Playing Jenga with my book

By Joe Moore

There’s a great game called Jenga. It’s comprised of lots of wooden blocks from which you build a tower. Each player in turn removes one wooden block from anywhere within the tower. The object of the game is to game1not be the one to remove the block that tumbles the tower into a heap of rubble. After all, each block is connected, touches, or relies on the others. The tower must remain structurally stable and strong to keep from falling and breaking. It’s fun to play, but you know that if you pull the wrong block, you can cause a chain reaction that brings the tower down. Once it falls, the game is over.

This week, I’m deep into the editing of the galley proof for my upcoming thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES (June 8). It’s one of, if not the most critical stage of the novel writing process. Up until now, it’s been all fun and games: playing “what if”, outlining, researching, writing, discussing the plot with my agent/editor, sending out portions of the manuscript to my beta readers, rewriting, changing and shifting plot and characters, panicking that I won’t meet the deadline, turning in the manuscript on the deadline day, waiting for the initial feedback from my editor, strategizing with the publisher’s publicity department, seeing the cover art for the first time, worrying, and waiting. A treat arrives in the mail in the form of an ARC (advance reader copy) that my editor snagged for me. I get to see the mockup of the book and cover, and hold it in my hands, and show family and friends that there really will be another book, and I really am a writer, and the first four books weren’t just flukes. So up until now, it’s been tons of fun.

Suddenly, I get an email from the copy editor. The galley proof (the entire text printed as it will appear in the final version) will arrive on such and such a date, and she needs my corrections back on such and such a date to meet the “to-press” date. And she includes the statement that causes all warmth to drain from my body to be replaced with bone-crunching Arctic fear: this will be my final opportunity to make changes.

I’m about to play Jenga with my book.

OK, I can handle it. After all, everyone who read the manuscript loved it. Sure, there’s going to be a few typos that even the editor and proof reader missed. Hey, we’re all human, right? I’ll just whip through this baby, catch a few minor flaws, and get it back ahead of time.

Note: one big advantage here; I have a co-writer, and she’s got her own copy of the galley proof, and she’s going through the same exercise I am. So we figure it’ll be a quick read-through and we’re done. Then we can get back to the fun stuff, right?

So far, I have 5 pages of changes, mostly small items, but a couple of plot issues that need a great deal of thought before we commit to a change. The reason is, one small change, even a word, can break stuff all over the place. Pull the wrong block and the book comes tumbling down.

“This will be your final opportunity to make changes.”

Most of the changes going back to the copy editor are small stuff. But if I stumble across something that needs to be clarified and that clarification causes something else to be changed, and that change causes a major . . .

You get the idea. Editing the galley proof is like pulling blocks in the Jenga tower without it crumbling down around me. It’s not fun, and you don’t get a second chance. Who said writing a novel wasn’t dangerous?

How does this stage of the process go for the rest of the writers out there? Do you love it or hate it? Do you play Jenga with your book?

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8, 2011.
”Leaves the reader breathless and wanting more.”
– James Rollins


Character Development

Today, our guest is my friend and fellow South Florida writer Nancy Cohen. Nancy is the author of 15 novels including futuristic romance and mysteries. For many years, Nancy and I have served as beta readers for each other’s work.

nancy-cohen I like to discuss story development because despite all the advance plotting we do, fiction writing still remains a magical process.  My agent is marketing a new mystery series proposal of mine.  Here are some insights on how the story developed.  It may help you with your own mystery.

I’d written the first 20 pages but then I came to a halt.  I was nearly to the point where I had to introduce the suspects, but I needed to know them better first.  I’d made a list of the people who were family or acquaintances of the victim.  Next, I gave them each a dirty secret so they all appeared to have a motive for murder.  The next step, and one at which my subconscious came into play, was to connect the suspects to each other.  This is when the story really starts to get more defined.  Think of the Milky Way and how the planets swirl in a big sweeping motion around the central core of our sun.  They start to condense, tighten, draw together.  That’s what happens in my head.  The story comes into focus. 

Here is where personal experiences come into play as well.  An acquaintance told me she sells an anti-aging product, and she handed me a flyer.  Cool.  One of my characters, a pharmacist, will be a snake oil salesman who markets a false product he claims is derived from water beneath the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine.  That’s where he lives, and I’d already planned to go there on a research trip.

