Friday, July 31, 2009

Character as a Seasoning

Developing strong, memorable characters who have an impact on readers is an aspiration for every novelist.

For a new suspense novelist, getting there can be a trick.

If my name were Stephen King or Dean Koontz or Mary Higgins Clark, I could lay some characterization down in the beginning pages of my novel. My manuscript would be one of those that agents and editors would grab off the pile and have all of their calls held while they gave it their undivided attention. For as long as it took.

And they would love every word.

But the name Peg Brantley doesn't have the same effect. I don't have the luxury to let readers get a sense of my terrific characters before something gripping happens.

In suspense, by a new author, the grip is more likely to seal the deal than the gripper.

It's important in every genre to thoroughly know your characters. In suspense, because I don't have the luxury of 'growing' them, it's even more important that they be fully realized characters from before the beginning. I know more about my guys than will ever make the final cut.

Find the secret strength in your main character, and it won't matter whether you are working with a hero or an anti-hero. Your readers will bond with both.

And something else to consider: Take your character's greatest weakness and tie it inexorably to the plot.

The trick for a suspense novelist, is to sprinkle in characterization when no one is looking.

CR: I'm about 1/2 way through the T.L. Hines. Sometimes woo-woo is fun. And he is definitely keeping me guessing. The book is called The Dead Whisper On.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Word Scurge—Dirge?

Read over your compositions, and whenever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

Not so sturdy.
How does your rewrite go?

I'm cutting more than I'm adding. I switched my prologue to a scene either in the first or second chapter, and have cut my first two scenes and replaced with later scenes from the beginning of chapter two and a new one written. Plus, the two I've cut (well, one of them anyway), contain value, and I'd like to see if there's a relevant place before I relegate them to "outta here", and well . . . it's getting confusing.

I'd anticipating axing blah scenes and truthfully, I was ready. Just not so soon. Oy.

I'm an organized, tidy person. Really. But at this moment I have four piles on my desk and five piles on the floor by my desk. That's not counting the printed material sitting in my printer tray which will form a brand new pile.

I had the French doors open earlier because that's my habit when the temperature is fabulous (we're having an unusually cool summer in Colorado) and totally lucked out that a brisk breeze didn't find its way in.

My fear has been released and replaced with mad-cap/mad-dash craziness. Which is kind of creative. At least at the moment.

CR: The Dead Whisper On by T.L. Hines

It's all better with friends.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Art of Being Vulnerable

Anyone who creates something and allows another human being to experience it places themselves in a position of vulnerability.

For writers, it's part of the process of developing a thick skin. We seek honesty, not vacuous platitudes. If someone loves what we've created (and don't we live for that?) we want it to come from a position of knowledge of craft and the hard-knocks of personal experience. Only then does it count.

But today I discovered I can get de-conditioned to putting myself 'out there.' It's been long enough since I've submitted to my critique partners that my tummy did a little extra gurgling and I searched for reasons to delay.

I went from the need to find little things my tidy grandkids left behind after their weekend with us, to gardening, to dinner plans, to the great debate on whether or not I needed to apply mascara today (I didn't). I ended with the predicament of transitioning my proposed submission from Scrivener to Word. Not that it wasn't malleable. It just wasn't a flawless export. I mean, really. A few more hours and I think I could have figure it out.

CR: The Dead Whisper On by T.L. Hines

It's all better with friends.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Rewrite Rash

Someone asked me the other day if this was the first time I'd faced rewrites.

It's not. It's just the first time they matter. A few rashy hives are to be expected.

Most novelists don't churn out publishable material their first time out of the gates. There's a learning curve that requires dedication, persistence, hope, faith, blinders, and even moments of blindness. In fact, intense hard-headedness served me well—both in terms of utter stubbornness, and believing I understood varying concepts. When it became clear that in fact, I understood nothing, the door opened to learning. And has stayed open ever since.

I have previous efforts where I inflicted more pain than grace on the page. Those stories, and many of the characters, were my sacrificial lambs.

This one could actually become a book.

The rewrite process has begun. It feels a little intense right now, but in a good way. To me, the hard work is finished. The story has been formed. Now I get to make it captivating.

CR: The Dead Whisper On by T.L. Hines.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Post-Partum SFD Paralysis

"When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth."
~Kurt Vonnegut

I'm looking at a toppling pile of notebooks and papers and books, to which I'm refusing to add anything else. Unless I'm willing to accept the consequence of insanity. Which I don't have time for.

The pile is dedicated to information related to rewrites.

My psyche is dedicated, at the moment, to self-destruction.

At the time I began amassing this amess, or amessing this amass, I told myself, "Not now. Right now, you need to write your SFD ('Shitty First Draft' ala Anne Lamott). Time to learn all about this later."

What a dope.

No longer stricken with post-partum SFD paralysis, here's where I'm heading:

  • I've determined that whatever I decide, the first step will be daunting. Get over it.

  • Like trying to eat the elephant in the room, I will handle the task one bite at a time. (Who in the world is responsible for morphing the idea of an elephant in the room into something I would like to eat? They should be shot. Then eaten.)

