Friday, May 30, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Letting it Rest

MOST SATURDAYS, WHEN I'm home in Florida, I go the same place for dinner: Shannon's Casual Cafe, in Orlando. The Saturday special is prime rib, and recently I called the owner in the early afternoon because my daughter needed to be at work at five; I asked him when the first prime rib would be ready.
   "We just took it out of the oven," he told me. "Now it has to rest. Give us half an hour to forty-five minutes."
   When chefs talk about resting cooked meats, most people assume that is so the food can finish cooking on stored heat. While that is true (to a very limited extent), there is actually another reason that a smart chef does this.
   Cooking a roast or even a steak forces the juices of the meat into its core. Immediately after cooking, the core is super-saturated with juice; cut it then, and most of the juice will run out, leaving a dry and tough cut of meat behind.
   But let it rest for several minutes, and the juices will migrate back to the outer regions of the meat. After resting, the roast or steak will be tender, moist and succulent.
   I mention all this as the prelude to saying that your fiction needs to rest as well. Not to redistribute the juices, but to allow what you thought you wrote to migrate out of your head. If I re-read something I wrote the same day that I wrote it, I will miss even basic errors (such as typing "and" when I meant "an," or "top" when I meant "to"—things I do all the time).
   But if I wait until the next morning to read my work, I'll catch a lot of stuff that needs revision. And then, if I set that work aside and revisit it a couple of months (or even a couple of weeks) later, I'll be objective enough that I can edit it as though it was someone else's work.
   Many novelists procrastinate. It seems to be the nature of the beast. And that being the case, there might not always be a few spare weeks or months in which to let the work rest. In that case, my preferred option is to change the line spacing and the font so the work looks different from what I keyed in. That, or I will prep it as a down-and-dirty ebook so I can read it on my Kindle. And of course, at some stage I'll always set up my MacBook so it can read the work back to me. Those tricks give me at least a shade more objectivity when I'm reviewing something I just wrote.
   But even better is to develop the discipline to write ahead of schedule, so you'll have time in which to let the work rest.
   Give that a try.
   And as for me, for some reason I find myself daydreaming about tomorrow ... and prime rib.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Where it Counts

SOMETHING PEOPLE ASK ME all the time is how long, in word count, a novel should be.
   I've said here before that my own novels vary in length; when I'm writing suspense, 97,500 words seems to be the sweet spot. And when I'm writing an espionage thriller, it may trend longer: as much as 115,000 words.
   That doesn't mean that your novel is going to come out to either of those lengths. War and Peace clocked in at just under 600,000 words, and Atlas Shrugged came in 50,000 words longer than that. At the other end of the scale, your typical shorter inspirational romance novel is going to be around 45,000 words, give or take.
   In 1952, when The New York Times reviewed The Old Man and the Sea, the Grey Lady pronounced Hemingway's work a "novel," even though later critics have called it a novella because of its brevity (26,601 words and, in most editions, less than 100 pages of actual story).
   I side with the Times on this one (possibly the one and only time you will ever hear me say this).  More than mere word count goes into determining what is a novel and what is a novella. And Hemingway's depth of character development, his use of subplots, and the perceived passage of time in this book all push the work into the more highly evolved territory of the novel, despite the extraordinarily modest word count.
   Not, mind you, that you should submit your first novel at 27,000 words and offer, "But Hemingway did it!" as your defense. Nor would I turn in a 600,000-word tome.
   Once you get established as a novelist, the publisher will spell out in the contract what's expected in terms of word count. In the meantime, for shorter romance novels, at least 45,000 words is a safe target. And for longer contemporary novels, while 70,000-120,000 words is often mentioned as the range, I would shoot for 90,000-100,000 words; this produces a work substantial enough for a shopper to view it as a good gift or a vacation read, without making the book so long that the publisher is going to incur extra production costs.
   All of this assumes, of course, that the length of your novel passes the first test. It has to be long enough to adequately tell the story.

