Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Best Novels of 2013

... or at least the best of those I read:

3. Where Men Win Glory, by Jon Krakauer. Pat Tillman was an American icon, but not by his own choosing. He was a man who gave up an NFL career so he could serve his country in the aftermath of 9/11. He became an Army Ranger, fought in Afghanistan, was held up as an emblem of what an American could surrender in order to battle for his country, and was killed by friendly fire. Krakauer's reporting skills are at their best here. We get a moving portrait of a complex man and the hell that being in battle can be. This was the only nonfiction book I read this year, and it was worth every second.

2. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. Amy's introduction to us as a woman falling head over heels for this guy Nick at the start of the book is one of the best set-ups for a novel I have seen in years. She is breathlessly in love, swept away, in awe. But slowly, petal by petal, we see this flower of love begin to fall apart. Amy disappears. Was she murdered? Did Nick do it? Flynn details Amy and Nick so precisely, and it is eerily fascinating to watch the evolution of their relationship. A first-rate novel.

1. And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini. This man writes some of the most delicate prose, but it is his characters who carry the day. Each story Hosseini weaves leaves me feeling like I am eavesdropping into private lives, and I should turn away because the characters might catch me looking at them. He puts the fabric of those lives into a broad sweep of time, and each step of the way he gives me insights into Afghan life. I was wondering what I was getting into when the first chapter was the telling of a children's story, but by the end of the chapter I had the sense that the story was a bad omen of what was to come. I was eager to return to this book whenever I had a chance. It is highly recommended.

WHAT I AM READING NOW: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. This isn't a book after the afterlife, but about the many realities one life has the possibility to become. In the first few pages, Ursula is born but dies in the process. Then she is born again, and dies again, and on, and on, and on. I am barely 80 pages into the novel, and I am adjusting to Atkinson's very British writing style. I await what Ursula's next life is going to be like. I will give updates as I continue to read.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

It's a Man's World on My Reading List

I had to compile a list of the authors whose works I read recently, and I came to an odd realization. I am a reader of male authors, almost exclusively. The one exception in the list is Gillian Flynn and her brilliant "Gone Girl," which by the way is being made into a movie with David Fincher as director. (The buzz is that Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike will play Nick and Amy. Feedback on those choices?)

My other reading choices in the past several months? In order, they are: "Live Wire" by Harlan Coben; "The Cold Moon" by Jeffery Deaver; "One Shot" by Lee Child; "Where Men Win Glory" by Jon Krakauer; "The Highway" by C.J. Box; "The Jefferson Key" by Steve Berry; "And The Mountains Echoed" by Khaled Hosseini; and (still in the process of reading) "Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" by Jamie Ford. Next on my list? Probably "Live by Night" by Dennis Kehane, although "Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson sounds like an intriguing alternative.

Where did "Gone Girl" fit into my reading schedule? It was between "One Shot" and "Where Men Win Glory." How is that for a trifecta? Jack Reacher to Nick and Amy to Pat Tillman.

My next blog will list my three favorites on that list. Anyone who knows me well want to venture a guess?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Action Thrillers Don't Thrill Me

I have nothing against Steve Berry. My writer friends who have met him at conferences say he is a genuinely nice guy. I admire the work he does through his foundation in advancing the study of history, and the man writes well.

The problem is that I don't like what he writes. His specialty is the action thriller, and he masters the genre. He is the king of the short declarative sentence. He keeps his storytelling at a rapid-fire pace. But why don't I like his work? His plots are intricate, and they are nicely formulated. He has a knack for taking historical fact and weaving it into his brand of fiction.

What I don't like is that I don't give a hoot about his characters. Cotton Malone is his protagonist. He is a man of action. He has POTUS on speed dial (which is a characteristic of more than a few action thriller main characters). He has a love of his life. I don't care about her, either. Her name is Cassiopeia Vitt. (I can't help but think of Katarina Witt when I see that name, and that brings up a whole other set of images.) She is a woman of action.

The problem? None of the characters has a heart and soul. They have no depth. They are literary equivalents to G.I. Joe toys, but that is a weakness of the genre. All action, no depth. That is a big reason I don't call my novels "thrillers" anymore. I think the most exact term would be "thriller*". I have action, I have mayhem, I have chaos -- and I have depth of character. That separates me from Berry, Vince Flynn and other thriller writers. (The problem, naturally, is that they are published and I am not.)

I tip my cap to Berry for his success. He is comfortable in what he does, and the way he does it. He just won't find me in the same literary room.

WHAT I AM READING NOW: "Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" by Jamie Ford. I considered picking up Ford's new novel, but I figured I should become familiar with his debut work first. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for a considerable time. It deserved to be there. Ford weaves interesting lives amid the tales of relocation of Japanese residents at the start of World War II. It is a haunting, emotional, satisfying work.

I also recently completed "And the Mountains Echoed" by Khaled Hosseini. It ranks among my favorites. Hosseini has a knack for building characters, and weaving lives together into a seamless creation. There are a number of memorable characters, but my three favorites are Pari (the elder, of course), Idris and Thalia. Two of those characters are pretty minor within the fabric of the novel, but their life stories stay with me long after I finish the book. Maybe I recognize them from people I know. Maybe I see bits of them in me. Anyway, I give the novel an enthusiastic recommendation.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Comfort Is An Asset For An Author

I am sitting in my home office and writing today. I am taking a trip back in time as I do it. Well, maybe only a small trip. I am dressed in pajamas, slippers and bathrobe. I dress this way for a good reason. I am absolutely comfortable as I write. That, to me, is a huge part of the experience.

