Wednesday, August 27, 2014

In praise of editors

Barbara here. Two weeks ago I wrote a blog about the many conflicting facets of a writer's life – yes, I know, not another one of those – because I was up to my eyeballs in various writerly commitments at a time when most other people were enjoying summer vacation. (As an aside, I can't believe it's already my blog turn again, it feels like only yesterday. All summer long I've been chasing  the caboose.)

At the time I mentioned that I was expecting the edits for my latest Cedric O'Toole Rapid Reads book, THE NIGHT THIEF, to arrive any day. Perhaps because I mentioned it, they arrived the next day, along with the editor's plea that that I get them back to her as soon as possible because there have already been requests for advance reading copies. This when I am deep in the first draft of a new novel and hoping to get as much done before my research trip which starts August 31, and lasts three weeks. When was I to find the time, let alone the right mental mood, to do THE NIGHT THIEF justice?

A good editor poses useful and troublesome questions, pointing out deficiencies and ambiguities in the manuscript that require thought to solve. It's not just a matter of clicking the 'accept' button on a different word or deleted adjective. Those edits are easy and can be fixed while sitting in the doctor's waiting room (as I have done on occasion). There are other edits, usually in the form of comments such as "This doesn't work for me" or "Please expand/ clarify" that present a far greater challenge. Usually by the time an editor looks at a manuscript, the writer has chosen each detail with care and deliberation, and sculpted each word and phrase so that the words and the ideas flow seamlessly from one to the next. Each word is perfect, the rhythm of the whole is perfect. So it is not easy to stick in an extra sentence or paragraph to clarify or expand. It takes reworking the whole section and creating a whole new flow that often feels clumsier and patchier than the original.

The temptation is to reject the comment, to say the section is fine and that surely it should be obvious what is meant. Except that of course, it's not. If the reader misses the point or is confused, it's because the writer has failed to communicate well. Every reader takes away from a piece a unique understanding of it that is partly the writer's intent and partly the reader's experience and interpretation. However, there should be some basic consensus about the writer's intent. One reader shouldn't go away with the idea that Mary is Jane's child, while another reader is sure Mary is Susan's child. It's the job of the reader to be clear, not only about facts but about emotion.

So changes have to be made to make the meaning clear. When tackling a comment from an editor or critiqued, the writer's first step is to ask whether the editor is right. Stubborn pride has no place here. Sometimes the editor is wrong; they read thousands of manuscripts and have argued over lots of words in the past, but it is just possible they missed the boat this time. They might have been reading several manuscripts at once and mixed them up, or had a long delay during the reading so they forgot crucial details.

But objective analysis will usually tell whether the editor has a point and changes need to be made. Sometimes the editor even makes a suggestion, either in words or content, but even in these instances, the writer has to carefully weigh the suggestion. Is it the best way to solve the problem? Would my character do/ say/ act like that? Is it consistent with the story? Make your own changes if you prefer. This too requires much thought.

Even more substantive than the comments in the text are the general editorial comments at the end of the piece. By definition, these are "big picture" concerns that require in-depth thinking about the whole as well as careful thinking about what small changes can be made to specific scenes to make the story better. Once again the first question is whether the editor is right. A good editor is a fresh set of eyes on a story that is too near and dear to the writer to permit objective evaluation. The writer may think his main character is loveable, but that may not come across on the page. Sometimes writers are too subtle, sometimes not subtle enough.

At the end of the exercise, if both writer and editor have truly given the story the detail and attention it needs, the story will be much the better for it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The wonder of dreams

I had an exceptionally odd thing happen to me last night. As I’m sitting here writing this post — back home in Toronto once again — I’m still having trouble getting a grip on my experience.

You see, I had a dream about the two main characters from my novel-in-progress. Actually — and more accurately — I had a dream in which I interacted with them.

I haven’t been spending as much time working on my novel as I would like (and believe me, I would like nothing less than full time with it) and it’s been a struggle. I know a lot about them but haven’t really become comfortable in their presence, if you know what I mean. It seems a struggle to get inside their heads, and being the omnipotent narrator, this is sort of a must, don’tcha think?

