Monday, September 13, 2010

A Good Agent is Worth his Weight in Cheese Steak

Crazy day, left SLC this morning and just got into Philly, (actually Cherry Hill, NJ, but close enough.) So no long post today. But I do want to give you a quick update on Demon Spawn, and make a comment.

Talked to my agent for the first time after he’d read the complete manuscript. The good news is he LOVED everything except two chapters. The even better news is that the more I think about what he said about those two chapters, the more excited I get to rewrite them. They are going to give the story so much more kick at a very key point. Even though it’s late, I really want to get started on the changes.

I often hear authors complain about their agents or editors. We see things a certain way, and it’s hard for us to change what we love. I haven’t agreed with everything my editors or agents have told me, but I think long and hard before I disagree. And the main thing I think about is how their suggestions can make my story stronger. It’s not always obvious (although this time it was.) But you really have to step out of your author shoes, put on your reader shoes, and try to look at your story through the eyes of someone who doesn’t have the story in his or her head.

Open your mind and try to imagine how the editor or agent is viewing the story. Then ask yourself how making their suggested changes (even if you don’t completely agree) could make a stronger story than you have now. If you can see any chance of how that might happen, they are probably right. If you can’t see how you can make the changes without weakening the story, then go back and discuss what the problem is and how else you might address it.

The agent or editor isn’t always right, but 9 times out of 10 when they spot a problem, they are correct. As the builder of worlds, it’s up to you to see the flaw they have recognized and turn it into a strength. The final copy we'll take to publishers is getting so close I can taste it. Or maybe it's just the cheese steak!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Three (Good) Emotions You Will Experience as an Author

Last week, I posted about some of the negative emotions you are likely to experience as an author. I got lots of comments from other authors, saying, “Yes, that’s exactly how it is.” I also got a few e-mails from aspiring authors, or non-authors saying, “Why do you do it? Isn’t it kind of like hitting your thumb over and over with a hammer? Why do something that causes you to feel that way?”

It’s a good question. Of course it’s not like any of these emotions are unique to authors. You can feel depressed, envious, or impatient plenty just living your life. But by becoming an author, you’re almost painting a target on your back saying, “Have at me, World!”

A lot of people give up writing because it’s too much. Which I totally understand. More than once I’ve stood on the very brink of quitting. It’s an attractive thought. Never have to worry about deadlines. Doing whatever I want with my spare time. Taking vacations without my laptop or at least a notebook. Not stressing about word counts.

So why do I keep doing it? Well for every negative there is a positive. Just after becoming depressed because your local bookstore barely displays your books, you read a review like this. After what can be years, finally seeing your book in print can make all the impatience seem worthwhile. Getting an e-mail from someone who loved your story can make the envy go away as you remember that it’s not about who sells the most books, but the joy you can bring even one reader.

Today though, I want to focus not on what happens after you get published. In fact, as Charlie pointed out, many of the bad emotional clouds that swirl around writers’ heads have nothing to do with the act of writing itself, but with what comes after. The whole trying to get an agent/editor/publisher/good review/medium review/any review thing is what can be so frustrating. While so much of the joy comes from the creative process itself. So here are three positive emotions you can expect while writing your story.

1) Surprise

Want to get a bunch of weird looks from your non-writer friends? Tell them about how hard you laughed at something one of your characters said. Or how you cried when a character died. Or how a sacrifice your character made left you in awe. I promise it won’t take long before your pal scratches his or her head and says something like, “You do know you’re making it all up right? Your characters aren’t real. The funny thing? You said it. The death. You killed her.”

It’s only when you talk to your author friends that they nod their heads. You can spend an entire lunch just talking about all the things your characters have done to surprise you over the years. Because it doesn’t matter whether you’re an avid outliner or whether you plot by the seat of your pants. If you get to know your characters well enough, they will do things that seem to come completely out of left field.

In Demon Spawn, I have a sidekick character named Cinder. She’s funny. She has attitude. She’s selfish. Suddenly about halfway through the book, she started doing things I didn’t expect. Not only did her actions surprise me, they also surprised my protagonist. We were both going, “What is with her?” This was the first book I’d outlined, and nowhere in the outline did Cinder act this way. But I went with it—because it felt right. It wasn’t until three or four chapters later that everything came clear.

I’ve written from the perspective of a disillusioned male homicide cop, a twenty year old female newspaper reporter with really weird taste in food, a sixteen year old female demon, a thirteen year old boy in a wheelchair, and many others. Yes, it can get confusing at times. But the one thing I’ve learned is to let my characters show me the way. Being surprised by your characters is awesome.

2) Gratification.

Stephen King compares writing to uncovering fossils. You can envision a scene in your head, and words are the tools you use to unearth for the reader what you are seeing. Sometimes it’s much harder than you thought it would be. That can be frustrating. But we’re talking about positive emotions here. So we’ll focus on the feeling you get when you manage to capture a scene as well or better than you hoped.

