Thursday, August 14, 2014

In the Details

James O. Born

We’ve gone over a lot so far in our discussions about what it takes to write a novel.  There's the big picture of whether you are a writer versus a storyteller and how to get your story across in an interesting manner, whether it is by action or dialogue.  I throw up a lot of quotes and posters I find all over the Internet and in books.  And yet the one thing you should take away from all of this is there is no one rule to follow and today's topic is no different.

Punctuation may seem like something we learned in elementary school and we revisited it every year through high school.  It should be simple, a couple of splotches here and there on the page tell the reader when to pause or stop.  As with everything in writing a novel, it is not that simple.  And I am no grammar titan.  In fact, I’m a Floridian.

But I can't over emphasize how important details like punctuation can be.  One of the first things an editor will notice when reading your manuscript is poor punctuation.  You can try and keep it simple, but frankly there are times that call for something out of the ordinary.  Maybe it's something as simple as a semi-colon or an exclamation mark.  Personally, I use things like this very sparingly.  But these are choices you have to make.

Years ago, an editor read one of my manuscripts and felt like the sentences as a whole were too short and consistent; meaning I used no variation in the construction of each sentence.  Of course, he was right.  I have many faults, but admitting a mistake is not one of them.  I made use of the Word for Windows statistics that can review any document and learned that although my earlier books averaged about fourteen words per sentence, this book averaged ten.  That takes into account one word sentences.  But as my statistical background forces me to admit, this was a significant change in sentence structure from an earlier book.  It made me reread my early books as well as several authors I admire greatly, including Michael Connelly, and study as well as enjoy the novels.  Now, without conscious thought, most of my manuscripts are between fourteen and sixteen words per sentence.  A seemingly insignificant issue, which had completely escaped me, but was obviously impacted my storytelling. 

I'm not saying that was all punctuation's fault.  I think it was just a phase I was going through making each sentence blunt and to the point.  One of the things I truly hate is what some authors and editors referred to as "over writing," putting too many descriptors or flowery language into the text.  I'm not saying that I don't like this in some situations, but in crime novels generally I do not.

So let's look at the basics quickly.  What is in our toolbox of punctuation?  (And keep in mind this is extremely difficult to write using Dragon NaturallySpeaking software).

Now let's just wait a second.  Hold your horses and think for a minute.  After the tone of conversation we've had for almost half a year, do you really think I would be so condescending as to lay out a list of actual punctuation marks? 

That’s not the way things work here.  We need to have a simple and basic respect for each other.  I have to assume that if you are reading these blogs and interested in writing a novel you already have the basics of punctuation.

The point I'm trying to make is that simple mistakes like confusing their and they’re or your and you’re will turn off an editor almost instantly.  An excellent book to get some of this clear in your head and at the same time be entertained is Eats, Shoots and Leaves by  Lynn Truss.

The book explains the title well:

"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.” 

Admittedly, this is not a problem I often see an unpublished manuscripts.  Generally this is one of the easier things to correct.  But I felt it worth mentioning in the grand scheme of things.

This week’s quotes are:

“No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, "Good food at it's best", you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.” 
― Lynne TrussEats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

“The almost-always-ghastly exclamation point has been lately compared to canned laughter.” 
― George F. WillOne Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation

Monday, August 11, 2014

OUTLANDER: When books come to life on screen

Patty here

Has anyone seen the first episode of Outlander on Starz? For now, you can get it for free by visiting I watched on my computer but it’s also available On Demand if you have Time Warner Cable or similar.

I always cringe when a movie or TV series is made from a favorite book. We’ve all seen unsuccessful attempts and worry: Will the action be true to the book? Will the actors resemble the people we’ve imagined?

The official poster

A friend recommended OUTLANDER shortly after it was published in 1991. Her description sounded genre bending and not at all appealing, but she insisted I read it. So I did. And I loved it. I have since read all of the books in Diana Gabaldon’s series, except for WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART’S BLOOD, which was released in June. The author has an interesting history. She holds degrees in Zoology, Marine Biology, and a Ph.D. in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology. She wrote OUTLANDER in secret, just to see if she was capable of writing a novel.

