by Michelle Gagnon
The first time I heard Lee Child speak, he discussed how he reacts to his editor’s comments on each manuscript. Lee claims to initially go “incandescent with rage.” He closes the email, fumes for a bit, then goes back and reads it again a day or so later. And the second time, he sees some of what the editor is talking about.
I think this is a common reaction of writers everywhere. How dare someone criticize your baby? Clearly they just didn’t get it. But I’ll tell you what- the difference between an author who gets published, and one who doesn’t ever sell that manuscript, frequently correlates directly to how that author processes and responds to constructive criticism.
Which is not to say that the editor is always right. I generally retool the manuscript based on approximately three-quarters of my editor’s comments. It’s one of the reasons I use up to ten beta readers for each book. If one person says something, and it doesn’t strike a chord with you, it might be just their impression (one example: for my upcoming novel KIDNAP AND RANSOM, my editor noted that the book, “doesn’t depict Mexico in a very favorable light.” And she’s right- it doesn’t, mainly because the bulk of it is set in the poorest slums in Mexico City. So that one I dismissed outright).
But if more than one beta reader reacts to something, that usually means it necessitates a change. For the same book, the majority of my readers (among them, my esteemed fellow bloggers) thought that there was a coincidence in the book that was just too darn convenient. And going back through it, I realized they were right. There had to be a better way to move the plot forward. In the end, I rewrote over two-thirds of the book based on feedback. And the end product was a stronger, more believable storyline (I hope).
This came up recently when I reviewed a manuscript for a friend from a local writing group who is struggling to get their first book published. I sent a detailed assessment of what I thought the strengths and weaknesses of the story were, bearing in mind what I know from experience editors respond negatively to. The writer’s reaction surprised me (particularly since I had more positive than negative comments). I received detailed responses to each negative note, arguments for why this scene and that character had to be in there.
Now, it’s this author’s choice to keep or discard whatever they like- after all, it is their book, and their name on the cover if it ever gets published. Sadly, unless at least a few of those changes are made, I suspect it will continue to garner rejections.
What I realized early on was that when an agent responded to a submission with a rejection, but also provided a response detailing why they rejected it, it was important to take note. A form letter rejection is one thing. If they bother to let you know what in particular prevented them from signing you, it means that you’re actually very close. I see the same thing in my critique group. When someone writes something that is a hot mess, few people say anything. The author invariably (and wrongly) takes this as proof that what they’re holding in their hands is perfect. The truth is, people say less when something is unsalvageable. When a heated debate begins, or everyone agrees on the salient strengths and weaknesses, the author has come close to hitting their mark.
So, going back to Jim’s “before you submit” post…before you send out that first stream of submissions, pass the manuscript along to people you trust. Aim for folks who you know will be hard on it (sometimes that means avoiding friends and family). Listen to what they say. Feel free to go incandescent with rage for a few days, then sit back down and read their responses more closely. And make those changes: kill those darlings, cut that exposition, come up with better ways for events to transpire. No manuscript ever suffered from revision-the more you change it, in general, the better it will become.
Well, step right up, cause I’ve got your controversy, right here: How about the use of italics?
That’s right! I said italics!
I love the way writing “rules” sometimes get floated around the internet, become a meme, then move to “accepted wisdom” or even “non-negotiable truths from on high” – while, all along, it may be wrong for an across the board regulation.
Sometimes there’s a kernel of truth. For example, there’s a “rule” that says, No Prologues! Part of that may be simply because agents see so many bad ones. Maybe we’ll discuss that in a future post.
Today I want to discuss the use of italics for rendering the inner thoughts of a character. You know how that’s often done:
Susan walked into the room and saw Blake. Back in town! I don’t want him to see me like this!
That’s the shortest possible route to showing us the inner thought. Another alternative is to not use italics, but put in an attribution:
Susan walked into the room and saw Blake. Back in town, she thought. I don’t want him to see me like this!
A third way is to use 3d Person, but filtered in such a way that we know it is Susan thinking it.
