Thursday, February 29, 2024

Two out of three ain't bad, by Catriona

A query, an outline, and a synopsis walk into a bar, and a writer/bartender shoots themself. Publishers and agents often want one or all of these thinga-ma-jobbies*. Any advice for writers who are flummoxed by how to create them? 

*In Scotland,"jobbie" means turd. An extra layer of meaning to the question, I say.

And onto the question - which is three separate questions. Or rather, it's one question about writing and two questions about not-writing. 

The question about writing is "how to outline". My answer is . . . not a clue. Not a scooby-doo. My guess would be . . . write down what's going to happen in the book you're planning? 

If you're a outliner/plotter, or think it sounds like fun, scroll down and read Eric's post from yesterday. If you're a non-outliner/pantser, or think it sounds like fun, then come with me, Gentle Reader. But either way, don't worry about it. Neither method, nor any mixture of them, is better or worse than the other and it won't show up in the finished book.

Pantsing that first draft is messy, mind you

I hope no one mistakes my "dunno" for veiled advice. The related and frequent question "Should we or shouldn't we outline?" is unanswerable. God, I wish it was unaskable. It doesn't matter! We are all free to write that Anne-Lamotty first draft or produce a lavish outline and I cannot for the life of me work out why anyone cares what anyone else does. It's right up there with "Mac or PC". 

However, the other two bits of the question - regarding queries and synopses - are a different matter entirely. If we want to pursue tradional publishing, with an agent, we need to write queries and synopses. How? Well, I would say we need to pull on our big knickers, remind ourselves that there is no job in the world where every last sub-task is pure joy, and crack on with it. It's not writing; it's not worth the angst of a writer.

Querying is admin.  Hang on, not quite.  But it is ancillary to writing, like choosing a laptop or attending a convention. So it's fine - maybe even preferable - if your query letter is brisk and business-like even though your prose style is lush and lyrical. I'd say a good start would be Janet Reid's Query Shark website. Anything I wrote here would be duplication. Maybe even theft.

Synopses are admin. No, they're not, but I liked the echo. It too is ancillary to writing, like  designing new bookmarks or updating a website. It won't be a surprise to hear that I can't write synopses until I've finished the first draft of the book - until I've chipped it out of the ground without breaking any bits off, as Stephen King puts it. Which is not to say I've never done it. I've recently written one-page synopses for books 7, 8 & 9 in the Last Ditch Motel series - complete with titles - and I'm hoping that A. I forget what I promised before I try to write it and B. no one at Severn House holds me to it over the next few years. They're more aspirations than they are manifestos.

But a jacket-copy-style zippy synopsis of a book that's out of my head and onto the paper? Love 'em. I can even write them for other people (and have done several times). What Eric said yesterday is spot-on. You need to be able to recognise what the grabby bit is and what you can miss out. 
How do you recognise the grabby bit, though? It's helpful to think which bits of the plot would be in the trailer of the film. That keeps your jacket-copy-style synopsis spoiler-free, for a start, and forces any kind of synopsis to stick to big, clear moments that don't need too much set-up to make sense. 

My only further advice is to miss out great big chunks - whole sub-plots and entire characters - rather than trying to snip away until you've got a smidge of everything. It's like a buffet: I'd always rather have a lot of a little than a little of a lot.

As well as that, I'd advise to name the main character early. Mary Higgins Clark's method of starting each chapter with a character's name has never been bettered, as a way of handling POV switches: so simple, so effective. The same goes for synopses. The fewest further characters you can get away with naming, the better.

I've read every word she ever wrote

Also, I'd counsel you to say where the book takes place. Does that sound too obvious? Would you prefer to allude to a landmark or a custom, rather than say "in Chicago" or  "across England"? I'm not convinced a synopsis is the place to be leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, frankly. Even if the book itself is a crime novel with twists like a pretzel that's needing a pee. Because synopses aren't writing. 


Wednesday, February 28, 2024

To sum up… by Eric Beetner

A query, an outline, and a synopsis walk into a bar, and a writer/bartender shoots themself. Publishers and agents often want one or all of these thinga-ma-jobbies. Any advice for writers who are flummoxed by how to create them? 

