Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Challenge of Writing a Series

One of the things I love about writing is that I constantly discover new challenges and learn new things, about writing as well about myself. I've encountered a new phenomenon this week as I progress through the first draft of the second book in a series starring the same central characters. The challenges of maintaining the story arc across all the books while at the same time creating individual books that can be read on their own is greater than I anticipated. Actually, let's be completely honest--I didn't think about these matters at all until I had to deal with them. And that's one of the reasons writing is such a joy.

One of the issues that I am encountering as I write what is essentially chapter two in what I hope will be one huge story about Harry and Dee Shalan is that I have to plan for the fact that someone may pick up any book in the series and read it without benefit of reading the series from the beginning. So I have to do a certain amount of explication and character development in every book. That's not to say I have to create the exact same character; like we in the meat world, to borrow a phrase from the online realm, change and grow, my characters are different in every book because they've encountered new things, learned, grown, or, in some cases, regressed in some way. But I can't leave out vital information that lets the reader know, for instance, the characters' histories that give them depth and reality.

At the same time, though, I have to consider the fact that, like me, many readers insist on reading series fiction in the correct order. I can't have so much background and characterization that readers of previous books get bored hearing the same stories over and over. So I'm having to learn shortcuts to get new readers up to speed quickly without belaboring material that "veteran" readers will want to skip. I toss in a line or paragraph here and there that briefly sums up an event that someone who has read the previous books will recognize while giving the basic information the new reader needs to fully understand where Harry and Dee (and Harry's best friend Otis as well) come from. I know as an avid fan of both Robert B. Parker and Craig Johnson, I enjoy the little Easter eggs, so to speak, from previous books that are only fully understood by those who've read those earlier works. They're like inside jokes that I feel like the writer and I share without making other readers feel like they've missed something.

Another challenge is illustrated by a commercial I saw last night. It was for a travel website. I won't say which one, but it starred William Shatner and Kaley Cuoco. In it, Shatner has climbed up the outside of a hotel and used a laser to cut a hole in a window. He throws his daughter's gentleman friend out the hole (he lands in a pool so no one gets splattered). The problem is that when they cut back to Shatner, his little suction cup thingies he had used to climb up the building are now on the INSIDE of the window instead of the outside. Now when I see that commercial, all I notice is that lack of continuity. The beauty, I imagine, of writing books that are completely stand-alone, is that I wouldn't have to worry about whether something in this book fits with the mythology I've created in previous works. I can't decide in the eighth book that Harry was an orphan when his parents have been central characters up to then. That's kind of a silly example, but people like me who are driven crazy by tiny continuity issues in other media are the same way with books. Serious fans will be turned off by mistakes like these.

I'm sure there are other challenges I'll encounter along the way, but I fear this entry has gone on too long already. If you have made it to this point and are a writer of a series, I'd love to hear your input. What challenges have you encountered and how have you overcome them? If you're a reader of series fiction, what have you seen that you think is important for an author to either emphasize or avoid? I'd love to hear from you too.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Killing Off Your Darlings

Another chapter in the books. Well, only one book. I'm really enjoying these snow days. I am really growing more and more impatient to write full time instead of just when I can find the time. I need to find a way to get paid for it, though, is the problem. I'll figure that part out eventually.

This one was hard. And so was the one I wrote a couple days ago. Not hard to write. The words came tumbling out almost faster than I could type them. Hard because they depicted horrific events. One ended the life of a character and another devastated two more. I have become attached to these characters to a degree that surprises me.  Think how you felt when you read what happened to Dumbledore. Now imagine how J. K. Rowling felt. She made him. He was even more real to her than he was to all of us readers. I'm in no way comparing myself to J. K. Rowling. It's just an example that most of my friends will readily understand.

