Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Nancy J. Cohen

At book events, someone in the audience always asks the author, “Where do you get your ideas?” As a writer, I don’t understand why it isn’t obvious. Ideas are everywhere. It’s having the time to write them all into stories that is the problem. But if you really want to know our secret, here’s where you might pluck an idea out of thin air.


idea

Newspaper and Magazines

Even in this digital era, I like to clip articles from print newspapers and magazines. Sometimes the subject is relevant to a current plot. Other times, I’ll file the clipping for later when I might need a motive for a suspect in a mystery or a scientific explanation for one of my paranormal romances. Don’t forget to look in the freebie community newspapers, too. Also check out your local library. Some of them have book sales where gently read magazines are available for a good price. Printouts from the Internet can serve a similar purpose, but they’re not the same as discovering random articles in a magazine. Instead, you’ll have to search for a specific subject, unless you have one of those applications that compile daily news for you on selected topics. Or you’ll have to scan the headlines. If so, you’ll be missing the thrill of turning pages in a print publication and discovering an article of interest. I always read the Sunday newspaper with scissors in hand.

Television and Movies

A TV show can stimulate your train of thought. For example, you may like the premise of a particular episode, but if you wrote the story, it would turn out differently. Or maybe the social issue or theme of a show inspires you. A news report might elicit an emotional response that makes you want to include the topic in a story. You never know when inspiration will strike.

Dreams

Do you dream in detail with color and dialogue? If you can remember your dream, write down the sequence of events as soon as you wake up, before reality pushes away the cobwebs of sleep. I used to have story dreams that were detailed enough for me to write several pages. A dream inspired my first published novel, Circle of Light. Lately, my dreams have been a continuation of thoughts or concerns I’ve had during the day, so I seem to have lost this source of creativity. If you have a good dream, write it down. Or consciously direct your thoughts at bedtime to a plotting problem you are having, and let your brain work on it while you sleep.

Books

Do you ever get an idea for a story while reading someone else’s work? Or maybe their book stimulates a new plot thread for your storyline. Ideas cannot be copyrighted. How you develop your characters and plot will differ from anyone else and will be unique to your voice. If you find that a story fires your imagination, scribble down notes and then return to the book you’re reading.

People You Meet

Friends, relatives, and even strangers can provide inspiration. They might generate an idea for a plot twist or give you thoughts on character development. A woman whose bearing and clothes I’d admired on a cruise became the Countess in my cruise mystery, Killer Knots. People who helped me with my research for Peril by Ponytail, my next Bad Hair Day mystery, serve as the model for some of the folks in this story. And I’d better not mention how real life experiences inspired Hanging By A Hair. The lesson learned here is that if you befriend a writer, you might become fodder for her stories.

Personal Experiences

Our life experiences cannot help but influence our stories. With the exception of murder, many of the incidents in my mysteries stem from real life. Naturally, you have to alter the people and the settings, but the actual events might remain similar. Certainly the antics of my late dog are reflected in Marla’s poodle, Spooks. And many of the other things that happen in her life have happened to me. Infusing these experiences into your stories will enrich them. You cannot better describe events than having known them first-hand.

Suited up for copper mine like in Peril by Ponytail















Writing Techniques

If you’re totally stuck for ideas, various writing tools can help. You’ll find each writer has a favorite how-to book or software program for generating plot ideas. Check out the reference section in your local bookstore or library, or go online and ask on your writer loops for what other authors use. You’ll get as many varied responses as there are subgenres.

So where do we writers find inspiration? It’s everywhere—in the air we breathe, in the people we meet, in our dreams, and in the stories we read or see on the big screen. The problem isn’t finding ideas. The problem is having enough years of good health and peace of mind in which to write them.

So where do YOU get your story ideas?

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And Introducing my New Release!
Hanging By A Hair, Bad Hair Day Mystery #11 

HangingbyaHair (414x640)

Marla and Dalton Vail move into a new neighborhood and discover a murder next door.

