What’s your favorite book turned movie? Tell us about it.
What’s your favorite book turned movie? Tell us about it.
I’m delighted to have USA Today bestseller Colleen Coble as my guest on TKZ. Colleen is an award-winning author with over 2 million books in print and she writes heartfelt and suspenseful romantic mysteries. I’m enjoying her latest Twilight at Blueberry Barrens and I’m a big fan. NYT bestseller Brenda Novak has given it high praise and Publishers Weekly gave Colleen a prized starred review. Please help me welcome her to TKZ.
You know the best thing about writing? You never arrive. There is always something you can improve on. Writing isn’t static, and it’s thrilling to know a better, bigger book can be yours to create. So how do we embrace the process of change in our books? Here’s what works for me.
1. Determine what drives your writing:
I think we all figure out fairly soon where we belong in the landscape of the writing world, and what type of story grabs us and doesn’t let go. Part of the evolution of my brand of romantic mystery involved embracing who I was as a writer and letting that strengthen each new book. Readers often tell me I’m way too friendly and outgoing to write about murder. I think they believe only brooding, unsmiling people can write about something so dark. They miss what drives me to write what I write—justice. I look around the world and see no justice, but I can make sure justice prevails in my novels.
Why do you write? The biggest, strongest stories involve something very personal to you. Depending on your personality, it can be cathartic or daunting to let your characters deal with an issue that’s been challenging to you, but it’s always worth it. Put down your guard and let the reader in. Writing should never just be your job. That’s a trap that career novelists can fall into, but the next novel should always be because you have something to say not because you have a deadline!
2. Figure out your strengths:
Don’t assume your strengths are as strong as they can get. An expert at pacing? Flex your fingers and keep the reader up all night. Good at integrating setting into the plot? You can immerse the reader even better with the next book. Great at characterization? You can build an even more compelling character in the next book. The status quo is never enough for the next book. Strive for something bigger and more compelling.
3. Pinpoint your weaknesses:
We all have areas where we are weak. My timelines can get fuzzy, and because I’m a seat of the pants writer, the train can get derailed. But even a pantser like me can get better at thinking through key turning points that lead to a stronger book. There are great writing resources out there to help you with your weaknesses.
This blog and others like it are great resources. There are tons of helpful writing books out there to help shore up where you’re weak. Jim Bell is a long time friend, and his book, Write Your Novel From the Middle, literally transformed my writing even though I’d written well over 50 novels by the time I read it. Never stop learning how to write better. Study up on how other authors do it well. When I wanted to write more suspenseful books, I read excellent suspense like my friend, Jordan Dane’s. I literally devour every book by an author I think I can learn from.
4. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
I remember when chick lit was all the rage. My buddy, Kristen Billerbeck, wrote a chapter to show a friend what it looked like. When I read that first chapter, I knew she’d found her real voice in first person/present tense, even though she’d written over 20 novels by that time. Let your voice evolve and strengthen as you gain more confidence in your ability.
I decided to do more points of view in Twilight at Blueberry Barrens, and I think it worked to build the suspense. After trying something, you can always go back to the way it was if it didn’t work for you.
How has your writing evolved from book to book?
Best-selling author Colleen Coble’s novels have won or finaled in awards ranging from the Best Books of Indiana, the ACFW Carol Award, the Romance Writers of America RITA, the Holt Medallion, the Daphne du Maurier, National Readers’ Choice, and the Booksellers Best. She has over 2 million books in print and writes romantic mysteries because she loves to see justice prevail. Colleen is CEO of American Christian Fiction Writers. She lives with her husband Dave in Indiana.
It’s launch day!
Okay, technically, it’s day-after-launch day. Yesterday saw the arrival in stores of Nick of Time, my first stand-alone thriller in over a decade. Here’s the publisher’s blurb on book:
SHE’S RUNNING OUT OF TIME
Nicki Janssen’s days are numbered, but she refuses to accept her fate lying down. Defying her father and doctors, she hits the road with a pocketful of cash, a bus ticket—and a romantic fantasy of riding off with her childhood crush . . .
HE’S RUNNING FROM THE LAW
Handsome, dangerous Brad Ward is facing a different kind of sentence. Sent to prison for felony murder, he has escaped and rekindled his relationship with Nicki. But when Nicki’s father joins forces with a deputy sheriff, the search for the runaways ignites a manhunt—a blistering chase that accelerates with every stolen car, every act of violence . . .
As much as I love writing the Jonathan Grave series, it was nice to return to my writing roots in Nick of Time to tell a story where the stakes are personal rather than global. I hope the world likes the story as much as I do. (Note: The e-book version of the novel was released in five parts, beginning last April, as a run-up to the release of Friendly Fire in July.) There’s an interesting story behind the story, as well . . .