This used to be my "writing uniform" for almost every writing session, but that was back when I had swing shift hours. I would get up in the morning, read the newspaper, drink a couple of cups of coffee and adjourn to the home office. My uniform was pajamas, slippers and (in the colder months) bathrobe. I could write for hours dressed this way. My new schedule is basically 9-to-5, Monday through Friday. I can't settle into that old routine with those hours. But today is Sunday, and I am calling my own shots.

Here is my guideline: Make yourself physically comfortable, but make yourself uncomfortable in what you are writing. My pajamas uniform meets the first criterion, my story line meets the second.

Some people like a little alcohol while they write. Maybe a glass of wine (or two), or a beer (or two). I rarely do that. I prefer a clear head, thereby turning aside Hemingway's advice to "write drunk, edit sober." Comfort is relative to each writer. Add either classical music or Latin guitar on my headphones and I am one happy writer.

And that is what I am going to do right now.

WHAT I AM READING NOW: "And the Mountains Echoed" by Khaled Hosseini. He is a patient, brilliant storyteller. I am only 100 pages in, but I am being drawn into life in Afghanistan. This novel is a big departure from some of my other recent readings: "The Jefferson Key" by Steve Berry, "The Bone Bed" by Patricia Cornwell, "The Highway" by C.J. Box, and "Where Men Win Glory," the story of Army Ranger/football star Pat Tillman, by Jon Krakauer. I will concentrate on Berry's novel in my next blog post.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Authors Can Add by Subtraction

I had a great day writing earlier this week. Most writers judge success by how many words they add to a novel on a given day. I reversed that. I was happy that I subtracted more than 10,000 words. It had to be done.

My novel took new directions after I attended Donald Maass' writing workshop (referred to as BONI) in September. I got great feedback on my work. I was told I write beautifully. I am great at using certain phrases and descriptions. But I also heard words authors don't like when they believe they have a completed novel.



You are capable of much better work.

I don't have such a big ego that these criticisms sent me into a tirade. Exactly the opposite. The people who reviewed my work -- Maass, Lorin Oberweger, Jason Sitzes and Brenda Windberg -- are pros in the business. I listened, I internalized what they said and wrote, and I went home and started plotting ways to make my novel better.

Part of that is addition. There are swatches added to good chapters, and a handful of chapters that include new plot elements. But I had to prune parts that didn't work well. That trimming took away those 10,000 words. I even took two chapters I loved and put them into storage for use in another book.

It's simple math: Addition by subtraction. I am ready to make another editing trip through my entire manuscript, and there will be other changes. As I was told during the workshop, there really is no such thing as a completed novel. A published novel, yes, but never complete.

This is a big thank you to my BONI critics. I needed your slaps in the face and your excellent suggestions. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go back to editing and revisions.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Journalist vs. author: There is a battle

I am a veteran journalist and a fledgling author. Both tasks require a mastery of words. Both require creativity and intense devotion to proper grammar, spelling, etc. They differ, however, in how I use that creativity.

And that can be the problem.

Journalists are the short-order cooks of the writing world. They must tell a good story but get to the point. A reporter might have 20 inches of copy in which to tell that story. The requirements are simple: Write a good lead, establish the focus of the story quickly and follow with supporting facts and quotes. (Notice that I followed proper journalism style and dropped the Oxford comma.)

Novelists are chefs who take a long time to prepare a proper menu. Writing a good lead is there, but it wears a disguise. Those of us who attended Don Maass' Breakout Novel Intensive workshop recently spent considerable time on the need to write a scintillating first sentence. You have to hook the reader, agent and editor. But from that point on, a novel is a different feast.

An author leaves little clues about character and plot. There is no need to wrap up the storytelling within a 20-inch requirement. You might write a 100,000-word novel, and doing that raises certain issues with my journalism background. As a reader, I begin to itch when an author spends too much time on too many details. Description of character and setting are valuable, but too much detail gets in the way. I loved reading Chris Pavone's "The Expats," but details got in the way sometimes. He spent lots of effort describing the look of a frosty highway in Luxembourg, for example, or a chip on the corner of a kitchen counter. Patricia Cornwell also overwhelmed me with detail at times in "The Bone Bed," particularly in a section in which she was detailing a potentially key piece of evidence. While putting down the facts about the evidence, Cornwell wrote long sentences describing the streets in Boston on which Kay Scarpetta is driving.

The journalist in me kept saying, "So, stick to the point already."

I face that same dilemma when I write. I am much more leisurely in my author's role, but I can't escape my journalist tendencies. My writing is pretty tight. I set up character and setting, but I don't overload the details. I get to the plot. I get to the action. I get to the interaction and conflict between and among characters.

Do I push that emphasis on a quick pace too much? Am I too sparse on details? Do I leave too much about my character or settings up to the reader's imagination when I should supply more concrete clues? That is part of my focus as I continue the revision of my latest novel.

