Friday, October 24, 2014

Reader Friday: Early Signs of Being a Writer

Were there any signs early in your life that you would one day become a writer? Describe.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The TKZ Monthly Critique Group: The Shattered Kingdom

Note: Let's approach today's critique as a virtual critique group. We'll go around our virtual "table" here at TKZ, giving constructive comments on today's submission, THE SHATTERED KINGDOM. It's described as "YA High Fantasy." I'll put comments at the end to get the ball rolling, and y'all take it from there! 

The Shattered Kingdom 
Lyria crouched in the deepest shadows, waiting for her target to make his move. The pommel of her knife stuck uncomfortably into her side through her jerkin; she shifted and impatiently hoped he would make it soon.
      Commotion at the front of the manor caught her eye and she shifted her fingers against the worn leather wrapped around the belly of her bow. The rattle of an opening portcullis broke the silence and a flash of light from a torch lit the side of a small cart emerging through the gatehouse.
      This was it, he was running. Lyria stood, grabbing her full quiver from the ground. She hooked the quiver to her belt and nocked an arrow to the bowstring. Shaking back a lock of loose hair, she waited for the small cart to roll into range.  The hilly terrain gave her an excellent vantage point and in the moon’s light she saw two men, one whipping the single horse into a swift trot and another hunkered inside the cart.  “Got you,” Lyria muttered, drawing the bowstring back.    
      The driver urged the horse to a canter, swiftly bringing the cart and its occupants into range. The driver was either well acquainted with every rut and turn of the road or an imbecile to drive in the dark at such speeds. Lyria suspected it was the second as the horse threw its head and the cart lurched and bounced.
     They hurtled closer, the cart’s wheels clattering in the silence. Lyria sighted along the arrow at the man hunched behind the driver, tensed to release and put an end to this man who thought he could cheat a demon.
     Something wasn’t right, instinct stayed her fingers. She eased her bow down and studied the man in the cart.       
      “Curse it,” she spun on the spot, silently dashing into the thick crop of trees where her horse waited. The horse spooked slightly as she jumped into the saddle.
     Clutching her bow, she grabbed the reins with one hand and turned the horse’s head, urging her to a fast trot through the trees.  They burst onto the road in front of the speeding cart. The driver shouted in terror at the black clad figure and yanked hard on the reins. His horse squealed and reared, its panicked eyes showing white. The cart skidded to a stop mere feet away from Lyria.
My thoughts: Even though YA and fantasy aren't genres I typically read, I enjoyed this setup. The writer uses lots of "muscular" verbs, which are appropriate for an action scene ("hurtled," "tensed," "burst,"). That is good! My main suggestion to the writer would be to use shorter sentences. Action scenes are driven by short sentences and strong verbs. Using short sentences will add lots of punch to the verbs that are used here so well. For example: instead of
“Got you,” Lyria muttered, drawing the bowstring back.
Break it up as follows:
"Got you," Lyria said. She drew the bowstring back.
Instead of:
Something wasn’t right, instinct stayed her fingers.
Break it up as follows:
Instinct stayed her fingers. Something wasn't right. (I changed the order of the phrases because I think her thought should follow the physical instinct.)
Try to rewrite the scene so that there is no more than one action per sentence. When the sentences are broken up, I think this will be a strong opening scene. I did have a bit of confusion over the object of Lyria's focus. At first, I assumed her "target" was an individual. I got confused when it shifted to "cart," and then went back to "he." That potential confusion could be avoided by including the moment when Lyria (and by extension, the reader) realizes that the hunkered down figure is, in fact, her target.
But these are all easy fixes! Overall, a promising start. Thank you for the submission!
Now I let's go around our TKZ table. Please add a Comment with your notes for our brave writer.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Attending a Writers Conference

Nancy J. Cohen

Today I am on my way to the Novelists, Inc. conference at St. Pete Beach. As I am contemplating what to say here, I’m thinking about the benefits of spending a wad of money to attend a writers conference. Ninc focuses solely on the business of writing for career professionals. You must have two published novels to join, so the membership consists of multi-published authors. This makes it different from any other conference, which may be aimed toward fans or writers at all levels.