My writing career can be best tracked on a severe sine curve. I started off with runaway “success” with my first novel, Nathan’s Run. Big advances (in 23 countries!), movie deal, the whole nine yards. Warner Books bought my second book, At All Costs, before Nathan’s Run was published, for even more money and Arnold Kopelson was going to make an even bigger movie. I was set for the big time.
Then reality arrived. Both books sold reasonably well—especially for a freshman writer—but I didn’t come close to earning out my advances. When it came time to sell Even Steven, my third stand-alone thriller, my agent had to break fingers to get a two-book deal from Pocket Books for a tiny fraction of what the first two books sold for. Then the real nightmare began. Pocket became Atria, my editor left, and then the editor that replaced him left. Even Steven tanked, and then Scott Free was essentially remaindered in place.
My next book was at the time called Living Wil, in which a terminally ill teenager named Wilhemina Janssen runs away with her childhood crush. Sound familiar? I couldn’t give it away. The book wasn’t big enough, they said. Since my other books didn’t meet sales expectations, everyone told me that my career as a writer was over. That was 2003.
I thought they were wrong.
I believed that I needed to write something completely different. That’s when I stumbled by happenstance onto a guy named Kurt Muse, whose real life story became the subject of my nonfiction book, Six Minutes to Freedom. My agent at the time refused to represent it for political reasons, so I turned to my good friend and current agent, Anne Hawkins, who had all kinds of difficulty selling SixMin because I am not a journalist. But then the folks at Kensington Publishing decided to roll the dice, and the book did pretty well. In fact, it continues to do pretty well. (Wait till the movie comes out! But that’s a topic for a later post.)
The research I did for SixMin opened doors and provided me with the access I needed to write the Jonathan Grave series, which I’m happy to say seems to have found some traction among readers. I just finished the 9th book in the series, and am under contract for two more.
Meanwhile Living Wil sat in the drawer, where it had resided for a dozen years. On a whim, I took it out one day and read it. Much to my surprise, I loved it. It was a little dated, and my writing style has evolved, but the bones were all there. I sent it to my editor and she loved it, too. So, after a significant rewrite that changed Wilhemena to Nicki and tightened the action, it was ready to go. Parts of Nick of Time still make me cry every time I read them.
I hope you give it a shot, and if you do, I hope you like it as much as I do.
More than that, since TKZ is primarily a writers’ blog, I hope you embrace the big take-away from this peek beneath the book’s kimono: Setbacks are only as important as you allow them to be. What “everybody” says is irrelevant because failure cannot be inflicted on anyone. Failure can only be declared by the individual who decides to give up.
Better three hours too soon than a minute too late. — William Shakespeare
I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.
But today — for the first time in months — I feel good enough about the new book to leave it alone for a few minutes.
See, I’ve been working on the same book for too many months now. Nay, I have been working on the same CHAPTER for too many weeks now, and I am beginning to think I will never finish. Part of the problem is that both my co-author sister Kelly and I have had too many personal life intrusions this past year that have affected our ability to maintain momentum. And like Woody Allen’s shark, if your WIP doesn’t move constantly forward, it dies.
But the larger part of our problem is that this book, unlike all our others, is being written on spec. We don’t have a contract for this one yet so we don’t have the tyranny of a contractual deadline. Being a former newspaper person, I have always done my best work under a strict deadline. But with this book, time had been stretched and now the ticking clock sounds as loud as Poe’s tell-tale heart in my ears.
Here’s the thing: The worst thing you can do to screw up your career is to turn in your book late.
Being on time is very important. And it gets increasingly important the further into your career you go. Why? Because you can’t get a foothold in today’s crowded marketplace — or keep one — if you can’t turn out a book a year on time.
Time management is the hardest thing a new writer has to grasp, I think. Before you get published, you have the luxury of limitless time. Time for the virgin writer is a lovely, expandable, ever-accommodating thing. Kind of like a big purse. The bigger your purse, the most junk you carry around, right? Same with deadline. The bigger and looser it is, the more you will abuse it. Trust me. I know.
First-time authors spend YEARS making their books as good as they can. You have to, in order to get an agent to take you on. Ah, but then what? Then you enter the publishing machine and you have to produce another. And another. And yet another. And here’s the worst part of it: Each book has to be better than the last because publishers’ attention spans (dictated by the computers at B&N and rankings at Amazon) are increasingly short.
Here is another thing working against us. Unlike in the good old days, few writers entering the game today will be given the time to find their legs, their voices, their audiences. The reason is awful but pretty simple: It’s all bottom line these days and there are too many young turks waiting to take your place on the publishers list. You have to produce well…and often.
