My point of view, Tips, Writing

Level Thinking: Extras in Books

I’m one of those readers who loves extras in books. Maps thrill me. House diagrams, particularly in classic British mysteries, make me squeal, “Oh, there’s a floor plan.” And there’s more than one book, which I wish had included a list of characters up front because, by page 50, I couldn’t keep Harry, Barry, and Barty straight. On the other side of the coin, I skip genealogy charts at the start of a book because who is related to whom might be a clue I don’t want to know this soon.

I was fortunate to hear a panel discussion a couple of years ago at a convention about the pros and cons of including extras in books. Those people on the panel were Tad Williams (Shadowmarch Trilogy) ; L. E. Modesitt, Jr. (The Saga of Recluse series and others); Julianne Lee (The Matheson Saga and the Tenedrae series); Susan Forest (Canadian young adult fantasy writer); and Barb Galler-Smith (Canadian fantasy writer).

There was complete agreement that authors needed the extras for their own benefit. Everyone on the panel had files for all their books filled with maps, charts, and character lists. There was a not-so-tongue-in-cheek suggestion that working on material like maps can give an author the appearance of working hard when really what he’s doing is having fun with colored pencils.

The panel was less unanimous about the value for supplemental material for readers. Some readers love extras, some readers skip them and get on with reading the story.

Tad Williams commented that if a reader has to go back and forth between the text and a glossary, map, list of characters, etc, the author is doing something wrong. However, he also admitted that he’s grown fonder of supplemental material helpful now that he has to read in a household that also contains small children. Since his reading time is now more episodic, he finds it a help to be able to refresh his memory when he has been away from a book for a while.

L. E. Modesitt, Jr. concluded that the author could include a pronunciation guide if she wished, but a reader will form a pronunciation of their own as they read written names. No matter what the author includes, it’s that internal pronunciation they will use. If a name is too complex, readers assign short-cuts, referring in their head to a character as “Mr. G” or “that town beginning with an X.”

A large part of this panel discussion centered on maps, and here are some of the writing tips offered from that discussion.

If landscape is important to the story, ask yourself why you are drawing your geography the way you are doing it. If you don’t know, get a good atlas and look at it for a while. Turn the atlas sideways or upside down. This may give you a new geography that works for your story. If you do this, be careful to reorient your river flow. Some reader, somewhere will know when you have a river flowing in the wrong direction or a mountain range existing where the surrounding geography would never produce a mountain range. That’s the reader who will write you a letter.

Topography maps — which show up and down — and two-dimensional maps — how far and in what direction — are completely different things, and readers need to know both kinds of information. If you send a character away to call the police, be aware of how long it will take her to get to where she can make the call, and how long it will take for the police to answer that call. If the character has to travel over difficult terrain, and you have access to similar terrain, go walk it yourself one afternoon.

If something you created becomes tedious—for example, half of the characters live on one side of a high mountain range, the other half live on the other side, and getting the characters back and forth over those mountains is a real pain—learn to work with the difficulty. This makes you face the same challenges as the people who live in your story, and creates a resonance that the reader will recognize.

Boy, do I know this one. In one of my books, a winter storm took out power, and I quickly realized I could not do some of the things I’d planned to do with the plot because those things depended on electricity being available.

Adding extras also has an economic effect on publishing. Forty to sixty percent of the cost of a book today is paper. The more supplementary material that is included, the higher the printing cost, and too much material may price your book outside the print cost range that a publisher is willing to consider. As an alternative, authors are putting tons supplementary material on web sites, or creating a CD for the supplementary material.

If you’re a fan of the Midsomer Murders DVD series, you’ll know that there is, on each DVD, a copy of the map of Midsomer County. If I had a lot of time with nothing to do, I’d print that maps large scale and stick pins in each village to show how many murders happened there. I am firmly convinced that one imaginary county has more deaths than all of the British Isles.

What are extras in books that you absolutely love or hate?

I hope you’ll come back next Tuesday, June 3 for Write the Novel: Draft Zero – The Unfinished Manuscript. Writing a novel is like a bumblebee flying: theoretically impossible, but done all the time.

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Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Sequels

Scene/sequel is only one of many ways to categorize different parts of a book, but it’s what I’m writing about today. Last week we looked at scenes. This week we’re completing the duo with sequels.

As I mentioned last week, Sherry Lewis, the writer, not the Sherry Lewis, the puppeteer and Lamb Chop’s mother. explained to me the difference between a scene and a sequel.