Susan walked into the room and saw Blake. So he was back in town. She didn’t want him to see her like this.
That last two renderings are probably the preferred type these days. Or at least the fashion cops seem to think so. But does that mean italics should never be used for thoughts?
Never say never, especially when it comes to writing “rules.” I think italics are still perfectly acceptable when used in moderation.
Note that word: moderation. The overuse of italicized thoughts gets a bit wearying.
But an italicized thought may be the best, most economical way for a character to recall a key point or phrase uttered earlier in the book. And to set it off for the reader, too.
For example, early in the book your Lead character is given a clue about the villain by someone, who says, “Baxter will be wearing cheapie shoes that squeak.”
Near the end of the book, the character hears someone enter the room with squeaky shoes. You could write it the clunky way: She listened to the sound of his shoes on the tile. And she remembered what Clive had told her about Baxter, that he would be wearing inexpensive shoes that squeak.
Or you could do it quickly and easily with italics:
She listened to the sound of his shoes on the tile.
Baxter will be wearing cheapie shoes that squeak . . .
If you have a scene that is mostly interior dialogue, using italics can be a means of variety. In Lisa Scottoline’s Courting Trouble, lawyer Anne Murphy has to process some shattering news. First, Scottoline uses no italics:
Could this be? Could this really be? Was Willa dead? Anne’s heart stalled in her chest. Her eyes welled up suddenly, blurring the busy boardwalk . . . . She struggled against the voice and the conclusion, but she couldn’t help it. Willa, dead? No!
But then, as Anne continues to try to “wrap her mind” around it, there’s this:
Kevin got out, but how? Why didn’t they tell her?
The switch to italics, for one line, adds a certain immediacy to the thought process. I don’t think Scottoline should be arrested for using it. I don’t even think she should get a ticket.
In The Hard Way by Lee Child, a man in a hooded sweatshirt who takes money off drunks is walking down the street, and sees: A big man, but inert. His limbs were relaxed in sleep.
As the hooded man moves closer, Child inserts a series of quick thoughts, between paragraphs of narrative:
His hair was clean. He wasn’t malnourished.
Not a bum with a pair of stolen shoes.
A prime target.
And so on. It’s just an efficient way to get the point across and get out of the way. Could the same thing be done without italics? Perhaps. Should it? That’s up to you.
Another jab against italics is that they are “hard to read.” I don’t buy that. That’s why I didn’t mind that Robert Crais has whole chapters in italics in L.A. Requiem. He has a reason for it, and I’m not going to call the Style Felony Hotline to report him.
Here’s my pragmatic conclusion: yes, there may be some prejudice against italics. But if they’re used judiciously and for good reason, I see no problem.
So like Clare, I’m currently out of town on vacation (nowhere as exotic as Australia, but I’m still enjoying a bit of a break from the San Francisco fog).
Last week I attended Left Coast Crime in LA, where I was fortunate to have the opportunity to catch up with John Gilstrap and James, and to meet Kathryn for the first time. Which was kind of shocking-the funny thing about blogging like this is how well you get to know each other without ever meeting face to face. For instance, I feel like Basil is practically family at this point (albeit as that crazy cousin who kicks off the conga line at family events). The post 9/11 literature panel that John and I were on made episodes of the Jerry Springer show look dull in comparison. In the bar afterward, almost every passerby stopped to tell John that they’d heard about his performance. He’s officially a legend now, and will probably start showing up late to our Denny’s meetings, if he makes them at all.
I got the chance to talk to Lee Child briefly at the conference (I know, I’m a shameless name dropper), and we were discussing the fact that for the first time he’s releasing not one but two books this year. This has become a trend with the recent industry downturn. It’s easier for publishers to push more books written by their stable of well known authors than to build up a new name, so old faithfuls like James Rollins, John Sandford, and of course James Patterson are being offered nice bonuses for increased productivity.
Even authors who aren’t household names are being urged to try to churn out multiple titles a year. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t people who do this well. But when my agent and I were negotiating my last contract, and they pushed for an increase to two or three books a year, I said no.