I read an article in Writer's Digest about editing that talked about "killing your darlings." It's a phrase used to remind writers that, no matter how much we get attached to them, we have to be willing to cut superfluous words. That's not an easy task. But I've learned that it's just as hard, if not even harder, to say goodbye to my darlings of the human kind. And even the idea of putting them in harm's way is painful. These characters are real to me, no matter that they're fictional. First of all, they really aren't completely fictional. Each character I create is inspired in some way by one or more people I know and, in almost all cases, have elements of me in them. Second, they're just as real to me as they would be if they were flesh and blood because I know all about them. I know what they like and what makes them sad. I know where they were born and how they got that scar on their knee.

So killing my darlings, of all kinds, is really tough. But that's the price you pay if you want to be a writer. At least if you're not going to write books about fluffy bunnies and other happy woodland creatures. And I'm not.

Monday, January 20, 2014

My Brain Is a Brat Sometimes

The bad news: I haven't started grading the last two folders of essays that MUST be graded and recorded by tomorrow morning, assuming we don't have a snow day. I could do what I used to do when I was younger and tell myself that we will definitely not have school tomorrow so I can worry about it then. But that would curse it and the snow would go around, so after this, I promise that I'll get to work. After lunch. And maybe a nap. Oh, and a walk.

The good news: I got what I think is a really strong chapter written. I'm quite excited with how the next installment in the adventures of Harry and Deanna Shalan is coming together. I wasn't certain how well it would turn out because it's basically two stories being told alternately, with one in the past and one in the present, with the two storylines coming together at the end. If I don't do it right, it could turn out to be a bridge built from both sides of a river at the same time, only when the two sides meet, one's six inches higher than the other. Close is not helpful. But I think they're going to meet nicely. I really believe that, as much as I am convinced that my first book was good, this one's going to be much better.

The problem is that it seems like I do my best writing when I should be doing something else. When I have time and nothing else pressing, I can find a million other things to fritter away time. When I need to grade, I want to write. When I feel like I need to write I want to check my Facebook a million times, cook everything in the house, go for a walk, straighten my closet--anything but write.

The weird part is that I somehow get it all done. By doing the thing I say I'm not going to do, I end up getting all the stuff on my to-do list finished. I grade papers during the time I set aside for writing. I write during my house-cleaning or cooking time. I cook and clean during my grading time. But if I just say I need to do all of these things sometime over the weekend, I end up not getting any of them done. I have to say to myself, "Grade papers now," and I will instantly find inspiration to do literally any of the other jobs on my list. Same if I decide I'm going to write.

So I guess the key is to give into my inner disobedient brat. Just tell him to do something--anything--and he'll do something. Just not the thing I told him to do. When I tell him to decide what I want to do, he won't. But if I decide for him, he's quick to change my mind.

I'm not sure what it means that I'm learning to outwit myself, but it's probably not good.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

My Writing Process: Rewrites, Revisions, Revamps--And That's Just the Synopsis!

I'm not a complete imbecile. Okay, maybe I am. I went into this writing venture knowing that I wasn't going to be able to just sit down and write a novel and get it published as it was. I knew I was going to need editing and revision. But I'll tell you now, if you're considering going into writing, you have no idea.

I finished the first draft of my manuscript a year ago last fall. I remember writing in one of the first entries of this blog that my editing process was to edit as I went. I would write some pages, edit them the next day, and then write some more pages. So I guess I really did think that I could sit down and write a novel and get it published as is. I really thought it was in its final form when I typed the last word and hit save.

I went online and read about how to query agents. I wrote a query letter and a synopsis that I sent out to a few agents, just to test the waters. Some didn't reply, though some did. One even replied personally, with some comments on how I could make the manuscript more publishable. She said I needed to work with an editor on pacing and dialogue. This was discouraging on one hand because I thought I was already finished and could move on to the next step: publication and celebrity!

But on the other hand, it was encouraging that, out of the first handful of queries I had sent, I had actually gotten some encouragement. She liked my narrator. She liked my sense of humor. So it was worth it, I decided, to consult an editor. That started a rather long process in which I ended up cutting over 10,000 words from what I thought was the finished product. After re-reading it after this was all finished, I realized that my original final draft had been bloated, windy, and just plain ponderous. The new one flowed. It was economical. It was snappy and quick.