Then I overheard a conversation in our beauty salon.  Marla Shore, heroine/sleuth of my Bad Hair Day series, would have been proud of me.  One lady spoke about how someone was running down ducks in her neighborhood and the cops were trying to catch him.  The police would arrest him on charges of animal abuse. I gave this nasty act to another one of my suspects.  It shows his perverted character.

For my people’s occupations, I used a book called The Fiction Writer’s Silent Partner by Martin Roth.  This reference is a great source of inspiration. It lists all kinds of things related to character background, plotting, slang, genre conventions, and more.

Once I had the bare bones of my suspects, I searched for pictures to represent them.  Here I plowed through my character file, where I keep photos I’ve cut out from magazines.  I wait for that “Ah ha!” moment when the person’s face matches my character.  This inspires the physical description and maybe adds more background on the individual’s personality. 

Each suspect gets a page in my notebook with their picture and a brief description.  The heroine/sleuth gets a full page with what I call my Character Development Tool. This includes physical traits, strengths and weaknesses, short and long term goals, dark secret, etc.  See Debra Dixon’s book: GMC: Goal, Motivation, & Conflict for excellent advice on this topic.  Besides the suspects and victim, then I have to develop the recurrent characters: the sleuth’s friends, family, colleagues, and love interest.  Book one requires laying the groundwork for the entire series.

Once the character development is done and the relationships defined, the plot takes shape.  Then I can write the synopsis.  At this point, the words are ready to spill out on paper.

Do you develop your characters before plotting the story or vice versa? Or are you a pantser rather than a plotter?

SilverSerenade Nancy J. Cohen is a multi-published author who writes romance and mysteries.  She began her career writing futuristic romances. Her first title, CIRCLE OF LIGHT, won the HOLT Medallion Award.  After four books in this genre, she switched to mysteries to write the popular Bad Hair Day series featuring hairdresser Marla Shore, who solves crimes with wit and style under the sultry Florida sun.  Several of these titles made the IMBA bestseller list. PERISH BY PEDICURE and KILLER KNOTS are the latest books in this humorous series. Active in the writing community and a featured speaker at libraries and conferences, Nancy is listed in Contemporary Authors, Poets & Writers, and Who’s Who in U.S. Writers, Editors & Poets. Nancy’s new release, SILVER SERENADE, is a sexy space adventure and her fifteenth title.


Open Tuesdays

[image4.png]It’s time for another Open Tuesday while our blogmate, Kathryn Lilley, is on medical hiatus. Bring us your questions, comments and discussions. If you have a question about writing, publishing or any other related topic, ask away in our comments section. We’ll do our best to get you an answer.

And don’t forget you can download a copy of FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.


Coming up short with word count

By Joe Moore

“I’ve cut this rope three times and it’s still too short.”

image Despite the corny old carpenter joke about miss-measuring, it’s something that does happens from time to time when writing a book. You’re under contract to deliver a 100k-word manuscript and your first draft is 10k short. What do you do? Do you “pad” the writing—go in and add a lot of stuff just for the sake of word count. Padding usually involves “staging” or additional extraneous actions by your characters as they move around the “stage”. But doing it too much will call attention to the padding and wind up getting sliced out by your editor. Intentional padding is not the answer. But there are some legitimate ways to increase word count without bloating your story.

One suggestion is to build up your story’s “world” by conducting additional research and adding a few bits and pieces of atmosphere throughout. Let’s say your scene takes place in Miami Beach. Your character is having breakfast on the balcony of her hotel room overlooking the Atlantic. Without slowing down the story, add a few lines about the history of the hotel. Since most of the hotels on Miami Beach have been around for decades, certainly something might have happened years ago at the same local that could reflect on or be pertinent to the story’s plot or situation.

Another method is to utilize your character’s five senses. Are you making good use of them? Sitting on that balcony, your MC must be able to smell the fresh sea breeze and hear the gulls calling from overhead. Or she notices the ever-present container ships slipping along the horizon in the Gulf Stream. Could be that she can feel the film of salt coating the arms of her chair. How does her freshly squeezed OJ taste? You don’t want to use all 5 in every scene, but engaging the senses is a great way to expand the prose and take advantage of an opportunity to further develop your character.