Ninc doesn’t aim to teach you to write. It aims to get you up to date on industry news and trends in publishing; the how-to’s regarding promotion & marketing, indie publishing; legal aspects like literary estate planning and forming a collaborative group to produce a book box package; how to use Amazon or Book Bub or Goodreads effectively. Reps from Kobo, Amazon, iBooks and more will be present. I can’t wait to attend. I can pick anyone’s brain there for any career questions I might have, and I have plenty. Ninc is a goldmine of seasoned, professional authors.

So why should you attend a writers, as opposed to a fan, conference? Here are some of the benefits:

· Networking with other authors and making new friends
· Career guidance from more experienced authors
· Attracting new readers, as authors are readers, too.
· Workshops at all skill levels
· Editor/Agent appointments
· Name recognition
· Meeting authors whom you might ask later for an endorsement
· Giving back to the writing community by offering a workshop or volunteering

I have been attending SleuthFest for years. This premier mystery writers conference will take place Feb. 26 at Deerfield Beach, FL. And new this year is the Flamingo Pitch Tank, where you get the chance to pitch your novel to every attending editor and agent at once. This is in addition to one-on-one appointments. You’ll learn about marketing and brush up on your other writing skills. Last year I attended workshops on Kobo and ACX. So check out this event before it sells out. James Patterson and Dave Barry are guest speakers.


What other reasons can you offer for attending a writers conference? As I will be unable to respond, please talk amongst yourselves. I’ll respond next week when I am back home.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How To Get Out of Story Stall

I think about Paris when I’m high on red wine.
I wish I could jump on a plane.
And so many nights I just dream of the ocean.
God, I wish I was sailing again. 

If you read my last couple of entries here you know I have been struggling to get some mo on my WIP. This week I finally realized I needed something drastic to kick me out of my funk.

So I took a cue from that great Western philosopher Jimmy Buffett and changed my latitude to change my attitude.

I didn’t get on a plane and go to Paris. But I did take a boat to work.

Normally, I work at home, migrating from sofa to chaise to bed with Acer in tow. But I was feeling closed in and my story was reflecting that. So I stuck the laptop in a backpack, put on clean clothes, combed my hair and slapped on enough makeup so I wouldn’t scare the horses and left the condo.
I live in downtown Fort Lauderdale on a river. A couple days ago, the city started up a free water taxi service. So Saturday, I took the boat to my local Coffee Place With Green Mermaid Logo. I got a cappacino, switched off the Wifi and opened Word. In two hours, I wrote 956 words. And most of them were keepers.

Today, I am back. And as soon as I finish this blog post, I am back to chapter twenty-two. And you know what? For the first time in weeks, I am eager to get to work.

Maybe you are one of those writers who thrive on routine and quiet. God bless you. I envy you. But I can’t do it. I don’t have set hours and I seem to produce my best work when I am in a strange place, preferably with the white noise of hissing espresso machines or bar Musak. But I had gotten in the habit of staying at home and it had resulted in a bad case of story stall.

We all have times when we get stuck in neutral, when our mind-wheels are mired in mud or spinning fast and going nowhere. Yeah, we can call it writer’s block, as this New Yorker article does:

Writing is a nerve-flaying job. First of all, what the Symbolists said is true: clichés come to the mind much more readily than anything fresh or exact. To hack one’s way past them requires a huge, bleeding effort. For anyone who wonders why seasoned writers tend to write for only about three or four hours a day, that’s the answer. Anthony Burgess...concluded that a writer can never be happy: “The anxiety involved is intolerable. And...the financial rewards just don’t make up for the expenditure of energy, the damage to health caused by stimulants and narcotics, the fear that one’s work isn’t good enough. I think, if I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.”
But I think writer’s block is a luxury of literary types. If you write for the commercial market, you can’t afford to wait for the muse to come around every couple years. My story stall and my move to coffee shop got me to thinking about all the ways we can use to un-stick ourselves. I'll bet you guys have some good tips to add.

Change Your Habits or Habitat

Getting dressed and going to a coffee shop has forced me to treat my writing as more of a job. I also have eliminated all the distractions and excuses of home: dogs, full laundry basket, TV, husband, unfinished crossword puzzle. If you work at home now, go somewhere else. Do you write only in the morning? Try a shift to the afternoon. I know life intrudes (kids, day job, night classes). But even a small change in routine can make you feel renewed.

