Two New Courses Scheduled!

Attention Fiction Writers: Major announcement! I will be teaching not one but two online Next Level Workshops this fall and winter.

champers

The first will be One Good Scene, which will begin on Thursday, November 3, 2016.

There’s a story behind this course. Before I gave it up to write, I was an editor at Fawcett Books and after that, a literary agent. In those capacities, I read about a billion unpublished first novels.  In many cases, the plot idea was intriguing and original, but the writer’s skills were not yet where they needed to be. These writers had undertaken to write a whole novel before learning to write a single good scene, and the results were not pretty.  On the flip side, writers who could put together shapely, tense, fully realized scenes were generally able to produce creditable short stories and novels.

So when I started to teach writing, the first course I created was “One Good Scene,” for aspiring fiction writers who want to master and build on the essential skills of fiction-writing. It’s an intensive 7-week online workshop with weekly lectures,  writing assignments, peer critiques, and personal feedback from me on every assignment. For more info, including tuition and topics to be covered, please see the course description on my website. You can also read feedback from writers who’ve taken the course.  Fun fact: I’m so convinced of this workshop’s usefulness that I offer a money-back warranty…but I’ve never been taken up on the offer.

One Good Scene is now open for registration. Class size is strictly limited, and several spots have been filled with writers who were on a waiting list, but I have a few places open.

After that, I will offer an online Revising Fiction workshop, to begin in January 2017. Revising Fiction is a master class for writers who have completed a draft of a novel or a body of short stories and want some help in bringing it to the next level. The goal is for writers to emerge from the process, not only with a much improved manuscript, but also with tools they can apply to everything else they go on to write. I’m proud to say that quite a few novels that have gone through this process have ended up published and sitting on my bookshelf.  (Many of these are listed as credits beside the authors’ names on the website’s testimonial page.) The workshop is comprised of a series of separate edits, one per two-week session, each focusing on a different aspect of the work. Big ticket items come first: structure, pacing, conflict and characterization. We also look at theme, language and style. Every session includes a lecture and multiple discussions, the opportunity to share scenes from participants’ novels and to give and receive critiques, including my notes on every submission.

This workshop is intense and, as one participant wrote, “life-changing, or at least writing-life-changing.” Participants can log on at any time that suits them and join in ongoing discussions. The class is limited to six writers, primarily those who have already taken One Good Scene or worked with me as an editor. Applicants whose work I don’t know will be asked to submit a writing sample. You can read more about Revising Fiction here, including tuition cost and warranty.

If you are interested or have questions, please respond here in the comment section or drop me a line at next.level.workshop@gmail.com.

BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS

 

There’s a scene in one of the Harry Potter books in which Ginny Weasley looks up from her seat in the Great Hall and remarks, “There’s Harry. He’s covered in blood. Why is he always covered in blood?”

Harry PotterShe’s exaggerating a bit, but just a bit. When he’s not actually bleeding, Harry is suffering a searing pain in his scar, a broken arm or a smashed nose, not to mention assorted psychological tortures. There’s a reason for his torment. There’s also a reason that magic potions taste like pus and earwax instead of lemonade, and that Rowling’s other series’ hero, Cormoran Strike, has an ill-fitting prosthetic leg. It’s the same reason, and it’s one all writers need to understand.

I’ll tell you what that is in just a moment. First I want to cite His Holiness, Mark Twain. “The writer’s job,” he famously said, “is to chase characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.”  By dropping them into situations of conflict, we strip away the social masks and force their true selves, the way a gardener forces a bulb. Characters cannot rise to a challenge that never comes. Until they are tested, they can neither succeed nor fail; they cannot change, and change is essential in fiction.

Life is a struggle; all grownups know that. Fiction must be as well, or readers will not care or engage. We need protagonists who are passionately invested in some enterprise, something they need to achieve or avert despite all obstacles. The novel is a chronicle of that battle.

Dorothy2As readers we know this. We expect conflict and trouble in fiction; we demand it. And it needs to come, not all at once, but throughout the story. Imagine this alternative version of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy lands safely in Oz. Instead of taking the ruby shoes from the witch she killed, she receives them as a gift. The Munchkins tell her that in order to get home, she needs to see the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy follows the yellow brick road and meets many helpful people on her journey. They point out the way and give her whatever she needs. After a pleasant walk, Dorothy arrives in Oz and is taken at once to see the wizard. He listens to her story and agrees to send her back to Kansas. Following his instructions, Dorothy clicks her shoes together and is instantly transported home.

The end.

Do you love it? Of course not. You may even be asleep by now. Without its dangers and challenges, Dorothy’s journey would have been long forgotten. She might as well have stayed home.

So here is the reason Harry’s always covered in blood, and I’ll thank you to remember where you heard it: In fiction, every gain needs to come at a cost.

Dickens knew that. Tolkien knew it, too; and Rowling’s got it down in spades. By the time Harry Potter has to battle his nemesis, he’s acquired great abilities and knowledge, every bit of which cost him dearly, with the costs escalating throughout the series. Harry can read the enemy’s mind—but to do so he must bare his own mind to assault. When he needs essential information, it’s obtainable—but it costs the life of a key ally. He’s given the means to defeat his enemy—but  only if he’s willing to die in the process.

Nothing comes for free (except this blog).

mountainSo here’s the takeaway for writers. I teach writing, and before that I was a literary agent for 14 years, so I’ve read a ton of beginner fiction. One of the most common weaknesses lies in the writers’ tendency to smooth the way for their protagonists. If a detective needs information, someone’s sure to volunteer it. If our hero is stranded on a mountaintop, help will arrive in a four-wheel drive. If his house were on fire, the heavens would open in a dowsing rain. These authors are benevolent gods.