The skill in expanding a manuscript is to do so without appearing to pad the writing. And you want to avoid going down a new rabbit hole and suddenly winding up with too many words such as introducing a new subplot. Always consider the two basic criteria for any additional words: they must either advance the plot or further develop the character. Otherwise, they don’t belong.

What about you? Have you ever come up short on contractual word count? How did you expand the story without it becoming blotted or obviously padded?


Is #2 more important than #1?

By Joe Moore

image Here’s a question that popped up recently on a writer’s forum: has being published made it easier for agents and editors to accept your future work? Are they more lenient because you’ve already been published or do they give your writing the same level of scrutiny that unpublished submissions?

There are many factors here that can affect the publication of a second or third book. Obviously, the success of book one will certainly help getting a contract on the next one. But just because you had the first one published is no guarantee contracts will be issued on follow-ups.

I think that being published through traditional, legitimate methods means that you’re writing on a professional level. And people who write at a professional level usually have an easier time at getting published. Publishing credits do help in getting read, but there’s no substitute for a great book.

I also believe that the most important book you’ll ever write is your second one. Number 2 is THE book. It’s far more important than the first or the third, perhaps the most important of your career. Many folks can write one book, but the number declines when it comes to that second novel. It’s the one that can make, damage or even destroy a future in fiction.

What do you think? Did you feel it was easier to get that second book published after the first hit the shelves? Do you think #2 is critical?

Don’t forget to download a copy of FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.


The demise of free advertising and a first-page critique of The Birds

By Joe Moore

Have you ever seen someone reading a novel at the beach, on a plane, train, doctor’s office, subway, or just noticed a book sitting on a coffee table in someone’s house? Next to having a friend or trusted colleague recommend a book, seeing someone else reading a book is a great product endorsement. After all, that stranger on the plane paid good money to buy it, and you can tell even from a distance just how much they’ve read. If it’s more than half way, that’s a great indicator that the book is worth your time. And what’s really cool is that every one of those books come with free advertising. It’s called cover art. Not only is seeing someone reading a book a good indication that it’s worth reading, but the cover helps reinforce the sell.

Now comes a new dilemma, a byproduct of the emergence of e-books. With the advent and growing popularity of e-readers like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, there’s no more free advertising. Seeing someone reading from a Kindle on a plane or in a Starbucks tells you absolutely nothing about the book. How far have they read? Who knows. And what genre is it? After all, isn’t that the job of the cover art? Even in this era of the emerging e-readers, publishers still believe that books need graphic representations, if only for online marketing. But what about all that free advertising those authors got when their books showed up at the beach or on a train?

If the trend continues, someday it might be gone.

imageAnd now for my critique of today’s first-page submission to TKZ. I don’t know what the author’s WIP is called, so I’ll refer to it as The Birds. You’ll soon see why.

As I maneuvered through the after-work crowd and weaved between the tents of the farmer’s market in Daley Plaza, children clambered up the spine, mounted the wings, and slid down the belly of the 50-feet Picasso sculpture. At the market, people mused over smoked cheddar and peppercorn; heirloom, beefsteak and roma tomatoes; red and black raspberries; white and sweet potatoes; red, green, and yellow peppers and orchards of every variety.

Wild shadows cut across the sky and a gust of wind whooshed into my ear. I stopped cold. Lying at my feet, a seagull quivered. His wings were crooked and bones protruded through his gray feathers. Blood saturated his white underbelly and painted the ground, then the trembling ceased.

“Are you alright?” a man asked, “Did it hit you?”

Forming words seemed impossible. I shook my head.

“Poor thing,” said a woman.

The man tilted his head to the sky. “Never seen seagulls this far inland. Mostly pigeons around here.”

Hundreds of seagulls flying in disarray blocked out the fading evening light. Their cries reminded me of a maternity ward, when one newborn’s cries started up the rest of the babies. A great swoosh of wings stirred up the still air and reverberated across the sky. Something brushed against the back of my neck. Another, against the top of my head. I crouched, covering my ears. One by one the birds rained down on us. Bones snapped against the pavement. Bones crushed underfoot. People panicked and ran into each other. A man elbowed me in the side.

