First Page Critique: The Last White Rose

Photo by Laura Benedict.

 

Cheery good day, TKZers! It’s time for a critique of an anonymous author’s work. The Last White Rose is an excerpt from a novel that appears to be a modern gothic with both horror and romantic elements. But it might be a thriller.  I’m anxious to know what you think.

 

THE LAST WHITE ROSE

Epigraph

In my dream, I see my own green eyes, filled with terror and tears.I fall to my knees, submitting to the command of invincible blue eyes raging with white fire.His face twists into something else, something evil. He is ending my life. I wake with a strident scream… and stare into the same blue eyes.

Chapter One

Stonington, Connecticut

He was elusive, a ghost I needed to catch. The stranger whose face I’d never seen lurked around town, maintaining enough distance to mask his features in shadow. I saw his face for the first time in late July after the annual Blessing of the Fleet. His bold gaze burned into mine from the opposite side of Water Street. The highland band, piping loud and marching through the center, drew the post-ceremony procession to a close, granting me an unobstructed view.

A shiver slid through me despite the stifling summer heat.

He was magnificent. The kind of man you’d never find living in small-town New England. Imposing height and broad, muscled shoulders defined his stature. He wore jeans and a faded indigo tee shirt that exposed cut biceps and forearms. Sun-streaked, dark blond hair in a classic front wave and a commanding jawline framed his handsome, smirking face.

“Parade’s over,” someone shouted.

Even so, Jess and I held our advantageous spot at the curb. My best friend soaked in the late morning sun, sipping her raspberry lemon mimosa, watching me stare at him.

She elbowed me. “Who’s he and why are you staring at each other? Wait—Ellie, is he…”

My eyes skipped to Jess to deliver a dirty look. When I refocused across the street, he was gone. “The guy who followed me home the other night. Yes, I think so. There’s no one else as tall. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s just staying nearby.”

“And maybe you should say something to someone.”

“Not until I’m certain. Paranoia is my sister’s thing, not mine. Besides, aren’t you always saying I should be more open to meeting new people?”

“You do need to get out of your artsy little head. Just be careful.”

I struggled, trying to reconcile his presence in town and the sense that he watched me. After all, it was summertime. Stonington was a historically rich town, the only one in Connecticut to face the open Atlantic waters, so it attracted countless visitors. It was common to see strangers around town. Drunken tourists wandered the streets at night, unaware most businesses closed before ten. It was a colonial fishing town, and outsiders came from far and wide to work for the commercial fleet. It wasn’t the first time a man from one of the crews or a tourist had looked my way, I reasoned.

Then I saw him again.

The next day after the last of my noisy day-campers had gone, I locked the art studio door and headed for the fishing pier to sketch. It was either that or listen to another of Jess’s lectures. She’d go on about how I wallowed in self-imposed loneliness, and how it left her alone to test the waters in the pool of dateable men. The pool was small—blue plastic toddler swimming pool small—and I didn’t need to dip a toe to know there was nothing left in it for me.

The pier was a respite from my grandmother and sister’s intrusiveness as well. Gran and Isobel were all I had, and they meant well. Trysts with my art kept me sane, human.

I looked out over the harbor and spotted Neptune trudging her way in. The sailboats beyond paled in her presence. I don’t know what it was about the old girl, but I loved that fishing boat. Her emerald green hull had become chalky over time, and the once black and white hoists and booms were covered in rust, but she was still glorious against the backdrop of the sea. I lost myself in the sketch at once.

Photo by Laura Benedict

 

Dear Anonymous Author of The Last White Rose:

What a pleasure it was to critique this novel opening. There’s so much to work with here: you’ve obviously read a great deal of fiction and have a practiced hand in basic mechanics. Your grammar and sentence structure are strong, and even your barely-mentioned characters are vivid and distinctive. You also know how to structure a scene, which is no small feat, and your first person POV is flawless.

I like the Connecticut setting. It gives the story an immediate New England gothic feel. Gothic is one of my most beloved genres, so I’m particular.

Jess and Ellie have good chemistry. Jess is a lot of fun, though she falls down a bit on the best friend front. (More on that later.) These cracked me up: “My best friend soaked in the late morning sun, sipping her raspberry lemon mimosa, watching me stare at him.” And “She’d go on about how I wallowed in self-imposed loneliness, and how it left her alone to test the waters in the pool of dateable men. The pool was small—blue plastic toddler swimming pool small—and I didn’t need to dip a toe to know there was nothing left in it for me.”

And the scene with the Neptune was completely charming and nicely visualized. I could picture the boat “trudging” its way in. Your descriptions are—for the most part—very nicely done.

Please, dear Anonymous Author, read all of the above twice, because I know that, like most writers, you will forget it immediately as you read my criticisms and suggestions.

 

Here we go:

I’m not sure what sort of novel this is, and that distresses me. It contains gothic and demonic elements and is set in an old New England town. But there’s some romance as well. I need a few more hints. Does our heroine feel strangely attracted to the giant hot guy stalking her? Or is there some menace in the town that he might be connected to? The strong emphasis on the stalking makes me think it’s trying to be a thriller, but the stalker’s attractiveness makes me wonder if he’s a demi-god or paranormal beast or demon. Another mystery is that we don’t know if he’s the guy in the epigraph or not.

There’s a phrase that I learned from my mother-in-law very early in my marriage: “too much of a muchness.” That’s what you have in this opening section. You need to take a breath. Don’t try to tell us everything in 672 words, and definitely only tell us things once. Readers are smart. This section has too many repeated actions, too much stalking, and way too many characters. It’s important to mention or introduce all of your significant characters in the first thirty pages of a novel, but if you try to do it in the first three, your reader is going to be very confused. Fortunately, you can look at this as an embarrassment of riches because you can use much of this detail in other parts of the novel.