—–

Here’s Sherry’s definition of a sequel: A sequel is a unit of transition that bridges one scene to another, but transition bridges are not always sequels. Sometimes a transition may simply indicated a passage of time. Sometimes a character may end a scene recognizing that he/she needs to make a decision but outside events intervene; the character is too stunned to do more than walk away; or the character’s pro/con reflections might lead him/her to want to gather more information.

What makes a sequel, a sequel is that it is also a dilemma that the character confronts. Sequels are unified by topic. Dilemma involves weighing pros and cons of each possible action and making a choice between two or more equally unsatisfactory choices. Each choice leads to a different goal. Each goal leads the story in a different direction.

Reaction, dilemma, and decision govern sequels. In a sequel, the character is preoccupied with one set of feelings. A sequel translates the disaster into goal, telescopes reality, and controls the tempo of our book. It exists to reveal our character’s reaction(s) to the previous scene and provide her with motivation as she moves into the next scene. Only when the character reaches a decision about which path to follow can the story logically proceed to the next scene.

——

To recap, every scene ends with a character going back to the drawing board. Laura is in Las Vegas, looking for her mother. A dicy casino character says, for a hefty fee, he will bring her mother to her. Laura has to reassess how important finding her mother really is. Does she trust this character? Is she willing to literally mortgage the family farm to get the money? Is it just possible that her mother had a logical, sensible reason, which is none of Laura’s business, for coming to Las Vegas? Each set of answers will lead Laura and the story in a different direction.

Novels do not bump along scene—sequel—scene—sequel—etc.

Let’s look at our Las Vegas cop, Wally.

  • Scene 1: Wally arrives at the scene of a double murder, gathers information, and is told there is an eye witness, who has been taken to hospital to be treated for shock. At this point Wally is not in a dilemma. His next step is clear: interview this witness.
  • Scene 2: Wally goes to the hospital and meets Laura. He expects her to come with him to the police station and give a statement. She says absolutely not. She has something else to do, but won’t tell him what. He leaves the emergency room cubicle so Laura can get dressed, and she sneaks out of the hospital. The hospital is searched, but no Laura.

Wally’s Dilemma:

  • Does he go in search of her? If so, where does he start?
  • Does he issue a be on the lookout bulletin, and return to the murder scene?
  • Does the writer want to leave the Laura is missing angle hanging, and take Wally into a third scene in order to establish a sub-plot?

Here’s the key sequel question: is this the right place in the story for a character to confront a dilemma?

One scene may generate multiple sequels, especially if the story is being told from different points of view. While there may easily be several scenes in a row, it’s unusual to have several sequels in a row, but there may be multiple sequels from different POV spread throughout the book.

Sequels vary in length. Some may be very short: the scene ends with a man with a gun invading the protagonist’s house. The sequel is that she picks an escape route and uses it. Or they may be very long. The scene ends with a man learning that he is a prince of the demonic realm. The sequel? He’s going to want to think long and hard about this.

The details we need to know in order to write a sequel are somewhat the same as for a scene, namely season, weather, moon phase; character clothing; way characters move; physical props; and other sensual details that ground the characters in the setting, create texture, or evoke mood.

Avoid Death in the Coffee Shop (or at the kitchen table)

In scenes, physical action helps carry the story. Characters may be, literally, running for their lives or having an argument or trying to download the thumb drive before the security guard makes his rounds again. The problem with sequels is that they are more cerebral. Characters are weighing pros and cons and making a decision.

There is an overwhelming temptation to take them to the nearest coffee shop, or kitchen table, gym workout, or for a long drive where nothing physical happens. Resist those temptations.

Laura is now on the run in Las Vegas. Her rental car is still at the murder site, and her luggage is in the trunk. Does she dare use her credit cards or go to an ATM machine? Can she afford to rent another car? She told the police the hotel where she had a reservation. Does she dare go there? Where is she going to sleep tonight? Where is she going to get her next meal? All of these questions can be used to build tension while Laura decides, am I going to the police station or not?

We’re reaching that hard part, actually writing the novel, so I hope you’ll be back on Tuesday, June 3, for Establishing the skeleton or Draft Zero, the unfinished manuscript.

On Thursday, May 29, Level Thinking will be taking a look at book extras. A book isn’t just written words any more. Want additional readers? Go for value added.

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My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking: Obsession and Blogging

The first time I heard Merlin Mann’s name, I was glued in traffic. It was like being in the middle of a piece of cloth being woven, with the warp being parked and moving cars and the weft being pedestrians who hurled themselves across the street at random to reach the ice cream shop, bakery, or plethora of small restaurants that part of town offered.

