The Edit Has Landed

(photo via GoDaddy stock)

 

The edit has landed. I repeat: The edit has landed. This is not a drill.

This refrain runs through my head every time I get an initial editorial letter from my editor after I’ve sold a manuscript. For the uninitiated, the editorial letter contains detailed comments and suggestions for changes the editor would like to see in the next version of a contracted manuscript.

On Sunday evening, the editorial letter for One Last Secret, my next suspense novel, arrived in my inbox.

I’m going to gloss over the agonizing hour or so I spent actually analyzing my letter. Imagine cheers or tears or cringing or reallys?! or ack–how did that get through? or yays! It’s a private moment that you are already familiar with if you’ve workshopped your own writing, or have had editors or truthful friends comment on it.

There’s a fine line when it comes to accepting or rejecting an editor’s suggestions. Ego can get in the way. Unless we’re collaborating with another writer, our stories have incubated in our own heads for months or years. Perhaps the initial drafts have been read by friends or spouses, etc, but they’re still essentially ours. It can be hard to let go, to be willing to let the manuscript change. But while an editor is also a reader, and often a fan, they are not just any reader/friend offering suggestions. They’re professionals who have a financial interest in seeing that the story appeals to a large number of readers.

An editor or reader is attracted to a novel or story as a result of the writer’s ability to successfully communicate a vision of the story that exists in the writer’s head.

But as we know, no two visions of a story are even close to identical. The best writing speaks loudly to people for myriad reasons, and tugs at the chords deeply anchored to our souls. And no two souls are alike. It’s a huge compliment for a writer to have a reader say a writer’s work resonates with them, whether it’s something as simple as a character with whom they identify, or a whole new world into which they can escape for an afternoon  and beyond.

An editor is an agent of the re-visioning process. (I’ve probably mentioned re-visioning before as a concept mentioned by Joyce Carol Oates.) In a re-vision, the vision of the story becomes something totally new for the writer. This new vision will change with each new addition or deletion or deepening of the story. It can be brought about with mechanical precision by making sure the story has all the necessary beats, or meets and even enhances the conventions of the genre. Or it will change when the writer combines characters, kicks the hero(ine) into higher gear, or tweaks the emotional impact of a scene. It’s a birth process that goes on and on until both the editor and the writer agree that their mutual visions meet on the page and are compatible enough to be presented to the world. They’re both happy. (Or they run out of time!)

For me it’s both wrenching and exciting to work with an editor. In theory—and it’s a theory I extoll frequently—I want to write and edit in service of the story. I write toward that Platonic ideal that exists for every story. The ideal we can only ever express as a shadow. But I want to at least make it a shadow that lives and makes other people see it as an ideal thing in their heads. It should have no visible seams, no dull moments, no unnecessary details, clear ideas, smart dialogue, and compelling images. In other words, as close to an ideal as possible.

Occasionally though, the old ego wants to dig in its heels when the suggestions come. My story! it cries. Mine! Mine! Mine! It begs me to leave it alone. Very occasionally there are story elements that I feel are integral and necessary to the story, and I try to negotiate their continued existence. Now that I think about it, the very few times that has happened, various editors have been very supportive. But I generally keep my ego in check. It really is all about the story. And a good editor knows how to balance the writer’s need for respect/story integrity with her own need to make the story more appealing to the marketing department and readers.

Not everyone likes the revision process. As I said, it’s both wrenchingly difficult and exciting for me at the same time. Change is hard, and changing our stories can be particularly tough because edits often feel like judgments. I just keep telling myself that an edited story is something shiny and brand new in the world. A new creation. And who doesn’t like the feeling of having created something new?

 

How do you approach the editing process—whether suggestions are from reader friends or paid editors? Do you love it, hate it, or see it as just one more step to be endured?

Or tell us about an editor you’ve loved working with…

4+

A Little Injection Of Inspiration

I’m in the air today on yet another cross country sojourn, so I thought I’d share with you one of my favorite TED Talks. In this talk author Elizabeth Gilbert (of EAT, PRAY, LOVE…  fame) is inspiring and refreshingly candid as she discusses how to manage life when you suspect that your best writing is behind you. In the Comments, please share your own favorite sources of inspiration, from TED talk or aother!

1+

Elevate Your Novel By Infusing Your Premise With Something Conceptual

by Larry Brooks

Sometimes – even frequently – the source of weakness and dysfunction within a story dwells in the nature of the premise itself; i.e., the degree, or complete lack of, something compelling within the premise proposition. But when we add a conceptual layer to thatpremise, a stronger story framework is suddenly in place, something that just might differentiate it within the marketplace.

When an agent or editor reader says “it’s just not for me,” but can’t or won’t be specific about what might be wrong or weak, that’s a clue that the premise itself is the wrong-note element. Because they are looking for something exceptional. And while your writing might be perfectly fine, the premise itself might be perfectly mediocre.

What is interesting to you may not be as interesting to someone else. Concept is a story essence that can turn this situation around.

Concept and premise are different things.

Which – when fused – become a sum in excess of either part. This truth is something not commonly discussed within the writing conversation – because it is not commonly recognized as a thing. And yet, a compelling concept at the heart of the premise is one of the most visible hallmarks of bestsellers and break-in novels. They also become the common thread of a successful series; the concept drives the entire arc, while each installment brings a different premise that springs from it.

Concepts are not stories. They are the framework for a story. They can render a story highly compelling, even at a glance. When recognition of weakness gels, adding something conceptual can be a key first step in the repair process. One that doesn’t necessarily call for a new premise, but rather, a premise that is elevated and strengthened.

Concept is a tricky issue.