It’s also important for you to balance the light and dark. You can have both.

The last thing I want to address is your heroine, Ellie. Good heroines can be tough to write. Sidekicks get to be fun, villains get to be fun. Heroines can be a bit dull. Thoughts on Ellie below.

 

Epigraph

This is a dream: check.

I’m a bit confused as to how Ellie’s seeing her eyes in one line, then is falling to her knees in the next. Is she watching herself? Or is she experiencing it? Just clarify. Even if it’s a dream, it has to have its own dream physics and dream logic.

Perhaps reframe it so we know she is watching it as a scene, wondering at her own complicity.

“Strident” is awkward. As is “invincible blue eyes raging with white fire.” There’s an awful lot happening in those eyes all at once.

“He is ending my life.” Simple and to the point, but “ending” feels a bit tame since she’s about to be devoured/murdered by what appears to be a demon.

Clarify the last line and be specific:

“I wake, screaming, to find those same blue eyes—now watchful and worried (or laughing and scornful, etc)—gazing into mine.”

Chapter One

First paragraph:

The opening lines are confusing. He’s a ghostly elusive guy that has been skulking around the shadows for…some period of time. Months? Weeks? Two days? Then in the next sentence she gets to the immediate scene: “I saw his face for the first time…”

Instead, get right into it.

We’re prepped by the epigraph for scary and dubious. Give us something new at the top of chapter one. I’d much rather read: “The first time I saw Jeremy Porter’s* handsome face, he was smirking at me from the opposite side of Water Street.” Something straightforward adds a bit of levity, and keeps the story from being so frontloaded with ominosity (technically not a word, but ominousness is clumsy). I confess that I’ve been guilty of over-ominosity myself, so I know whereof I speak. He seems more condescending than threatening. If you want to make him threatening, change “smirking” to “staring.”

*Don’t be afraid to name the guy. We know he has a name. As Ellie’s telling the story, she already knows his name because she’s telling it in the past tense. As it is, it’s cheap suspense. If the story were all in present tense/present action, then we wouldn’t find out his name until she learns it. But the cat’s already out of the bag.

By making the opening of Chapter One just another in a series of stalking incidents, you’ve taken away the power of the epigraph, which could be very compelling. The epigraph hints that she dreams of a man who might be a demon, but she wakes to find him watching her in real life. My assumption is that she becomes romantically involved with sexy stalker guy during the course of the novel…? But we still don’t know if epigraph guy and stalker guy are the same.

The epigraph has already set your tone. Let it rest. We get it.

“He was magnificent.”

Our guy is obviously a gorgeous, eye feast of a man, and the word “magnificent” is striking. I kind of imagine him as a blond Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast. Is he unreal in his perfection? Some small flaw would make him more believable—unless you’re going for supernatural perfection.

Let’s break it down:

Why would we never find someone like him living in small-town New England? Where would we see a man like him? Hollywood? The cover of a magazine or romance novel?

Imposing height—how tall? Ellie says: “There’s no one else as tall.” What does that mean? Significantly taller than everyone else in town? Wilt Chamberlain tall? If so, someone would have surely noticed him by now. A man that tall would be a very poor skulker.

Instead of using an indefinite phrase like “defined his stature,” let’s see him through Ellie’s editorial filters:

“I’d never seen a man so tall in real life, at least not one with shoulders so broad that they made me wonder for a moment if he had to have his dress shirts specially made. But he wasn’t wearing a dress shirt. His taut, cut biceps emerged from the sleeves of a beautifully faded black tee that just reached the waist of his indigo jeans. And his black motorcycle boots looked comfortably worn. Most women I knew would pay a fortune to have their stylist give them highlights like the ones that seemed to flow naturally through the waves of his dark blond hair. His jaw was strong and commanding, reminding me of paintings I’d seen of ancient Roman centurions on my last trip to the Louvre.

“Parade’s over,” someone behind me shouted.

I startled, and felt my face flush. The slow smile of the man I came to know as Jeremy Porter told me he’d caught me staring.”

Then you can go on and have her interact with Jess. But let’s have some more urgency and concern in their exchange. Is Jess implying Ellie should call the authorities? Who is the “someone” of whom she speaks? Be specific.

In this next section, we get a lot of new characters introduced: noisy day-campers, dateable men, Gran and Isobel, an anthropomorphized fishing boat, drunken tourists, sailors. It’s overwhelming.

And, suddenly, skulking sexy guy appears again.

What is this book about? Right now I’m just reading stalking scenes, and I’m feeling fearful that they will just go on and on…

Three scenes (including the epigraph, if it is the same guy), three appearances. Actually four, because we learn he followed her home on some other night (super alarming to have a giant follow you home!). We have no resolution of his parade appearance in Chapter One before the pier scene. He has now let her see his face, and he’s still obviously stalking her. Please give Ellie some spunk. She seems incredibly unaffected by his stalking—her friend acts alarmed but then apparently lets her go home and go about her business and go to work the next day without any further investigation of the guy. It’s one thing that Ellie’s not paranoid. It’s quite another to make her seem not very bright. And I think she is bright.

Your opening chapter has to do more than establish the tone, and Chapter One tells us little more than that Ellie is living in a historic small town and is being stalked by a hot guy. It’s an ominous situation, but she’s reacting in a way that’s not credible. And we still don’t know if this is a romance, a thriller, or a paranormal story. Give us better clues.