It’s a struggle for me to finish one book a year. It takes between 4-6 months for me to compose the initial draft, then I send it off to my editor and have a few weeks head start on the next book. Then the edits come back, and I have in general another month to polish it. At which point I mail it back, work a little bit more on the next book…just when I’m getting in the groove again, it’s time for round three. Add in the months I need to coordinate marketing for that book before its release, and it’s always about a year, start to finish. The thought of adding another book, never mind two, into the mix would be hive-inducing.
Yet many writers do manage to produce more than one book a year. Which raises a few questions for me. Firstly, does the quality suffer? Dennis Lehane claimed that the book a year grind made him feel like his work was deteriorating, so he took two full years off to write the next book- which turned out to be MYSTIC RIVER.
I also question whether or not having an author flood the market with books actually helps their sales if they’re not James Patterson or Stephen King. Is it better to come out with three books a year, rather than one? What does everyone think?
Now, back to the sun…
A confession: I’m not a big short story reader. I’ve gone through phases where I was on a Chandler or Munro kick, but by and large I tend to read novels. Recently I’ve been judging a short story contest, however, and it’s been an interesting experience. What I’ve discovered is that when it comes to crime fiction, the short story format is apparently a trickier beast to wrestle down.
The stories that fail appear to fall into a few categories (food-related; humor me):
- The Grande Burrito: The author crammed it all in, and what could have been expanded into a full manuscript has been abridged. These stories tend to open with some lovely lyrical passages before morphing into a rapid-fire ending that usually involves an information dump on the final page. In these cases, I get the sense that the writer bit off more than they could chew. Rather than focusing on a smaller, self-contained story, their scope was too broad and it ended up being a hot mess.
- The Chinese Food Syndrome. The opposite problem: these stories left me wanting more. Not enough happened, or the scope was too small. The best short stories are self-contained, hewn down to the bare essentials, and when you turn the last page you find yourself fully satisfied. You’ve been told just what you need to know, and everything was resolved in a way that was satisfying. The perfect dessert, if you will.
- The Pancake: Everything is flat. Two-dimensional characters whose motivation is never clear, a plot that doesn’t make sense, nothing seems to gel. You don’t need much to describe a character; the best writers can do it in a sentence. So for me to go through an entire story and come away with no sense of the characters is inexcusable. One of my all-time favorite stories is “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver:
- This blind man, feature this, he was wearing a full beard! A beard on a blind man! Too much, I say.
That one passage not only describes the blind man, it also speaks volumes about the main character, telling you everything you need to know to make the final passage of the story transcendent.
- The Filler: Like a hamburger without the bun. These stories invariably involve characters from a recurring series. Ideally, these stores should offer another perspective on them and their actions, whetting your appetite enough to draw you into following them for a full book (or ten). But far too often these are an ad masquerading as a story. I love vignettes told from the point of view of a different character in the book (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a favorite of mine). Our own Clare did this recently, as did J.A. Konrath and Lee Child in the Thriller Anthology. For me, those stories work. Less appealing is something that’s clearly excerpted from a book.
Mind you, many of the stories I loved, and all for different reasons. Most offered a glimpse of characters at a crossroad. The story depicts a flash from their lives when the crime they encounter, whether expected or unexpected, defines them in just a few short pages. A standoff in a drugstore, or a murder in an alley. Not that it has to take place in a short time frame, but by and large I don’t need to see their entire lives, and I really don’t enjoy a Christie-style parlor room “this is what happened” scene at the end. Just give it to me straight.
So what do you think makes a strong short story? And is it a tougher format for crime fiction?
He knows I’d never blurb an Amherst grad…
I’ll say one thing, Bouchercon ’08 held the appropriate moniker. People sent to the hospital with food poisoning, people tumbling down flights of stairs, people consuming alcohol in levels roughly equivalent to those experienced at college frat parties (far be it for me to condemn that behavior, however, as anyone who saw me in the bar on Thursday night can attest).
