Idea mining. [Encore]

The process of creating character motivations, actions, and consequences naturally demands ideas, and this is where weak, uninspired and/or derivative plots evolve. I rarely trust the first idea I have for anything. I urge all writers, and most especially beginning writers, to adopt this attitude.is it a good idea

Idea mining generally means digging deep to get at the “good stuff.” Ideas found in the topsoil are those that anybody is likely to have. They’re rarely original, and readers will easily recognize where they lead. Digging down below the topsoil gets you into richer territory. Ideas found here will likely work for most readers. Alas, they’re very likely to be old hat for editors, agents and manuscript buyers. These folks have seen a lot of second layer stuff, and chances are, anything you find there won’t be original to them.

That means if you want to find something unique, you have to dig way down, through the subsoil, and into bedrock. And when you get there you’ll likely have to chip away at it until the gem you need gets knocked loose. It’s work–a helluva lot of work–but it’s worth it. This is the zone that generates plot twists that no one sees coming. It’s where motivations don’t just feel right on the surface; they resonate all the way through a character, and the actions the character takes, as a result, will both intrigue and engage readers.

For example, let’s assume I’ve decided to write a romance, and I’m determined to use the time-tested meme of “boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back.”

You and I wHappy Dancers with Rose in Mouthill probably never extract the same gems from the bedrock of the idea mine, and just because I find something doesn’t mean it’s the best or the only gem available. Hopefully, you’ll find something much better.

First, I need to tackle the boy meets girl part. I could opt for easy–they were sweethearts in school–or I could go the opposite route–she’s a nun, and he’s a gang-banger from the worst slum on Earth; they meet in the emergency room of a charity hospital where he’s being treated for a gunshot wound sustained in a drive-by shooting. Or maybe I’ll find something in-between: she’s an exotic dancer hired to entertain at a bachelor party he attends. Obviously, there are a gazillion variations available, but readers have seen almost all of them, so I’ll have to dig deep to find something original. Maybe they meet at a special school for deaf-mutes. (How’s that for a challenge!)

Obviously, how they meet will impact the how and why of their mandatory separation. Again, finding the unconventional will require effort. In scenario one, my first impulse would be to have one of them move away. Yawn. [Insert your fave clichè about trite plot points.] Better to have one of them kidnapped by terrorists, a crazed school board member, or aliens from the seventh planet.

Man Harrassing a TransvestiteIn the nun/gangbanger scenario, a rival gang could abduct her; a crusading district attorney could target her, or the person in charge of her Order could ship her off to tend to ebola patients somewhere in Africa. Or something could happen to him–like prison, or paralysis, or conversion to Islam. Again, choices abound, even though the basic plot hasn’t changed since the earliest cave dwellers gathered around a fire to tell lies, impress cave babes, and entertain each other.

How in the world will these star-crossed lovers be reunited, thus fulfilling the third leg of the plot stool? [Ew–he said “stool.”] I don’t have a clue. But I can guarantee I’d grind a heap of bedrock before I worked it out.

Here’s a thought: why don’t you take a shot at coming up with a “boy regains girl” ending for one of the scenarios above? Let’s see how creative you can be. Post your thoughts in a comment below. If I get enough responses in the next few days, I’ll choose a couple and test drive ’em here.

Y’all hit that keyboard now, y’hear?

–Josh

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Okay, I’m Done. Now What?

You’re “done” you say? That begs a few questions. Like:

  • Are you finished with the rough draft/first “complete” manuscript?
  • Are you finished with all the updates of your first draft?
  • Have you given up altogether?
  • Are you ready to start on another title?
  • What’s next?

First draft finish line reached!

Typing “The End” at the bottom of the last page can be extremely satisfying. It’s not as mind-blowing as holding a copy of your first book in your hands, but it’s still pretty darn cool. And it deserves a celebration of some kind. Take your significant other out for dinner or go play golf with the gang you’ve been ignoring for the past several months. Play with your kids, if you have any, or try making some. <shrug> Walk the dog. Enjoy life away from the keyboard for a while.

