Monday, September 14, 2015

I needed a break

I read so much advice from published authors on the best things to do in certain circumstances. Most of them give adequate information. There is one I took to heart about a month ago. One author said that sometimes it's good to put a project away for a while and concentrate on other things if the creative process isn't quite right. I did that. I put my second novel in one series far on the back burner, and I concentrated on a few short stories.

I had to do it. I will try to explain.

I take time during my writing to go over my work at certain intervals. There is no set timetable, like stopping when I get approximately 30 percent of the way through my planned manuscript. I did such a revision with this latest novel, and I didn't like the results. There was the standard "lack of punch" that many writers have in a first draft, but there were other problems. I had a section in which I analyzed the impact of a series of events in my story line. I put it into the middle of one chapter. That was okay. The problem was that I also put it in at the start of another chapter about five chapters later, and I didn't realize that until my revision session. That means I am not concentrating well enough. How could I be so unaware? I need to get back the enthusiasm for my subject matter, which is lacking when judged by my results.

When I analyzed everything in the intervening time, I decided to keep that novel on the back burner and turn my attention to another novel. This one is more from my heart, and I have a desire to make that novel shine. I am starting to work on it as soon as I finish this blog.

Sometimes we need to step back and analyze where we are and what we are doing. Make changes if required, then put my head down and get the job done.

End of analysis.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The joy of the short story

I discovered a wonderful vacation destination. It's called the world of the short story. Of course, novels are the foundation of my literary efforts, but my journeys into short stories provide nice stopping places. They are filled with different characters and situations, all varied and clearly defined in their own little spaces.

I enjoy the definition of the short story by author Joe Lansdale, a prolific writer in many areas who describes the short story as a novel with all the unnecessary parts taken out. I never fully understood his point until I started writing my own short stories. Each story has its own life, but with fewer complications. I lead protagonists and antagonists in novels through raging rivers and deep canyons of life, and I detail each point of their story. The short story still allows for those raging rivers and deep canyons, but I present problems in a more concise manner. That satisfies the journalist in me.

One part of short story writing I love is being able to detail many protagonists in a number of settings. I have written about a middle-aged woman whose past suddenly reappears; a young man with a series of tough times but with resilient dreams; a young woman doing what seems to be a meaningless routine that is neither meaningless nor routine; and an old man who injects himself into a troubled conversation of two younger people, and they all learn lessons.have other stories running around inside my brain, and I wait for the right moment to bring them to life.

I still have writing sessions each day on my novels, but I take these enriching visits to this other land. I have found that both sides feed the other. That is the kind of win-win situation I love to encounter.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Waking up with an impulse to write

I got up at 5:20 a.m. yesterday, and I had to do it. I had an idea for a short story rattling around my creative center. It had been there for a few days, going from the germ of a story line to a full-blown tangle of problems. I spent the next three to four hours putting everything on paper. I will spend time today making little changes to strengthen wording and flow.

This isn't anything surprising to anyone who works to be an author. This time my format was the short story. I often wake up in the middle of the night and have wording flowing through my mind. It could be a new section of a novel I am working on, or a revision of a section I worked on recently. It's part of an author's life. We live on our creativity after all. That creativity doesn't stop because the clock says it's time for sleep.

Yesterday my focus was on a middle-aged woman in a small Colorado town. Later today I will go back to the sequel of the novel I am pitching to agents these days, and Sean McNabb and his weird world will take over. And, yes, I wake up a few nights and try to figure out just how to create his newest problem, and the details of the world that tortures him.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The art of the tactful rejection letter

I met author John Hart at a Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and I had a question I had to ask: What is the first thing an author needs to learn? His reply: "Have a thick skin." Hart knows how difficult it can be to get that first offer of representation from a literary agent. His first novel, King of Lies, was rejected numerous times, and this book ended up on the NY Times best sellers list once an agent and publishing house took him under their wings.