In my last Shandra book, the first few chapters are pretty dark. Shandra’s best friend is on life support from a gunshot would he received in her apartment. Bobby’s fiancĂ© doesn’t want Shandra anywhere near his hospital bed. She can’t go back to her apartment. She blames herself. Finally she gets in to see him. I knew we needed a scene that would both lighten the mood and let us get a glimpse into our characters’ pasts. Like I mentioned above, I didn’t know exactly what the scene was, but as I started writing Shandra begins to remind an unconscious Bobby about a time when they raced each other eating giant bowls of ice-cream.

As I realized where the scene was going, I started to get that fragile fossil feeling. Sometimes scenes come so quickly it’s all I can do to keep up with what’s going on in my head. My wife—who is also my first line editor—recognizes these scenes right away because any semblance of spelling or grammar shoots out the window. Wrong words appear. Periods, quotations marks, and commas are completely optional. It’s all about getting the story down while it’s happening, and fixing the typos later.

Then there are times like the ice-cream parlor scene when I know I’m treading on thin ice. First of all, we’re going for the laugh. For me, comedy is much harder than drama. Overdo it and it feels forced. Approach the scene too lightly and the reader may not get it. Not to mention the fact that we are standing at the bedside of a best friend who is at death’s door. Will humor turn the reader off?

This is when I slow way down, setting aside the pick axe and using a soft-bristled brush. I write, check, change, edit, rewrite. When I’m finally done, I first read the whole thing to myself. Does it work for me? Usually I feel like I got maybe fifty percent of the scene uncovered. Back to work again. Finally, I print it out for my wife. Then I go into the other room and listen. Wait. Was that a chuckle? Giggles, I’m sure a heard giggles. A laugh. I earned a full out laugh!

For me, that’s gratification. When I nail a scene well enough that it works for the reader exactly the way I hoped it would. I may not be able to stick a gymnastics flip. But I can stick a scene and it feels great when I do.

3) Accomplishment

When my (now married) daughter was in kindergarten, I ran the St. George Marathon with my dad. As soon as the memories disappear completely, I plan on running another one. I’d like to say I trained properly, ran well, and finished with a great time. But since there is the distinct possibility that my dad, or another member of my family who was present, might read this, I will just say that I finished.

It was not pretty. People with walkers on their way back from therapy passed me in the street. The rescue vans circled ominously around me like flies eyeing a piece of rotting meat on a hot day. I moved so slowly at points that small children asked their parents, “Is that man dead?”

By the time I turned onto the last street, I had less than a quarter mile to go. Even though I was toward the back of the racers, there were still lots of people cheering. Hearing the encouragement, I broke into a painful trot. Although every muscle in my body ached, I couldn’t walk that last stretch. About two hundred yards from the finish, a huge knot popped up on the back of my left calf. Imagine a flaming tennis ball being placed just under your skin and you’ll have some idea how it felt. Somehow, despite the agony, I managed to keep running (in the broadest sense of the word.) Then, a hundred yards from the finish, the same thing happened on the back of my right calf.

I honestly don’t know how I finished the race. I refused to let myself walk, but everything else was pretty much a blur. Later my dad would ask me how I liked the mist spray after the finish line. I had no idea what he was talking about. As soon as they took my number, I collapsed onto the first spot of shady grass I could find. Immediately my wife showed up and asked me how I felt. I begged her to rub my calves. She touched one, pulled back her hand, and in the nicest way possible said something like, “Eew, gross!”

Finishing a book is not usually that bad. In fact, the last few chapters can be some of the most fun to write. You can see the finish line. You know where you are going. Hopefully it’s one of the most exciting parts of your book. I especially love writing epilogues. All the heavy lifting is done, and you’re just putting on the last finishing touches.

But the gratification is the same—whether it’s your first book of your fifteenth. You did it. You finished. Maybe it will need some serious editing. Maybe you limped through parts. There were almost definitely times when you could feel the buzzards circling over your head, waiting for you to give up. But you didn’t quit. You pushed through to the end. When other people say, “I’m going to write a book someday,” you can say, “I already have.” It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world to print out a complete manuscript and think I wrote that. I created it. If it wasn’t for me this story would never have seen the light of day.

So, yeah. There are some rough things about being an author. Things that at very least will put you in a funk and might very well bring you to tears, questioning if you really have what it takes. You know those are coming. So enjoy the good emotions when you can. Instead of being in such a rush to get to the tough parts, savor the good parts. Don’t be afraid to pat yourself on the back. When someone starts to give you crap about your messy house or the weeds in your lawn regale them with a charming story about how your protagonist’s old boyfriend slipped and fell in a patch of mud right before his big date with the really annoying character that keeps saying the most hilariously stupid things.

Keep at it until their eyes glaze over and they begin making excuses about having so much to do. Then say casually, “But I’m sure you know the feeling. After all, you’ve written a book, right? Right?”