Switch Point of View

Not just your own, but your narrator’s. When I started my WIP, I envisioned the entire story from my female protag’s POV as she is pursued by a male investigator. But once the guy came on stage, he started stealing the story. I fought him for nine chapters before I realized his story was equally as compelling as hers. In fact, their storylines paralleled thematically. I switched to a dual protag and the story took off.

Simplify Your Plot

There is an urge, when you’re new at novel writing, to use all your best ideas in one book. Maybe it’s because we feel if we don’t, we will never get a second chance. Usually, a simple linear plot works best. (Which is not to say you don’t have complications, obstacles, setbacks, etc.) Two folks in my critique group were wrestling with confusing tangled yarn-ball narratives that overwhelmed their characters. One writer realized he had TWO books in one and has now excised one plot line for a sequel. The other writer realized she was trying to graft an international thriller plot onto what is, at heart, a lovely Romeo and Juliet mystery. Once she jettisoned the over-done thriller elements, the characters began to shine.

Pick a Different Point of Entry

The writer’s saw states, “get into a scene as late as possible.” I’d say that applies to your overall story. As James, Jodie and others have said here often, the optimum moment to begin your story is just before the stuff hits the fan. If you have too much set-up, all the reader “hears” is you clearing your throat. If you come in too late, you can risk losing any chance to build tension. Do you have a prologue? Try cutting it out. I bet you won’t miss it. Click here to read Joe Moore's useful post on prologues.

Write Your Book’s Back Copy

Lack of focus is one of the biggest reasons for story stall. If you don’t know WHAT YOUR STORY IS ABOUT, how can you know where it is going? I’m not talking about plot points; I am talking about the big picture, the main drama and the stakes, your character’s arcs, and the theme. If you can’t boil your book’s essence down to one sharply written paragraph of about five sentences, I’m betting you don’t have a handle on what you are trying to say. I wrote about this at length a while back. Click here to see tips.

Print Out Your Chapters

It’s scientific fact that looking at a computer screen changes the way our brains work. Print out your pages and read them like a reader. And here’s another twist: Format your chapters in single space, justified, Times Roman, so it looks as close to a real book as possible. I did this once and my problems with pacing and back story jumped off the page. Also, “typesetting” it breaks your mental image of your WIP, taking it out of “rough” draft (I’m struggling!) to “real” book. (Wow, not as bad as I thought.)

Speed Write

This is something I do in my workshops: I give students an opening line and make them write as fast as possible for ten minutes. Sure, it might produce junk, but more often than not, they come up with interesting stuff. Set a kitchen timer or your iPhone and just let it flow fast and furious. You will surprise yourself. Consider it a creative colonic.

Quit While You’re Ahead

This one’s from Ernest Hemingway: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” Caveat: This does not work for me. I must finish and light up my metaphoric ciggie.  

Get an Imaginary Dog

This is something I know a lot about: Not writing is like not sleeping. It does no good to lay there at 3 a.m. and stare at the glowing digital clock. Likewise, staring at the blinking curser won’t unblock you. Get out and go for a walk. Wordsworth wrote many of his poems on the move. Nietzsche claimed to have made all his philosophical insights while walking, and Kierkegaard wrote, "I have walked myself into my best thoughts." Walking is something of a luxury in our go-go world. But science has documented the relationship between walking and thinking, that the rhythm of the body seems to free the mind. The ancient sages even had a phrase for it: Solvitur ambulando. "It is solved by walking.” So walk, don’t run. No iPod. Leave early and take the dog.

Get Some Imaginary Kids

We are Writers (capital W). But sometimes it’s good to go lower case and remember we are first storytellers. In our quest for the perfect sentence, the lovely phrase, the big idea, we often get in the way of our stories. Did your parents or teachers ever read to you? Remember how enthralling it was? John Steinbeck once wrote about being stalled: “Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother, or someone that you like.” If you get stuck, imagine you are sitting around a campfire telling a good story to some kids. Would you open with a prologue full of back story? Would you start with some confusing dialogue? No, you’d do something like this: “Every night, before he turned off the light, Jamie would get down on his hands and knees and look under his bed. There was never anything there except the dust bunnies. But on the night of his thirteenth birthday, when he picked up the edge of the bedspread, he saw something he had never seen before.”