This is a dramatic opening. In fact, it’s verging on melodramatic. It’s also over written and somewhat confusing. Obviously, there’s some scary stuff going on in this scene. Something is making flocks of seagulls fly in disarray and crash into the ground. The problem for me was that the writing is way over the top and exaggerated. And the character is in no real danger, only the birds are. Still, it has some intrigue. An apocalyptic event or environmental situation is causing animals to fall from the sky right into the beefsteak tomatoes. That’s not to be taken lightly. I’d be interested in knowing what it is, but if I were an agent, I’m afraid I’d be hard pressed to keep reading. My advice to the writer is to pull back, distill the essence of this scene and proceed with an economy of words.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Download FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.


The Right Environment to Write

By Joe Moore

I had a discussion at a recent luncheon with a couple of my fellow authors about our individual writing environments and where we prefer to work. One likes to take her laptop to the local coffee shop while another prefers the library. A third writes at home like me. It seems to vary as much as our stories do.

I work from my home office—a commute of 20 or so paces from the kitchen counter where I’ve had coffee and read the paper. It’s an environment in which I feel comfortable and have yet to tire of. Here’s a photo:


My home office has blackout curtains that I can close if I want to set a mood or maintain a constant light level throughout the day. I’m a neat freak so my desk is usually well organized. I’m very impatient and don’t like to wait for programs to load or items to process, so I use a Dell super gaming computer with Intel Quad Core processing. Although I don’t play games, I find that it makes things happen in a blink of an eye.

I also use 3 flat screen monitors allowing me to have my email, word processing and Internet all open so I can see everything at once. Sometimes I sit and patio 053 stare at my fish tank. So does my cat—his name is Patio. But I convinced him that the tank is really a small TV always tuned to Animal Planet. He bought into it and leaves the fish alone, choosing instead to curl up on a nearby wooden chair and sleep his life away.

I have a large collection of movie scores converted to MP3s that I play while I write to set a dramatic mood. The back of home office is full of bookcases containing all my reference books and favorite novels.

I enjoy gazing out my window as I ponder my next plot point. I have a number of golden coconut palms in my yard and a ton of ferns—there can OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         never be enough ferns. In the mornings and evenings,  the palm trees are filled with (non-native) Quaker parrots who like to squawk at rock-concert volume. The rest of the day, I listen to the cardinals, nightingales and blue jays discussing the best worm-infested hunting grounds. At certain times of the year, dragonflies zoom past my window at sunrise like miniature Apache gunships hunting for mosquitoes. In the evening, the motion detector lights turn on to illuminate a passing raccoon.

I live a few miles from the eastern edge of the Florida Everglades, so it’s common for me to see a long-legged white egret, a flock of ibises or a great blue heron wandering across my lawn.

All in all, it’s a great writer’s environment; one that I’ve worked hard to make into a comfortable environment in which I can be creative.

What about you? Where do you like to write? A busy Starbucks or a quiet space? Have you done anything to your writing environment to encourage creativity?


I’d rather have a root canal

By Joe Moore

The dreaded synopsis. It’s the nasty part of writing fiction that everyone hates. After all, if someone wants to know what your book is about, just read it. Right? The synopsis is right up there with getting a root canal. It’s painful and taxing. But it’s also a fact of life that you’re going to have to produce one sooner or later. Especially if you’re a first-time author. Most writers feel that creating a synopsis is harder than actually writing the book. I agree.

Clare touched on it with her July post. Here’s another look at the task we love to hate.

dentist So what is a synopsis?

It’s taking your book’s 80,000 to 120,000 words and condensing them down to a few pages—a brief description of what your book is about. Imagine draining 99.9% of a human body away and still convey the person’s looks, thoughts and personality. A daunting task at best.

How do you get the job done? First, start by accepting the fact that you have to do it. In order to successfully market your new book, you must be able to tell the story in just a few paragraphs or pages. Barring any unusual submission requirements for a particular agent or publisher, a formal synopsis usually runs a page or two. A great time to write your synopsis is as you do your final read-through before declaring mission accomplished—that the book is done. As you finish reading each chapter, write a paragraph or two describing what happened in that chapter—what was the essence of the chapter as it relates to character, motivation and plot. Keep it short such as: Bob and Mary met for the first time. She thought he was a bore. He thought she was self-centered. They had no choice but to work together.

Also be aware of any emotional threads running through the chapter; love, hate, revenge, etc. and make note of them. But always keep it short.

