Friday, September 28, 2012

What Do You Get From Writing? Who Should Write? An Interview with Laura Lippman

Award-winning mystery/suspense author Laura Lippman was recently interviewed by Bill Kenower of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. Lippman was a reporter for twenty years, but has since become a very successful author, who's written not only psychological suspense and mystery in her Tess Monaghan p.i. series, but bestselling stand-alone novels, as well.

Among the points of interest in the interview are the following:
  • When Lippman was little she and her older sister played together a lot. They played Barbies, and created elaborate family sagas in their make-believe. She related that to the joy and play in writing that she feels, and she believes that if you like to write, you should try to write. However, she doesn't believe everyone who writes should be published.
  • Even though she had years of journalistic experience, and uses that experience to do some research for her books, she believes fiction can be more easily believable than factual stories.
  • It is not easy to write a page turner, and she's learned that a key factor in making that happen is how relatable and sympathetic the character is.
  • There's very little relationship between the writing brain and the publishing brain, and she thinks it's important to not think about how the book will be marketed and how readers will respond until it's finished (by which, I'm pretty sure, she means the polished draft that will go to an editor).
  • There's a sweet spot in writing . . . and it's just shy of being a perfectionist.
You can watch the interview here—it's about seven minutes long.

p.s. you may have noticed that I put up PNWA author interviews every once in a while. I enjoy them, and get a lot out of them, and hope you do, too. I get them sent to me every month because I'm a member of PNWA, and while I'm not on the organization's promotions committee, I'd like to share that anyone can join. It's not expensive, and they hold one of the best writing conferences in the country every summer. If you're a member you get a reduced rate at the conference and for entering their writing contests that go with the conference. Just a thought. :) The site is pnwa.org.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Writer Beware Update

Last week I wrote about one of the new scams that writers who sell their books on Amazon have to watch for vigilantly (Sock Puppets, 9/19/12).

This week I want to pass on some good news about one kind of scam that's dwindled with the changes in the publishing industry: literary agency scams. (This is actually early-August info—I'm a little slooow getting it out to you, sorry! Better late than never?)

Victoria Strauss, of the well-known and respected Writer Beware blog, writes about the reduction in literary agency scams, but also points out that those of us seeking literary agency representation can't assume it's all good out there. Scammers are still there, looking for our business. Victoria mentions the following active scammers in her post:
  • Best Selling Book Rights Agency
  • Clark, Mendelson, and Scott (aka Franklin-Madison Literary)
  • International Book Management Corporation (previously known as Sterlinghouse Publisher), which no longer operates a literary agency, but now sells other, related, scam services)
It's great the list isn't much, much longer (there are more worth checking out on the site, though). But Victoria points out that although the reports of scam agencies are down, complaints and inquiries about small publishers, vanity presses, self-publishing services, and marketing services related to all of these are up.

So, while there is some good news, the message is still, Writer Beware! It's an interesting read, and the blog is a great one to follow.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Becoming a Better Writer

In my surfing-for-knowledge/insight/fun/brilliance!! regarding writer's craft this week, I came across an article by Jocelyn Glei in the blog 99U : Insights on Making Ideas Happen, from Behance.

There are twenty-five tips on how to become a better writer/get the work done from well-known writers here, including the likes of P.D. James, Zadie Smith, Kurt Vonnegut, Jennifer Egan, Haruki Murakami, Annie Dillard and others of equal stature.

One of my favorites, from Esther Freud, on finding time to write: "Find your best time of day for writing, and write. Don't let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won't matter to you that the kitchen is a mess."

So true!

One hint: unless you love Ernest Hemingway, you can skip the opening quote. If you do love Hemingway, you'll smile, maybe laugh. I suspect the irony in his statement was only for literary effect. I think he actually meant it!! :)

For your reading pleasure (and to get you excited to get back to your pages): 25 Insights on Becoming a Better Writer, by Jocelyn Glei.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A New Digital Publisher to Challenge Amazon?

Did you catch the article on the front Business Page of Wednesday's New York Times this week? It looks like there's a new player in the digital publishing world with an eye to making a big splash. The new company is called Brightline.

The people involved are entertainment moguls Scott Rudin (film and theater producer), and Barry Diller (IAC/Interactive Corp. Chmn), along with Frances Coady (long-time publishing executive), and Evan Ratliff (one of the founders of Atavist, the company that will provide the online publishing experience and expertise).