Distracted as I was avoiding the creation of bits of pedestrian and double-dips mango swirl cones lying across my hood, I couldn’t give the CBC radio program, Spark, my full attention. Spark is a program where technology and culture meet. One of their guests that Sunday was a tech-savvy person who seemed to be saying very sensible things about blogging. When I got home, I tracked down the following and found out that his name was Merlin Mann.

http://podcast.cbc.ca/spark/spark_20080917_goodblogs.mp3

Mann wants us to get back to work. He sees technology as a big advantage and big time waster. He has ideas about how to tame the techno-monster and return to what humans should be doing, which is being creative, passionate, and brilliant.

His blog formula is simple. A passionate blog = obsession x voice

Love something passionately. Write or talk about it in an intelligent way.

I was struck to realize that, outside of family members and friends, whom I love deeply and who are not the least-bit suitable subjects for my blog, I didn’t have an obsession.

I’m obsessive about returning library books on time. I watch a large number of British mystery shows on DVD. I have fiber and paper art projects that constantly threaten to take over my office and wend their way down the hall.  I spend hours every day writing or running my writing business, but that’s just me.

But obsession? Gut-wrenching, loving highs and hating lows, I’ll die if I can’t do this obsession?

Initially, I couldn’t identify a single obsession because, as the kids say, “it’s all good.” Returning library books on time isn’t an obsession after all. It’s because I want to avoid those pesky fines, and I want to see what else I can check out.

What I make out of cloth and paper is something I enjoy very much, but it’s not an obsession. It is a way to explore the world without words and a way to connect with other people. If I suddenly couldn’t make thing, I’d find some other non-verbal way to explore the world. Singing bowls have recently crossed over my horizon and I find them fascinating. I’d also find some other way to make gifts for other people.

Over time, I realized that I did have one obsession. The reason I spend hours every day writing or running my business is that I can’t not do those things. If I stopped doing them, I would be miserable. I think that can’t stop doing this qualifies as an obsession. That’s why I chose to blog about writing a novel and about the writing life.

I’m letting Merlin have the last word.

Above all: whose attention will you reward with the best thing you can possibly make today? Good. Now go, and reward the s–t out of them. ~Merlin Mann, techie expert

I hope to see you again Tuesday, May 27, for the second part of Write A Novel: Scenes and Sequels. We’re going to talk about how a sequel is different from a scene.

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Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Scenes

We’ve been at this Write A Novel gig for five months now. We’ve talked our way around and through everything from global view to the synopsis. It’s time the rubber meets the road; that is, it’s time to start actually writing the darn book.

After I’d been seriously writing for several years, and had completed and published several books, I hit a snag. Some material was working; some wasn’t. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why some things worked and some didn’t.

Sherry Lewis came to my rescue. That’s Sherry Lewis, the writer, not the Sherry Lewis, the puppeteer and Lamb Chop’s mother. She explained to me the difference between a scene and a sequel.

Scene/sequel is only one of many ways to categorize different parts of a book, but it’s what I’m writing about today. Next week, we’ll look at sequels.

Sherry Lewis’ definition of a scene

“A scene is a specific unit of tension which is lived through together by the reader and the character. It is unified by time, and begins with a character walking entering the narrative in pursuit of a goal and ends when some unexpected incident occurs that sends the character back to the drawing board.

“It exists to answer one question: will this character win or not? Whatever happens—win or loss—sends the character back to the drawing board. It propels our story forward by changing our character’s circumstances. If the character’s circumstances don’t change, we don’t have a scene. It takes space to write, minimum 6 to 8 pages and, in most cases, longer.”

This is what we have to know to write a scene: the day, date, and time the scene happens; where it happens; what’s at stake; and whose scene is it? A scene belongs to the person who has the most to win or lose. Though this is frequently the point of view character, it doesn’t have to be.

Let’s take our two characters we played with in blurb and synopsis Laura White and Wally Rackham. We’re going to write the scene where Laura realizes that the Las Vegas Police Department has the authority to keep her in Las Vegas as a material witness. What Wally stands to win or lose is having a witness to a double murder. If he loses, life goes on. He’s still a detective, other cases are going to come up. Laura has a lot more to lose. If she is forced to remain in Las Vegas her life will be disrupted; her job back home in jeopardy; her income lost;her bills unpaid; and countless other issues. This is Laura’s scene, but it could be written from either Laura’s or Wally’s point of view.