I do get occasional glimpses of their innermost beings, and in order to keep moving forward, I just do what I can, knowing that eventually it will all fall together and I can go back, by then knowing them well, and fix up these earlier scenes in the book where I’m still struggling.

Then my unconscious got to work on me.

Trust me, I have never experienced anything like this before, and it was profound. Never has a single character from any of my novels or stories appeared to me in a dream. Yeah, I go out for walks and talk to some of them to work out a plot point or to choreograph a troublesome scene so that they fit comfortably in it, but it’s all clearly imaginary.

This was quite different. Here were Charles and Alex, big as life and completely real, working with me to discover the whereabouts of something. That part of the dream was unclear, as these things often are in dreams. Charles lives on the Hudson River near a village called Cold Spring, so the location sort of looked like that. Having just returned from nine days in that area — and having spent the first nineteen years of my life in and around Westchester County — I know it well. I kept stealing glances at them, thinking to myself, “Yeah, I got that right. Alex does look like that. Charles had a deeper voice than I expected, though. My dream was just ultra real like that.

At first, we were in a car. Alex at the wheel since Charles doesn’t drive. I was in the back seat and they were both peppering me questions. That morphed into a scene where we were right along the banks of the Hudson in a wooded area, searching under bushes and reeds near the water. I kept saying things like, “I’m pretty sure I left it around here. I feel so stupid for not remembering where I put it.” They were very kind not to point out that I was stupid. I know that took a lot of forbearance on Alex’s part. She definitely lacks patience.

There isn’t too much more I remember about the dream, but I woke up with the profound feeling of having actually met my two characters in the flesh. Since this novel is the start of a series (I hope!), it was a very important moment for me.

First rule of any series: the characters have to seem like real people — or you’re dead in the water.

Now they are real.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Signings and dedications.

John had a very interesting post last week about doing a signing, particularly when he wrote about his answer to the question 'Was it worth while?'  I think every author would agree with his assessment that it was, however many books wee sold, because of the two people who had driven such considerable distances to meet him and get his signature.  It's one of the best things about writing a book - finding readers who care about it that much.

But that sort of book signing is almost always an ordeal, not only because of the terror of sitting for two hours alone at a table in a bookshop and having everyone walking past trying to avoid your eye. Worse than that is when they stop to speak, pick up a book, look at it, then put it back down again and walk away. Worse still is when they pick it up then realize they don't actually want to buy it but are embarrassed to reject it and hang around making nervous small talk and looking anguished, hoping that someone else will stop so that they can put it down and slip away without you noticing.

Worst of all, I find, is signing a book for someone I know who looks expectant, waiting for me to add some personal, amusing and meaningful one-liner to the usual 'best wishes'.  Nothing is more certain to make my mind go completely blank.

Even the official dedications in my book aren't very imaginative - to husband, children, relatives, with all my love/lots of love/much love/love, as appropriate - but I do appreciate and admire the witty dedications of others.  Some of my favorites follow.

PG Wodehoue:  'To my daughter, Leonora, without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been written in half the time'

Jane Hope, writing humorous books about her experiences as a young teacher:  'To 4B, without whose lack of cooperation this book could never have been written'  and   'To King Herod, the most misunderstood man in history.'

Joe Abercrombie: 'For [my daughter] Grace - one day you will read this and be slightly worried.'  (This really struck a chord with me; a visiting granddaughter looked at a copy of Bad Blood, my most recent book, and said disparagingly, 'It doesn't have any pictures, does it?'  I do wonder what she'll think when she's old enough to read it!)

Gillian Flynn: 'What can I say about a man who knows how I think and still sleeps next to me with the light off?'    (Now that I sometimes wonder myself!)