My first suggestion would be to work on the epigraph and just let it set the tone. Then in your opening chapter, have Ellie confront hot stalker guy after the parade. It will make her the real protagonist rather than a woman who seems to be setting herself up as a victim. I love the sketching scene on the pier, but it’s too much with what you have already. Save the setting and scene—maybe it happens after they’ve actually met.

Having her confront the guy right off puts us immediately into the story, and will surprise the reader. Even if he is our villain, he will be put momentarily off-balance. Ellie and the hot guy instantly become equals, and thus more interesting adversaries. Or a more interesting couple. Therefore it becomes a more compelling story. Be bold.

That’s my two cents. I think this story could go far.

Chatter over, TKZ friends and bloggers. What say you?

 

 

 

4+

When Is It Time to Let Your Old Work Go?

What do you do with your unpublished/unsold work? Where is your juvenilia? Do you treasure it, or let it go?

I’m a let-it-go person. My first two unpublished, and probably unpublishable novels are around here…somewhere. Well, the second one might be in a box in the mudroom. At least I think it made it onto the moving truck eleven years ago. I kind of hope it’s not, because I really don’t want anyone finding it and reading it when I die. (Let alone trying to publish it–that never works out well for the dead writer. I’m put in mind of some of Shirley Jackson’s early story drafts that were published posthumously. And isn’t there 3/4 of a Hemingway novel out there somewhere?) There are probably also drafts of that second novel on 3.5″ floppy disks in my office closet.

My very first unpublished novel may not even have made it onto a 3.5″ disk. I think I finished it in 1998. Before I wrote it, I read a Somerset Maugham autobiography that suggested that all writers should finish their first novel and then immediately put it away in a drawer. It’s only just this minute that I realized he said, “a drawer,” and not, “the trash.” So perhaps I shouldn’t have completely lost track of it.

I have a 17-year-old son who is embarrassed by everything he’s done in the past–the past being fifteen minutes ago, or longer. I’m not that bad, but I don’t feel the desire to go too far back and look at the writer I was. It took years and years and years for me to get that (third) first novel published. To get it good enough. While I’m very comfortable with reflecting on my own work, or poking fun at my old habits–the first 3 short stories and first 2 novels I wrote all had old-fashioned silver-handled vanity hand-mirror and brush sets in them!–in workshops or, well, here, I don’t necessarily care to see them on paper.

It’s a lot like travel. If I am not overburdened with luggage, I’ll take my SLR camera with me because I love, love, love to frame the world through the camera’s lens. But if I can’t take it, I don’t stress about it. The things I see and do live in my memories. There are times when I’ve consciously said, “I will remember how this looks and how it feels.” And I do. That’s enough.

I remember how it felt to write those books and stories. They are landmarks on my journey through the writing life, and I don’t need physical evidence of them. Bits and pieces of them survive in other work. Creativity is never, ever wasted. The words and ideas make their way through my fingers and travel out into the world. I guess I could go full-on dork and say I set them free and they take on their own lives. Or not. And I get to make new ones. Always new ones.

What’s your relationship with work from your past?

6+

A Bear Won’t Eat What A Bear Can’t Smell: When Real Life Provides the Dialogue

 

(purchased from IStock)

I’m currently living in the limbo that inspires fear and loathing in many writers, and drives others to query random Magic 8 Balls with the seriousness of a sugar-drunk eight-year-old at a slumber party: I have a manuscript on submission. For the sake of my sanity, let’s step away from the constant checking of email, the extra glass of wine after dinner, and the cold-sweat certainty that there should have been One More Edit before it went out.

So, tell me things, please. Specifically, I want you to think about the sayings you have in your family. They might be well-known sayings, or something you and your siblings picked up from a long lost television episode that stuck with you for whatever reason. Or it might be a saying whose origins are lost to history, but you still use it. These sayings don’t necessarily have the gravitas or moral spin of an aphorism, but when you use colorful or shocking or sweet sayings occasionally and appropriately in your dialogue, they immediately give your reader important information about your characters.

I’ll start. Here are some that show up again and again in the Benedict family, or came from my childhood:

People in hell want ice water. (my dad)

Smooth move, Ex-Lax. (also my dad)

Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite. (my mom)

We like the moon, because it’s close to us. (this video is at least 10 years old)

Biggie fries, biggie drink. (no comment)

Pretty makes up for bad. (this showed up around the time my daughter was five)

Pretty is as pretty does. (this one gives me the same hives it gave me when was five)

Does a bear poop in the woods? (dad, again)

Is the Pope Catholic? (yep, dad)

A bear won’t eat what a bear can’t smell. (from a Saran Wrap commercial–could only find the ad with a tiger)

Measure head size before ordering. (appropriate whenever, well, ordering something–I picked it up from an Elmore Leonard novel)

Same poop, different flies. (from husband’s family)

Cam down, Linwood. (MIL’s family–she said she has no idea where it came from)

Hold ‘er, Newt. She’s headed for the barn! (also from MIL’s family–she doesn’t know where this is from either. but I did find versions online)

Scratch your ass and get happy. (heard this at a family reunion–acquired it immediately)

These three came from workshop students:

It’s a poor ass rabbit that only has one hole. (meaning is fairly obvious)

You can’t look up a hog’s ass and tell the price of lard. (heh)

She’s a real Corinthian. (wish I’d written down the origin of this one–so many possible interpretations)

Your turn!

2+

Writers’ Camp, Anyone?

I’m curious: what do you think about writing workshops–specifically workshops that are a few days to a week long?

I met my husband at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, in Hindman, Kentucky. He was teaching fiction and I was a newbie writer. (It’s okay. You can smirk. Lots of people have over the years!) I’d never workshopped stories outside the classroom. I’d also never slept in a cabin dormitory, 4 sleepers to a cubby, or washed dishes in a camp kitchen, so the whole week was full of new experiences.