So I started querying in earnest. I sent out dozens of queries to anyone and everyone who was accepting new clients in my genre. Crickets. The majority simply didn't respond. Those who did were auto-replies. "Sorry, not for me." Not one request for a manuscript. I thought I was doomed to be an unpublished author my whole life.

Then someone suggested it might be my query letter and synopsis. So back to my editor I went. Based on her initial comments, it really might be my query letter and synopsis. So we've been trading edits and revisions via email for a few weeks now. I think I might be homing in on what I need. Hopefully I'll be back to querying sometime in the next week or two.

Am I discouraged? Absolutely not. If anything, I'm more motivated. I am not going to have gone through all this work just to give up. I will get published. And I find I'm enjoying the whole process. I feel like I'm really learning what it is to be a writer. And I'm definitely not going to stop writing. As I work to get my first book published, I'm more than halfway through the first draft of my second. Only this time I have all this knowledge and experience under my belt, so I might get it right with a little less hullabaloo this time around.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Life as an Author With Excerpt From Work in Progress

Over the last couple days, I've experienced what I think it might be like to be a writer for a living. Get up, have coffee with devotions, read a little, write a little, cook a little, write a little, work out, write a little, go shopping, write a little, clean a little, write a little, and suddenly I'm almost 1500 words closer to finished with my second novel. I'm just short of halfway through the first draft. I have to say, I really like the idea of doing this full-time. Now if I could just get somebody to actually publish my books.

Here's a brief excerpt from current work in progress.  It's tentatively entitled Kisses and Lies, and it's book two in what I hope is a long series about the detective duo of Harry and Dee Shalan.  This book is somewhat different in form in that every other chapter is written in 3rd person and is basically a 13-year-long flashback from the point of view of a man name Happy Hillman, who is central to the case the Shalans are investigating.  The goal is to weave the two story lines together neatly by the last chapter.  Hopefully the two sides of the bridge actually meet in the middle.  What I'm including is one chapter narrated by Harry and part of a chapter about Happy. To clarify, the man being discussed in the chapter is not Happy, but his brother Willy.  Enjoy, and please keep in mind that this is a first draft, so please be forgiving.  Just thought you might want a sneak peak.  And I left out the end of the second chapter because I don't want to give away whether she says yes. 

