When your first book was published, was the experience everything you dreamed it would be? For me, it was quite different than what I expected. In 2005, when I first walked into a national chain bookstore and saw my brand new novel on the new release table, it was a rush. I was proud. I felt like I was on top of the world. I couldn't wait to see customers gather it up in their arms and rush home to read it. Then I stood back and watched as shoppers picked up my book, glanced at the back cover copy, and put it down with no more interest than in choosing one banana over another at the supermarket.
Didn’t they realize that book cost me 3 years of my life? How could they pass judgment on it within 5 seconds?
Reality set in. Not everyone will want to read my book. Not everyone will like it if they do read it. And I found out rather fast that once a book is published, the real work begins.
Today, I'm about to start (with co-author, Lynn Sholes) my eighth novel. My books have won awards, become bestsellers, and been published in many languages. And yet, every day I face the reality that the true test of my success or failure is what the customer does when they stand over that literary produce bin and pick what they think is the ripest banana. It's about as scary as it can get.
As a full-time writer, I have the best job in the world. I would not trade it for anything. But a word to anyone dreaming of publishing their first book: be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
So when your first book came out, was it everything you dreamed of? And if you're still working at getting that first banana out there, what are you dreaming it will be like?
Coming this spring: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore
Einstein got it wrong!
In my view, story writing has three essential stages: Discovery, Writing, and Revision.
Discovery is the process by which you discover your story. Bits and pieces of character and plot swirl around in your subconscious before you put words to paper. Consider it creative energy at play rather than feeling guilty that you’re not being productive. This can be the break you need before starting the next novel. It’s time well spent to refill your creative pool and to gather ideas.
Doing a collage, watching movies, listening to music, working on a hobby, walking outdoors, or reading for pleasure are some of the ways you can stimulate your creativity. Cut out photos from magazines of celebrities who look like your characters and fill out your character development charts. Search for relevant articles to your storyline and sift through them. Thus begins your research. Often this prep time can take weeks or even a month or two. If you’re a seasoned writer, you’ll know how long you need. Be sure to factor this in when you determine your target goal of completion for your project.
When these ideas coalesce in your head and your characters begin to talk to you, you’re ready to start writing. This is when I sit down and write an entire synopsis. The synopsis acts as my writing guideline, so I always know where I’m going even if I don’t quite know how to get there. This still allows for the element of surprise. The plot may change as the story develops.
At this stage, set yourself a minimum daily quota. I have to write at least 5 pages a day or 25 pages a week. Beginning a book is the hardest task. It might take until the first third of the book for you to get to know your characters. Give yourself permission to write crap during this heated storytelling phase. Once the book is written, you can fix it. Just get those words down on paper and move forward until the draft is done.
When you finish the first round of storytelling, it’s a good idea to put your book aside so as to gain some distance from it. You’ll be better prepared for revisions with a fresh viewpoint. Use the time to plan your promo campaign, to jot down blog topic ideas, or to write reader discussion questions. When you find yourself eager to tackle the story again, move on to the next phase.
Now come the heavy revisions. This can get intense, because you need to keep a sense of the whole story in your head. You can’t stop, or you’ll lose your train of thought. But you also shouldn't rush this process if you want to produce what editors call a “clean” copy.
When you set deadlines, be sure to allow a month or so for revisions, because you’ll need to do several read-throughs. My first round of revisions focuses on line editing. Then I’ll read through for smoothness and consistency. The final reading is to catch any remaining errors, typos, or repetitions. You can run your material through one of the online editors like Smart-Edit software or Pro Writing Aid.
I guarantee you’ll always find things to correct, but at some point you’ll be too close to the material to see straight or too sick of the project to work on it any more. Then the book is ready to submit. But don’t worry, likely you’ll have a chance to fix things again when you hear from your editor.
Send it off, clean up your desk, file away your mounds of papers. By now you’re thinking about the next book and are getting ready to start the process anew. Force yourself away from the office and take some time off. You’ll return with fresh ideas and renewed energy.