You could write a novel from this idea: “a story about a guy living alone in a big city.” That actually is a concept, just not a very compelling one. It’s flat, and therefore dead on arrival. You don’t need to chuck it, but you do need to enhance it to save it, to make it competitive in the marketplace.

A better concept might look like this: “a story about a wealthy widower who suddenly finds himself alone after thirty years of marriage and moves to Los Angeles to live with his younger brother, a film director who enjoys life in the fast lane. The man must negotiate his staid values and comfort level with the onslaught of aggressive, sophisticated women who seem to want to rescue him from his depression.”

That’s the concept. The premise is him meeting someone within that life that challenges who he is while putting his heart at risk.

This second example meets several of the criteria for a compelling concept, one of which is this: The reader hasn’t encountered this story before, or if she has, this offers a new and intriguing twist.

The acid test of a compelling concept is simple.

If you pitch your concept—without adding elements of the premise to make it dramatic—and your listener responds, “Wow, now that is interesting. I can’t wait to read a story based on that idea,” then you’ve hit pay dirt. Because the concept isn’t the idea, it’s the framework for the forthcoming premise itself

If you pitched, for example, Superman as a concept, chances are it would elicit excitement about seeing the story told from it. And then, when that works, there are many other Superman premises right behind it.

The word compelling, though, is a mixed bag. Because Superman may not be something that rings the bell of whoever is listening in.

Readers of romances may not find the notion of traveling to a different dimension to encounter an alien life force all that compelling. Even if it is a romance, if you set the story in an alternate universe then it is also something else.

But what about a series novel? Is that conceptual? If the novel is compelling enough to float a sequel, then it is probably inherently conceptual, usually because the hero is precisely that. Jack Reacher, for example. James Bond. Sherlock Holmes. Harry Potter. Readers say, I can’t wait for the next installment, even when the next book is its own unique premise. What makes a sequel or a series beholden to the concept that is driving each premise within it.

Here are some examples of inherently conceptual concepts.

 “Snakes on a plane” (a proposition)

“The world will end in three days.” (a situation)

“Two morticians fall in love.” (an arena)

“What if you could go back in time and reinvent your life?” (a proposition)

“What if the world’s largest spiritual belief system is based on a lie, one that its largest church has been protecting for two thousand years?” (a speculative proposition)

“What if a child is sent to Earth from another planet, is raised by human parents, and grows up with extraordinary superpowers?” (a proposition)

“What if a jealous lover returned from the dead to prevent his surviving lover from moving on with her life?” (a situation)

“What if a fourteen-year-old murder victim narrates the story of her killing and the ensuing investigation from heaven?” (a narrative proposition)

“What if a paranormally gifted child is sent to a secret school for children just like him?” (a paranormal proposition)

“A story set in Germany as the wall falls” (a historical landscape)

“A story set in the deep South in the sixties, focusing on racial tensions and norms” (a cultural arena)

Notice that none of these are stories yet. These are not premises. They are concepts.

In general, if you can add “hijinks ensue” to the end of your concept, you may be on to something good that will lead to a compelling premise.

Rest assured, though, you will hear this differentiation (concept vs. premise) mangled in the marketplace. Even among agents, editors and crusty old authors who don’t like their vernacular to be challenged. But even they are leveraging the power of concept, by virtually of simply having an evolved story sense that won’t settle for a premise that isn’t infused with a conceptual layer.

High Concepts vs. Real-World Concepts

High concepts exist at the extreme edge of imagination and possibility. They are more conceptual than common, real-world concepts. Examples would be Batman and Wolverine and the Avengers, which bring in fantastical and supernatural elements.

Stories about real people in real situations also benefit from something that creates a compelling context for the story. Something about a hero can be conceptual – Harry Bosch, for example – or something a character does or believes or must deal with can be conceptual. For example, one of the main characters in Gone Girl conspires to kill herself while framing her husband for her death. She’s a psychopath, which becomes the the concept itself. And thus, the heart and soul of the premise that it informs.

Concepts…

  • can be character-centric, like Jack Reacher, Sherlock Holmes.
  • can be a speculative proposition, like The Da Vinci Code or Star Wars.
  • can be thematically conceptual, like The Help or The Cider House Rules.
  • can be lifted from perspectives and drama in the real world, like a story about the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team or Apollo 11.
  • offer a setting, time, or place rendered conceptual by virtue of the promise it makes: The forthcoming story will play out there. Historical novels live and breathe by this conceptual potential.
  • could be about stories set within a given culture, such as Fifty Shades of Grey or a story about the Blue Angels or even the Hells Angels.

Notice how almost every single movie featuring Tom Cruise is driven by a premise set ablaze with a high concept. Top Gun? The concept is the F-14 footage that infuses the story with energy and sex appeal. MInority Report? The proposition of the role of law enforcement is the concept, and the specifics of the dramatic arc become the premise that is fueled by that idea. Or that story where he can relive a moment time after time… that is nothing if not conceptual.

A concept can inject speculative, surreal possibilities, such as time travel, ghosts, paranormal abilities, cloning, etc., into an otherwise normal reality.

In short, a concept is simply the compelling contextual heart of the premise and story built from it. It is the framework within which a story will be delivered. A proposition. A context. It imbues the story with a given presence. It elicits that sought-after response: “Wow, I’ve never seen that before, at least treated in that way. I really want to read the story that deals with these things.”

If The Help had been set in 1997 Omaha rather than 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, the story would have been quite different and quite diminished, because the former is a less compelling concept, and the story would be less effective, even with the exact same premise. The cultural setting is the concept, by virtue of the social framework it delivers.

A concept does not include a hero … unless the hero is, by definition, a conceptual creation (like a Superhero or an angel or a vampire, which is the case in several of the examples just given).Such stories are built around a protagonist leveraging a conceptual nature. What makes these heroes fascinating, and therefore conceptual, is the proposition that renders them unique and appealingly different (think Nancy Drew, Stephanie Plum, or Wonder Woman), with or without supernatural powers.