A word about others. Many scenes have two people: the person who stands to win or lose, and the person who opposes them. Other people may be present as onlookers or have minor roles to play. It’s not necessary for us to understand the goal, motivation, and tension of every single person in the scene. Stick to the main characters will drive us less crazy.

Will Laura win or lose? Actually, it isn’t necessary to know this as we begin the scene. If we’re having trouble with a scene it’s better not to know. Sometimes it’s a surprise about what will drive the plot more. We may go into the writing thinking that Laura is going to lose, and bingo, we discover in the middle of the scene that there can be a lot more juicy fallout if Laura wins.

As we write the scene, here are some nice to know scene details, which contribute to the ambiance and the tension. These should rise organically from the writing rather than be a fill-in-the-blank test that we have to finish before we start writing.

  • Season, weather, moon phase
  • Clothing characters wear
  • Way characters move
  • Physical props
  • Other sensual details that ground the characters in the setting, create texture, or evoke moon
  • What is the on-going action as the tension plays out?
  • How does the tension escalate as the scene progresses?
  • For each character in the scene who contributes to the tension
  • What do they want and why do they want it?
  • What is at stake?
  • How does this goal, motivation, and stake contribute to tension?
  • How does the tension affect each of the characters emotionally?
  • What unexpected event sends the character back to the drawing board?

How does this scene contribute to the genre elements: solving the mystery (mystery); developing the relationship (romance); upping the threat (thriller)? Not all scenes contribute a genre element, but if we’ve gone two to three scenes with no genre elements we’re probably straying too far and it’s time to come back.

How does this scene increase the density of the work? Density elements include

  • Buried agendas or secrets
  • Change of pace, emotion, or sexual tension
  • Comic relief
  • Establish or betray trust between characters
  • Foreshadow
  • Increase a character’s insight/Offer a perspective or counter perspective
  • Increase what is known about a character
  • Raise the stakes
  • Use violence as dialog

I initially thought that all the big stuff would be in scenes and the little stuff in sequels. Not so. Join us next Tuesday, May 26 for the Sequels, the rest of the story.

And on Thursday, May 22, Level Thinking will muse on blogs and obsessions.

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Writer's life

Level Thinking: Time Travel

Come with me for a short foray into time travel. Forty-four years ago today I climbed on a plane to go to Vietnam. I was a lot younger then.

Friday, May 15, 1970/Travis Air Force Base, California

Waiting is so hard.

The terminal building is a large grey warehouse of corrugated iron; combat boots make hollow sounds on the concrete floor. Inside men in fatigues or summer uniforms wait everywhere, sleep on grey wooden benches, read paperback books with the cover folded back, or wander and smoke cigarettes. I’ve been down here three times only to be told I’m not yet manifested on a plane.

Sue and I are afraid. We have heard stories that the Viet Cong rape women prisoners, that they never take women prisoners alive, that in Tet of ’68 nurses were issued a suicide capsule. Since no U.S. service women has ever been captured, our imaginations, fed by boredom and anxiety, are overworked. We are afraid of being captured, raped, tortured. We are afraid of our plane crashing and never getting there. Most of all, we are afraid of somehow not measuring up.

A lot of the Army is like this, proving you are as tough or tougher than the guys. It is the kind of thing that worried us about going to basic. We had seen movies and heard stories about being awakened at 0430 and having to run 5 miles and do physical calisthenics for any infractions of rules. In the end it wasn’t like that at all. It was “Yes, Ma’am” and “No, Ma’am” from the enlisted men and the sergeants. Sometimes we were a little disappointed, as if they didn’t think we could pass the rigorous tests, so they never gave them to us. We wanted to be tested. We still want to be tested.

After supper, we take a walk along the fence that protects the airstrip. The sun is going down. A med-evac plane has just landed and casualties are being loaded from the plane onto a bus. We stand with our fingers interlocked with the mesh fence, our faces pressed up against the metal links. I wonder where the casualties have been, who they are, if I know the nurses are who cared for them. I am so tired of waiting, so keyed up that I want to jump the fence and do something—adjust I.V.s, check dressings, take vital signs—anything to be a part of what is happening. I look at Sue’s face and know she feels the same way. We have been preparing for this for a long time. We want to be a part of this war.

About 9 P.M. I make one more visit to the manifest desk. The rather bored Specialist verifies my name and serial number on a clipboard. “Two A.M. Saturday morning.” My mouth goes dry. I’m really going to Viet Nam! I go back to the Officers’ Quarters and say goodbye to Sue. I wish we could travel together, but she still isn’t manifested on a plane. We know we will probably never see each other again.