Amazon Hardcover: http://www.amazon.com/Hanging-Hair-Nancy-J-Cohen/dp/1432828142
Amazon Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Hanging-Hair-Bad-Day-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B00JJ2XVUQ/
Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/hanging-by-a-hair-nancy-j-cohen/1116603785

How well do you know your neighbors?


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Why you need an editer.
Ah, make that an editor...


By. P.J. Parrish

Editors have been weighing heavily on my brain of late. Mostly because right now I don’t have one. And don't it always seem as though you don't know what you've got til it's gone?

Kelly and I are between contracts and are working on a stand alone that is sort of different for us. So we don’t know if it will ever find a home in the traditional publishing arena. This is fine with us. It’s exciting (and scary) to work without a net. We haven’t done this in more than a decade, so I remember now what many of you are going through – that feeling of walking alone in a dark forest, not knowing for sure if you are on the right path.

But I also read a couple of things this week that got my brain churning about the value of good editors.

I read a comment on a writing blog from a self-published author who wrote: "When I finished the novel, I put it into the hands of a few big-time publishing houses. They all told me the same thing. 'We like the writing, but in order for us to sell it, you have to rewrite this and rewrite that, then send it back to us.' I wasn't about to start rewriting my book so that maybe some traditional publisher would take it."

And, I just got an email from an unpublished writer whose manuscript I critiqued for charity a while back. This writer had a good idea, an engaging character, even a nice voice. But all that was obscured by the usual craft problems (wavering POV, throat-clearing opening, unclear physical action, too many characters introduced too quickly, adverbitis...) But this writer stuck to it, rewrote and rewrote, got an agent who made her rewrite some more. She just sold that mystery as part of a three-book deal and was writing to tell me the good news.

Which of these two has the right attitude? (Put aside the question of whether you should go traditional vs self-publishing for a moment). This is not a trick question. It if were, why don't more writers get it?

You need an editor.

I need an editor.

Every writer needs an editor.

Now before I go any further, let's get our terms straight. I don't mean a copy editor (the comma and lay/lie arbiter). I am talking about the first reader of your book after you turn it in, the person who can tell you if you've tangled your plot in digressions, misunderstood your hero's motivation, or picked the wrong bad guy. The Big Picture Guy or Girl who understands what you are going for in your book and helps you get there.

Let me get back to my own experience for a moment. Because we collaborate, Kelly and I edit each other's writing. But we know that isn't enough, as Joe Moore here can attest. We know we need the entity we have come to call The Cold Third Eye.

Why? Because we, like all writers, we live our story with every breath we take, intimately for months on end. Every day, it is playing on those screens in our heads, and we can see everything so clearly. But as with any writer, there is often a disconnect between that screen and our fingers as they hit the computer keys. Something misfires, something is lost in translation.

That is where the Cold Eye comes in. This is the person who tells you where you have gone astray. The Cold Eye (aka the editor) usually communicates in the form of the dreaded Revisions Letter, a document that can run as long as a legal brief and be just as scary. Even more scary these days with the advent of Word Review Mode. Now, getting this feedback is tough and sometimes writers get a tad defensive about it. Here are the kind of comments you might see in a revision letter -- and how some writers might react:

Editor: Think about making this a prologue.
Author: What? Prologues are strictly bush-league! It's the crutch of every bad writer! I won't do it! You can't make me!

Editor: I think X is a wonderful complex character but her relationship with Y is underwritten.
Author: But X doesn't really love Y, so it's supposed to be without passion!  I'm not writing romantic suspense here! Geez...

Editor: Is all this stuff between Y and Z necessary? Cut as much as possible.
Author: But I need this scene because it illuminates Y's motivation while introducing two quirky secondary characters who help convey the small-town setting! 

Editor: Unclear whether X or Y is asking this. And they just don't seem to be as concerned about the evidence tampering as the reader will be. This whole plot element doesn't land properly.
Author: Doesn't this guy watch Cops? Police do this kind of stuff all the time! It's completely believable!

Editor: Timeline problem: Is this the same day or a week later?
Author: This is a simple linear plot! A ten-year-old could follow this, for god's sake. 

Editor: "X pursed her lips." You use pursed lips too many times.
Writer: (sigh...)