If you’re really smart, you’ll ignore that manuscript for a couple weeks, maybe even a month, just to let it cool off. Even if you’re a big-time author–and if you are, I can’t imagine why you’re reading this–you need some objectivity. The cooling-off period will let you be more objective about what needs fixing, and there’s always something.

I suggest reading the full manuscript out loud, with feeling. Seriously. It’ll slow your brain down long enough to allow you to spot some errors. You won’t get them all; no one does. But you’ll get a bunch. Many writers decide on a re-write at this point. Many, like me, don’t. Some writers fill out missing chunks, add setting, trim dialog, hunt down adverbs and pet phrases, or focus on tightening text. You’ll need to do some or all of this. (How much? That’s hard to say. I just finished my eighteenth novel, and one of my readers found errors in the third revised manuscript.)

At some point, you’ll declare your brainchild ready for the world. It’s not. You still need to run it by your First Readers, that cadre of trusted souls who will crawl through your words in search of every niggling little booboo, every innocent tyop, and every literary faux pas they can find. When they do find them–and they will–praise them to the heavens. Treat them to chocolate and adult beverages, for they have done you an invaluable service; they’ve saved you from looking like an idiot, or worse.

Fix everything! Then, and only then, are you ready for the next step.

To hell with it! I’m done.

Sadly, quite a few writers give up before they reach the finish line. There’s no shame in that. Writing a novel is hard, and writing a good one is even harder. And just imagine how many people you know will be able to say “I told you so!” (They will, too, because they can; they’re not-so-secretly pleased that you failed at something they couldn’t even imagine doing.) But, if you’re still reading this, I suspect there’s a part of you that isn’t ready to abandon all the time and effort you’ve already spent on your project. Maybe you just need a break, a little time to get your head straight and your creative side re-energized. That’s okay, too.

While thus occupied, consider re-reading my thoughts on what to do when you’re stuck. You’ll find them here. You wouldn’t be the first writer to think about quitting just because the job turned out to be harder than you thought it would be. So give these possible fixes a shot. Who knows? You might find yourself moving forward again.

Ready to start on something new?

Cool! But before you jump headlong into the next project, give some thought to what you learned doing the last one. Were there mistakes you’d rather not repeat? Knowing what you know now, would you have approached your last book differently? How much of that will apply to the new project? Why not write those thoughts down so you can review them as you move on? You’ve written a book and learned some valuable lessons. Don’t ignore ’em!

Okay, manuscript, it’s time. Make me famous. Or rich. Or something.

Much as I’d like to squeeze this in here, it really deserves its own spot. So, I’ll tackle that next time. For now, I’m curious to know how other people feel when they reach the finish line for a first draft. Relief? Exuberance? Disappointment? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

–Josh

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A Back-to-Skool Shortie (Encore)

It’s Back-To-School season, and in honor of the occasion, I’ve got a charming little bit of super-short, flash fiction to help folks bring it into focus, especially since the topic du jour is an on-going teacher shortage. (My bride taught in public schools for a long time, and I suspect this little tale may help explain a lot about school administrators.)

“The Superintendent’s on the line,” said Carla Jefferson to her boss, Juan Deangelo. She held her hand over the receiver. “You want me to tell him you’re dead?”

Juan smiled. “Nah. I’ll take it. I’m not due to die until next week.”

Carla didn’t hesitate. “Don’t you go believin’ anything that white devil tries to tell you.  Like I’ve said a thousand times, if–“

“You can hang up now, Carla. I’ve got it.” Juan picked up his phone and waited for the profoundly loyal black woman to cradle hers.

“Like I said–“

“I know, Carla, I know.”

He put the phone to his ear. “Hello, Dr. Granger. What can I do for you?” He still had Carla’s attention and motioned for her to close his office door. He didn’t relax until it clicked shut.

“I’ve got wonderful news,” Superintendent Granger said, his voice unnaturally pleasant.

Juan remained cautious. Good news at Horatio Dunbar Memorial High School usually meant none of the students or faculty got shot over the weekend. “Indeed. Kindly define ‘wonderful’.”

“We’ve got your replacement staff.”

The beleaguered principal perked up. “Real teachers, or more warm bodies like last time?”