* * *

I must take a quick side trip here. I manage a department at The Denver Post, and I oversee 16 employees. Well, I had to tell five of those employees recently that their jobs were being eliminated. There are few worse jobs to do. All five employees are skilled at their tasks, and they are good people. I hated to be the bearer of bad news. I sat up nights and beat myself up mentally about telling them. I couldn't make myself into an unfeeling robot.

I lost my job more than a year ago because of a reduction of force, so I knew their situation. I let that show while I delivered the news, but I also told them that there is reason to hope. Almost every person who was cut during my time of job loss has an excellent job now. Still, I know shock, tears and uncertainty are dominating my workers' time as they scan the horizon for a good alternative career. I don't like that. Like I said, all five of them are excellent people. Excellent people shouldn't have to suffer, but the world often isn't a kind place.

Friday, September 13, 2013

On losing my mom

Death is not a surprise. We know it is the physical end of our time. We learn of it as little kids, usually while attending the funeral of a grandparent. We know it is there. We spend too much time trying to avoid it. Eventually, we can't.

My mother, Virginia, passed away in the early morning hours of Sept. 2. It was a wonderful death. We all say we want to die comfortably in our sleep. This is the way Mom passed on. She was at peace, with her husband of 72 years nearby, and soon there was a woman from hospice, and there was me. Those really were a special several minutes. There was no angst. Little sorrow. There was lots of appreciation for Mom and what she had been to so many people.

She was one of those women who sewed a rich quilt of a life. She weaved little threads of existence into a wonderful and large treasure. She had a great life, and she made life better for countless people around her. She was gentle, loving, caring, devoted, funny, available to help at a moment's notice. Almost any child can say that about a deceased parent. But there was something else. Above everything, Mom was wise. Her wisdom didn't come from textbooks. She didn't have a list of academic achievements as long as my arm. She was a high school graduate. But she had that wisdom that is known as common sense, and she had it in uncommon amounts. It didn't matter whether you were a friend, co-worker, someone burdened with a heavy weight life placed on their shoulders, or a son going through the fires of young adulthood, Mom was there. She dropped her ego. She listened. She shared. She imparted her wisdom, and you were better off for it. She had a gentle way about her, unless you did something that pushed her buttons, and you heard, "Watch it, buster." (I thank my brother Steve for that last little memory.) Yes, she was tough, too.

We had a small service to celebrate Mom's life. It was attended by a few family members, a few residents of the retirement home at which she lived, and three of the wonderful hospice workers who helped make her final days peaceful. But the room was full of life. How could it not be? We were there to celebrate Virginia, and her spirit filled that room to overflowing. I think we should have had a New Orleans-style day, with people dancing in the streets and singing "When the Saints Go Marching In."

I find it funny that cities erect statues to war heroes, pioneers, rich men, governmental figures, and they ignore the people who make that city great. At the center of every largest park of every city, there should be a statue to The Good Man, or The Good Woman. Every person like Mom should be hailed for what they are, the glue that holds society together, the weaver of threads that keep so many family members, friends and common folk united.

I want to carry on that Virginia spirit. I want to treat people the way she treated people. How many times did she say, "It's so good to see you," or "I love you" to those she knew? Even in those days after dementia chipped away at who she is, those statements flowed from her on countless occasions. On rare days, I can manage to match that spirit. And on those days, I should stop and say a few simple words: "Thanks, Mom, for everything you gave me. I am one of the luckiest sons in the history of the world."

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Thrillers? Not so fast

So many people have been grabbed by the shirt collar by movies like "Die Hard." It's non-stop action, and Bruce Willis' character is always ready for the next fight. Such is the thriller genre. I thought my novel fit into that category. The simple truth is, it doesn't.

I came to that realization recently thanks to agent Donald Maass. I sent Maass a query, and I billed my novel as a thriller. Well, it has several aspects of a thriller so why not? My problem is that the genre requires much tighter guidelines than I want to follow. It isn't that I am a rebel. I just want to create a character with far more depth than the "Die Hard" profile. Sure, there are plenty of yippee-ki-yay moments, but there's much more.

Maass replied that my first chapter didn't hook him and pull him from page to page as a good thriller should. Coming from any other agent, I would take it as good advice and nothing more. Maass is the master teacher among agents, so I look at his words differently.

Am I reworking my material to fit the genre? I could, but I won't. I want a protagonist with flaws, failures, hopes, dreams -- the stuff of a real life. I am taking a step back and recognizing that my novel needs to slip into that catch-all category of commercial fiction. I don't want to be as ponderous as literary fiction, but I don't want it to be as thin as the standard thriller. So, I will hang out here and sharpen my focus.

I will have more help from Maass in the near future. I am attending his writers workshop in a few weeks. I have attended sessions with Maass at writers conferences, and he is a wealth of great lessons. Now I get to receive that training face to face for an entire week. How nice is that?

WHAT AM I READING NOW: "The Drop" by Michael Connelly. I love Connelly's smooth delivery, and I love the Harry Bosch character. That's a great combination for any reader.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Blame (Bless) James Scott Bell

Yes, that is a three-month gap since my last blog entry. Funny how time flies when you're tearing apart a novel. And, yes, I do blame James Scott Bell, whose Ten Commandments for Authors put me on my current route. OK, "blame" is inaccurate. "Bless" works better.