Sometimes the genre is, in fact, the concept. Ghost stories. Vampire stories. Time travel stories. Historicals. Space travel. We flock to these because of the ghosts and vampires and trips back in time, not necessarily because of the dramatic premise itself. And yet, those premises are inherently rich and compelling from square one, precisely because of the concepts driving them.

Wrap your head around this notion as a powerful story-enhancer, and you may find yourself writing stories that are already in the wheelhouse of the agents, editors and readers who are looking for them.

 

8+

The Midstream Temptation

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m currently writing a series featuring a character named Mike Romeo. I have three books out in that series. I also have a little over half of the next Romeo completed.

But during my creativity time a couple of months ago, I was playing the first line game. That’s where I just make up first lines, not knowing anything else about what is to follow. I have a file full of firsts that I would love to develop someday. All I need is a 28-hour day and and a perpetual espresso machine.

Anyway, I wrote an opening line and it blasted me. I just had to know what it meant. So I found myself writing an opening chapter. And when I was finished I knew I had the makings of a stand-alone thriller that I wanted to write.

Only I wanted to write it now.

I call this the midstream temptation.

I was faced with a choice. Continue to write this new project, leaving Romeo sitting there waiting for me to get on with his story? Or finish Romeo and come back to the new one? (A third option, writing both at the same time, seems to have worked for Isaac Asimov, but it gets me too confused.)

When I was writing for a publishing company, they had a triple-barreled vaccine for the midstream temptation—a contract, an advance, and a deadline.

But as an indie, I am free to decide what to write, and when.

Now, I know enough about the mental game of writing to realize there’s a danger here all writers face. Sometimes you reach a point in a novel where you hit “the wall.” For me that’s usually around the 30k word mark. It’s a place where you’ve got a whole lot of book to go, but start thinking maybe your concept isn’t as hot as you thought. Or you wonder if you are really the writer you thought—or hoped—you were. Maybe the day of reckoning has come, and they’ll all find out you’re a total fraud!

For me, I just write through the wall. The doubts go away.

But that wasn’t the case with Romeo. I didn’t hit a wall. The book is solid. I know my signpost scenes.

So I had another thought (two thoughts in close proximity!). When I finish a first draft I always set it aside and let it cool for a time before my first read-through and edit. So! Why not let the Romeo cool off now? Use the cooling period to write this new one while it’s hot, and then approach my Romeo manuscript as if it is a first draft (a short one, to be sure)!

Which is what I decided to do.

This is the first time I’ve done something like this. The conditions had to be just right. So let me run through some thoughts on the matter:

  1. When you are tempted to leave a book in midstream for another idea, resist the temptation and keep writing on your WIP.
  2. If the new idea keeps demanding your attention, take one day off and…
  3. Put on your “thinking cap,” as Mrs. Barshay used to tell us Kindergartners. Ask yourself if you’ve merely hit a wall of doubt. I suspect a lot of the time the answer will be yes.
  4. Write some analysis. Talk to yourself about your WIP. Identify issues, and make a list of possible solutions.
  5. Keep at your WIP unless you are at a point where it’s pretty much complete in your mind. That means you have a good bulk of it done and are pretty sure where it’s heading, and how it’s likely to end. (Admittedly, this is more difficult for a panster. And it should be. Because you’re a pantser.)
  6. Take a day to do some freewriting on the new idea. Then take another day to map out where the story might go. Do a preliminary outline, at least of signpost scenes.
  7. Write the opening chapter. Then ask yourself if you, as a reader, would have to read on. Do you have compelling characters? Are the stakes death (physical, professional, or psychological)?
  8. If the answers to #6 are affirmative, take one more day to make sure you’re not going to the new project just to avoid facing the task of the WIP.
  9. Make your decision.
  10. Continue to meet your quota. (Don’t have a quota? Get one!)

I don’t know that I’ll ever do this again. My routine for twenty years is to finish a full draft while at the same time developing the next project with notes, index cards, character work and so on. I just got caught up in the excitement this time. The new idea kept tapping on the window, inviting me to come outside and play. And isn’t spontaneous play what we used to love as children?

Okay, so writers are big children. That’s how we roll.

But if we want to be paid for our play, we need more than a little discipline. So when a midstream temptation comes calling, subject it to hard and objective scrutiny. If it passes … go play!

And be sure to look both ways before crossing the street.

Have you ever had a major midstream temptation? What did you do? Do you ever hit a wall in your first draft? How do you handle it? 

6+

The Magic 80,000-Word Mark

By Mark Alpert

Whenever I’m writing a novel, I stop and take note of two special mileposts along the way. The first is the 20,000-word mark. Once I’ve written the first 20,000 words of a manuscript, I’m pretty sure it’s a keeper. I’m hooked by the idea and I can’t stop writing. I’m on my way.

The other special milepost is the 80,000-word mark. At this point, I can see the end of the book, and I start racing to the finish.

That’s where I am right now. I can’t think of anything but the novel. Well no, that’s not exactly true. I still have to pay the bills. And get my son a new laptop before he goes off to college. (He starts at Wesleyan next month.) And yes, I did go to a Yankee game this week. (See the picture above.)

But that’s it. All the rest of my mental energy goes into the novel. I’ll come up for air when I’m done!

 

6+

Reader Friday: Your Book Buying Decisions

Photo purchased from Shutterstock by KL

You’re wandering through a bookstore on a random Saturday morning in late summer, looking for something promising to read. What makes you pull a book off the shelf? What convinces you to purchase it?