Chapter 28
I could tell by his tone of voice that the encore was going to have to wait.
“We got a problem,” said Otis.  “Thought you might want to know in case he comes after you.”
“How?”  I feared I knew the answer before I even asked.
“His wife.  Sweet-talked the guard into going to the vending machine.  Got back and they were both gone.  You’ll recognize the guard by the way he walks now.  Hard to move with a size 12 wing-tip lodged in your rectum.”
“How’d she get him out of the cuffs?”
“Didn’t.  He demolished the bed.”
“Ripped the railing right off.  Snapped it like a twig.  This guy’s a beast.”
“Maybe he has her hostage, then.”
“After she lures the cop away?”
“We both been in this business too long to believe that.”
I let it drop.  I knew he was right.  I was concerned for her, but so furious at her that I couldn’t think clearly. “Any clue where they went?”
“No, but we have a BOLO out on her car.  Every cop in two states is on the lookout and city, county, and state cops in Wood, Wirt, Ritchie, Athens, and Washington counties are actively searching.  We’ll get them.”
“Need a couple extra sets of eyes?”
“Sure, meet me at the station.  A couple sets. So she’s back. Sorry.  You probably would rather be welcoming her home.”
“Did. Was hoping to welcome her home again. 
“You don’t have to rub it in.”
“Already did that too.”
He hung up.  It was mean, I knew.  My best friend had been in love with my best girl for nearly as long as I had known them both.  That she chose me has puzzled and delighted me since the day she said yes.  Otis and I had never discussed it, but I knew.  And he knew I knew.  But we both also knew he would never act on it.  Otis would sooner take a bullet than disgrace her or hurt me.  And we both also knew that, defying all human logic, she was one hundred percent mine and always would be.  I tried to be sensitive about it, but when the perfect woman, the woman of your dreams—the woman of whom dreams are made—chooses you, it’s hard not to allow a little hubris to creep in once in a while. 
I dropped the phone in the charger and wondered how to tell Dee that we needed to go to work so soon after she got home, but she figured it out from my end of the conversation and was almost dressed when I got back to the bedroom.  By almost dressed, I mean she had underwear and a blouse on, though her blouse was completely unbuttoned. She was staring into her bedside stand trying to decide which gun to take. 
“That is my favorite way for you to wear a blouse.  Can you always wear them that way?”
“What happened?”
“Willy’s gone.  Alyssa helped him.”
“After all this?”
“That’s what I said.”
“Women who let their men abuse them.  You know what’ll happen if you ever try that with me.”
“Frying pan.”
“Frying pan. Square in the face.”
“And I’d deserve it.”
“But it won’t happen.”
She chose a weapon, slid it into its holster and turned to me, putting her arms around my neck. “You’re the gentlest tough guy in the world,” she said before kissing me quickly but insistently.  I was dangerously close to taking that encore if she kissed me like that again, so I kissed her forehead and slipped out of her arms to get dressed myself and she could dry her hair. 
Twenty minutes later, we were tooling, Ellie’s top down, toward downtown.  I noticed men staring at Dee every time we stopped for traffic.  It didn’t bother me. In fact, I kind of liked it. Dee, on the other hand, was completely oblivious to it. It did seem to aggravate some of the women the guys were with, though.  One guy got Gibbs slapped on the back of his head by his unhappy companion as we were pulling through an intersection.  Dee saw it too and snorted.
“Did you see that?”
“Wonder why she did that?”
“Didn’t you see him staring at you?”
“Staring at me?”  There was no guile in her voice.  She was genuinely surprised.  “Why?”
“You have that effect on men.”
“Thought it was only on you.”
“One of the million reasons I love you is that you actually mean that.”
We pulled into a metered spot and I put Ellie’s top up while Dee fed the meter. She always put in the maximum amount possible even if she knew she was going to park for only a few minutes so that whoever came after her could have free parking. A smile played across my face as I watched her.  She caught me.
“Nothing.  I just love you babydoll.”
“I love you too Mister Man.” 
We walked hand-in-hand into the station.  We’d both been there so many times that no one even questioned us.  Several uniformed cops, most of whom I knew by name, nodded and said hi, giving Dee big smiles, to which she reciprocated in kind. As we approached Otis’ desk, she slipped her hand from mine, sneaked quietly behind him, and put her hands over his eyes.
“Please tell me you finally dumped that big ape and you’re here to run away with me.”
She kissed the top of his head and bent down, put her cheek next to his, and wrapped her arm around his neck.  He patted her forearm and shot me a sly grin.
“I don’t deserve you, sweetie,” she said, plopping herself onto his desk. Anyone but Dee would have been roughed up and thrown in the tank for doing that. It was her spot and he guarded it jealously
“I think I’m insulted,” I said, sitting in the chair next to his desk.
“I don’t deserve either of you,” she said, using her full wattage smile.  She could’ve asked any guy in the room at that moment to step into an airplane propeller running at full speed and we would all have simply asked whether she preferred face first.  Luckily for all of us, she was careful to use her power only for good.
I knocked on his desktop; he pulled the left top drawer open.  I sorted through his stash, pulling out a butter flavored toffee, which he kept just for me. I held up Dee’s favorite, a peppermint.  She held out her hands and I tossed the candy at her. She nabbed it expertly from the air.  “So what’s the plan, guys?”
“Well, we’re just basically looking everywhere we can think of. Uniforms are canvassing the neighborhood around the hospital, though her car’s gone, so that’s mostly just due diligence.  Harry, you know more about this guy than any of us, so you probably have a better idea where to search anyway, so what do you think?”
“Already looked where I found him?”
He looked at me like I had horns growing on my head. “Wish we’d thought of that.”
“Well, then, have you checked back at Happy’s office?”
“Still people there.”
“Willy and Alyssa’s house?”
“Just did.  Empty.”
“They could be on the road to anywhere,” said Dee.  “Why are we looking here only?”
“First, we’re here,” said Otis. “Other cops can look for him elsewhere. Second, assuming they’re running away is the same as assuming something is a coincidence. Doesn’t do us any good.  And he’s lived here his whole life”
“Went to college and works at a school ten minutes from the house he grew up in,” I said. “Helped with his dad’s business since he was old enough. He’s within twenty minutes, I’ll bet my bottom dollar.”
 “But it doesn’t make sense for him to stay around,” she said. “He’d be better off just getting as far from here as he can get.”
“What makes sense almost never enters into what people are most likely to do,” I said. “We fall back on what we know, especially when we’re stressed.”
“I feel stupid when I listen to you guys.  How do you know all this?” she asked, her eyes widened.
“Do this work forever,” said Otis, “and you get to know how people work. Patterns.”
“Okay, then,” said Dee with a shrug, “where do we start?”
“Otis, can you look up Happy’s address?”