The books are part time-travel, part historical novel, part steamy romance and totally engaging. The history fascinated me because I have Scottish kin on my father’s side and I loved reading about that period in history. I’ve also traveled in the highlands of Scotland and found it enchanting.

As for OUTLANDER, the casting is inspired. Claire and Jamie look mostly as I imagined them. As Claire, Caitriona (pronounced Katrina) Balfe’s acting chops seem up to the task. She reminds me a bit of Cate Blanchett.  

Caitriona Balfe as Claire

Sam Heughan is Jamie Fraser.

Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser

Production-wise, I thought there was an over reliance on voice overs and the pace was—shall we say—leisurely, but seeing it made me want to reread the book.

Most authors wonder who would be cast to play the characters in their novels. Who would make a good Maisie Dobbs? Jake Lassiter? Tom Eriksen in BORDER WARS? A friend once told me she envisioned Hilary Swank as Tucker Sinclair. I was surprised but later thought her observation was spot on.

For the uninitiated, OUTLANDER begins at the end of WWII. Claire Randall has spent the war years working as a combat nurse where she has become accustomed to making life-and-death decisions. In other words: She's no wimp. Now that the war is over, she and her husband Frank travel to Scotland on a second honeymoon to get reacquainted after years spent apart. During their stay, Claire visits a group of standing stones.


While there, she touches the rocks and is transported back to 1743 Scotland in the midst of the Jacobite rebellion against English rule. And that’s when the real fun begins.

With the positive buzz, including a good review in the Los Angeles Times, the STARZ series seems headed for a successful run. I'm glad the OUTLANDER powers-that-be got it right. Congratulations to all involved.


Friday, August 08, 2014

Saudi Arabia, Bacon Sandwiches, and Media Escorts ...

from Jacqueline

I wrote this column several weeks ago, at the beginning of my book tour.  I have been really busy – all that traveling – so it’s taken me until now to get it onto the blog.  Finally, here’s my post for this week, from the road …

July  10th, 2014

It’s a funny thing, how stories converge, and how events in one’s life intersect.  We don’t need to go far to prove the six degrees of separation – that particular mathematical hypothesis can be proven in our own history.

Let me explain …

I’m in the midst of a long book tour, in fact, I’m writing this on a flight from St. Louis to Boston.  Yesterday I was in Chicago.  When I talk about a new book, I like to tell the story of the story – where the kindling came from, and what I saw/read/experienced/observed that gave me the fuel for the fire, and I add some detail on the sparks that lit the story.  It’s a way of engaging an audience without revealing too many plot spoilers.

One of the themes in The Care and Management of Lies is that of food as a flashpoint for emotional nostalgia.  In my talk in Chicago, I illustrated that point with a story about the experience of craving something recognizable from home, foods that bring a sense of belonging, of family.   I described being 21 years of age and in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for an extended period of time.  You’ve heard me talk about my experiences as a flight attendant, the job I went into straight out of college because I wanted to travel – well, I’d been flying about three months when I was “positioned” out to Morocco and Saudi for six weeks during the Hadj – the Pilgrimage.  We only worked one flight each week, taking pilgrims from Rabat to Jeddah, dividing the week between those two places – we flew back to Rabat empty. And believe me, we needed the week to get over that outbound flight!  I remember being at an outdoor restaurant in Jeddah, eating something strange, something I wasn’t that happy about consuming, probably because I was getting a bit fed up with Middle Eastern food after a month’s worth of it.  Suddenly, I had a craving for a bacon sandwich. Not any bacon sandwich – no, I wanted my dad’s bacon sandwich, with bread cut in doorstep slices, dipped in the fat on one side then buttered before the rashers of lovely thick British bacon were laid across. Two important things of note here:  You will not find bacon anywhere in a Muslim country.  And I was a vegetarian.  That, my friends, is emotional nostalgia, as represented in the desire for a certain food.

Bill Young, the terrific media escort in Chicago, had taken me to my event, and on the way to my next event, he asked me about my experiences in Saudi Arabia – he added that he was interested because he was reading a really great thriller, I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes.  Much of the plot is focused on political intrigue in Saudi.  I told him a few stories, then added another media escort/Saudi story.  Stay with me on this one – you know how my stories ramble ….