1. Title

2. Cover Art

3. Author’s Name

4. Review Blurbs

5. Scanning first page

6. Review or recommendation

7. Combination of previous factors, or something else.

Please give us more information in the Comments. Thanks!

5+

Users who have LIKED this post:

  • avatar

Stream of Consciousness vs Back Story Dump – First Page Critique: Storm Season

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

 

We have an anonymous submission entitled STORM SEASON. Our gratitude to the courageous author who submitted the first 400 words of their baby. Read and enjoy. I’ll have comments to follow and please feel free to provide your own constructive criticism.

~~~

My name is Lily Storm and I’m a drug addict. My drug of choice is heroin. And, like the sticker says, its street name can be anything from Big H to Thunder, Nose Drops to Brown Sugar. I prefer Cinnamon. I can send the boys to the store for Cinnamon (wink, wink) and no one’s the wiser.

I started using about twelve years ago when I was eighteen. I’ve been through the gamut—alcohol, pot, pills, coke, meth (which I really liked but not as much as coke). Coke is a better high but doesn’t last as long, and is more expensive than meth. Smoking coke is the best but it always scared me a little—I imagined myself running down the road, doing a Richard Pryor impersonation, my hair ablaze.

Anyway, I found my taste in heroin. It’s not spooky like people want you to believe, like I originally thought it might be. It’s the place where pleasure exists. It’s chilling out on a beach and sipping margaritas with the most beautiful boy that God ever created, and this boy is all about pleasing you. He wants you to feel him, get in his head, and touch his love for you. He’s yours. You’re his. Total love. Total ecstasy. That’s how heroin feels. Like you found the love of your life and all you can do is gaze into each other’s eyes.

And I never intend to let him go.

I decided to start this blog in hopes of explaining my drug usage to people. You know, my family—mom and dad, and close friends who don’t understand, who are confused by my addiction. Or those who are disappointed in me. To that I say, F-you. It’s my issue. Deal with your own issues and get over me.

I’ve numbered these blog posts in Español. Don’t ask me why. I’m just crazy that way. BTW, if anyone else can learn from these installments, or you happen to be going through something similar, maybe this blog can be a place of experience and healing. Feel free to leave a comment.

So, you know, I’ve written quite a few of these—thirteen to be exact—which I’ve already scheduled out to publish monthly from December 2016 to December 2017, the next thirteen months. I’ve scheduled them out this way because I won’t be around much longer.

FEEDBACK

OVERALL – My first thoughts were that this type of character is a challenge to write because the reader may take time to sympathize or relate to them, if they ever do. With the reference to 13 months, I thought of the big seller – Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, where one of the main characters is a teen girl who has already committed suicide and given 13 audio tapes to the people who helped her make that fateful decision. So given that first impression, I read through this piece a few times and found the most compelling part to be in the middle where the author compares heroin to a lover. I really liked the way that part was written. Well done.

BACK STORY – The intro is in first person and has a stream of consciousness thing going on, but I found myself pulled out of this blog post concept when the author meandered through backstory or drifted off course with poorly timed dark humor (like the Richard Pryor reference or the cutesy “wink wink”). Sometimes humor can be a great punch and give insight to a character, but it can also diffuse any building emotion or distract from any traction the author has made with the reader. After I found the “lover” reference in paragraph 3, I wondered if that could provide an intriguing start that the reader might be lured into the story via that imagery.

SUGGESTED REWRITE: I tried keeping as much of the author’s work that fit into the “lover start,” but I did embellish on the tone in a few spots.

REWRITE EXAMPLE

I found a place where true pleasure exists, like chilling out on a beach and sipping margaritas with the most beautiful boy that God ever created, and this boy is all about pleasing you. He wants you to feel him, get in his head, and touch his love for you. He’s yours. You’re his. Total love. Total ecstasy. That’s how heroin feels. Like I found the love of my life and all I can do is gaze into his eyes. I never intend to let him go.

My name is Lily Storm and I’m a drug addict. Heroin is my lover, my drug of choice.

On the street he goes by many names—Big H to Thunder, Nose Drops to Brown Sugar, but I prefer calling him Cinnamon, because I can send the boys to the ‘store’ for cinnamon and no one’s the wiser. I’ve been faithful to my lover since I was eighteen. Most addicts can’t handle him, but I can.

My mom and dad and close friends don’t understand. They’re disappointed in me. I wanted to tell them to fuck off to their faces, but I decided to start a blog instead. I’ll admit it. I’m a coward. I’ve numbered these blog posts in Español, to put my education to good use. I don’t know what anyone will learn from my lover and me, but feel free to post your comment somewhere else. I don’t need your opinion.

I’ve written thirteen of these gems of wisdom and I’ve scheduled them to be automatically posted from December 2016 to December 2017. Why the automatic posts, you ask?

I won’t be around by the end. No one likes cliff hangers.

ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF PLOT – In the best selling novel turned film “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” the book is written in a series of diary-type letters from a troubled teen with every letter beginning with ‘Dear Friend.’ It’s surprising how compelling it was to read the letters as the reader sees the character spiral into the dark secret he’s holding in his heart surrounding the death of an aunt. The movie rewrites the letters and turns them into a successful visual creation, but if our anonymous author plans for a series of blog posts of a heroin addict, it sounds like an interesting idea IF the character finds a way into the hearts of readers. The author must find a way to make Lily relatable and darkly likeable. It’s definitely possible to pull this off.

VOICE – To make the reader want to keep turning the page, the author must find a voice with the right amount of snark or use poignant imagery that keeps ramping the stakes up on Lily’s life. In the book and the movie – Perks of Being a Wallflower – the big reveal was heartbreaking and the author or filmmaker had to have discipline to pull off the twist as late as possible so there is a big finish to the book or film. A compelling stream of consciousness voice can carry the reader through a good book, but beware of too much backstory dump that doesn’t have a point or slows the pace. There’s a fine line to this and it will be a challenge that would be fun to pull off.