But that is not what fiction needs. To be kind to their readers, writers must often be hard on their characters. I’m not suggesting that there’s no place in fiction for good luck or gratuitous kindness: a gift of information, aid, comfort. But how much more powerful are those moments if everything else is hard-won? Don’t present your characters with gifts on a platter. Make them work for everything they get, make them pay a price; and readers will love them for it.

 

 

 This is one in a series of posts on the craft of fiction writing. Here are some others: The Biology of Fiction; Game of Words; Settings; and What Writers Can Learn From Game of Thrones.  You can subscribe to this blog via links to right and above. For more information about my online writing workshops, visit my website. And finally: if you or anyone on your Christmas list has a taste for literary mayhem, may I recommend A DANGEROUS FICTION?

 

Revising Fiction

Ladies and Gentlemen, an announcement: The next online “Revising Fiction” workshop has been scheduled to begin on August 13 and is now open for registration. This workshop is for writers with a complete draft of a novel or a body of short stories, who want to work on bringing their fiction to the next level.

writing class

I’ll tell you more about the workshop in a minute, but first, a digression. At a party not long ago, I overheard two aspiring writers talking about difficulty of selling their work. “It’s all about who you know,” one said. “You can’t even get an agent unless you have got an in.”

“Totally,” replied the other. “They don’t even read the stuff that comes in over the transom. It’s a fixed game.”

I envisioned that scene in a Harry Potter movie in which Harry and Ron are whispering during Professor Snape’s class: not a smart move, when that character is portrayed by the inimitable Alan Rickman. He positions himself behind them, rolls up his sleeves, and in one swift motion bangs their heads together.

I myself refrained, with some difficulty. I’ve heard this claim so often, and it is so untrue and counterproductive. New writers get published all the time. Over the years, I’ve seen many of my writing students sell books that they labored over, sometimes for years; none of them had contacts in the industry. I’ve been in the writing/publishing business for over 40 years now, including 12 years as a literary agent. A lot has changed, but one thing hasn’t. While many factors are involved in an agent or publisher’s decision to take a chance on a writer, great writing trumps them all.

slam dunkIt’s hard; why wouldn’t it be? Getting published by one of the big five houses is to writers what playing professionally is to athletes. In addition to talent, you have to be at the top of your game to have a chance. Athletes train for years to reach that level. Some writers expect to achieve it with the first story they write. A very few actually do; they have that level of talent and ability. But most published writers have had to go back of the same book time and time again, or write another with the lessons learned from writing the first, before they break into publication.

Consider another comparison. Getting published commercially is to writers what a gallery show is to painters. Aspiring painters study their art. Writers? Not so much.

When I was an agent, the hardest submissions to deal with were the ones that came within a draft or two of being publishable: the almost-but-not-quite books. Editors don’t want to invest the time, or don’t have it to invest. Agents who give notes and ask for revisions have filled in the gap to some extent, but writers are still expected to learn the craft on their own dime. Editing is an essential part of the writing process, and the one most often neglected. First drafts are where writers capture the story, pin it to paper so it can’t escape. Subsequent drafts are where they turn that raw material into art.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’d like to believe that all writers understand the importance of editing. As William Zinsser said, “Rewriting is where the game is won or lost; rewriting is the essence of writing.” But it’s easier said than done.  Part of the difficulty for writers lies in getting the necessary feedback in order to raise their level of play. Another part lies in the fact that writers are often too close to their work to see it objectively.

That’s why “Revising Fiction” was the first workshop I created, with the intention of addressing both those problems. To succeed in this market—no, more than that, to succeed in their art—writers need to edit their work. This does not take the place of having one’s work edited by a professional editor, whether supplied by a publisher who buys the book or hired by a writer prior to self-publishing. That’s essential, because we only see what we see; it takes an outsider to point out what we don’t see. But revision, or self-editing, comes before that; it’s the final step in the actual writing of the book.

You can read more about “Revising Fiction” here, along with some testimonials from writers who’ve taken the workshop. Participants emerge with a much improved draft, along with tools they can apply to everything they write in the future. This is the most advanced workshop I offer, and it’s open to published as well as aspiring writers. Please note that the workshop requires a significant investment of time, typically 12 to 18 hours a week over 14 weeks—but that includes time spent editing your own work. If this sounds useful, and you have a finished draft, I’d be happy to hear from you. Applicants should include the first 5 pages of their mss. The workshop is limited to eight writers, because I spend a ton of time working with each; and I try to put together groups that are compatible but varied. It’s not always possible for me to offer every applicant a spot; but one way or another, you’ll definitely hear back from me.

ONE GOOD SCENE

Attention Writers!

I promised you a major announcement, and here it is.

Before I gave it up to write, I was an editor and a literary agent for many years, and I still mentor many writers. Consequently I’ve read a ton of first novels. Most have issues—hence the difficulty, of which you’re surely aware, in selling these novels. In many cases the story itself is intriguing and original; the problem is that the writer’s skills are not yet where they need to be for the book to attract a publishing offer. I always feel it’s an awful shame that these writers had undertaken to write a novel before learning to write a scene.

writing classSo I created a course for aspiring fiction writers who want to master the skills of the craft. It’s called “One Good Scene,” because scenes are the basic building blocks of fiction. The skills that go into the crafting of a single good scene are precisely those needed for the crafting of a novel, and any writer who can master the former can succeed in the latter.