I'd love to hear any you've written, or enjoyed.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Back in the saddle

If you are a writer, then you're about deaf from all the shouting and wailing in the publishing-biz echo chamber. If you're not a writer, then count your blessings that you don't have a clue what I'm talking about. After a five-book run with Harper-Collins, they decided not to renew my contract so in 2010 I became what we writers call, an orphaned author. I had other ideas I wanted to explore--steampunk, military-action--but got side-tracked into ghost writing and never finished one of my manuscripts. While I may have forgotten about my vampires, apparently I have fans who didn't, and I kept getting emails telling me to get off my lazy ass and write another Felix Gomez adventure. Meanwhile, the whole ebook, self-publishing world exploded. Several friends managed to jump on that train and made enough money to shuck the day job. And I have other friends who've made squat with their ebooks. Since I didn't have a publisher, and frankly didn't look for one, I figured it was my turn to get sucked into the self-pub ebook sausage machine. I did get some experience with a novel that I co-wrote, and the results swing between challenging and hopeful (taking the positive view). I finished my sixth Felix Gomez novel, Rescue From Planet Pleasure, and commissioned an artist who created an awesome cover. I was all set to pull the trigger and dive right into the self-pub mud puddle when at Comicpalooza I stumbled across the WordFire Press booth. WordFire is a small house run by Kevin J Anderson and Rebecca Moesta. Besides publishing their work they also feature a stable of excellent writers such as Peter Wacks, Quincy Allen, Heather Graham, and Frank Herbert (yes, the Dune guy). What impressed me was the enthusiasm of the staff. I compared their slick presentation with the staid and complacent Barnes&Noble booth where I signed. That got me thinking and I approached Wordfire to see if they were interested in signing me on. Which they were. One of the bennies in the self-pubbed route is that you get to keep all of the royalties your book makes, which can be as much as 70 percent. Then again, all the headaches in making the book available--paying for editors; getting the manuscript in the various ebook formats; designing a cover; arranging for print editions--are yours alone. If I signed with WordFire, I'd have to split royalties. But they would take care of the manuscript prep and publishing minutiae. One caveat of my contract was that I wouldn't get an advance, a keystone of a legitimate deal in previous years but not no more. Interestingly, the terms of my contract with WordFire are almost identical to what's in a contract a good friend got from Harper-Collins! He's not getting an advance either! Check back in six months and we'll see how I'm doing.

Go Ahead, Cheat on Your Genre

We are delighted to welcome Susan Sundwall to Type M as this weekend's guest blogger. Susan is a mystery writer who sets her stories in and around Albany, New York. Her first mystery, The Red Shoelace Killer – A Minnie Markwood Mystery, was published in late 2012. Her second book in the series, The Super Bar Incident, was released in August. She lives in Valatie, New York, with her husband and adopted stray cat, Sister Agnes, whose demeanor suggests she is channeling a convent dweller from the dark ages.

Susan shares with us the pleasures of cheating – all in the good cause of become better writers.

Go Ahead, Cheat on Your Genre
By Susan Sundwall

Think about the word, genre.  It’s a bit snooty sounding. And right now you’re saying it to yourself just to test my supposition, aren’t you? It means kind or type. When someone asks what kind of writing I do, most often they’re thinking genre. But their asking frequently stumps me. My second mystery was just published so you’d think I’d answer “mystery,” but the word tends to stick in my throat.

There’s a hesitation there because I don’t want this asker to think that’s all I write – I’m broader than that. I don’t want her to think that’s all I read, either. Yeah, I’m broader and, dare I say, more beautiful than that because of the poetry. It’s true I always have a mystery waiting on the table, under the lamp, but often, in a mad fever of rebellion, I’ll give in to my cheating heart. So here I confess, with Hank Williams and his guitar serenading me.

Books like Kalad Hosseini’s,The Kite Runner, and A Thousand Splendid Suns, seduced me into the historical fiction genre with its violent beauty, ancient cultural patterns, and the universal revulsion for cruel injustice. In like manner Lisa See’s, Snow Flower and The Secret Fan, pulled me in and begged me to experience the old Chinese practice of foot binding. It was dreadful and fascinating and sent me searching like a mad women for authentic images (which I found). It also made me cringe and give thanks for being born elsewhere and in another time. Hugh Howie’s, Wool, whipped me below the surface of the earth and made me wander through a future where everyone lives like a mole. Science fiction. I rarely read it but I could hardly lay Wool down. I tried. Then, every time my Kindle gave up the ghost on one installment, I zippy quick downloaded the next. So what if it was two in the morning? This is what cheating does to you and I’m not sure I’m ashamed. If you’re judging, hang on a minute. I’m calling Lucy in to do some ‘splainin’.