As Jim Bell put it in his Sunday post on industry updates: “My drumbeat has always been: First, write the best book you can every time out! That’s why we emphasize craft here at TKZ. There is no substitute for quality. And if you can up your production, so much the better.”
So, what happens if you are late?
You lose your place in line. I learned this in great detail at a Killer Nashville conference I went to a few years back. There was a very instructive panel with an agent, a Barnes & Noble manager, and the main buyer for Ingram distributors. It was all great advice, but the best insight came when someone asked what happens if you are late delivering your manuscript. All the experts agreed: You don’t want to do this. Ever.
Here’s the simple explanation: In traditional publishing, a publisher creates its schedule at least a year in advance. And when an editor buys your book, the process begins whereby a bunch of folks decide where that book will be positioned to get maximum attention. Publishers jockey around each others schedules, trying not to have their books competing with similar books — or with big star authors. Or Harry Potter for that matter.
So you sign your contract. You get your slot. Say you have a July 2017 release with manuscript delivery Nov. 1, 2016. Now things get more complicated. To over-simplify things:
The cover design is based on your delivery date. Ditto advance reading copies (which are important in getting bookseller buzz). Sales people start gearing up material for in-house and outside catalog placement. Marketing and publicity set a schedule of their own. And in the end, bookstores buy your book based on YOUR firm delivery date. And remember, this is happening for many other books at the same time — from your own publisher and everyone else’s. Every domino is in place.
Then you miss your delivery deadline. You’re two, three, four months late. Life intruded, the kid got sick, you wrote yourself into a corner and had to backtrack, you had writers block, there was that three-week hiking trip in the Cinque Terre you really wanted to go on…blah, blah, blah.
What’s the big deal, right?
That silence you hear is dominos NOT falling. You’ve lost your place in line, Bunky. And guess what? The world — and the process — will keep right on turning without you and your masterpiece. You’ve also been…unprofessional and made yourself a pain in the ass. Not something you want to have a reputation as being. Because publishing? — it’s a small world, after all. Once you’ve been labeled difficult, a prima donna, or unable to produce, that rep will follow you no matter how many times you switch houses.
This pattern is the same for eBook-centric publishers like Thomas & Mercer. For our most recent book, SHE’S NOT THERE, our T&M editor gave us a choice of two different manuscript-delivery dates. They bought our book when it was about half finished. One deadline they offered was farther away but the editor was honest and said that meant a less aggressive marketing campaign. The other deadline was pretty tight, but it meant they had more time before pub date and could do more to flog it.
Guess which one we chose? Guess which one we almost blew?
We finished the book by the hardest deadline (we missed by two days) but it about killed us. And to be honest, we weren’t happy with the ending. A week after we turned it in, I worked up the courage to email our editor and told her we thought the ending was rushed and we asked if we could add two or three more chapters. She gave us one week. We made the extended deadline. The book came out on time. But it was really close.
Okay, I’m self-publishing, you say. What does this have to do with me?
Having the discipline to adhere to a set publishing schedule is just as important if you are self-publishing. Maybe even more so, because you won’t have anyone nagging you about a deadline. No one will be sending you emails asking, “How’s that book coming?” You won’t have a contract mandating that if you don’t produce, you’ll be facing some legal consequences. If you are self-publishing, having the self-discipline to make deadlines is probably even more crucial to your chances for success because you will be struggling to establish a foothold and claim enough real estate on the vast virtual bookshelf. One book isn’t going to get you anywhere. A whole shelf of good books that come out at nice predictable intervals? Well, readers will notice that. Again, as Jim said: Write a really good book, get it out there, write another really good book. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat…
I am not telling you this to scare you. Well, maybe I am. Because I got scared myself listening to the experts at Killer Nashville and by my experience of almost blowing it with SHE’S NOT THERE. See, I am not a fast writer. Writing is hard, even at times painful, for me. I try to worry each word into place, torture each paragraph into perfection. And that, my friends, leads me to paralysis.
Sometimes, you just have to sit down and let flow out. As the King says in Alice In Wonderland, “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Because, as the Queen tells us,
“In this country, it takes all the running you can do to keep you in the same place.”
Not too long ago, my husband learned that his great grandfather had travelled the Trans-Siberian railway at the turn of the last century (just before the Tsar was deposed by the Russian Revolution) to observe birds who made the arduous journey from Russia to Australia as they migrated each year. As a writer of historical fiction, I can only imagine what it must have been like to make this journey at such a pivotal time in Russian history. Not only do I wish I had met Tim’s great grandfather, or that someone had recorded his memories (no one did, unfortunately), but that I also somehow had the ability to go back in time and experience a journey such as this first-hand.
