Friday, June 27, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Rules? What Rules?

A GREAT MANY years ago, I had lunch with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. And when I say, "I had lunch," I don't mean I was in a hotel ballroom  and that he was at the head table while I was sitting far off, near the fire escape. No ... a local library society had asked him in to speak, and because I was a local author (I had written one—count it, one—book at the time: a travelogue of American mountaineering) they asked me to attend and then, at the lunch afterward, placed the two of us across a table from one another, assuming we were kindred spirits and would have oodles of things in common.
   They were wrong. I'd not yet begun to write fiction at the time, and Vonnegut and I had virtually nothing in common. But as my book was outdoorsy, he told me about his most recent outdoorsy vacation: a cruise to the Galapagos islands. I remember him pantomiming the courtship dance of the blue-footed boogie, using dinner rolls on forks (a la Charlie Chaplin) as facsimiles for the boobies' feet.
   This is a significant memory because I now understand that vacation was the genesis of Vonnegut's 1985 novel Galapagos, a book I consider significant because it breaks most of the so-called rules for writing a novel.
   The narrator of the novel is dead. He is Leon Trout, a Vietnam veteran who moved to Sweden after the war, got a job in a shipyard, and was decapitated by a falling piece of sheet metal. Throughout the book, Leon is a ghost, telling a first-person, present-tense story from a point 1,000,000 years in the future, when human beings have evolved to become sort of a cross between a dolphin and a seal, and their brains have all shrunk (because a smaller cranial cavity is more hydrodynamic and makes a person better able to catch fish).
   But while Trout's narrative is austensibly present-tense, he is talking about an event a million years in the past when (as a ghost haunting the ship he'd been working on when killed) he accompanied the members of a doomed cruise on a trip to the Galapagos Islands. 
   Being a ghost, Trout can inhabit other people's bodies and know what they are thinking. So he does that, oftentimes multiple times per scene, which for most narrators would be the storytelling error of head-hopping (using more than one point of view per scene), but works just fine in Galapagos because the primary point point of view is that of the ghost. Vonnegut's narrator also does a great deal of telling, rather than showing, which again is something the writing conferences rant against, but works just fine in Galapagos, as Trout does not think he is telling a story; rather, he is explaining why it is good that human beings evolved to have smaller brains, because it was big brains that created all the problems that almost led to our extinction.
   The list goes on. Trout doesn't want to shock his readers unnecessarily, so eventually every character will have an asterisk in front of his or her name: this is the narrator's way of warning the reader that this particular character is going to die in the next few pages.
   Funny thing is, it all works (you can see for yourself as, at least as of this writing, Galapagos is selling for a buck-ninety-nine on Kindle). And reading this book tells me that none of the fiction-writing rules are actually rules at all, but merely suggestions. 
   Then again, if you want to violate those suggestions with impunity, you'd better be a Kurt Vonnegut.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Phone a Friend

TWO DAYS AGO, I answered an e-mail and explained how a diver would replenish the soda-lime scrubbing material in a diving rebreather. At the same time, a friend of mine in Palm Bay (a city not far from me in Florida) was detailing how a particular type of evidence would be collected from a crime scene. Meanwhile, in Virginia, a third friend was explaining how to do a tracheotomy using found objects, and yet a fourth friend (this one in California) was answering someone who wanted to know the differences between English and American libel laws.
   Oh ... and all of the people I talk about above are bestselling novelists.
   We are all members of a private Yahoo group, composed of more than 200 novelists scattered around the world, all with at least three books published by conventional, advance- and royalty-paying publishers. 
   Because the group is extremely active, we email one another daily, as well as getting together for the occasional retreat. And because we know each other well, we get to know one another's backgrounds. Several members, in addition to being popular novelists, are very successful physicians or attorneys. One is a retired police detective. Another is an actor. Yet another is an architect, and one is one of the world's greatest authorities on quilting. 
   And one service we provide our peers in the group is a sharing of that knowledge base. 
   So, as I am a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer (two steps above an instructor), as well as an NSS-CDS Full Cave diver, and a closed-cell rebreather diver, I tend to be the go-to guy whenever someone is writing a scene that involves scuba diving. And virtually everyone in the group has some area of micro-knowledge. One just published a book on how to do portrait photography ... of dogs.   
   True, much information is easily Googled today, but that's a two-edged sword: much information on the Internet is also incorrect. So by asking people we trust, we get solid information that helps us maintain the crucial reasonable suspension of disbelief with our readers.
   Point is, what we do on a wide scale basis, just about any writers group or critique group can do on a smaller scale. Get to know the people in your writing circle, and get to know them beyond the superficial level of what they write. 
   You may just discover that the medieval armor expert you're looking for is actually the blank-verse poet who sits next to you on Tuesdays.