After the pleasing, near erotic, diversion of any number of other genres I scamper happily back to Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Lee Child, and Elizabeth George – old flames, brief passions, or current crush all from my long days of delicious mystery reading. I’m excited. I feel like I have things to tell them; tales and imaginings from these other worlds I’ve discovered. I’ll gladly grab their hands and set out the picnic blanket if they’re only willing to listen, to broaden out, too. Where can we go for a glass of wine and good brie to discuss the dark secrets revealed in the back alleys of nineteenth century London? Do they have any idea how strangely wonderful Tibetan butter tea is? And then, what kind of dirty secrets might I pull from these masters about their wildly popular inspectors, detectives, or bumbling skip chasers? And who have they cheated on – these purveyors of murderous humanity? You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine. The game is afoot.
Once we’re settled down and begin courting true insight, another phenomenon bubbles up. In veering off (a gentle term for cheating) into other genres writers can become green with envy in so many productive ways. At first we chasten ourselves for not coming up with this brilliant plot twist or that sublime syntax more readily than Mr. #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Self flagellation looms. But in short order we get mad – as in mental – in a way far greater than simply red in the face. The mind whirls. The pen flies. Our writing scales new heights and heads for Alpha Centauri because our cheating heart has brought home the goods. And when, at last, that pen is laid to rest, we collapse into sobbing.

“Why didn’t I stray before? What was wrong with me?”

The old flame, brief passion, and current crush smile. What I didn’t know is that they know what it’s like – they’ve cheated, too. And so they forgive, hand over a hanky, and fill my wine glass. Sure, I’m no longer pure, but I’m better, wiser and more able to forgive myself and others. The glorious blooming must come next. It’s a wonderful thing.

And if, deep down, you also have a cheating heart, you know exactly what I mean. Old Hank and I really want to talk to you.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Surprise

The Hoxie Elks Club gave me a ficus plant when my husband died. It was a lovely, but modest little plant that I took with me to Colorado when I moved here to be closer to our daughters and grandchildren.

The plant grew and grew. I'm quite sentimental about it. It quite literally came to symbolize Don's approval of my move. Every time I look at it I think of all the friends I had in Hoxie and the fierce energy it takes to maintain a small community. It takes a lot of hard work to man organizations when the population is declining. I love unity of small towns and the way we can all pull together when someone needs help.

One of my all-time favorite writing projects was the Sheridan County History Books. I edited these books and our books were unique because all the work was done within Sheridan. County. We actually had our own commercial book-binder in the area. A local artist designed the covers. Several contributed original art. We found a lot of old pictures and the stories were absolutely wonderful.

It was especially gratifying to see the wonder on some the contributors faces to learn details about their families that they had not known. The hardships and the sorrows of homesteading. The bonding with their relatives through collecting information.

This experience, of course, became the foundation for my mystery series. Oh the stories people told me behind closed doors. This project was a gift. A surprise. It came out of nowhere when Don bought a livestock truckline and we moved to Hoxie. The local historical society was looking for someone to tackle organizing and editing the history books and I was delighted take on the work.

I wasn't feeling well today and didn't get my writing done--which always makes me even crankier.But I had found a wonderful lady who owned a small gardening business and would re-pot Don's ficus plant. It's huge! It would take both of us to wrestle it into a new pot. I was tempted to wait until I felt better. But I went ahead because we had already postponed twice.

Then I had another surprise. A gift. We chatted while we worked and when she learned I was a writer, she asked if I would be willing to speak to an organization she belonged to. Would I ever! It was the American Association of University Women. They sponsor a terrific event every fall. I was enormously flattered.

I was reminded once again of how some wonderful opportunities come out of the blue and it's not always necessary to "make" things happen. That mentally is a trap authors fall into right now. We are oppressively aware of everything we could be doing regarding social media or promoting our work on-line.

I'm especially appreciative of gracious little jolts--the surprises--that come my way despite my bumbling.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Singing about Signings

John here, on the heels of my first Bitter Crossing event, a signing at the South Portland, Maine, Books-a-Million. The store staff was fabulous, the event was fun, and it was great to see some old friends and meet a few new ones.