I try to sleep, but am too excited. Finally I get up, dress and fuel myself with several cans of Coke. I call a military taxi to take me and my duffel bag over to the terminal about midnight. My duffel bag contains everything I can cram into one long green cloth tube; what’s in there has to last me a year. Six sets of fatigues, two pairs of combat boots, a couple of summer dresses, underclothes, tennis shoes, a robe, extra shampoo and toothpaste, my diary, a small camera, a tape recorder, my address book and some stationery. The bag has my name stenciled on the side and it’s locked with a padlock. I wear the key around my neck beside my dog tags.

The night is dark and warm. A hot breeze blows across the runways and large orange lights illuminate the terminal. I hear a ghetto blaster from the barracks down the road from the terminal; the building is just too far away to make out the song. Inside the terminal, I’m the only woman in the building except for a black specialist checking names at the embarkation desk and a woman in a Red Cross uniform on the far side of the terminal who’s serving coffee, juice and cookies.

When it comes down to this hot California night, when my duffel bag disappears along the sterile aluminum chute, when I have a ticket in my hand and my name on a manifest list, I am terrified. I should be working in a hospital in New Orleans or Atlanta, surrounded by civilians and peace. Why have I gotten myself into this twilight zone of barn-like terminals, blaring intercoms, people with drawn and scared faces? I don’t belong here.

Yes, I do. When I saw those men carried off the plane yesterday, I knew I had to be here, to do what I am about to do. I can’t let them go to this war alone. It wouldn’t be honourable. When I was in high school I read Starship Trooper by Robert Heinlein. In that world people who had done a tour of voluntary service could vote and people who hadn’t, couldn’t. I think that’s the way it should be. We have to do something to earn the right to be citizens.

It’s more than that, a lot more personal. Viet Nam has been so much with me for the past five years. I saw the fear of this war on the faces of the boys in university every time an exam paper was handed back, felt it on the Halloween night when I was at a party and Johnson announced the mining of Haiphong harbor. This war had run through the past decade of our lives. My brother Ward can be drafted. I don’t want him to be here in this terminal. I can’t let those boys from university, from that Halloween party do this alone. And yet, it is only discipline that brings me to the ramp of the plane where a black sergeant looks over his clipboard.

“Name, rank and serial number?”

I rattle them off. I have memorized my serial number so I can rattle it off in short bursts: three numbers, two numbers, four numbers.

He salutes and I board the plane.

Sharon helicopter

©Sharon Wildwind, Dreams That Blister Sleep: A Nurse in Vietnam, River Books, 1999.

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Tips, Writing

Write a Novel: Synopsis

A blurb, which we went over last week, is very different from a synopsis. A blurb is a 100-word answer to the question, “What is your book about?” Its intention is to make social conversation and invite the listener, if they are truly interested, to ask more questions.

A synopsis is a screening tool. Coupled with a query letter it gives agents, editors, and publishers enough information to make a rapid interested/not interested decision. We may not think that’s fair. We’ve spent two years carefully crafting our book and we don’t want it judged by two pieces of paper. Sorry, that’s the reality of the publishing world.

There are many synopses guides. I found Beth Anderson’s several years ago. She wrote about a three stage synopsis: one-page, three-pages, and longer than three pages. Her graduated scale resonated with me right away, and I’ve never found any other how-to guide that better meets my needs. I would do her an injustice if I tried to summarize what she wrote. She is a Washington State author and this is the link to her take on synopsis writing. Check out her suggestions.

From here on, my personal opinion hat is firmly in place. This is what I do and don’t do in my synopses — and why.

Format

Let’s get the nuts and bolts out of the way. Unless an agent or publisher specifies another format, a synopsis should

  • be single spaced, with double-spaces between the paragraphs
  • have one inch (1”) margins all around
  • have the author’s name and contact information in the upper left corner. If we have an agent, their name and contact information should be there, too. The exception to this is submitting to a contest where no identifying information is to be on the manuscript. In that case the title and page number is enough.
  • in either the upper right corner, or at the bottom of the page, put [the title] synopsis, number of this page, and total number of pages. For example Perpetually Stunned synopsis/Page 1 of 2. The title should either be in italics (my preference) or in quotes.

Why? It’s easy to read and looks professional.

No like – no meets

I never compare my work to something else. My writing isn’t like another book, movie, or television program. It’s my unique work.