Chapter 29
September 17, 2000
The sun shone brilliantly on what guaranteed to be a gloriously clear, warm early fall day. Happy felt the day would turn out to be a winner regardless of the weather, for it was his birthday. He would never have guessed just two months ago that things could have turned out how they had. After turning his back on his family as well as Marissa, nearly dying, and having a brush with addiction, here he was in his first semester at West Virginia University, enjoying his classes as well as his time with the woman who was, he hoped, going to be his fiancée before the day was over.
The two of them had stayed over Friday night and gone to the Mountaineer football game on Saturday. WVU won over Maryland, a regional rival, 30-17, though neither of them paid much attention to the game. Between the rowdiness of the student section and the sheer ardor of the early stages of their renewed romance, the game was simply background noise. While many of those around them were so drunk that they passed out, Happy and Marissa were simply intoxicated by being together. They shared a distaste for the way many college couples openly necked and groped each other and were too self-conscious to show much affection publicly anyway, so  they settled for sitting as close together as they could without her actually being on his lap and exchanging longing looks and occasional quick kisses the whole game.
They drove home immediately to celebrate his birthday, first by having a quiet dinner on Saturday evening at home with her parents and older sister.  The real celebration, however, was to take place with his family later the next day. His father was roasting a lamb on the giant rotisserie he had built himself in the back yard.  Many of his high school friends had been invited, as well as dozens of family members and friends from all over the state and even a few from Virginia and Florida.  The event was doubling as a spontaneous family reunion.  The gathering would likely swell to almost 100.  Nearly everyone was enthused for the fete that was to come. The only dark spot was Willy, who was, at best sullen and distant.  Though he felt selfish for it, Happy was glad that his brother was rarely home, especially now that football season was in full swing.

The crowd started gathering around 1:00pm, but it, along with his anxiety, really began to balloon around 3:00pm.  The proposal, which he planned to do after dinner but before dessert, was to be simple. One knee, a short speech, and the ring, a ridiculously small diamond that he would be making payments on for the next three years, though it was the best he could afford with the little money he had scraped together in such a short time at his job at a vet’s office in Morgantown. He wasn’t worried about that, though, because Marissa, tall and slender with straight, fine, nearly silver blonde hair, had always worn little jewelry and even less makeup, and was that relatively rare woman who truly didn’t care about those things. What really scared him was not that she would say no, but that she would be forced to turn him down in front of all those people. If she wasn’t ready to promise him her hand yet, it would humiliate both him and her. He honestly wasn’t sure whose embarrassment would vex him more. The problem was that she had this habit of crying when both happy and mortified and, as well as he knew her, he had yet to figure out how to tell one from the other.