Bouchercon ’08 was truly one for the record books. As has already been noted on various blogs and lists, the Jordans and Judy Bobalik did a phenomenal job of organizing something that makes herding cats look easy. Let’s call it the equivalent of herding parrots. And despite the few inevitable mishaps, it went off largely without a hitch. Here, then, are my belated comments on the experience…
The Panels: Wow, I ended up on some great panels. Those bribes really paid off. Booze and books (or something like that) with Ken Bruen, Jason Starr, Liz Zelvin, Con Lehane, and the inimitable Ali Karim moderating, Gordon’s Gin in hand. Lively and lots of fun. I also loved the one on “Psycho Killers,” here I thought I was an expert but I learned some things (like the true identity of Jack the Ripper. Seriously. Ask Mark Billingham if you’re curious). My only complaint was that my fellow panelists were all far too witty and well-informed. I much prefer to be partnered with dullards, it makes me look so much better in comparison.
The Food: I might be alone in this (although I suspect Robert Gregory Brown would agree with me), but I could not seem to get a decent meal in Baltimore. Part of that might be due to the fact that I ate a fair portion of my meals at the hotel restaurant, Shulas. Never expect a good meal from anyplace bearing any relation to football (I should have learned from all those years I ate at Boomers in NYC.) Lots of salt, copious amounts of butter. I escaped relatively unscathed (although the girl who vomited on Alison Gaylin in Burkes came dangerously close to hitting me as well). But I was definitely a little disappointed in the cuisine: I don’t mind a mediocre entree, but I do mind paying $30 for it.
Baltimore: I didn’t see all that much of it, not having a rental car, but wow– the Harbor? Awesome. I quickly learned, however, that there was only one proper route back from the harbor to the hotel. Take the street running parallel to that one, and you were quickly in the midst of seedy bars and places named things like “The Jewel Box.” I might be wrong, but they didn’t appear to be selling jewelry. Though I’m a hard core fan of The Wire, stumbling on set is unnerving. I kept expecting Snoop to turn the corner with her nail gun.
Lee Child: The man throws the best parties. Do whatever you must to get invited, they’re amazing. And Lee is always a class act.
Harlan Coben: Next time you see him, tell him Amherst is a safety school. He loves it, I swear.
My Voice: Started out normal, went through a series of phases from Lauren Bacall to Kathleen Turner on two packs a day to Froggy from the Little Rascals. I’m still recovering.
It was incredible linking faces to all those familiar names from various groups and blogs (such as this one), and I love it when people come up and introduce themselves by saying, “I’m your Facebook friend.” How 21st century is that?
Anyway, I returned home as always with no voice, twenty extra pounds worth of books (no checking the bag on this leg of the journey), a few photos, and a miserable hangover from lack of sleep and general overconsumption of liquor and salt. Whew. Thank god I have a full year until Indianapolis, this time I start training early…
PS- Stay tuned: next week I’ll tell you all about my tour of the FBI Academy in Quantico, including an interesting tidbit I picked up about what tomato sauce resembles under a black light.
Folks, we have a special treat for you today. The extremely talented and charming thriller writer Tim Maleeny has graciously joined us. Read on to discover what villainy lurks beneath his seemingly cheerful demeanor…and remember, comment to be entered in a drawing for a $50 gas card!
This past week has been dedicated to villains we love:
Con men who seduce us into parting with our life’s savings, charismatic academics who persuade us to invite them over for dinner and then eat our livers. Smiling politicians who pretend to be our neighbors and then turn out to be, well, politicians.
All variations on a theme, all creatures with an innate magnetism that draws us towards them when every rational instinct is telling us to run away. It’s no wonder the consensus among writers is that you can’t have a great story without a great villain.
So here, for your consideration, are some rules of thumb for keeping your villains suitably loathsome over time.
OK, this guy gives me the creeps, but he is kinda cool…
A lot of first-time novelists — and many bad Hollywood films — make the mistake of painting villains in two dimensions, with no redeeming or aspirational qualities. But if you think about your favorite bad guys, many of whom have already been mentioned in this killer blog by other authors, the villains are pretty damn interesting.