  • I'm smart enough to learn forever. I'm not smart enough to get it all figured out this afternoon.

  • Figuring out a system that worked for me to write an SFD took some trial and error, and so will figuring out a system to rewrite. I will heed what those who've gone before me advise, but ultimately it will become a personal blend of what works and what doesn't.

And so . . . there's no time like the present.

CR: About to finish Relentless by Dean Koontz. It's about an author running for his life and a lunatic book critic stalker. Don't you wonder where he got the idea?

It's all better with friends.

Friday, July 17, 2009

I've Birthed a Book!

"I hope that this time I will be able to hold all the threads together, that the characters will evoke a sense of reality, that what I've written will elucidate a theme, that an occasional paragraph will sing, that I can, in a phrase I learned in England, 'bring it off.' This, I believe, is the constant ambition of the writer and his constant prayer."


I finished my SFD about 6:30 last night. After pacing (and yeah, flexing a little), I finished printing it out about 9:30.

Now what? My last two attempts are stuck in the proverbial bottomless drawer.

This one is different.

I have about twelve gazillion craft books and workshop notes on editing. Too much data.

The next few days are going to be focused on researching this next giant step. That delay will help with the "settling/stewing" thing I've heard about so often.

Nothing like accomplishing something by doing nothing.

CR: Relentless by Dean Koontz.

Will be crawling through Margie Lawson's Deep Editing system, Chris Roerden's Don't Murder Your Mystery, Browne and King's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass, with Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird standing by to make me feel better.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


I'm reading a new novel by one of my favorite authors, Dean Koontz.

Relentless is written in first person. It starts off with backstory, then a mention of his guardian angel that had been with him since he was six, and how Ralph (the angel) suddenly went on sabbatical when he was thirty-four. Hint, hint.

More backstory.

A reference to what his family would come to call the situation they found themselves in (in his thirty-fourth year), and the fact they never expected Evil to "suddenly, intently turn its attention on our happy household or that this evil would be drawn to us by a book I had written."

Think the opening of Magnum, P.I. where Tom Selleck (who I could watch for days and days and days) does the voiceover for the upcoming episode.

Although well written, and interesting, Koontz pretty much throws everything I've learned about backstory and lousy foreshadowing out the window.

And yet the book has me totally entranced.


Because I trust Dean Koontz.

A new author I'd never read before? I might stick it out a bit more because the writing is good (other than what I've mentioned), but my red flag would be high and my drop-kick-it-to-the-wall boots would be primed.

Trust. It counts for a lot, doesn't it?

Huh. I guess I have a relationship with Dean. Of sorts. Kind of like my relationship with Tom Selleck.

By the way, if you want to read an excellent book where next to no backstory is used, except for out of the mouths of the characters in dialogue, you'll have to pick up a copy of The Good Guy. Written by . . . Dean Koontz.

You know what I'm reading.

It's all better with friends.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Who waits for time, loses time." ~ Italian Saying

Where has this year gone?

Somehow I want to say, "Kings-X", or whatever the magic words are to get everything to slow down for a moment and give me a chance to catch up.

Six weeks ought to do it.

I'm not complaining, mind you. Better time should fly than to inch along like a sick snail that has to stop every twenty seconds to throw up. But there's so much I want to do. So much I need to do. And the year is more than half over. What the heck?

There are those tomato plants I wanted to buy, the spring-cleaning I intended to do, those twenty pounds I meant to lose.

Okay, ten weeks. Thirteen weeks for sure.

I'm still not finished with my SFD, but I admit I'm not worried. (Did I just seal my doom?) If I can create the ending that's in my mind—make it work and satisfy at the same time—I'll be downright giddy. And still on target.

Then the fun work will start.

I'm already mulling over the introduction of a bigger, more global aspect. To make the story, um, bigger and more global. How that thread will feed into the existing plot is important. It has to weave in and look like it's always been an integral part of the deal. Like it came off the loom right along with everything else. If it doesn't, it'll just be a string that everyone will want to tug.

A bit of this and a bit of that, and before you know it, I'll be pulling out the Christmas decorations.

CR: Trying to drag out the Lamott book. If the Barclay doesn't get here tomorrow, it's gonna have to take a backseat.

It's all better with friends.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Mano a Mano

I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a couple of hours yesterday with Colleen Coble. She and her husband Dave were just finishing up an extended trip where they spent time with family in the Phoenix area, and did some research on Colleen's next book in northern California.

She was in Denver for a writer's conference and asked for someone to pick them up at the airport, take them to their hotel, and have a bite of lunch.

I jumped on that like white on rice, but it didn't dawn on me until later that Colleen could've taken a shuttle like most of the other writers, or a cab, or even a limo. Instead, she sought the opportunity to take the time to share a bit of herself, and fellowship with a fellow writer.

Isn't that cool?

I came away with a couple of insights that I'll share, but one was the idea of always looking to connect. It's not only a very human thing to do, but a very smart marketing move as well.

For some of us, isolation is natural, and maybe even preferred. We write in isolation. But it isn't how we should live our lives when we aren't writing.