For me, signings are far from my natural habitat. I've never craved the spotlight, and a signing, after all, is a far cry from what, as the proverbial line goes, "got us there" – the solitary act of writing. In fact, writing is one of the least public activities I can imagine. (I'm typing this post at 4:35 a.m., wearing torn gym shorts, with my dog snoring at my feet.)

With Yvonne Cote (middle) and Florence Eaton,
who drove 3.5 and 2.5 hours, respectively

Some writers make signings look easy, chatting up everyone who walks through the door, even giving customers the hard-sell, or approaching customers in the isles: "Hi, I see you're looking for a mystery. Well, I'm the author of…." I applaud those who can do it. But that's not me. I'm the guy at the table, offering the simple, "Hello, I'll be happy to answer any questions you might have about my book."

If you are a writer who needs public validation, a book signing can be a long two-hour experience, because for every person who stops to talk, there are five who walk by the table. I read an interview with John Updike during the latter stages of his career in which he said he stopped doing signings altogether. Some writers feel like they are on display, don't like that feeling, don't need any additional promotion, and simply don't do them.

Most of us, though, know that self-promotion is a necessity in the 2014 world of publishing. For instance, I love doing interviews – face-to-face, radio, TV, or electronically. During a Q@A, I can talk about the writing and research process and even other people's books. The focus is the work itself, not the author – or at least that's my mindset.

So where does all of this leave me? Appreciating the people who attend my signings.

At the end of a signing, I'm usually asked if I thought it was a success. Not sure I know enough – or care enough – about the business aspect of writing to have a definition for a successful signing. I do know that one woman drove three-and-a-half hours to get a signed book from me on Saturday. She called the store to make sure I wouldn't leave when she got stuck in traffic. Another couple drove two-and-a-half hours. That's two book sales. Given the average royalty scale, that means I probably earned $2.

But that isn't what it's about.

Three-and-a-half hours in the car to get a signed copy?

If that had been the only book I sold all day, the event would have been a success.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Adventure Begins

Life is a series of adventures, some of them more exciting than others. At least, that’s how I like to look at it. Today marks the beginning of a new adventure for me, my first blog post on Type M. I’ll be here every other Wednesday, taking over Hannah Dennison’s spot. (Thanks to Hannah for suggesting I do this!)

Let me introduce myself. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and now live in Southern California. After years in the computer industry, designing and writing code, managing programmers and projects, I turned to a life of crime writing. Maybe you’ve read one of my short stories. My work has appeared in Mysterical-E and Spinetingler Magazine as well as several other online mystery magazines.

The big adventure for me this year is having my first novel published. Fatal Brushstroke, the first book in the Aurora Anderson mystery series set in the world of decorative painting, will be released by Henery Press Nov 18. I’m now learning about Goodreads, blog tours, author pages, book contracts . . . all the stuff you need to know to be a writer today.

Like most writers, I love books. I remember clearly the day my adventure in reading began. I was five. I’d just started kindergarten. I found a book on the classroom shelf that had pictures in it of pigs and a wolf. I wanted to know what was happening, what those black marks on the pages said, but I couldn’t yet read. (At that time you learned the alphabet in kindergarten and how to read in first grade.) I didn’t want someone to read it to me, I wanted to read it myself! I wanted to know what those three little pigs and that wolf were doing. Sure, I could figure out the basic story from the pictures, but it just wasn’t the same. Those marks on the page were saying something important. I could tell. I remember being so frustrated.

Out of that frustration a reader was born. I’ve had my nose in a book ever since, pretty much reading everything in sight. The library was my favorite place growing up. Like so many before me, from the comfort of a chair I traveled to mysterious places and spent time with historical figures. I learned about hot air ballooning, falconry, and Esperanto. I cracked the case along with Encyclopedia Brown and fell through the rabbit hole with Alice.

Now I’m happy to have the opportunity to write stories for others to enjoy. Which reminds me, that second book is due in a few short months. Better get back to it.

See you in a couple weeks,