Often it’s their power. Darth Vader might be evil, but he sounds like James Earl Jones and can choke a guy from across the room, just by bringing his fingers together. Who doesn’t want that power the next time their boss (or spouse) berates them?
Sometimes it’s their charm. Think of Alan Rickman in the first Die Hard movie. Smart, funny, even likable — but still a convincing villain willing to kill scores of people just to steal some money. Now try to remember the bad guy in the second Die Hard movie, then give up immediately because it sucked. The series didn’t get back on track until they brought some personality back to the villains.
Bigger and better
It’s not only OK, it’s essential that the villain be better than your protagonist in some way — smarter, stronger, perhaps more money or charm. Or perhaps just more determined.
But it’s the contrast that’s important, the juxtaposition of qualities you loathe with characteristics you wish you had. A great villain makes you hate them at a visceral level because, deep down, part of you envies them as well.
Don’t fall in love
Your antagonist is not your protagonist. Say this again like a mantra before you write another chapter.
Caveat — this isn’t about all the superb novels and films in which a flawed character follows an arc of redemption — recognizing that most great stories since The Odyssey have been about that inner quest. This is about writers who fall in love with their villains to the point that they sacrifice some of the moral repugnance needed as an essential ingredient for a memorable bad guy.
(Easy example is Hannibal Lecter in any of the titles written after Red Dragon and Silence Of The Lambs. If those books had been written first, he wouldn’t be the icon of evil he is today.)
I want to be intrigued by your villain, but I also want to feel some self-loathing or fear at my own attraction to him.
The killer inside me is also inside you
I believe reading or writing crime fiction is cathartic. It is the literary genre driven by a moral compass that finds true North in the heart of the characters. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances making impossible choices.
Crime fiction can also reinforce a set of values shared by most people but which often aren’t politically correct. Reading Lee Child might satisfy your own personal sense of justice that’s frustrated by the countless slights and indignities of everyday life. Reacher can do the things you only imagine doing but which you know are right. Rules or no rules, he’ll see that the right thing gets done.
But another great aspect of crime fiction is that it lets you work out your inner demons, especially the ones you didn’t know were there. It’s a sidelong glance in the mirror for those of us who don’t always want to look ourselves in the eye when shaving. That’s where the villains come in.
The brilliant Patricia Highsmith demonstrated with The Talented Mr. Ripley that every character believes he or she is in the right. They might be acting out of necessity, ambition, or some twisted sense of honor, but most villains don’t see themselves as being in the wrong, not in the absolute sense. I’m protecting my family has been a great defense for everything from bank fraud to suicide bombing.
Under the right (or wrong) circumstances, any of us is capable of doing horrible things. Great villains give you goosebumps not for what they do, but because something about them sends a frisson of recognition up your spine.
For one terrifying moment you saw yourself in them, and you felt the blood on your hands. And much to your horror and secret delight, it felt damn good.
Happy reading. See you in hell.
Special Note: Join us next Sunday, August 31 when our guest blogger will be international bestselling author and International Thriller Writers VP, David Hewson.
That sounds so ominous, doesn’t it?
So I drew the short straw for the inaugural Kill Zone posting. It’s a lot of pressure. I feel the need to write something weighty and momentous, a breathtaking post befitting the gravitas of a blog launch.
After a week of pondering, I’ve still got nothing. So in lieu of providing an illuminating perspective on an important issue, I’m going to do a whiny wrap-up of my recent book tour instead. With any luck, John and Clare have come up with something more impressive for their turn. A person can always hope, right?
