Tuesday, April 29, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Past Less Than Perfect

PAST PERFECT, WHICH your grandmother may have called "pluperfect," is an English verb form writers use when they are already writing in past tense, but need to refer to something that happened prior to where they are in the story.
   Here's an example:
   Jerry entered his father's study. He had been there only once before, but things were little changed.
   See the "had been?" That's past perfect. And, both grammatically and stylistically, moderate use such as this is fine.
   Now ... what do you do if you are writing in the past tense already and have to jump further back in time for, say, a chapter or so?
   In a case such as that, it is still grammatically acceptable to use past perfect. But stylistically, there are two groups of people who are going to have problems with that.
   Unfortunately, those groups are your editors and your readers. 
   With many people, flocks of "had" in a piece of fiction are the literary equivalent of nails on chalkboards. So what do you do when you have are in past tense and you need to flash back even further in time?
   One alternative is to restructure the story so it doesn't require the flashback.
   Or, if doing that introduces a spoiler or is otherwise unacceptable, you can look for a way to tell the story in plain old past tense, but make sure the reader knows you've moved back in time.
   In my 2008 novel, Wind River, I had just such a situation. It was written in past tense, and one of the characters needed to reveal something that had taken place several years earlier. So I had him begin to tell the story to another character, inserted a chapter break, and then let him continue through that chapter, less the quotation marks.
   It worked; readers got what was going on, and I received not a single word of complaint about the technique.
   There are probably other ways of getting around long streams of past perfect. Think for a while and you'll come up with them.
   After all, that's why we call the process "creative writing."


Friday, April 25, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: In a Manner of Speaking

WHEN YOU GET TOGETHER with others to develop an idea, do you 'flush it out" or "flesh it out?"
   Although the proponents of each saying will argue passionately that theirs is the only correct way of putting it, both sayings are actually correct.
   To "flush" something out is to push it from hiding into the light of day, as in, "we sent the dogs into the thicket to flush the fox out."
   And to "flesh" something out is to put meat on the bones.
   But to proponents of "flesh it out," "flush it out" sounds vulgar. And to those who say "flush it out," "flesh it out" is simply macabre.
   Moreover, which one you use is generally a matter of where you were raised. When I worked in Detroit, "flush it out" was all I ever heard. But when I worked in New York City, "flesh it out" was the norm.
   To a writer, differences such as these are valuable, because they jump out at people who are not accustomed to hearing them, and identify the speaker as coming from a different place. And in an era in which television has homogenized all regional accents to the point where everyone sounds as if they are from California, that's a valuable tool.
   For instance, I have friends from New Hampshire who, in addition to still having a discernible regional accent, refer to a shopping cart as a "trolley." Older people in Georgia call every form of soft drink a "coke," whether it's a Coca Cola or not. And in the Midwest there is no such thing as a root-beer float; around there, it's called a "black cow."
   The list goes on. In downstate Illinois, where I'm from, when country people take a ride for no particular reason, they are "blowing off some stink." and when a woman wants to ask another woman if her baby will fuss if picked up, the question will be, "Does your baby make strange?" But I rarely use either of those sayings, as they make me hear banjo music. 
   Dialect can be difficult to write in, and accents are even more so. But by judiciously having one character use one of these sayings, and allowing another character to react accordingly, you can reflect regional differences without resorting to writing that sounds corn-pone or forced.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: What's in a Font?

THERE MAY BE A FEW holdouts in publishing-world who still require hard-copy queries and manuscripts, but if there are, I have not encountered them. All of the editors and literary agents that I know are fine with receiving their submissions as email attachments; most actually prefer things this way, because digital manuscripts are less of a pain to log, sort, share and store.
   Now, I've said before that most newer novelists obsess way too much over the formatting particulars of the manuscript: margin size, line spacing and so forth. Your goal is effortless legibility, and as long as you achieve that, you're golden. 
   But there is one thing you should give some thought to, and that's what font you are using.
   Why? Because not all computers have the same font library. And font usability may vary depending on which particular printer a computer is using as its default. 
   So even though you may be over the moon about 12-point Myopia Obscuro (no need to Google; I made that one up), unless your recipients have the same font, their computers are going to substitute something else for it, and the substitution might be ghastly. It may even be one of those limited fonts that use plain rectangles as placeholders for things like apostrophes. 
   And you don't want that.
   Now, I know what you're thinking. Adobe PDF was invented just to circumvent this sort of dilemma. But PDF, although acceptable for a one-page attachment, is a bad choice for a multi-page proposal or a manuscript, because it has a longer printer processing time, and you will make no friends at the publishing house if it takes them an hour to print out a single copy of your proposal. 
   And if what you are sending is the draft of a book that is already under contract, what the publisher wants is a document in a ubiquitous word-processing format: i.e., Microsoft Word.
   So if you are sending something to a publisher or an agent, use a font that every computer will have. I use 12-point Times New Roman and recommend you do the same. If you (or the recipient) have a phobia about serifs, then Arial is a good, ubiquitous sans-serif choice. 
   Even then, things such as line breaks may vary slightly on the receiving end, but the manuscript will arrive looking essentially like what you composed on your screen. 
   And that's good, because it's your writing that you want to be outstanding. Your typeface shouldn't stand out at all.

