Thursday, January 29, 2009

Happy Birthday Me

I'm probably like every other writer who reads this ... I've been writing my whole life, since grade school. I can't even tell you how many books I've started, or stories I've written over the years. Maybe 50? Maybe 75? And I've finished I think 5 or 6 full-length novels, from the giddy-up to the get-go.

But I'm still surprised--and, yes, even giddy--about how much there is to learn. 

I'd like to think I've entered a period of rapid evolution over the past, say, 18 months. In this compressed, intense period, I've learned more about my craft, more about writing, than the previous 20 years. It hasn't been easy -- some of the stages have really sucked, in fact. The hardest part was checking my own ego. There probably isn't a delicate way to say it, but I've always known I was a good writer ... until I found out not so much. Until I found out that I had the potential to be a good writer, but I wasn't there yet. My control was poor. And you can't substitute gut with glib and get away with it for too long.

I realize now how very far I still have to travel before I become as good as I want to be. Still, I think the greatest gift any writer can give themselves—maybe any person—is to be open to new information, to be humble in the face of adversity. I've had a few key people help me over these past 18 months ... they know who they are ... and I'm so grateful to them. But it's also true that the heavy lifting has to come from within. 


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Voice Lessons ...

Have you ever written a memo or e-mail to your boss? A letter to a spouse or your kid? Or a five-paragraph essay for a teacher?

I would wager that in each of the cases, you wrote in a different voice. You automatically adapted your voice to the situation. 

I often say that I can write for anybody, as long as I know their vocabulary. I don't need to know how to perform heart surgery to write about it. I just need to be able to decode the language. Same with tropical orchids or pet turtles, local politics or the pharmaceutical market. Each of these corners of the world has its own language rhythms, its own code. You break the code and you're in.

I see writers all the time on the Internet worrying about this thing called voice: "What is it? How do I get it? Why does it matter so much?"  

My advice is simple: relax. Anybody who writes anything ALREADY knows how to adapt their voice, because you do it subconsciously every time you open a new file or e-mail. You think about who you're writing for and what you need to say, then you pull up the necessary vocabulary in your brain, and you get to work. 

I think it's the same with novels. Each genre, each audience, has its little mysteries and codes and lingo and slang. As a novelist, you don't need so much to plumb the depths of YOUR soul to discover your voice. No. You need to plumb the depths of YOUR READERS' souls and tap into their inner dialogue. This means, if you're writing for kids, you read what they're reading. You listen to kids. You absorb their experience, their vocabulary. If you're writing police procedurals, same thing. And same thing with women's fiction. 

That's where you'll find your voice.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Break Out the Thumbscrews

I'm probably one of the few people in the world who can honestly say I've read DOZENS of self-published novels. See, I'm a contract editor for one of the big print-on-demand companies, so when the self-pubbers pay for editorial services as part of their contract, they might just be hiring me. I'm not about to launch into one of those anti–self publishing rants -- I'll leave those for other people.

But I will say this: one of the things I've consistently observed about the novels I work on is poor self-editing. I can only think of one self-published novel that I felt was truly polished. The rest were clearly first or second drafts. In many cases, I can cut 10–15% of the book's word count without affecting the story at all. The rest needed the thumbscrews ...

What are the thumbscrews? This is a line-by-line thing. It's a word-by-word thing. Sure, I love first drafting as much as the next guy, but the real magic happens on the 5th or 7th draft, when you're screwing your book to the floor and cutting away every single word that is redundant or ridiculous. 

Witness the following paragraph. This is from a book I'm finishing now. Here it is, in its third-draft splendor:

They waited while the sun rose over the San Luna mountains, gradually lighting up the mist that pooled in the valley. The pace on the streets quickened as the mist first turned grey, then light pink, and finally the first shaft of sunlight shot over the mountaintop. As it did, almost everybody in the street stopped to watch the sun break and the day begin. Through some trick of light and timing, the first sun ray lanced through the mist in the valley and caused a brilliant flash, a rainbow, to shoot over Walkabout Town.