“Warm bodies! That’s a good one, Juan! But seriously, you know I’m not one to raise false hopes; you do know that, don’t you? I really believe these people, the ones we’ve got more or less lined up, can be of tremendous help to you down there.”

“You didn’t answer my question. Are ‘these people’ real teachers?”

There was only a short pause before Granger responded, but it was enough to bring Juan back down to Earth. Any teaching experience these people were likely to have probably didn’t include academics.

“They know their subject material,” Granger said. “In fact, most of them have advanced degrees.”

“And they’re willing to teach down here in the ghetto?” Juan pursed his lips. “What’s the catch?”

“Now Juan–“

“What’s the catch?”

“Do you have any idea how difficult it is to hire qualified–“

“What aren’t you telling me?” demanded Juan. “They’re all convicted felons? They’ve all got some dreaded disease? What?”

“It’s nothing like that,” Granger said. “I assure you.”

“Well then, what?”

“They’re uh…  They’re all….”

“What?”

“Vampires.”

~End~

And, just so you know, my newest novel, Hyde and Zeke, will be out in a very few weeks. Look for an email announcement soon. Here’s a quick peek at the cover:

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Coming Soon!

As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, I’d closed in on the finish line of my new novel, my 18th at last count. This one proved difficult, and the work dragged on for a great deal longer than usual. BUT, believe it or not, and I’m still wondering if it’s completely true, the first draft is done.

Not only that, but it’s currently out being perused by a number of demanding First Readers, several of whom have already responded. I’m making minor updates to address the issues they’ve raised, but by and large, they’re universally fired up about the book.

Am I grinning like an idiot? I mean, more than I usually do?

Possible cover for Hyde and Zeke

Damn right I am!

At just a hair under 80,000 words, Hyde and Zeke is a story that should appeal to a very wide audience. It touches on a variety of genres, most notably science fiction and suspense, but adds a dash of horror and a healthy dose of humor as well.

If all goes according to plan, it should be available in late August or early September. And this one is so much fun, there’s a good chance I’ll do a book launch party to go with it. Cheers, dears!

Pictured at the left is the nearly complete front cover, unchanged from the first time I posted it a couple weeks ago. Fun stuff, right? The adorable little critter peeking over the top of my byline is Zeke. I just know you’re going to love him.

So, if you’re looking for something new to read, something that will keep you guessing, if not sweating, right to the end, then get ready for Hyde and Zeke.

The book should be available for pre-order in a couple of weeks. As soon as it is, I’ll post a handy link for it right here.

Thanks for dropping by!

–Josh

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A Completely Different Take on Collaborations

In a recent post, I explained why I thought collaborating on a novel probably isn’t a good idea. It turns out that two wonderful writer friends of mine have a totally different opinion. I thought it only fair to present their side of the issue. Herewith are Doris Reidy and Don O’Briant on this volatile topic!

Why Co-Writing is Fun (Her POV)

Doris BW CU
Doris Reidy

I was the Lone Writer. When in the process of writing a book, I’d go into my room, figuratively slam the door behind me, and have at it. I didn’t divulge theme, plot, or characters to anyone. When asked, I’d say, pompously, “I don’t discuss a work in progress.”

          And I didn’t, because if I talked it out, I lost enthusiasm for writing it out. It was a process that worked for me for ten books. It worked less well for my critique group, who would groan and try to hide when I dropped 60,000 words on them at once.

          Then I acquired a co-author. He’s a friend of more than thirty years, a life-long journalist, and an excellent writer with several books notched on his belt. We kicked around an idea for a novel one evening, and the next morning I e-mailed him the first pages.

          “I didn’t think you meant it,” he said. “Are we really going to do this?”

          “We are. You write the male, I’ll write the female.”

          And so we began. Both pantsers, we had a vague idea of what the story was about, but no outline. We tootled off in opposite directions, corrected course, wrote some more, got lost, spent hours spreading pages around on the floor, did timeline after timeline, got back on track and wrote some more. Does it sound agonizing?

          It’s fun! It’s fun to have a writing partner who is as invested in the work as I am. We’re about three-quarters of the way through the first draft and feeling alternately pleased and despairing with the results.