It’s an intensive 7-week online workshop with weekly lectures, assignments, writing and reading assignments, peer critiques, and personal feedback from me on every assignment. For more info, including tuition and topics to be covered, please see the course description on my website. You can also read feedback from writers who’ve taken the course. Personally, I think the workshop is so useful that I’d make it mandatory for every fiction writer…but then, I may be somewhat prejudiced. I will say that I offer a money-back warranty for people who start the course and find it’s not what they expected, but I’ve never been taken up on the offer.

“One Good Scene” will begin on April 2, and is now open for registration. Class size is strictly limited, and more than half the class is filled already with people who were on a waiting list, but I have several spots left. If you are interested or have questions, please respond here in the comment section or email me at next.level.workshop (at) gmail (dot) com. If you have writer friends who might be interested, feel free to  share this post. I’m always interested in students who are serious about learning the craft.

The Dreaded Silence: How I Nearly Gave Up Writing

I’m delighted to welcome Jenny Elliott to In Cold Ink. Jenny is the author of SAVE ME, a delightful blend of paranormal and romance. She’s also a lovely person and, I’m proud to say, a former student of mine. Jenny’s first book sold to Macmillan and came out last month to terrific reviews: a very happy ending to a long journey that almost didn’t happen. But I’ll let Jenny tell the story, and I’m guessing quite a few readers of this blog will relate.

Jenny ElliotOn January 6th, 2015, Macmillan published my debut paranormal romance novel, SAVE ME, under its Swoon Reads imprint. Swoon Reads is a crowd-sourced publishing model, so I landed that contract without an agent. And Macmillan also has an option on my next novel. Needless to say, I’m glad I picked up writing fiction again, after a nearly fifteen-year hiatus.

I’m not proud of myself for giving up my fiction-writing passion for so long, especially one that ultimately rewarded me with a Big 5 publishing deal. But I hope that my story will prevent others from quitting like I did. I’m confident that it can, because I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s sensitive about her writing. It’s a scary thing to send our creative “babies” into the world, even if only to trusted readers, for feedback.

From the beginning, fear of feedback wasn’t my biggest concern, though. I welcomed constructive criticism. What I got instead, unfortunately, was what I deemed, “the dreaded silence.”

At age eighteen, I’d written 200 rough pages of a novel. I shared an excerpt with family and friends, then waited for feedback. No one said a word. I heard a message all the same, though: “Your writing is so bad that we don’t want to hurt you by saying so.” Sadly, I felt plenty hurt by their lack of response.

I didn’t write another word of fiction again until I was twenty-three, when I decided to edit the novel I’d begun when I was eighteen. Again, I gave an excerpt to a few trusted friends. Again, I suffered the dreaded silence. This time, I turned to studying non-fiction, which I also appreciate, but don’t enjoy as much as fiction.

One marriage, two property purchases, three children, and a full kitchen and flooring remodel later, I was losing my mind. I credit my impending insanity at the time for my escape into fictional worlds. I became an avid fiction reader, and one particular story idea brimmed in my mind and coalesced into a full outline that demanded to be put to the page in novel format.

I was incredibly pleased to have completed my first rough draft of a full novel. Now that I was in my thirties, I figured my age, at least, would garner respect, and therefore feedback, from readers. I sent my entire manuscript to a handful of family members and friends. To my dismay, the dreaded silence once again loomed.

In defense of my solicited readers, 250 pp. is a huge reading commitment. I should have shared an excerpt. All the same, I sank into the biggest funk yet over my writing. I desperately wanted honest, and preferably helpful, feedback.

I turned to Google and found Barbara, who would become my mentor. At the time, she was offering a special for a critique of a writer’s first 10 to 20 pages of a work of fiction. Finally, I received thorough, thoughtful, honest, and professional feedback. I had a lot to learn, but Barbara saw potential in my writing. I was elated.

writing classThe first of Barbara’s Next Level  courses I took was One Good Scene, in which I began to learn to hone my craft. Next, Barbara invited me to her Revising Fiction course, where I worked to shape and sharpen my novel. Then I queried agents.

Actually, like many beginning writers, I started querying way too early, with what was essentially a spruced up first draft. Not surprisingly, there were no takers. After Barbara’s Revising Fiction course, however, I received four full requests. Each agent took months to review my story and ultimately passed. Nearly a year had gone by.

In addition to the critique partners I became involved with in Barbara’s courses, I also joined CritiqueCircle.com. One of my critique partners from that site encouraged me to submit my novel to SwoonReads.com. Needless to say, I’m glad I did so. Readers and writers, as well as several editors on the Swoon Reads staff, including the sales director, were impressed with my novel. Ultimately, I landed a Big 5 publishing contract through Macmillan, who also has an option on my second novel. Because of that, I’m looking for an agent to work with me on future projects. At the end of the day, I can’t do much else but be grateful for such blessings. My story is a happy one to share.

Save MeOf course, my story could have been a lot less happy on the writing front if I hadn’t come back to the fiction-writing craft. And if I hadn’t found a mentor like Barbara. Or if I hadn’t developed critiquing relationships with other writers. Those things have hugely contributed to my success. I hope my example will also contribute to yours.

 

Thanks, Jenny, and congratulations!