And here it is after the thumbscrews:

They waited while the sun rose over the San Luna mountains, gradually lighting up the mist that pooled in the valley. The pace on the streets quickened as the mist first turned grey, then light pink, and finally the first shaft of sunlight shot over the mountaintop. Everywhere, people in the street stopped to watch. Through some trick of light, that first sun beam lanced through the mist and caused a brilliant flash—a rainbow—to shoot over Walkabout Town.

Most of the changes are obvious ... cutting prepositional and ridiculous phrases. A "trick of timing," for example. Uh, duh, it was SUNRISE. What kind of trick is involved in that? And some are probably debatable. But my point is that, if you're lucky, you might someday find yourself defending every ... single ... word to an editor who gets paid to deal with schmoes like us. And I believe it's best to enter that conversation prepared. 

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Character Echoes


This entry gives away part of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, so if you haven't seen it yet, STOP READING NOW and go see it. Then we can talk.

For anyone who hasn't heard yet, Slumdog Millionaire is a wonderful movie about a boy named Jamal who grows up in the slums of Mumbai, India, and goes on to win India's version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. The movie's structure is awesome ... every answer Jamal gives prompts a flashback that explains how he knows these answers at all. After all, he's a poor kid from the slums. He's not supposed to know anything.

But there was a scene in the beginning that I had to think about for a while before I understood it completely. Jamal finds himself locked in an outhouse when his favorite movie star is visiting his slum. Desperate for an autograph, the young Jamal holds his nose and jumps into the river of shit, holding the photo above his head so it won't get dirty. Then he runs through the crowd, and the movie star laughs at this boy who was willing to wade through shit to reach him. He signs Jamal's photo ...

I wondered about this scene for a while. Why include such a gross image? But then I realized how obvious it was: this one scene sets up everything Jamal does for the rest of the movie. Because ultimately, the movie is a love story, and as an adult, Jamal is willing to ... well, wade through shit for the girl he loves. The devotion of the child is later echoed in the love of the adult. 

Beautiful. Just beautiful. Jamal's character is one organic whole, and throughout the movie, I never once found myself doubting that he would love this girl in this way. After all, I'd seen what he was willing to do for a mere movie star.

Now all I have to do is make sure the core of my characters is as solid as this.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Speaking in Code

Like the rest of the world, I watched Barack Obama's inaugural address last night. This speech was actually written by a 27-year-old speechwriter named Jon Favreau, although Obama writes many of his own speeches. Of course, I found it moving, and yes, I was covered with goosebumps at the prospect of George Bush living in Texas and far away from the levers of power, but I was also interested in the speech as a writer. 

Lately, I've become interested in coded language. Politicians are expert in using coded language. Their words are freighted with double meanings. There is the surface meaning, and then there is the coded meaning. The code can be a signal to supporters, or it can simply be an appeal to emotion by conjuring up cherished symbols and events. Consider this bit from the beginning of the speech:

"At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents."

This is a sentence rich with historical symbolism. "We the people," excerpted directly from the U.S. Constitution.  "Forebears," a word that would only be used in historical context. "Founding documents," an echo of our Founding Fathers ... In all, this sentence, just a few sentences into the address, takes us emotionally back to the ideals upon which the Republic was founded.

Or what about this gem from later in the address:

"What the cynics fails to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

Ha ha! I laughed out loud. Who could forget Reagan proclaiming that "government is the problem" or Bill Clinton declaring that the "era of big government is over"? In this one phrase, Obama pre-empted the argument over the size of government -- a losing argument for Democrats traditionally -- while simultaneously leveling a stinging criticism at the incompetency of George Bush's federal government.

In my own writing, I've begun to pay much more attention to embedded, deeper meanings of words. Coded language speaks directly to emotion, to the synapse-memory of your reader. And sometimes whole conversations, whole ways of life, can be compressed into a single word or single image. Moreover, a well-written book contains its own invented coding. The point isn't to speak to the reader's intellect, but to reach for their gut. 

In a practical sense, I think this argues for extreme economy on the page. Choose your descriptors, adjectives, verbs and adverbs very carefully. Aim for repetition, for simplicity. Because once the reader goes down your rabbit hole, you aren't dealing with them on a conscious level any more, but instead communicating directly with their subconscious. And I think this is where good books -- and good speeches -- are written. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Root Story ...