I have a thick skin from my journalism days. A reporter or editor is harangued at times by readers or story subjects for certain things that are disagreeable to them. Well, readers are much more prone to being stinging with their criticism than story subjects, and journalists learn to live with that fact. I also have learned to have that thick skin in trying to sell my literary efforts. I have known rejection on numerous occasions. For every book you see on the shelves or an online list, there are tens of thousands of rejected works by authors with high hopes.

Here is the basic rejection letter or email: "Thank you for considering me to represent your novel, but I do not believe it is a good fit for me at this time. Other agents have other needs, so I wish you good luck as you continue to seek representation."

Some letters or emails are better than others. One agent said she strongly considered my latest work, but she keeps a modest number of clients and isn't looking to add to it at this time. Another credited me for researching my subject matter well. The best rejection letter I received was for one of my Daniel Pace novels, and it was written by agent Pamela Ahearn of New Orleans. I pitched the book as a thriller. Ms. Ahearn said if that was the genre I intended to use, then I needed to learn to write thrillers. I used much more depth of character development than allowed in the standard thriller. Thank you, Ms. Ahearn. I now list my novels as commercial fiction or mainstream fiction simply because that is what they are.

I keep two things among my computer bookmarks. One is a listing of literary agents and the genres they represent. The other is a listing of great novels that were rejected for various reasons. I have written about Kathryn Stockett's three-year efforts to sell her novel The Help. The great C.S. Lewis spent years trying to sell the first of his Narnia stories. J.K. Rowling got nowhere in the publishing world until an agent brought a manuscript home and a young relative starting reading it, and the young man asked if there were other novels by this author. The Harry Potter series has had money cascading in to Rowling, her publishing house and her agent since that little boy's request.

I wait for one of those moments, and I keep my thick skin intact in the meantime.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Time travel? Every good author does it

H.G. Wells captivated our minds with the story of The Time Machine, a device that allowed people to be transported into the future. It is a wonderful story, but authors don't need a tangible device. They already have one. It's called the creative mind. Even writers who concentrate on modern times take readers to other places and events, thanks to story line creation.

I wondered where I would put myself in history if I had the choice. I found the answer while watching a PBS documentary on train travel in northern Italy, especially the arrival in Venice. The show's host used a old travel guide from the early 1900s to illustrate his points. That guide book told of the introduction travelers received in Venice. The most prominent visitors flocked to the city because it was a haven for the rich and entitled. It was a place of great villas and venues where the rich could enjoy the benefits of their status. British upper class loved to come here.

The guide book welcomed visitors to Venice by pulling into the Santa Lucia train station. Visitors then walked down the steps to a line of gondolas that were ready to whisk them to their temporary quarters in the city. I have pulled into the Santa Lucia station, and I know the view from the steps of the station. The line of gondolas has thinned out because the main transportation source now is the water taxi, or vaporetto. My wife and I chose to walk to our hotel in the Santa Croce section, and we entered the main part of Venice by walking over the Scalzi Bridge.

What if I was back in the early 1900s when I visited? That is the time I would prefer. It was the time of bowler hats and suits for men, and women in their finery. It is far from the casual slacks and T-shirts of today's travelers. I would have loved to walk down the steps of the station and head to a gondola, and be taken to my destination. I would have loved to be in a suit and a bowler, and my wife Deb (or more properly Lady Deborah) in a white gown, and she would shade herself with a parasol.

There is one caveat to this wish. I would want to have the mind I have now, which knows of the tumult that was awaiting those early travelers. I would want to know about an archduke being assassinated in Sarajevo, and the tangle of alliances that led to the "war to end all wars." I would have that knowledge and watch those of privilege as they went about their lives. Venice was their adult playground, and the specter of approaching war had no impact on them. They would carry on with their parties, and wear masks like the entitled used to do in Venice. They would think their lives were safe and secure, and they would laugh and sip champagne.

And I would know better.

That's my type of time travel. Care to join me?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The invaluable help of Kevin Vaughan at Denver Post

I can't finish any commentary on my time as the editor of YourHub at The Denver Post without mentioning Kevin Vaughan. Those who watch Fox Sports these days see Kevin as a reporter who covers the big stories, most notably the Aaron Hernandez murder trial. But I knew him as the trusted supervisor who took YourHub under his wing.