To my writer friends: I’m going to be offering classes again very soon, starting with ONE GOOD SCENE, and as always the first notice will go out to folks on my emailing list. I keep these classes very small in order to provide lots of personal feedback, and I don’t offer many of them; so they tend to fill up fast. If you’re interested, drop me a line at next.level.workshop (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll put you on the list to be notified when the course opens for registration.

 

WHAT I LEARNED FROM J. K. ROWLING

Good writers never stop learning their craft, and the best teachers are other writers. My most recent lesson came from J. K. Rowling, a.k.a. Robert Galbraith.

silkwormVery few books in a lifetime of reading have delighted me as much as the Harry Potter series, so naturally I was eager to read the adult novels that followed them. The Casual Vacancy was a disappointment, lacking even the ordinary magic of storytelling. But the two books that followed, The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, showed Rowling back on track. They are wonderfully absorbing novels, hard to put down once begun.

Of course, writers can’t simply enjoy stories without poking and prodding the mechanism, trying to see how the thing works. I recognized some of the standard ingredients of good fiction: tangible settings, the skillful use of suspense, colorful secondary characters, and two exceptionally likable main characters in private detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin. As I read The Silkworm, it struck me that Strike and Harry Potter actually have a lot in common. They are both orphans, in Strike’s case functionally rather than formally, since he has a living but estranged father. And  both have painful physical problems. For Harry it starts with the scar on his forehead that burns periodically but goes far beyond that.  Everything he does to achieve his goals comes at a cost that is very often dangerous and painful. There’s a line in one of the books in which Ginny, seeing Harry enter the Great Hall, says, “He’s covered in blood. Why is he always covered in blood?”

Cormoran, who lost part of a leg to a war injury, has an ill-fitting prosthesis that causes him great pain throughout much of both novels. At one point in The Silkworm, he is unable to fit the prosthetic onto his swollen stump. Does he seek out medical help, like any normal person would? Of course not. Lives are at stake, a fiendish murderer is on the loose, and an innocent woman stands charged. He continues the chase on one leg.

RowlingCormoran, like Harry Potter, sacrifices himself to save others. I would hardly be the first to observe that the Harry Potter books are imbued with Christian theology and symbolism, or that Harry himself plays the role of Jesus, sacrificing himself so that others may live (although the Harry Potter books have a happier ending.) But Cormoran’s disability is less germane to the novels’ plots, and thus in a way more interesting. Its main purposes, as far as I can tell, are to make the character nobler and more sympathetic, and to create additional obstacles in his path to success. Rowling succeeds in both respects.

When solving a crime is just a job and the process unfolds intellectually, readers can enjoy the puzzle-solving aspect without getting deeply involved with the characters. But when the detective has flesh in the game, it’s a whole different level of story. Because I felt Cormoran’s pain subliminally throughout the story, there was an under-layer of discomfort to the experience of reading that lent a sense of urgency and fed my impatience for a resolution. I wanted him off that leg!

Mark Twain once said that his way of telling a story is to chase his protagonist up a tree and throw rocks at him. The harder we make life for our protagonists, the greater the obstacles they have to overcome, the more readers will care. One of the problems I see in a lot of student fiction (and occasionally in my own) is that writers feel too much for their protagonists and thus take pity on them. But writing requires a certain level of ruthlessness. Sometimes, to be kind to our readers, we must be cruel to our characters.

 

An Overnight Success In Four Years

 

 It’s been a while since my last post, due to a combination of issues. I had a “quick, easy” medical procedure that turned out to be quick and easy for the doctor, while carving a month out of my life.

sick person

Since recovering, I’ve been immersed in the sequel to A DANGEROUS FICTION, which exerts a strong gravitational pull.

But I’m back now, with one of my favorite sort of posts. As some of you may know, I offer this evaluation service to writers who want thorough, stringent feedback on the openings to their novels. The cost is minimal, and I don’t advertise the service for fear of being swamped, but word gets around; I probably evaluate 18 to 20 novel openings each year. When Janie Chodosh’s pages came in, I sat up and took notice, big time. The writing was polished and accomplished, and the pages did just about everything one wants in the opening to a novel, including making me care about the protagonist and want to read more.

Janie and I ended up working together on an edit of the full book, a YA thriller called DEATH SPIRAL. It’s the first in a series about Faith Flores, a Philadelphia teenager who, when the story opens, is reeling from the recent death of her heroin-addicted mother. By the time we finished, I knew she had a very strong prospect in hand; so it was no surprise, but a very great pleasure, when Janie informed me that her book had sold. The offer came from The Poisoned Pencil, a new YA imprint created by the venerable Poison Pen Press, and it will be out on April 1—no fooling! I recommend the book whole-heartedly, and PW gave it a splendid review as well.

Janie was kind enough to share her publishing adventure with readers of this blog, many of whom are also aspiring writers. I’ll let you read it for yourselves, and I hope you’ll notice one salient aspect of her journey. She didn’t dash the book off in a month or two, then rush to put it out on Kindle. Instead, she worked it, revised it, workshopped it, submitted it to a stringent editorial review (that would be me), and revised some more. That, ladies and gents, is how it’s done if you’re serious about getting published.

And now, without further ado, here’s Janie’s account:

 

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             April 2013 and I’m in a hotel room in Hawaii, four flights up, overlooking the Pacific—a brief siesta after a day of snorkeling and exploring with my family. My daughter and stepson are happily checked out in front of cable, (a novel experience, not having TV at home), and neither one is whining about seconds on ice cream or who gets to pick the show. My husband and I are relaxed. All is quiet, and I do the unthinkable: check my email.