Bell's exact words that triggered this? They are contained in the Seventh Commandment: "Thou shalt make everything contribute to the story." His statement is simply: "Stay as direct as a laser beam."

The problem with my second draft was that it didn't have that laser-like quality. Oh, yes, there is a main storyline, but it is surrounded by lots of little side trips. I had secondary characters who became primary characters far too often. It was like getting on an expressway intending to go from Orlando to Tampa but taking dozens of auxiliary roads during the journey.

So, I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I tore out entire sections. I inserted new ones. What was the result? I had the same word count, about 101,000. Worse than anything else, I had the same problem. I substituted auxiliary roads with new auxiliary roads.

I am now in the middle of revising again. I am canceling those side trips. I am leaving secondary characters on the cutting room floor, and some pretty harrowing scenes in the process. Such is life when you are trying to follow a laser beam.

There is one other issue I am working on, and that is the genre in which I was working. I will discuss that in my next blog entry. I promise it won't take me three months to write here again.

Monday, May 20, 2013 takes a rest

Yes, I am up in the middle of the night to write and edit again. Nothing new there. It's just that the subject matter of my writing and editing has changed. I must explain.

I served as editorial director of since The Denver Post columnist and ESPN personality launched the website in the fall. Well, the title "editorial director" is a bit misleading. That implies I could actually edit copy that went onto the site. Maybe wire editor is a better title. I also said "was" because Woody decided to pull the plug on the .com venture on May 1 because we couldn't get a national advertiser to help pay the bills.

But for all those months, we gave it a heckuva try. Our biggest problem: We just didn't have the right business model. We posted links to 28 to 30 sports-related stories every day. It was designed to entertain that valuable 18-to-34 age demographic, but we never entertained enough of them. That led to lower numbers than advertisers wanted to see, which led to the lack of an advertising contract, which led to our demise.

I am sorry to see the website go. I learned so much about getting a new venture off the ground, and about adaptability as plans changed, and getting to know the complex world of advertising options on today's Internet. Do I begrudge my time with Far from it. I got to work more closely with Woody, who is a heckuva good guy. That blustery guy you see on "Around the Horn"? That's more act than reality. I also learned so much about creating a website, devising plans, executing those plans, encountering problems and trying to find ways around those problems. All of us associated with the website worked hard to make it work. It just didn't pan out.

Live and learn. Take your lumps and recover. Look to the future, and get back to AIC every day. Those are all good things.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Thank you, James Scott Bell

They say a reading of Ten Commandments can change a guy's life. I am sure that is true. But there are Ten Commandments, and then there are the Ten Commandments for an author. Those "tablets of stone" for writers came recently from James Scott Bell, one of the better writing coaches in the business. Bell's Commandments have forced me to take a long look and a wrecking ball to my second novel.

I won't detail which commandments had such a great impact on me, but Bell taught me two lessons in the plainest language yet: refine character, complicate plot. I took those lessons and took a hard look at what I had written. There was only one conclusion to make: I had work to do.

So, at 3:42 a.m. Saturday morning, with the music of Bach playing in my headphones, I reentered my novel. I had Bell's commandments playing in the back of my mind as well.

This won't be a short exercise. I am taking entire sections I wrote and refining them. I am tossing out sections of plot and substituting new ones. I am looking at details of character, especially for my protagonist. I am built him well; now I need to build him better.

So, thank you, Mr. Bell. I hope my finished work adequately fulfills your commandments.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The great "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn

I finished reading "Gone Girl" this week, and I must say I am better for the experience. Author Gillian Flynn takes readers on a thrill ride, only in a different way than in the standard mystery/thriller/suspense bill of fare. Her style concentrates on two people, Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott Dunne, and she details the smallest inner workings of their lives.

Oh, yeah, there is the detail about Amy going missing, you know, the whole "Gone Girl" thing.

Flynn takes considerable time to introduce the characters. Make that CONSIDERABLE time. She takes almost 100 pages to set up the timeline of the relationship between these people. That could be tiring trudging for many readers, but Flynn lets us have an enjoyable ride. Her unveiling of these people is done with humor and intricate skill. You read through the thrill of Nick and Amy first meeting, into infatuation, love, questions and ever-widening cracks in their marriage.

Then Amy goes missing, and the crime plot begins to play out. Now, I am not one to give away secrets about plot. (I think one of the lowest levels of humanity is the person who sits in a movie theater and stage-whispers, "Hey, listen to people scream when the guy jumps out of the closet with the chainsaw. It's coming in 3 ... 2 ...") All I will say is that Flynn builds up one magnificent story line, flips the script, and flips it again. The ending isn't close to what I expected. But that is one of the great things about this novel. There are surprises with almost every turn of the page.

I know, a lot of you are saying, "It took him this long to get on board with this novel?" Well, the title didn't grab me. I thought it was a nice chick book, one of the novels that the dominant gender in the reading world embraced. What changed my mind? I saw the list of Edgar nominees, and "Gone Girl" was there. Sold!!!!