For the last six months, I've hardly written a word of original material. For anyone who knows me, this is exceptionally unusual. I'm usually a little engine of productivity. But not lately. For a while, I thought I might be getting disillusioned. I worried that maybe I was done writing. Maybe it wasn't meant to be for me.

But something wonderful changed lately. I turned a corner, and suddenly, I'm flooded with new ideas, new ways to approach the stories I'm currently working on. 

What happened?

I think I turned a personal corner. Honestly. Sounds cheesy, I know, but I think you can't write well unless you're willing to GROW as a person. And I've been struggling, personally, because I didn't know what the next step was. I hit a certain level of technical competency, and I became lost. But now I know what the next story is that I need to tell. I can FEEL it. And I'm excited about it.

I can also see that every book I've worked on in the past contains pieces of this story. I've been moving ever closer to it. It is my root story. It is my personal theme.  

I now think this is the artist's journey. This is what we're trying to uncover: our root stories. What is the theme of your life? What messages have you carried away from your years in this place so far? Which story do you tell over and over, in different ways? I've even begun to think of it as a spiritual thing.  

It's taken me six completed novels, and more recently six months of no writing at all and just thinking and reading, to reach this point. I often wonder if I could be further along in my writer's journey if I had made different choices. What if I had studied more? What if I had been more disciplined in my craft at a younger age? What if I hadn't picked fights with every authority figure? What if I had partied less?

I don't know the answer to these questions, but I have a suspicion that it's useless to even ask. Because every experience and every moment is part of the unfolding root story. You cannot change who you are ... only embrace. I don't think I could have reached this point at all had I not followed this particular path. So in that way, I find myself absurdly grateful for every mistake and every bump and every brick wall, because each of them helped give me this insight that, suddenly, has consumed my creative life.

My hope from here is simple: that the story I'm about to tell is as good as I hope it is.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Plot, Not Prose

The first time I heard the phrase "plot, not prose" was when I was trying to sell my first novel (unsuccessfully ... and for good reason). It was the first "Aha!" moment for me in my thinking about plots.

The next "Aha!" moment came when I was reading The DaVinci Code. I know a lot of people trash the book, and I get it: the characterization wasn't great, the motives were unbelievable, some of the key developments were predictable, and the writing was uninspired. But I will go to my grave defending the plotting of that book. It was a beautifully constructed thriller, where one piece clicked into the next, into the next, into the next. And lest anyone thinks the book was all hook, Dan Brown got sued (although he won) by another author who had basically proposed his EXACT hook 30 years before. It wasn't original at all. 

Personally, I don't really want to write the next DaVinci Code. It's just not in my genes to write a book like that. But that book did affect me. It turned me into an outliner. It made me believe that good plots don't happen by accident, that you can't stumble your way into a complex story. It can only happen on purpose. And furthermore, it showed me that people LOVE well-plotted books. The fact that so many millions were able to forgive the DaVinci Code its flaws and still buy it said something.

So this is why, when I'm editing my own work, I'm always asking, "How does this relate to my story? Will this matter later?" 

If the answers are "It doesn't" and "No," then buh-buy, it's getting cut. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dear Synopsis ... Watch Yourself

I'm in the final stages of editing a book I wrote about a year ago. I've tried to explain this book to people, but I get all tongue tied and twisted. It's a very odd book. Its appeal lies in the strange alternaworld it occupies and the currents that flow through it. And, of course, the story itself takes some very bizarre turns. 

All of this is back story, of course, to my real problem. I've been asked to produce a synopsis, which will be submitted to an editor who is actually waiting for it. Oh crap.

[Insert sound of thudding heart.]

I've taken a few stabs at it, and so far, no luck. I've followed the excellent advice of my friend Erica Orloff, who is something of a synopsis master. But all I get is a sodden pile of words that, to me, just isn't cutting it. 

'Cause the truth is, I'm crazy in love with this book. The main character is totally my kind of kid. And it introduces a recurring character who is ... I dunno, the Coolest Guy Ever and whose complete story will be told in another series of books. Oh, and there's so much more. Pianos fall and burst into flames. There are dueling dirigibles. There's a girl named Cherry BonBon (who is, sadly, forever out of my league) and slingshots and fat suits and chocolate pastries and orphans and a horrible boarding school and street fights. 