Anyone who’s read my books, knows that I think the early 20th century would have been a fascinating era to live through. On the cusp of what we would consider a ‘modern’ way of life, you would have been able to witness the end of the ‘Belle Epoque’ and the dawn of an era that was both transformative as well as tragic (at the time you could never have imagined the tragedy of two world wars). When I write I try to immerse myself in first hand accounts so I can get the full sensory experience – but those (obviously) cannot compare to actually living through it.
Part of why I love writing historical books is the opportunity to vicariously experience history and I have an exceptionally long list of ‘journeys’ from history I would have loved to have witnessed/been a part of. These include traveling the Trans-Siberian railway in the early 1900s. I would also love to enjoy the luxury of a first-class ocean liner voyage from England to America in the 1910s (though not aboard the Titanic, obviously!). A train journey across India at this time would have also been fascinating.
Even if you don’t write historical fiction I’m sure most of you have dreamed of taking some voyage in the past – something that captured your imagination – something that would have been so unlike the travel we undertake today. So TKZers, if you had the chance to go back in time and make a journey, what kind of journey would that be and why?
If you’re in the writing game to make serious bank, or at least a good side income (and only “blockheads” never write for some kind of income, according to Dr. Johnson), then you need to keep up to date on industry developments.
Now is a good time to look, as reports about the first quarter of 2016 are coming in.
Traditional Publishing Sales Are Down
According PW, sales of adult print books fell 10.3% in the first quarter of 2016, compared to the first period of 2015, and ebook sales in the same category fell 19%. Regarding the latter, industry observer Mike Shatzkin says a big part of the problem is the pricing of ebooks by publishers:
High ebook prices — and high means “high relative to lots of other ebooks available in the market” — will only work with the consumer when the book is “highly branded”, meaning already a bestseller or by an author that is well-known. And word-of-mouth, the mysterious phenomenon that every publisher counts on to make books big, is lubricated by low prices and seriously handicapped by high prices. If a friend says “read this” and the price is low, it can be an automatic purchase. Not so much if the price makes you stop and think.
This puts publishers in a very painful box. When they cut their ebook prices, they not only reduce sales revenue for each ebook they sell; they also hobble print sales.
How much of this “pain” can the big publishers endure? Economics in a disruptive environment is merciless. Remember that scene in Casino Royale? (All the men do.) But also recall that Bond got out of it.
Barnes & Noble Barely Hanging On
The biggest bookstore chain has been closing stores and circling wagons. They’ve been emphasizing vibe (coffee house, browsing chairs) but not expanding shelf-space for books. Thus, says another article in PW:
Sales at Barnes & Noble fell 6.6% in the quarter ended July 30, compared to the same period last year. Revenue fell 6.1% in the company’s retail sector, and Nook revenue fell 24.5%. As a result of the lower-than-expected sales, B&N reported a net loss from continuing operations of $14.4 million in the period, its first quarter of 2017, compared to $7.8 million in the first period of fiscal 2016.
We all love bookstores. We hate to see physical shelf space shrink, and brick-and-mortar stores shuttered. A nice development is a rise in the local independent bookstore. Good! There are many cultural benefits to this uptick. However, the scale is small relative to a large chain, and breakout books by new authors cannot be driven on these tiny islands alone.
Meanwhile, Amazon Opens Another Physical Bookstore in San Diego
This to go along with their first such store in Seattle. And there are plans to open stores in Chicago and Portland.
According to industry observer Jane Friedman, here’s what you need to know about Amazon’s bookstores:
On this last point, a marketing professor quoted in the San Diego Union-Tribune says the intent is to “drive consumers deeper into the Amazon system.” The books “act as conversation starters with staffers, who can then teach customers about the benefits of [Amazon] Prime membership.”
Amazon has proven over and over again to be ahead of the curve, as they say, even though the curve these days is as formidable as that tossed by Mr. Clayton Kershaw. Amazon keeps staying in the batter’s box making contact.
What Should Writers Do?
This is a blog for writers, so the key question for me is always what do I and my fellow scribes need to be about in these turbulent times?
My drumbeat has always been: First, write the best book you can every time out! That’s why we emphasize craft here at TKZ. There is no substitute for quality. And if you can up your production, so much the better.
Next, turn your ear to wisdom, and your heart toward understanding (Proverbs 2:2). You need to decide what path to pursue as a writer, and how to do so with eyes open and good business practices. Thus:
Perspective #1 – Indie Writers
In a comment on the PW site, the estimable Hugh Howey said, in part:
The reality is that acquisitions and mergers have hidden the steady loss of market share by the Big 5, market share gladly gobbled up by self-published authors. Coloring books, plays, and rejected rough drafts have also helped the last two years, but it’s hard to rely on these things going forward. And publishers have to stop believing surveys that say people prefer print books. Yeah, the people who don’t read much do.