If there is a complaint I have, it is that the novel loses some steam as it reaches its later stages. That complaint is only because the bulk of the novel is so riveting. There were many places where I stopped reading and applauded Flynn for her work. That quality slackens a bit later, but that flaw is like finding a paint chip on the Mona Lisa.

It is a marvelous read, and it is highly recommended.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

I Found a Flaw

There was a mistake I left in my manuscript through numerous edits. It didn't escape one of my middle-of-the-night review sessions.

It concerns a secondary character and his recognition of my main character, Daniel Pace. Early in the book, he sees Pace's name on a list and shows no recognition. Much later, near the end of the book, he informs Pace he knew about him for years. No!!!! Inconsistency!!!!

But that's what is great about fiction. I took a few minutes to go back to that first incident and rewrite. Secondary character recognizes Pace's name at first glance. End of mistake.

I will have more blog entries later, but this is going to be a busy author's day. AIC, for sure. Fire up Pandora for classical Latin guitar and get into that creative groove. Love it.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lesson Ten: The Perfect Query Letter

Welcome back to The Weekend Blogger.

Let's contemplate the query letter. There is only one thing that is more important to an author trying to break into the publishing business, and that's the quality of the novel. But before the novel can have an effect, the query letter has to interest an agent enough that he/she will ask for part or all of that novel for review.

That makes the query letter a high-stakes game. In a way, it's the author pushing in all of his/her chips. The problem is that some agents get hundreds of query letters a day, all delivered into what is charmingly called the slush pile. That query of mine has to stand out among all those other queries or else it will be treated like slush in your driveway. The agent will sweep it into a pile and never think about it again. End of a chance to be published, at least with that agent as the guide for that project.

The perfect query letter has to have one trait: It has to lead to publication. All the nice verbiage in the world doesn't measure up if it doesn't lead to publication. That's a very stark assessment, but we are talking about a business here. Agents can talk about a loving for good writing, but the business requires that writing must sell. That query letter must persuade the agent, who then must have an editor at a publishing house in mind who would absolutely LOVE this project.

The advice you hear most from agents is that you must make the first part of the query read like the blurb on the back cover of a novel. I think I reached that point with my current query. If I was a guy waiting to get on an airplane, and I wanted to snag a thriller at the little bookstore on the concourse, I would pick up my novel based on this query. It gives a nice capsule of my main character, and sets up the conflict. I end that first part with a line that is more a tease than a revelation.

The second part of the query is succinct: The (insert title here, IN ALL CAPS) is a complete (insert genre here) of (insert word count here).

The third part is a brief personal biography. Tell the agent what you do in your day job, especially if that job lends credence to your writing skills. (If you do nails at Trixi's House of Bling, forget that information.) Tell the agent what separates you from the rest of the slush pile hopefuls. Tell the agent about your previous publishing history (that's a big seller), or writing contests you have won, or give a list of writing conferences you have attended. I include my participation in Pikes Peak Writers Conference events (a well-respected conference, for good reason), and that I am attending Donald Maass' week-long writing workshop later this year. I want that last part to give evidence to something at the center of my soul: I want to be a full-time published author, and I make strides to make that happen.

Here's a big tip: RESEARCH each agent to whom you are directing a query. Some have special parameters they want in a query that deviate from the standard format. Some want information on other writers with a style similar to yours. (I list John Hart and Lee Child, not to curry favor but because that is an accurate assessment.) Some want information on your ideas on how to properly market your novel. Some want the word "query" included in the title line. Others want "new submission." Learn what an agent wants, and tailor the query to best fit those needs.

See how easy that is? In order of performance, write a great novel, research each agent, write a boffo query letter, craft that query to fit that agent's needs, send off your query. Of course, there is the reality that you will only reach the slush pile, and your query will get a few seconds of time. If you strike a chord with an agent, you move closer to the Promised Land. If you don't, you join the crowded ranks of Slush Pile Rejects.

I have to be honest here. I can regard myself as a good guide on the perfect query letter only if I get published. Otherwise I am like a Catholic priest giving advice about a good marriage. I might have all the information, but I don't have the experience. Experience means knowledge, and knowledge means success. Or at least that's how I think it works.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Lesson Nine: Listen to Your Voice

When I launched into this literary world, I couldn't give you a proper definition of "voice" in a novel. I figured it was something akin to the time-honored explanation of "what is pornography?": It is hard to define, but I know it when I see it. That view has changed.

Here's the explanation I give today: Voice is your creative side speaking through your characters, setting, pacing, dialogue and detail. Let me accent the part of that definition that needs it. Voice is YOUR creative side. You can't force yourself into creating a character or writing in a genre with which you aren't comfortable. So what if vampires are the big literary hook these days, or zombies? If you don't have Anne Rice's heart and mind and aren't interested in detailing vampires, don't go there.

Which brings me to my main character in the novel I just completed. His name is Daniel Pace. Nice, simple name. He has a simple day job, but he has made extraordinary strides within that job. He has a history of violence. He isn't afraid to use violence now. OK, in many minds the name Jack Reacher just surfaced. Lee Child's creation is probably the most famous thriller hero out there. I won't go into detail about what separates Pace from Reacher, but there are many variations. (I will gladly talk about those differences with an agent or publishing house, however.) Those variations will take Pace far away from the Reacher story line. I am going to have fun detailing those variations and putting them up against bits of tension in later plots. Again, I won't go into detail, but I have the main story line for the third novel in the series as I continue to write the second Pace novel.