Stop Writing

I know, I know. This sounds counter-intuitive. It smells of defeat. But I think we sometimes just need to give ourselves a break and take a break. Maybe your break is only for a day or a week. Maybe it needs to last over a good vacation. Maybe, like I had to do at one time, you need to take a couple months off. The world won’t end. Your WIP will still be there when you go back. But don’t buy into this notion that you MUST write every day. I’ll give the last word to Hilary Mantel:

“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ¬music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.” 

I like that. Be patient. With your writing and with yourself.

Monday, October 20, 2014

“Preachiness” in Novels: How to Present Controversial Ideas in Fiction

Note from Jodie: I'm busy meeting deadlines and getting ready to head off to the Surrey International Writers' Conference this week, so I invited former journalist and talented thriller author Robert Bidinotto to guest post for me here today. Take it away, Robert!

Vigilante heroes – including Dylan Hunter, the hero of my vigilante thriller series – break lots of laws and conventions. I confess that I occasionally do the same about the laws and conventions of fiction-writing.

For instance, one cardinal rule, taught by many fiction instructors, is: 

Avoid expressing your personal views about politics, religion, and other controversial issues in your fiction.

Your job as a novelist, they say, is solely to entertain—not to “preach.” If you get up on your soap box, you’ll only alienate many potential fans. To attract a broad readership, you should suppress the desire to push divisive “agendas.”

Or, as movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn famously admonished a screenwriter: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

But is it true that you shouldn’t express controversial views in popular fiction?

Well, it is true that readers of popular fiction don’t want to be lectured to or harangued. Some authors, believing they have important ideas to convey, beat readers over the head with their views. In static scenes on porches, in drawing rooms, and around dinner tables, characters don’t converse; they deliver speeches and soliloquys. Too often, these wooden, one-dimensional “characters” are little more than premises with feet.

I had to confront this issue head-on when I decided to move from nonfiction into fiction. You see, I have strongly held views and have never hidden them. My writing career began with “advocacy” journalism: essays, reviews, and other opinion pieces. So, when I decided to write thrillers a few years ago, it felt natural to incorporate my views into my stories.

First, I rejected the belief that there’s an inherent contradiction between entertaining fiction and thought-provoking fiction. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Hugo, Dickens, Tolstoy, Orwell, Dostoyevsky, Rostand—all wrote works that entertained millions while taking sides on the controversies of their times. Taken literally, the “no politics” rule would have deprived the world of Les Misérables, 1984, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin—serious novels of ideas that still won vast popular audiences.

Moreover, if you watch marketing expert Simon Sinek’s influential talk, “Start With Why,” you’ll see that building compelling stories around your passionately held beliefs can become a great marketing strategy. They will attract those who share your views, making them loyal fans, even evangelists for your work. Distinctive views also help to “brand” you, making you and your work stand out from the crowd and become more visible.

But how can authors with “something to say” avoid the pitfalls of heavy-handed preachiness? And how do I incorporate controversial ideas into popular thrillers, without turning off readers looking mainly for a good rollercoaster ride?

I think many opinionated writers fail to entertain because they engage in extraneous pontificating, rather than make their ideas integral to the stories themselves. The trick is to weave a provocative theme or premise into the very fabric of your story, making it the thread that connects your characters to each other and to the events of the plot.

In his classic how-to, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri devotes the first chapter to structuring a story upon a “premise.” Egri shows how to develop a controversial theme, first by creating major characters that hold uncompromising, opposing positions. Their clash of values drives the plot’s central conflict, which is resolved at the climax. The climax “proves” the story premise. Minor characters play complementary roles, representing “variations on the theme.” (Of course, your challenge as a literary craftsman is to make your characters seem three-dimensional and fully real—and not mere mouthpieces for arguments.)

I used Egri’s approach with my first thriller, HUNTER, which draws upon my past investigative reporting about the criminal justice system. It dramatizes the outrageous leniency I discovered, in which vicious criminals are routinely recycled back onto the streets to prey on new victims. The major antagonists are my hero, mysterious investigative journalist Dylan Hunter, and a wealthy philanthropist funding “alternatives to incarceration.” The complication is that Dylan doesn’t know that his sworn enemy also happens to be the father of the woman he loves.

This orchestration of characters allows the thriller’s theme—the injustices caused by excessive leniency—to be not only articulated and argued, but to be dramatized in action, with all the scary violence, intense suspense, and sizzling romance that thriller fans expect.