If the Big 5 are going to continue to guide their businesses by personal editorial tastes, celebrity tomes, and the whims of those who read (but probably don’t finish) 2 – 3 books a year, they’re in trouble. The real market for publishers should be the voracious readers who consume several books a week.
For authors, this time of flux is critical. As bookshelves dwindle, and B&N appears on the verge of going the way of Border’s, now would be a terrible time to take a work of art that lasts forever and sign it over to any publisher for term of copyright. The new standard has to be 5 to 7 years of license, or self-publish, until things shake out.
One ongoing debate is about whether an indie author should go exclusive with Amazon in order to take advantage of promotional opportunities (such as limited free pricing), and the page payouts of Kindle Unlimited. I think this is a great option for new writers who need to get eyeballs on their pages so they can begin building a readership. See the substantial discussion and links in the section on Kindle Unlimited in Jane Friedman’s post, mentioned above.
Perspective #2 – Traditionally Publishing Writers
For those writers in the midst of––or are hoping to land––a contract with a Big 5 or other traditional publisher, it’s long past the time when you can leave all contract negotiations to someone else. You must be informed. You need to know what to accept, what to reject, and where to compromise. Which also means knowing what your leverage is. If you are being represented by an agent, this is a conversation to have with them. (Oh, are you looking for an agent? Well, maybe one is looking for you. Keep track of the new agent alerts and other info at Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog.)
Big tip: Don’t do any of this with a chip on your shoulder. Be polite and businesslike. But as the great Harvey Mackay counsels in Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, you need to know when to “smile and say no until your tongue bleeds.”
Mackay also says, “Make your decisions with your heart and what you’ll end up with is heart disease.” Don’t be so dreamy-eyed about being invited into the Forbidden City that you fail to make rational, long-term decisions.
A place to start is with attorney David Vandagriff’s book, The Nine Worst Provisions in Your Publishing Contract. Not only are important clauses explained, but Vandagriff (who is also known as the Passive Guy blogger) offers you strategies on how to make them better.
Be a cork. But be a smart cork. Subscribe to the Publishing Trends blog, which posts links to the “Top 5 Publishing Articles/Blog Posts of the Week.” Also consider a paid subscription to “The Hot Sheet” the twice-monthly industry dispatch written by the aforementioned Jane Friedman and journalist Porter Anderson.
Because information is now the coin of the realm. Get the info, digest it, use it. But don’t ever let it freak you out. Remember:
What about you? Where do you see the publishing industry going? How are you, as a writer, dealing with constant change?
I received a small envelope from an old friend in June of this year. It contained a silver dollar in a plastic collector’s case. I collected coins a long time ago and am still surprised at how much I remember, including where mint marks are located (or, in the case of the Philadelphia mint, absent) on each coin. The silver dollar in question, minted in 1885, bore the cryptic inscription ‘O’ on its reverse, or “tails” side, under the, um, tail of the eagle. The ‘O,’ I knew, stood for “New Orleans.” I called my friend, an antique dealer of some local renown, and thanked him for the unexpected gift. He advised that he had come across the item and, after making sure that it wasn’t one of of only two hundred minted, sent it to me with the thought that I could take it with me to New Orleans next time I went. I did that when I returned to New Orleans for business and Bouchercon last week and raised him one. I took that silver dollar back to its birthing room, if you will.
The place where I was born in no longer in existence — that covered wagon, alas, was attacked and set afire by Indians, but I digress — but the United States Mint in New Orleans still is. It is imaginatively and accurately known as “The Old Mint,” and does not refer to that unwrapped peppermint that James Scott Bell found in the pocket of a winter coat he hadn’t worn for a few years. No, The Old Mint is at the very edge of the French Quarter, tucked into a corner by the Mississippi River east of the French Market. It’s not a place that is close to tourist interests, so it is quiet, dim, and cool, the entrance way overseen by a somewhat sleepy-looking guard who seemed secure in the knowledge that there was nothing in the building that no one would be interested in stealing, unless steel coin presses weighing around twenty tons were to suddenly become valuable. There were, interestingly enough, a number of people there, and they weren’t drawn by the cost of admission (free!) or the promise of air conditioning on a New Orleans late summer day where the temperature was flirting with 95 degrees by 11:00 AM. No, they were coin collectors, past and present, and by dipping into conversations here and there I learned that they were serious about their hobby. They ranged in age from pre-adolescent (looking like I probably did back then, only skinny) to geriatric (um, looking like I do now, though not as vigorous and virile) and, one and all ,they were as excited to be there as the members of a bachelor party would be at Temptations on Bourbon Street, only quieter. I waited until the herd passed through and then quietly brought my silver dollar over to a press, reached across the barrier, and laid it down on the surface.
