Using the Novel Journal for Writing Breakthroughs

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I was at Bouchercon a week ago and did a panel with some other legal thriller authors. Before it began we were interacting with some people in the audience, and a woman in the front row made a funny comment about something I said, and I replied into the mike, “I’ll do the jokes, madam.”
We all had a chuckle. The moderator, who was sitting next to me, leaned over and whispered, “Do you know who that is?”
I shook my head.
“Sue Grafton,” he said.
Indeed, it was the amazing author of the alphabet series featuring gumshoe Kinsey Millhone. 
Which, when you think about it, is virtually unprecedented. Twenty-six mysteries around a single series character in a wide variety of mystery plots.
How, one might ask, does she make the magic happen book after book?
One answer is the novel journal. I read about this in Ms. Grafton’s chapter from the book Writing the Private Eye Novel (Writer’s Digest Books, 1997). She calls this her “most valuable tool.”
What this tool does is provide a “testing ground” for ideas, a place for both left and right brain hemispheres mix it up a little. As she puts it:
Right Brain is creative, spatial, playful, disorganized, dazzling, nonlinear, the source of the Aha! or imaginative leap. Without Right Brain, there would be no material for Left Brain to refine. Without Left Brain, the jumbled brilliance of Right Brain would never coalesce into a satisfactory whole.
The novel journal is a free form document that is added to each morning before getting to work on the novel. This is what Sue puts in there:
The day’s date and a bit of diary stuff, how she’s feeling and so on. This is to track outside influences on her writing.
Next is notes about any ideas that emerged overnight. I especially like this part, because the writer’s mind has been working while I sleep and I want to pour out everything I can. The trick here is not to think too much about what you write. Just let it flow.
Third, she writes about where she is in the book. She “talks” to herself about the scene she’s working on, or problems that have arisen. In the “safety of the journal” she can play the What If game. She can debate things with herself. Right Brain and Left Brain can duke it out. She’s playful. “I don’t have to look good. I can be as dumb or goofy as I want.”
What happens then is that she finds she “slides” naturally into her writing day. There is no hesitancy as there might be if she just got to work on the WIP.  
Writing about this now excites me. I have to admit I’ve been lax about using this during this NaNoWriMo month. As I write this particular post (it’s Tuesday) I’m a little over halfway through my NaNo novel and feel the need to mine deeper into my writer mind. So I’ll be journaling away for the rest of the month. 
Yes, it was nice having Sue Grafton show up at my panel and crack wise.
Here are a few more tips on making the novel journal work for you:
Trust. Keep your fingers typing. Lose control. Don’t worry if it’s correct, polite, appropriate. Just let it rip. Stay with the first flash. If something scary comes up, go for it. That’s where the energy is. Figure out what you want to say in the act of writing.
“We write and then catch up with ourselves.” (Natalie Goldberg)
If you don’t know what to write in the journal, open a dictionary at random. Pick the first noun you see. Now start writing whatever that word suggests to you.
Work out problems in your novel by asking questions and letting your Right Brain suggest answers. Then let your Left Brain assess them.
Be specific. When something unique pops up, follow that lead. Don’t hesitate to write for five or ten minutes on one thing if that’s where you’re being led.
Be willing to be disturbed.
If you’re pantser, the journal will help you decide what to write next. If you’re a plotter, the journal will help you bring to life the scenes you’ve mapped out. And if plot or character takes a weird turn, you can hash it out in the journal until you decide how to use it. 

Give it a try sometime. I think you’ll be pleased with the results. 

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When Titles Go Bad

By P.J. Parrish

Okay, we’re starting out today with a quiz. No Google-cheating for the answers either. Here are the original titles for some books. I guarantee you’ve read at least one. (I’ve read them all which is why I picked them) Can you guess what they wound up being called?

The Last Man in Europe
They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen
Fiesta
At This Point in Time
Wacking Off

Now let’s talk about what you’re going to call your book. Because this is the most important marketing decision you will make and frankly, given the quality of some titles out there, we all need some help on this front.

The naming of books is a difficult matter. 
It isn’t just one of your holiday games. 
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter 
when I tell you, a book must have three different names.

Apologies to T.S. Eliot but I’ve found that his rhyme about naming cats works for books. In my life I’ve had sixteen cats and published sixteen books. Weird stat, huh? Got me thinking  about how important a name is when it comes to your book.

How important? I found a marketing survey that asked readers what was the element that most influenced why they bought a book. Excluding Gigantoid Author Name (ie James Patterson can put his name on an Altoid can and it would sell) here is the order:

1. Title
2. Cover
3. Back copy
4. Opening paragraphs
5. Price

This is why when Carson McCullers submitted her first novel The Mute to Houghton-Mifflin they bought it and renamed the book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. This is why after William Golding’s first novel Strangers from Within was plucked from Faber and Faber’s slush pile, it was retitled Lord of the Flies.