FOR DISCUSSION:

What do you think, TKZers? Would you keep turning the pages? What do you like about this submission? Where are the challenges?

VIGILANTE JUSTICE on sale from Amazon Kindle Worlds – ebook priced at $0.99

5+

Always Be Marketing

By John Gilstrap

When a writer decides to produce books and articles as his primary source of revenue, he has, in effect, started an independently-owned small business.  All the elements are there, from product development to design to distribution and sales. If the company owner doesn’t tend to the details, then who will?  The burden of such things arguably falls more heavily on indie authors, but even those of us who ply the trade via the traditional publishing route have to keep a strong hand on the tiller if we’re going to have adequate funds in the till.

Last month marked the publication of Final Target, the eleventh entry in the Jonathan Grave thriller series.  I’m delighted to report that I’ve seen more copies in grocery stores and what I call secondary venues than I ever have with any of my previous books.  This story also is published simultaneously in both hardcover and paperback (and e-book and audio . . .) so there should be no sticker shock for those readers who’ve come to read about Jonathan’s adventures as a paperback original.

I’m calling this post “Always Be Marketing” because that’s what I always feel I’m doing this time of the year, immediately after publication.  With two decades of this business under my belt, I thought I’d share some marketing strategies that have worked for me, and those which I consider to be utter duds.

First, the duds:

Bookmarks.  These have never made sense to me.  While I’m a big believer in bookmarks–and I believe there’s a special place in hell for readers who turn down pages to mark their place–no bookmark I use has any value to me.  It could just as well be my most recent airline boarding pass, a napkin, or my own business card.  I cannot imagine a circumstance where a bookmark with an author’s name on it would inspire me to buy a book.

At writers’ conferences, hungry authors hand out their custom-made bookmarks like candy.  “Here, have five of them.”  They litter the swag tables near the registration desk.  Some writers hand them out as business cards.  Think about that last one.  Business cards need to fit into business card-shaped wallet slots. More on that later.

On the other hand, I think that bookmarks are brilliant marketing gimmicks for bookstores themselves.  If I enjoyed the customer service, I would most definitely go back.

Big Box in-store signings.  I avoid them these days.  It’s hard to conceive of a more soul-sucking experience than sitting in the middle of a store, surrounded by stacks of my own books while people avoid eye contact on their way to the science fiction section.  Or maybe the bathroom.  Case in point: early on, I was signing in a Walden Bookstore in a mall–essentially blocking everyone’s entry through the door–when a distressed woman approached me and asked where the manager was because she wanted to return this terrible book.  It was mine.  Ouch.

Book trailers.  These have never made sense to me.  First of all, in my experience, 90-plus percent of book trailers I’ve seen have horrible production values and are ten clicks too self-reverential.  Stock art combined with poor acting and royalty-free music are not effective vectors to direct me to buy a book from an author I don’t know.  Besides, movies and books are entirely different art forms.

Now, let’s shift to the positive, stuff that has worked for me:

Business cards.  I put this at the top just to counter my shot at bookmarks.  Actually, I believe in carrying several business cards–and the design of the cards depends on where a writer is in his or her career.  If you’re new to the business, in that stage where you’re trying to find an agent or a publisher, then I think the business card should be of the standard format: Your name, address, phone number, email–as many ways to reach you as possible.  Because at this stage, your prospective customers are industry people, not the public.

Later, in the time after you’ve got a deal and a career, I believe in two different business cards: One is for industry people or research sources, where you want to make yourself as accessible as possible.  This card will be more or less the same as the one you used in your rookie years.  The second card you need is a “fan” card, one that you hand out to people you meet who want to stay in touch, but fall outside the category of people you want knowing your cell phone number.  To these folks, I hand out a card that introduces me as “John Gilstrap, author of the Jonathan Grave Thriller series”, and gives my contact information as my email address.  That’s plenty.  Oh, and there’s a list on the reverse side of my last 10 titles, more or less.

Something special for every book.  Currently, for Final Target, I’ve laid in a couple hundred pens that are marked with www.johngilstrap.com, and also have a built-in flashlight.  The theory is that when I sign a book, I will hand the buyer the pen with which I signed it.

A high-value giveaway for special people.  Some people need a very special thank-you because they have done something very special to help you out.  They need a cool bit of swag.  For this corner of my universe, I designed the Jonathan Grave Challenge Coin, of which there are very few, and whose distribution I take very seriously.  Follow the link if you think you might be interested in owning one.

Really cool book launch party.  No book-selling event ever pays for itself in real time with book sales.  Not one.  Book events are about giving fans and friends a good time, and providing an opportunity for them to buy a lot of books.  With this in mind, my wife and I budget for a blow-out party that is attendant to the release of every new book.  We’ve thrown parties at restaurants, wineries, coffee shops, and, most recently, at our home.  Roughly a hundred people showed up, and everyone had a terrific time, complete with catered food and open bar.  And the bookseller we brought in to provide the books–One More Page Books in Falls Church, VA–had a very good sales day.   That’s always a good thing.

Another book.  And then another and another . . . This is the best marketing gimmick of all: Write more books.  One of the primary reasons rookie authors find themselves at a disadvantage marketing-wise is that even the most devoted fans have no other books to turn to when they’ve turned the last page of your Opus One.  Having done this for as long as I have, when a fan discovers my writing via, say, the 11th book in my Grave series, they have ten more plus four stand-alones and a nonfiction book to consume before they run dry.  By the time they get through those, I should have a new one out, and the most effective strategy to reach them is to announce the launch of the new book.