Of course, I have to talk about myself here because that character comes from my creative side. Those people who know me well know large parts of the Pace character are miles away from who I am. Violence? It's not my thing. I am the kind of guy who grabs a paper towel when my wife is spooked by a spider, picks up that spider and drops it outside. (Well, something like a black widow or brown recluse will become familiar with my boot heel, but a common house spider is spared.) However, I respect many of the attributes that lead to Pace's violent side, and I weave those attributes into Pace's character and plot line. If you read the first chapter of my first novel, you get certain insights into Pace. It is a short introduction to him, and the action follows in subsequent chapters.

I also deviate from some thriller writers in that the development of Pace's character won't be overpowered by action scene after action scene. I want to make Pace a real person caught up in this thriller world, not an automaton who surfaces to right the world's wrongs. He has a history that is separate from that violent side. There are things in his history that he wouldn't want others to know about, but readers will know about them about 80 percent of the way through the story line. He has a heart he guards carefully.

If I had to say why I came up with Pace as a main character, it is that I wish I knew the guy. He's an interesting fella. There are those attributes of his that I admire. There are those secrets. There are events I would love to sit down and listen to him give details. I would love to sit down and have a beer with him, but he's not a big beer drinker. Not much of a drinker of anything alcoholic.

Here's another part of my style I must mention in any discussion about voice. I have a history in journalism, and I can't shake that. Know what? I don't want to shake that. My writing style is very direct. This first novel in the series is 103,000 words only because complexities within the plot require it. I still get to the point in my storytelling.

I am reading "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn. It is a fantastic novel, but her style and mine are on separate sides of the spectrum. She takes a long time to detail her characters. I am 100 pages into the novel, and there are few parts of the main plot that she has unveiled. Her character development, however, is absolutely marvelous. I love the novel. She has ways of describing characters and little events in their lives, or little worries that surface, that are beautiful. It is one of those novels I can't wait to get back to reading. But Flynn and I walk down different paths in how we tell the story. I am much more plot-centric, but I leave room for character development.

I admit I have areas of creating voice I have to work on. It's part of the process, but like everything else in my literary efforts, I love being in that process.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Bonus lesson: Read Your Novel Aloud

This entry comes with a big tip of the cap to Harlan Coben, who posted on Twitter recently that he reads his manuscript aloud as the final step before submission to the publishing house.

Here's a hint: It works. No, make that "it works great!"

I did this on the fourth read through my novel. What an eye-opener. I think writers get so locked in on small sections of their manuscripts while doing a normal edit that they forget to look at the entire picture. It's that "can't see the forest for the trees" problem. Reading the novel aloud corrects that. Give yourself an entire day's work time to do it, if you have written a novel of any size. Here's what I found once I read aloud:

The pacing wasn't right. I took too long in cutting to the chase (no pun intended). I had some great chapters that exposed my character's voice, and some backstory, that didn't need to be there. There was some good writing. I will admit that. It just didn't belong in the storytelling. So I cut it and condensed the information in small form elsewhere.

There were sentences and phrases that were extraneous. They were left on the cutting room floor.

There still was a typo or two I had missed. I know a publishing house will provide an overall edit and a line-by-line edit behind me, but the copy editor in me wants to get it right the first time.

There was a mistake in sequence. That is changed. (Robert Crais says he had one of his characters meeting another main character for the first time TWICE in his Elvis Cole/Joe Pike series. That can happen when you have written as many novels in a series as Crais has.)

There were reactions by characters that didn't fit into the whole scheme well. I am finishing this blog entry and correcting one of those areas. My main character should be ready to charge through a wall because of information he just learned, but I have him reacting more to another bit of action. That's just plain wrong.

Reading aloud ended with me cutting my novel by nearly 5,000 words. That's right, 5,000 words.

WHAT I AM READING NOW: Rereading "Beyond Fear," a nonfiction work I first read probably 17 years ago. It's the account of the first crossing of New Guinea from north to south without the use of motorized craft. It is a marvelous story. Next up: "The Gone Girl," which is likely the favorite to win the Edgar this year.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Lesson Eight: Revise, revise, revise

I have again been less than prompt in blogging for the very reason I am writing this entry. (Well, there is that two-other-jobs thing.) I am involved in the third revision of my novel. Each revision has discovered flaws that earlier had been acceptable work.

Of course, as a copy editor I see the value in revising copy. It makes the content stronger. Most of the work I do involves the nip-and-tuck of extraneous sections. I allow violations of the "show, don't tell" mandate for authors. I don't amp up my main character's emotions in the right places. I don't make him keep to a straight path when he encounters certain situations. I tighten up the conflict between MC and chief protagonist.

Snip, snip, all gone. Spackle and sand, and scenes are suddenly stronger.

The key element in all this is the opening chapter. Almost every agent wants to see at least the first chapter of your novel. That makes sense because a reader standing in an airport bookstore will make the decision to purchase or not based on the blurb on the back of the book and a reading of the first few paragraphs. Hence, that first part is LIFE OR DEATH material. I am content with what I have now, but will an agent share my enthusiasm? Ay, there's the rub. My view doesn't matter. An agent's does, as will an editor's, as will the readers' decision while they stand in that airport bookstore.