First impressions count. And your title is like a business card, a quick but well-calculated introduction you offer your reader in the hopes it will entice her to want to know more. It doesn’t matter if you’re traditionally published or doing it yourself, the wrong title can make or break your book – and you.

Going traditional? In your average publishing house, there will be many people with their hands on your book: editors, sales reps, marketing managers, publicists, even book buyers at the major booksellers will weigh in on the consumer appeal of your title. (Walmart threatened to not stock our book South of Hell because of the title; they backed off) Chances are your title will be challenged or even changed.

Going self-published? What you call your book will be entirely up to you so it’s really important to understand what a title needs to do. More on that in a moment.

Let’s go back to T.S. Eliot for a sec. He says that cats have three names: the first is the one the family uses in every day life. For us this was UNTITLED LOUIS KINCAID THRILLER NO. 1. That’s how it appeared on our contract. Lots of writers call their book WIP or The Book. Or in some sad cases, That Thing That Has Eaten Up My Life For Ten Years.

Eliot’s second name for cats is “fancier names that sound sweeter.” For us, it was The Last Rose of Summer, the title we submitted. We loved this title. We thought it spoke volumes about our thriller which was about the vestiges of Old South racism, forbidden love and death. But it wasn’t dark enough. It sounded like a romance.

Eliot’s third cat name is one that’s “particular, peculiar and more dignified.” This is the title your book really needs. For us, it was Dark of the Moon. We came upon that title after weeks of gnashing our teeth. I pulled my volume of Langston Hughes poems from the shelf and there was his poem “Silhouette” and our final title.

Southern gentle lady,
Do not swoon.
They’ve just hung a black man
In the dark of the moon.

They’ve hung a black man
To the roadside tree
In the dark of the moon
For the world to see
How Dixie protects
Its white womanhood.

Southern gentle lady,
          Be good!
          Be good!

I think some authors have “the title gene” and come up with the perfect names. Others lock onto signposts like Sue Grafton’s alphabet, John Sandford’s “Prey” or Evanovich’s numbers. Although I have to say I’m not crazy about this approach especially since it has spawned some lazy imitation gimmicks. (Hey, I’m going to write an erotic-suspense series! I just Googled condom names! Want to buy my book Vibrating Johnny?)

We’ve been lucky and have had to change only two of our titles. Maybe it’s because I used to write newspaper headlines so my brain is trained to take a story and smash it down into ten words or less that you can read from a passing car. I do know that authors struggle mightily with their titles. There’s even a award for the worst title -– and of course it’s awarded by the British.

Bookseller Magazine gave their prize this year to Reginald Bakeley for his book Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop – and Other Practical advice In Our Campaign Against the Fairy Kingdom. The runners-up were:

How Tea Cosies Changed the World.
God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis.
How to Sharpen Pencils.
Was Hitler Ill?

In twelve years of teaching workshops and doing critiques I’ve have seen maybe one title that I thought really captured the book’s tone. (It was our own Kathryn Lilly’s Dying To Be Thin.) So I know how hard this is. Here is my advice on titles, for what it’s worth:

  1. Capture your tone and genre. Go on Amazon and look up books similar to yours (cruise the genre bestseller lists). Words have inflection, mood and color. Choose them carefully.
  2. Grab the reader emotionally. Two titles that do it for me: The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold 
  3. Don’t settle for clichés. Yes, it’s hard to come up with fresh permutations on old standby words (especially in genre fiction where we rely on “dark” “blood” “death” etc.) But you have to find words that are unique about your story and draw upon them. Here’s a great title that twists a cliché word: Something Wicked This Way Comes.
  4. Don’t use empty arcane words that you think sound cool. Examples of bad titles: The Cambistry Conspiracy. (about world trade) The Hedonic Dilemma (about psychology ethics).  Penultimate to Die. (the second-to-the-last victim).  Don’t worry…I made these up. 
  5. Create an expectation about the story. You know why I love this title: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? It makes me say, “Oh yeah, buddy? Show me!” and he does.
  6. Be brief and punchy. Okay, I know I just gave you a bunch of long titles I love but there is something wonderful about short titles and studies show most bestsellers have short titles: Gone Girl works. So does Tell No One, Lolita and Jaws (original title A Stillness in the Water).
  7. Make the title work on other levels. This is hard but worth the brain-sweat if you can do it. Consider what these titles come to mean once you get deep into the stories: Catch 22, Silence of the Lambs. But don’t get too clever. I love Louise Ure’s book Forcing Amaryllis and the title is brilliant because it is about a rape and murder. But do most understand that the title is from a gardening term about forcing a plant to bloom early? Not so sure.
  8. Make a list of key words that appear in your book. Is there something you can build on? For our book A Killing Rain, the title came when I heard a Florida farmer describe that drenching downpour that can kill off the tomato crop and we used it in the book. The title was there all the time and we didn’t see it at first.
  9. Search existing works — the Bible, poetry, Shakespeare. I found our title An Unquiet Grave in an 17th century English poem.
  10. Write 20 titles and let them sit for a week or so. Go back and read them and something will jump out. Find some beta-readers you can test with. Titles usually evoke visceral immediate responses. You will know immediately if they connect.