Friday, May 23, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Working the Issues

YOU ALREADY KNOW (and we have said here previously) that the characters in your novel should not be perfect. Most novelists get that.
   Flaws, issues, challenges: readers relate to characters who have those. But for your novel to truly sing, you need to work those flaws, those issues and those challenges.
   For instance, in my debut novel, Yucatan Deep, my protagonist was a cave diver so haunted by the loss of his best friend that it really wasn't wise for him to continue diving. And my deuteragonist was the protagonist's fiancĂ©, a brilliant and talented trauma surgeon, deaf since childhood.
   Naturally, the surgeon does not want the diver to go back in the water. And this conflict comes to a boil while they are out for dinner at a nice restaurant in West Palm Beach. So they have a heated argument ... in public ... in sign language.
   Virtually every reviewer commented favorably on that scene. A couple of readers wrote and said that they wanted to marry the trauma surgeon. I felt bad, writing back to let them know that she existed only in my imagination.
   So, are your characters in your work-in-progress less than perfect? Good for you. 
   Now go put their issues to work for you.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Summer of the Novel

JUDGING BY THE EMAIL that I have received lately, a lot of my readers are planning on writing novels of their own this summer. As next Monday is Memorial Day—the unofficial start of the summer season, at least here in the USA—that seems to be the starting gun for finally getting a book down on paper.
   Writing a novel can be a tremendously rewarding experience, both personally and—if it is a great book—financially. And to help nudge your novel toward the "great" side of the gauge, I'd like to offer a little advice.
   I've written a book, The Novel & The Novelist: An Insider's Guide to the Craft, that gives a solid and workable overview to writing and selling a novel. The first five chapters, which concentrate on how to conceive of and write a novel, can be read in a single evening, so if you get the book now, you can read those chapters a couple of times before you dive into your own writing. Other than sitting down next to me in an intensive workshop, I can't think of a better way to prepare you to write your own book.
   Now ... to help you say "yes" to reading the book, I've arranged a special deal with Amazon.
   The Kindle version of The Novel & The Novelist: An Insider's Guide to the Craft regularly sells for $4.99, which is an outstanding value in and of itself.
   But tomorrow morning at 11:00 a.m. Eastern (8:00 a.m., Pacific Time), I am dropping the price to just 99 cents). 
   It will stay at that price for just 24 hours. Then the price will increase by $1 to $1.99, and stay there for another 24 hours. The Saturday price will be $2.99, Sunday's will be $3.99, and on Memorial Day, it reverts to its still-a-great-deal price of $4.99.
   In other words, it's a "countdown sale." You'll save money anytime tomorrow through Sunday, but you'll save the most (81%!) if you buy the Kindle version of the book tomorrow. 
   To make this special offer available, I had to promise Amazon that the book will be available throughout this sale in two forms only: print and the Kindle version. It is not yet available for Nook, Kobo or other readers. But if you don't have a Kindle, you can download the Kindle reader app for just about any computer, tablet, or smart phone here; the reader download is free.
   So, have a great summer writing your novel. And if you would like to jump-start that effort, The Novel & The Novelist: An Insider's Guide to the Craft is an exceptionally good way to do it.
   Write something great! Tom

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Person of Interest

ASK A CHILD to describe her day to you, and the answer will almost almost always begin with "I" or "we"—"I went to school," or "We went to the ball game." First person is the language of verisimilitude; the language we use when we want the listener to know we are describing something that actually happened.
   Second person, in its simplest form, is the language of accusation ("You ate all the ice cream!"). 
   And, if you ask a child to tell you a story, the answer will almost always begin, "One upon a time there was ... " Then, whether what comes next is "a beautiful princess" or "a troll under a bridge," the narrative will proceed in third person, because third-person is the language we use when we are making things up.
   Now, when that child grows up and begins to write fiction, he or she will only rarely use second person (because it makes the narrator sound like a hypnotist). 
   Nor will most beginning novelists write in first-person. 
   Overwhelmingly, newer novelists choose to write third-person narratives, and I can see why; writing in the third person allows you to shift points of view as you shift scenes, and to drop in backstory, and to exercise a greater degree of omniscience.
   But here's the thing: if our purpose as novelists is to induce in the reader a reasonable suspension of disbelief, then why do we gravitate in such numbers to narratives that, even as children, we recognized as the language of fabrication?
   That's my question this Tuesday, and I'd welcome your thoughts in the comments, below.

Friday, May 16, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Learning to Land It