And…something connected. It was almost electric. I had set off to do the errand as a lark, and was still inwardly laughing over my good fortune of having literally run into British publishing giants Ali Karim and Michael Stotter, both of whom were in town for Bouchercon, on Chartres Street, and then being the subject of one of Ali’s recorded street interviews. The trip to The Old Mint at that point was almost an afterthought…that is, until the mission was accomplished. It felt as if a circle had been completed, and I suppose it had.
I put the silver dollar back into my pocket and left the Mint museum, though not The Old Mint building. The building is the location not only for exhibits pertaining to the Mint — which was used by both the United States and the Confederate States (at different times, of course) — but also The New Orleans Jazz Museum, which contains a great deal of memorabilia of musical greats who have come and gone but whose influence is still felt, though unfortunately generally forgotten. When I finally left, everything seemed just a tad different. I am at the age where I am deleting material goods rather than acquiring them, but I will hang on to that silver dollar. And it will come back with me to New Orleans when I return, again and again.
It was my favorite trip to New Orleans — and I had just been there three weeks previously — and my favorite Bouchercon to date. I really want to go again so I’m planning another trip near Christmas. My friend recently stayed at the InterContinental Hotel New Orleans so I will have to ask her what it was like. There were many high points…from seeing Laura Benedict at a publisher’s party and meeting Elaine Viets as she tried to sneak past me at a book signing, to meeting and having dinner with a couple of anonymous TKZ fans who have become my new best friends; from taking author Kelli Stanley and Tana Hall to Meyer the Hatter, to getting detained by security at the host hotel (don’t look like Tony Soprano and carry a shotgun bag into a crowded hotel lobby. It has the potential to ruin your day); and of course, running into Ali and Michael just about everywhere…but that silver dollar still carries a faint bit of electricity as it rests in my pocket.
That’s me. What did you do last week?
What is the best name you’ve ever seen for a fictional character in a book? Would you name your child after this character…or a pet…or wear a tattoo with the name?
Okay, maybe not ALL, but your choice of verbs can make or break a scene. Have a look at a recent chapter or short story you’ve written. Check the verbs in particular. Maybe even highlight them. Are some or a lot of them bland, vanilla verbs like came, went, arrived, approached, walked, ran, or looked?
Do you have a heavy, tired, or angry character simply walking when he could be trudging or clomping or stomping or plodding? Or an old or ill or exhausted character walking who should be limping or shuffling along? Make the conceited or over-confident guy swagger or strut and the lawyer stride into the courtroom. And be sure your drunk, stoned, or injured suspect is staggering, lurching, wobbling, meandering, or shambling, not just walking. Or perhaps someone is running when sprinting or racing or darting or dashing or fleeing would better capture the situation and her mood.
Of course, sometimes an ordinary character on a regular day is just walking or jogging. But when you need to bring the character and scene to life and add tension (which is most of the time), use all the tools in your toolbox to create sensory impressions for the readers and engage their emotions — make them worry.
If you’ve got a character looking at something or someone, consider whether they really are just looking. Or are they actually peering at something? Or observing or studying or examining or inspecting or scrutinizing it? Or perhaps they’re covertly spying at a group around a campfire. Or maybe they’re glancing around them or catching a glimpse of someone. Or glaring at another person in anger. Or squinting into the distance under the glaring sun.
Be sure your words, especially the verbs, capture the mood you’re after.
And don’t prop up a weak, overused verb with an adverb. Instead of “She walked quietly,” say she crept or she tiptoed or she sneaked or she slinked along the wall.
For a whole chapter on finding just the right verb for every scenario, check out my award-winning writing guide, Fire up Your Fiction, chapter 21, “Choose Words That Nail It.” Subtopics include People in Motion, Words for “Walked,” Replacements for “Run,” and Different Ways of Looking. (Lots of other great stuff for writers in there, too!)
Let’s add a bit of urgency to the sentence below by changing up the verbs:
The NCIS agents drove to the scene, then went to the back of the vehicle and pulled out their equipment.
Here’s one possibility:
The NCIS agents raced to the scene, then hurried to the back of the vehicle and grabbed their equipment.
Note how changing just three verbs can amp up the scene. You could probably charge it up even more.
Are you accidentally sabotaging your scene by choosing a verb that gives entirely the wrong impression?
Make sure none of your verbs are actually working against the scene, undermining the effect you’re after. Do you inadvertently have characters strolling or ambling or slouching at tense times? Or leaning back during an argument? Be sure not to use shuffling for the walking of someone who isn’t old, sick, weak, or very tired.