Now I have to quit procrastinating and get back to the writing stage. After being away for a week, it's hard to get back in the groove.
Joe R. Lansdale’s THE THICKET kicks off our Fall 2013 season this week, and the coverage of Joe’s newest has been absolutely astounding. Kirkus gave THE THICKET a rave review, praising Lansdale’s newest as “alternately violent and tender, with a gently legendary quality that makes this tall tale just about perfect.” Publishers Weekly called the book “satisfying” and remarked upon Lansdale’s ability to tale a tale by turns “grim” and “hilarious.”
But it’s not just the trades that love Lansdale’s newest! MysteryPeople, blog of the famed Austin, TX store, says THE THICKET at once has “echoes of True Grit, The Searchers, and Lonesome Dove” and is also “the perfect story for Lansdale.” Not to be outdone, LitReactor writes: “If you like dialogue – gritty, sharp, well-written dialogue – then The Thicket is a must-read. ”
Jenny Dial Creech at The Houston Chronicle also absolutely loved THE THICKET, writing: ”“Opening lines don’t get much better than this…Let the comparisons continue with this latest work, which reads like a dark version of The Adventure of Tom Sawyer and feels like a Coen brothers movie. It’s the perfect mix of light and dark, with plenty of humor mixed in.”
Looking for more than just review coverage? Read to Write has an interview up with Lansdale in which Lansdale discusses writing for the region and period and much more. Den of Geek has an interview with Lansdale in which he discusses his writing process.
Audio’s more your thing? Check out this interview with Joe on the Reading and Writing podcast that really demonstrates his abilities as a storyteller.
Finally, right here on MulhollandBooks.com, Joe shared with us his inspirations for THE THICKET, and we’ve also got up an excerpt from the novel’s first chapter. More to come as the press rolls in and Lansdale, the Mulholland team, and several other of our esteemed authors head off to Bouchercon next week in Albany!
I’ve noticed as I’m writing that I have no idea who’s going to live and who’s going to die by the end of my books. It works itself out and surprises me as much (I hope) as it surprises the reader.
Any outlines I’ve tried over the years always (finally) bore me and, in every case, stopped all forward momentum. So I’ve thrown them away and just kept writing, always (miraculously) tying up most every thread before The End.
My last book, Interception City, written as Parker T. Mattson and with five storylines running into and across each other, somehow made sense at the very last minute, with even me hoping a couple of the characters I liked might walk out alive before it was all over. And if they didn’t, that was just the way the story was supposed to be.
My real test concerning any loose ends and unresolved plotting comes from my readers, though, and any reviewers I might pick up along the way. So far, I’ve been lucky:
Mark Howell of The Key West Citizen called Interception City “…seriously hilarious…” for such a deadly story.
Michael Grais, writer/producer of the Poltergeist movies & many more said:
“Interception City is one of those fast-paced thrillers where the characters are half-crazy but as real as can be. For a novel so filled with murder and mayhem, it had me laughing out loud. I highly recommend it!”
And Tom Elliott, the book reviewer for the MENSA Bulletin, who I assumed would be most likely to poke holes in any plot logic, wrote in the September 2013 issue:
“Billed as a…provocative, morally complex crime thriller, Interception City is all that and more.”
And so, if that particular thriller of mine held up for the gang at MENSA, I’m going to quit worrying about it.
There’s a discussion going on right now on the mystery listserv Dorothy L, on the topic: “Are writers happy?”
Notice that the very asking of the question implies the opposite, doesn’t it?
I thought it was a question worth blogging about; it gives me the chance to expound on something that I’ve been mulling over this week.
You see, I’ve been car shopping, an activity that puts you into falsely intimate circumstances with strangers, and somewhat forces you to talk about what you do for a living. I always have the impulse to lie, because after all, why should I be the only one in the car telling the truth? But car shopping is stressful enough without having to remember what story you told which salesman, so I generally end up confessing. And it’s amazing how many of these guys (they’re all guys) said the exact same thing to me when I told them I was a writer.