Editor: Think about making this an epilogue
Writer (Gigantic sigh...)

Okay, for the record, these are actual comments from one of our editors for our book A Thousand Bones. His revision letter was seven pages, single-spaced. And you know what? Once we got over ourselves and went back into the manuscript to see what he was talking about, we realized he was spot-on about everything.

Chapter 1 works better as a prologue, making us rethink the advice we have given to other writers over the years that prologues don't work. Sometimes they do. In other words, there are no fast rules.

The romantic relationship we had set up in our book WAS underwritten. Our experience writing hard-boiled stuff had made us squeamish about mucking about in such emotions, so we had tried to ignore it. Result? Anemic character development that didn't set up the impact we were going for at book's end.

The scene he asked us to cut with our beloved quirky secondary characters was nicely written but useless. We had fallen in love with the sound of our own words and disobeyed one of our own prime tenets of crime writing: If it does not advance the story in some way, take it out.

The part about the evidence tampering? Technically, we were right in that the scene we had written was true to life. We knew this; we had done our homework. But sometimes the truth isn't true in fiction. If your reader can't buy into the reality you are creating on the page, you have to bend reality enough to make it feel right and help your plot. Or as Stanley Kubrick once said: “It may be realistic, but it's not interesting.”

The timeline problem our editor noted? Here is the perfect example of author blindness. Kelly and I saw our story perfectly in our heads. We had even story-boarded it and charted the timeline on a graph. But the way we had written it was confusing, and we couldn't see it. You have to slow down and stick in enough time and place signposts so your reader doesn't get lost. Lost = confused. Confused = angry. Angry = book thrown across the room.

Pursing lips? Well, that's our Author Tic. Every writer has one or two. You just don't see 'em. The Cold Eye does.

And yes, we changed the last chapter to an Epilogue.

So, what's the lesson here? Find your Cold Eye. Unfortunately, it may not be easy. Being published by a "real" publisher is no guarantee you'll get a talented editor. And in today’s Wild West self-publishing world, there are some scammers out there ready to take your money for no real help. Our own Jodie Renner had a great post on this recently. Click here to read it. And some editors, truth be, are just bad and meddling. Raymond Chandler once wrote to his publisher:
"Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive."
But that rare good editor? That person won't kill your style. But neither will he tell you you're brilliant (that's mom's job) or that your stuff is a million times better than James Patterson's (that's your hopeful spouse). A good editor -- your Cold Eye -- will tell you how to be better than you already are.

I leave you with one more quote, this one from James Thurber:

"Editing should be a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The [editor] should say to himself, 'How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?' and avoid 'How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?'"

P.S. I have no editor for this blog. It is self-published. Any mistakes are mine alone, God help me...

Monday, April 21, 2014

Hey, Butt Out! I’m Reading Here©

 by Robert Dugoni

[Note from Jodie: I'm going crazy with last-minute preparations for my big move across the country
in a few days, so bestselling thriller author and writing instructor Robert Dugoni is filling in for me today. Take it away, Bob!]

I raise more than a few eyebrows when I teach, and that’s usually a good sign. I know I’ve got my students thinking. The first collective class-eyebrow-arch comes when I stand up and say, “No one can teach you how to write.” Students who’ve paid good money to be in one of my seminars or workshops begin to have immediate heart palpitations until I add, “But I can teach you how to teach yourselves how to write.”

So what do I mean by this?

How can I teach any student I don’t know intimately what to write or how to write it? I can’t even teach my two children how to write. Writing is an extraordinarily personal endeavor and each of us brings our own nuances, quirks, insights and experiences to not only what we write but how we write it. All of these things form what we frequently refer to as the writer’s “voice” – how the writer (and really her characters) views the world and others in it and how the character expresses that view. We hope that it is a unique and exciting and interesting. When it is, those are usually the novels publishers clamor to buy.

But the fact is the to-be-published novel will never make it that far if the author forsakes the craft of writing and makes one of those silly mistakes that cry out “amateur” to that would-be editor.

So rather than telling students “I can teach you how to write,” I tell them my job is “to remove as many obstacles in the path to publication as possible.”

