Tuesday, October 15, 2019
Saturday I had the pleasure of listening to eight impressive authors read their own work at DCs Wonderland Ballroom. This was my fifth Noir at the Bar event, hosted as always by E.A. Aymar, and this was surely the best yet.
The bar is always full for these readings and the audience is tasked with choosing whose story and reading were the best. The shot at bragging rights seems to attract the cream of local talent.
James Grady opened the evening with a reading from his first novel, Six Days of the Condor, the bestseller that was adapted into a film starring Robert Redford. Screenplays, articles and a dozen or so novels followed, but the prose in the first book seemed as fresh as anything written this year.
David Swinson’s tale of undercover police surveillance was a gritty slice of reality taken from his 16 years of experience as a DC cop. When he reads you can feel the streets as if you’re there right then.
Alan Orloff’s chilling story of a man dealing with bizarre nightmares had the kind of twist ending that one does not quickly forget. No surprise. Having won a Derringer Award and being nominated for another and placing a story in the Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, I knew he was a master of the short story form.
Art Taylor’s exceptional story, “Premonition” closed the show, and plunged us into silence. Art has won just about every award there is for short fiction and with this story he proved why.
We also heard truly great stories from Erica Wright (whose point of view character was a fox), John Copenhaver who reminded us how scary clowns are) and Kathleen Barber (whose “Follow Me made us want to.) But…
The night’s audience favorite was Cheryl Head, whose story of a drug mule’s journey was gripping and terrifying, while making you feel the POV character’s pain and sorrow while accepting her fate. It’s no surprise that her first novel, Long Way Home, was a finalist both in Historical and African American literature in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. I went home with a copy of Cheryl’s latest triumph, JudgeMe When I’m Wrong. You should too. Like, today!
Every one of these great writers is worth searching out for your future reading pleasure. And I can’t wait for the next Noir at the Bar experience.
Wednesday, October 9, 2019
Last time we talked a bit about how to build a great opening scene for your novel. It’s important that you make it clear just where this is all going. At the very least you need to make it clear that it’s going SOMEWHERE.
I know I mentioned a lot of elements last time, but be careful not to lose your readers by trying to do too much. If readers have to work to understand your opening scene, they may simply choose not to. Even if your plot is very complex you want to make it easy for readers to get lost in your opening scene.
In other words, don’t get so caught up in explaining why the opening scene is the beginning. Give readers a good reason to keep reading. This scene is all about hooking the reader. He or she picked up your book because of a promise or tease presented by your book’s cover or in your back cover copy. Something about your book’s plot or premise got them to pick up the book. The opening scene needs to confirm that this IS what the book is about, and get readers moving on a journey through that premise. So your opening scene needs to connect back to that plot or premise.
If the first draft of your opening scene has stuff that readers have to slog through to get to the good stuff, cut it! If your opening scene has anything really cool, amplify it. And if something in the situation is unique to your plot or idea, so much the better. Remember, the opening scene should promise the reader that he’s getting into something great.
In your opening scene you should share as little backstory as possible. Don’t give away the info that would make readers curious and want to keep reading. This is not a scene just setting up for something else. Something interesting needs to happen in your first scene. But this scene should not be about a situation and how it arose. It should be about a character dealing with a problem.
So to recap: You want our novel to open with fascinating characters dealing with an intriguing story problem, and a premise so cool readers can’t wait to get into it. There should be questions, but not too many. Enough need to go unanswered for now to spur curiosity.
It’s as simple, and has challenging, as that.
Sunday, September 29, 2019
When an editor evaluates your novel, he or she puts a lot of weight on the very first scene. Everyone wants to see a strong opening scene, but not everyone knows how to create one. You might be one of those writers who can’t start their book until they know for sure what that first scene is. If you’re like me you may start writing your book knowing that you don’t know where it should start. I’m always prepared to throw away the start of my books because he REAL opening scene is in chapter two or three.
Either way, you’ve got to set the hook and grip your reader. I think the easiest way to do that is to spark some curiosity. A curious reader keeps reading. Yu can create an interesting situation, or build a world so fascinating readers will want to know more about it.