What say you, TKZers?  What works and doesn’t work for you as a consumer?  As a writer, what do you find to be worthwhile marketing strategies?

9+

Showing Versus Telling:
So SHOW Me Already!

Good morning crime dogs. Well, thank the good Lord for Joe’s post Saturday asking you all for your input on topics. Because I don’t have anything fresh today, but I do have a good excuse — I got a bum right paw.

I am living up in Traverse City, Michigan these days, a bucolic town a Petosky stone’s throw from Lake Michigan.  It is a law here in TC that you have to bike everywhere. Well, not a law, but TC is sort of like an American version of the Netherlands. Folks here love their two-wheelers. So when we got here last month, I duly went out and bought a new bike.  Haven’t had one in oh, 15 years or so. Well, on my second outing, I fell and badly sprained my wrist.  Embarrassing. Especially since I was standing still at the time waiting for the light to change.  Anywho, I can’t type a lick. My husband Daniel is typing this for me as I dictate.  So, I hope you will bear with me as I heal and let me run an old blog post.  It is about SHOW DON’T TELL.  And I am re-posting this especially for one of our readers Eric Beversluis, who was flummoxed by what he saw as too much “telling” backstory in a Mike Connelly book and asked for an “empirical” analysis of “show, don’t tell.”  My sister and I have covered this topic often in workshops, and it always comes up. So, here’s my attempt, Eric.  Hope it helps.  And get well, Joe!

By PJ Parrish

How many times have we all heard this: SHOW DON’T TELL!

I put it all in nice bright letters because those three words are so commonplace in writing workshops that shoot, we might as well put them in neon, right? Ask a writing coach or an editor what the cardinal sin of bad writing is and “telling” is right up there with procrastination. We really get our panties in a wad about it. But let’s stop and take a deep breath here

((((Breathe in pink, breathe out blue…)))

and figure out what SHOW DON’T TELL really means.

Okay, let’s start with a definition because it’s always good to start with specifics.

Show don’t tell means writing in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character’s action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator’s exposition, summarization, and description. The idea is not to be heavy-handed, but to allow issues to emerge from the text instead.

(((((ZZZzzzzzzz))))

And that, my friends, is me telling you what “show don’t tell” is. And now, I’m going to try to show you. But first, a caveat: Not all telling is bad. Sometimes, you have to tell things in your story. Not every thing that happens in your story is worthy of showing. Some things are best handled in narration:

Boring but necessary physical action
You don’t waste words on stuff like this : “He stared at the phone then slowly depressed the little red button to disconnect the line.” You write: “He hung up.” Also, you don’t write: “He slowly swung his bare feet to the cold wood floor, scratched himself, yawned, and got out of the bed in an existential funk.” You write: “He got up.”

Boring dialogue
You don’t write:
“Hello Joe,” he said. “Long time no see.”
“Yeah, it’s been about two months.”
“That long, eh?”
“Yeah.”
“What you been up to?” he asked.
“I was carving fishing lures, but the then the wife left me and I found myself living alone and eating and drinking too much.”

Write (tell) this: He hadn’t seen Joe for two months. He looked terrible, like he had been living on Big Macs and Jim Beam. Talk around the station was that his wife had left him and he was going crazy sitting at home making fish lures.

Pure description
This is where you the writer can step in and shine because it is you telling us (in your unique voice), what things look, smell and sound like. But usually, description works best and is more involving for the reader if you can filter it through a character’s point of view. Here are two examples. You tell me which one works best.

Third person POV detached

She looked at Louis. He was twenty-nine and bi-racial, his father white, his mother black. She knew he had grown up as a foster child and had made peace with his mother toward the end of her life, but that his father had deserted him.

Third person POV intimate

She turned toward him. God, she loved his face. Forceful, high-cheekboned, black brows sitting like emphatic accents over his gray eyes, the left one arching into an exclamation mark when he was amused or surprised. And his skin, smooth and buff-colored, a gift from his beautiful black mother whose picture he had once shown her and his white father, whom he had never mentioned.

Backstory
There are a lot of great posts in our TKZ archives about how to deal with backstory. But in terms of “show don’t tell” we have to concede that backstory is essentially telling. And that’s okay. Just do it well, be evocative and be brief because your reader wants to get back to the forward plot momentum. Example:

The first image that usually came to him when other people started talking about their childhood was a house. Other things came, too. Faces, smells, emotions, mental snapshots of events. But those kinds of memories were fluid, changing for good or bad, depending on how, and when, you chose to look back on them.

But a house was different. It was solid and unchanging, and it allowed people to say “I existed here. My memories are real.”

His image of home had always been a wood frame shack in Mississippi. It was an uncomfortable picture, but one he had held onto for a long time, convinced it symbolized some kind of truth in his life about who he was, or what he should be.

Notice that although this is TELLING, the reader is emotionally involved with the narrating character. And it is short. The very next sentence takes us right back to the present plot.

Okay, so show me already!

Now I’m going to try to show you what I mean by all this with some before and after samples from a workshop I teach on this subject. Number 1 is an excerpt where the setup is a cop standing over a dead body in bayou country.

Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide-and-seek behind dark clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Impending rain scented the air. Spanish moss fluttered in a sudden breeze that carried with it the cloying acridness of the swampy bayou.

And at his feet in the vermin-ridden humus lay a young woman. A woman who, until a day or two ago, had hoped, planned, and dreamed. Maybe even loved.

Now she lay dead. Violently wrestled from life before her time. And it was his job to find her killer.