I am not normally a compulsive email checker, but three days before we left for Hawaii the main water line at the top of our driveway burst and flooded our home (another story entirely). So being in touch with the mainland was somewhat of a necessity: Had the driveway been grated? Had all the furniture been put in storage? Had the remediation crew gotten in…

I scroll through various spam, junk, non-important, and not interesting emails, causally pressing delete as I go. Not a word from the contractor about drywall or mold. I’m about to turn off my phone when something catches my attention. The words ‘Poisoned Pencil Press’ (the young adult imprint of the Poisoned Pen Press, one of the largest independent publishers of mysteries in the world) are in my inbox. My finger lingers over the trashcan icon. Two months ago I’d submitted the manuscript for my YA mystery to the Poisoned Pencil. I am in no mood to ruin the day with a rejection.

Again, something catches my eye. The usual rejection, shown in the first line of the email goes something like this: ‘thank you, but…’  This email starts with thank you, however, there is no ‘but.’ In fact, after ‘thank you’ I see the word ‘loved.’ Loved? This does not sound like a rejection.

I open the email to find something akin to the following: Dear Janie. I loved your manuscript and would be thrilled to publish it.

I scream. I jump up and down. I shout my husband’s name. He wakes from his nap, notes my enthusiasm, and groggily says, “What, the house didn’t really flood?” (I picture time-lapse animation in reverse, the water going back up the hill.)

“No. Better! The editor at The Poisoned Pencil Press loves my book and wants to publish it!”

index The acceptance of my manuscript did not happen overnight. I started writing my young adult novel, Death Spiral, A Faith Flores Science Mystery, four years before landing a publisher.  I must’ve written three thousand pages of notes, revisions, edits, scribbles, thoughts, and scratches. I diligently listened to the generous feedback offered to me by my writing group peers. I asked anyone who’d ever read a book if they’d be willing read my manuscript and comment. I worked with Barbara Rogan and absorbed her every suggestion. (Her feedback was some of the best I received, and I don’t just say this because I am writing on her blog!)

Eventually I got to the place where I trusted my story and I became more protective of my work. At this stage if I asked for feedback, I was specific on what I was looking for. I learned to trust my work, to stand behind a scene or a passage even when someone else had a critique. Then I started to submit. After a handful of rejections, I got the contract with The Poisoned Pencil, and despite four years of hard work, my editing was far from done.

I started working with Ellen Larson, the editor of the press. We talked about the characters in the story as if they were real people. She “got” and loved what I was doing. She showed me where in the story I could expand, where I could go deeper, what I could cut, and what I could develop. We went through three rounds of edits together. Even when, on the last round of edits, she said something along the lines of, “You’re going to hate me” (referring to all her markups) my reaction was just opposite. What Ellen gave me was the most valuable thing a writer could ask for: someone who believes in what you’re doing and wants to push you to make it better.

I am now working on the second book in the series, though I am taking a different approach to getting the task done. I want book two on the shelves before readers have totally forgotten about Faith Flores, the protagonist. In order to accomplish this goal, I cannot take four years and three thousand more pages of musings, notes, and scribbles. These days I go for mileage. I try to tap into the part of my brain that doesn’t edit every word and just get the plot on the page. Once I’m confident the plot works, the clues are in place, Faith has encountered sufficient obstacles and overcome them in her own particular way, then I will obsess, edit, ask for feedback, and turn my baby over to the gifted eyes of my editor.

 

Thanks, Janie, and congratulations! For lots more publishing stories, writing tips, and interviews with industry figures, subscribe to this blog via the link on the right.

 

The Biology of Fiction: Putting Stimulus Before Reaction

 

Before we were writers, we were readers; and to understand how fiction works, we must first understand what happens to us when we read fiction.  When we immerse ourselves in an absorbing story, the real world fades out and the fictive world fades in. We are not conscious of reading; rather, we feel as if we’re inside the story, experiencing its events through a character, or watching like a fly on the wall as they unfold. To say we are transported is to express a literal truth.flying carpet

How does this transportation happen? Not by accident, flying carpet, or magic, but rather by art, the writer’s art. I couldn’t hope to summarize in a blog post even the little I know about the craft of fiction. But I can address (and do, when the pedantic spirit overcomes me) very  specific issues, those small things that, taken together, make the difference between the talented amateur and the professional. Previous posts have addressed settings and the use of body language. Today’s topic is chronology, aka putting the stimulus before the reaction.

Below are two versions of the same scene. The first one is an example of the sort of writing I often see in classes.

Version 1:

As Lola descended the basement stairs, bile rose in her throat, and her nose wrinkled at the stench of something rotten down below. It made her sick, but she kept going. At the bottom of the stairs, she moved into the open center of the room and shined her flashlight around the perimeter. What she saw filled her with revulsion.

Three dead squirrels, dressed in doll’s clothes, had been arrayed in miniature chairs around a dollhouse table, tiny cups and saucers in front of each. Lola’s flashlight clattered to the floor and the light flickered and died. She screamed in horror as an icy hand clasped her own, and a cold little voice said, “How lovely.  Lola’s come to play.”

 

What do you think? Nothing wrong with it grammatically, nothing glaringly wrong at all…but are those chills running down your spine, or prickles of irritation?

Now consider this alternative.

Version 2:

basementLola descended the basement stairs, one cautious foot after another.  The stench of rot intensified with each step, but she forced herself to keep going. She reached the bottom, moved into the open center of the room and shined her flashlight around the perimeter.  The beam snagged on something unexpected, moved on, came back.