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, another disaster appeared to be looming – Rita, a hurricane-force storm heading for Houston, TX.  I was on book tour at the time and I, too, was heading for Houston, TX.  It seemed we’d make landfall around the same time.  A woman in the boarding line for the flight asked me if I lived in Houston, and when I said “No” she asked, “Then why in God’s name are you going there?”   To add weight to what transpired later I was seated next to a senior photojournalist from Associated Press, one whose specialization was natural disasters.  He was headed to Galveston, to look straight into the eye of the storm.  The 'plane had less than ten passengers on board.  The AP fellow told me he’d only just arrived home from New Orleans when he received the call to get going again – he’d barely had time to buy a new hazmat suit.  We talked about what he’d seen post-Katrina – things you would never have read in the press – and we talked about the then war in Iraq.  I remember saying to him, “Now I’ve got one of you guys on my own – why is the press rolling over and playing dead with this Administration?”  He answered, “Two words – Karl Rove.  He’s got something on almost every news editor or owner.”  And he wasn’t yanking my chain.  That’s interesting, I thought, and considered again the machinations of our government at the time.  Not that any of them are perfect, I know, but that was a special case, methinks.

Mary Ann Loweth, another amazing media escort, was there to meet me in Houston.  We left the airport in her Chevy Suburban only to run into a long tailback at a major intersection nearby.  We didn’t have a lot of time to get me to my hotel for a quick change of clothes before my event at Murder By The Book.  The tailback had been caused by massive police activity, closing the road so that very specific cross traffic had immediate right of way - a convoy of black Suburbans.  Blue flashing lights were everywhere ahead of us.  “Surely Bush isn’t coming in,” said Mary Ann.  “Hell no,” I said.  “It’s way too dangerous here!”  Mary Ann took matters into her own hands – ever the pro, she had to get an author to an event and a slew of black cars with some sort of get-past-the-traffic free card wasn’t going to stop her. She swung the steering wheel to the right and headed off across an adjacent field, joining the highway well past the roadblock.  We didn’t have to wait long to find out who was being given a diplomatic pass to get out of town before Rita cruised in.  As we approached the hotel, more black Suburbans – of government issue, it was clear now – were lined up outside.  Men in black suits (a secret service detail?) were holding up traffic coming into the hotel while a number of Saudi Arabian families - or maybe a cluster of one man's wives, plus children - clambered aboard the SUV's, followed by servants carrying their many bags containing purchases from posh stores.  Amazing what having a bit of oil can do – friends in high places indeed.  And don't you love seeing the guys in black suits with curly wire coming out of their ears, while they talk into their wrist watches?

Mary Ann parked as close as she could, as I leapt out and ran into the hotel with my bags. I stopped to talk to a lurking hotel employee, asking him what was going on.  “Oh, a few of our guests felt uncomfortable here with the approaching weather, so they’re being given some assistance," he said.  Yeah, I thought, I bet they are.

I recounted this story to Bill, who said, “You should get that book.”  So I did.  And I have reached the point where Jeddah is mentioned for the first time, and memories are flooding back. I was there over 35 years ago. I was not a writer then (more of a recreational scribbler), but I have always had one of the key skills required of a writer – I'm observant, possibly to the point of being nosy.  Details interest me.  I remember what I’ve seen and heard, what smells assault my olfactory system, and what touches my soul about a place and people.  Jeddah may have developed a bit in the intervening years, but I have my doubts as to whether the spirit of the place has changed. Corrupt is the first word that springs to mind. Brutal is another.  Princes are ten a penny, and every one has enough money to buy anything and anyone.  The desperately poor are everywhere.  Alcohol might be banned, but go to any party given by the rich (and there are truckloads of them), and all manner of alcohol is there for the taking – and I mean the expensive stuff.  And I have seen people “bought."  It’s amazing what some people would do for even a sniff at that kind of wealth - it's a bit like watching dogs roll in something nasty and seeing the sheer pleasure on their faces.  "Gee, I stink and I'm loving it!"  