  • Yes, Hollywood loves the meet concept. I don’t. If we tell someone that our story is 24 meets Lost, we hope that the other person has seen both television series and loved them. Therefore, they are going to love our book. That one possibility in four. Here are the other three.
  • Both of those series are now off the air. Result, we’ve dated ourself and our work. Response? The world has moved on. Obviously this author hasn’t — not-interested pile.
  • What happens if the agent or editor hated one or both series? It makes the choice easier — instant not-interested pile.
  • We should not be surprised if a large number of people never saw either series. There are more people out there who lack pop culture references than than we might imagine. Response — never was interested enough to see those programs, probably won’t like this book — not-interested.

I figure one chance in four for a positive outcome isn’t good enough for me. The way to improve the odds is to pick elements of our like references and boil them down to their essence. Combining the first-person real time point of view from 24, and the time/event disorientation of Lost, a paragraph like the one below would work well in a synopsis.

—–

Point-of-view is first person; the story is told with real time narration. My protagonist, Las Vegas Police Detective Wally Rackham, is coping with the after effects of a recent concussion. His symptoms, particularly auditory hallucinations, impair his ability to assess situations and create an event timeline. Laura White quickly discovers he needs her as much as she needs him.

—–

Show, not tell, is for authors, too

Should we include a promotional opinion such as, “Readers will fall in love with this funny, quirky, well-written story.” The simple answer is no. We have no way to predict what readers will love or hate. While we hope for the best, our story may not be funny, or quirky, or well-written. We sound like a naive amateur when we make statements like this.

Leave out the self-promotion. Show the fun, the quirks, and the great writing by composing a well-structured synopsis.

The best choice

This happens, and this happens, and finally this other thing happens, is a weak way to construct a synopsis. There’s much more meat in carrying the story through it’s emotional line rather than one that’s a sequence of events. Each action is important because of the emotional impact on the characters.

—–

Laura White arrives in Las Vegas, hot, thirsty, and worried about her mother. Gladys White has been a member of Gamblers Anonymous for eight years. What possessed her to catch a red-eye flight to Las Vegas?

How can anyone get lost between the airport and a hotel on the Strip? Laura manages and ends up in a deserted industrial area at two in the morning. Las Vegas may never sleep, but this part of town is dark and deserted, except for two men, smoking nervously beside a carpet outlet, and two more men who pop out of the shadows and kill them. And Laura, who sees the whole thing. She hasn’t even made it to her hotel yet.

And so on.

——

I hope to see you back on Thursday, May 15 for Level Thinking: Time Travel. I’m celebrating an anniversary.

Next Tuesday, May 20,  Write the Novel will discuss scenes. What’s a scene for, anyway?

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Art, I made this, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking: Ramp It Up

One of the mystery lists I belong to had a lively discussion about not writing; about how life sometimes brings writing to a screeching halt. At one time or another, I’ve stopped writing temporarily for all of the usual reasons: a move, an illness, a family crisis, too hard a day job, ran out of energy, had to make Christmas presents, computer was down, even because the sun was shining when it should be raining or vice versa.

Going from not writing back to writing is darn hard to do flat-footed. It’s like an athlete trying to clear the high jump from a standing still position. She needs to take a running leap at the high bar if she wants to get over it.

We need to build two kinds of ramps. The first is the small, I don’t feel like writing TODAY ramp. Some days are not good for writing. Some days we can talk ourselves into doing it anyway; some days we can’t.

Here’s how to build that small ramp.

It helps to pay attention to the days when we easily slide into and out of the writing.

  • Did we get enough restful sleep last night?
  • Have we exercised and/or meditated?
  • Do we know what comes next in what we’re writing?
  • Are we excited about what we’re writing?
  • Are we writing to a deadline?
  • Are we unusually free of responsibilities: the kids are at camp, we’ve just finished exams, or our partner is out-of-town?

If we’re fortunate, we will identify a pattern. Write down that pattern. Even a sticky note will do, but if we’re artistic, or know someone who is, send a postcard — or several postcards — to ourselves. “I write more easily when . . .” Put those cards in our work area.

WriteWellPostcard

If we don’t feel like writing today, try creating those conditions that seem to make it easier to write. Drink water. Meditate. Write lots of dialog. Maybe even take a nap. If nothing works, go do something else for today.

The second kind of ramp is the BIG, STEEP, we’ve been away from writing far too long incline.

Allow at least one day — three days are better if we can arrange it — between a major event and seriously getting back to writing.

Fly to a convention Friday afternoon. Work hard at the convention all week-end. Fly back late Sunday night. Be at our computer first thing Monday morning. I don’t think so. Aim for the computer on Wednesday morning.

But, I’m sooooooo far behind!