          We’re basically telling each other a story. When a scene involves both characters, we talk it out and transcribe the conversation verbatim. Fortunately, we write in similar, informal styles and share the same writing work ethic. (“Yeah, I’ll get to it pretty soon. Tomorrow, probably.”) So far, no major spats, although there have been moments when each of us growled, “You write your character, and I’ll write mine.”

          What will become of our brainchild when we finally send it out to play in the big world?  We know what we hope will happen, and we’ll do everything possible to make it happen, but there are no guarantees of success.

          But we’ve already had one kind of success: we’ve developed a deep friendship during this process. Fictional characters carry traces of their authors’ DNA in their back pockets. So when we ask each other, “What would you do in that situation?” “How would you handle a problem like that?” our answers take us into personal territory we might not have explored otherwise.  

          Does co-writing work for everyone? Apparently not, judging from the paucity of double names on book jackets. It works for us, at least thus far, and we accept it as a gift from a smiling universe. We’ll continue to write independently, but even as we finish the first collaboration, we’re ping-ponging ideas for the second.

          Will we need walkers by the time the “Today Show” calls to book our appearance? If so, I’m getting an air horn for mine.

Thank you, Doris!

Co-writing a novel (His POV)

IMG_0023
Don O’Briant

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

           Two seasoned writers with several books under their belts were talking a few months ago when one of the unnamed authors (the woman) suggested that they write a book together. The male (me) readily agreed. “That sounds like fun,” I said, hungrily eyeing a Belgian waffle with whipped cream and strawberries. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have gotten the waffle if I had declined the joint project, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

          “What kind of novel shall we write,” I asked, plucking one of the whipped-cream-drenched strawberries off the waffle. “A mystery? A spy novel? A Southern Gothic? Something like Where the Crawdads Sing?”

          “Nope,” she said. “A love story. I’ll write the female character and you write the male character.”

          “Oh,” I said. “A romance suspense novel where a body is discovered in the wall of a house that’s being renovated. Or one about a dark family secret from the past involving murder and incest.”

          “No bodies, no incest. Secrets, maybe,” she said. “Just a good, old-fashioned novel about two older lost souls falling in love with each other.”

          “You mean like The Notebook only with an old geezer and a menopausal woman?”

          “Mature adults,” she said snappily, moving my Belgian waffle out of my reach.

          “OK,” I said hesitantly, gazing at the waffle. “Let’s do it.”

          As it turned out, it was a good idea. We quickly developed our characters, making them deeper and more complicated as we wrote. We bounced ideas off of each other, made suggestions, rewrote some of each other’s passages, and had the most fun ever.

           Unlike my normal habit of procrastination, with this book I couldn’t wait to start writing every day. We inspired each other. Yes, there were times when we didn’t agree on something, but we compromised and I did what she wanted to do.

          As we explored our character’s personalities, we discovered that we were delving into our own long-hidden fears and secrets. It was like free sessions with a clinical psychologist. In the process, our characters became so real that we lost sleep worrying about them. Sometimes they behaved predictably; other times they surprised us.

          Yes, I know writing is a lonely craft, best done solo with no one looking over your shoulder. And I know that double-teaming a book can be a nightmare if the writers are not in sync with their personalities and writing style. But it can work. Just be prepared to compromise and agree with your partner even when you know she’s wrong.

Thank you, Don!

And there you have it, an alternate view. Don’t let anyone tell you I’m biased.

–Josh

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A Conversation About Dialog (Encore)

What is it that makes one novel better than another? What facets of the craft elevate a story from pro forma to profound? The first two are absurdly easy to pinpoint: great characters and intriguing plots. In addition to clear narrative, I believe good dialog is the element that makes both great plots and great players possible.

The downside is that bad dialog will do the opposite. It’ll wreck storylines and mangle characters. Stories can be conveyed in a variety of ways: movies, audios, illustrations, and pantomime. Storytellers can act out certain parts and dramatize others. But the world of the novelist is confined to the strength of the writer’s words. Authors, in the traditional sense, are limited to narrative and dialog.

So, if the dialog you write sucks, you’ve lost half of your tool set. Imagine building a house with a hammer but no saw, or a screwdriver but no screws.

What’s so hard about writing good dialog?

The short answer: creating verisimilitude–the appearance of reality.