Remember that tension and conflict are what drive fiction forward, so unless you’ve got two lovers taking a romantic walk, don’t have your characters strolling along when they should be hurrying or hustling or darting in and out, glancing around and behind them. Relaxed, easygoing verbs aren’t going to get your reader’s pulse quickening and make her want to turn the page to read more.
Also, think about the difference between a smile and a smirk and a sneer. Don’t have a character sneering when they’re just smirking. Sneer means “to smile or laugh with facial contortions that express scorn or contempt.” So if you have buddies disagreeing or teasing each other, you might use smirked, but don’t use sneered. Save that for someone nasty.
There are a lot of nuances for showing a character looking at someone or something. The verbs glare, glance, scan, peer, study, and gaze have quite different meanings, for example.
Do you have characters glaring when you mean gazing or staring or studying or scrutinizing? For example,
Brock glared at the intruder with the gun, eyes wide with fear. He shifted his stare to Gord, mouthing, “Help.”
“Glared” doesn’t go with “eyes wide with fear.” Glared is for anger. Maybe “stared” here? And “shifted his gaze”? Or maybe:
Brock’s eyes widened with fear at the intruder with the gun. He shifted his gaze to Gord, mouthing, “Help.”
How about eyes squinting when there’s no bright light?
At the funeral, the widow caught Adam’s glance and squinted her eyes in accusation. She no doubt held him responsible for her husband’s death.
I’d say “narrowed her eyes” or “glared at him.”
Watch for “happy” verbs that have sneaked into your story at tense times.
Have any happy, carefree words or dreamy imagery somehow slipped into any of your scenes at tense moments? If your two young protagonists are running for their lives in the woods, don’t mention the birds chirping or the brook babbling or the leaves dancing in the breeze. Keep all your imagery scary and ominous – darkness, nasty weather, treacherous terrain, a howling wolf, or whatever.
Find the “happy” or “comfy” verbs that are subtly dissipating the tension in the scene below in a crime novel:
They pursued the getaway car on a dark, lonely country road. Lights from farmhouses twinkled in the distance. Up ahead, they saw the car spin out and crash into a tree. They pulled up behind it and got out. Tony shone his flashlight into the car. The windshield was fractured. Bits of glass sparkled throughout the inside, and steam rose from the damaged engine.
Yes, “twinkled” and “sparkled” normally have positive connotations, so they counteract the tension you’re trying to build in a scene like this.
Similarly, don’t use casual, relaxed language in a stressful situation:
Johnson and Fernandez parked their cruiser at a distance, then jogged at a comfortable pace to the scene of the crime.
Best to not use words like “comfortable” or even “jogging” at a time of stress. Choose words that fit the anxious mood and tone of the moment better.
Or if someone is about to face a harsh boss, be reamed out about his behavior, and likely fired, avoid detracting from the tension like this:
“You can go in now,” the secretary said, holding the door open for him. He found himself in a comfortable outer room with a stunning view, several armchairs, a bookcase, and a sofa against a wall. A large oak door stood closed on the far wall.
At such a tense time, it’s best not to add anything comfortable or any obviously positive words like “stunning.” That dissipates the tension at a time when you need to keep building it. Besides, the guy isn’t thinking about the view or the comfy furniture at this moment!
Here’s an example from a different book, describing the actions of a nasty villain about to shoot someone:
Before: He smiled. (doesn’t sound very nasty)
After, revised by the author: His mouth was twisted in a cruel smile.
So what’s the takeaway from all this? Don’t overdo the bland, boring verbs, or your scenes will be bland and boring. But if you’re looking for a unique synonym and you’re not 100% sure of the nuances, look each one up in the dictionary so you don’t have your character sneering when you mean smirking, or squinting when you mean peering or glaring.
Your turn. Share some possibilities in the comments below if you feel like playing.
How would a bunch of SWAT team members move after a few miles when training on rough terrain in bad weather?
How would two carefree little girls move around the playground?
How about two top contestants on Dancing with the Stars? How are they moving across the ballroom floor?
How about a more vivid way to say “took” or “carried” something?
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Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers, including a middle school edition. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook and Twitter.
I spent most of this past week encouraging (forcing) myself to leave my room at the Marriott Hotel in New Orleans. It was a nice room, with a lovely view of the city framing the not-so-lovely hotel on the next block. The first room I was assigned was on the fifteenth floor, but before I left the desk, five bucks and a request to not be situated near the elevator bumped me up to the twenty-third. (Also, the thing about being away from the elevator is in my Marriott profile. So much for profiles.) But if I hadn’t had a long list of plans and obligations, I would have been sorely tempted to stay in that room and write and look out the window and order room service and fiddle with the television’s satellite connection to improve its HGTV reception (HGTV is my secret hotel vice because we don’t have satellite at home).