Three dead squirrels, dressed in doll’s clothes, sat in miniature chairs around a dollhouse table, tiny cups and saucers in front of each.

Lola screamed. Her flashlight clattered to the floor; the light flickered and died. An icy hand clasped her own, and out of the darkness, a cold voice spoke.

“How lovely.  Lola’s come to play.”

Are you feeling the difference?

The reason Version 2 works better is clear when you consider it from the reader’s perspective. For the writer, words are the medium; but the experience for the reader transcends words and involves all the senses. The reader is in the story;  it’s happening all around him. Writers, working behind the scenes, create that world. We paint the scenery, write the dialogue, give the characters conflicting agendas and set them into motion. And we do all this to draw the reader in and keep him immersed in our invented world. The last thing we want to do, then, is to get in the way of the reader’s direct experience of that world. Nor do we want our POV character to interpose himself as a filter.

In the first version of the cellar scene, the writer tells the character’s reaction to something before showing the thing he’s reacting to. The reader’s experience is thus second-hand, channeled through the intermediary of the POV character, whose reactions, spelled out by the writer, are meant to dictate the reader’s own.

In the second version, readers experience everything first-hand. This allows for the elements of surprise and suspense that the first version lacked. Equally importantly, it allows the reader to react directly to the sights and events of the scene, rather than cuing him with the character’s reaction. The POV character is still there—readers see through her eyes, feel through her skin—but she doesn’t stand between the reader and the action. Things happen in the proper biological order: stimulus first, then reaction.

But notice what else happens when we put the stimulus before the reaction. Some lines from the first version were cut from the second: “bile rose in her throat, and her nose wrinkled,” “It made her sick,” and “What she saw filled her with revulsion.” Lola still screams, but the words “in horror” are gone. None of these explanations are needed in the second version. By allowing readers to experience the events directly and viscerally, we no longer need to tell them how Lola reacted. They feel it for themselves.

Screaming_In_My_Head_by_Etherhel

 

For writers interested in improving their craft, I teach several online workshops.  These classes are small, rigorous and intense.  The next course I will teach will be One Good Scene, starting April 2, 2015. At the moment I have one spot left, so if you’re interested, drop  me a line at ASAP:  Barbararogan (at) gmail (dot) com .

I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

What To Do Once You’ve “Finished” Your Novel

Jo BourneEvery once in a while, I come across a blog post so informative that I just need to share it. Jo Bourne, for those of you who don’t already know her, is a critically acclaimed writer of historical fiction, including THE BLACK HAWK and THE SPYMASTER’S LADY.  She’s also one of the smartest people about the craft of writing I’ve ever met. We are old friends from the Compuserve Book and Author forum, where we both serve as section leaders, and over the years I’ve found myself savoring (and quoting) much of her writing advice. This time, with her kind permission, I am reprinting an entire blog post. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and check out her blog for yourself. If you’re a writer, you’ll thank me.

Here, with no further ado, is Jo:

 

“Congratulations on finishing your manuscript.
Woot woot.
Go celebrate.

We’ll wait.

 

 

…  All through with dancing and whooping it up?
Now there are a few necessary steps to take to get from here to publication.

 I. Get Crits

What:  Turn some chapters of your manuscript over to harsh, knowledgeable critters.  Listen to what they say.  You need critters who haven’t been with you every step of the way as you wrote.  Critters who are not your family or friends.

This is not putting a saucer of milk out for the tabby.  This is wrapping yourself in raw meat and stepping into the lion’s cage.

How:  There’s a Writer’s Workshop in the Books and Writer’s Forum.   Here.  Absolute Write, here has a ‘Share Your Work’ section.  Writer’s Forum here has a Writers’ Workshop.
If you are writing genre, there are probably specialized sites for writers of your genre.

Why:  Intelligent criticism of your work will help you write better and will prepare you to edit your manuscript.

II.  Let the manuscript rest

What:  Put the work away for as long as you can.  Six weeks.  Three months.  Six months.
(You spend this time working on the next ms and critting other folks’ manuscripts, which is an excellent way to improve your own writing skills.)

How:  Print it out and put it in a locked drawer in the bottom of your desk.  Put all the work in a folder named “Open in January.

Why:  This lets you look at your own work with a critical editorial eye.  It gives you distance.

III.  Learn how publishing works

What:  Spend a solid 40 hours studying the publishing industry.

How:  Start out by Googling everything you can find on the subject.  Then drop into places full of knowledgeable folks and ask questions.

Why:  If you were going to (a) take a job in Thailand for a year or (b) go to State Aggie to study animal husbandry or (c) work for Avis Rent-a-car, you’d do that much research about (a) the country, (b) the university or (c) the business.
Why would you go into writing with less preparation?

III. Learn about agents

What:  Start making a spread sheet of agents who work in your field.  See who they represent.  See who they sell to.  See what kind of deals they’re making.  Find out what folks say about them.
If they have an on-line presence, get a feel for who they are.

How:  Google.  Look at the acks in the front of books similar to your own writing.  Publisher’s Lunch and Publisher’s Marketplace.

Why:  That’s the list you will query, when you query, if you decide you want an agent.  And after all, you have some time while your manuscript is resting.

IV.  Revise

What:  When the manuscript has aged like, y’know, fine wine … take it out of hiding and read it over.
Now you will revise.  Now you see what’s wrong.

How: Read and correct as if someone else had written it.

Why:  Because, unless you have indeed done this, the manuscript is not as good as you can make it.