As noted in the article, the traditional publishing industry has been in turmoil for some time. The principals of Brightline are seeing an opportunity with their entirely new venture, which they feel will be able to get considerable traction through a combination of high-profile projects without "the legacy costs and practices of traditional publishing."

Brightline has big name connections and possibilities. Scott Rudin often works with Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jonathan Franzen, for example, and Brightline "will pay big advances to compete for big-name authors," and "will publish e-books and eventually physical books in a partnership with Atavist."

Brightline and Atavist will remain separate entities for the time being, and lots of questions still haven't been answered about the actual distribution and payment to authors, etc. But as Barry Diller said, when expressing their hopes, "There is a possibility here that if we start with a blank piece of paper that you could hit the opportunity that exists in the book business."

Just one small mention was made in the article about Brightline's possible challenge to Amazon's market share dominance in the digital book market (which it placed at 65% of sales). Intriguing.

This is one to watch.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Character Arc: The Hero's Journey

There are a few things you can do before you start writing your novel to assure that it comes out whole and satisfying. Perhaps the most important is to visualize your hero's or heroine's character arc over the breadth of the story.

There are two major arcs occurring simultaneously in a novel that interact to make the story unique and compelling. (There are other, minor, arcs as well, but they are for another discussion, another time.) One major arc is the external story arc . . . all those things that happen around and to the characters that drive their responses and behaviors (through the fulcrum of their personalities). The other is what happens to your hero's or heroine's character itself as it is affected, reacts to, and is transformed by events, realizations, and behaviors. Any novel where the protagonist is the same at the end as she was at the beginning is going to be a boring novel, and that's not what we're all about.

The Hero's Journey, explained in The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, offers an excellent template for planning your protagonist's arc. It is a standard in the arsenal of writing teachers. Campbell's focus was myth, and how all great dramas utilize essential mythical structure. An excellent example is the sweeping and powerful structure of The Odyssey. What a journey Odysseus had!

Once Campbell had published The Hero with a Thousand Faces, "his multi-step outline swept through the screen-writing and fiction-writing community." (Elizabeth Lyon, A Writer's Guide to Fiction, pp. 51-52).

As explained by Lyon in  A Writer's Guide to Fiction, the hero's journey includes three major stages that the protagonist goes through.

  • Departure, Separation
  • Descent, Initiation, Penetration
  • Return
Lyon goes on to show how Campbell further described these stages:

ACT ONE: Departure, Separation
  • The Ordinary World/Hero at Home
  • Call to Adventure/The Challenge
  • Refusal of the Call/Elimination of The Expendable Person
  • Meeting the Mentor
  • Crossing the First Threshold into the Special World

ACT TWO: Descent, Initiation, Penetration
  • Road of Tests and Trilas/Allies and Enemies
  • Approach to the Inmost Cave
  • Belly of the Whale/Meeting with the Goddess, Temptress; Atonement
  • Ordeal/Life an Death Struggle
  • Reward

ACT THREE: Return
  • Refusal of the Return
  • The Ultimate Test/Resurrection
  • Return with the Elixir/Master of Two Worlds

In a novel, Act I is approximately the first quarter of the book; Act II is the second and third quarters, and Act III is the last quarter. The same sort of timing and rhythm applies to movies.The movie, JAWS, is  often given as an example to show these stages as we follow Police Chief Martin Brody through his hair-raising journey to defeat the monster shark and save his town and himself (the external monster forces him to face his internal demons and transform). Lyon's book provides an in-depth discussion of each step, or you can find examples and detailed descriptions other than JAWS by Googling Joseph Campbell and The Hero's Journey.

When I'm starting a new novel, I like to think about my protagonist's journey and jot notes to myself before I begin writing, and then start writing, without too much more pre-planning. When I've written enough to feel grounded in the story, though, it's time to look at whether I've planned for all these elements of the hero's journey to enter my protagonist's arc. If I haven't, early in the writing is the time to do it.

What's your process? Do you consciously incorporate the elements of the Hero's Journey in your novel structure? If not, do you find that they're all there when you've finished?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Finishing Your Book and Getting an Agent and Publisher: An Interview

Thriller writer Jeff Abbott is so smart and wise, I can't resist sharing the interview with you that he did with the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. I don't read too many thrillers (and—full disclosure—have not read Jeff Abbott's books), so when I saw this nine-minute podcast come over the transom from PNWA, I thought it would be something I might be only mildly interested in. But the points Jeff makes apply to any writer in any genre, and are rock-solid insightful.