Friday, April 18, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: One-Hit Wonders

A FRIEND OF MINE is finishing his MFA, and told me earlier this week about a class he is taking.
   "It's on getting published," he said. "How to get an agent, how to read a contract: stuff like that."
   I told him that sounded like a great idea. They'd certainly had nothing like that when I earned my MFA; we'd mostly found out about the dark side of publishing over pizzas with people who'd found their way into print.
   I asked my friend who was teaching the class, and it was no one I'd heard of. So I asked what books this professor had written.
   "He just sold his first one," my friend said.
   Now, I hope there's more to the story than this. Maybe the fellow teaching the class is a current or former literary agent. Or perhaps he has decades of experience as an acquisitions editor with major publishing houses.
   But I doubt that's the case because, on God's green earth, there is very little that can match the conceit, the hubris, and the smug confidence of a writer who has just sold his or her first novel.
   This is a subject with which I am intimately familiar because, a decade-and-a-half ago or so, I was that writer.
   Granted, first-time novelists are generally helped along toward that opinion. In my own case, I had a group of friends who, like me, were all struggling writers. When I was the first of our group to make it into print, they instantly elevated me to rock-star status and were dying for information about how I did it. Add to that my imprint's publicist, who was churning out releases about how deftly I walked on water, and in no time at all, I decided I was a superstar. And the world desperately needed to benefit from my wisdom.
   Doorways had to be widened so I could fit my head through. I doled out advice to others with unpublished manuscripts still in their hands, and they gave me their rapt attention.
   Then my publisher at the time invited me to a retreat. Practically all of the novelists in its current stable would be attending. And I happily agreed to take my rightful place among the elite. 
   Now, bear in mind that, at this time, my first novel wasn't even released yet. And when I got to the retreat, two things quickly dawned on me.
   The first was that I was the only one there with just a single title to my credit. Everyone else was published many times over. Some had dozens of titles in print. And although they treated me as a peer, they were being extraordinarily gracious.
   And the second thing that dawned on me was that none of these deeply published novelists seemed anywhere near as cocksure as I felt. Most were relatively humble and forthright people: people who'd come to this retreat to learn and become better writers.
   Slowly it dawned on me that, in all of my life, I'd never learned anything while I was talking, and maybe I'd better just shut my mouth and listen. Eight novels later, I still believe there are volumes to be learned about this whole business of writing and getting published, and there always will be, because this is a business that changes. Daily. So while I still dispense advice (I'm doing it right now), I try to do so from the perspective of a student, not a teacher.
   Now, not all writers greet success with the arrogance of someone who has just snatched the sword from the stone when others could not. Some accept publication far more gracefully. Some realize that the only reason they are published is because their manuscript was read by a persuasive acquisitions editor who just happened to be on their wavelength ... that their success hinges upon more, worlds more, than their simple skill at the keyboard.
   I wish I had been one of those writers. But I wasn't, and the time machine is broken, won't turn over at all, so I cannot go back and make it right.
   But I can share with others that publication is a mantle that will never fit well unless worn gracefully.
   And, hopefully, I just did.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


ONE OF THE MOST common mistakes that novelists (both new and experienced) make is underestimating how long it's going to take to write the book. And a big reason for that is that it looks like such a deceptively simple calculation to make.
   For instance, when I'm writing suspense, a polished first-draft manuscript is going to be about 97,500 words long. I don't know why they end up that length, but over the years, that's where they've been. A thriller is usually considerably longer for me: say, 115,000 words. And my best consistent daily word count is 1,000 words; I can write more than that per day if I need to, but to maintain what I consider acceptable and publishable quality, 1,000 words is the maximum to which I can commit.
   So ... 115,000 words divided by 1,000 words is 115 days, or just under 16.5 weeks. 
   And that is how most writers calculate how long it's going to take to write the book.