Friday, June 20, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Your Turn ...

TODAY, I'D LIKE TO shift from pontificant to supplicant.
   So far this year, we've covered a wide array of topics in this blog, ranging from why you should write two novels before you try to sell one, to why you should not put confetti into the envelope with your book proposal. We have had posts on writing realistic dialogue, and using cinematic cutting techniques in fiction, and I have even shared a never-berfore-seen photograph of novelist Terri Blackstock writing bestselling fiction in the front seat of her car.
   Here's the thing. As you've probably noticed (since I hype it just to the right of the blog entries on this page), I have a new book out on writing the novel, and that is getting me increased attention, the net result of which is that I'm getting invited to speak at more and more writer's conferences and to more and more critique groups and writers groups.
   For writers conferences that are five days long or longer, this is a slam-dunk: by doing one one-hour session in the morning and one in the afternoon or evening, I can present the entire contents of my book in five days.
   But some (many) conferences are fewer than five days, and at most critique groups, I'll only have a single 30-45-minute block allotted to me, after which I am expected to sit down and shut up. 
   So here is my question:
Imagine that you have found a magic lamp, and you have rubbed it, and out has popped, not a genie, but a well-published, bestselling novelist. What three questions would you like to ask that novelist?
   The "comments" section, below, eagerly awaits your response. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


EVERYBODY WANTS TO avoid the rookie mistakes; the things that scream out to a reader (or an editor, or an agent), "I am really, really, really new at this, and not quite sure what I'm doing yet."
   So let me share with you the one thing that, often on the first page, tells me I am reading the work of a writer who is still beginning to navigate the waters of fiction writing.
   They start twice.
   Often, when I review a manuscript, I'll read what appears to be the beginning of a story. And then, a few paragraphs down (or, in a novel or novella, in the next chapter), the story will present what appears to be a second starting point.
   There are a few reasons for this. One is over-delivery of information. We want readers to understand what the characters look like, what the setting looks like, and so on. So we pile that in, and then we get around to story.
   Or, with more experienced writers, we understand that we have to create a sense of normalcy or peace in order to disrupt it and create conflict, so we start with a pastoral opening. Then we introduce conflict and the story starts.
   Or (and this, I think is the most common), we write our way to the beginning. That is, we start at what we think is the beginning of the story and then, in the process of writing it, we arrive at the true beginning.
   So how do you tell where the true beginning is? For me, one question that I ask is, "How many elements of a story are here?" If I have setting, and characters, but no conflict, then I probably haven't arrived at a story yet. And yes, I know that conflict does not work if we are not yet invested in the character. So a way I typically solve this is by introducing an early conflict: something that is going to be overcome in the space of a few pages, but still gets the reader wondering how the character is going to get out of trouble.
   In In High Places, a novel that centers around the world of rock climbing, my story begins in the middle of a climb, with a character who does not know if he's equal to the task at hand. In the process of talking about that climb, and its aftermath, I'm able to get closer to what will be a central issue of that novel: a strained family dynamic. This frees me from beginning by showing the family at home, then sending them on the trip, and then getting to the rock climb, which is where the issues truly begin to emerge. By skipping all the throat-clearing, I allow the reader to start where the story starts, on the first rung of a ladder of increasing jeopardy.
   How do you avoid beginning twice? Some writers never do. But the difference between the professionals and the newer writers is that, when the pros realize that they are starting twice, they go back and get rid of that false, preliminary beginning. And that allows them to bring the reader into the storyworld at the proper moment: when the story begins. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: 5 Things to Leave Out of Your Book Proposal