So, considering all this, I have something to say to this freaking synopsis:

Dear Synopsis,

Please cooperate with me. I will be forever grateful if you help me explain why this book deserves to be read. But I'm warning you, if you screw this up for me, I swear on all that is savory and sweet that I will kill you. I'm just saying.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A First Step Taken

I know many writers who can't start a book until they have the perfect name for their MC. Frankly, I'm not one of them. I could easily write a book about Placeholder A interacting with Placeholder B, and terrified of Dude C. The name means virtually nothing.

My problem is something else. I literally can't write a word until I know the first sentence. I collect first sentences the way my kid hoards Halloween candy and dollar bills. I love them. I keep several close to me ... 

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

A screaming comes across the sky.

And of course,

Call me Ishmael.

I've often thought this is because I was trained as a newspaper writer. In newspapers, the lead is essential. The lead is the story. You have a good lead, everything else falls into place. Or maybe it's like shooting a rifle at the moon. If you make a tiny mistake in the beginning, if your aim is off just 1/1,000 of a degree, you'll end up missing your target by 10,000 miles. Whatever the reason, if I don't start this journey of a thousand steps with exactly the right one, then for me, there's no reason to even roll out of bed.

Last night, I was working away when, to my great surprise, the first sentence of the book I'm fooling with hit me. It's just a handful of words, a trickle of sand in the Sahara, but at least for now, this is all I need to start:

Jalen hated the way his dad smelled. 

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Theme With Starting

At the end of a particularly comprehensive critique of a book I wrote, an editor left this comment (I'm paraphrasing here):

Oh yes, and now that I've torn your ego out and made you once again wish you had gone into nuclear physics, I had another thought: What is your theme? I looked, sincerely, and I couldn't find it. As the great writing teacher Somebody said, "All great writing begins with theme." So after you're done sobbing, but before you begin drinking, and WHILE you're rewriting, I want you to think about theme. I hope your revision is worthy of a thousand high-school English lit  theses! Toodles for now!

Of all the comments, this was the most difficult to handle. Theme? Um, does having fun count? What about, "Look! I'm clever!" Or the old standby, "I'm leaving it up to my reader to glean their own meaning, because I must stay true to my art!"

Fast forward two years and two books. Last night, I spent a few hours with my nose buried in the Diamond Sutra. This ancient Buddhist book is about sudden enlightenment. And yes, I can use a little sudden enlightenment, but what I was really doing was looking for inspiration. I'm currently working on a new project -- a big one, a THEMATIC one -- and I've spent four months now working on almost nothing but theme. At this point, I've asked the main character only one real question: what do I want to teach you about the world, my young and scaly friend? 

This might sound all ass-backward, and maybe it is. This is an ongoing experiment for me. My plan is to first develop the philosophy, then build the world and its rules, and then put the events into motion. In a way, I'm hoping this story emerges from the murk of my own worldly confusion, and maybe I will learn something along the way. 


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Alchemy of Luck

A long time ago, I was a waiter in a French Quarter restaurant. I was months out of college, and we had just moved to New Orleans, and I was doing everything I could to break into print media. I was working at a small newspaper and sending out resumes by the dozen. But I just couldn't get anything to happen.

One night, I waited on a couple from Tennessee. I ended up chatting casually with them throughout the meal, and I told them I was fresh out of college and trying to move up in the publishing business. The guy told me he owned a small PR agency, and while he couldn't help with the media, he would be happy to send me a few pages from a national directory of magazines. He mailed the pages a few days after his vacation over. No note. No letter. Just an envelope with pages.

My plan was to cold-call these magazines and see if any needed help. Believe it or not, on the very first call, I landed a job interview in Boca Raton. A month later, we moved and I started a new job as a travel editor. 

A few years after that, I was working as an editor at a niche book publishing company, and I was hiring copy editors. I ended up hiring one that I talked to for a few hours after I sent her the first project. I don't remember the exact words of that conversation, but I remember exactly what was said (if that makes any sense). At the time, I was considering a freelance career, but I wasn't sure it was possible. But this freelancer said it was. "Look," she said, "I'm full-time. I make good money. I work hard. I hustle. I sell books. I work from my house. You can do this. It is possible."