He started when, with a flap of wings, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. As the regal bird disappeared from sight, Kramer couldn’t help but wonder if maybe it was his Jane Doe’s soul wafting to the Land of the Dead. The way the dove in Ulysses had carried Euripides’ soul.

Despite the day’s heat, a chill seeped through him. Instinctively and unselfconsciously, Kramer crossed himself and wished her soul Godspeed.

Here’s a rewrite of the same scene:

Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide and seek behind dark clouds. Distant rain scented the still air and Spanish moss hung like wet netting on the giant oaks. The cloying acridness of the bayou was everywhere.

Kramer wiped the sweat from his brow and looked down at the dead woman and drew a shallow breath .

She was the third young woman this year who had been left to rot in the muddy swamps of Louisiana.

With a sudden rustle of leaves, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. Against the slanting sun it appeared little more than a ghostly white blur but still he watched it, oddly comforted by its graceful flight up toward the clouds.

Then, with a small sigh, he looked back at the woman, closed his burning eyes and crossed himself.

“God’s speed, ma cherie,” he whispered. “God’s speed.”

Why does the second one work better? Why does it hit our emotions harder? Because the writer got out of the way and let the character’s actions and words move the story along.

Here’s example 2. This is the opening of chapter 1 and the setup is a woman overseeing a parade at Disney World. It’s long but it’s worth analyzing.

Dorothy Gale got it wrong. Even as a kid, I didn’t understand why she was so hell-bent to hustle herself out of Oz to return to Kansas. Was she crazy? I ached to leave ordinary behind and devoured every magical Frank Baum book in the library. When I was nine, I vowed I’d find the Emerald City one day and I did. The Wizard—or rather Orlando’s theme park industry—set a shiny, incredible Land of Oz at the end of my personal yellow brick road.

Ten years ago, with a fresh college diploma—Go Terps—I’d found my niche and myself when I snagged my first job at Oz. Work felt like play in my fairytale world. And my disappointed parents stopped blaming themselves for those library trips when Oz promoted me to assistant department manager for process improvement. Tonight, we were rolling out a new parade, and for me, the excitement rivaled Christmas Eve.

Churning the humid Florida air, the dancing poppies whirled by in a swirl of red, plum, and purple, so far a flawless debut. Across the Yellow Brick Road, my boss Benjamin flashed me a rare smile and gestured to his stopwatch. The lilting music gave way to the recorded yipping of hundreds of puppies, and forty employees pranced by in shaggy-doggy costumes. Toto’s enormous basket-shaped float reached the corner, and excited children squealed, adding a thousand decibels to the noise.

“Slower, Toto,” I murmured into my mouthpiece. “Turn on three.” I counted and the basket’s driver, hidden deep inside the float, turned with inches to spare.

Here’s another way to handle the same material:

The red and pink poppies danced in the humid Florida air. The lilting music gave way to the recorded yipping of hundreds of puppies, and forty employees pranced by in shaggy-doggy costumes. Toto’s enormous basket-shaped float reached the corner, and excited children squealed, adding a thousand decibels to the noise.

Across the Yellow Brick Road, my boss Benjamin flashed me a rare smile and gestured to his stopwatch. So far, it was a flawless debut. I pressed my clipboard to my chest and smiled.

God, how I loved it here. My own fairy tale world. My own private Oz.

“Slower, Toto,” I murmured into my mouthpiece. “Turn on three.” I counted and the basket’s driver, hidden deep inside the float, turned with inches to spare.

My own parade – every day.

Dorothy got it wrong. Even as a kid, I never understood why she was so hell-bent to get out of Kansas.

I think the writer got into the scene way too early and it’s way too much exposition “telling” backstory so early in the book. And I think it’s often good to save your best line for last. In this case, it was “Dorothy got it wrong.” The writer opened with it and as such, it’s not not bad. But I think it works better AFTER we know we’re at Disney World. Plus, I like the technique of ending a scene with your best line because it works as an emphasis of the point you are trying to make with your scene. And every scene does have a point, right?

Here’s one more for you to chew on. The set up is an unidentified person creeping through a house after already finding one dead body. We do not know who this is, what gender, or why he/she is there.

In a large pantry off the kitchen, I found the maid. She, too, was dead. From the marks on her neck, my guess was someone had strangled her. As I completed my trip around the downstairs, I heard a noise from the front of the house, then a call of, “Police. Anyone here?” I took a deep breath and started toward the front room.

The cops met me in the hall with the obligatory order to drop my weapon and assume the position against the wall. I complied and a young patrolman named Johnson explored areas I preferred not touched by a stranger. However, I understood. I’d have done the same if I had found anyone during my search, and I wouldn’t have concerned myself about his or her privacy.

Once he finished, I showed my PI credentials.

In the rewrite, I converted the “telling” into “showing,” mainly by handling things in dialogue.

In a large pantry off the kitchen, I found the maid. She was face down on the marbled floor, arms splayed, feet part, still dressed in her baby blue cotton uniform. I knelt and when I moved her thick pony tail, I saw a tattered clothesline wrapped tight around her neck. She had no pulse. It hit me that I met her three times on previous visits and yet I could not remember her name.

“Police! Anyone here?”

I turned toward the echo of voices, toward the long cavernous hallway that led to the living room. Before I could take a step, I felt a jab of steel against my temple and someone’s hot breath in my ear.

“Against the wall, lady.”

“But —”

“Shut up,” the cop said as he patted around my ass for a weapon. He found my gun, ripped it from its holster and roughly turned me around. I didn’t know the officer in front of me but I saw Sgt. Randy Rawls standing in the doorway, trying not too hard to stifle his snicker.

“She’s okay, Jim,” he said. “Her name is Jenny Smith. She’s a local P.I.”

One more example but it’s one of my favorites. The setup is a TV anchorwoman looking forward to meeting her boyfriend after work. I like it because the writer was so close to getting it right. But he needed to focus in on what I call special details and actions that show (ie illuminate) character.

