alien invasions, it's about what happens when a door closes, shutting out the rest of the world, and your characters are private, even alone. Do not neglect to show your readers that which they rarely see.

Frank, this Heineken's for you.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why Reading Annoys Your Family.

Because it causes mental derangement and emotional instability. Also, there are bad parts.

I hope you don't find yourself on Dr. Phil. Unless you're weird in a funny way that I might enjoy. I like hoarders, as a tip, although they are annoying. I also like compulsive shoppers, because they make me feel better about my Walmart ways. The happy fact is that the majority of us won't qualify to join the Mentals of Melrose. We're mostly fine most of the time.

And then we start reading That Book, and it all goes horribly wrong. Which book? That really good book, the theme of which is Everything That Hurts. Not just what hurts the characters, but what hurts the reader.

It might be the book that peels off your carefully-maintained illusions, exposes the hopelessness of your dreams, the pettiness of your pre-conceived notions, or just gets a thumbnail under the scab that covers your childhood. Trivial concerns, certainly, but you are suddenly completely exposed to plenty of pain you weren't expecting.

I'll give you two examples, but if you think I'm going to explain why these two do me in, you have another think coming: Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, and The Big Rock Candy Mountain, by Wallace Stegner. I'm only a sixth of the way through the latter, and I expect to be a jelly by the time it's done.

Be kind to your families and friends. Be aware if what you are reading is wrecking you. Remember that you are visiting and living in a world they aren't, even if they did once. If your reading is damaging your real life, take a break from that book. Join that real life already in progress. Those folks miss you when you're gone.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain will always be there waiting for you. Somewhere.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Irony and the Identity Issue.

NPR played Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech yesterday and I turned it up loud. And on the news that night came a march of demonstrators at the state house in Honolulu, and I thought it was a demonstration in recognition of Dr. King's life and achievements. No, within moments my head had exploded.

They were demonstrating against a bill before the state legislature that would give gay people the right to civil unions in the state of Hawai'i. Yes, I said against. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

So I stopped shouting at the people on the television and scraped my brains off the walls. And the more I thought of it, the more the irony started to crush me. Hawai'i, which has the highest racial diversity in the nation. Hawai'i, where the President of the United States was born to parents who would not have been allowed to marry in other states.

I doubt these protesters would come out in favor of miscegenation laws today, the non-existence of which allowed them to be a part of families they love and value, but they want to deny the same rights and basic human dignity to homosexuals. You can appreciate the irony.

Here's where this intersects with writing: your characters had better not understand themselves any better than these folks. Not at first, anyway. They can have, probably should have, a brain-splattering enlightenment somewhere along the line. And if you're writing drama, it will probably come after they've done some enormous damage along the way with their idiocy.

I wish they were not, at present, damaging my lovely state and her residents. All of them.

Tomorrow, perhaps we will talk about why your family would like you to read less.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Disgust is Now Infinite.

Remember my earlier discussion of PublishAmerica's new scam, claiming to send copies of their writers' books to Oprah, Walmart, etc. if only they'll pay for a pile of overpriced paperbacks? Here is the official Lowest of the Low. What a bunch of absolute bastards:

Your Book In Borders Helps Haiti
Dear Author:

PublishAmerica will put your book in your local Borders!

We will donate your book to Borders. As many copies as you determine. We will also make a donation on your behalf to the earthquake victims in Haiti!

We're not waiting for the nation's second largest bookstore, Borders, to order your book. We're donating it to them, as many copies as you choose. They may put up your book for sale any way they want, and we will inform your local newspaper about Borders and your book.

Here's how we do it:

You may order any number of books you want on hand, and PublishAmerica
will match the order. We will donate the exact same number of books to
your local Borders store. In fact, we won't even charge Borders for the shipping!
And you receive a 40 pct discount!

On top of that, PublishAmerica donates $1 for each
Borders book to the American Red Cross Haiti relief effort.