When I read the opening scene of a submission to Intrigue Publishing I ask myself what readers will want to know more about. Did the writer suggest hidden secrets? Did he make promises that will need payoff later? The writer has a real advantage if he can get the reader wondering about something from the start.
I also want to meet characters who will intrigue the reader. A character the reader wants to know more about is a strong lure. So when you write that opening scene, ask yourself what is compelling about the character you’ve introduced. Does the character have a unique voice? Is he or she doing something that is intrinsically interesting? Most importantly, why should the reader care about this person? Remember, this person doesn’t have to be a hero. (Is there a more fascinating character in all of literature than Hannibal Lector?) But it needs to be someone the reader will want to get to know.
That’s all about character. Plot wise, a great opening scene makes it easy for readers to get into the story. So make sure it is clear what’s going on in the scene. Readers should understand what’s going on without having to hear an explanation or dig through a bunch of backstory. It’s good if your reader knows right away who the important characters are. And there should be just enough detail in the description to pull me in, but not so much that it distracts.
I have other thoughts on how to create great beginnings, which I’ll share next week.
Monday, September 23, 2019
The seventh edition of the Creatures, Crimes & Creativity Con is now history and after a couple of days the exhaustion is easing up. Still, there’s no denying that running a conference of this type is among the most rewarding, most empowering, and most exhausting things a writer can do.
Planning an event like this is a year-long effort. Dealing with the hotel is probably the worst of it – someone has to figure out what rooms you need when, plan meals, get coffee and bars in the right places and provide for security. We have to wrangle the keynote speakers- get them to commit, then get them to the event and to their individual presentations. On a lesser scale the same for local guests. Attendees have to be registered, money accounted for and panels thought up, set up, and staffed. We assemble an anthology, build a program book and run a twitter contest. And there’s more.
But how rewarding it is! To hear two great keynote addresses, do great author interviews and sit in on amusing, educational and moving panels. To get heaped with praise by the attendees. To see the faces of writers being asked to sign one of their books (in some cases for the first time.) To hear writers who have been to Bouchercon, Thrillerfest or other major events say that this is their favorite Con. And best of all, to make new friends, not just of superstar authors, but also newly emerging authors and aspiring writers who get inspired by the whole event.
And anything you accomplish on a large scale is empowering, right? What a feeling, to sit in the bar with New York Times bestsellers and hear their anecdotes. To look at a banquet hall full of smiling faces and be able to say, “WE did this!” When it comes off well, when the schedule works, the book signings are successful, the readings at Noir at the Bar bring people to their feet… it can give you the feeling that you can do anything!
Which may be the most important thing writers get from the C3 Con. Hearing David Mack say “The secret is simple…run your own race, don’t quit, and be kind.” John Gilstrap told us that “Failure cannot be inflicted, it can only be declared.” I a sense our Con is rewarding and exhausting for us, but empowering for every writer who attends.
Thursday, September 5, 2019
Last week I spent a 5-day weekend at DragonCon, an event designed for sci-fi and fantasy fans – genres I don’t write but do enjoy. At one point someone asked me for writing advice and the first thing I always say is “Write every day?” Naturally, they asked if I was writing while I was at DragonCon.
“No,” I said. But then I thought about it. “I’m not at the keyboard but, yes I think I am writing every day.” Now that I’m back in the groove I realize that I do a lot of writing when I’m not staring at the screen.
DragonCon was a good example. Being in a new place, especially if it’s packed with people being different than they are day to day, is an overwhelming sensory experience. Not just new sights (How’d she get her costume to do that?) but new sounds (like fandom specific slang) new tastes (what’s in these jello shots??) and even new smells. Newness makes us really BE THERE and experience things. I think about how I react to things, and all those feelings will inform my story telling.
Part of that experience is talking to strangers. People at Cons are very open and friendly, and they are often very different from the people I see every day back home. I pick up new slang (As it turns out, what’s pricey in MD is spendy in Oregon.) Plus, those strangers have different pasts, different experiences, and different opinions. All of that ends up in characters I create. Sometimes it can spark a story idea.
Then I thought about all the other things I do when I’m not writing. For example, I read other people’s books. When I react emotionally to a good book, I want to know how the writer did that – How he or she made me laugh, cry, get angry or get scared. So I take it apart and dig into the “how” and then consider how I can use those techniques in my work.
Similarly, I’m writing when I watch television. Again, I’m looking at the storytelling techniques. Most of my favorites are written to a formula, one that requires a cliffhanger at the end of each of five acts and calls for a secondary plot woven into the lead storyline. I learn from watching how it’s done.
I can say something similar about listening to music, and even when I’m refinishing my deck which becomes kind of a zen activity, during which my mind plays with story ideas. My point is, if you’re a writer at heart, you are probably writing all the time, even when people think you’re just daydreaming.
Sunday, August 25, 2019
I recently joined a critique group and for the first time in years was reminded how much help other authors can be. We can all use another set of eyes when polishing our manuscripts. In a critique group you can be as much help to other writers as they are to you, and in the process you can learn a lot about your own writing.
But what about when one of your critique partners gets published? It occurs to me there are a lot of ways we writers can help each other. And many of them ae pretty easy.
On book release day, you could share the good new with your family, friends and fans. Just tell everybody you’re in contact with that they need to buy a copy of the book. You could also request that your local library order a copy. If you have a library card they usually will.
If you blog, offer the other a guest spot on release day or near it. They could give you a guest post or you could do an interview. Then add a picture of the cover, a synopsis and an excerpt. A blog post is a painless way to spread the word.
You could promote the book on social media. On Facebook you can post notifications of the book’s release. And, consider hosting a Facebook release party. On Twitter you can post tweets about the book with a picture of the cover attached. And every time the author tweets about his new book, you should retweet them. On Instagram and Pinterest you could post pictures of the book, and of yourself holding the book. On Goodreads the book will be noticed more if you mark it as “Want to Read.”
Of course, the best thing you can do to support another author is to buy his or her book. You say you got one in advance for free? So what? Buy one anyway. As a gift for a friend, a donation to your library, or as the prize in a giveaway when you’re promoting your own book.
And for goodness sake, review the book. On Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, ITunes and anywhere else you can think of. And don’t just tell people that you liked it, tell them why.
We can all do a lot to support each other. And if you make the effort to support other authors, it’s a sure bet other writers will support you.
Sunday, August 18, 2019
Writing is simply telling your story. In rewriting you ramp up the quality of the way you tell your story. When the rewrite is done, it’s time for serious editing. Again in this phase I focus on different elements to sharpen my writing. This is where I re-examine word choices and sentence structures, for example.
Which words I use to tell my story determine whether the prose is strong or weak. So I seek out weak verbs and try to replace them with strong verbs (did he run to the door or scramble? Or sprint?) I look for adverbs and try to eliminate them. (Did he answer too quickly? Or did his mouth get ahead of his brain?) I try to lose clichés (raining cats and dogs? Or raining down every known type of pet!) I’m also on the lookout for inaccurate word usage and overuse of adjectives. Finally, I try to keep the writing simple. I want to use words everyone knows, and occasionally the odd word that people SHOULD know. I try to avoid those words that nobody knows. Nothing contrived or academic, unless it’s in dialog from somebody trying to impress everybody else.
Sentence structure choices can make your writing less boring. Have you tried the occasional one-word sentence? I have. I also use fragments on occasion. I try clauses to see if they work in a certain place. When I want to pick up the pace, I might use a series of short sentences. When I want to crank up the suspense I might switch to longer sentences.
At the same time I remind myself that less is often more in terms of prose. I don’t want to overcomplicate my writing. When I wrote news copy for TV I learned that sentences over 25 words made me run out of breath, so that became my cutoff. I try to use the same rule in my novels. Also, three commas in a sentence is my hard limit. So I try to keep it concise, as long as it doesn’t push my showing into telling.
I also love to use similes and metaphors, so in the editing phase I examine each one. It’s easy to unintentionally use a cliché. These comparisons need to be original. So I test every one.
In the dialog I want to be sure “said” is the dominant tag. It doesn’t disrupt the flow of the dialog or slow it down. Better still, I try to use actions to show who’s talking. This helps the reader to picture the conversation. People never just sit and talk to each other.
After my edits, it’s time for an outside professional to attack the manuscript. But at least at this point I know it’s as good as I can make it.