V.  Find Beta Readers

What:  Beta readers take an entire manuscript that is ready for submission and crit it.  Beta readers, if possible, have never seen the manuscript before.

How:  Find them by doing beta reads for others.  Find them by making friends in writers forums.  Pay them in chocolate.

Why:  Because they will tell you if the whole thing works.  They’ll point out illogical story lines.  They’ll improve the manuscript.

 
VI.  Re-revise in light of the Beta read

’nuff said.

VII.  Get an agent … or not

Three months have passed since you declared your manuscript finished.

You will have read 10,000 words arguing Indie/Big Press/Small Press.
You’ll have the best manuscript you can write in one hand and a significant bit of WIP in the other.

Now you make this decision.

 

Many thanks to Jo for permission to reprint this post. If you appreciate her thoughts, you know the best way to thank a writer, don’t you?

Speaking of which, I’ve just learned that my new book, A DANGEROUS FICTION, has just made one of Amazon’s top 100 bestseller lists recently, the one for thrillers with female sleuths. So woot woot!, as Jo says!  Recently there was a wonderful review by Joan Baum in Dan’s Papers and a couple of fun interviews, one by My Bookish Ways and one by writer Sara Bowers, and there’s more to come.

The past few weeks since launch have been quite a whirl.  In fact, A DANGEROUS FICTION, worn out from the rigors of self-promotion, was recently spotted taking a bit of well-earned R&R.

20130821_130753_1

 

 

Completing the Circle: From Idea to Book to Audience

ElizabethLyon-fIf you’ve ever gone to a writers’ conference, chances are you’ve met Elizabeth Lyon. As the author of half a dozen widely-read guides to the craft and business of writing, including The Sell Your Novel Took Kit: Everything You Need to Know About Queries, Synopses, Marketing, and Breaking In and Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write: How to Get a Contract and Advance Before Writing Your Book, she is in great demand as a workshop leader and presenter. I had the pleasure of getting to know her at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference near Vancouver, where we were both presenters, and having many interests and pursuits in common, we’ve stayed in touch and followed each other’s careers ever since.

Many of her books are about breaking into the publishing market. As a freelance editor, she  works hard to find agents for her editing clients. Her own books have been published by Perigree/Penguin.  So I was surprised to hear from Elizabeth recently that she’d self-published her latest book, WRITING SUBTEXT. In this interview, Elizabeth talks about why she made the switch. She also has some really smart, sensible advice for writers contemplating their options.

 

BR: After a career spent helping other writers get published, and having been commercially published yourself, you have now taken the plunge into self-publishing.  What led you to that decision?

EL: Actually, self-publishing is a homecoming. In 1980, I published my first book, Mabel: The Story of One Midwife, about a Ghana-born woman who “caught” my two children when I was doing the baby boom in Corvallis, Oregon. Handling all aspects of the book—interviewing, writing, editing, book production, and promotion gave me the publishing bug. It’s immensely satisfying to make all the decisions, feel all the responsibility, and earn all the rewards—or lack thereof.

No doubt, having a book accepted by a publisher is heady. When my agent, Meredith Bernstein, called with a four-book contract for writing books from Perigee/Penguin, I thought I had “arrived.”

“For everything there is a season.” When friends began “going indie,” with their e-books and POD (print on demand) books, they became my Sirens, calling me back to my roots.

 

BR: Many aspiring writers imagine doing what you’ve done, publishing multiple books with a major house like Penguin, as the height of aspiration. Why change a good thing?

EL: My editors at Penguin were and are highly skilled and lovely people. Yet, I’ve always been uncomfortable with corporate publishing policies that put most books on a conveyer belt. Most have a short life. Others, like my own, become slow backlist sellers.

While publishers don’t make giant profits, except from the mega bestselling authors, the standard publishing contract sucks. They are not written for fairness; they’re rigged for the publisher—in money and in rights.

The royalty in the contract is seldom what one receives. Almost all books are heavily discounted pushing the royalty rate to 5% of retail or even less. That’s 64 cents on a $14.95 paperback, subtracting my agent’s 15%. Publishers don’t promote non-best-selling books, and bookstores can’t possibly have midlist instructional books that span decades taking up shelf space.

I am grateful that I had that experience. I gained prestige and support for my teaching and editing work. My best publishing experience, however, was with Blue Heron Publishing, my first publisher. The owners, Linny and Dennis Stovall, nurtured writers and their careers and their publishing contract was modeled after one recommended by the National Writers Union.

 

BR: What have you learned from your venture into self-publishing that might be helpful to others contemplating that route?

EL: With “Writing Subtext,” my first booklet in a new series, I feel the weight of responsibility, which I’m also happy to have. I’m hyper-aware of accuracy, quality of content, and proofreading. That’s a good thing. I rely upon my critique group’s suggestions and corrections, perhaps even more so than in the past.

As I learned with my first book in 1980, there is a daunting number of skills to master when you DIY—“do it yourself,” including knowing when to job something out. I turned book cover design and digital formatting over to others who do those tasks well. With just a few hiccups requiring advice, I was able to upload my digital files and cover image files to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, for sale as e-books and to Amazon’s CreateSpace for print-on-demand.

pink elephantThe big pink elephant in the room for all writers who publish is promotion—reaching the targeted audience. If a writer is content with selling (or giving away) books to a circle of friends or family, that’s easy. But if a writer wants to build a name and following, and even make a part-time or full-time living, then book promotion skills will require as much time as writing and revising the book, and maybe more. Writers with money can hire publicists, and these days that means someone who knows how to use the Internet for book promotion in addition to more traditional publicity.