I read something about Saudi Arabia today, that it’s one of the "Top 5 Most Corrupt Countries in the World" and one of the most ruthless.  It’s also where 15 of the 19 “9-11” highjackers hailed from.  Interesting – I think many of us have forgotten that little factoid, seeing as we went to war in Iraq.

Here’s something else I remember about Jeddah, and I think this conversation happened on the same day and in the same place where I had my craving for a bacon sandwich.  I had been out walking earlier in the day – not on my own, I might add – and a dog came up to me, obviously hungry.  I’m used to attracting homeless, hungry canines – I should open a shelter, really - so I bought some sort of pastry (it was all I could find), gave it to the dog, and went on my way.  At that lunch, one of the crew members told us that there were no dogs in Jeddah, as the government had euthanized every dog to deal with a rabies epidemic.  “But I’ve seen a dog,” I said.  “You can’t have,” said the guy.  “There are none.” 

That sums up Jeddah for me – someone tells you there are no dogs, that the place has been cleansed of them.  But you know what you’ve seen, and the dogs are still there, rabid as all get out.

Oh, and I Am Pilgrim is my favorite thriller of the year so far – very dense plotting, excellent character development and super-fast pacing. I was out of breath by the time I finished it.  If you are one of Our Jim's students (and we know you are, after reading his amazing series about writing here on Naked Authors), read this book and make notes - then go back to Jim's lessons on plot, on character, and time and place, and see how the story stacks up.

Enjoy your weekend, one and all ....

Thursday, August 07, 2014


James O. Born

Everyone can benefit from a mentor. It doesn't matter what profession you are in or how old you are, having someone who will take the time to explain what happened to them in the same situation and guide you in an effort to avoid the same mistakes is invaluable. How do you find this person? Luck has a great deal to do with it.

In police work, I have had several mentors during different phases of my career. All of them have helped me in different ways. Probably the most valuable instruction I ever got was how to talk my way out of trouble. If more people try to talk out issues and explain things, rather than jumping to the next level of aggression, no matter what you do in life, the world would be a better place. Sometimes it takes getting punched in the face to understand this fact. If you’re smart, you listen to people who help you avoid getting punched in the face.

My first real mentors in the field of writing were legendary novelist Elmore Leonard and his research assistant/longtime friend, Gregg Sutter. They chopped apart my early novels and literally taught me how to create suspense, interesting characters and captivating dialogue. In other words, these two men taught me how to write a novel. That is not an overstatement and in no way bullshit. I did not know the first thing about writing a novel until I met Elmore Leonard and Gregg Sutter. They stuck with me through many years of rejection and celebrated with me when I got my first book contract. Dutch Leonard's death last summer still leaves an empty space in my heart as well as in my writing. Luckily, I still have Sutter to yell at me when needed.

Despite our constant barbs traded back and forth across the blog and other public means, Paul Levine has been another mentor for me in the world of publishing. Though he would downplay any efforts he's made to help me, his advice is indispensable and he is one of the few people who never tried to sugarcoat their past experiences. I can still remember the first time I met Paul which was, wholly by coincidence and full of irony considering this blog, at a panel where he, Edna Buchanan and Elmore Leonard were speaking at the now dormant Delray Beach Book Festival. I had already read To Speak For The Dead and was impressed by Paul's wit, even in the face of being paired with two of crime fictions biggest writers at the time. More than a decade later, I ran into Paul during one of the symposiums connected to the Edgar awards. Although he claimed to remember me, I'm sure it's just part of his natural charm. Regardless, we bumped into each other on a regular basis after that and now he is one of the people I count on to give me solid advice whether I want to hear it or not. I literally run my book deals past him even though I have an agent and an attorney, because I really want to hear his input.

I am attempting, in my own way, to mentor a couple of young writers, however I feel inadequate in the face of the superior advice I have gotten since before I was published. I do my best, but especially when people ask me to read manuscripts and my schedule is so tight as it is, I appreciate the effort of a guy like Elmore Leonard and a busy man like Paul Levine put forth on my behalf.