One of those big obstacles is when the author intrudes into the story.

Author intrusions into the reader’s experience reading a novel can be deadly. Not only do they raise the “amateur” flag and slow the story pace, they also tend to annoy. It’s like being in a deep and meaningful conversation with one person and having another person continually interrupt that conversation to tell you things you really don’t need to know at that moment or, frankly, you don’t care about! 

When a story unfolds, the opening chapters should develop like a play on a stage. The reader wants to see what the character sees, hear what she hears, smell what she smells, taste what she tastes, and touch what she touches. It is not the author experiencing the story. It is the reader experiencing the story through the character. So how does the author intrude? 

Let us count just some of the ways.

~ Omniscient narrative

This occurs when you’re reading a scene from a particular character’s point of view and suddenly the author barges in to provide a bit of information that the character doesn’t yet know, couldn’t yet know and may never know. Sometimes this is called bad foreshadowing. Here’s an example:

You’ve just written a killer scene in which your protagonist has arrived at a mountain getaway for three days of R&R and the author ends the scene with something like, “Little did she know that three miles away, Luke Reddinger, a serial killer, had just escaped from the state penitentiary.” Okay, so if the character didn’t know, who’s throwing in this tidbit? Does the reader need it at that moment? Would it be more powerful to see Luke Reddinger escaping, or running through the woods, maybe seeing the cabin she has arrived at? Wouldn’t that raise a story question that would keep the reader reading to find out what happens? Isn’t that what every writer wants?

~ Unnecessary biographical information

Ever read a scene in a book that is going swimmingly when suddenly the author stops the flow of the dialogue and action to tell you where the main character went to high school, their major in college or that their great grandmother was an alcoholic? Unless that high school is going to play a part in the story, the major is important to illustrate the character’s skill, or grandma is a serial killer when she gets drunk, what was the point of interrupting the story? Biographical sketches, if you’re so inclined to do them, are for the author to get to know her characters so the author better understands how the character will act and what she might say in a particular situation or moment. They are not for the reader.

~ Author Opinions

Nothing is more transparent than when an author tries to ram her opinion on a topic down your throat. Even when the author tries to disguise the opinion as a “character’s opinion” it is usually easy to spot. “Mary asked John what he thought about President Obama’s health care reform.” And then John starts spouting off. This is one of those instances where the author would be better off showing rather than telling. If you want to make a statement about the death penalty, write The Green Mile and let us see one of the pitfalls of the ultimate punishment. You want to write about abortion, write The Cider House Rules. You want to write on the evils of slavery, write Twelve Years a Slave. Racism in the south – Mississippi Burning. Greed in the roaring twenties – The Great Gatsby. There’s no place like home – The Wizard of Oz. And so on…

~ Flashbacks

This is usually the cause of the third collective class-eyebrow-arch. Some even snap at this point. Why? Because so many of us use flashbacks in our novels. So before anyone snaps an eyebrow, let me clarify – flashbacks can be used. The author just needs to know how to use them so they are not an intrusion. First, a flashback, despite its name, must still move the story forward. That is, the flashback should impart some information that is relevant to the plot at that moment, drives the plot forward, and/or reveals some important character trait or relationship that will come into play.

Second, a flashback is a scene. Therefore, all of the things discussed above that go into making a great scene still apply. A flashback should not be some character sitting alone at a table reminiscing about something that happened in the past. Put the reader in the scene with the characters and allow the reader to hear and see and smell and taste and touch the scene as it unfolds.

Think about the movie Titanic. Regardless of your opinion on the movie itself, note that it was actually Rose reminiscing about her voyage on that ship. How boring would it have been if the entire three-hour movie was Rose sitting at a table telling the movie audience what happened, rather than the movie audience flashing back to that time and getting the chance to experience it?

~ Information Dumps

This is usually where the writer has done a lot of research on a particular subject and darn it, everyone is going to know it! An information dump is an excessive amount of unnecessary information or details dumped into the story when the character does not need it and might never need it. Like biographies, research is for the author, not the reader. I’d say less than 10% of the information I research and learn about goes into my novels.

Information dumps can take many forms.