A few areas he talks about in the interview:

  • how to focus on finishing your project
  • getting an agent (Jeff explains how he did it, which was sort of backwards, but a great idea)
  • the importance of writing what you love to read
  • choreographing action scenes and keeping the emotional context foremost in action scenes (if you don't, he says, you are writing smoke and mirrors, CGI)
  • the dance of plot and character
  • what to focus on if you want to be published
  • what to keep in mind at all times: that your book is your first real impression on readers, not branding or marketing or getting the book out there.

This nine-minute interview is well-worth a look. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Publishers Warming To Cross-Genre Novels

Here are two actual conversations I've had with agents at two different conferences who, in their bios, claimed to love what sounded (at least to me) exactly like the type of book I write.

ONE:

Me: "This is a women's suspense novel about . . . etc. "

Agent: "What's women's suspense? There's no such thing as women's suspense."

Me: "Yes, there is. Think of it as the softer side of suspense."

Agent: shakes head, unwilling to discuss; rolls eyes, otherwise lets me know I just don't get how the publishing world works. 


TWO:

Agent: Who's the audience for this book?

Me: Primarily women, aged late twenties and up.

Agent: That's not an audience.

What were both of these agents trying to communicate to me? Neither of them actually articulated it, but I realized later they were both saying "We work with a set model based on genre. We can sell specific genres to publishers, but we can't even knock on the door if it doesn't fit the model." In the first conversation above, that's obvious. In the second, it took me a while to understand what the agent was actually saying, which was, "is your audience mystery readers? or suspense readers? or romance readers? pick one."

Before telling you about an interesting article I read in Publishers Weekly this week about new publisher interest in cross-genre books, I have to put a little disclaimer in so you don't think I have a negative opinion of agents. I don't. Almost all my interactions with agents have been positive. I've found that good agents are deeply committed to finding good books and authors they can promote, and will do whatever they can to support a project they believe in. I'm actually deeply grateful to the two agents referred to above, too, for helping me understand how important it is to be aware of the business model they operate from—not so that I can try to write a book that conforms to it, but so I know what the important points of contention may be so they can be addressed when shopping a book.

The fact is, if you don't write a book that fits neatly into an identified genre, you will run into roadblocks (unless you are truly a brilliant writer). I've read so many blog posts and email comments from writers who are frustrated because the traditional publishing world is not interested in cross-genre fiction, that I know there are many of us facing these issues. 

Finally, here comes some great news for cross-genre writers, especially if you write scifi and/or fantasy.   In "Crossing the Streams," by Rose Fox in this week's issue of Publishers Weekly, we learn that there are both small presses and imprints of big publishers that are dedicating themselves to cross-genre fiction now:

Crossed Genres is a small press that is publishing Ink, by Sabrina Vourvoulias,"a literary novel that blends dystopian science fiction and magical realism."

JournalStone Publishing is bringing out Vale of Stars by Sean O'Brien in December, which blends "hard science fiction with social and political commentary and debates over ethics and morality." The president of JournalStone says that the press's authors "are blending horror, action/adventure, romance, and comedy, using science fiction as an 'anchor' genre."

Atria Books (imprint of Simon and Schuster): "There has been an increased interest from readers for historical novels with a fantasy element, where facts and fantasy are combined in a seamless manner," says Atria's V.P. and senior editor.

Edge is a Canadian speculative fiction press that is especially interested in one of the most popular ways of blending historical and fantasy—steampunk.

Viz's Haikasoru imprint is interested in more recent history being explored by speculative fiction authors and has no problem with lines being straddled between literary and genre.

Small Beer Press (publisher of the amazing Ursula K. LeGuin) often publishes books that blur the line between genre and literary fiction.

Ace is publishing attorney Jill Archer's Dark Light of Day in their mass market line. It's a blend of fantasy and legal thriller.

Tor is also publishing a fantasy/legal thriller blend with Max Gladstone's debut, Three Parts Dead.

Of course, as the article's author points out, SciFi Thrillers are nothing new.

But there does seem to be new energy behind blending genres. The romance genre also supports blending with other genres, using romance as a base. May the trend grow!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Hopping Heads: Switching Point-of-View Characters Mid-Paragraph

One of the early lessons new writers learn is you should not have more than one point-of-view character within a paragraph. Not within a page, either, or even a chapter, unless you make a clear break between them, indicated by extra space between the paragraphs or, more likely, a line of separating symbols, like

* * *

centered on the page with a blank line above them (before which the first p.o.v. character holds sway, and another blank line below (after which you can switch to a different character's p.o.v.)