So as you are grasping all the elements of writing a novel we have discussed for the past six months (yes it has been about six months since I started writing these columns), think about who you respect and who seems willing to help when you have questions. In general, writers are a very generous bunch and will help you any way they can. Look at guys like Barry Eisler who devote whole sections of their website to things that could help other writers.

Soon enough we will get back on track about the elements needed to actually write a novel, but there are so many other things involved in the world of publishing that I want to bring them out at different intervals.

Today's quotes are:

“No one learns as much about a subject as one who is forced to teach it.”
Peter F. Drucker

“Remember that mentor leadership is all about serving. Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).”
Tony Dungy, The Mentor Leader: Secrets to Building People and Teams That Win Consistently

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Public Speaking and Promotion

James O. Born

Every writer you speak with now-a-days, especially savvy ones like our own Paul Levine, talk about the need for promotion. It's rare to meet an author who doesn't think the publisher could do more for them even in these times of limited resources. I agree that it's easy to view yourself as the center of the publishing universe, but over time, with experience, I realized that neither Putnam nor McMillan pinned the success of their companies solely on my novels. Whether that was a mistake or not, only time will tell.

I’m no expert on promotion. I do consider myself a good public speaker and that's where I rest most of my promotional energy outside of blogging. I think it's important to seize a crowd immediately whether it's ten people or 1000. And I will admit that this is a skill I gained early on in my police career where the failure to capture someone's attention could literally result in serious injury. Whether it's using my voice or my relative size or telling a joke, I don't want any part of the talk, especially the opening, to not capture the attention of everyone in front of me. I have sat through dozens, perhaps hundreds of talks by writers and police officers as well, where my mind would wander and all I could do was hope it would be over soon. The more of these deadly boring speeches I attend, the more adversely they seem to affect me. Perhaps it's just because I'm getting older or maybe it's a defense mechanism, but now I find I have to use the restroom much more often when I'm listening to a speaker who is reading from a prepared text or is clearly terrified to be in front of the crowd. I'm not judging or condemning, but I would like people to examine their own strengths and weaknesses and decide if this is the best use of their time for promotion. 

There are hundreds of tips for becoming a better public speaker. Search the internet and you’ll see plenty of choices. Here are few simple direct ones from yours truly:
  1. What’s the worst that could happen? The audience probably won’t rise up and kill you. And if they do, they still won’t eat you.
  2. Speak to three audience members, maybe someone you know or take the time to meet before the talk. Preferably have them spaced out in three different areas of the crowd.
  3. Listen to speakers you like. Chances are they don’t throw in a lot of “Ummms” and “Ahhhs.” They also get to the point and try to be entertaining.
  4. Never follow a good speaker. Never. Fake an injury if necessary.
  5. Keep it shorter than you think it should be. Limit questions to six after the talk.
  6. Keep it as conversational as possible.
  7. Evaluate yourself critically afterward.
  8. Do better next time.
  9. Stop complaining about having to speak in public. Either do it or don’t. This isn’t Iran, no one will force you to do anything.
  10. I reiterate:  Is this the best use of your time?

The same goes for all other forms of promotion. You have to ask yourself if it's worth the time it takes away from writing. Is it? If you are expected to produce roughly a novel year, how much time can you spend on the road talking to a few people at a Barnes & Noble or even a crowded library? It all comes down to your own resources and the most valuable one of those is time.

I gave up working on the blog for several years. I have no idea if it is a useful promotional tool. But my friends, or specifically Patty, Paul and Jackie convinced me to give it another shot and I decided to narrow my focus only to the subject of writing and publishing. I do this week in and week out because it is fun. I get something out of it. I couldn't tell you exactly what it is, but I feel good when I've written a blog and I feel relieved when it has been posted on time.

One thing I know for sure is that if you don't try anything at all, you are doomed to fail. There are so many opportunities that have opened up to me because I did something, often against my will, that I wouldn't normally do. I've made contacts from more than one convention that have  helped me with everything from advice on covers to finding an entertainment attorney. By attending meetings at the Mystery Writers of America, I have made friends in the writing community who have been invaluable in talking about my books to others and helping me with a number of different problems.