YEARS AGO, WHEN I WAS first learning to fly, I realized two things quickly. 
   The first was that, as long as the wind stayed moderate and relatively constant, taking off is easy.  Airplanes are designed to fly. Being in the air is their natural condition. Put enough air past their wings, and flying is what they will do.
   And the second thing I learned is that landing can be difficult. There is even a condition known as "ground effect," in which the aircraft appears to resist the pilot's efforts to return it to the earth. Airplanes, after all, are designed to fly, and ... being in the air is their natural condition. 
   So, in a nutshell, the process of learning to fly is largely about coming to grips with the principles of landing. Master that, and the rest tends to sort itself out naturally. 
   Novels can be much the same way. Just about anyone can write the beginning of a novel, or at least compose the treatment that will guide the creation of that beginning. But resolving a plot and multiple subplots in a fashion that seems workable and believable? That's a much thornier issue.
   Even more challenging is to write a great ending—an ending that will resonate with readers and haunt them for days, weeks or months afterward.
   Yet, as a novelist, you want—want and should not settle for anything less than—that great ending. You want it because it's the last part of the book that the reader experiences, and so it should be the best remembered. And you want it because books with great endings are books that readers talk about, and books that readers talk about are books that sell well.
   I'm very fortunate in that my 2007 novel, In High Places, had an ending that got a lot of readers and reviewers talking. To their credit, most did so without giving the ending away (something that I will not do here, either), but it excited such passions in them that they had to share their excitement about the book. And the way I created that sort of ending was very simple, really.
   I wrote the ending first.
  Now, I know that to some writers, this is anathema. Knowing how your story ends, and knowing that before you begin writing it, takes away some of the adventure, some of the process of discovery. But that raises the question of who the story is being written for. And if the story is being written for the reader—and I believe that it should be—then I believe what John Irving once said in an interview:
"When I start telling a story, I already know the story. There must be authority and authenticity in a storyteller's voice; readers must trust that the storyteller is an expert, at least on this particular story. How can you be an expert if you don't know what happens?"
   Sometimes—and this happened with In High Places—I think of an ending first and the rest of the book just falls into place before it. Sometimes, I think of an ending and use it as my destination, so the rest of the book is a journey through which I find my way there. But often, and usually, I simply have to think about a story for days, months, weeks or even years before I come up with an ending that will resonate for it. And when I have that, then I know I can begin to write it.
   Because once you know how to land, that's when you can trust that you know how to fly.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: The Seat of Knowledge

NOVELISTS ARE ODD PEOPLE when it comes to budgets. They think nothing of dropping better than $2,500 on a MacBook Pro with Retina display, and in a way that makes sense (as one novelist told me, "Eric Clapton buys great guitars, and I buy great laptops."). But then when it comes to what they sit in while they use that laptop, they will settle for some of the cheapest junk that the office-supply store (or Goodwill) has to offer.
   I know, I know. I have admitted here, previously, that I do much of my own first-draft writing sitting on a worn piece of wicker patio furniture.  But that's composition; the stuff  that I do early in the morning, before the sun comes up, when I am surrounded in a fog of birdsong and inspiration.
   During the rest of the day, when I'm editing, answering correspondence, doing nonfiction writing and just performing office stuff, I am in a desk chair. And I'm in it a lot: about 2,000 hours a year is a pretty good estimate. That's a lot of backside milage.
   Now, before you send the email, I should point out that I have tried some chair alternatives. I have tried working standing up (which made me feel like I was working the counter at McDonald's), and I tried one of those big rubber ball things (for about 20 minutes, after which it felt stupid). And the kneeling-chair made me feel as if I was Anne Boleyn in the chapel.
   So I decided I needed a good chair and, seeing as I usually hold onto a chair at least twice as long as I hold onto a computer, I figured that, for my chair, I should budget at least half of what I would budget for a computer.
   With $1,500 as my budget, then, I went chair-shopping, and wound up selecting (for well under my budgeted amount) the Humanscale Freedom Headrest, adding the gel seat and gel armrests as options. It looks durable and well-designed, and every time I lean back in it, I feel as if I am about to get my teeth cleaned or have a shave (not that far a stretch; the caricaturist Al Hirschfeld used a barber's chair as his office throne). At the desk, I can adjust it so it feels ergonomically perfect before the keyboard, and I keep a footstool behind me, so I can swivel around and put my feet up to do some reading ... or take a nap.
   I'm not spending any more time in the office than I did previously, but I'm getting more done, and feeling more refreshed when I knock off at the end of the day. So I'd say the chair is paying for itself. In fact, it probably did so in the first month.
   And I'm really enjoying the naps.

Friday, May 9, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Thank the One Who Brung Ya