Workshops are intimate. (No, not that kind of intimate, though sometimes there’s, um, activity between consenting adults that can be awkward for everyone. Think of summer camp, or high school. But it doesn’t have to be that way.) Participants work with the same teacher, and the same group of writers, for several days in a row. You get to know each other, and group dynamics emerge quickly. If the instructor is good at their job, it becomes a space where people feel comfortable sharing their work, and receiving and giving thoughtful criticism.

It’s nice spending time with like-minded writers in real life, as opposed to hanging out online. In a well-run workshop, the writer must listen to everyone’s critique before they speak about their own work. Because a writer needs to learn that they can’t be on the shoulder of every reader to explain what they meant if something isn’t clear or understandable to that reader. The work has to speak for itself. BUT the good news is that most workshops schedule plenty of downtime. Often the real learning happens over dinner, around a campfire, or over a glass of wine or two. It’s good to share the journey. And don’t forget the networking thing. It’s important. At a workshop, you can meet professionals (often agents and editors), and form friendships with other writers that can last for a lifetime.

Am I trying to sell you on workshops, or a particular workshop? No. While I encourage you to give one a try, they’re not for everyone. I was scheduled to teach at a workshop in June, but money is tight all around, and my class didn’t fill. It’s disappointing, but I look forward to staying home and writing. Maybe next year.

There are many more glamorous spots for writers’ conferences than Eastern Kentucky–I went there because the mountains were home to my grandfather, and because it was economical. If you want to get exotic, you could go to the workshops at Positano. But you must take me with you.

Tell us your thoughts on writing workshops. Are there any you would recommend to other writers?

8+

Betting On The Muse

 

A couple of weeks ago I started writing my post for today, and said, I need to think more on this before I put it out there. So I put it aside, and didn’t get back to it right away because I’m an all-or-nothing kind of gal. As in, I can only focus well on one thing at a time and I had a pretty big thing to focus on: I finished my ninth novel on Monday morning. May I qualify that? I finished my ninth novel, but the first two were practice novels, and I never sent them out. (But now that I’ve typed that out loud, I wonder why I so easily discount those two just because they haven’t been published.)

Number nine is a mess. It’s quite possibly the messiest first draft I’ve ever written. The Intruder is something new for me: a suspense novel without a hint of supernatural in it, and I’m not ashamed to tell you that it has been a little difficult to switch gears. It’s not like I’ve only written supernatural stories. Fully half of my published short stories are straight crime, i.e. contain nothing surreal or supernatural, and those first two “practice” novels didn’t contain any supernatural elements, either. But when my third novel (first one published), Isabella Moon, which was all about the ghosts, sold for actual money, I figured I should stick with what worked. I didn’t look back until about a year ago.

Writing about ghosts and demons is enjoyable to me. It’s fantasy. An escape. As writers—may I speak for us all here?—we spend lots of time in alternate realities. For me, at least, it’s not much of a stretch to envision realities in which the presence of perceivable ghosts is not only possible, but probable. And why not? There’s certainly a market for it.

Why write something different this time? I wanted to try something new, and my muse said, “Let’s go for it.”

I was struck by something the estimable James Scott Bell said in his January 29th post (in fact, the entire post was very timely for me):

“One of the nice things about short fiction is that you can get an idea and just start hitting the keys to see what happens. It’s fun. You can write whatever the heck you want to, without a huge expenditure of time.”

That feels very true to me about short stories. They’re low risk. If a new story in a new genre works out, you’ve just opened up a new door for yourself with attendant readers. On the other hand, if you’ve written five thousand words of uneditable dreck, it’s only cost you a few hours’ commitment. No big deal, and you’ve (it is to be hoped) had a good time. Hello, one night stand of the writing life.

But thinking about making such a big jump from one genre of novels to another was, dare I say, hard for me. In fact, it slowed my writing down considerably because I was afraid of screwing it up. Of looking like an idiot. I don’t like to admit it when things are hard. (Insert years of therapy here.) It felt BIG.

On the one hand, it is big. I just spent most of a year writing something very new for me. One hundred and five thousand words of new. If I thought of myself as a brand—and, seriously, I have a very hard time with that concept—then this book would be considered off-brand. My answer to that is that all of my published books are similarly suspenseful mysteries, it’s just that they also contain ghosts. How that plays with the buyer for Barnes and Noble, I’m not sure. Marketing myself as a part of a category has never been my forté, and you don’t even want to get me to hop onto my literary vs. commercial fiction soapbox. (Literary fiction is just a genre. Way too many MFA programs are still teaching people to write for Esquire magazine, circa 1972. The End.) But I digress.

On the other hand…really? I’m a writer. The words I put on the page are just words and ideas. Not pearls of wisdom or gold bricks. They aren’t even fully formed until I play with them and shape them into something readable. Writers who think that every word they spew out, or squirt out, or precisely place with the tiniest, cutest pair of word tweezers in the world is some precious, permanent thing are delusional. We are creating. Playing. And if we don’t write what we want to write (again, thanks, JSB and Mr. Bradbury), then it’s our own fault and shame on us.

Here I am, in between hands. Today I print out the manuscript to see it on paper. That’s my first step of editing. You can’t edit a blank page, but you certainly can edit four hundred pages with words on them. Wish me luck.

As I was working on this, I read a post on Facebook (I know. I get distracted.) that asked if writers found it hard to talk publicly about their writing, and I had to laugh at how many people said, “Oh, I just couldn’t.” I love that TKZ folks talk openly and honestly about their work and experiences. It’s very refreshing.

So that’s my vein-slicing for today. What about you? What’s the biggest, most public risk you’ve taken as a writer?