Except I don't write at all one day a week. I take a sabbath away from the keyboard and, in the example we have going, this adds a little over two-and-a-third weeks to the process. So, rounding up, we are now at twenty weeks to finish the book.
   Another big revelation is that, to write a manuscript that I will be proud to turn in the publisher, I'm not going to write 115,000 words; it's going to be more like 150,000. Doing the same math we've done above, now we are pressing nearly half a year: almost exactly 24.5 weeks.  
   Now ... realistically ... am I going to write six days a week nonstop? 
   Probably not. Somewhere in the process either my wife, or I, or both of us, will go a little stir-crazy, a situation that can only be remedied by a week or two on a cruise ship, if we can find a truly great deal, or a ride to South Florida if we cannot. And if I want to avoid alimony, I am not writing during that vacation, so add two weeks to the gestation period. 
   Now we are at 26.5 weeks ... past half a year. 
   Relatives come to visit and want us to take them to the theme parks (we live in Central Florida): scratch another two weeks. The septic field decides to remind us it's out there, requiring a visit from the service people and the sort of olfactory experience that drives one screaming from the keyboard ... this happened just last month and eliminated anything that looked like productive writing for a week. And figure at least another week expended for doctor visits, vet visits, friends' kids' weddings, you name it.
   Now we are at 30.5 weeks to write the 150,000 words. But we don't want 150,000. We want 115,000. So we edit, which for me is a slower process than writing. Say I'm on a roll, and I can get it done in 90 days: that's roughly 13 more weeks, bringing us to 43.5 weeks all totaled.
   But we're still not done. The book goes out to beta readers, and I give them a month to read it, during which I write the back-cover blurb and the marketing copy, and clean up the style sheet and all the other stuff the publisher is going to need. Then, when I get the comments from my readers, I'm looking at about a month-and-a-half of work to read their comments, decide if I see a trend among them, fix the manuscript and re-polish it. 
   If you've been keeping track, the book that simple math said should be done in 16.5 weeks has actually taken 54 weeks. That's two weeks more than a year.  And that's assuming everything goes smoothly; for me, a comfortable gestation period for a good, readable novel is actually more like 18 months, sometimes longer, and sometimes considerably longer.  In High Placeswhich was very well received by readers and critics alike, took me every bit of seven years, writing on again and off again (mostly off again).
   Your mileage, as they say, may vary. Some people claim they can write 5,000 high-quality words of fiction a day, every day. Frankly, I'm more than skeptical. 
   And if you really want the novel to sing, even a thousand words may be stretching it as a daily goal. Remember, Hemingway was happy with just 600.
   I'm not telling you this to scare you. I'm telling you this to prepare you.
   So ... next time you do the simple math to figure out when the novel will be done, remember to factor in the elements that aren't so simple.
   Like time to make the writing something of which you'll be proud ...
   ... and time to live your life.

Friday, April 11, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Got (or You Haven't Got) Style?