“Living the dream...”
Now, either a staggering percentage of car salesmen secretly want to be writers, or this is a fairly common feeling that non-writers have about writers and writing. Or maybe both.
It’s good for me to be reminded that I have the dream job, because I’ve been doing it so long that I tend to think of my writing career as a morbidly obsessive, slimy, desperate slog through the mountains of Moria with no torch, pursued by the Orcs of my imagination and/or the business. (Insert your own metaphor, that just happened to be the first one that came to me. I can think of worse.).
On the other hand, maybe I’ve been able to make the writing life work for me for so long because I DON’T glamorize it. I don’t sit down at my desk (or in my bed) every morning thinking that what I’m about to do for the next seven hours is going to make me happy. I think – well, I KNOW - that if I’m lucky I will lose myself in the process enough that at the end of it I will feel sluggish and stupid and barely remember what I did that day, but if I do it and two or three hundred more days like that in a row there will be a book at the end of it.
And that – is a kind of satisfaction that makes all the tedium and terror of the process worthwhile.
Why that is I’m not even entirely sure. Because at the heart of it I’m a materialistic person and I need this stuff in my imagination to take solid form? Because it DOES make me happy that other people read and enjoy my books?
(And when I say MY books, I don’t really mean that. Because once the process is done, and I look at the book, it doesn’t really feel like I wrote it. It feels a lot more like I just brought this thing called a book back from some distant place, and when people praise me for it it’s really more like complimenting me on my mountain climbing or spelunking skills.)
Or is it just that old adage that if you’re a writer, you can’t do anything else?
Most of my happiness around writing has to do with (as Dorothy Parker said), “having written.” Because once you do that, you get to talk about the book with readers, the greatest pleasure of all, and go to writing conventions, which DOES make me happy because I get to be around people just like me, whom I don’t have to explain myself to and who maybe live life a little more fully in those moments because we’ve all just been momentarily let out of the cage we live in called writing.
But in terms of fun, teaching writing is a lot more fun than writing. I get to be with people who are still in love with the wonder of the process and who laugh at my jokes and when a workshop is over I am not still obsessively thinking about it for the rest of the day. Plus I feel like I've at least gotten some exercise, what with all that pacing around and wild gesticulation. Much more fun than sitting in a chair.
But I know that just teaching wouldn’t satisfy me the way writing books satisfies me. I think it has partly to do with mastery. When I was a kid and went to my first musical, I looked up at the dancers on the stage and thought (just like in that song from A CHORUS LINE) – “I can do that.” Of course, I couldn’t, not then, and it was a long, long, long time and several million dance classes before I could do my own triple pirouette, but when I finally DID? That click of – mastery – was the greatest feeling, a sense of accomplishment that never goes away, because it is in my body, now. I’d gone from dancing to being a dancer.
The feeling of satisfaction I get from finishing a book doesn’t last that long, honestly. I need to write book after book to get that feeling. But long ago I went from writing to being a writer. Just like with dancing, there is something in me that wanted the completion that only writing a book, and another book, and another, can give me. I’ve made that journey more times than I can count, and every single time I think I’m going to fail, but more times than not, I brought back a book.
Well, maybe that IS living the dream.
So I have to get back to the mountains of Moria. But for today, what do you think? Are writers happy?
As anyone who interacts with me on Facebook knows, I got a little tense this election week. Not that that's unusual. And I doubt I was the only one here who wasn't getting much work done in the last few days. At the same time, I can't really afford to take time off, given the deadlines I've got going on, even if most of them are self-imposed.
But the Universe lined itself up for me,as it so often does. Actually, some people would say it ALWAYS does, even if that's not the way it looks on the surface. But that's another blog!