 So this is the post where I fear I make a lot of enemies. I don’t mind synopses. I outline all my books, and I’ve rarely had to query. 
Still with me? 
The synopsis can be a daunting task to many writers, but I feel like most people overthink it. It’s really just a boiled down version of your story. But let’s boil that down even further – it’s the hook. That thing that made you write the story in the first place. The thing you’d read on the back cover that makes you take the book home. I find far too many books miss this crucial step in the execution of the full novel. (perhaps this happens when people don’t outline? Who’s to say?) 
But if you’re cornered at a party and it slips out that you’re a writer, invariably someone will ask what your latest book is about. Do you start from page one and tell them chapter by chapter the entire story? No. You give them the hook. You give them that first twist that makes us want to know more. And here’s a tip when you’re writing the full manuscript: if that hook doesn’t happen until page 50, rethink the top of your book. How many times have I picked up a book and read about it inside the jacket flap and then had to slog through 20, 30, 40, 50 pages of nothing until we get to that thing you used to sell me the book in the first place. THAT’S your story. Start there. 

 As for outlining – again, you’re overthinking it. We all outline. Yes, even you pantsers. Don’t pretend you don’t, because I’m here to tell you that you do, in that you go through the same process, just at a different time that an outliner. At some point, we all make up the book from a blank page. Whether you make it up in notes and bullet points or you make it up in paragraphs and chapters, it’s the same thing. You get it all down after thinking it all up. I feel that creating an outline makes the writing easier and allows me to be more focused and concentrate on prose and details when I get into the scene, because I already know the basics of it. Some people don’t, and that’s fine because it works for them. No wrong answers. 
If you want to wing it, again, you’ll end up in the same place, just at a different time. You’ll do it in revisions. I have very light revisions and you’ll never hear me complain about a messy first draft. That notion has got to go. “Your first draft should terrible,” is, to me, the WORST writing advice you can ever give or get. 
Why would you not work to make the first draft as close to the real thing as you can? You don’t build a house with crooked walls, holes in the roof and no bathrooms and think, “Eh, I’ll fix it later.” That would be crazy, right? 

 As for queries, don’t try to write them for what you think someone wants to read. Be honest about your book and return to that spark that made you take the weeks, months or years to commit to write that book in the first place. If it was that interesting to get you to go through the process, then it should be good enough to hook and agent or a publisher. If it doesn’t, then they story isn’t for them and no amount of spit and polish you put on it will fix that. Surely we’ve all read some big best seller that didn’t connect with us. You just don’t get how that could have been the talk of the town last summer. Well, someone loved it. Taste is subjective. The market is vague and shifting like smoke. Write for you. Describe your story in a way that would make YOU excited to read on. You’ll find that kindred spirit who feels the same way and that’s the right agent or publisher for you, not the one who was tricked by your fancy query letter. Then you hand in the manuscript and they want to change it all around because it’s not the same voice in the query. Give them you and your style, right from the first thing they read of yours. It’ll save you agony later. 

 So to synopsize this – don’t overthink it. Get to the core of your story and trust it. 

 With that in mind… My new novel, The Last Few Miles Of Road is hot of the presses and it is about Carter McCoy, a 72-year old man who just received a terminal diagnosis. With his final days he decides to make a bold choice and do something he’s thought about for decades: to kill the man responsible for his daughter’s death. But Carter is no killer…yet. Can he right this injustice and still remain the man he has been his whole life? And once you kill, can you ever go back?

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Walk That Talk by Gabriel Valjan


A query, an outline, and a synopsis walk into a bar, and a writer/bartender shoots themself. Publishers and agents often want one or all of these thinga-ma-jobbies. Any advice for writers who are flummoxed by how to create them?


I’d rather endure a visit to the dentist than write any of these items because they all sound like lingerie ads to me, or worse, descriptions for wine or perfume.


A refresher for those who don’t know the subtext. The query letter should have a Hook aka Log Line that “grabs” the agent. Everyone is pressed for time, mere seconds to read an email. Sorry, that is the harsh reality.


A Synopsis should state word count, identify genre and the potential audience for your work. Translation: the What and Why. Word count gives an agent and publisher an idea of print costs and an estimate for an editor’s time. Savvy authors will often bypass these headaches if their Log Line is catchy, memorable, and does the work for them.