The main reason not to change p.o.v. without a break is clarity of story. You don't want to confuse readers by jumping from inside one character's head to inside another's in the same paragraph or flow of paragraphs. And, mushing more than one point of view into a thought-thread can take the reader out of the story and make them take a few moments to figure out which character was thinking what. You really don't want that, because then you've committed the cardinal sin of inserting your authorial voice into the narrative, thereby interfering with the story.

(We're not talking about dialogue, here, btw, which is correctly used to show an exchange of points of view between characters on a page. We're talking about the characters' thoughts being shown as thoughts, not dialogue.)

Below is a paragraph that demonstrates the problem of changing p.o.v. in a paragraph.

"Two hours and half a dozen stops later, Bennett pronounced himself satisfied that Anna was properly equipped. For him, it had been an unexpected pleasure to see the transformation from tough girl to elegant woman. Even for Anna, who declared loudly and often that she hated shopping, it had been good to feel a man's obvious interest and—despite Bennett's facetious way of expressing it—admiration. Unlike Poe, whose flattery had always been delivered word perfect, as though he had memorized lines from the rou├ęs phrase book, Bennett's compliments had an unrehearsed, engaging warmth about them, as there was about him generally. At least, whenever he allowed it to show through." (p. 131, Anything Considered by Peter Mayle) 

The paragraphs before this one are from Bennett's p.o.v. Does it bother you that both p.o.v.'s are in this paragraph? Before I started writing, it probably would not have bothered me. The writing is good. Mayle's autobiographical novels, A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence, are among my favorites, but I couldn't help noticing that, in this one, there were lots of p.o.v. changes within paragraphs.
I read differently now than I used to.

I've heard it said that great writers can pull off a p.o.v. change without a break. The example usually given is from Lady Chatterly's Lover, when the gardener (the lover) enters the lady's home carrying a basket of apricots. The scene is in his point of view at that point, and as his thoughts are expressed he hands the basket to Lady Chatterly, at which time the p.o.v. changes to hers. Seamlessly.

Where do you stand on this issue?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Social Media for Writers: a Talk with Kristin Lamb

One of the benefits of being a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association is that PNWA regularly emails you interviews they've conducted with authors. Below is an interview with Kristin Lamb, who is a social-media-for-writers mavin.

If you have questions or concerns about how to manage your social media presence (or about whether to even have a social media presence) in order to establish a platform, this interview will answer the basics. If you already blog, tweet, FB, etc., you probably aren't wondering about the basics, but you may want to know how to maximize your time and use of social media. Lamb answers those questions, too, some here, some in her book, We Are Not Alone, The Writer's Guide to Social Media. Personally, I think I could learn a few important things from it and am going to buy a copy. 

The interview is about twenty minutes long. If you're interested in the topic, it's well worth a listen. Here are a few of the points Lamb makes. 
  • Blogs are the most powerful social media tool in your arsenal if you are a writer.
  • The biggest part of any writer's platform is good books.
  • Writers don't have to be on social media every hour of the day. Don't overpush it. That can be overkill and ineffective.
  • Be on a couple of platforms (not all of them), and do meaningful activity, not just promote your book.  1/3: information (link to your blog, e.g.); 1/3 reciprocation—re-post for someone else; and 1/3 conversation, including the mundane aspects of everyday life to start a conversation
  • Be kind, be authentic, be genuine, be funny if you can.
  • As a writer, don't blog about writing. (uh, oh, I'm in trouble!)
  • Don't program your tweets. Be there and be real when you use Twitter or people will be turned off.
Go here to listen to the interview.

So, what have you found to be most satisfying and most effective in your use of social media to build a platform as a writer?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

E-Book Market Expansion? New: Gift Cards

A newish company called Livrada is intent upon "expand(ing) the footprint of bookselling" and "mak(ing) e-book giving a more personal and streamlined experience" by offering e-book gift cards.

You're no-doubt familiar with the process of giving e-books as gifts through a seller like Amazon, where you buy the e-book electronically and have it delivered electronically to the recipient with a message from you. What Livrada is doing is different.