The only way writers get to practice dialog is by writing it. The dialog we use in everyday life is usually too boring, banal or vapid to include in a story. We prattle on and on, exchanging bromides and clichès, and only rarely do we actually communicate. “Real” dialog isn’t what we want. We only want our story dialog to mimic reality. Can you imagine the following exchange in a book that you’d keep reading:

“Hi, Marge! Gosh I haven’t seen you since, gee, I dunno, last summer. Wha’cha been up to?”

“Not much, really. The kids keep me busy, and then I have my clubs. I’m in so many. Just can’t learn to say ‘No,’ I guess. How ’bout you? Anything new in your life?”

“Nah. My job sucks, mostly because my boss hates me. Never gives me any time off. I can’t remember the last time I went shopping. Speaking of which, there’s an amazing sale going on at Barfberg’s. It’s awful! The store’s closing. I just hate it. Back when I had time to shop, that’s where I always went. They’ve got so many cute things in my size, and you know how much trouble I have finding things to fit.”

Assuming you’re neither an employee nor a stockholder at Barfberg’s, your life will go on unchanged, as if nothing happened. Why? Because nothing did happen. And that’s the problem with “real” dialog.

But what if we import some of the characteristics of that real dialog and apply them to a manufactured encounter, one where we need to convey a plot point or develop a character:

“Hi, Marge. I haven’t seen you since–“

“Forever, I know. We’ve been tied up in court.”

“Court?”

“Jeff was arrested for embezzlement. He swears he didn’t do it, but after the stunt he pulled last summer with that girl he hired to clean the pool, I wouldn’t put anything past him, the lech.”

“I thought he worked for the government. Oh my God! He embezzled from Uncle Sam?”

“Indeed, and you won’t believe what he spent it on.”

“Not you and the kids?”

“Kids, yes, but not ours. Turns out he’s part-owner of a gentlemen’s club.”

“You don’t mean a–“

“Strip club. Yep. Ol’ Jeffie runs a nudie bar. I can’t wait to hear him explain why he’s not loading our 12-year-old into the car on ‘Take Your Child to Work Day.'”

If I’d been really serious about this stretch of dialog, I’d have identified the speakers and described their physical responses. Real people react to things said, and so should fictional people. They can be suspicious of things, or agree wholeheartedly, or disagree vehemently, or respond in any of a thousand other ways. Just as plots and narrative can drag, so can dialog. The easiest way to fix it is to inject action and/or conflict.

But wait! Isn’t that also one of the primary fixes for a weak plot–too little conflict? Too little action?

Yep. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. 

–Josh

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My View on Collaborations (Encore)

“Know whut? We should write a novel!”

And thus, all too often, are collaborations born.

Collab01How many times this has occurred is unknowable, although I’d guess the thought has crossed the minds of nearly every writer at one time or another. The number of projects actually completed is minimal, and the number of publishable works is even smaller. Because collaborations are just so darned difficult.

One could liken the task to painting a large building. There’s great enthusiasm in the beginning. “Look at all the shiny cans of paint!” The brushes and rollers are laid out in a neat and orderly fashion, and the drop cloths look so tidy all folded up inside their plastic wrappers. The sun is out; the sky is clear, and the temperature is absolutely perfect for painting. The two, equal partners survey the surface, do a high five, and a quick change into painting togs.

“You start here, and I’ll start over there,” she says.

“Okay, but y’know, I’m way better at trim and detail stuff,” says he.

“No problem. I’ll just dig in with the roller. I’ll do the broad strokes, and you can fill in the gaps.”

And just like that, they embark on a job that could take a very long time. That assumes, of course, that the excitement they started with remains intact, and that they both keep working at close to top speed, which, sadly, won’t happen.

As his painting skills improve, he’ll find things he doesn’t like about his partner’s performance. She goes too fast and misses spots, or she goes too slow and can’t get anything done unless he nags her. Conversely, she’s thinking the same things about him.

When it comes to artistry, she’s clearly superior, at least in her mind. She doesn’t need him to come along behind her and touch up anything. She liked it the way it was! Ah, but the temptation to tweak his work is fully justified, because… well… just look at it. Right?