Once you’ve finished the read-through of your manuscript and making subsequent notes for your synopsis, you will have created a chapter-by-chapter outline. (Don’t you wish you had had it before you began writing your book?) So what you’ve done is condense your manuscript into a manageable overview that hits on all the important points dealing with character development and plot. And it contains the emotional threads that make up the human aspect of your story.

Next step: read your chapter-by-chapter outline and determine the most important elements in your story. If you’ve correctly noted what each chapter contains regarding character, plot, and emotions (motivations), it shouldn’t take too many reads to determine the items that were critical in moving the story forward. Again, keep this new set of notes short and simple.

Even after you’ve completed this task, your fledgling synopsis is probably too long and a bit disjointed. So what you have to do next is blend all the key points together into a short narrative. Here’s one way to do it. Imagine that it’s your job to write the cover blurb that goes on the back of your book. You need it to contain enough information that anyone reading it will become interested in reading the whole book. Begin with your main character and the crisis that she faces. Explain why your character behaves as she does. Touch on the main elements that moved the story forward by referring to your chapter-by-chapter list of events. Always make clear what’s at stake—reveal the “story question”. Remember that you have to tell the whole story in the synopsis. Unlike a real cover blurb where there are no spoilers, the synopsis is going to an agent or editor. You must tell them how the story ends. This is no time to be coy. Tell it all.

A synopsis is a selling tool. It must tell your story in a very short amount of words and still get across the essence of the tale. But even more important, it must show that you can write—it is an example of your skill and craftsmanship. It confirms that you know what your story is about and can express emotion. That you understand plot and character development and human motivation.

What a synopsis is not is the classic elevator pitch or the TV Guide one-sentence description. Instead, it’s the distilled, condensed soul of your book in a few paragraphs.

So, you writers out there—do you enjoy writing a synopsis? Any additional tips on getting through the task without slitting your wrists? Once you’ve been published, does your publisher still require a synopsis before they issue a contract on your next book? If so, do you stick to the synopsis or does the end product differ from the original?


Writer, This is Your Job

by James Scott Bell

Some years ago I was teaching at a writers conference in New Mexico. After lunch I noticed one of the conferees sitting at a back table, looking distressed. I went over and asked her what was up.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Am I ever going to get anywhere? I see all these people, they all want it just as much as I do. How do I know if I’ll ever make it? ” Tears started down her cheeks.

I handed her a napkin for the tears, then took another and drew a pyramid on it. I divided the pyramid into six sections. Inside the pyramid are writers, I explained, with each section representing a different level of achievement.

The bottom, where most of the people are, is the realm of the “want to.” Or “I think I have a book inside me.” But outside of some scribblings, maybe a short story or two, perhaps an unfinished novel, these people never move on to the next level…

…which is where people like you are (I told her). Those who actually try to learn something about writing. Who buy writing books, go to conferences, take classes…and write.

Above that is the level for those who actually finish a full length novel. This is a great place to be. This is where real writers come from.

The next level holds those who write another novel, because the first one is probably going to be rejected. They do this because they are novelists, not just someone who happened to write a novel.

Next are those who get published. Above that those who are published multiple times.

Sitting on top of the pyramid is a Wheel of Fortune. This is where the breakout hits come from. The wheel goes around and lands on a book like Cold Mountain. Or The Da Vinci Code. Or Harry Potter.

No one can control this. No one know how to guarantee a hit, or it would be done every time out.

Your job, I told the young writer, is to keep moving up the pyramid. Each level presents its own challenges, so concentrate on those. As you move up, you’ll notice there are fewer people, not more. People drop out of the pyramid all the time. But if you work hard, you might get a novel on the wheel, and that’s as far as you can go on your own. After that it’s not up to you anymore.

The conference went on and I forgot all about this incident.

A couple of years later I bumped into her at another conference. She told me that this conversation and the diagram had a profound effect on her, and that she was going to keep going, and was finishing her first novel.

Two years after that she wrote to tell me she had landed a book deal. She is now a published author.

Writer, if you want to be published, if you want a hit book, don’t worry about things you cannot control. Don’t grasp at phantoms. Focus on the page right in front of you. Make it the best it can be, and build these pages into a book. And then another.

Keep climbing the pyramid.

That’s your job.

P.S. Adapted from the forthcoming The Art of War for Writers.