  1. We are likely not as far behind as we think.
  2. Staring unproductively at our computer on Monday morning isn’t likely to make us any less behind.

Athletes who come back from an injury don’t start with a full-workout their first week back. They build their strength gradually. Writers need to do the same thing. Set aside a writing time every day for a week. Day 1: 5 minutes; day 2: 7 minutes; day 3: 10 minutes, then increase by 5 minutes a day until, by day 7, we’re up to 30 minutes. The important thing is to convince ourself that this isn’t a “I’ll write if I get the chance or if I’m inspired” time. It’s a commitment to put everything else in the world aside for somewhere between 5 and 30 minutes.

Gather our favorite writing tools. Even treat ourself to a new tool, like a spiffy notebook or a wonderful gel pen. Turn off the phone and the TV, get a babysitter or send the kids to the library. Music is optional, depending on whether we work best with music or in silence, but stay away from commercial radio stations. Do not sort our buttons by size and color. Do not decide the walls need washing. Do not Google our five best friends from high school to see if we can find them. In short, stop the world and sit there, with our eyes closed, breathing rhythmically. Somewhere out there a writing fairy calls to us, but we must be very, very still in order to hear her or his voice.

When we feel like it, pick up our pen or pencil or rest our fingers on the key board. Write something, even if it, “I’m sitting here in the stillness and this is a really stupid idea and I should be picking up the dog at the vet. Is my five minutes up yet? I don’t want to do this any more.”

Write. One word. Another word. Another. Spelling, punctuation and grammar do not count. Plotting and character development and raising the stakes and goal, motivation, and conflict and all of those other things writers stew about do not count. All we’re doing is practicing words. We’re the high jumper taking a running jump at the bar.

Ever watch a high jumper practice? They don’t go over the bar every time. Many times they start the run and pull up short because the approach doesn’t feel right. They know they aren’t ready to jump yet, so they veer off, circle back and take another run at the thing.

It’s okay if we go through several days without writing a single word. By day seven, if we’re sitting in the stillness for 30 minutes without writing, we can be pretty sure that it’s not the right time in our life to put words on paper. If this happens, give ourself permission not to be a writer. At one time in my life, I thought I might be a bagpiper. As it turned out, I wasn’t. But I had a great time finding that out. I met some wonderful people and I learned to appreciate pipe music in all of its glory. The journey was the fun part, and that’s the way it should be with writing, too.

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Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Blurbs

My apologies. This should have been published May 6th, but it ended up in the drafts folder.

“What’s your book about?”

It’s about a woman named Laura, who moves to Las Vegas because she has this great job lined up, only the job falls through, so she’s forced to work in one of the clubs, which she doesn’t like. Then she meets this neat guy named Wally, but she gets the wrong idea about him and thinks he’s with the mob, only he’s really an undercover cop. She blows his cover, and they have to hide out for a while, while they solve a murder, and they sort-of fall in love, except both of them have a lot of hang-ups and they’re not sure they’re ready for a new relationship. I want to kind of bring their relationship along for two or three books. Then they save each other’s lives, and trap the killer, so everything works out for the best.

Does this blurb make you want to rush out to read the book? Probably not.

It rambles. It’s full of this happens and then that happens. There’s no sense of who Laura and Wally are. There’s not a single new thing in it. We’ve all read stories about women working in clubs, about undercover cops, about people hiding out from the mob, and about people almost falling in love. Not only is the ending telegraphed, but since this obviously is intended as a series, we can guess that everything works out for the best in subsequent books, too. We’re not even sure if this is a comedy or a dark thriller.

A blurb — also called an elevator pitch — is a precise, condensed description that piques the listener’s/reader’s interest to the point they are eager to read the book.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. If a publisher has blurb requirements, we write our blurbs to meet them. However, if we’re left to our own devices, there’s no one formula for writing a blurb. This is the formula I’ve found works for me.

Don’t include in a blurb

  • Secondary characters. We don’t want to know about Laura’a Aunt Minnie.
  • Subplots. So the neighbor fell in love with Laura’s sister. Great. Keep it in the synopsis—not the blurb!
  • The ending! A blurb is a teaser! A taste! An irresistible invitation to turn the next page of our query letter and read our synopsis, or go straight to the library or book store and get the book. Make the editor or prospective reader drool in anticipation.
  • Extraneous details. We don’t need to know where Laura and Wally went on their first date, and what they ate.
  • Don’t ramble on. Keep it short. Keep it snappy. Keep it at 100 words. Actually count the words.