Collab02Now imagine trying to pull off the intellectual equivalent of painting a big building — a stadium, for instance. That’s what a novel is — a good one, anyway. It’s got multiple floors, compartments of all sizes, interior issues and exterior issues, variable color schemes, and a potential audience of millions, each of whom is capable of finding the slightest error.

Beginning to get the picture? Now imagine painting that massive structure without a plan. “Oh, we’ll just jump right in and start painting. What’s the big deal? We’ve discussed the color scheme; we know where the cheap seats are and what kinds of things the sky box owners will want. We’ve got this!”

What you actually have is a dream. Making it a reality is next to impossible. And I’m speaking from experience. Canadian writer/editor Barbara Galler-Smith and I finished four novels collaboratively. We sold the first three to a traditional publisher and put the fourth one out independently. (Additional info on all four books can be found here. You’ll have to do some scrolling.)

Amazingly, they’re all quite wonderful books, and we’re equally and justifiably proud of every one. But it’s unlikely we’ll ever attempt another.

Why? Because it’s just too darned hard!

A successful collaboration begins with each partner surrendering his or her ego. If that can’t be done on Day One, there’s no need to move on to Day Two. Period.

Next, both parties must agree on a plan — who’s going to write what, and in what order. Might as well decide on edits, feedback and update formats while you’re at it. If you don’t use a word processor that records ALL changes in an Accept/Reject format, your project is doomed. (We used MS Word’s Review function. But the technology isn’t exclusive to Word by any means.)

Collab03A detailed outline is critical, and neither party should deviate from the outline without a profoundly good reason, and they’d best be ready to defend any such changes for the good of the overall story. The outline will then have to be amended, and all resulting plot problems identified, discussed, and resolved in a mutually agreeable fashion. Don’t think for a moment you can come back later and tidy up. You’re just kidding yourself.

And then there’s the whole matter of research. If you’re writing historical fiction, you’ll need to agree on sources and how to resolve disputed views. We chose to write about a period that was only documented by ancient Romans, though our story was told from the viewpoint of the Roman’s arch rivals, the Celts. Whether you’re extrapolating from actual history or just free-wheeling from your imaginations, you’ll need to agree on a framework that works for both of you. Just calling it “magic” won’t cut it.

There may be other ways to approach such a project, but this is the formula Barbara and I adopted, and luckily for us, it worked. And, based on the foregoing, it should come as no surprise that it took 17 years from the time we started the first book until the last book came out.

If you’re considering such an effort, I urge you to take some time to think it through. You and your prospective writing partner can always work on two different projects simultaneously and offer critiques and encouragement to each other along the way. Writing a novel by yourself is a difficult and daunting task. It takes time, patience, perseverance, and drive. Yes, of course it takes talent, too. Writing a book collaboratively requires even more time, greater patience, and the sort of drive and determination long distance/open water swimmers need in order to succeed.

Collab04Creating a top-quality novel as a collaborative effort is like swimming the English Channel without a wet suit. Tethered to an anchor. In the winter.

Dorothy Parker’s comment about wannabe writers applies to budding collaborators, too: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Her words are worth considering. If writing solo is tough, imagine how much tougher it is when done in concert with someone else.

–Josh

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Be patient! I’m 71,233 words in….

It feels like I’ve been working on my new book for decades. I haven’t, but it sure feels like it. Why? Mostly, I think, because I’m telling it in a fashion I’ve never tried before: first-person narrative. That simply means that readers only know what the point of view character knows. Everything is told from that one player’s perspective. It’s his story, and he tells it that way.

Surprisingly, the tale evolved in high-octane fashion; words aplenty leaped from my head straight onto the page. My character and those he meets along the way evolved, matured (most of them, anyway), and fulfilled their various roles quite neatly.

And then, about 50,000 words in, I came to the profoundly annoying realization that my readers needed a great deal more information than my storytelling protagonist could provide. A host of crucial details existed about which he was blissfully unaware.

Ack!

What to do?

Solution: I had to work up a parallel storyline to present the data my first-person guy didn’t have. That required new players and new settings, new needs, wants, and desires. All of which created a plethora of new problems. Fortunately, I’ve been able to iron most of them out, and the story is once again moving forward, albeit way more slowly than usual.