Research details. The research dump is when the author has learned a lot of information on a particular subject and dumps it into the story either in omniscient narrative or thinly disguised by creating a “character” to tell the reader everything they needed to know about such things as growing vegetables on rooftop gardens in New York City during the depression.

Character descriptions. Other information dumps are excessive details about what every character who comes on stage is wearing, or looks like. What the character is wearing is only important if the author has set the scene up so that another character has a particular interest in what a particular character is wearing, or the character’s own choice of clothes is important. When your character walks into a high school prom we can assume the girls are wearing prom dresses and the guys are in tuxedos. But if you’ve set the story up so that Billy is determined to make a splash and wears a tear-away tuxedo intending to leave high school by doing the Full Monty, then we want to know the details of that tear-away tuxedo.

Setting. The same is true with excessive details to describe a setting. Authors are not weather men or travel guides so your scenes shouldn’t read like a weather report or travel book. And if your protagonist is running for her life through a forest while being chased by werewolves, please don’t have her take the time to tell us every species of tree and type of fauna they are running past. Necessary details only. Excessive details need not apply!

So when you have the urge to pontificate, opine, brag, or otherwise bore, think about what my friend and brilliant writer John Hough Jr always says: “Dialogue is action and action is dialogue.” Get your characters on the move and talking. Avoid staying too long in a character’s head. Do your biographies and research for you, not for the reader, and give us only those details that will keep the story moving forward.

And above all, once you’ve hooked us with an incredible opening, lured us in with an amazing character, and mesmerized us with a killer plot, then please, BUTT OUT! I’ll thank you to let me enjoy your beautifully crafted story on my own.

Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed and New York Times best-selling Author of the David Sloane series: The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One and The Conviction. He is also the author of the best-selling stand-alone novel Damage Control, as well as the nonfiction expose, The Cyanide Canary. Dugoni’s books have been likened to Scott Turow and Nelson DeMille, and he has been hailed as “the undisputed king of the legal thriller” by The Providence Journal and called the “heir to Grisham’s literary throne.” Bodily Harm and Murder One were each chosen one of the top 5 thrillers of 2010 and 2011, respectively. Murder One was also a finalist for the Harper Lee Award for literary excellence. My Sister’s Grave is the first in the Tracy Crosswhite series. Visit his website at www.robertdugoni.com, email him at bob@robertdugoni.com, and follow him on Twitter @robertdugoni and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AuthorRobertDugoni.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Toward a Fair Non-Compete Clause

@jamesscottbell

Recently, a friend sent me the text of a non-compete clause to have a look at. It was from the contract of a New York publishing company. My gob, as they say, was smacked. If there was a contest for the most one-sided non-compete clause ever, this would take the crown.

I say this in love. Truly. I love traditional publishing and want it to survive. But contracts that contain clauses like this one are not going to aid the old cause.

Due to confidentiality I am not at liberty to reproduce the text verbatim, but I can give you the gist:

The clause prohibits the author from publishing "material" that is "similar" to the Work. So what if your crime novel is coming out from Publisher, and you want to self-publish a mystery short story? Or sell it to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine?

Too bad. Because a short story is "material." And a mystery usually has a crime in it, so it's "similar."

Or suppose you've had the foresight to reserve audio rights. You have a mellifluous voice, and spend twenty hours recording the audio version of your book for ACX, Amazon's platform for indie audio works.

No go, because the clause in question prohibits the author from "exploiting" any reserved rights that may "conflict" with sale of the book. And who gets to decide if there is such a conflict? Not you.

And there isn't even language in the clause suggesting the author might seek the "prior written consent" of Publisher! Message: Don't even ask, dude.

Further, how long do all these restrictions last? There is no time limit (though the overall agreement is for "life of copyright.") Which leads me to believe that the wet-behind-the-ears law grad who drafted this needs to be flogged with a hardcover copy of Calamari and Perillo on Contracts. This clause is clearly unenforceable without a time limit. Courts will not allow a company to tie up someone's economic future ad infinitum.