A FEW YEARS AGO, I surveyed several fiction editors of my acquaintance, asking what newer novelists tended to leave out of their book proposals. 
   One of those editors responded, "Chocolate!" (with a smiley face). So, a few months later, when I sent her a proposal, I included a few bars handmade by a local chocolatier. 
   This got no reaction, so I asked her about it when I saw her next.
   "Oh, yeah," she said. "The chocolate. Why did you do that? That was weird."

   Of the myriad of reactions one is hoping to get from a proposal, "weird" is not one of them. And here, based on stuff that I have heard about from actual acquisitions editors, is a list of other things that you should leave out of your book proposal:

  • Confetti. You should have learned around the time you were five that negative attention is not better than no attention at all.
  • A manuscript on anything other than white paper. The cuteness of a romance printed on pastel paper wears off about one sentence in.
  • Manuscripts printed in anything other than black (or dark navy) ink. The one thing common to every editor I know is eyestrain; purple ink is not your friend.
  • An 8" x 10" color glossy photo of your smiling face. Your object here is to sell a book, not to convince the recipient to cast you in their toothpaste commercial. Occasionally, on proposals that were requested as a result of face-to-face meetings, I have put a thumbnail face shot on my proposal cover page, to help the editor remember who I am. But that's it.
  • Your idea for the book cover. You are the writer, not the art director.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: The Perils of Packaging

ALTHOUGH I DO NOT go out of my way to publicize the fact, many readers who follow my books are aware that I occasionally illustrate my own work.
   The backstory here is that this was not my original intention. For the first Beck Easton adventure, Deep Blue, I wanted a simple map of a cave system to precede the initial chapter, so I drew one up and sent it to my publishers, together with a note asking them to provide it as a reference piece for their illustrator. 
   The art directors who worked on that book were extraordinary (its cover won a major award that year), so I was more than a little surprised when  they replied that they liked what I had supplied, and if I had no objections, they would prefer to use it, not as mere reference, but as the actual illustration for the book.
My illustration of an Adams-
pattern dry fly, as it appeared
in my 2008 title, Wind River.
   Buoyed by that experience, I have created artwork for some of my other titles. For In High Places, I drew small illustrations to open each chapter. And for Wind River, I drew a pen-and-ink drawing of my favorite trout-fly pattern: an Adams dry fly. I've even had art directors inquire whether I might be available to do illustrations for other writers' works (I always politely decline; writing for me is therapeutic, whereas making drawings just feels like, well, work).
   So, knowing that I do my own illustrations on occasion, new writers often confide in me that they have what they are certain is going to be a sure-fire sales strategy.
   "I'm writing a _______," they will tell me (and in that blank goes "children's book," or "book of poetry," or "survival guide," or whatever). "And my ________ is going to do the illustrations." (This second blank is usually filled in by "neighbor," "cousin," "daughter," "baby-sitter" ... you name it.)
   Then they wait for me to congratulate them on an inspired and masterful approach.
   And they are astonished when I tell them that using such a tactic will drop the likelihood of selling their first book—which, as we all know, is already quite slim—by at least half.
   You see, in submitting a manuscript with pre-commissioned illustrations, you are moving from the realm of "writer" to "packager." And packaging—teaming up the work of two or more creative individuals—is traditionally a publisher's job. So at very least, you are stepping on toes by proposing it.
   Beyond that, unless you've got a diploma from the Parson's School of Design hanging on your wall, what strikes you as "great illustrations" may not get the same reaction from a professional art director.
   Even award-winning artwork designed for gallery display may not work very well in the limitations of a print environment. My books, for instance, are all printed with a single-plate process, which means I have only one shade of ink with which to work: jet black. And while some of my illustrations may appear to have shades of gray, that effect is an optical illusion; every line in my drawings is the same deep shade of black.
   Add to this that publishing houses are businesses, which operate according to economies of scale. That being the case, they may wish to commission an artist to illustrate several books, sometimes across various house imprints. This allows them to negotiate a better price per project and, and when you propose a book using your own illustrator (or yourself as the artist), you deny them that economic tool. 
   I realize that it sounds here as if I am saying, "I can do this, but you cannot." But bear in mind that I have never pitched a book predicated on use of my own illustrations. The first time my artwork was used, it was the publisher's idea. And in subsequent books, any illustrations I've provided have come with a note from me saying that they were being provided to be used, or not, as the art director saw fit, and that, if my artwork did not mesh with their vision for the book, then I would not be upset in the slightest.
   Because, after all, in this industry it is the publisher who packages the books, and not the writer.
   Understand that going in, and you'll have a much, much better chance of success.