Example: you order 15 copies, we print 30. We ship your 15 copies to you, and the same week we ship an additional 15 books to your local Borders store, at NO cost to the bookstore. Plus $15 goes to Haiti!

Go to, find your book, click on it, then add to cart, indicate quantity, and use this coupon: Borders40. Then click Recalculate and finish the transaction. Minimum volume is 12 copies.

Want fewer books? Then use this coupon: Borders30. No minimum volume requirement here. This will give you a discount of 30 pct, and we'll still donate as many books to Borders as you order for yourself, plus we'll still make the donation to Haiti.

In the Ordering Instructions field, be sure to indicate the address of your local
Borders store. By using the coupon you are authorizing us to match your
order and donate the books. You may also request that we ship the FREE
books to your local Waldenbooks store instead, or to yourself.
Also write "Media Yes" in the Instructions field, and we'll contact you for name
and address of your local newspaper.

U.S. stores only. Full-color and hardcovers excluded. Offer expires this weekend on Sunday night.

Thank you,
PublishAmerica Author Support Team

Friday, January 15, 2010

My Neurosis, Let Me Show You It.

This is what happens to me when I write without an outline:

When the novel was at 45K words, I was in terror that it would be finished at 60K words.

Now it is as 65K words, and I am in terror that it will go over 100K words.

If you are also a crazed structuralist, I recommend an outline.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Little Problems, Big Problems.

Remember John Crowley's Little, Big, that I mentioned a couple of days ago? Beautiful style, singular voice? I stopped reading it last night. Because a few things weren't going well. I'll start with the Last Straw:

1. People Don't Act That Way. I won't spoil the story, but suffice it to say that one character does something Very Very Bad. This something should make the spouse of that character see that he or she is Horribly Killed to Death. At least, that's what I'd do, and I'd use plenty of pointy objects to do it, too. The wronged spouse, however, merely shrugs his/her shoulders and on the story goes, I suppose. I, sadly, could go no further.

Indeed, the entire book was chock-a-block with oddities that were never questioned. Even our would-be POV character, who enters a very unusual community, accepts it right away and carries on as though he has always lived there. Much here is odd, but nothing is made of it. And there is so much of it, in that very elaborate writing style, that it is hard to keep your feet.

Why is everyone behaving so singularly? Because, dear reader, there is:

2. A Tale. Not the one in the book, but the one we're told controls every event and character in the book. Yes, everything that happens to these folks for generation after generation is part of The Tale. See why Wronged Spouse just brushes off an event that would drive me to grisly homicide? Because it is part of The Tale. No point fussing. What will be will be. And they all buy in to this. They've all drunk the grape Kool-Aid.

Here's a bit of Film School Wisdom: Destiny is what you chase. Fate is what chases you. If you do nothing, you will never achieve your destiny, but will be run over by fate. That last bit is pretty much the one thing that doesn't work in fiction: sitting there awaiting your fate. Well, maybe it can work in a short story. In a novel it becomes tiresome, fast.

And so I bailed. I had bought the book hoping for something like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The writing style in Little, Big was more florid, certainly, but there were three more important differences:

1. Clarke's world is very much like our own. The magic functions within a very familiar history (look, footnotes!). Crowley's world is slightly different in many, many ways that aren't always clear.

2. Clarke's characters behave as we would expect them to behave. The English gentlemen are English gentlemen. This makes the not-entirely-normal characters stand out nicely. And even those characters were described in the same style as the others. I think of it as a "just so" technique. No pointing and saying "look at this!" Those elements of the story that stand out as unusual do so by their nature, not because of the writer making a big deal about them.

3. Jonathan Strange has a major goal in the novel that gets him into big trouble. Actually, it gets his wife into worse trouble, but you take my meaning. He had a destiny, and he pursued it. In Crowley's world, just at the moment when I thought one character was in big trouble, well, nope. It was all part of The Tale, so the other characters let it pass.

I let this tale pass.