But the burden of challenging the clause is, of course, on the author. Or, should the author go ahead and publish a work the publisher deems to be "competing," the publisher may task some associate at their retained law firm to put down his coffee and make life difficult for the author.

Who is going to be the big dog in that fight? Let's compare the status of our respective parties:

Publisher = deep pockets.

Author = pockets with holes.

Now, before I move on, let me emphasize that the traditional publisher absolutely deserves to have a fair non-compete clause in the contract. Here's why.

The publisher takes a risk with an author, puts up capital (in the form of advance and production costs) with the hope of return. A significant part of the return is from bookstores (remember those?) Bookstores do not want to stock competing titles from the same author during the same season.

Thus, the standard non-compete was to keep John Grisham from publishing The Firm with one publisher and The Pelican Brief with another, and having them both come out at the same time. The books would "cannibalize" each other, so the saying goes. One, or more likely both, publishers would be harmed by this.

Here's another reason publishers need the clause. Suppose Publisher is coming out with your debut thriller, and pricing it as a $14.99 trade paperback, and a $9.99 ebook. But, at the same time, you bring out a self-published thriller and price it at $3.99 in digital and the same $14.99 in POD. And then you unleash your social media marketing efforts to emphasize the book that's brining you more money per unit (i.e., your self-pubbed effort).

That's not cricket. You are hurting Publisher's investment in you. That's why the non-compete clause exists.

But by now that clause should have morphed into something more equitable than the specimen I reviewed. Publishers have to realize that the times are not a-changin'––they're a-changed. Permanently. They should not play hardball with contracts as if it's still 1995.

Authors (and agents) should not accede to a "standard" non-compete clause. One like this should be a deal breaker. 

Here's an idea: negotiate! 

So what is a fair non-compete clause? Very simple: a time-limited clause that specifically defines the type of material covered. For example:

For one year from the date of publication of the Work, Author will not publish or authorize to be published, in either print or digital media, any work greater than thirty-thousand words in the thriller, mystery or crime genres.

This leaves open the publishing of short-form work which, I might add, the publisher should encourage. This is how the writer attracts more readers, many of whom will then seek out the author's trad-published books. It's a classic win-win.

In this era of suspicion, vituperation and even paranoia, here is a way for publishers and authors to actually do what is in their mutual interest.

Imagine that.
  

Saturday, April 19, 2014

How To Write a Sex Scene



My first published piece of fiction was a short story that ran in Playboy. It appeared in the magazine’s February 1991 issue -- according to the headline on the cover, this was THE SEXIEST LINGERIE ISSUE EVER -- and its title was “My Life with Joanne Christiansen.” It’s really more like a play than a short story, because it’s entirely dialogue, a conversation between two young guys. One of them predicts the future of the other, telling him that he’ll meet and marry a sexy woman but the relationship will end in disaster. Playboy paid me three thousand dollars for the story, and I thought it was somewhat distinctive (there aren’t many short stories written in the future tense), but it lacked one of the elements you’d expect to see in a men’s magazine: It had no graphic sex scenes. Although the young guys talk about sex, it’s strictly for comic effect.

There are no sex scenes in my first three novels either. Because my books are nonstop-action thrillers, it’s difficult to insert a moment of quiet intimacy. My characters hardly have a minute to catch their breath, much less shed their clothes, and if by some miracle they happen to get an hour or two of free time they’re usually too frantic/desperate/terrified to get it on. My first novel included a scene in a strip club -- an establishment near Fort Benning called The Night Maneuvers Lounge -- but the chapter is more sordid than sexy.

But sex plays a bigger role in my latest novel, The Furies, which will go on sale this Tuesday. The sex scene in the second chapter is the novel’s formative incident, the event that triggers everything that will happen afterward. Actually, it’s a scene of unfinished sex, a case of coitus interruptus, the interruption in this case being a barrage of gunfire outside the lovers’ hotel room. The couple must then flee across the continent, running and hiding and shooting for hundreds of pages before they get another opportunity to shag.