So the crux of this blog is you do have to perform some kind of promotion. You never know how it's going to turn out. My friend, best-selling author Randy Wayne White, told me that it takes at least two years to see the effects of book talks and other things promoting your book. I told him that sounded like an easy dodge because most authors are done with their career after two or three years. But he's right. Little things like moving on to paid speaking engagements and meeting new friends are side benefits to trying to expand your reading base.

So when the next person asks me why I write for the Naked Authors blog, for the sake of brevity, I will say, it's good for exposure. But you know the truth. I like doing it. At my age there are very few things I will do anymore unless I like doing them.

Today's quotes are from the same, perfect source:

“If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time - a tremendous whack.” 
 Winston Churchill

“A good speech should be like a woman's skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.” 
 Winston Churchill

Monday, July 28, 2014

The most dreaded word in a writer's vocabulary: rejection

Patty here…

Is there anyone out there who has ever felt as if they were a terrible writer and a worthless human being because the responses to your agent query letters are coming back addressed to Dear Author or Dear Sir or Madam and all say something like:

  • I’m not taking on any new clients at the moment.
  • In this difficult publishing climate, we feel that we would not be able to place your work successfully.
  • No, just no.  

“Rejections slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.” – Isaac Asimov 

I saved all of my agent rejection letters. Some of them were quite amusing although I doubt the agent intended them to be. A couple were addressed to me and signed with real ink (very classy). Most were impersonal form letters. One was a 1/3-page barely readable form letter that looked as if it had been copied a thousand times and then ripped from the mother page with a dull ruler.

If you are lucky enough to snag an agent, you must face the next round of rejections—from editors. Famous authors are not immune:

“I got a rejection letter from an editor at HarperCollins, who included a report from his professional reader. This report shredded my first-born novel, laughed at my phrasing, twirled my lacy pretensions around and gobbed into the seething mosh pit of my stolen clich├ęs. As I read the report, the world became very quiet and stopped rotating. What poisoned me was the fact that the report’s criticisms were all absolutely true. The sound of my landlady digging in the garden got the world moving again. I slipped the letter into the trash…knowing I’d remember every word.” – David Mitchell 

Writers must develop a thick, protective skin in order to survive the onslaught of criticism. How should writers handle rejection? In my quest to find answers, I asked Bonnie MacBird, a multi-Emmy award-winning writer/producer, actor, artist, and author of the Sherlock Holmes adventure, Art in the Blood. Bonnie also teaches screenwriting at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. I wanted to know what advice she gives her students.

"Rejection, hmmm. I know something about that. I'm an actor as well as a writer. A three-part sketch I once wrote for a show called HOT ROLES told of a young actor who fantasizes about an upcoming important audition. First he imagines the audition from hell -- he's got the wrong sides, then he's misunderstood, belittled, and finally thrown out of the room in a fury by the director. So he gives himself a pep talk, and re-imagines the audition, this time he kills it, and lands a star-making role. Snapping out of it, he realizes it's time to actually go to the audition. He arrives at the real thing. Waits. Waits some more. They call his name. He reads. Silence. Thank you very much. No feedback. We'll call you. In other words…nothing.
Alas, that's how rejection mostly is, nowadays. Impersonal. Nothing useful imparted. At best, as a writer you may receive a one line email. You can't even wallpaper your walls with this kind of thing. To be fair, I understand what readers face. I spent four years on the other side of the desk as a feature film development exec at Universal. I read six scripts a day, novels, plays… and twelve to fourteen pieces of material every weekend. And covered theatre. During this time, I wrote over a thousand reports, and hundreds of direct responses to agents and writers, never forgetting for an instant how much work went into each script or book.
As a writer, I hope for the same, but rarely get it. Back then, Universal had big bucks and hired Ivies with strong work ethics to read, and mentored us with experienced story wizards. But as a Disney exec once said when reneging on a promise, “that was then and this is now.”
Publishing companies nowadays have fewer dollars and fewer people. I'm guessing the stacks on the desks are higher. And…frankly… it's harder for young people used to googling, texting and surfing to really read a whole book now. But they are in the business of words, so this excuse only goes so far.
So, when I'm rejected, here's what I do. If there is a smidgeon of information I take it to heart, but only in the aggregate. If one person says the ending doesn't work, and four people (and you) know the twist is killer, don't listen to the first guy. Learn to be discerning in how you take criticism. But be open to it. Develop some armor. Beyond that, press on. My main tactic is to be already on to the next project. That, and chocolate. And a good run. Fuck 'em. I am in good company, and at least my work is out there, being considered. That's a win for me."