A blurb is a 100-word (yes, count them) teaser that contains the following elements

  • Hooks (click here to see an earlier blog about hooks)
  • A sense of the external conflict
  • A hint of emotion — the internal conflict
  • Style — the flavor of danger, if it’s a suspense, or comedy or family drama, etc, whatever suits the style of story you’re writing
  • Characterization — tell something about the characters’ inner lives
  • Setting — where the story take place
  • Goals — what the characters want
  • Motivations — why they pursue these goals
  • Disaster — What or who is stopping them from attaining their goals?
  • The final question — will they overcome?
  • Bonus points if we can work in the title of the book

“What’s your book about?”

It’s a fast-paced comic romp, set in Las Vegas’ sleazy underbelly. Laura White, a newcomer to Vegas, has been perpetually stunned since she stepped off the plane. Being the only witness to a double murder hasn’t helped. All she wants is to go home. All LVPD Detective Wally Rackham wants is to keep her alive long enough to testify. When Laura decides the quickest way to be allowed to leave Las Vegas is to solve the murder herself, Wally has his hands full. He has to solve the murders, outrun the mob, and find Laura’s mother, a compulsive gambler.

The name of the book, by the way, is Perpetually Stunned, so bonus points.

I hope to see you again on Thursday, May 8, for Level Thinking: Ramp It Up. What to do about those times when the writing just won’t come.

Next Tuesday, May 13, we move from Blob to Synopsis. They’re not at all the same thing.

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Tips, Writing

Level Thinking: I Got to be Me

Yes, Wildwind is a great last name for a writer. Yes, it is my real, legal name. No, I do not come from a First Nations background. And, the question that irritates me the second-worse is, “What name do you write under?”

My own name, darn it! If I’m going to do all this work, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Wag the Dog, I want the credit!

But, computerized distribution systems are making me rethink my steadfast belief that I would always publish under one name, and one name only.

I don’t know how warehouses and wholesalers and book distributors used to do it. It being keep track of how many books were on their shelves, how many they shipped, how many were returned, and how many actually sold. I do know how they do it now: linked data bases. From the moment one of my books—imbued with that wonderful new book smell—rolls off the printing press every aspect of my life in print is in someone’s computer. And that fact is giving me a minor identity crisis.

Here’s the quote that started it all.

“Changing genres can hurt you because all major distributors now have computerized book sale tracking. If your first work in a new genre sells less than your last book in your previous genre, you are seen as an author in decline. If you want to change genres, write under a different name because, to the computerized book sale tracking systems, with every new name, you are a completely different person.” ~Barbara Hambly; science fiction, mystery, fantasy writer

It’s not like I have a whole slew of names waiting in the wings. I’ve played that game of combining your first pet’s name with the place you lived when you were seven to get a new name. Mine would be Blackie Fremont, which is, I suppose, better than being Fido Broadway, but who is this Blackie person?

Where did she grow up? What color is her hair? What parts of her body does she have pierced? Does she drink coffee or latte? Should I loan her my secret vice—as a teen-ager, I loved to watch Roller Derby—or do I have to create a different tawdry background for her?

Anyway, if I do decide to write under other names, I’ll probably blow the gaff the first time I do a book signing. I can just see myself starting the evening by saying, “Of course, my real name is . . .” and there we’d be. Perhaps the computers won’t be listening.

On the other hand, that Barbara Hambly quote is a few years old. By this time the different tracking systems can probably recognize me by my keyboarding rhythm or the way I construct passwords, and they are tattling to one another. Did you hear? Sharon Wildwind is really Blackie Fremont. Earlier this week I confused three sign-ins I have for one on-line store, and I tried so many name and password combinations,  I’m not likely to ever be able to shop there again.

I hope the computers aren’t listening because I’d like to try writing fantasy or science fiction as well as mysteries. That’s two new names I’ll have to invent. Or, if I combine genres, like a fantasy-mystery or a science fiction-fantasy, does that mean I have to combine my pen name for each genre? How many combined genre-specific names will fit on a business card, anyway?

I’m even wondering if I could write a graphic novel. Considering the popularity of Japanese anime and manga, maybe I should aim for a Japanese name for that one. Once in a role playing game I was Rebecca Ku. (Ku is Japanese for the number 9). Maybe Ms. 9 would like to write a graphic novel. Then again, maybe not.

I remain, respectfully yours, someone or other. Excuse me while I go check my driver’s license.

Oh, in case you’re interested, the question that irritates me the most isn’t really a question. It’s the statement, “You’re self-published, of course.”

Come back on Tuesday, May 6, for Write the Novel, where we’ll be discussing blurbs.

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