Tonight, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake.

Jacob “Jake” Teinman employed a wicked, take-no-prisoners wit. She found his sense of humor engaging, and delighted when he would elevate one eyebrow while keeping the other straight alerting his target to an oncoming barb. Corrie truly liked Jake, a lot, but experience taught hard lessons and she had qualms about the two of them as a couple.

They were awfully different — she: a public persona, trim, career driven, self-centered, frenetic and Irish Catholic; he: private, stocky, successful with a controlled confidence that drove her nuts, and Jewish. At least that’s how she pictured the two of them. She wondered if Jake’s version would agree.

She’d noted they’d been dating exactly one year and he had made reservations at “The 95th” just six blocks from the WWCC studios. It was sweet of Jake since he knew it was one of her favorite places.

Notice how the rewrite below works better because the same info is conveyed through tighter action and dialogue rather than the writer telling us what is happening.

Tonight, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake. And as she watched him come in the restaurant door, she smiled. It used to annoy her when people said how different they were. But it was true.

Jake…

Stocky. Dark. Jewish. Coming toward her with that confident swagger.

And her…

Tall. Blonde. Irish-Catholic. Sitting here wondering if he’d show up.

He kissed her on the cheek and sat down.

“You remembered,” she said.

He frowned. “Remembered what?”

“That this is my favorite restaurant.”

He glanced around before the puppy-dog brown eyes came back to hers. “Sure, babe,” he said. “I remember.”

So what do we get from all this? The point I am trying to make here is that whenever you can, filter the story through the consciousness of your character(s). Don’t waste words on dumb physical stuff. Be evocative and fresh in your description. And when it comes to backstory narrative, don’t dwell in the past too long.

Okay, that was telling. Let me show you one more time, this time in an action scene (where you should always show not tell).

TELLING DRAMATIC ACTION

As he was walking slowly down the hotel corridor, someone hit him on the back of the head and pushed him forward. He felt the world go black. His body flailed, hitting the plate glass window and shattering it. The glittering shards caught the throbbing glow of red neon as they fell, like the tails of fading fireworks.

He fell to his knees and looked up into the chiseled face of his attacker.

SHOWING DRAMATIC ACTION

He walked with his head bent, scanning the front page of the New York Post. The hallway was dim, the slow blink of the red neon from the lone window lighting his way.

The blow came out of nowhere. So quick, so hard, blood filled his mouth as he bit his tongue. He stumbled forward, his head hitting the window.

An explosion of sound and glass. A rush of cold air. A flood of warm blood.

He dropped to his knees and looked up.

The face above him pulsed red. Then it was gone.

What’s the main problem with the first one? The “telling” is slow-paced and un-viscereal. And if the guy just went through a plate glass window he probably can’t see the glass falling and it sure as heck wouldn’t register in his senses as “glittering shards” and “fading fireworks.” (that’s the writer talking) In the second version, the POV is fixed and every detail that IS possible is filtered through the man’s senses.

In summary, here are the pitfalls of TELLING

  • Narrating the physical movements without being in character’s head.
  • Use of too many ‘ly’ words in action or in dialog (i.e. She said impatiently, walked slowly, yelled angrily.)
  • Use of stock descriptions, purple prose or lengthy descriptions of places (and people) especially those that have no bearing on the plot.
  • Too many adjectives and cliches.
  • Omniscient POV (distancing, describing from an all-seeing POV) The man getting hit on the head cannot see the glass as it falls six stories to the ground.)

Here are the strengths of SHOWING

  • Action that uses the senses, stays within the character’s consciousness and uses words and phrases that reinforce the mood of the scene.
  • Strong verbs. (Walked vs Jogged, Ran vs Raced, Shut the door vs Slammed the door.)
  • Original images and vivid descriptions that are filtered through the character’s senses in the present.
  • One compelling adjective vs. a string of mediocre ones.
  • Keep POV firmly in character’s head. (Establishes sympathy and connects emotionally.)

That’s it, Eric…and all you crime dogs. Going to go ice my paw now.

8+

Dear Diary…

The last time I kept a personal diary I was twelve years old. Since then I’ve kept various travel journals documenting trips and stays overseas, but I’ve never revisited the idea of keeping a personal diary. I know many writing teachers advise aspiring writers to keep a journal but, to be honest, I’ve never been very good at documenting the day-to-day. Recently, due to some health issues, my doctor said that it might be a good idea to journal but my immediate thought was ‘I’d much rather kill people off in a novel’…so obviously, for me, fiction is far more cathartic than diary entries!

In yesterday’s NYT Book Review there was an article about the German novelist, Christa Wolf, who kept a diary over 50 years recording the events of only one day each year – September 27th (the link to the article is here). Apparently she kept this diary until her death in 2011, jotting down everything she did and everyone she saw (even everything she ate) on that day. From the article, it sounds like she was a careful diarist rather than a confiding one – giving plenty of detail on the day, and some deep commentary on the meaning of time, but less in the way of sharing her innermost thoughts or emotions.

I’ve often wondered about writers who keep detailed journals or diaries and how they tackle the delicate balance of writing for themselves as well as writing in a medium that might ultimately be made public (especially if they become famous). I certainly admire anyone who has the discipline to keep a diary/journal as well as their other writing. I  would find maintaining a personal diary challenging – in part, because, I’d always feel a constraining hand, as if someone was reading the entries over my shoulder. I think I would censor my entries or indulge in creating a ‘fictionalized’ account of my life rather than being open and honest (this may also be why I find it hard to write anything in public areas like coffee shops – I need to have the absence of ‘others’ in order to write).

So TKZers, do any of you write a personal diary or journal on a regular basis? If so, how do you maintain the momentum for this? Do you censor or hold yourself back in any way? Do you find it helps your fiction writing? If, like me, you don’t write a journal or diary, why not?

2+