The cards are for specific books, and are sold in physical store outlets. Recipients enter a code from their gift card into Livrada's website and are taken to "the selected platform's delivery channel—whether it's Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or others."

Livrada's e-book gift cards are currently sold at most Target stores, and the company is "in talks with a number of retailers, including airport stores, big box retailers, office supply stores, and electronic stores." The idea behind selling the physical cards in physical stores is that "a tangible way to browse, discover, and purchase e-books is more appealing to customers than the digital lists and recommendation engines that are found online." ( Livrada seems to be hedging their bet by adding "electronic stores" to their list of outlets they're in talks with.)

The company works with publishers--currently Random House and HarperCollins. It has six titles right now, including Fifty Shades of Grey, State of Wonder, and Gone, Girl, and "hopes to have 50 to 100 titles available . . . within the next six to twelve months from about a dozen publishers."

For more details on this interesting start-up business, read the full article from last week's Publishers Weekly.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Commas and Dashes and Colons (oh my!)

Punctuation. Such a bugaboo. But in spite of recurring trends toward throwing all punctuation rules on their pointy little pinheads, it turns out that commas and dashes and colons, not to mention semi-colons. do matter. All of them—that's right—all, have a place in the traditional (i.e. non-experimental) novel.

Like many writers today, I would argue that punctuation in novels works best when it's not noticeable—that is, when it is modest in nature and seen so commonly that the eye just naturally skims over it while it does its job. The humble and lovely comma, used well, is a good example.

On the other end of the spectrum are punctuation marks that stop the flow of the narrative, like colons and semi-colons. Use them where you must—and sometimes you must—but in a piece of dramatic writing it's great to avoid writing sentences that require them if you can. Exclamation marks are even more fervently to be avoided.

Punctuation has a critical function: making the meaning of a sentence (or a series of sentences) clear. (Obviously, more types of punctuation are useful in explanatory non-fiction narrative, like a blog post, than in novels.)  :)

Punctuation also has a bonus function for writers who are comfortable with its nuances: creating special emphasis without adding words.

To illustrate the last point, here's some of what Priscilla Long (author of the excellent book on writing, The Writer's Portable Mentor) says about effective use of punctuation by sophisticated writers (pp. 254-257):

"Here [are] a few moves that first-rate writers have under their belts and other writers don't.

Commas and Semicolons In a List

Whether you adore or deplore the semicolon, know where it should go if you should want to use it. Knowing this, you can use it or refuse it without looking inept.

In a list, if a single item has a comma within it, then semicolons separate the different items.

Mondrian's loves were Paris, France; London; Amsterdam; and New York.

Even one comma within one item in a long list of items forces semicolons to separate the different items.

 Phrasal Adjectives

A phrasal adjective is an adjective made of two or more words: . . . (for example): real-estate broker. Except for ly words (nearly white walls) and proper nouns, phrasal adjectives should be hyphenated—to make reading easier and to avoid misreadings: small-business owner, not small business owner (that tiny person). 

. . . (from Bryan A. Garner's General Rule): when a phrase functions as an adjective . . . the phrase should ordinarily be hyphenated. Hence, the soup is burning hot becomes the burning-hot soup; the child is six years old becomes the six-year-old child. Most professional writers know this. Most nonprofessionals don't.

Comma, Dash, and Colon

. . . One use of the dash is to set off an appositive. Appositives clarify and expand the meaning of nouns, within the same sentence.
     Gauguin's life—poverty, disease, loneliness, disillusion, guilt—was wholly tragic. (John Berger, 
"Gauguin's Crime," 65)

There are three ways [comma, dash, colon] to punctuate an appositive, moving from least emphatic to most emphatic.

- Lou was the prize of Kent County, a sleek black racehorse.
- Lou was the prize of Kent County—a sleek black racehorse.
- Lou was the prize of Kent County: a sleek black racehorse.

Interrupters

Interrupters are a cool way to create emphasis or pack in information. An interrupter can be a phrase or an entire sentence interjected into another sentence.

- Words—I often imagine this—are little houses, each with its cellar and garret. (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 147)

-Otto fished up a magazine from the floor—one of the popular science magazines William always left lying around—and idly opened it. (Deborah Eisenberg, "Some Other, Better Otto," 49)

(and here's an exception to the rule) . . ."Yes, you do include the question mark or exclamation point in an interrupter sentence. And no, you don't include the period."

Do you have a favorite punctuation mark? Or a pet peeve about them?