Kevin was my go-to guy when I needed to discuss ideas and problems. He had the managerial experience to know the tricky parts of leading people, everything from story creation and execution to personnel matters. I made sure to include Vaughan on any email I sent that involved my plans for the future of YourHub.

Vaughan's involvement with YourHub began when he was still at the Rocky Mountain News, which was where YourHub got its start. He was very interested in the concept of hyperlocal news, and he played a part in making that idea work from the earliest days of YourHub. Vaughan and YourHub were brought on board by The Post after the Rocky ceased operations, and I ended up being a lucky manager because of that. Vaughan always had an open door when I needed to talk things over, and he even sat in on a meeting to work on a personnel matter with one of my reporters.

But Vaughan left for other responsibilities, and a lot walked out the door when he did. One of those things was someone I could go to and discuss YourHub matters. I thought the job of being the YourHub adviser fell to the person who replaced Vaughan in his managerial position. That wasn't the case. In fact, no one stepped in to be the person I could turn to when I had questions and concerns, at least not to the level that Vaughan had.

No manager can say he or she guides without having others they can fall back on. You treasure the people who step up and become helpers. The Post lost a lot when Vaughan walked out the door, and one area of considerable loss was YourHub. I owe Vaughan a lot, and I am glad to talk about his dedication to the job. He's one of the very good ones in journalism.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Journalism rules that help in writing novels

I was delusional when I started writing novels. I figured that because I could write good stories for journalism that I could take those lessons and make an easy transition to being a novelist who specializes in fiction. That didn't work. I knew how to write plot, but I suffered when it came to building character. I am refining that part of my abilities.

Still, there are lessons from journalism that translate well to writing novels. Here are a few:

1. Be concise. A journalist takes a large volume of information and puts it into a compact package. Newspaper articles are 10 inches long, and a feature story can be 25 inches. Anything longer than that is rare. But that training in writing tight works well in crafting novels.

2. Edit tight. This is rule 1A in being concise. Even my journalism training didn't limit me to using just the words I needed to build a scene. I trimmed words and sentences that were extraneous on my first reading of my completed first draft, and I trimmed more in my reading of my revised manuscript. Be your own toughest critic.

3. Listen to good advice. I loved working for good supervisors who helped me write or edit better. Yes, I might rebel a bit at being told that I was doing it wrong, but I learned that good advice helped me improve. In the world of the novelist, the beta reader serves as that good supervisor. A good beta reader will tell you things you don't want to hear, but use that advice to your advantage. Also, I violate a "rule" of writing novels and have two family members among my beta readers. Both are very open in their criticism, and they don't hold back to "make me feel better." That's a good thing.

4. Make your subject accessible to readers. A good journalist can take a difficult subject and give it to a reader in an easily understandable package. The journalist avoids jargon and overly technical language. If that technical language is necessary to understand the subject matter, the journalist will explain it simply. Also, accessibility means making a tough or unique subject somehow touch a reader's sensitivities. I do that in my novels by centering on times and subjects that affect real people. I write about current times, or those in the near future. I also touch on subjects that the usual reader can relate to, things like depression, job loss, family tragedies, the pressures of growing into adulthood, etc. In a manner, I make real life the main antagonist. People can relate to that.

5. Be real. Journalism is the ability to tell real stories by using the facts. Sure, fiction is all made up, and it is more fun to write when I can control the world I am building. I also have learned to write honestly even in fiction. My protagonists have weaknesses, and I relate those in real situations. I won't publish what I have written, but one of my protagonists, Sean McNabb, is a bit of a jerk. No, make it that he is a considerable jerk. I make that plain in the first paragraph of the first chapter. I learned to craft a character that way from reading Stephen King's advice on what a novelist should do. Write what YOU want to write, not what you think the marketplace wants, or what won't jar people you know. I don't want to cheat my readers even in relating difficult subjects. That includes scenes involving violence or sex.