Thursday, May 29, 2008

Presidential Reading

It is 3 AM and your telephone rings. The next president can't sleep and is calling you for a book recommendation. Other than the Bible, what book would you suggest?

A survey by Zogby International provides some interesting answers (and an insight into the mindset of a certain segment of the voting public). Among the most frequent recommendations were books on history. Many also suggested politically themed books, including those by Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Books by politicians such as Ron Paul, Barack Obama, and Al Gore - as well as books by both Bill and Hillary Clinton - were also mentioned. So were suggestions to read anything by Ayn Rand. One might think it would be well to start with Atlas Shrugged, to review the concept of “looters” and “moochers.”

Lengthy classics such as War and Peace and the Lord of the Rings also made the list, although for the life of me I can’t see any of the candidates having the time to read them. Other suggestions—more readable ones— included fiction by authors such as Tom Clancy, James Patterson, John Grisham and Stephen King.

My suggestion? Michael Palmer’s newest book, The First Patient, about intrigue and deceit in the White House that presents the President’s personal physician with a moral and ethical dilemma.

What would you suggest?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Perseverance or Perseveration?

I’m told that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again but expecting different results. Now that’s by no means a valid medical definition, but it is a pretty good way of saying, “Hey, learn from your experience.”

In my brief sojourn down this road to writing (subtle plug for my website, The Road To Writing), I’ve learned a few things. One of them is that there’s always room for improvement. Successful authors often tell me that they not only read the works of other authors to get examples of good (and bad) writing, they continue to read books on the craft of writing. They recognize that they’re never so far along the road that there’s nothing left to learn. That’s perseverance.

Not to be confused with perseverance is perseveration, one of the effects of a brain injury, a psychosis, or some other neurologic condition. Perseveration is the uncontrollable repetition of a particular response, such as a word, phrase, or gesture, in the absence of a triggering stimulus.

Unfortunately, some writers—including a few very successful ones— practice a form of perseveration. Let’s say an author has a best-seller on his hands. He has a second book in the hopper and a few ideas to fill out his multi-book contract. But the first one did so well, why mess with the formula? So, he makes a few minor plot changes from the first book, perhaps introduces a new character into the cast, and follows his pattern to produce book number two…and three…and…well, you get the idea. The reviewers catch on pretty quickly. The reading public takes a bit longer. But soon his books aren’t best-sellers. Perseveration. It happens. I’ve seen it, and I suspect you have, too.

It’s sort of like zucchini. You can boil it, bake it, or cook it in fritters, but in the end it’s still zucchini and I don’t like it. Perseveration. But if you change things up and try to improve them—if, for instance, you mix zucchini and squash with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and some other spices—it becomes something I might actually eat. You’ve persevered.

I recommend perseverance over perseveration any day. It’s the mark of a complete writer.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Memorial Day Thoughts

I had planned to post something in honor of Memorial Day, but this post by BJ Hoff says it better than I ever could. Please visit it and reflect on the message.

To my comrades from every conflict who didn't return to home and family, I salute you and give thanks for your sacrifice. May the time come when the world beats its swords into plowshares and peace reigns.

I wish to each of you, my faithful readers, a wonderful, restful, meaningful holiday weekend.

Richard L. Mabry
Capt, USAF, MC
1605th USAF Hospital
Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal

Thursday, May 22, 2008

James Scott Bell's latest novel

I've had the privilege of reading an advance copy of James Scott Bell's forthcoming novel, Try Darkness, and I'd recommend it for anyone who's a fan of the private eye/legal thriller/suspense genre. I really enjoyed this book, the second in the Ty Buchanan series with which Jim launched into a wider market than the CBA. No, there's no profanity, sex, nudity, or gratuitous violence. It would fit right in with the products of any CBA publisher. There's no "conversion scene," no sermonettes, just a crisp, clean story of a man who's fighting his own personal demons and trying to make sense of the tragedies that have struck him. It's the kind of story I like to read, and Jim makes it extremely readable. If you've been involved with writing for any length of time, you've heard it preached many times over: "Read good books to learn about good writing." Well, this is one that any writer should not just read but study.