I have no qualms about my characters, conflict, pace and plotting. Setting is another matter, but I touched on that in my last blog post. There is compelling material, but all that good copy means nothing if that opening doesn't grab EVERYONE involved in determining success in a literary venture.

So, I revise, which is what I am going to do right now. Nip and tuck. Snip, snip, Spackle and sand.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Lesson Seven: Think Big

Like any author who had the chance to sit in on one of his study sessions, I am a great fan of Donald Maass. He is the New York City agent who wrote "Writing the Breakout Novel" and "The Breakout Novelist," and his lessons are priceless. If you are a note taker, prepare to fill page after page with bits of wisdom.

Which suggestion is best? There are several, but for me it is Maass' directive to think big. Think big in characters, big in scope, big in execution of the story line. If I want to boil it down to a cliche for being successful, it would go like this: Go big or go home.

Just look at characters who seize our imaginations. Think of Hannibal Lecter. Think of James Bond. Think of Jack Reacher. Think of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan and Jeffery Deaver's twin protagonists, Lincoln Rhyme and Kathryn Dance. Each is bigger than life in heroism, intellect or vicious intent. They are memorable. That's the key.

I tweak Maass' advice somewhat when it comes to setting. I am a small-town guy, and I know the value of small-town people. That is part of the reason I gravitate toward John Hart's novels. He is a North Carolina native, and he set his first three novels within a smaller-town context. But he injected big ideas, big conflicts and big plot twists into those places. The main character of the novels I am writing now has some similarities. He grew up in a small Oregon town. He is a pastor's son. He goes to Seattle and builds a business from the ground up. But there are elements of his character that are bigger than life. He has a history as a Marine Scout Sniper. His job is to provide protection for other people, and he accepts that duty with serious intent. He has made himself into a millionaire. That job also opens him up to other opportunities. It's within those other opportunities that the real conflict in his life occurs.

Part of this love of big stories in a small-town context came long before I started reading Hart's novels. My mentor in that regard is Steven Spielberg. I loved his early movies, and I savored one aspect of those movies. In the made-for-TV movie "Duel" and in "E.T.," Spielberg took run-of-the-mill settings and dropped huge events into them. In "Duel," Dennis Weaver played a guy driving on a highway who suddenly is confronted by a driver of a semi rig who wants to kill him. Why? Don't know. Maybe it's just sport, but Weaver's character is locked into a life-or-death struggle. What was he doing before that struggle? Just being an ordinary Joe. In "E.T.," Spielberg took a normal single-parent family in a nondescript new-construction California neighborhood and put them into an interstellar adventure. The kids are just kids. The mom is just a mom. They just happen to get caught up in events that are so much larger than themselves.

I love that aspect. I try to weave that into my novels. Think big, but put it into a lesser setting. You don't need a top CIA operative, or the buddy protector of the President of the United States to provide the backdrop to great novels.

But I am in the process of still learning parts of this craft. I will be learning until my dying day. My last three entries in this 10 Greatest Lessons series are items with which I still struggle because I am still learning. But I am getting closer. Always closer.

Next: Lesson Eight: Revisions.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Lesson Six: A.I.C.

There is no greater basic lesson in writing than A.I.C. I believe the axiom is credited to Nora Roberts, the prolific romance writer, who said the most basic lesson for any writer is Ass In the Chair. You have to sit down, crank up the computer and do what you love to do, i.e. create. It must be a daily habit. All the other lessons revolve around this one.

There are different answers to what qualifies as proper A.I.C. Some novelists sit and create for hours. I know Joe Lansdale spends just a couple of hours a day, and maybe three, and turns out maybe three pages. But those three pages are created, tuned and revised during that session. String together enough of those sessions and you have a novel, or a great short story, or a novella, and your revisions are already done. What works? To each his own.

My own A.I.C. has been challenged at times. Two jobs takes a lot of time and energy, but I am getting better at forcing A.I.C. moments into my day. There are moments just like this one. I will get better at putting me ass in the chair on a daily basis. This dream of being a published author means that much to me.

Next: Lesson Seven: Think Big

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Lesson Five: Be True to Yourself

First, an apology. I was away for a few days to follow my beloved Oregon Ducks as they played in the Fiesta Bowl. They won big, so I am a happy man. But with that break in my background, it's back to the literary part of my life:

It seems rather incongruous to say that a great way to write good fiction is to be true to yourself. Fiction and reality in close proximity? As far as making believable stories, I think it is one of the lessons I learned early in this venture. Let me illustrate with another author's story.

John Hart, my favorite author, wrote two novels before he finally wrote a work that was published. I never got details, but I believe those first novels had heavy doses of military action. The common thread for those works? They didn't see the light of day either through self-publishing or a publishing house. Why didn't they work? John's background includes, among many things, his work as a lawyer. It doesn't include military service. His first works weren't true to who John is.

His third work unlocked the magic kingdom and he became a published author. Part of the reason is that John worked in a world comfortable to him. His work was "King of Lies," and his protagonist was a lawyer. But more than just taking a look at the occupation, John was able to take us inside the lawyer's world, and I believe into his own history as well. The novel is uncomfortable in spots, but it is a great read.

