Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Focus During the Rewrite

Writing is rewriting. When I lay down my first draft I’m basically telling myself the story and meeting the characters. Last time I told you what I focus on during that first pass. I point my brain in a very different direction when I get down to revising that draft. At this point I’m not learning the story I’m working to improve it. This is not editing. It’s too soon for me to worry about grammar and spelling. At this point I’m looking at the characters, the plot, the setting and if there is one, the theme.

I focus on the descriptions, all of which are written from the perspective of the point of view character. I write in third person, but it is close third person. That means that all of my prose needs to show what that point of view character sees, hears, feels, smells and tastes. Anytime the descripts don’t fit that bill I’ve wandered into omniscient view or worse, I’m head hopping.
Next I focus on the actual data. Every story is filled with relationships, character backstory, details about the setting, the history, the motivations. During the rewrite I’m looking at how my prose delivers that information. Everything needs to flow smoothly with no info dumps. And to maintain the point of view, all that data has to be presented in the point of view character’s voice, and it has to all be within his reasonable knowledge.

In revision I also re-examine the action. Not just the violent conflicts, but every character’s body language and casual movements. I want my reader to be able to clearly visualize all of the mannerisms. That is as important as being able to visualize the fight scenes. And each character’s action have to fit that character, without overdoing it (how many times did she twist that lock of hair?) Too many of those little movements can actually mess with the pace.

I also look closely at the dialog. Every word out of a character’s mouth should serve a purpose, either to promote the plot or deepen character development. And conversations should either reveal or impact the relationship between the characters talking. And I remind myself that each character has an individual voice.  This includes inner dialog. It has to ring true to their voice and be true to that character’s emotional stakes.

I focus on a different set of elements when I get down to the editing phase, but that’s for next time.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Focus on Improving Your Writing

When people ask “How can I improve my writing” I think of a number of fundamentals an author should focus on as they write. But perhaps one thing that may not be obvious is that where a writer’s focus should be depends on what stage of the process he is in. My process for writing a first draft is very different from my process when rewriting or editing a work. So I thought it might be of value to share where my head is at each stage.

I’ll start with the first draft. I have my outline and I’m ready to write. But the outline is just the plot, the sequence of events.  Once I start creating prose I need to answer one very important question: whose story is this? I’m going to tell this story through the eyes, and thoughts, of a specific point of view character. That character’s voice is what I hear in my head as the lines form, and that character’s voice shows in every line I type. Your first draft is the best place to explore that character’s voice.

Point of view has a second meaning to writers, and the first draft is where you decide that too. That, is, first or third person point of view. Second person point of view is more work than I want to do so I don’t even consider it. I choose to write my novels in a close third person point of view, but short stories often feel better in first person. You really don’t want to switch mid-stream so make a firm decision at the start and stick with it.

You also want to decide on the atmosphere and mood of your story at the outset. The atmosphere is part of the setting, instead of what your characters see or hear it is what they feel. The atmosphere could be light and pleasant, or dark and foreboding, or even suspenseful like that still moment just before a storm hits. But It should be a decision, not an accident.  

One other point. In my first draft I try to look back every couple of paragraphs and ask myself, ‘Did that serve the story?” As much as possible, I want every sentence to either advance the plot or develop my characters. The better I do at that, the less I’ll have to cut during the rewrite.

Next week I’ll talk about where I focus during that rewrite.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Back to Query Letters

A couple of weeks ago I blogged on what we at Intrigue Publishing want to see in a query letter. I have since been reminded that I bypassed some basics. I’ll now try to fill in the spaces.soso

You need to include the genre of your work in the query letter. We want to know who your target audience is, and to be sure you’ve written something in a genre we publish (which of course is stated clearly in our submission guidelines.

We also need to know the word count, so we know your book fits with the expectations of your genre’s readers. Don’t send us a Young Adult novel that’s 50,000 words. It’s too short for the genre. We might consider one that’s 60,000 words, but a mystery or thriller needs to be 80,000 to 100,000. And it’s awkward when the word count isn’t rounded up or down. Take it to the nearest thousand words.