He hooked me with the first line: "The nun hit me in the mouth and said, 'Get out of my house.'" Now if that doesn't get your attention, I don't know what will. And that brings me to the other point of this review (other than to highly recommend you pre-order your copy of Try Darkness now). In my last post I talked about Jim's other new release, Revision & Self-Editing. Reading the two books, one after the other, gave me an opportunity to see that what he recommends in one book he puts into practice in the other. Like coming up with an great opening line. Like taking every opportunity to ramp up the stakes. Like making sure that there's conflict in every scene--either external or internal.

And if you haven't read the first of the Ty Buchanan series, Try Dying, I also recommend it. Get both of them, read them in sequence, then buckle your seat belts. I have a hunch this isn't the last we'll see of Ty Buchanan. At least, I hope that's the case.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Help For Writers From James Scott Bell

I'm currently reading James Scott Bell's latest addition to the "Write Great Fiction" series published by Writer's Digest. This one is Revision & Self-Editing, and it's destined to be a classic, taking its place alongside his earlier book, Plot And Structure.

Judging from the title, I expected this book to be sort of a step-by-step "how to" manual, allowing the fiction writer to sit down with his/her manuscript and polish it. You know, sort of a "Step one: remove all traces of passive voice. Step two: look for sentences beginning with '-ing' words...." Think again.

This is a book about writing, as well as editing. Bell has excellent chapters on the things that can make good fiction great and great fiction outstanding. He even has a chapter on plot, hitting the high points of the LOCK system he introduced in Plot and Structure. Only after a thorough discussion of things every fiction writer should know and practice does he move to the process of revision, ending with a killer checklist for that purpose.

Throughout the book, Bell refers to both books and movies. His background in acting and screenplay writing stands him in good stead, and his experience as a successful writer of novels shows. This isn't someone who says, "Do as I say, not as I do."

I've had the privilege of reading an advance copy of Bell's latest book in the Ty Buchanan series, Try Darkness, and it was neat to go through this book and see how he practices what he preaches. I plan to review that book on this site later this week.

Meanwhile, I urge you to get a copy of Revision & Self-Editing. Read it with a yellow highlighter in your hand. Keep it handy. Commit the principles to memory and practice them until they become second nature. And I'll look for your best-seller the next time I'm at Barnes and Noble. Write on.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

No Substitute For Words On Paper

No, this isn't going to be one of those posts that says "Books are dead," or "The Kindle is going to replace traditional books." It's not even going to discuss the merits of the Kindle or the Sony Reader or any of those things. For that, by the way, check out this posting. Now that I have your attention, I want to mention the practice of doing a final edit of a manuscript on a print-out, instead of in an electronic format.

I know that many editors and agents now prefer their submissions come electronically. When I began this writing journey, less than four years ago, proposals were made in hard-copy, sent via snail mail, and were always accompanied by the traditional SASE, the return of which always produced a cold sweat. In my supply cabinet, I still have a few of those soft plastic report covers I used for this purpose. How times change.

I guess there may be those among us who still do drafts in longhand. My old Royal typewriter has long since disappeared, but there are probably even a few authors who use such an instrument. However, now the writing method for most of us is the computer. But when it comes time to do that final edit--the one in which I look for repeated words, inconsistencies, even using the wrong name for a character--I want to look at the words on a sheet of paper. While I mull over some options for my writing future, I'm putting the finishing touches on my latest novel. I'd polished and polished it on the computer. Then I spent twenty bucks and emailed it to Office Max to have them print out a manuscript. In going over it, I've found a number of errors that simply eluded me when they were viewed on a monitor, even a big-screen one. I don't know why this is, but I can attest that it's held true every time I've done it.

You may or may not choose to follow my example in this, but I wanted to mention it. It's not as important as some of the other "rules" by which we write: keep point of view consistent, avoid passive voice, minimize speaker attributions. But when you're trying to produce a manuscript that will bring forth the "standard rich and famous contract" of which we all dream, every little bit helps.

