Tuesday, February 25, 2014

There Ain't No Rules--Okay, Maybe One

Obey The Rules Badge Clip Art

I follow lots of blogs and subscribe to newsletters and magazines and work with an editor, through all of which I'm learning all the rules I need to follow to become a successful published author. And it seems there are many. Here are but a few I've picked up so far:

  1. Your book can't be too long. People don't want to take forever to read it.
  2. Your description can't be too extensive, lest it bog down the prose. 
  3. Your dialogue has to be minimalist. Your characters should talk like Tonto or Frankenstein's monster. Leave out articles as much as you can. 
  4. If you're forced to choose between detail and pacing, choose pacing. 
I'm in the midst of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It breaks nearly every rule I've ever been told. The descriptions are exhaustively complete, giving minute details that I've been told are just too much and that they slow down the pacing of my book if I try to use them. And the dialogue is positively voluminous. Whole long, uninterrupted paragraphs and even pages of one person talking--and using the same voice that someone would use if he or she were really speaking. None of the shorthand dialogue I've had pushed on me. It's like I'm experiencing the events in real time because I'm hearing every single thing that's said and done. And guess what. I have enjoyed every page. Apparently, so did a lot of people. It was a NYT bestseller, as were its two companion books. As of 2012, the newest statistic I could find with a cursory web search, 73 million copies of his books have sold worldwide. 

You may be saying that this is a bad example since he's not American, that Swedes are more literate than we. Except they're not. Plus, many millions of his books have been sold in the States, so Americans do love his books. I'm an American and I've loved his first one so far. 

What I'm saying is that I'm starting to think there's but one hard and fast rule: write well. Tell a great story and tell it in a way that makes the reader reluctant to put it down. How that looks will be unique to each writer. And if I tell it well enough, no one's going to care whether I followed the "rules" or not. 

So I guess the question for me is, do I do it well enough? I hope I find out someday. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

I Forget To Be Young Sometimes

I needed to exercise today, but it was cold and miserable outside, so I decided that I would go to the mall to walk. But that wouldn't work because it's cold and miserable outside but warm and pleasant inside the mall. What would I do with the coat I'd have to bundle up in on my way there? They have lockers, but who wants to pay for those? I could leave it on a bench, but what are the chances that it would be there when I get back?  But I had just finished a really stressful chapter and was wired. And besides, I am working my way back to running, so I just really needed to get a good hard walk in.

So I sucked it up, bundled up, and checked the radar because it looked pretty gloomy out there. Clear as could be. No snow within 100 miles of us. Off I went. It was cold, but I knew how to dress against it from back in my running days. The odd thing is that the radar was wrong. It was spitting snow as I left and snowing pretty steadily by the time I got to my turnaround at my parents' house. As I turned in to my driveway, it really started belting, so I shot the video above.

Snow's definitely nothing new around these parts, especially this winter. I've turned into a humbug on the subject, complaining every time it snows and bellyaching about how much I want it to be summer. I've told so many friends that I don't know why I'm this way because I used to love it when I was younger. Not anymore. All I see is the inconvenience of class time lost to snow and less time to prepare my kids for the AP Exam.

And then today happened. I just got back from walking for almost an hour in a steady snow. It reminded me of a few things. Things I knew when I was young but I've forgotten as I've embraced my curmudgeonliness.

First, snow can only be enjoyed when you're out in it. And I don't mean driving in it or shoveling it. I mean just out in it, watching it fall down, feeling it on your eyelashes, and catching it on your tongue. Walking through it today, just letting it pelt my face, I felt something I haven't felt in several months: pure, unadulterated joy. I felt like a kid again. No cares. No worrying about tomorrow. I was just enjoying being in the snow like I used to but haven't in decades.

Second, exercise is fun, but only when you do it outside. Back when I ran half-marathons (which I plan to do again before 2014 ends) I ran in all weather, with the possible exception of thunderstorms, though you might not be surprised just how fast you can run when you're still not home and a big thunder clap hits nearby. Over the past several years, I've joined gyms in the winter and trudged away on the treadmill, wondering where the joy of running went. It's been there all along. But it was outside waiting for me to remember where I left it.

So, to my friend Julie Bertram, the queen of the snow dance, I say this: just keep on dancing. :)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

My Writing Process: Is My Story Arc on the Right Trajectory?

I recently crossed the 50,000-word threshold of my newest manuscript, and I'm pretty excited. I think it has potential to be a good book--maybe even better than my first. I have no way of gauging that objectively, I know, but I just like how the story is playing out. I hope the public will tell me which they like better when I someday get them both published. 

As I worked over the last week, though, I ran into yet another new challenge. I got to a crisis point in the story. I don't mean a crisis in the story itself, although that was going on too. I mean that I was at a turning point, at which I had to decide whether I was going to simply play out the plot to resolution or add some other twist or plotline. At some point, you have to decide that it's time to finish the story; otherwise, it just keeps rambling on with no end in sight. So last week, I decided I was going to push on to the end and have the big showdown where Harry and Dee save the day. So that's what I started to do and it was going fine.

But then I got to making some calculations. I talk to my students about finding the Goldilocks zone as they are making up their own practice Advanced Placement multiple choice questions. They can't be so easy that they aren't worthy of discussion and they can't be too hard or ask questions that a reader can't even infer from the text without reading something into the piece that isn't there. They have to be just right--requiring close reading and careful analysis, but achievable. In a similar vein, the kind of books I write need to fall into a Goldilocks zone in order to be saleable. They can't be so short as to fall into the novella zone. I don't even know if that zone exists, but if it does, I don't want to be in it. But they can't be so long, especially as I try to build a following, that people grow impatient. They want a story with enough substance to be worth their time, but not one that forces them to invest days or weeks of reading, something most don't feel is owed to a book of my genre. The reality is that I'm not, for the moment, writing literature. It's supposed to be a ripping yarn, not a ponderous tome.

So I realized I made a mistake. I was creating too low a trajectory. If I played the tale out from where it stood, the story would be too simple, too short. So I did something that I hate to do--I deleted one and a half chapters and rewrote them completely, going in another direction altogether. Whereas in my previous entry I talked about killing off a character, I decided to bring a dead character back to life (in the literary sense, not the zombie sense--that's not my bag), change a character from found to still whereabouts unknown, and add a major plotline. It wasn't a line I just picked out of the air. I was planning to have this happen to Harry and Dee all along. I just thought it would be in the next book. And it partly will be. But I'll start the thread now and play it out part way, so everyone will want to buy the next one to find out how it turns out. 

Sometimes I feel like a mouse in a maze. I know I'll eventually find the cheese, but from time to time I hit a dead end, make a wrong turn. When that happens, I can sit down and squeak about it or I can backtrack and try another route. Maybe a longer route, but one that leads to the payoff I want.