And last: Never get emotionally attached to a title. It’s the worst thing you can do because it probably will be changed. Or needs to be. Because your first title is usually, as T.S. Eliot said, a prosaic every-day thing. You can do better. It’s there. You just have to dig deep. Sweat out that great title that Eliot called the “ineffable, effable, effanineffable deep and inscrutable singular name.”

Answers to the quiz:
The Last Man in Europe (1984)
They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen (Valley of the Dolls)
Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises)
At This Point in Time (All the President’s Men)
Wacking Off (Portnoy’s Complaint)

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I Believe I Am Really a Writer

I am not a number! I am a free man! 
– The Prisoner


Back when I was learning this stuff, this writing craft and business, I devoured books on writing and the contents of two magazines, The Writer and Writer’s Digest. I always plucked something useful out of all of them, every single one, and once I read something that was put in as magazine filler, written by the English novelist Malcolm Bradbury. I liked it so much I cut it out and pinned it to my bulletin board. It’s from his memoir, Unseen Letters: Irreverent Notes From a Literary Life:
I believe I am really a writer. I write everything.  I write novels and short stories and plays and playlets, interspersed with novellas and two-hander sketches. I write histories and biographies and introductions to the difficulties of modern science and cook books and books about the Loch Ness monster and travel books, mostly about East Grinstead….I write children’s books and school textbooks and works of abstruse philosophy…and scholarly articles on the Etruscans and works of sociology and anthropology. I write articles for the women’s page and send in stories about the most unforgettable characters I have ever met to Reader’s Digest….I write romantic novels under a female pseudonym and detective stories.…I write traffic signs and “this side up” instructions for cardboard boxes. I believe I am really a writer.
I thought of this quote the other day when I read a now infamous article wherein one Ewan Morrison laments the new paradigm of self-publishing, which he calls a “classic race to the bottom.”  To quote the article:
Many will cheer, Morrison admits, including the more than one million new authors who have outflanked traditional gatekeepers by “publishing” their work in Amazon’s online Kindle store. “All these people I’m sure are very happy to hear they’re demolishing the publishing business by creating a multiplicity of cheap choices for the reader,” Morrison says. “I beg to differ.”
Feh.
I was more impressed with another writer quoted in the piece, Jake MacDonald. “My ecological model is the raccoon – a diversified survivor,” MacDonald said. “I’m always writing, but the survival plan continues to evolve. I’m surviving as well as I ever did, but in completely different ways.”
Hear, hear! MacDonald is a guy who gets it. It’s the Raccoon Way or the highway, my friends. Adapt or die.
Not long ago I was talking to a traditionally published author who saw what I was doing—stories, novellas, novelettes, non-fiction, backlist (all in addition to my trad books)and wondered if I might be spreading myself too thin. 
It’s precisely the opposite. I’m spreading myself thick. I’m making honest lettuce every month by writing what I want, finding readerships for each item (which makes for cross-over to my other works), adding to my platform and making business judgments accordingly. What is wrong with this picture? Nothing, ifyou are a writer who thinks it’s okay to make money off your writing.
So I, too, believe I am really a writer. I write full length thrillers and crime novellas. I write short stories about a boxer named Irish Jimmy Gallagher, and novelettes about a martial arts nun named Sister J. I write “how to” articles and books on the writing craft, and a treatise on law for California lawyers. I write historical romances and, in my spare time, zombie legal thrillers. I write blog posts and writing tweets, emails to my fans and journals to myself. I make up more stories than I’ll be able to write in my lifetime, and choose the ones that excite me most and write those.
Traditional publishing needs to embrace this model. It needs to understand that a self-publishing writer who follows “The 5 Laws” is building a solid platform because it’s based on readership. Publishers inside the Forbidden City should now see themselves less as potentates granting approbation, and more as “creative partners” with enterprising writers (see my Declaration of Indie-Pendence).
And any writer entering such a partnership must be willing to do what’s best to support the traditionally published books––by not competing with them and not being a ratfink to the publisher. This is all worked out in what is called negotiation. Which, I hasten to add, is supposed to be two-sided and win-win.
The bottom line is there is no bottom line. There is no one way to go about any of this. And even though that’s causing indigestion in Manhattan board rooms, the Alka-Seltzer of the new reality is just a plop plop, fizz fizz away. Drink of it!
I am a writer, so I write. And continue to read books on writing and review my binders of articles on the craft, because this is what I do. I’m never going to rest or just “mail it in.” I’m going to write as long as I can, as well as I can, until they find me with my cold, dead fingers poised over the keyboard, hopefully after I’ve just typed THE END.
I am a writer.
I believe it.
What do you believe?