When I'm a multi-published and multi-award winning author, I might pass on a limo to spend some time with someone who really, really, really wants to be in my light. (Unless of course, the limo driver also happens to be an aspiring author, and then everything's good.)

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Brainstorming Theft

My dad, Bud Ham, talks about how important it is for everyone to know one or two things at which they excel.

When he was a kid, my dad could shoot marbles better than anyone else in Florence, Colorado. It gave him a place to camp when the world did a number on him.

Know what he's talking about?

With writing, it seems I'm naturally a little bit good with dialogue (thank goodness), titles (they're fun) and . . . brainstorming.

Brainstorming for others. Not for myself. For myself, I pretty much suck.

A gazillion years ago, when I wore a corporate hat, I learned how to brainstorm through some management classes. That's not to say there haven't been improvements—did I say "years ago?"—but the general let-loose mentality still applies.

The difference is that brainstorming in a group is way different than brainstorming as a solo exercise. With a group, you feed off each other. Every new idea or word or even hiccup, can create the brilliant leap everyone is looking for.

Solo? Think Stuck. Or Suck. Take your pick.

I love brainstorming. It feeds my energy. I rarely remember one thing I've come up with one second later. That's the beauty of it. When I'm helping someone else, they're the focus. Their need. Not necessarily my idea.

So. If you're afraid someone might steal your idea, think again. Not only will it probably be out of their minds in a nano-second, it's probably already been thought of.

Any idea, put into the hands of an individual, is going to take on that individual's nuance. Their history. Their perspective.

Two questions for you to think about. What is your Shooting Marbles place to excel?

And, are you holding your ideas so close to the vest you might be missing something fabulous by becoming vulnerable and brainstorming?

CR: Anne Lamott and I are spending a few brief minutes together every night. If she walked into my house right now, she'd be welcomed as a friend. I'd even change the sheets in the guest room on the spur of the moment, just in case.

It's all better with friends.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Read/Not Read Conflict . . . NOT

They say that if you're in the majority, you'd better step back a minute and re-examine your position.

I like that as a general application, but I just can't get past this one.

A writer refuses to read her genre while she's writing. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me too much if she refused to read any fiction at all while she's writing.

My first response is, "Why in the world not?", followed quickly by, "Don't you write every day—or try to?"

She's not the only one who has formed this distorted belief system. The rationale lies somewhere in concepts of originality and imitation.

If you don't read in your genre, how do you experience new ideas? How do you grow personally as a writer?

And this is awkward: she's being compared to other bestselling authors. She should be irked, right?

I can't imagine not reading my favorite genre. I can't imagine thinking that would put me ahead of the curve.

Am I missing something?

CR: Anne Lamott's Plan B. She is so real.

It's all better with friends.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Worst Part of Writing

I have a folder for queries and proposals. Not stuffed with ones I've sent, mind you, but rather packed with examples and tips and a trough of ideas that supposedly work.

It's a terrifying folder, really. Built on the back of that other folder I have for synopsises.

An author asked me the other day if I had my query letter and synopsis all ready to go. She knows I'm targeting this month to be finished with my SFD.

I guess I was a bit shocked. It felt like that would be putting the cart before the horse.

Wouldn't it?

I wrote a synopsis ages ago, and that will definitely need re-tooled. Why sweat out a query letter as well, only to have to re-sweat later?


Well, kinda. The thing with the exercise of writing a synopsis and query letter is that it makes you examine your story from a different perspective.

Rather than being in the middle of the forest, where you can see only so many trees around you at any given moment, writing a synopsis (ugh!) and query letter (blick!) are like flying over the forest in a helicopter. (Or, if you prefer, a glider.) You can see so much more of the countryside, and how everything works together. The details aren't apparent, but the location and shape and expanse are easy to see.

I'm not advocating everyone do this, but it couldn't hurt. Even if you have to suck it up and do them all again later.

CR: Plan B by Anne Lammot. It's a compilation kind of thing, so it will be easy to put down and come back to when the Barclay arrives.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Striking the Match

Every novelist I know reads books on craft their entire career.

I'm taking a workshop from Donald Maass in September, and because I like to have an idea what might be coming, I purchased his newest, The Fire in Fiction. Okay, the another reason might be I can be a little bit of a suck-up.

The INTRODUCTION made me very glad I don't wear dentures because I dropped my jaw more than once.

Take a look:

"What do I mean by passion? Simply put, it is the underlying conviction that makes the words matter. It is the burning drive to urgently get down something specific, something that the reader has to see. It could be as big as a universal truth about human nature or as small as the quality of light on an autumn afternoon on the Nebraska prairie." (pg. 2)

"Passionate writing makes every word a shaft of light, every sentence a crack of thunder, every scene a tectonic shift. When the purpose of every word is urgent, the story crackles, connects, weaves, and falls together in wondrous ways." (pg. 3)

Donald Maass creates big expectations. He sets the bar of storytelling higher and higher. He makes me rethink every plotline, every character, every . . . every word. I believe my writing will be better for it.

This book is shaping up to be my most high-lighted, notated, re-read book on craft yet.

CR: Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott.

(Waiting to receive the new Linwood Barclay for review.)

It's all better with friends.