Thursday, September 29, 2011

Writer's Block and Other Maladies of the Mind

My writers block this week took a different form. I had no problem coming up with ideas. My problem was coming up with too many ideas.
It centered on a single chapter. It isn't an important chapter, so it wasn't like I was working on a load-bearing wall in my house, but I kept coming up with flaws in the construction. I tweaked my first idea with a second idea. Later I considered a third idea ... and a fourth ... and a fifth. I stepped back and looked at the result. It read like a shattered mirror, with the broken pieces reflecting different angles. It was a mess.

So I did what any self-respecting author would do ... I threw up my hands and screamed to the skies. I asked for wisdom. I posted a note on my Twitter account and asked other authors who follow me for ideas. I was greeted by silence. OK, someone is trying to tell me I have to solve this problem on my own. So then I did what any self-respecting author would do ... I stepped back, looked at the chapters leading up to the problem chapter and examined the following chapters I had planned out. The result? I went back to my original idea, with some minor tweaking.

I simply spent too much time and energy working on alternative ideas. The chapter centers on the expanding relationship between a man and woman, and you would think that a guy who has been married for more than 35 years could handle that task. But it is a fictional relationship, and it is a supporting chapter ... kind of like filling holes in a brick wall with mortar. I spent so much time looking for the right mortar that I forgot about stacking the right bricks.

Am I alone in this problem? I think not. I am open to suggestions. Helpful hints, anyone?

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Best Literary Blog, Etc., Etc.

Here are a few random thoughts to toss out today:

I have a new fave for a literary agent's blog, and I don't have to leave the Denver area for the source. Agent Rachelle Gardner rolls out a new entry almost every day, and almost every entry is designed to help the unpublished author sharpen his or her game. It is a marvelous resource. Gardner's blog is all good info all the time.

It took me nine months to come up with the skeletal structure for my first novel. It also took that much time to get it completely polished, and then there probably will be more polishing when I find an agent. That's just part of the deal. If anyone thinks they have that great idea for a novel and can whip it out and have it published all within a few months, I will have to pop that balloon. One author wrote that writing is the second-toughest job in the world, topped only by alligator wrestling. I also laughed out loud when someone related Mark Twain's reply when someone asked him what his favorite part of writing was. "Having written," he said.

I read that many publishing houses say about 20 percent of their revenues are now coming from e-books. I think that's just the tip of the iceberg. Digital books will take more and more of the market share. We live in times where younger readers are visually oriented, and the e-book trend just plays into that fact. There's also the ease-of-use factor. A reader can have 10 e-books on a Kindle or Nook and tote it around easily. Those same 10 books in print format would be a bother to transport. Easier is better, and authors have to take that into account, especially if they self-publish.

I was just about resigned to going the self-published route, but someone in the publishing business (I won't say exactly who) urged me not to do that. (Unfortunately, that somebody isn't an agent.) He advised me to stay the course, put up with the sting of rejection and press on. I will follow that advice. I keep getting rejection notices that say things like, "great project idea, but I don't think it is a fit with editors I work with ..." or "this isn't the type of work I am looking to represent at this time." That gets me back to the basic lessons I have learned about my novel: It is a great idea, but it will be a tough fit. I believe in the project completely, and I will press on.

More later. Good luck in whatever your dreams are pushing you to do.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Iron House: John Hart Stops Being Comfortable

You don't have to spend much time going over my pantheon of favorite authors of fiction. There are two: John Hart and Ken Kesey. The reason is simple. Both write characters who are very real, very universal and exist in worlds I can touch every day. Kesey could take the Stampers and make them Maine lobstermen and not lose a thing. Hart could take Work Pickens or Johnny Merrimon and drop them into Idaho and it would feel right. Kesey wrote about his beloved Oregon, and Hart does that with his native North Carolina.

But I believe Hart missed that basic point with his latest novel, "Iron House." Hey, it's a great novel, and I loved reading it. It is a marvelous work. My problem is that universal aspect of his characters got lost in this one. Let me explain.

I have no problem with the main character, Michael, who, as Hart says, is "a cold-blooded killer." But there is a basic human foundation to Michael despite his line of work, and I can accept him. He loves a woman deeply and wants to do what's best for her. He wants to change his life. He is willing to do whatever to make that happen. He has a horrendous personal history. OK, Michael is fine.

It's some of the other characters I don't accept as readily ... the senator, his wife (who becomes a main character on which much of the action centers), his brother Julian. The universal quality to Hart's earlier characters were that they were taken from Hart's Rowan County roots, that North Carolina foundation. Every detective, every protagonist, every supporting character could have walked the streets. The senator and his wife in "Iron House" are disjointed from that familiarity just by their status. Julian is disjointed because of his afflictions. They went from being universal characters to literary figures ... from comfortable folks to people of the imagination. That is a great distinction, in my opinion.

But no character jarred me more than Jimmy, who is the other major "cold-blooded killer" in the novel. I can understand how Hart almost HAD to make Jimmy as irksome as he is. If Michael is the protagonist, then Hart must make an antagonist who makes Michael look like a choir boy. And, my, Jimmy is that kind of antagonist. The level of violence Hart lays out is close to "Silence of The Lambs" violence. Jimmy is that twisted and that intent on exacting punishment to get what he wants. Give me the "simple" murders in Hart's earlier works ... "King of Lies," "Down River," "The Last Child."