How can I say John was so true to himself? Just read his words. (I take liberty here to use a paragraph and parts of two others.) Here is the opening to "King of Lies" as John gives a glimpse into the real world of a criminal lawyer:

"I've heard it said that jail stinks of despair. What a load. If jail stinks of any emotion it's fear; fear of the guards, fear of being beaten or gang-raped, fear of being forgotten by those who once loved you and may or may not anymore. But mostly, I think, it's fear of time and of the dark things that dwell in the unexplored corners of the mind. Doing time they call it -- what a crock. I've been around long enough to know the reality: It's the time that does you.

"For some time, I'd been bathed in that jailhouse perfume, sitting knee-to-knee with a client who'd just gotten life without parole. The trial had damned him, as I told him it would. The state's evidence was overwhelming, and the jury had zero sympathy for a three-time loser who had shot his brother during an argument about who would get control of the remote. ... On most days I was ambivalent, at best, about my chosen profession, but on days like this I hated being a lawyer; that hatred ran so deep that I feared something must be wrong with me. I hid it as others would a perversion."

Bingo. Can you feel (yes, actually feel) the lessons John learned while sitting in jail cells? The magic is that John followed that with two novels, "Down River" and "The Last Child," that won the Edgar Award, making him the first author to win that coveted honor in back-to-back years. His fourth novel, "Iron House," has done very well, and he is working on his fifth novel. I eagerly await that work.

I try to follow that course, but I travel a much different literary route. Our experiences don't dovetail, and I want to be somewhat true to my experiences as I write. Above all, I want my characters to be as deep and rich as John's. That's a tough standard to follow, but I am making the effort. (More on that in a later blog entry.)

My next entry: Lesson Six: A.I.C.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Lesson Four: Read, read, read

Joe Lansdale is an interesting read, and a more interesting person with whom to share a conversation. He is east Texas personified: blunt talking, a bit of bluster, good insights, wise in several areas. We don't see eye to eye on certain things, but I always respect Joe when he says something.

I never respected him more than we chatted after one of his teaching sessions at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference last year.

I asked Joe whether he read while he was writing novels, or did he put other authors aside so his own style wouldn't be tainted by someone else's voice? That was my mindset. I didn't want someone else's muse getting in the way of my creations.

Joe was east Texas blunt in his reply: You are cheating yourself. The best way to become a great writer is to read great writing. Surround yourself with the works of those who deserve to be read.

And I listened. I became a reading fool, polishing off a novel in one to two weeks (which is understandable with my two-jobs daily routine). Joe was correct. I am not siphoning someone else's style but learning the lessons they are teaching. Part of it is learning the language of publishing I referred to in my previous post.

MY FAVORITE NOVELS: The top of the list didn't change since I went on my reading binge. The first three novels by John Hart (King of Lies, Down River, The Last Child) display what I love in novels. John creates great characters. He creates a rich fabric on which those characters play out their roles. And first and foremost, he places those characters in settings that are as familiar as the town in which you live. His setting is North Carolina, but it could be small-town Colorado, or North Dakota, or Vermont. (Lansdale's Edgar Award-winning The Bottoms fits under this heading, too.)

I get tired of action heroes who only work in the highest levels of the CIA, or in special OPS behind enemy lines, or sit next to the president and have his ear at all times. Hart's protagonists are, in order of the three novels I mentioned above, a small-town lawyer living in a world of disintegrating relationships, a young man coming back to his old hometown and not being warmly greeted, and a child who deals with his personal mental wounds as his world is breaking part. To a degree, Hart's focus in those novels dovetails with Stephen Spielberg's early movies such as "Duel" or "E.T.": Drop something big into familiar surroundings. "Duel" dealt with a common guy driving around and being chased by a semi driver with deadly intentions; "E.T." dealt with an alien dropped into a common southern California neighborhood. My first two novels follow that same idea. My third deviates somewhat, but it stays true to the basic ideal.

My other favorite read since I started my binge? Michael Connelly's The Reversal. It deals with courtroom drama and features some of his series protagonists, and it flows so effortlessly as the plot plays out. It was the work of an author in complete control of his work.

WHAT I AM READING NOW: One Shot by Lee Child, which is the book on which the movie "Jack Reacher" is based. Child has an uncanny knack for building tension in a plot. He also follows my small-town focus in this novel. It is set in a smaller Indiana city where a lone shooter murders several innocent people. Of course, it's obvious that Tom Cruise doesn't fit Child's Reacher exactly. Child's character is 6-foot-5 and about 250 pounds; Cruise is a comparative shrimp. I will see how it works in the movie once I finish the book.

A quick aside: Happy New Year!!! I am taking heed of some literary wisdom I saw on Twitter yesterday. (Yes, there can be wisdom in 140-character messages.) It said not to look at this as the year I will get an agent but as the year in which I will write a great novel. I think I have the vehicle to make that happen. These days I am busy revising that vehicle.

Thanks to all of you who have given me support. I believe in one of Patricia Cornwell's principles as I sit down to write: Failure is not an option. We write to be published because our work deems it necessary. I am still learning the lessons to reach that point.