Also, avoid confusing us in the letter. If your novel contains a lot of elements just tells us about the ones that relate to the primary conflict or the book’s dramatic question. Also, tell us if the book is told from multiple points of view. We want to know who’s story it is.

Finally, remember that not even a perfect query letter guarantees acceptance. If a publisher rejects your work, that just means it’s time to submit to someone else.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Panelling - Don't Be Wooden

In a couple of days I'll arrive at Thrillerfest, one of my favorite writers conferences. Because it's in New York, the center of the publishing universe, Thrillerfest attracts a number of agents, editors, and other industry professionals. So when you're sitting on a panel at this one, you're not just talking to fellow authors and eager fans. You're in front of a few people you might seriously want to impress.

At our own Creatures,Crimes & Creativity Con we want to give every writer a chance to shine, so we keep panels down to three or four people. At Thrillerfest it is not uncommon to see six or seven writers on a panel, plus a moderator who may contribute to the conversation. Plus, every panel is likely to have one or two very recognizable names. Or at least names more familiar then yours. SO, how do you make the best of your panel time.

First, it’s important to prepare. Check the title of your panel. I’m on one this year about creating suspense. Decide what the most obvious questions are for the moderator to ask. How do you define suspense? Why is it important? Where in YOUR book did you use suspense?

When you have six or seven questions you’re likely to hear on the panel, compose clear, concise answers to them. Be able to make your point in less than a minute. A minute can seem like a long time when you’re talking and trust me, the audience feels it too. Longer answers will make it look like you’re hogging the stage. The only thing worse is saying nothing. (actually, the WORST thing is to pause for thirty seconds figuring out an answer.)  

So you’re ready for the moderator to call on you. You’ll sound confident because you know your response in advance. But what do you do when you’re not talking? To be an audience pleaser, try to me actively polite. That means listening to, and looking at, whoever is talking. Don’t jump in just because they sparked a thought in your head. And smile! The audience thinks you should be having fun up there.

If you’ve read the work of any of the other panelists it’s cool to mention their title when your turn comes. If they mention your work, accept the compliment graciously. The panel is a team with the shared goal of making the audience happy. Promoting each other is a nice way to reach both goals. And if one of the panelist says something you disagree with, respect his or her view and offer concrete reasons why your view differs. Fans and industry insiders will respect a healthy debate. Just know the difference between a debate and an argument.

And if you’re coming to Thrillerfest, please stop by to see one of my panels on Friday. Trust me, we’ll have a good time!

Monday, July 1, 2019

Reading Query Letters

With my publishing hat on, reading queries is part of the job. Sometimes it can be a joy – when I pick up a gem about a book that screams “read me!” On the other hand, often it’s drudgery of the worst sort. So maybe this is self-serving but if you want to submit to Intrigue Publishing, please consider some of what I’ve learned are the keys to making me say “send the manuscript.”

First and foremost, understand that a query letter is not a synopsis. It is, in fact, a sales pitch. So the focus should not be on telling me what the story is, but instead on telling me why people will want to read that story. Don’t just tell it. Sell it.

Most novelists have figured out that their letter needs a good hook line. That is what pulls me in. But then what? Well, if you’re a thriller or mystery author, show me you understand your audience. Show me a satisfying twist at the end. That will make me want to read your book.

Now for thrillers, mysteries or even Young Adult novels, the strength of the story is tied to what the hero can win or lose. In other words, what is at stake. Make sure you tell me clearly what the stakes are, and if they can’t be big (if we don’t stop him, he’ll start World War III) then make sure it’s personal (If we can’t stop him, he will be pushed into a life as a gang banger forever.)

Now for all fiction genres, but especially for our romance submissions, keep in mind that there is no new story. Since every story you can imagine has been told before, it’s vital that you find a way to show how YOUR version of this story is unique. Tell me about that twist on the familiar story that will surprise me. How is your protagonist different? What about your voice is one-of-a-kind in this genre? And if you can’t find what’s different about your take on this story… don’t query us.

At the same time, let me know how your books is like what’s already out there. For marketing purposes, we need to know about comparable titles. So give me comparisons so I know for sure that you know what’s hot in your genre. If your thriller will appeal to fans of Jeffrey Deaver and John Sandford I know who the audience is. If your romance is Outlander in space or you have a mystery that is Sherlock Holmes meets The Saint, I have good marketing hooks.