I wrote a scene of murder-suicide in the novel I am trying to sell, and it was a difficult thing for me to sit in my office and detail what was happening. I'm just not a murder-suicide kind of guy, which I'm sure is good news to my family members. But it is a basic foundation to part of my novel as I put together issues a protagonist must face. I have talked to and exchanged e-mails enough with Hart to know he's a basic good guy, a real Rowan County type of person. I wonder whether he had problems taking Jimmy to the levels he took him.

I will make one more link between "Iron House" and "Silence of The Lambs," and it is a good link. No novel grabbed me by the shirt collar and pulled my along more than "Silence of The Lambs" ... I started reading it on vacation, and I couldn't let go of it. The first 100 pages of "Iron House" have that same grab-the-shirt-collar quality. I think it is Hart's best writing as far as character development and pacing. Some of that pacing ebbs later in the book, but never to the point that it becomes a problem. It went from being simply sensational to merely great. I would like to be able to write as well as that.

How can I praise "Silence of The Lambs" and give "Iron House" a rap or two on the knuckles? Notice I don't include Thomas Harris, the author of "Silence of The Lambs," on my list of great fiction authors. He writes great stories, but there is a disconnect with me as far as characters. No author will make it to my lofty-author status without nailing characterization to which I can relate. So few are able to do it.

My original thesis on this blog entry was that readers had a similar disconnect with "Iron House" characters and sales suffered because of it. I saw that "Iron House" showed up at No. 10 on the New York Times bestsellers list, but it can't be found on the list now, or even on the USA Today 150. I sent John an e-mail detailing that argument, and he shot it down by using the facts. (As a journalist, I like that method of disagreement.) Early sales on "Iron House" were 3-to-1 over early sales on "The Last Child" ... and both showed up at No. 10. It's just a matter of timing ... a No. 10 at one time doesn't equate to a No. 10 ranking at another time. OK, that part of my argument is gone, but my basic feeling about characters remains.

Read "Iron House" ... you won't be disappointed ... but take time to read John's other novels as well. He is a master craftsman. I treasure my time of reading his novels. I wish him the best (as if he needs my goodwill). I just hope his next novel gets back to what he does best.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I Know Why Publishing Is On Life Support

I understand why the publishing industry is in trouble, and why there hasn't been a major work of fiction recently that will be talked about by later generations ... save for the Harry Potter series.

Publishing is running scared, and it has retreated into a bunker mentality as far as fiction. Books are accepted that follow established norms. We have Harry Potter wannabes and Twilight clones. We have established spy stories and established detectives. Where is something the quality of "To Kill A Mockingbird"? Why does someone like Kathryn Stockett have to go begging for more than three years before her "The Help" is allowed to reach the public?

The problem is systemic. I know this is gross generalization, and generalization invites error, but here is the way the system works.

There are thousands of English majors or those with degrees in fiction writing who populate agent and editing jobs. They all have been taught a paint by the numbers approach to novels. A writer must do this, and do this, and do this, and do this, then do this. Any variation is reason for rejection. I will confront three areas of The English Major's Commandments I think lead to problems.

1) A character must be larger than life. What's wrong with a character a reader can relate to because that character is familiar? Think of Scout and Atticus Finch in "To Kill A Mockingbird" ... larger than life? No. I think readers are thirsting for characters and situations they can wrap their minds and emotions around. The "larger than life" commandment works if a novel must be escapist in nature, and current publishing is filled with escapist novels and characters ... wizards, vampires, spies, etc. But, again, people want a different sort of literary main character. The current publishing industry isn't built to give that. The rules are stacked against it.

2) Don't use backstory too early in a novel. What's up with that? Backstory can give great context to a character or characters. I will go back to one of my blog entries and highlight the work of Ken Kesey. His "Sometimes a Great Notion" begins with a long, long chapter, and almost all of it is backstory. Today's agents and editors would either reject Kesey outright or urge a rewrite of that opening chapter. And can you imagine an agent who wants to see the first four chapters of a novel and Kesey delivers 200 pages of amazingly intricate copy? I can hear the gasps on Fifth Avenue or Wazee Street right now. I can see the email in the Kesey inbox: "Dear Ken, thank you for your submission, but your project does not fit what I am looking for right now ..."

3) Don't use passive voice. Passive voice is not the best, but it can be used well. Any number of stories can bring a reader to tears by emotional appeal or tease their moral outrage while using passive voice. But today's agents and editors see passive voice as something akin to touching the third rail. It has been drilled into them in lecture after lecture. It causes a knee-jerk reaction. I have never encountered a reader who told me, "I stopped reading that novel when I detected passive voice. I find that unacceptable." Readers want to know characters, understand their lives, feel their pain, feel the touch of a lover's skin under their fingertips, etc., etc. They don't care whether it's in passive voice. Only English majors trained to paint by numbers do that. Some of them get quite uppity about the matter.

My next blog? I will talk about John Hart's latest book, "Iron House," which I loved. Its original sales were strong, but I don't see it anywhere on the NYT or USA Today bestsellers lists these days. I think I understand why.