Friday, June 6, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Dictionary Words

YEARS AGO IN PRAGUE, citizens deal with miscreant city council members not by voting them out, but by defenestration; they chucked the offending politicians out of the town-hall window.
   What I just did there is, in my opinion, the only way a writer should use an uncommon word. I used the word "defenestration" (with which I assume many readers will have no familiarity), and then I immediately defined it in context.
   Doing anything else is just rude.
   When she was small, my daughter referred to uncommon words as "dictionary words," because they caused her to set aside whatever work she was reading and seek a dictionary. 
   This, of course, is not desirable for any number of reasons. It vexes the reader. It interrupts the flow of the work. And it obliterates suspension of disbelief because, in setting aside the book to seek out another, the reader is reminded that he or she was reading in the first place.
   No less an authority than the late Elmore Leonard detested dictionary words. While there is no rule against them in his famous "ten rules for good writing, he does note in his rule on speaker attributions that, "I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with 'she asseverated,' and had to stop reading to get the dictionary."

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

NEWER NOVELISTS TEND to obsess over minutiae.
   When it came time to deliver the manuscript for my first novel, for instance, I made sure that it was printed out on archival-quality, 100-percent-cotton, 24-pound bond paper. And because I didn't trust the old rubber-band and shirt-cardboard method of keeping the pages neat in transit, I came up with a novel (pun intended) method of shipping the manuscript.
   Our family had recently acquired a FoodSaver: one of those vacuum-sealing systems for taking all the air out of food we were packaging for the freezer. And I got the idea of packaging my finished novel using the FoodSaver. Once I'd removed all the air from around and between the pages, the manuscript resembled an inch-and-a-half-thick hunk of marine plywood with a title page pasted to the top of it. It looked as if it was capable of protecting its bearer from small-arms fire ... well, the first round, at least. No additional protection was required; I tossed the vacuum-packed pages, a cover letter and an on-disk copy of the Word file into a manila envelope, and popped it into the mail. 
   Naturally, this surprised my editor when he received it. He told me he showed my plastic-wrapped, stiff-as-a-board  manuscript to the entire office, so I used the same technique to ship my next manuscript as well.
   Then I had the occasion to visit my editor in his office at the publishing house, and he showed me the file drawer in which he kept his current projects. Two hanging files held my work, included both of my original manuscripts. And they were still in their vacuum packaging.
   "You never opened them?" I asked.
   "Oh, no," my editor told me. "We hardly ever work on a physical manuscript anymore, and on those rare occasions when we need a paper copy, we just print one out from the Word file."
   After that, I never mailed another vacuum-packed manuscript. For that matter, not long after that, I ceased to mail anything at all.
   These days, my manuscript goes to my publishers as a Word file formatted in Times New Roman; if the publishers want a different font, I have full faith in their ability to reformat as needed. As for maps, drawings, or other images, those get sent out as high-resolution .jpg files. And the whole thing gets "shipped" either as an email attachment or (if the image files are too large), as a set of files sent out using a relay service.
   Advising me on how to go about my work, a sage editor once told me, "There are two keys to working successfully. The first is not to sweat the small stuff. And the second is to understand that most of what you encounter will be small stuff."
   I took his advice and decided to concentrate my time and talents on the large stuff.
   Like creating creating stories.
   And telling them as well as I can.