MAYBE SHE DID IT to shut me up, but my grandmother taught me to read. 
   I only remember five books in our house, growing up. There was a pocket-sized volume on tree identification (used by my father when he worked trimming trees for the phone company), The Illinois Blue Book (free for the asking from the state every year, it taught you that corn and strip-mined coal were two of the most important commodities on earth, and that Abraham Lincoln was a leading candidate for sainthood), a dictionary, a huge Catholic Bible with all the apocrypha, and A History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II, displayed proudly because it included a snapshot that my father had taken on Guadalcanal. 
   And because the last one had airplanes it it, I wanted to read it, so my grandmother taught me.
   When I was four years old. 
   Using the Bible. 
   We started with Genesis, and by Revelation I could read as well as she could. Only after that was I treated to my reward, the Marine history, which, after Leviticus and Numbers, was pretty lively stuff.
   This posed something of an issue for my teachers in elementary school. They handed me Fun with Dick and Jane, I polished it off in about five minutes and asked why the guy wrote so weird, and for the next several years, while the rest of the class practiced reading, I sat in the corner reading the encyclopedia and (once my teachers had made sure I was not spending all of my time ogling pictures of bare-breasted tribal women) a few decades worth of National Geographic.
   So my grandmother taught me to read.
   But it was my mother who taught me to love books.
   She was, and is, a reader and, long about the time I was five, introduced me to the local library, which was less than a five-minute bike ride from my house. And she made it her business to not only love books, but to love the books I loved. If I brought it home from the library, first I read it and then she read it, so I could have someone with whom to discuss it.
My mother last Christmas;
I'm betting she's asking
Santa for a new book. 
   In this fashion, my mother became an expert on every expedition to Mount Everest, on the principles of rocketry and aviation, on wilderness survival and the heroes of the Old West and, much later, on the works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
   What's more, she also encouraged me to write. And when I began writing, she was (and remains) a perfect pre-reader, largely because she understands where I'm coming from, because she laid my childhood literary foundation with me.
   So what about you? Do you have someone in your life who started you on a love of reading books, and a passion for writing them?
   If you do, and you're still blessed enough to have them with you, be sure to tell them how much that has meant to you.
   And remember, Mother's Day is coming.
   So go out and buy them a book.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


IN 2009, BETHANY HOUSE published my book, Pirate Hunter, which is a novel composed of two storiesone historical and one contemporary—that echo and parallel one another but never quite intersect. 
   To distinguish the two, I wrote the historical story in third-person, and kept the contemporary story in first person. But that still left the issue of how to go from one story to the other without jarring the reader.
   And, to accomplish that, I used a technique from cinema—a technique known as a match cut.
   A match cut echoes an element from one scene with a similar element from another. The classic example is comes at the close of the first scene in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." In that match cut, a ancient primitive man uses a bone as a weapon; he tosses it into the air in victory, and it is replaced by a futuristic space station in earth orbit. 
   Match cuts can also be more subtle. One often used by filmmakers is to move the camera from a cityscape up to the clouds or sun above the city, and then bring the camera down from the sky to the next setting—say, the countryside.
   To accomplish something similar in fiction, I closed the first chapter of Pirate Hunter with a historical character being asked a question, and then opened the second chapter (300 years later) with a contemporary character attempting to form an answer to the same question. 
   Or, at the end of another chapter later in the same book, the historical character is tossed off a dock into the sea, and the following chapter opens with the contemporary character having just leapt into the water on a scuba dive.
   The technique worked well. Readers told me they never felt confused by the transitions. And more than one reader told me that part of the fun of reading Pirate Hunter was wondering what match-cut I would use to make the next temporal shift.
   Cinema uses many techniques that are borrowed from literature. But the match cut is proof that, occasionally, there is a film technique that works equally well in a book.

Friday, May 2, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Does That Sound Right?

I HAVE SAID BEFORE, and will say again, that it is a mistake to think of writing as recorded thought. The characters of the Roman alphabet combine to form phonemes, so writing is actually recorded sound.
   That being the case, a good way of editing is to listen to your manuscript, rather than merely reading it.
   In days of yore, the best way to do this was to have someone else read it to you or, lacking a volunteer, to read it yourself into a recorder and then listen to it. But today, you can let the computer do the reading for you.
   Here's how I do that:

  1. Print out a copy of whatever it is that I am editing.
  2. Bring my manuscript up on screen and highlight the part I want to edit.
  3. Enable text-to-speech (there are various ways of doing this on various operating systems, but text-to-speech is an accessibility option on most modern computers).
  4. Tell the computer to start reading.

   I don't read along with it, not for the first read-through. I just listen. I'm making sure the sound of my writing complements the sense of that part of my novel. I'm also keeping an ear open for clinkers: awkward-sounding sentences or phrases.
   I listen all the way through and then listen again, following along on the page this time. When I hear something that needs changing, I'll pause the reading and mark it on my printed copy. And then, once everything is sounding right, I'll trim and tighten and edit for grammar and punctuation.
   The final step is to listen to the edited piece, to make sure I haven't introduced anything that sounds funny, because funny-sounding writing is bad writing.
   If you haven't made a habit of listening to your work, editing this way can be revelatory. And it's a good habit to get into.
   Because I'll say it one more time: writing is recorded sound.