Craig Faustus Buck, an L.A.-based journalist, NYT bestselling nonfiction book author, TV writer-producer, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Anthony Award nominated short-story writer and novelist says:

“Gloom is a writer's best friend as far as rejection is concerned. If you expect to be rejected, you'll never be disappointed. And when you're wrong, it's an orgasmic surprise. Rosy expectations will turn a perfectly normal rejection into a personal tragedy.” 

Here's Chuck Wendig’s tough-love take on rejection. Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer who writes a blog called TerribleMinds. Read his entire post on rejection here:

“If you’re a writer, a writer who writes, a writer who puts her work out there, you’re going to face rejection. It’s like saying, “Eventually you’re going to have to fistfight a bear,” except here it’s not one bear but a countless parade of bears, from Kodiaks to Koalas, all ready to go toe-to-toe with you. Rejection, like shit, happens. Rejection, like shit, washes off. Get used to it.” 

These wise words are a reminder that when climbing the stairway to success, progress is made one step at a time.

Happy Monday!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

To Outline or Not Outline, That is the Question

My apologies to Shakespeare. I wonder if he outlined his plays?  There has been a mountain of articles written about the importance of writing an outline before you start a novel. Much like extreme politics, I fall somewhere in the middle on this subject.  I generally know how a book is going to end (at least one that I'm writing) and I usually can find a way to start the novel. In most cases I have 7 to 15 scenes in my head that I want to incorporate into the novel. And everything in between happens because characters say something or do something that pushes the novel in a certain direction. I really don’t bother with a full fledged outline.

My friend, and great novelist, the late Barbara Parker believed in outlines. But she did something many people don't seem able to achieve: her novels did not appear to be mechanical or tied to an outline. They were wonderful, witty legal thrillers that felt fun and intelligent at the same time. Occasionally, I read an author and get the feeling they wrote an outline and stuck to it no matter what happened.

This blog is all about writing and fulfilling your dreams of being a writer. That may or may not have anything to do with publishing. Publishing and writing are two separate animals. If you enjoy plotting out the book in great detail ahead of time and knowing where you're going, then you should outline. If you want to spend an hour a day jotting down ideas and making your characters say all the things you wish you could say in real life, you probably do not want to outline.

If I had outlined this blog ahead of time I would've realized there really isn't that much to say about outlining. Because now, only a few hundred words into it I am completely out of ideas. I will do what I always do in this situation and turn to some of my friends to see what they would say about outlining.

From our own, insightful Paul Levine:

For me, it’s essential. Maybe if I were smarter or could hold more gigabytes of information in my head, I wouldn’t have to do an outline. But I need to know where I’m going. That said, I sometimes outline in portions. I’ll do Act One and to the midway point of Act Two….then begin writing. As I near the end of my outline, assured I’m going in the right direction, I’ll outline to the end of the book. (However, I will know the ending when I begin part one of the outline….just not all the beats or plot points to get there).

From the beautiful and talented Harley Jane Kozak:

There are many advantages to outlining and as far as I can tell, the only disadvantage—for me— is that I don’t enjoy doing it. The very word “outline” activates my Inner Procrastinator. So I don’t outline. I do write out thoughts and ideas and vague plans and maps as I go along, and even descriptions of the plot, but I would never call that an outline because I don’t want to wake the Inner Procrastinator. 

From Paul Newman look-a-like and legal thriller author James Sheehan:

You know everybody has there own take on that. I've been on different panels with authors who say they have the whole thing outlined chapter by chapter. Others have a more global approach. Me- sometimes I start with the ending. Sometimes I have an idea but I don't know where it's going to go. I never have the complete story because I don't know my characters when I start and after I know them pretty well, they show me the way. I never put an outline down on paper. It's always in my head whatever it is.