Last week was, of course, Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention—four days of fun with crime and mystery lovers, readers, writers, agents, booksellers, and editors. I’m not exactly sure about the numbers, but I heard there were almost two thousand attendees, three hundred of whom were writers.
Writers. You know, those people who sit at computers (or with notebooks) communing with the voices in their heads instead of real people.
As a writer who has been in the business for a lot of years, and who doesn’t live in a major metropolitan area, most of my networking is done on the Internet or on the phone. Less frequently in person. Networking can sound a little off-putting: net working. I know what a network is, but the words, separated, bring to mind an image of a fisherman (fisherperson?) handling a huge net full of fish, gathering and sorting, selecting and touching. What if you choose the wrong fish? What if it bites? What if they all escape and you end up with nothing? What if they all dislike you? What if they think you’re pushy and rude? (Okay, maybe that’s not a great analogy.)
Conferences can be tough for someone who doesn’t get out much. I get overwhelmed, which is one of the reasons I often want to hide in my room. But I (and I think I can speak a little bit for other introverted writers) do it because it’s my job. When you meet someone, you never know what kind of influence they’re going to have on your life—or the influence you might have on theirs. You might be looking at your new best friend. Or your next editor. Or your next favorite author. Or the person who will spark your next story idea. Or the person who will talk smack about you in the bar because you didn’t bother to introduce yourself. Does it sounds like a minefield? A game of Risk? Well, it kind of is.
You can sit in your room at home or even at the conference hotel and write. And write. You might even sell your story from that room. You might become the next J.D. Salinger or Don DeLillo or Emily Dickinson. Or not. It can be scary, but in order to give yourself and your work your best shot, you have to venture out. I promise you that venturing out feels just as risky to ninety percent of the other writers you will meet. (You can always return to your room later and throw up, faint, hyperventilate, burst into tears, or tear off all your clothes and crawl into your bed and pull the covers over your head in relief. I have done four of the five.) Sometimes you’ll walk away thinking, “Oh, my God, I sounded like a complete idiot!” But more often you’ll be glad you reached out and risked rejection.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to pop out of your writing cocoon and go to a conference or other gathering of industry folk:
This sounds difficult, I know. Sometimes you just have to fake it until you feel it. The NYT bestselling writer waiting in the coffee line ahead of you sits in front of the same blank page that you do every day, thinking, “What comes next?” You have that in common. You’re there for a reason, so act like it.
This is part of your job. Be sure you note the name of the person you’re talking to. It’s okay to ask, and asking is far preferable to ending up halfway through an impromptu lunch, petrified that you’ll be called on to perform introductions if someone else shows up. If small talk is required, talk about a panel or interview you just attended, or a book you recently read. Not your gallbladder, kids, or most recent tooth implant.
Be ready to learn.
Immerse yourself in the conference agenda. People who are interested in the same things you’re interested in put the panels and events together. It’s not all about networking.
Most people love to talk about themselves. Ask questions about their work, their pets, their hometown, their (professional) passions. Most wildly successful authors are good at making other people feel special in a short space of time. Really.
We’ve all gotten the FB messages: “Hey, we’re friends now. Buy my book!” Every writer wants other people to know about their work. But don’t make that your main goal. Your goal is to learn things, make new friends, and reconnect with old friends. There’s always a good time to exchange cards or bookmarks or websites. Name-dropping is a bit gauche, but allowed in small doses if it’s relevant to the discussion—or makes a better story.
Be as nice to the mid-list or self-published writer standing beside you as you are to the editor you would kill to have publish you. Chances are you’ll have far more contact with that writer in your career than you will the editor. Not everything is about getting ahead. It’s about being a decent human being. Few things are uglier than people who spend their professional lives sucking up and kicking down.
You didn’t get to where you are as a writer all by yourself. I guarantee that someone around you has less experience. Introduce yourself to someone who looks as uncomfortable as you feel. Make them feel special. It won’t cost you anything, and the benefits are precious.
Be on time.
Even if you consistently run five minutes late every other day of your life, when you’re in a professional situation like a conference, be on time. Schedules can be tight, and people often do things in groups. (But don’t fret about sneaking into panels late, or leaving during. Just be discreet.)
If you’re not Cormac McCarthy, or Emily Dickinson, leave your room! Put on deodorant, brush your teeth, comb your hair, and attend a panel, a cocktail party, or a lecture. Or even go hang out in the bar. You’re over twenty-one, and you’re allowed. See and be seen. That’s the way it works.
As I said, you can always go up and hyperventilate in your room—later.
Have you ever attended a writing or publishing industry conference as a writer, or as a fan? Did you find it challenging, or just plain fun?