 

BR: If an aspiring writer asked for your advice on whether to self-publish or to seek an agent and try to get published commercially, what would you answer and why? Would your advice differ for fiction and non-fiction writers?

EL: My answer is the same for fiction or nonfiction writers: What is your dream? Most writers I know, and who come to me for editing, would like to see their books published in a traditional way, whether with a large publisher or a small press. I call this Plan A. The possibility of acceptance is slim. My job, however, is to support, help, and encourage any writer with a Plan A dream. Some do succeed. Realistically, novelists (and memoir writers) typically underestimate the amount of revision needed to reach a polished and professional book. Often it will be a 3rd or 4th novel that will be well enough written to succeed with Plan A.

Writers of other forms of nonfiction may reach the high bar of outstanding writing and a unique book that contributes to the literature. However, to fulfill Plan A, these writers face expectations of a strong author platform. Platform refers to how broadly a writer is known and whether he or she can guarantee strong sales through ambitious actions such as speeches, workshops, interviews, book signings, blogging, and other Internet-related promotion. Most nonfiction book writers either have to stop marketing and build that platform or move to Plan B.

Plan B recalibrates the GPS to a small, specialty, or regional press. For instance, I’ve had one editing client whose novel was published by an LGBT press. A health and medical press published a client’s nonfiction book. But all too many unpublished writers receive offers of publication from companies that are essentially print-on-demand publishers who, like the vanity publishers of old, make the writer feel as if the book is “acquired.” I always caution about these offers because there may be smoke and mirrors. In these situations, the writer can self-publish with more rewards in all ways.

Plan C is self-publishing. The long-ago stigma over “vanity publishing” is mostly gone. Producing a book with new technologies is now easy and inexpensive. For some writers, Plan C is their Plan A.

I’ve always believed that all writers deserve to complete the circle—from idea to book to audience.

 

BR: Positing a reasonable facility for writing, what other abilities does a writer need to make a success of self-publishing?

EL: Every self-published writer has to decide how to quantify or qualify success. I’ve worked with writers for whom a dozen copies given to friends and family constitutes success. Memoir writers, for instance, may be writing to leave a legacy as well as to reach other people who have experienced something similar to what they have.

When a book is well-written, it stands a chance of word-of-mouth recommendation, which is the most potent form of sales. Readers buy books that are recommended and books written by authors they have heard of. For the self-published author, there is typically no access to distribution, to bookstores, beyond being listed or having a page in an online bookstore. The good news is that online book sales continue to expand.

Writers seeking a large audience must devote regular time to promotion, and to the degree the writer is comfortable, learning the ropes of the Internet, and pursuing opportunities for talks, book fairs, and any face-to-face sales.

I should have said earlier that most self-published books could have benefited from more development and revision. And everyone who self-publishes should seek professional line editing or memorize The Chicago Manual of Style. I also recommend asking three eagle-eye, grammar- and punctuation- smart friends to do final proofreading.

 

BR: The e-book revolution has already changed publishing profoundly, in part by leveling the distribution playing field for self-publishers. Would you venture an informed guess on the future of publishing as we know it?Crystal_Ball

EL: People will continue to buy books for their e-readers or tablets, in ever-greater numbers. Instant gratification, the impulse buy, is not only going to increase readers but it favors the self-publisher. Our price points are typically lower, much lower, than traditional publishers. In that sense we are more competitive.

Many types of books are not presently suited for electronic format, although that hurdle is sure to be overcome. Even so, I can’t envision books featuring art and photography, for instance, offering sustained pleasure in any other form but paper. Any book that invites consideration, a chance to grasp a whole, to flip pages back and forth should if not will be preferred in paper.

Yet, my opinions may be a function of living six decades plus. When books owned in most households are few, libraries are Red Box outlets, or an aisle of Office Depot, the mega conglomerate publishing industry may no longer exist as it is.

 

BR: What is your new book about, and where can readers find it?

WritingSubtext-variation21AFINALEL: My newest work is “Writing Subtext,” a booklet of 50 pages available in paper at CreateSpace/Amazon and as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. “Writing Subtext” is the first booklet in a series that features one technique or topic at a time. Subtext is a subtle, often confusing concept and technique. Writing it, developing it in revision, makes all the difference in boosting suspense, deepening characterization, and supporting theme. I consider it one of the “super techniques.”

My next booklet will be “Crafting Titles.” On first blush, choosing a title for a book seems easy. I’ve seldom had an editing client or writing friend who hasn’t struggled to find the best title. So much goes into the choice.

 

Thanks so much for a really informative interview, Elizabeth.  With so much hyperbole on both sides of the publish/self-publish divide, it’s a pleasure hearing and sharing your balanced  take on the topic. Writers looking for a first-rate editor can contact Elizabeth through her website.

 

If you enjoyed this interview and want more like it, please subscribe through the link on the top right. Lately In Cold Ink has been overrun with news about my new release with Viking Books, A DANGEROUS FICTION,  and I guess that’s forgivable, seeing as my new books come around as often as cicadas. But as you can see, I’m slowly getting back to my usual subjects:  writing and publishing.  

That said, I do want to thank  Book Page for its wonderful review of A DANGEROUS FICTION, which they pronounced “a thoroughly entertaining and engaging mystery,” and to Zan Marie Steadham for the interview on her engaging blog.  If you’re looking for little frisson in the last hot days of summer, I hope you’ll give it a read.