Monday, May 12, 2008

What An Editor Looks For

To continue the theme of what makes an agent or editor say "Yes" to a manuscript, I've obtained permission from editor Nick Harrison and the owners of the Charis Connection website to reprint one of his excellent blog posts, this one about what he looks for (and finds sadly lacking) in the fiction manuscripts that cross his desk. I appreciate the chance to share this with my readers. I miss the posts on Charis Connection, and keep hoping that it will be revived someday. Meanwhile, here's Nick:

I’ve just finished reviewing another pile of fiction manuscripts. Sadly, I had to reject most of them. A few, though, made the first cut, which means I will re-read them more closely and may ask one of my trusted colleagues here at Harvest House to offer a second opinion.

Of the manuscripts I rejected, some are actually quite good—but just not appropriate for Harvest House. Others were not so good—but not so bad either. Ten years ago we might have published them; but nowadays with fiction so competitive, we really have to be more selective in what we publish. Readers are (well, I hope anyway) becoming a bit choosier about the quality of the fiction they buy.

And then there is the third category of rejected manuscripts: those that are just not good at all. And if I could find one common denominator among these manuscripts, I would have to say they simply have no life. They are plots, they are stories, they are pages of a would-be author’s typing, they are perhaps many things—but they are dead on the page. Even so, sometimes when I read one of these manuscripts, I see promise. On these occasions I wish I had one of those machines Dr. Frankenstein invented where he could put a lifeless body under the zapper, push a button, and jolts of electricity would somehow impart life to the corpus.

However, as any good writer knows, giving life to a manuscript is not easy. In fact, I wonder if any writer really understands the process of giving life to words on a page. I’m quite sure there’s no step-by-step process. As Somerset Maugham said, “there are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

I do have a couple of hunches though. First, we know that different authors write their novels through a process that works for them and is often unique to them. Some outline their novel first, while others start with an idea and write their first draft in a stream of consciousness effort. Some authors rewrite as they go, others wait until they have a complete first draft, then go back and edit. Others can even skip around; working on chapter six one day and chapter sixteen the next. So I suspect that imparting life to a novel can be done in different ways too. I can well imagine the revise-as-you-go author requiring his or her muse to supply the necessary life as the writing occurs. The race-through-the-first-draft author may wait until the second or third go-round to call the muse into action.

A second hunch is that life in a novel comes more naturally to a character-driven novel. After all, “life” is in the characters, mostly. We say that a character leaps off the page, or is memorable long after the turn of the final page, or draws on our sympathy. We root for the character, because we believe he or she really exists in the way a character should exist in a novel.

The point that a character is sympathetic (mainly that we are sympathetic to the character’s plight) probably works best for me in defining what I mean by “life” in fiction. An author who simply has a good plot, but has no sympathetic character to carry out the plot is at a disadvantage, it seems to me. Creating a character with “life” surely comes about because the author has first known this character internally and felt the necessary sympathy long before the first word is typed on page one.

One of my recent novels to edit was
The Battle for Vast Dominion by George Bryan Polivka. This concluding book in the three-volume Trophy Chase Trilogy is just as full of “life” as the first two volumes. After his final look at the galleys, Bryan told me he once again broke down reading the climactic scene (as did I when I edited it). Fortunately, Bryan had the requisite tissues at hand. Bryan once said that he began this trilogy at least a decade ago. All those years of living with lead character, Packer Throme, in the back of his mind, no doubt added to the emotional impact he felt at this critical scene in the final volume. No doubt his feeling it first, enabled him to write it in such a way that I, too, would feel it—and ultimately every reader as well.

Another author I edit, Roxanne Henke, wrote her third novel,
Becoming Olivia, about depression. The main character, Olivia Marsden, is a Christian. She’s a mom and a wife. She’s also very, very real to the reader (who, by the way, first met Olivia in Roxy’s first book, After Anne). When Olivia’s depression becomes apparent in Becoming Olivia, the reader feels it full force. Not surprisingly, Roxy wrote Olivia’s experience out of her own battle with depression. It rings true. It has life. And Roxy’s many fan letters from readers who identified with Olivia are a testament to the life Roxy imparted to her protagonist during the writing.