I have a few more tips to share, but they’ll have to wait until next week.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Attraction… and Fear…. of the New

Those who follow me know that I write a long-standing series about a private eye named Hannibal Jones. My readers and I are very comfortable with Hannibal. There’s also the series featuring Morgan Stark and Felicity O’Brien. Five adventures later those stories roll our fairly easily too.

That’s the beauty of writing series: Familiar characters who are fully formed allow a writer to focus on the plot. And readers know what to expect.

But sometimes a writer wants some surprises. There is an attraction to inventing a new cast of characters and seeing where they take you. Which is why the novel I most recently finished follows a character who is very different from any protagonist I’ve written. She is not a hero in any way. In fact, she’s a professional assassin.

Skye came to me as the focus of a short story for the Smart Rhino collection called “Insidious Assassins.” I’ll admit I was proud of the story, and that Skye wouldn’t leave my mind. She wanted more room to expand. Of course the wonder of short stories is that characters don’t have to have extensive backstories, and you don’t need to know details of their lives (like where they live, who their friends are or what they do in their off time.)

As I launched into the story I had in mind for my new character she began to deepen and develop. She doesn’t have a partner, per se, but she does have a confidente – her psychiatrist. This turned out to be a fun way to reveal character. The story moved quickly, and the action branded it a thriller reminiscent of the paperbacks I used to read in college (The Destroyer series, the Executioner books, etc.)

However, I was also feeling all the downsides of starting over. I had to really think through everything the character did. She was not at all familiar. In fact, I was working with a stranger who frequently did not react as expected. Plot points had to be adjusted to bring our protagonist to the places she needed to be.

And there is that last fear: what if my readers don’t like Skye as much as I do? What if in the 21st Century a killer-for-hire as the protagonist is too much of a stretch for fans? What if these stories aren’t what my readers want? Well, ultimately the character attracted me. The story drew me. So now I have to accept the fear as well. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Why Genre Matters

At the first couple of writer’s conferences I attended I asked authors what to call my first book. Mystery? Thriller? Suspense? I was told more than once that “genre” was a publisher’s invention, of value only to the marketing team.

I’ve since learned to view that fact from the other side. Yes, it’s a marketing tool, in that it helps sell books by letting readers know if they want what you write. Genre is a way to help your natural audience find your book.

Each genre has specific conventions that readers expect. If you write genre fiction, it pays to meet those reader expectations.  Sure, the best known authors wander far from those expectations but if you’re starting out it’s a lot easier to build a readership by writing a book that fits exactly into your genre. Hopefully you’re writing what you love to read, which should mean you know what those conventions are.

I write private eye mysteries. I know the kind of character my readers want, a detective who’s dedicated to his client and to finding the truth. These detectives live in a dark, unforgiving world and will get violent when they need to. They’ll get knocked out but seldom show the results of repeated concussions. And in the end, the bad guy will ALWAYS get punished.

On the other hand, Penny Clover Petersen writes cozy mysteries. Readers expect her amateur sleuths to be, and meet, quirky characters. There will be no blood or gore, and little profanity (unless it lends itself to humor.) She stays within those lines but still manages to create unique and unforgettable stories.

Each genre has dedicated fans who read several books every month. Staying in your genre gives you a guaranteed audience, assuming you write good stories with interesting characters.  When I hear a writer say her story has something for everyone, or that it will appeal to every reader, what I hear is “I don’t know who my audience is.” And if a reader who picks up your book isn’t sure if it’s focus is on being a paranormal fantasy or historical romance or a traditional whodunnit, they, will most likely put it back down and look elsewhere.

In my experience, all the plusses of sticking to a clear genre are magnified if you decide to write a series. After the first book, everything is established. Readers are already familiar with the setting, they know your main character, and the secondary characters are expected. And in terms of sales, it’s easier for readers to find your follow-on books because series take up more space online. And once you’ve hooked them, they’ll search out your books.

So remember – fiction genres are your friend! Stick with them.