 

 

2+

To Count or Not to Count (Words, that is)

Because* I’m a writer who is thisclose to completing the draft of her next novel, I was telling someone today about how many words I wrote when I went off on a writing retreat this past weekend. (I know, I know. Another writer talking about her book. You’re yawning already. But do try to stay awake, because I promise I do have a point. And a question for you.) It’s the second January in a row I ran away from home for a weekend to write, and while I can’t yet call it a tradition or habit, I think I shall make it both.

The person I was telling isn’t a writer, and so the numbers–2K words late Friday night, 9K on Saturday, and 2K Sunday morning for a total of 13K—meant nothing to him. But he did ask me a question that surprised me: “Why in the world do you keep track of the number of words you write? Are you in some kind of competition?”

I definitely did not see that coming.

One of my best friends, an enormously successful writer, has kept track of her words on spreadsheets for well over a decade. But I also know a writer who has been writing for a half-century and couldn’t tell you precisely how many stories she’s published, let alone the number of words.

The subject of word counts comes up frequently when you’re an emerging writer. Agents only want to see a certain number of pages, and competitions, magazines, and writing workshops all set limits. When you sell that novel, there will be a word count mentioned in the contract, and when it comes time for delivery, it better be close: if there aren’t enough, it won’t meet the contract; if there are too many, it could negatively impact the production schedule and projected costs. Word counts are relevant.

But should word counts have a place in your creative life? What do word counts mean to you?

This might sound a little crazy, but keeping track of my words satisfies the voice in my head that says, “use your time well.” Word counts are by nature quantifications. Proof that I’ve written. It doesn’t matter if I’ve written badly. It doesn’t matter if I throw them out later. It doesn’t matter if I don’t even like them. I’ve written. I’ve worked. It sounds a little cold, but sometimes you have to feed the voice. (Now, these are only my thoughts. If you don’t have that scary neurosis voice in your head telling you she’s watching how you use your time, good for you.)

The softer, more right-brained view is that the more words you write, the more practiced you become. A friend of mine is fond of saying, “Writing begets writing.” This is so true. When I write, I work things out on the page. The more words I get down on paper, the more room there is in my brain for birthing new ideas. My brain feels larger, happier when it’s planning new words.

At the end of December, I started tracking my word counts in my daily blog. The person who asked me why I tracked words wondered if I was in some kind of competition. The answer is yes. I am in competition with myself. I like to know how much I’ve written, and it keeps me motivated—not just to improve the numbers as I go along, but to have some markers along the way.

What about you?

(Oh, and I wanted to share a bit of news with you all: I’m excited to have a story, A Paler Shade of Death, nominated in the Best Short Story category for 2017 Edgar Awards. I’m thrilled and honored and a little freaked out to be nominated alongside four of my writing heroes!)

*Yes, I opened this blog with the forbidden word, “because.” Please don’t try this at home.

(Photo by George Hodan, PublicDomainPictures.net)

Laura Benedict’s latest dark suspense novel is The Abandoned HeartVisit her at laurabenedict.com and get a free ebook when you sign up for her newsletter.

5+

How Not to Treat a Writer (and a Bonus Guide on Building Good Anthologies)

Let me tell you a story.

On December 19th, I received an email through my website contact link suggesting that I might submit a story to an upcoming anthology of “dark and speculative fiction.” Okay, I thought. Sounds like me. Reprints were okay (if the work was requested, and it appeared that mine had been), and there was actually money involved. The stated theme of the anthology was vague and used the phrase “we may be looking for…” But I’m always game for submitting work, and women’s sexuality was one of the mentioned subjects. Okay, I thought. That sounds like me, too. Knowing that the publisher was a legit literary fiction house, I clicked through to the open call for submissions page.

I don’t want to embarrass anyone in this story, so I’m not going to get specific about all of the submission details. The story I had in mind was one I had published in Patricia Abbott’s Discount Noir, and I had long thought of expanding it. I was pretty sure it fit the women’s sexuality/female protagonist bill. Except: The deadline was to be December 30th. Yes, twelve days after I received the email, and only eighteen days after the date on the submission page.

Twelve days! It’s madness to think anyone but a few very motivated writers could put out a finished 2-5K word story in that brief amount of time. Still, I had the story on hand and was thinking of adding only a thousand words or so. As I said, I’m game. Christmas got busy, and I put it on the back burner. After a very relaxing holiday, I worked on it on the 29th and 30th. I’ll confess that I submitted it after midnight on the 30th, but it was still the 30th in Alaska, so I figured I was good. And, if not, no big deal. It was a fun exercise to work on the story.

I received the acknowledgement immediately. All was well. Then, later that same day, the 31st, I received a polite form rejection email.

There’s nothing like receiving a rejection for a story on New Year’s Eve. It was disappointing, as all rejections are. I had a lot of confidence in the story, so it was a little surprising. I went through six stages of story rejection grief, and enjoyed the seventh (an extra glass of wine), and decided the story would be a good addition to the ebook short story collection I want to do later this year.

But, wait! Less than an hour later, I received an email that I had been sent the wrong form email. They actually meant to send the one telling me they were considering the story and would get back to me in a month. They were sorry for the confusion, they said.

Ha! Ha! said I. And forgot about it the very next day.

This past Monday, nine days later, I received my response. They “love” the story, but “have since decided on a theme” that this story doesn’t quite fit. Oh, by the way, maybe I have another one that would suit their newly chosen theme? They only need it by January 16th.

*sigh*

There are so many possible responses. But the one that immediately comes to mind is a less lovely version of WTH? (That’s not the one I sent.)