From award winning author Reed F. Coleman:

I have an organized mind and have only on the rarest of occasions found a need or want to outline. I enjoy the surprise of not knowing for sure what I’m going to write next and therefore hope the reader will be as entertained and surprised as I am. It certainly keeps me on my toes. On the few instances I have tried outlining, it’s never turned out well. I feel as though I have already written it, so why would I want to write it again. It removes all the sense of danger, risk, and surprise for me. I think as with all thing about writing, one has to find his or her own way and to discover his or her own process and routine. See what works. If outlining suits you, outline. If you feel it takes the punch out of the work, don’t. I know several authors who do limited outlining. Go with whatever works for you.

From our fabulous and talented Patricia Smiley:

I spent as much time outlining my first novel as I did writing it. Many trees gave their lives for that document. After all that work, the outline and the book weren't anything alike. I want to be a detailed outliner; I truly do, but I simply can't follow one. Writing is an exploration for me. I know I have to get from A to B. Planning an elaborate route is pointless, because I often stumble upon detours never imagined at the outset. I'm not a pantser, either. I start with a loose idea of the story. I know the heroine, the victim, the killer and maybe a few other characters. I also know the motive for the crime. Character development comes next. I often find the story in the characters' bios. After that work is done, I make a list of all the scenes that will have to happen. It's not an exhaustive list. There
will be more as the plot progresses. Then I begin writing scenes and not necessarily in order. If I feel energy in the last scene of the novel, I often write it first. I see the value of outlining, plotting all those twists, turns and plot points, but when I see one of those three-act plot graphs my head starts to spin. The beauty of writing is we all have our own "process." I've tried many approaches and will continue to do so, but for now, I write scene by scene.

From former MWA EVP and outstanding author Harry Hunsicker:

I like to have a general outline, something short, an idea of where I’m going. The advantages are you don’t waste quite as much time on blind alleys as you do flying by the seat of your pants. The downside is that some of those blind alleys might be better that what you outlined. I also prefer to have a bottle of cough syrup handy as well as some Brazilian diet pills.

From our own bestseller Jacqueline Winspear:

When I begin a novel I have the whole story “mapped” in my mind, but I do not labor over notes, because I prefer to “dance with the moment” as I’m writing and I don’t want to feel restricted by my own planning. I know the opening scene, the closing scene, landing points across the arc of the story, and I have my title. I make some notes as I go along in a composition book - which I divide into chapters, so if I have an idea for a scene I put it (broadly speaking) where I think it belongs. I am a visual person so another thing I do is to put three large poster-sized Post-it notes around my room - on the first I draw a diagram that looks a bit like the standard mean in stats - a mountain, if you will, except that it leans a bit to the right - and I mark off the landing points of the story along the way. On another I keep track of my characters - and I’m a real one for changing names as I go along until I get one that really suits them. Finally, on the third I list the things that I need to know about that I don’t know - so for example, when I was writing one of the early books, I had Maisie Dobbs involved in a car accident. I wanted her wound to be dressed with something akin to a Band Aid (what we call Elastoplast in Britain), but I suddenly thought, “Heck, was it invented then?” I put that on the list to find out about (the usual tracking down of expert historians at the companies that make this stuff) - and discovered that in fact it was invented but only available in emergency rooms, not to the general public.  So, I had to weave a bit of dialogue about how the doctor on the street happened to have some in his bag!

It’s really important for me not to be too prescriptive because one never knows what other ideas might come up, and that’s really, really important to me. I was once on a panel with someone who wrote 60 pages of planning before he started.  To me that was three chapters, right there.

From renowned music critic and author Jim Fusilli:

I used to outline in great detail in order to focus on prose while writing. But now I write freely and look at what I have after I've completed a first draft. I find my prose is much freer and my characters more vivid when I'm not limited by an outline. Characters grow beyond the framework as the story unfolds, and I don't think we can know that if we adhere strictly to an outline.

This all shows you several important points:

  1. There are any number of ways to write an outline, or not.
  1. I’m still able to trick people into doing my work.
  1. I have a lot of friends I love.
Today’s quote is:

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.” 
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye