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Archive for Writing

Family Life, Writing

Trippin’

My family is setting out on a cross-country road trip that takes us almost as far as you can go in the continental United States, from Massachusetts to Southern California. We have a bunch of stops staked out along the way to see sights and spend time with friends, but we don’t have a lot of “must do” on the agenda. I realized as I was planning this trip that it is very similar to how I approach writing a novel.

 

Our tentative map across the USA, with a few definitive stops marked along the way.

 

 

I know the beginning point, the endpoint, and a few “stops” in between. But the precise path I will take to get to these places and the characters I will encounter along the way are a mystery when I start writing. I’ve found that if I know too much about the journey ahead of time, I lose interest in taking it.

 

Some writers fly almost entirely by the seat of their pants, and they are aptly named “pantsers.” They start with a premise and begin writing with no idea of how the story will turn out. They wait for the characters to tell them the ending. I am in awe of these writers because this whole enterprise sounds terrifying to me. What if the characters never reveal their secret? My book would have no ending!

 

Other writers are “plotters” who map out every twist and turn before they begin the tale. They take satisfaction in having the bones of the story in place so that they know it will have good structure. They may do full character bios so that they understand their people deeply before writing about them. I admire these folks completely and often wish I could be more like them because the whole business sounds so reassuring. The story is all right there in the outline! All you have to do is hang some words on it! Writers who pen stories rapidly often swear by this method. There is no hem-hawing over a blank page in the morning. The outline tells you exactly what scenes are in front of you that day.

 

I am, alas, a hybrid of these two groups. The optimist would say I get the best of both worlds, whereas the pessimist would say I get the worst. I say it depends on which day you ask me. I can’t imagine setting out on a long journey, whether that’s a 3000-mile road trip or a 300-page novel, with no sense at all of where I’m headed. I need a destination. I have to know whodunit and why. Likewise, I can’t bear the tedium of having every road mapped out in advance. Where are the surprises? The unexpected stops or character developments you never saw coming? So I am left with my approach, which is to do a rough sketch with a clear beginning, a definitive ending, and a mostly murky middle.

 

Today we prepare to set out from Boston, and in September, we’ll be in Los Angeles. What happens in between is anybody’s guess! As long as no one is murdered at any point in this story, we’ll count it as a success.

Writing, Writing Advice

The Monster at the End of This Book

One of my favorite childhood reads was “Grover and the Monster at the End of This Book.” In the story, Grover the Muppet begs the reader not to turn the pages because he’s heard there is a monster at the end and he’s afraid. The shocking twist is that lovable old Grover is himself the monster at the end! I was thinking of this kids’ classic the other day while reading advice on how to craft a memorable villain. Your book’s monster, according to this advice, should be a reflection of the hero. But what does this mean?

Grover despairs that there is a frightening monster at the end of the book he is in.

 

Sometimes, it means that your protagonist and your antagonist share the same flaw, especially at the beginning of the story. Maybe they are both stubbornly independent and believe themselves to be uniquely gifted. The villain, however, ends up using his or her powers for evil, whereas the hero overcomes this flaw to band together with others to defeat the villain.

 

It also means that your villain should have roughly the same power as your hero. There’s a reason Sherlock Holmes goes up against Moriarty, a cunning antagonist who is a worthy foe for someone as brilliant as our iconic detective. It’s also the reason you so often see superheroes fighting some ‘bad’ version of themselves in comic action movies. If you’re a Hulk, then it’s not interesting to see you fight a bunch of little guys. Instead, you get to tango with a tricked-out, mean-tempered version of yourself.

 

This doesn’t mean that every protagonist/antagonist needs to have literal super-human powers. It just means their skillsets should be evenly matched, whether that’s an actual army or the ability to spread gossip through a small town.

 

A memorable antagonist should also bring out a unique side of the hero. In the Hulk example, the Hulk is both a villain-fighting hero and a kind of antagonist for Bruce Banner. He forces Banner to wrestle with relatable human problems like controlling one’s temper but also keeps Banner from living the normal existence he often craves.

 

Another strategy is to give your villain and your hero the same goal or dream, which puts them in natural competition. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert has two primary antagonists—Quilty, who also wants Lolita, and Lolita herself, who wants to get away from Humbert. Giving your hero and villain a shared goal can be a way to flesh out your story as the reader may be forced to question whether the villain or hero’s strategy is the best one. For example, you could argue that Danny Kaffee and Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men have a shared goal of protecting U.S. troops, but they have very different ideas about what that protection looks like.

 

All of this is to say that, unlike Grover, your hero won’t find himself literally at the end of the book. But he or she should find a part of themselves, a new understanding that the villain is uniquely designed to precipitate.

Writing

How to Support Your Writer Friend

One question I get asked a lot by my super supportive friends and family is how best they can help me in this new mystery-writing endeavor I’ve got going on. Maybe you, too, have an author in your life whom you would like to support! If so, please read on for these top tips.

  1. Buy the book. Purchasing a copy of the book is always the best way to help out because sales are what publishers consider when weighing whether to give the author another chance to publish. If you don’t happen to like the topic or concept of the book, perhaps buy it for a friend or relative who would enjoy it.
  2. Where should you buy it? Does it matter? You should buy the book wherever it is easiest for you to do so. If you have lots of options, consider buying from your nearest indie store. Indie booksellers do a lot to support local authors, and we like to give back any way we can. If you’re buying online, Amazon is the best way to go because they are a giant in the bookselling industry, and higher sales mean greater visibility on the Amazon platform. This means other readers are more likely to discover your author friend’s book!