My work has been in quite a few anthologies the past few decades, and I’ve edited five and published two of those myself. Yet I have never been involved in such an unprofessional exchange.

Publishing isn’t, “Hey, kids! Let’s put out a book!” Well, it can be, but the process needs to stay professional. And it would seem to me that a primary tenet of professionalism would be: Try not to alienate prospective writers.

Here’s a handy list for creating an anthology:

  • Define your theme. Make it broad, or make it narrow. Be flexible enough to push the boundaries a bit if you need to. The narrower your focus, the smaller your natural audience will be.
  • Put together a budget. Will you pay the writers in cash or copies or both?
  • Get a few writers on board that you know well so that if you will be going to a publisher, you have committed work from writers they recognize.
  • Write a proposal whether you will be shopping it to publishers or not. It will give you good guidelines against which you can measure submissions.
  • Find a publisher or, if you’re game and have some knowledge of publishing, put it out there yourself. How will it be distributed? Through regular distributors? Online vendors?
  • Decide if you want all original work or reprints or both.
  • Plot out a schedule backwards from your desired pub date. Give yourself three-four months before the actual pub date to assemble, edit, copyedit, and format the stories. Writers often miss deadlines. Build in an extra month for dawdlers or disaster. Allow writers three to six months for writing. It might as well be three because 90% of them will write the story in the last available month.
  • Scheduling six to nine months to put the whole thing together is reasonable. This is variable of course. Using all reprints may be faster—but often the writer will need to get permissions from another, larger publisher. And the larger they are, the slower they are. (It took seven weeks to get permission from one publisher for a Surreal South anthology, and we almost had to drop the story.)
  • Establish who will be the contact for all authors. Who will do the mailings and keep track of the files?
  • NOW open submissions for your slush pile, and give folks a few months to come up with stories and write them. If you have a solid core of committed writers, you have a head start. If you give everyone three months to write and submit, you’ll have plenty of time to read and choose.
  • Acknowledge submissions.
  • Get someone working on the cover art.
  • Draw up a contract. Do you want exclusive, or non-exclusive rights?
  • Choose the stories. Have a couple runners-up in case some submissions get pulled.
  • In the name of all that’s holy, send the appropriate rejection and acceptance emails to all of the writers.
  • Assemble the manuscript. Make sure all the rights are covered.
  • Plan advertising (or work with marketing dept.)
  • Write cover copy.
  • Have someone write an introduction that teases the theme and mentions all the accepted stories by name.
  • Make any necessary edits and okay them with the writers.
  • Copyedit the stories, send the manuscripts back to the writers for approval. Give them a deadline for getting back to you.
  • Get a blurb or two if you can. Put galleys up on NetGalley, etc. to encourage reviews.
  • Format, print, distribute.

NOTE: This is not a hard and fast schedule for every anthology. Big ones will take longer. Working with inexperienced writers will take longer. If you’re doing an ebook anthology of reprints or one that is very small, you may be able to do all this stuff in a few weeks.

Lisa Morton, Carolyn Haines, and I all wrote our stories for Haunted Holidays: Three Short Tales of Terror and had the book out in paper and ebook on multiple platforms in three months.

 

The point is, take your time. Think it through at the beginning of the project. Be friendly but professional in your communications with your writers. Admit it if you screw up, but don’t set yourself up for failure by setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and everyone else involved.

As a writer, what’s the worst submission experience you’ve ever had?

Have you ever put together and anthology? How did it go?

 

Laura Benedict is the author of the Bliss House trilogy of novels. She blogs daily at her website. Visit her on Twitter, too.

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What’s In a Name? A Lot, That’s What

One of my very favorite crowd-source exercises to throw out in a writing workshop is “Name the Man, the Restaurant, the Gas Station, and the Dog.” I make a long list of nouns and we have a free-for-all naming names. Usually I offer qualifiers like, “the preacher shouting on the street corner,” or “the only bar in town,” or “a vegetarian restaurant,” or “a dog owned by a pair of retired missionaries.” You get the idea. It’s an exercise that gets people talking, thinking, and laughing. But it’s also a great reminder of how important names are in fiction.

The right character and place names go a long way to create a universe. It doesn’t matter where on earth The Overlook Hotel is located: the immediate image is that of a hotel teetering on the edge of vast, dangerous space. East Egg and West Egg are two halves of a whole—the old rich and the nouveau riche, forever separated. The image is very simple, implying that the names were determined far back in history; East Egg is old and settled, West Egg is the place where the newly-arrived have to create their own society, just as the American western frontier was settled. Faulkner’s stories would not be the same if they were all set in Jefferson or Bedford County. Yoknapatawpha County is a name not easily forgotten.

There are so many incredible character names in classic fiction: Sam Spade; Ichabod Crane; Humbert Humbert; Major Major Major Major; Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Miss Haveshim; Bathsheba Everdene (could Katniss Everdeen be far behind?); Nick and Nora Charles; Ebeneezer Scrooge. (I culled several of these names from this list, but there are surely many more similar lists out there.) I’ll leave it to you to decide how these names work within their stories.

Every writer has to develop their own system for naming things. Research is critical. If you think you’ve come up with a great name, do a web search for it. It’s surprising how often I discover I’ve accidentally used the name of someone semi-famous. (In my first novel, my editor made me change a name because it was too similar to Liev Schreiber.)

Here are a few names I chose to use in my third novel, DEVIL’S OVEN, an Appalachian Frankenstein story, and why I chose them. I envisioned the novel as a kind of folk tale, and so I let my selections be very broad. I wasn’t worried about naming against type for effect. It’s a rural story, a kind of contemporary mountain fantasy.