For the sequel, BAD DEEDS, I set the story in even more controversial territory: the clash between environmentalists and the “fracking” industry. Here, my views are not what most readers would anticipate. But once again, I present villains who uphold ideas and values opposite those of my hero. Once again, the plot brims with action, suspense, colorful characters, and white-knuckle thrills. And once again, the climax “proves” the theme.

At first I feared that my maverick opinions would turn readers off. Instead, HUNTER became a Kindle and Wall Street Journal bestseller. And the even-more-controversial BAD DEEDS is maintaining an Amazon customer rating of 4.9 out of a possible 5.0 points.

So, if you write mysteries and thrillers, relax! You don’t have to avoid touching hot-button controversies. In fact, doing so can become a badge of distinction, helping your work to stand out in the overcrowded marketplace. I describe my novels as “thrillers for thinkers.” 

And in an era of recycled plots and worn genre retreads, that’s not a bad brand.

Robert Bidinotto is author of the Kindle and Wall Street Journal bestselling thriller, HUNTER, and the thrilling sequel, BAD DEEDS. Robert earned a national reputation as an authority on criminal justice while writing investigative crime articles as a former Staff Writer for Reader's Digest. His famous 1988 article, "Getting Away with Murder," stirred a national controversy about crime and prison furlough programs and was named a 1989 finalist for a National Magazine Award. Robert is author of the acclaimed nonfiction book Criminal Justice? The Legal System vs. Individual Responsibility. He also wrote Freed to Kill—a compendium of horror stories exposing the failings of the justice system. Robert drew upon this background and his personal experiences with crime victims to write HUNTER.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Pen is Mightier

James Scott Bell

Last weekend I was at the Central Ohio Fiction Writers conference, where I met up with TKZ regular Steve Hooley. Steve handed me a package which had, inside, a most remarkable fountain pen.

Remarkable because Steve made it himself. Not only that, he made it out of Irish bog wood, which he ordered special, in celebration of my Irish ancestors. He lathed the wood and polished it, then put together the other components. It’s the kind of pen that would run a few hundred bucks if you bought it at a Waterman store. 

He even put green ink in it, another nod to the Emerald Isle.  

I hold this fine instrument in my hand with trepidation. I don't wish to befoul a virgin sheet of paper with the indecipherable scrawl that is my cursive writing. Ever since I first learned handwriting, I have never been able to get it to look like anything other than a secret code made up on the spot by a drunken Croatian spy. Steve's pen deserves to have beautiful writing at the end of its nib, which is why entrusting it to me is like placing a twelfth-century illuminated manuscript in the jaws of a pit bull for safekeeping.

However, I have determined that it must be used. Otherwise, it would be like having a solid gold Cadillac in the garage, covered in a tarp and never taken out for a spin.

Now, it just so happens I have a completely blank Moleskin notebook sitting on my shelf. 

All this calls to mind (mine, at least) the Paris of the 1920s. I should be like Hemingway or Fitzgerald and find a cafe with outdoor tables, and make notes on the passing scene, or try to write “one true sentence.” I should be jotting my thoughts about writing and the writing life so this notebook can be discovered by my heirs after I shuffle off this mortal coil, and be published with great fanfare (or some kind of fare, even if it’s just cab fare). 

Maybe it should be a diary of my deep, dark secrets, such as: I actually like Hamburger Helper. I think Bruce Springsteen is overrated. I have a secret longing to return to this life someday as Sam Elliott’s voice. 

Frankly, I don’t know what to do. Should I journal? Doodle? Try to write a story? What is the best use of my beautiful pen and immaculate notebook?

I will entertain suggestions from the TKZ community.

I thank you.

What about you? Are you a pen person? Do you like the feel of it? Or are you a dedicated typer?

And what will happen to our culture as cursive writing slides into oblivion?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Reader Friday: When Life Gives You Lemons...

Lately it feels as if the news has been all bad, all the time. (Isis! Ebola! Market roller coaster!)

Please answer the following question: 

When the 24-hour news cycle delivers nothing but lemons, how are you affected as a writer?

A. Full Stop. I make a stiff lemon-tini, and then I spend the rest of the day watching CNN Breaking News, and reading #ebola updates on Twitter.

B. I write faster! Like a depressed person who feels happier when it rains, I actually get energized by grim news. 

C. Meh, the daily headlines don't affect my writing. I just tune it out. 

D. Other. (Explain.)