But I’m getting there! And with any luck at all, I’ll have it out later this summer. So there, now you know.

And what is it I’ve been slaving over? The working title is Hyde and Zeke. One possible cover design appears here. I’d love to know what you think of it, so feel free to add a comment below.

Please hang with me. I’ll get the book out as soon as I can.

(And I thought only females suffered labor pains.)

Oy.

–Josh

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What am I doing here when I could be writing? (Encore)

Most of the fiction writers I know would rather work on new material than spend their energy promoting completed projects. I’ve had agents; I’ve had publishers, and I’ve generated material independently, but no matter how my stories went public, they all require that I keep doing the chicken dance (imagine arm-flapping, squawking, and other anti-social behaviors) in the hope that readers will find them.

And, just so you know, the chicken dance is tiring. It might not be if I were any good it. But despite reading countless “How-To” articles on self-promotion and agonizing over a useful definition of my target market, I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be smarter to invest in lottery tickets on the off chance that I’d win big and be able to afford to hire a public relations agency to go out and honk my horn for me.

{Blatttt!}

But then I’d worry about blasting out some poor schlub’s eardrums and thereby earning his or her eternal enmity.

{Sigh}

Res Blues cover updt JPGIf only I could get away with just saying something like, “Hi! Would you please give one of my books a try? Resurrection Blues would be a great place to start. You’ll have a good time, I promise. Lots of oddball characters, some interesting history, a respectable volume of laughs, and a plot that hasn’t been done to death. What more could a reader want?”

But that never seems to be enough. Wait! Maybe I can find a recorded version of a “How To” article. That way I can listen to it while I drive to the convenience store to buy my Lotto ticket/Potential PR campaign.

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I’ve Got This Great Idea For A Book! (Encore)

Now, where do I start?

Most writers have some clue about the story they want to write. If they’ve been down the writing road before, they’ll most likely just dive in and start working. Those folks, of course, are pantsers, members of that daring category of storytellers who disdain logic and reason (and an outline) and plunge into the business of creating art — or “arting” as Chuck Wendig would have it.

The rest of the writing herd, the plotters, are more likely to make a few notes if not some sort of outline or plan. Then they’ll dig in.

But what if you haven’t been writing long enough to know whether or not you’re a pantser or a plotter, or something in-between? What do you do? Where do you start?

My suggestion would be to restrain the arting urge, at least for a little while. Then, instead of writing an outline, a list, a series of character studies, or anything else, try your hand at blurbing your book.

There are a variety of approaches one can use for writing a book blurb. The one I like the most was devised by professional writer and freelance editor, Victoria Mixon. Her formula cuts right to the heart of what a story needs to compete in the world of commercial fiction. Here it is:

When [identity] [protagonist name] [does something], [something happens]. Now, with [time limit/restrictions], [protagonist] must [do something brave] to [accomplish great achievement]/ or [sacrifice high stakes].

Here’s a version of the formula with a variety of character possibilities. The formulaic words can be manipulated to fit the circumstances, but the primary elements all remain: character, motive, action, and consequence leading to a climax.

Here’s how I applied the formula to one of my own novels:

When eager young Stormy Green, a recent college grad, applies for a newspaper job during WWII, she meets an eccentric gossip columnist with a bizarre lead on some Nazi infiltrators. When the columnist is murdered, and the Nazi attack is imminent, Stormy must find a way to thwart the terrorist plot.

Clearly, the blurb doesn’t tell the whole story. Far from it. But it does force the writer to focus on the critical story elements. By working what you have in mind into a framework like this, you’ll suddenly have a better understanding of the story arc — the guts of the tale. You’ll be far more likely to know where the tale begins and how it will end. All in a couple of sentences!

Does this mean you can’t change your mind as you go? Of course not. New characters will pop up; new challenges will present themselves; things you never dreamed of will suddenly rear up in the night and demand to be included in your book. Whether or not you allow them in is entirely up to you. But by then you’ll command a double armload of scenes, maybe even chapters, and those decisions will be much, much easier.

If you haven’t blurbed your story idea yet, get busy. Now!

–Josh

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