Devil’s Oven is the name of the Kentucky mountain where the story takes place. The name had to be archaic and threatening, with a sense of mystery about it. The supernatural is not just suggested, but implied. And the oven part implies that things are created and tempered there over long periods of time.

Ivy Luttrell is the seamstress who not only makes clothes and does alterations for people in the area, but also finds the half-buried, dismembered body of a man on Devil’s Oven and sews him back together. (I know. But it works, I promise.) I liked the delicacy of the name, Ivy. Ivy the character is quiet and attractive and moves slowly but precisely. Ivy the plant winds itself over and through things, just like thread, and before you know it, it has touched everything. The last name, Luttrell, was a bit of a construct. The writer Daniel Woodrell is a friend of mine, and I liked the –rell ending. Luttrell has an antique, Appalachian sound to me. I have no idea if it sounds that way to anyone else.

Thora Luttrell is Ivy’s half-sister and is fifteen years older. Thora is large and plain and has a lot of health problems. She worked for many years at the DMV. I wanted her to have an old-fashioned, but very simple and unadorned name.

Bud Tucker is one of three men who are central to the story. Bud owns a trucking company, as well as a strip club in town. He’s a straightforward guy who works hard to hide his sensitivity. He wears his hair short and worries about intimidating people with his size. His father is Olney Tucker, a self-made coal baron. Olney’s name is pure country. Bud’s opposite is Dwight Yarbro, the squirrely guy who has come to the mountains because he no longer wants to deal with mid-level crime and criminals in the city. In his job as the strip club’s manager, he wears funky, elaborate cowboy shirts (I probably made a Dwight Yoakam connection here), and aviator glasses that make him look a bit like 1970s Elvis.

When I looked back at Devil’s Oven for location names, I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get more creative than House of Waffles for a waffle house. But then, it does sound a bit against type. A bit pretentious. I only wish I had called it Twyla’s House of Waffles, or Junior’s House of Waffles.

Bud’s strip club is called The Twilight Club. I liked that the name sounds quaint, as strip clubs go. Bud is not a vulgar man, and even though he has opened a strip club, he doesn’t want it to be tacky.

The man that Ivy sews back together is a handsome devil named Anthony. She knows this because it is tattooed on his broad torso. And, yes, he has Mob connections. Sometimes you just go with the stereotype.

Choosing names involves a lot of research and a little magic. Here’s a link to a random name generator, which is a particular kind of magic. I’ve played with it some, but have found it works best for ancillary characters. You have to let it throw up a lot of possibilities if you already have the character sketched out in your head.

I prefer to target names a bit more closely. Here’s my list of qualities in descending order of consideration (always subject to change).

 

–Gender

–Character’s age

–Physical appearance

–Time period

–Location

–Family traditions

–Social class and cultural traditions

–Cultural ethnicity

 

Very occasionally a character will present herself with a first name, but rarely with a second. I spend a lot of time on baby name websites. But the true gold is on the Social Security website, which lists the most popular names by decade for the past 140 or so years.

Names go in and out of fashion, and you can get a feel for what will work as you go through the lists. I’ve also spent time looking at old English documents online, seeking out historical names. Let me make this easy for you: John, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward were very popular for a long, long time..

Social norms change constantly, and it’s important to make sure your characters reflect the world they live in. Pick up any number of pre-WWII novels and you’re liable to find yourself in a minefield of racial and cultural insensitivity.

You can, of course, name your characters and setting anything you like. You are in control, and if a name sounds right to you, you are certainly within your rights to use it. But tread carefully. Keep in mind that no given reader will share your exact cultural background and values, and if you give a character a name that evokes an unpleasant event or stereotype—and the use of it is not a relevant subject in the story—you’ll alienate readers, and rightfully so. That is, if your story even makes it into print. I’m not talking about political correctness, but common sense. If you want to engage readers, you have to meet them at least halfway.

A name carries a lot of weight. If it’s done right, and subtly, it will instantly telegraph important information about the character or location, or even the story’s tone. Sometimes I feel like I’m running a computer program of names in my head, checking possibilities against all the variables. Because I want each name and place to come out exactly right. Don’t make the reader think twice.

What are your tricks for finding the perfect character and place names? What are some of your favorite names in fiction?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is the suspense thriller, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel.

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Behind Closed Doors: Writing Intimacy

Empty Hotel Bed

I don’t know about you, but I find scenes of intimacy (read: sex) pretty hard to write. In life, I don’t have much problem talking about sex, sexual issues, sexuality, etc. My kids know I’m a safe person to talk to about such things, and I’ve been known to make (age-appropriate) comments during films or even conversations that lead to serious discussions, and sometimes giggles and eye-rolls.

But for me, writing about physical intimacy doesn’t come any more naturally than writing dialogue that sounds natural. No one wants to read a physical catalogue of the act. Neither should a scene be so swathed in innuendo that it has to be read twice for the reader to understand what’s going on. And such scenes can’t just be dropped, cold, into the middle of a book, a result of a, “Oh, readers will probably expect them to have sex, now,” decision. Like well-described action of any sort, it’s way more art than science.

I bet you’re expecting some sage writing advice about now. That’s what folks come here for, yes? Here’s a secret: even though there are plenty of steamy (and sometimes rough) sex scenes in my novels, the truth is that I’m on a quest to make the next ones I write better, more authentic, and—when appropriate–sexier.

I’ve picked up a couple of books on the subject because that’s one of the primary ways I learn new things. (Though I confess I don’t advertise the fact that I’m reading these books to my seventeen-year-old son. Having me as a parent means he’s already embarrassed plenty.)