So I have one final hunch about this topic. It’s that sometimes the grist in the mill for a “sense of felt-life” (a term author Henry James used to describe this fictional necessity) in our novels is the pain God allows us to experience ourselves. What we feel intensely as human beings can, if we’re authors, be transmitted to others through our fiction—fiction that is full of life.
Aha. There it is. Dr. Frankenstein’s invention for imparting life to the lifeless does exist. It’s what we call pain….or joy….or sadness….or anger. For the writer, our life experience—especially our emotional life experience creates in us the mechanism through which we impart life to our fiction.

So Mr. Maugham, I offer as rule number one: A good novel should impart life. And this life is imparted as we allow our own emotional history to bleed full red onto the page before us (and then wisely edited by a trusted editor!).

One rule down. Two more to discover.

Nick Harrison acquires and edits first-rate fiction for Harvest House.

Friday, May 09, 2008

What Makes An Agent Say "Yes"

Jessica Faust, of BookEnds LLC Literary Agency, has an excellent post on what makes her say "yes" to a submission. The long and short of it is that, in the end, voice is the determining factor. Voice is what hooks her. After that, she looks for plot and execution. Here's part of what she says:

"Once the author has me hooked it’s going to be the execution that makes the final decision. I expect a little editing and have no problem with that, but if there are major errors or inconsistencies you’ll likely lose me early on. If, however, the characters remain engaging from beginning to end and the plot holds up, it will be pretty dang hard for me to say no."

I don't know how other agents and editors feel, but personally I'm going to remember those words the next time I'm struggling with my writing. I've been in situations where I tried so hard to make my work conform to the cookie-cutter rules we all hear that my voice was totally lost. I'll try not to make that mistake again.

What makes you want to read a book after you scan the first page or two? Plot? Voice? You tell me.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Article Online

One of my short pieces has been published on the site, The Dabbling Mum. In addition to checking out my article, I'd recommend that you browse the site. It's extremely interesting, and in addition to some neat writing articles and tips it has lots of information. Give it a try.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Too Much Communication

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours....

These words, written by William Wordsworth in 1807, have been on my mind a great deal over the past four days. It began when I woke my computer on Thursday morning. (No, I don't bring my computer coffee and say "wakey, wakey." You know what I mean). I hit the button to check my email and got this terrible message telling me that I wasn't connected to the internet. Then I noticed that some of the lights on my modem weren't lit. Stark terror! After doing the few things I knew to try, I spent a lo-o-ong time on the phone with tech support. Bottom line, a new modem. This time I decided to upgrade to one that would replace our current modem and router with a single unit. (We are a two-computer family; Kay insists on a PC, while everyone knows that a Mac is the only way to go).

I brought my purchase home and began the process of setting it up. One of Murphy's Laws says that everything takes longer than it takes. This was no exception. Finally, I found myself on the phone with tech support again. I entered all the various numbers, did all the stuff I was supposed to. No luck. That's when tech support discovered that there was a problem with a connection in the switching station for my DSL line. They called the phone company, who promised to repair it in less than 24 hours. They took only six, and things began working. Hooray! I knew how Lazarus must have felt.

The next morning I started to check my email and discovered I wasn't connected again. Long story short (too late, I know), another call to tech support, another story that the phone line was the problem. They'd call. The phone company would fix it. And the tooth fairy was going to leave a quarter under my pillow. In other words, none of the above.

I left town that morning for three days of golf with friends at a lake cabin one of them owns. The cell service there is spotty, he has no computer, and cable service is very basic. So it was pretty much golf, food, talking, resting, and getting back to nature. You know what? Nature's pretty nice. So are friends.

I'm back home now, the internet service is working well (after one more call to tech support and some fine-tuning of the new modem/router) and my cell phone is handy. But I got along pretty well without them for the past three days. Maybe I should do it more often. But for now, it's nice to be connected again.

(PS to my friend, Myra: Sorry, I've done this 'tag' thing several times before, but I don't have time to do it right now. Got a writing project that's due. Thanks for thinking of me, though).