And away we go…
My Book Tour, aka “Death March with Signing Pen”
Just to clarify, I’m not really complaining. I’m know that I’m lucky to have books published, luckier still that people appear to be reading them, and that foolish booksellers allow me into their stores armed with my bookmarks and refrigerator magnets. I love bookstores in general, and I’m a shameless performer, so the opportunity to get up in front of people and pontificate is something you’ll have to pry from my cold dead hands. That said, as I enter week four of my book tour (which I’ve officially dubbed “death march with signing pen”), I have come to notice the downside. I’m truly a homebody at heart; I love spending ninety percent of my time locked indoors with little but a keyboard for company. So being gone for extended periods of time is not only wearing, it makes me start missing things…
1. Food: I have no idea how a person manages to eat dinner during these tours. I leave my house around 5PM to get to most of these events, and then I generally get home around 10 or 11PM. Most local restaurants have closed by the time I’ve finished reading, and when I get home I don’t have the energy to assemble a bowl of cereal. Seriously, I haven’t had a hot meal in weeks. I’m wasting away. I’ve developed a theory that this is how Lee Child remains so svelte.
2. Television: I’m way behind on my programming. I’ve actually had to delete things from my Tivo UNWATCHED to make space for more critical shows. Which presents a horrible conundrum for me: though I have yet to watch the HD version of “The Science of Sleep,” I had intended to watch it someday. Will it be on again in the future? Can I really risk deleting it in favor of an episode of Project Runway?
Which leads to my next concern: as far behind as I am on my regular series, I’m completely in the dark when it comes to reality shows. This might not seem grave to some of you, but when my husband has a better idea of who might win “So You Think You Can Dance” than I do, things have gone horribly awry.
3. Company: I can pretty much guarantee that if you do more than a few tour stops with the same author, the two of you will quickly adopt the worst attributes of an old married couple. So it was with Simon Wood and I. Early on, we found each other charming. He chuckled at my “accidentally killed off my main character” story, I gasped during his “trapped at an underground fight club in Tulsa” anecdote. But the bloom quickly faded, and by week three we were sniping at each other, rolling our eyes, and generally behaving like the main characters in “The War of the Roses.”
4. Family: Granted, this should have come first. You know things are getting bad when your kid stops recognizing you. All right, I’m exaggerating (I am a writer, after all) but after being gone for five days, then heading out for a different corner of the Bay Area every night, it does become a little surreal. Plus, I reflexively tried to sign my name on my toddler the other day. Not good.
5. Beds: Of course, at times the beds have been the least of my problems. There was, for example, the Days Inn behind the strip club in San Diego, with all sorts of sketchy characters lurking in the corridor outside my room. But a month of sleeping on strange beds does tend to wreak havoc on my spine.
6. Flights: I’m not a nervous flyer; in fact I used to look forward to getting on a plane and going somewhere exotic. Now that I’ve spent the past four weekends getting on and off planes, I have a few…let’s call them helpful suggestions…for the airlines. For instance, why not take off on time? I swear, I haven’t been on a trip in over six months that didn’t experience a two-to-five hour delay at the airport (or better yet, on the tarmac). And hey, is it really so difficult to have some form of nourishment available? I’ll pay for it; I would just love to be able to purchase that twenty-dollar mealy sandwich on the plane if I didn’t have the opportunity to grab one during my two mile-long sprint from gate 1 to gate 50 as I changed flights. And while we’re on the subject, consider turning off the seatbelt sign from time to time (an especially good idea during that three hour-long stint on the tarmac). When the person next to you maintains a running monologue on the size of their bladder, as the flight crew flips through celebrity rags and growls at anyone attempting to get out of their seats, it becomes abundantly clear that the glory days of civilian jetsetting have drawn to a tragic close.
So, anyone else have war stories to share? Best comment receives a signed edition of my first thriller THE TUNNELS. If you don’t win, console yourself by signing up for my newsletter at www.michellegagnon.com and I’ll toss your name in the hat for an Amazon Kindle, iPod Shuffle, Starbucks gift certificates, and other fabulous prizes.
Michelle Gagnon is a former modern dancer, bartender, dog walker, model, personal trainer, and Russian supper club performer. Her debut thriller The Tunnels was an IMBA bestseller. Her latest book, Boneyard, depicts a cat and mouse game between dueling serial killers. In her spare time she frantically watches television in an attempt to make room on her tivo drive.