So now that I’ve written a couple of sex scenes I can pretend to be an authority on them. The trick to writing them is the same trick that applies to all writing: you have to avoid clichés. With sex, though, the clichés are more difficult to avoid because there are so damn many of them. At one end of the spectrum you have the “Letters to Penthouse” clichés, the salacious phrases and metaphors that peppered those oh-so-realistic tales of dorm-room orgies and dalliances with deliverymen. (“I’m just an ordinary Joe, and I never thought such a crazy thing could ever happen to me, but last night when my shift was almost over…”) And at the other end you have the flowery romance-novel clichés, full of heavy breathing and sudden surges of warmth to the loins.

It’s incredibly rare to find a writer who can describe sex well. John Updike is one of the best in this regard. I’ll never forget the scene in Rabbit, Run where Harry Angstrom has sex with Ruth Leonard. I don’t remember the exact wording, but while Harry is marveling over the sensation of being inside Ruth’s vagina he pictures the inside of a ballet slipper. It’s the kind of observation that makes you think: Yes, that’s exactly right.

The sex scenes in The Furies are nowhere near as good as Updike’s, and I was nervous about how the first readers would react to them. To my astonishment and delight, one early reader said the sex scene near the end of the book was “surprisingly dirty.” When I heard this reaction I thought, That’s great! I was aiming for dirty! But then I went back to the book and reread the scene and concluded that this particular critic was dead wrong. Dirty? Are you kidding? If I’d written this scene as a Letter to Penthouse, the editors would’ve laughed in my face. It’s so tame it could probably run in Reader’s Digest. If anything, the scene veers a little too close to the romance-novel clichés. The lovers are outside, and the moonlight is shining on their bodies.

But I kept mulling over that reader’s comment. I take all criticisms very seriously. I may not agree with them, but I try to at least figure out where the readers are coming from. And I started to wonder whether the impression of “dirtiness” came from my choice of words for certain body parts. In particular, two words: ERECTION and CLITORIS.

It would be difficult to describe any sex act without mentioning at least one of these two parts. And in my opinion, ERECTION and CLITORIS are perfectly good words for them, certainly better than a lot of other terms and euphemisms I’ve heard. But perhaps I’m missing something. Does it upset people to see these words in print? Does it make them uncomfortable?

Because sex is such a big part of pop culture these days, it’s hard to believe that these words still have the power to shock. As an experiment, I’m going to repeat them a dozen times: ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS

Okay, that was fun. Not as much fun as sex, mind you, but still pretty good.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Reader Friday: Redeeming Qualities


Let's talk about the bad guy (or gal) in your WIP for a moment. How have you humanized him, or added depth to that character? 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

First Page Anonymous Submission–Whisper Creek

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane




Here’s an anonymous submission for comments, entitled WHISPER CREEK. Enjoy and my feedback will be on the flip side.


Excerpt: Whisper Creek
The bullets whizzed by his head. How they missed him—he did not know. The night became a blanket of darkness—no light. Mark couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. The only light came from the intermittent flashes from the end of the muzzles pointed at them from somewhere up ahead. He squeezed off several shots from his M16 rifle, then nothing.

Empty.

Gunpowder filled his nostrils. An uncomfortable premonition of fear pervaded his senses.He blinked sweat from his eyes.

Keep it together.

Mark pushed the magazine release with his thumb, inserted another twenty round mag, and pressed the slide release. Locked and loaded. He saw a flash of light up ahead followed by another. Mark steadied the weapon on the meaty part of his shoulder, aimed, and waited. He focused his attention at what lay ahead—the enemy—Charlie—the Vietcong.

When he saw another flash, he fired several rounds at the target. No more flash. The platoon of Marines continued to fight…no matter the outcome they must push forward. Never retreat—never surrender.

Through the noises of gunfire, men screamed in agony from being shot, but the unit continued to move through the jungle. Then a fire settled into his right thigh like a hot poker. Mark realized he’d been shot, but pressed on despite the pain. They all knew what happened to Prisoners of War in Vietnam. A quick death in the jungle would surely be more humane than being tortured by sadistic men in a camp. The warm liquid snaked down his leg, but he refused to stop. If he did, he might lose the momentum to keep going.