I THINK I HAD already earned an MFA in creative writing and published my first two novels before I ever even heard of a style sheet. Then, after I'd heard of it, I believe it was a few weeks more before I knew what one was.
   So, to spare those in a similar boat, let me explain ...
   Essentially, a style sheet is a brief document submitted with the first draft of a novel or any other lengthy manuscript. Its purpose is to keep your copyeditor from breaking out the hat pins and voodoo doll every time she hears your name. 
   In its simplest form, the style sheet is a list of proper names and unusual terms that are either unique to the work being edited (think Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy) or so rarely used that the average person might never have heard of them.
   So, when writing his books Placebo and Singularity, for instance, novelist Steven James might have turned in a style sheet indicating that his protagonist was, indeed, named "Jevin Banks," and that he was not simply repeating the same typo, over and over, every time he tried to type the name, "Kevin."
   And, had I heard of style sheets when I wrote my second novel, Turn Four, I would have used one to let my publisher know that shooters refer to their expended cartridges as "brass" (as in, "They finished shooting and picked up their brass."). It would have saved me some correspondence with my copyeditor, who wrote to me, asking, "Brass what? You keep using the adjective without the noun that it's modifying!"
   Thanks to style sheets, my editors and copyeditors all know that the past tense for making a scuba dive is "dived" (not "dove"), just as, in baseball, when a batter hits a fly ball that is caught for the out, he is said to have, "flied out."  And they know that, when I arm a bad guy with an "AK-74," it is not a mistake; I am referring, not to the AK-47 Kalashnikov rifle made famous in a hundred low-budget action films, but to a later generation of automatic weapon created by the same Russian designer. 
   Creating a style sheet is easy, as long as I begin it at the same time that I start my novel. I keep a second file open, either in my laptop or on my AlphaSmart Neo, and every time I hit a proper name or an unusual term that I think might give an editor pause, I add it to the style sheet in alphabetical order, together with a note or definition. 
   For my major characters, I might include details such as hair color and eye color (yep, I've had 'em change mid-manuscript a time or two), what they do for a living, and other matters that we might need to keep straight for the life of the story. And when listing place names, I might include where they lie in relation to other places named in the book, so we don't wind up with a character driving west to get to a location that is south of him.
   Creating a style sheet does more than make my copyeditor's life easier. Just the act of creating it makes me that much more conscious of the details of my book; it allows me to think of my story from yet another angle. 
   And when the email arrives at my publishers with not only the manuscript attached, but a style sheet as well, they know that they are in the hands of someone who is conscientious about the craft. It's a win for everyone, all the way around.
   Plus I don't have to lie awake at night, worrying about that voodoo doll.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Two Persons, Two Tenses

NOT LONG AGO, I enjoyed Singularity, the latest Jevin Banks novel from bestselling thriller writer Steven James. This is a book that is told from two narrative points of view: one is that of Jevin Banks (the protagonist), and the other is that of a general, limited narrator. As the story occasionally talks about other characters, even when it is in Jevin's voice, one would think this would become confusing, although it never did. 
   I was about a third of the way into the novel, wondering how Steve accomplished this, when it struck me: when the story was being told from Jevin's point of view, it was being told in first person, present tense, but it shifted to third person, past tense when the more general narrator took over.
   When I realized this, I laughed aloud (earning me a quizzical look from my wife, who was sitting next to me on the lanai).
   You see, in my 2009 novel, Pirate Hunter, I also had two narrative points of view, one historical and one contemporary. To distinguish one from the other, I told the former in third person and the latter in first person. And later, when I spoke to my beta readers, all reported that they had no issue keeping the two stories separate. They knew immediately which point of view they were in when they went to a new chapter. But they didn't know why they knew.
   In Singularity, Steve went the further step of changing tense, as well as person, and as a writer who'd done something similar, you'd think I would have picked up on it right away. But I didn't: not until I noticed how easily the two points of view remained distinct, and wondered why that was.
   Jevin Banks, the protagonist of Singularity, is a magician, which is appropriate, because the person and tense shifts in the narrative are like a magician's illusion: amazing until you understand how it is accomplished, and then it becomes simple.
   And the ability to accomplish those person and tense shifts is a great skill for any novelist: a way to have the intimacy and immediacy of a first-person, present-tense narrative, plus the more general scope of a conventional novel. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"