    This is how I feel sometimes, like the book is enormous and I am tiny in comparison.
  3. What if I can’t buy the book right now? That’s perfectly okay! There are still many ways you can support your author friend. You can ask about their book at your local library. Librarians take note when customers inquire about titles. You could also recommend the book to your book club or post about it on your social media, if you feel so inclined. Most people find their next reads through recommendations from friends, so anything you can do to “pass it on” would be much appreciated by your friendly author.
  4. Attend a local book signing with your friend. The most common number of attendees at book signing events is around four. Your author would love it if you showed up to a signing because they will be desperate for a friendly face!
  5. Wait, should I leave a review? Where should I leave it? Asking for reviews from friends and family can be tricky. If you honestly really enjoyed the book, then yes, it would be lovely for you to leave a review. The most helpful place to review is probably Goodreads because it maximizes the chances your comments will be seen by other readers. Amazon reviews are helpful too, but Amazon frowns on friends-and-family reviews and will sometimes strip reviews from a book if they detect a relationship between the author and the reviewer.
  6. Finally, please humor us as we prattle on about our books and how excited we are. We sometimes get carried away like parents of a newborn. Smile and nod, mentally update your grocery list as we fret over galleys and covers and deadlines. We promise we’ll shut up eventually…at least until the next book comes out.
Writing

The Other People in My Head

Not too long ago, I opined to a friend who is not a writer that I understood why certain parts of the writing process could be difficult, such as plotting or structure. “But,” I said, “I don’t understand why dialogue would be hard. We all use dialogue every day when we talk to each other. All you have to do is listen to the characters talking in your head and write down what they say.”

My friend gave me a look that was part humor, part concern. “Joanna,” she replied gently, “most of us do not have other people talking in our heads.”

Oh… Oops.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have other voices with me, other stories playing out behind the scenes as I went about my daily business. Sometimes it feels like I can direct the action, but often, I really am just an observer. The characters have minds of their own and trying to bend them to my will usually means that the story goes off the rails.

The benefit of this scheme is that I can do a lot of writing without having any sort of notepad or keyboard. When a story is going well, I just sit at my computer and download everything I’ve been thinking about in one go. I can write up to 15,000 words per day like this.

The downside to this particular writing process is that the people in my head don’t talk very loudly. Not that this is a bad thing overall. If they were too raucous, I’d probably end up with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Real life has to come first. However, when real life is demanding or stressful, the characters can be hard to hear.

I look like this a lot.

That is sort of where I am these days, as I am endeavoring to get a new book off the ground. These are unfamiliar characters to me, so I don’t know them very well yet. This means I need more silence—inner and outer—to be able to hear them. I am trying to create that space so that I can get started on the story, but it’s difficult with so much going on around me.

All this is to say…if you catch me staring off into space, not paying attention to my surroundings, I’m not deliberately ignoring you. I’m just momentarily listening to someone else.

Writing

How to Get Published in 1,372 Easy Steps

Last year, I read with interest The Usual Path to Publication: 27 stories about 27 ways into the publishing world. No two writers had the exact same route to success, and the road was not always linear. The book includes familiar tales of stacks of rejection notices and years of waiting to get an agent or editor’s attention. Success depends on an alchemy of hard work, talent, patience and persistence—and a little luck doesn’t hurt either.

I discovered I loved writing at eight years old. My old school notebooks are filled with tiny stories written in the margins around my more official homework. I had no concept back then of what it took to publish a book—I only knew that I loved to tell stories. In high school, I wrote my first novel, a romantic suspense yarn about a pair of lawyers on opposite sides of a murder case. I did a little research at my local library and discovered one needed an agent to get published, so I started researching agents through my various writer magazines. I found one who seemed to be a good fit and wrote him a query. Lo and behold, he called with an offer of representation! Pfft, I thought—look how easy this whole writer gig is!

Are you laughing yet? You should be. This agent was very nice and gave some thoughtful feedback on both my first book and the second. Before we could reach the part about selling the novel, though, he decided he wanted to be a lawyer, not an agent. (Maybe he was inspired by all the steamy action my lawyer hero was getting in the book!) He dropped all his clients. I was in college by then, and busy with a heavy course load. I figured I’d get back to writing one day. There was lots of time!

Fast forward ten years. I’m now in graduate school, writing fiction for free and giving it away on the internet. A writer friend who had recently completed her first novel wanted to go to a major writing conference to network and learn about publishing opportunities. Shopping one’s work was a primary goal of the conference, and if I wanted to attend, I’d need something to show. I quickly wrote a mystery novel about a woman whose husband was killed in a car wreck in the wrong part of town. Feedback from an editor at the conference: This has potential—you should keep going! Spoiler alert: I did not keep going. I finished my degree and got a real job.

Suddenly it was fourteen years after that first agent call and I still wasn’t published! I decided it was time to Get Serious. I signed up for a novel writing course through Grub Street and drafted about six chapters of a story about female police deputy trying to solve a string of disappearances in small-town Massachusetts. My instructor was enthusiastic. “This reads like a real book,” she said, and recommended I take the advanced class. Instead, I got married and had a kid.

I didn’t write anything at all for about five years. Then one day I woke up and found the words tingling at the ends of my fingers, as if they’d never left. I wrote a bunch of novels in quick succession. The one about the female officer in Massachusetts still nagged at me, and I dug out my notes from the Grub Street class. I started over at the beginning and rewrote the entire book in the space of about two months. Then I submitted it to the Mystery Writer’s of America/St. Martin’s Minotaur first crime novel contest, and four months later I got the amazing call from St. Martin’s saying The Vanishing Season had won.

So there you go. It only took two decades and around twenty-two intervening novels to find the one that clicked.