Ring…ring…ring. Had those sounds penetrated the darkness? Light began to infiltrate the blackness in the distance. Ring…ring…ring. The noises of gunfire faded. The pain subsided.


FEEDBACK


OPENING LINES:
1.) Bullets whizzed by his head - Think about how this must feel. The noise. The chaos. His not so lucky buddies getting hit around him. In the dark, can he even see what’s going on around him? Does he feel alone in his push to follow his last known orders or is he blindly following others? Every time he moves, he risks getting killed. What’s driving him? My best advice is for the author to stay in the moment and not follow this first line with cliched phrases that take the reader from the immediacy of the battlefield. “How they missed him—he did not know” and “the night became a blanket of darkness—no light (redundant)” dilute what could be an embracing opener. Stay long enough in the moment to put the reader fully in it with their senses.


2.) To convey the chaos of battle, it might be good to shorten the sentences with the bare essence of how Mark is thinking – quick short staccato spurts, rapid fire like the bullets screaming by his ear. The line “the only light came from…” is an example of a description that strikes me as too long to convey the intensity.


3.) M16 is enough of an explanation. Adding M16 rifle reads as redundant, given that Mark is an experienced soldier.


AWKWARD PHRASING:
Gunpowder filled his nostrils – I’m sure the author intended for this to be the stench, but I am visually seeing his nose filled with black gunpowder.

An uncomfortable premonition of fear pervaded his senses – I’m not sure a premonition can be considered part of the 5 senses since it refers to a 6th sense. Rather than “tell” the reader that he’s feeling fear and it’s uncomfortable, it would be better to “show” the reader how Mark reacts to the dark notion that he’s marked or the next bullet is his. How does fear manifest in this guy? Does he develop worsening symptoms of an anxiety attack from the start to the finish of this opener…until he wakes up from his presumably troubling PTSD riddled sleep?

Never retreat—never surrender I have to admit my thoughts went immediately to Galaxy Quest. Anyone else? (I’m sure it’s just geek me.)

Through the noises of gunfire – This read as awkward to me and it’s repeated in the last lines as well. A distinctive phrase like this would be easily noticed as repetitive. Gunfire is a plural noise, not noises. 


FOLLOW LOGICAL ORDER OF ACTION:
A common thing I am seeing in this opener is leaping around with images, rather than sticking with a logical progression and flow to the action. For example, “Gunpowder filled his nostrils. An uncomfortable premonition of fear pervaded his senses.He blinked sweat from his eyes.” We move from the stench, to the bad feeling, to sweat. (This leaping can be seen in the 2nd to last paragraph as well where we too quickly move from gunfire, men dying/screaming, Mark shot, POWs & torture, then back to his leg wound.)


The author would do better to view the battle from behind the eyes of Mark and follow him through the scene, staying within his senses in a natural flow. I would recommend the author look up “PTSD” or “anxiety” disorder symptoms and build them into this scene in a subtle way so Mark builds the intensity of his reactions through the opener until he can’t take it anymore. Symptoms could include: Panic, losing control, chest pain, dizziness, hyperventilation, hot flashes, chills, trembling/intense shaking, nausea/stomach cramps, the feeling of being distanced from what’s going on. Pick the ones that would work best and build them into the scene until the reader realizes/feels his mounting affliction.

ENDING:
Ring…ring…ring. Had those sounds penetrated the darkness? Light began to infiltrate the blackness in the distance. Ring…ring…ring. The noises of gunfire faded. The pain subsided – I’m not a fan of noises being described like this – ring, ring, ring. Anyone else feel the same? In this instant, it does not appear to be Mark’s POV. It’s like an omniscient narrator is observing him from outside his body and making sure the reader knows something is ringing. Would Mark be so aware? I doubt it. I imagine where this is going is Mark wakes up from his flashback or nightmare to the shrill sound of a phone. To someone sleeping, how would that come across more realistically?


Discussion:
If war is hell, so is writing. Thanks to this brave submitter. An exciting scene of being in a battlefield would capture my attention if the author savored the rich sensory experiences and not rush it. The author’s instincts to begin here seem right if the execution could be improved a bit. What say you, TKZers?