PERUSE THE INTERWEB for writing advice, and something you'll often hear is that you need to set up a proper office: an orderly writing space to which you can steal away at a set time each day and be creative.
   But the funny thing is that productive, working, successful novelists often do their writing someplace other than that "absolutely essential" office.  
   When The Paris Review visited Ernest Hemingway in the 1950s at Finca VigĂ­a, his home outside Havana, he had a workroom in a three-story tower that stood near the corner of his house, but preferred to write in his bedroom, standing before one of his bookcases, the windows thrown open to cool the room. Descriptive writing was done by hand, in pencil, on onionskin paper placed slantwise across a reading board, but he would shift to a typewriter when writing dialogue.
   Likewise, Samuel Langhorne Clemens' home in Hartford, Connecticut, was designed with a study that was absolutely state-of-the-19th-century-art. But when his daughters began using it as their play space, the author known as Mark Twain retreated to the one area of the house where the children were not allowed to go—his billiards room. For the remainder of the time that he lived in that house, he did all of his writing there.
The neighborhood Starbucks workspace
of James Scott Bell, award-winning
suspense author and #1 bestselling
writing coach. 
   Nor is this trend exclusive to writers of a bygone age.
   Southern-California novelist James Scott Bell (the same James Scott Bell who wrote Plot and Structure, one of my favorite writing books) has a nice, modern, well-appointed office, but when he is working on his fiction, often as not he does what novelists have done for a century or more: he writes in a coffeehouse. 
   In Jim's case, that coffeehouse is his neighborhood Starbucks, a place he frequents with such regularity that he always sits at the same table near the window (perfect for people-watching), and the staff and he are on a first-name basis.
When New York Times bestselling
author Terri Blackstock needs
fresh air and quiet, she prefers
to write in her car.
   Other writers have less conventional places of refuge. Terri Blackstock has written something like 43 books in just the past two decades, including her newest thriller, Distortion, released just last month. Altogether, that adds up to literally millions of copies in print, and in her home she no doubt has an office worthy of a writer of that stature. But when she wants to escape household distractions and write in the quiet and the fresh air, she often moves out to the driveway and works from the front seat of her car.
   As for me, when I lived in Michigan, I had an office that took up nearly the entirety of the basement of our old farmhouse. At one end was a fireplace, flanked by bookshelves, with a leather sofa and a matching loveseat facing it. At the other was my writing nook, which contained my computer, my office chair and more bookshelves. In between was a daybed, perfect for catnaps when I was on deadline.
   That was great during the winter, when the wind was howling and snow and sleet were rattling against the windows. But when the weather warmed and the sun was out, I so resented being cooped up that one Saturday morning I drove the pickup to Home Depot, filled up the bed with lumber, screws and concrete mix, and brought it home to build a deck under our willow tree, creating an airy, green-walled grotto in which to work.
The wicker chair on our lanai
where I've written most of my
recent work; note the day bed
and squeaky toys for Tinsel,
my editorial assistant.
   These days, in Florida, I have an office with multiple computer screens and a desk chair so ergonomic that, every time I sit in it, I feel as if I am about to have my teeth cleaned. 
   Now, I do use that office; I use it for writing some of my nonfiction, for doing my taxes, for marking galley proofs, and other clerical stuff. 
   But when I'm writing fiction—and some nonfiction—the scene of my crime is usually a big, comfortable, and use-worn wicker chair on our lanai. I write, feet propped up on an ottoman, serenaded by birdsong and the rhythmic snoring of our dog.  Most days, I am out there well before sunrise, happily tapping away and adding, slowly but steadily, to the word count.  
   And the time spent there is productive: my most recent book, The Novel & The Novelist: An Insider's Guide to the Craft, was written entirely on our lanai.
   Point is, if you're of a mind that you absolutely must have a well-furnished office in which to write (and we have all been of that conviction at some point in our careers), I want you to know that you really don't. 
   Truth be told, I have lost track of the number of writers who have shared with me that they built such a thing, and then, upon sitting in it, felt under such pressure to create brilliance that they couldn't write a single word. 
   So they retreated to the kitchen table, to the local library, to a picnic table in a neighborhood park or the swing on their front porch, and started creating fiction in the friendly informality of that setting. And even among those writers who can write anywhere (including in the office), productivity often requires an occasional change of venue.
   So don't wait until you've constructed the perfect temple of prose in which to begin your novel. Just write. 
   The place where you are sitting right now would probably be perfect.  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Unsuddenly

I AM NOT THE FIRST writer to say it, and I will not be the last, but I am not a great fan of adverbs in novels. They can be used in moderation, certainly (see? there's one!), but an overabundance of adverbs is a sign of a writer who is trying to run a marathon on a crutch.
   Some adverbs are worse than others. To me, the king of adverbial laziness is the word, "suddenly," a word so useless that it merited half a rule in Elmore Leonard's famous ten rules of good writing.   
   Don't believe me? Try this experiment ...
   Open your work-in-progress, do a global search for "suddenly," find the offending sentence and take the word out. I rarely (yep, another adverb) make absolute statements, but I can tell you this: in my own work, I have never seen a sentence that was not improved by its removal. In fact, I am so convinced of the utter lack of value of "suddenly" that, in the style sheets I provide to my copyeditors, I ask them to remove any instance of "suddenly" in my work, and replace it with ... nothing.
   Try it in your own work. I bet you'll like it. And if you disagree, or agree enthusiastically (okay, I did that one on purpose), the "comments" section below is open for your response.