The book I definitely don’t read at the doctor’s office or in the carpool line is the plainly titled How to Write a Dirty Story: Reading, Writing, and Publishing Erotica, by Susie Bright. While I’m not looking to write erotica specifically, she spends the first third of the book talking about the history of writing sex in America, as well as the subject of literary intimacy in general. It came out in 2002—definitely pre-Fifty Shades of Gray days.

I’ve just had Diana Gabaldon’s recent Kindle Single, “I Give You My Body…”: How I Write Sex Scenes, recommended to me. Diana Gabaldon is renowned for her intense, frank, and occasionally humorous sex scenes (seriously, I blush!), and I’m very curious about her willingness to, ahem, go there.

The third book is by literary writer and educator, Elizabeth Benedict. The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers has the most academic approach of the three, with excerpts from the likes of John Updike, Russell Banks, and Dorothy Allison.

But now I’d like to hear from you.

Who are some examples of writers who write terrific sex scenes?

How do you approach writing an intimate scene? Do you dive right in, or does it take you a while?

Bonus question: What was the first book you ever read that had a sex scene in it?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is The Abandoned Hearta dark suspense thriller. Learn more about her at laurabenedict.com.

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Hail Thee, Book Festival Day

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With my table mate, the irrepressibly talented Amy E. Reichert (l), at Books by the Banks 2016

 

If there’s one occupation I never imagined pursuing again, it was being a salesperson. During high school, in between various food service jobs, I worked a Christmas gig selling office supplies in a mall kiosk, and later sold ladies clothes in a rather grim department store. In college, I was hired by a temp agency to cold-call businesses over the phone to get appointments for the woman who did the actual selling. I was petrified of cold-calling. They gave me a script, which I’m sure had been developed by corporate sales professionals. I hated every moment of those calls. I dreaded going to work, and energetically did every other part of my job that didn’t include cold-calling. They should have fired me, but they didn’t, because I worked hard to make myself otherwise indispensable.

I’m on an extended book tour for The Abandoned Heart all this month, and the early part of November. Tours are a lot of fun. I like to drive, so I don’t mind hopping in the car to do a reading, conference, or festival that’s within a one-and-a-half-day traveling radius. When I started touring almost ten years ago, the norm was single- or two-author bookstore appearances. But there are a lot fewer bookstores these days, and a lot more authors looking for readers.

Enter the book festival. Book festivals are a blast, and a win-win-win (-win) for authors, booksellers, libraries, and charities. They foster a love of books and a love of reading in both adults and children. (If you follow this link, you will disappear down a path leading to pretty much every festival in the known world, and may find yourself imagining that you, too, should definitely be invited to the Blenheim Palace Festival in the U.K. or the exclusive The New Yorker Festival. Ignore the fab photos of the famous actors—you know everyone really will be there to meet the writers!) Book festivals enjoy an economy of scale undreamed of by a single bookstore or library. There’s lots of room for authors and their books, and readers are wonderfully motivated to meet their favorite authors and have their books signed. Plus, a festival is a great opportunity to hang out with other writers.

The flip side is, of course, that you’re cheek-by-jowl with your competition. Friendly competition, but still competition. Writers are there to sell books, and readers are there to buy them.

This past weekend, I was at a table at Cincinnati’s wonderful Books By The Banks Festival, which featured around 150 authors. It was the festival’s tenth anniversary, and I’m not surprised that it continues to thrive. The volunteers are incredibly dedicated, the authors seemed delighted to be there, and it was bustling with readers all day long.

I saw three kinds of authors there: 1) Super-famous authors who had all-day lines; 2) Bored-looking authors who waited—often in vain—for people to come and talk to them; and 3) The rest of us—writers who spent most of the day standing, chatting, laughing and, yes, selling.

I didn’t leave my table often, but as a reader, I found myself pretty overwhelmed. Even though I don’t much read YA or children’s literature, I still buy gifts, so every book was a possibility. And there’s something magical about picking up a book and having it signed—right there—by the author. I still geek out about it.

Something about being face-to-face with readers trying to make a choice between one of my books and another writer’s book reminded me how intimate the relationship between reader and writer is. As writers, we are engaged in a kind of seduction. A tease. Our words must immediately entice a reader—bonus points if a killer cover piques their interest first. During a personal appearance, the writer, rather than the book, has to do most of the talking. That’s what she’s there for: to answer questions, to give the inside scoop, to facilitate the decision without being pushy. It’s a sales transaction, but a delicate one. The buyer is purchasing something with which they will spend long, intimate hours. It’s way more like speed dating than going to the local independent for coffee and a browse. Few readers buy carelessly at book festivals.

I found myself a little annoyed by the bored-seeming authors. I wanted to ask why they even bothered to come. It’s entirely possible that they were shy. After all, most of the 150 authors in attendance got there because they spent many, many hours alone in order to get their books written. But shyness isn’t an excuse. Unless you’re Diana Gabaldon, J.K. Rowling, or Stephen King, you’re going to need to make an effort to sell books. (To be fair, all three of these writers are engaging and interesting people who speak up about their work.)

As difficult as I find it sometimes to come out from beneath my writer-rock, I love connecting with real live readers, and not just the hypothetical ones in my head. The ones in my head frighten me a little. The ones I meet on the road are always friendly and generous, and they renew my energy for writing for them. Truly, salesmanship is the least of it. There are times when I feel a little silly hawking my wares (books), but when I connect with a reader, and I see that spark of joy in their eyes when they slide a book across the table, saying, “Will you sign this for me?” any thought of selling or having sold something slips away. It’s just the two of us, with happiness in between, and I think, “Yes. Yes, this is why I do it.”

 

Have you attended a book festival? How do you feel they compare to individual author events?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is The Abandoned Hearta dark suspense thriller. Learn more about her at laurabenedict.com.

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