Two years later, I quit my job, and I've been freelance ever since.

I'm still friends with that freelancer (you know who you are, if you're reading this), and this was just at the beginning of a remarkable stretch in which she published three, four, five books a year. Once again, until I saw it, I didn't even know such a thing was possible. I thought only "they" actually published novels, and by "them," I mean those ultrathin people who live in New York City, dine at exclusive restaurants, wear only black, and sip on impossibly expensive cocktails. People who know people. 

Opportunity. I wish I knew what it looked like when it rolled through the door. But it's always taken different forms ... a diner on vacation, a chance contact at work, a throwaway comment about a job opening. It's only later, looking back, that I see these moments changed the trajectory of my life. 

They say that good luck lies at the crossroad of ambition and hard work. I believe it.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Is this the end ... or a new beginning?

Endings are great. I love writing endings, and I love reading a great ending. Plotting an ending is downright fun ... it's all payoff. All those strands I've been weaving since the first word finally come together. It's like I'm knitting a shirt, but the reader doesn't really know that until I'm done and lift it up as a whole. "Ah, it's a shirt!" 

So then why do I botch endings so frequently?

On my two most recent books, I was very proud of both endings at first, but it turned out I whiffed them both. On one book, I ended it too soon. There was more to tell in the story, another page to turn. I had to go further to show how the events of the story really affected my main character. In the other, I was in a rush, so I pushed through, hit a dramatic scene, and typed "The End." It was anticlimactic.

What makes a great ending? I think maybe it's the sense that it's not an ending at all, but a new beginning. And this time, the character isn't encumbered by the conflict that was presented in the opening pages of the story. Sure, new conflicts might arise (sequels, perhaps), but rather than looking back over the bones of that story, the ending finds the character looking forward to a life free from the burden imposed by the original conflict. Hopefully wiser for what they've seen and done.

So I'm reworking an ending right now, and I'm trying to keep this in mind. But input is welcome ... what makes a great ending? How do you know when it's the right time to type "The End"?

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Sweet Center

I used to think of myself as a first-draft writer, and when it comes to articles and nonfiction, I pretty much am. Providing I have the interviews done and research in place, I can usually bang out a few-thousand-word article in an afternoon and it'll be good to go. Or at least pretty close.

It turns out this skill kind of screwed me when it came to fiction. I made the mistake of assuming that what was true for one form of writing was true for another. But it totally wasn't. My first "real" (but unpublished) novel was 105,000 words. I wrote it in 5 weeks, beginning to end, and then thought, "OK. Now let's sell this sucker." Turns out I never even made it to the query stage. My critique group gently savaged the novel, and I realized there was massive work to be done.

Since then, I've written four more books. Each has a different history, and each is somewhere in the sales process (or permanently living in a drawer). But the one thing I know for sure is that I'm not a first draft writer, and I'm barely even a second-draft writer, and to call me a third-draft writer is to be charitable. Basically, if I didn't type fast, I think it would take me about a thousand years to pound out a completed book.

I'm kind of excited about today for a few reasons. First, for me, this is the real beginning of the new year. My first 2009 work day. And I've got lots of work, which is a great thing. Second, I'm not really going to spend today doing any of that work. Instead, I'm going to work on revisions of my most recent book. It's a present to myself.

It turns out I like revisions. Crazy, I know. But it's a skill like any other skill, and after I learned how to revise, I saw how important it was. It's a little like licking a Tootsie Pop. You just keep at it, stroke after stroke, until you hit the sweet center. I like watching the real story emerge from the initial, fevered pile of words. I like engaging with each character as I go through my passes, sharpening them and learning to understand who they are. And I love the feeling when I know a chapter or passage is tight.

I've never been much for comparing myself to other writers, because I just don't think it's possible. I think every person can only produce the writing they can produce. It's an organic thing, like fingerprints and faces. If I could go back and give any advice to my 20-year-old self, I think I would say, "Be gentle with your expectations, uncompromising with your standards, and most important, take the time to get to know yourself."