I just finished a second draft of my new book, BLOOD MOON, and I don’t know about you all, but I find it REALLY REALLY hard to take the advice I am always giving other writers: to take time off in between drafts of a manuscript. Even when I know it’s the best possible thing I can do for the next draft. But the next logical step in my process required research, in fact, a research trip to San Francisco. I know, I know, rough life. So on Tuesday I just got in the car and drove up, meaning I got to watch election returns in downtown Oakland (massively fun and obviously a huge party…)
And now I’m running around the city to locations I’m using in the book.
Now, I lived in the Bay Area for years, it’s not lke I don’t know what I’m writing about. But there is nothing like revisiting a city, neighborhood, park, street, whatever, while you are in the headspace of your characters, looking specifically for those details that will color in your book. And that’s really how I think of it – coloring in. I have the outlines of the story, but now I have to add those layers of light and shadow, color and sound and smell. And the feeling of being in a place.
I did a great panel at Bouchercon this year and the fabulous moderator, Daniel Palmer, who knows my acting background, asked if I used acting techniques to develop character. And of course I do. I don’t think about doing it, its just something I’ve done for so long that I couldn’t imagine not doing it. A lot of conveying emotion on stage is about creating that emotion inside of you, first, and then layering on the physical manifestations of that emotion so that the audience feels it, too.
So all this walking around in the actual physical world of my story is what really helps me to get the sensual reality of that world and whatever the characters are experiencing onto the page. I need to FEEL it. I can do research online and read books, and craft an approximation of an experience from that research and my own memoreies of experience, but it’s a lot harder for me than being there in person. In fact I have been doing so much walking that I can barely move at night, but it's the only way I really know how to do this. Driving it won't cut it.
But I’m a really physical person. Kinetic learner, psychologists call it. And the kind of writing I like to do and read is a lot about creating a sensory experience. I realize that not everyone is like this, because there are books out there that do very little to create a sensory experience., and people buy them anyway, so someone must be getting something out of them. But that kind of book rarely does anything for me. I want all six senses n ny books - especially that sixth sense of SENSING - the unseen stuff, the things that make your skin tingle. Synchronicities. A smell that takes you back to your childhood. Walking into the exact scene that you have been thinking about, and realizing the epiphany that your character will have there.
So for today I’m wondering – are you guys aware of what experiences you most want to read or create in a book, the way I find sensory experience (including the visual) my prime pleasure in reading? What is that draw for you, and what do you do in terms of reearch and craft to create that? Does acting technique play a part?
Or in reading, which authors/books are great examples of the experience you most want in a book?
(Sorry for the typos and short post today - I'm working on my iPad, which is not an optimum blogging experience!)
In addition to having wonderful writers at Murderati, we also have several who are superb writing teachers.
I am not one of them.
This isn’t false humility; it’s a simple fact. I have never spent much time analyzing my writing process. As a matter of fact, I have a really difficult time even trying to. I read our Murderati members’ -- and others’ -- fabulous posts on building climaxes, structures, big concepts and, each time, I think I’m finally ready to jump in and learn how to write! Over the years, I’ve enthusiastically signed up for several classes and . . . after about the second or third one, I’m back where I started: utterly befuddled.
I just don’t approach my writing in an analytical way though I admire the hell out of people who do.
But last week one of the psychiatrists at work approached me about collaborating on an article about creativity and storytelling from the therapist’s and the writer’s perspective. And for some reason, I actually liked the possibility of looking at my own process.
Right now, I don’t have much of a framework upon which to hang any concepts. However, I do know:
- I start most of my stories with a broad theme (or a name) that intrigues me:
- · The chile pepper industry in NM and the conflicts between big ag and small farmers
- · A first-hand experience of divorce based on a book I read about “Rebuilding”
- · An overweight Midwestern farmer’s wife who uses small magic without realizing it
- · A woman named Guadalupe Nakamura
No questions. No conflicts to drive the story forward or give it much shape. Just interesting ideas to explore.
- Voice is the most important thing to me. So I spend a lot of time getting to know my character(s). I go in as deeply as I can and write. I often talk aloud to hear the character’s cadence and close my eyes to see that person’s world, to smell it and taste it and hear it. I sit at the computer and feel the emotions that tighten my character’s stomach, the ones that make her heart beat faster or her skin tingle. I let myself experience that full reality as much as possible.