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“I” is for Integrity: Sue Grafton and the Self-Publishing Blowback

One of those instant, internet explosions broke out this past week after the great Sue Grafton gave an interviewer some opinions on self-publishing. She said that self-publishing was a “lazy” way out. The interviewer pressed her on that, in light of indie successes like John Locke. Grafton responded:
Obviously, I’m not talking about the rare few writers who manage to break out. The indie success stories aren’t the rule. They’re the exception. The self-published books I’ve read are often amateurish. I’ve got one sitting on my desk right now and I’ve received hundreds of them over the years. Sorry about that, but it’s the truth. The hard work is taking the rejection, learning the lessons, and mastering the craft over a period of time. I see way too many writers who complete one novel and start looking for the fame and fortune they’re sure they’re entitled to. To me, it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research. Learning to construct a narrative and create character, learning to balance pace, description, exposition, and dialogue takes a long time. This is not an quick do-it-yourself home project. Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall. Don’t get me started. Oops..you already did.
Then the indie blowback began. A good example comes from Hugh Howey, author of the hugely successful Wool:
Sue Grafton thinks I’m lazy. Yeah. Hard to swallow when I look at how many hours I pour into my writing career each week (and weekend).
. . . .
Why in the world is this interviewer asking a buggy whip expert about picking out a new car? What does Sue Grafton know about publishing in today’s market and with today’s tools? Judging by this response, she knows absolutely nothing. Less than nothing, in fact. What she thinks she knows is harmful to aspiring writers.
Ms. Grafton saw the coverage, and asked the blog that originally ran her interview for a chance to respond:
The responses to that quote ranged from irate to savage to the downright nasty  Indie writers felt I was discounting their efforts and that I was tarring too many with the same brush. I wasn’t my intention to tar anyone, if the truth be known. Several writers took the time to educate me on the state of e-publishing and the nature of self-publishing as it now stands. I am uninitiated when it comes to this new format. I had no idea how wide-spread it was, nor did I see it as developing as a response to the current state of traditional publishing, which is sales driven and therefore limited in its scope. I understand that e-publishing has stepped into the gap, allowing a greater number of authors to enter the marketplace. This, I applaud.  I don’t mean to sound defensive here…though of course I do.
. . . .
My remark about self-publishing was meant as a caution, which I think some of you finally understood when we exchanged notes on the subject.
Ms. Grafton went on to say she takes “responsibility for my gaffe and I hope you will understand the spirit in which it was meant.” She added, “I am still learning and I hope to keep on learning for as long as I write.”
Good on her for this gracious response. Sue Grafton has always been on the writers’ side, and her initial comments grew out of this advocacy. Indeed, she stated at the very beginning that she wasn’t talking about the “exceptions” who break out.
Which makes her remarks largely valid. Many (not all!) who self-publish do so too soon. For many (not all!) it IS the “lazy” way, as compared to the hard work of learning the craft, getting better, being honest with yourself about your weaknesses and doing everything you can to correct them.
In that respect her view is not harmful. Indeed, it may be the very thing that saves a writer from embarrassing himself, or striking out expecting indie gold only to find canyons of wet dirt . . . and a reason to sit around Starbucks for the rest of his life grousing over his damned bad luck.
No matter how you publish, you have to earn success, and it ain’t easy. When it comes to encouraging self-published writers, I’m not going to offer pie-in-the-writing-sky. I’m going to offer clear and hard-headed advice that has proved itself over time. Advice that gives you a reasonable chance to make a buck, and maybe a living, by writing.
But a big part of that is not to short change yourself by publishing the first thing you finish. Amazon is not the place to throw up your NaNoWriMo project on December 1 every year.
And that is what Sue Grafton was getting at. She is old school, yes. But it was a school with some classic courses, and there is wisdom there to be heeded.
H/T to The Passive Voice for coverage of this controversy. 
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