If I’m true to this second step, the authenticity of the character shines through in my writing. However, if I think about audience at this point or whether my new creation will “sell,” both the character and I are in big trouble.
So those are the first two steps in my process . . . I think.
How about you?
Do you know how you write? Have you thought about it?
And so, the rollercoaster begins…again. This week I finally finished my mainstream drama/fiction project. Hooray! It’s been a long time in the making, mostly because I had to come off it several times last year to take paid freelance jobs (ghost writing, corporate stuff, etc.) and this year I’ve been focusing on my ebook strategy. However, I launched myself into the re-write in mid-May and now it’s done. It’s a wonderful feeling to be finished the novel and to be happy with it (for the most part).
The bad news is, I’m on the rollercoaster again. Sigh. I really don’t know if I’m mentally prepared for the lows as well as the highs. Sigh. You see, while I’m committed to the ebook path for some of my books (some genres), I feel that I’d like to give traditional publishing a go with my mainstream drama. Which means finding an agent. <Insert a million sighs>
Yup, THAT rollercoaster. Picking a shortlist of agents based on their recent sales and the authors they represent, then querying one to three at a time. And that’s a whole other thing—so many agents don’t like or insist on not being part of multiple submissions. But if you do one agent at a time, it could take you a year or more to get through your top 10! Of course, any author hopes that their first or maybe second pick will leap at the opportunity to represent them. But it’s getting harder and harder, even for authors with a publishing record (like me) to get an agent to take the plunge. I’m in a time warp, back in 1998-2004, when I was an aspiring author, looking for an agent or publisher. Looking for my first break. And in some ways, it feels like I’m back at square one. Sigh.
This week I start querying, and I’m both excited and petrified. I know I need to tighten the query letter and synopsis, so that’s my next focus. Although the timing truly sucks. This week and next week is school holidays in Victoria, Australia so I’m a full-time mum for the next two weeks. Not that I can complain—I’m also going skiing. In fact, when this post goes live I’ll be at Mt Buller, skiing for the first time in 10 years. And it will be my daughter’s first time ever. Exciting!!! Can’t wait. Although it does also mean I might not be able to respond to comments until the weekend (or perhaps I’ll be very brief from my Smartphone). Anyway…
Being an author truly is a rollercoaster—or more accurately several rollercoasters, sometimes happening simultaneously.
First, there’s the creative process itself, the creative rollercoaster. One minute you think that sentence, paragraph, chapter or book is brilliant; the next, you think it’s crap. And those highs and lows just seem to be part of the creative process. I’m still really on this rollercoaster for Cross Roads and Dead Ends (working title). I said above that I’m happy with it (for the most part), but like many authors I question whether you can ever be truly 100% happy with a book. I could edit and tweak for eternity, I think.
Then there’s the agent rollercoaster. The rollercoaster I’m currently on. Once you get an agent, there’s the publisher rollercoaster. Will your agent’s first round of publishers be interested? Will they all be so interested that it goes to auction (best-case scenario) or will they all pass (obviously worst-case scenario)?
Then there’s the rollercoaster once your book is published, the marketplace rollercoaster. Will the reviewers like it? Will the readers like it? And even if both reviewers and readers rave about it, will it actually make a dent in terms of sales? The making-a-living-as-an-author rollercoaster. See? Lots of rollercoasters!
Ultimately, my aim as an author is to take my readers on a rollercoaster, but with very different highs and lows. In the case of Cross Roads and Dead Ends, I want my readers to experience the characters’ pain, their loss, and feel that sense of resonance. I want to take my readers to soaring heights, but also sometimes the depth of despair. But that means I have to go on all the other rollercoasters first. So here I go. Ready for the adrenaline high and the possible motion sickness.
So, authors, which rollercoaster are you on at the moment? Readers, how do you feel about the author rollercoaster?