Here’s a trifecta for Benjamin Stevenson’s Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone:


Knives Out and Clue meet Agatha Christie and The Thursday Murder Club.


A chef’s kiss. This opener has cinematic and literary allusions, and it cleverly identifies several demographics for an audience.


I’ll be honest. I’ve not heard of authors asking to submit an Outline until after there is an active interest in the manuscript. The good news is that there’s plenty of great resources on how to craft a query letter, a Log Line, and synopsis that would make Don Draper envious. I recommend readers plumb the depths of sites, such as Career Authors, Jungle Red Writers, and the Education and Webinars at Sisters in Crime.


Since most submissions are online, make sure you follow directions. If an agent wants a synopsis that is 100 words, they don’t mean 150. You are not that special exception. You’d be shocked at how many authors do not format their manuscripts properly or have the correct margins. If you can’t follow simple directions, you’re telegraphing a potential problem.  


Where my advice may differ from others on today’s topic is that I strongly encourage writers to take advantage of conferences. Almost all of them have Pitch Sessions or workshops on how to write the Items above or practice your 20-second elevator pitch, and these masterclasses are often taught by agents. What not to do is as important as what to do right.


Present yourself as a professional at conferences. Impressions count. Agents will look at your social media and web site, in part to see how you do marketing and what image you project. I don’t, for example, respond to trolls. I don’t express my personal opinions. At worst, I am a cipher. At best, nobody can say anything negative about me.


My take is nobody knows what will sell tomorrow, and reading tastes are subjective. Focus on making a connection so the conversation continues. Be prepared for opinions. Don’t take rejection personally, and remember that people are people. There are jerks and there are stand-up individuals. An agent may love your work but may not know if they can sell it. Let’s not delude ourselves: this is a business and writers may write for love and dream of champagne and press junkets, but agents, like us, need to pay the bills.


I’ll repeat it: research. See if you’re a fit. The mechanics of writing a query, synopsis, and outline can be learned. In addition to meeting agents at a conferenceand face time is not to be underestimated, along with a business card in hand—talking to other writers can save you time and grief. Authors are people and they have experiences, so talk to members of your tribe. Take what they say with a grain of salt, but there’s often an element of truth in the drink at the bar or water cooler. Writers have introduced other authors to their agents, and the rest is history. A door otherwise closed has opened, and someone walked in. Learn who is excellent, who works hard for their clients, and who doesn’t. You’ve paid a hefty price to attend a conference, probably traveled far, so take advantage of the time there.



Monday, February 26, 2024

Hurdles to Publication


Q: A query, an outline, and a synopsis walk into a bar, and a writer/bartender shoots themself. Publishers and agents often want one or all of these thinga-ma-jobbies. Any advice for writers who are flummoxed by how to create them?


From Susan


I remember how high a mountain it seemed to write that query letter for the first book, how much advice, some of it contradictory, we got in classes and workshops and writing groups. Like most of us, I sweated bullets trying to be sparkly and smart and concise and friendly and informative and brief and specific to the agent’s professed interests and positive without being egotistical. I probably wrote it twenty times at least, had it shredded by fellow classmates, wrote again, and got to the point where it became so much harder than writing the 75,000 word novel. I confessed my desperation to a published, award-winning author and member of SinC, who, blessed be her, took me on as a mentee and helped me set aside all the internal finger-wagging and led me to a good final version. She even let me use her name and a brief blurb she wrote for me in the query as a way of saying I really had written something work looking at. It worked and the agent used some it in in her pitches to publishers. I’ve never had to write another, for which I am deeply grateful.  


Advice re queries, 18 years later: Agents are even more inundated with pleas for representation now. Their requirements for communication are strict and I have been told that the smallest violation by someone submitting may get their email dumped because agents need any way they can find to stem the avalanche. Second bit: use every honest, legitimate touchpoint you have to get their attention. You met them at a conference – mention it specifically and thank them for even a brief moment of connection there. A published author they know or represent has recommended you to their attention. (Make sure that author has given you permission to use their name.) There’s more but there are other sources than me, a handful of whom will be covering this in the coming days, so stay tuned.


Outline: Ugh. I’m awful at it, fortunately never had anyone ask for it. To me, they’re soulless and only prove the author can write an outline, not enticing text.


Synopsis: Ah, now, there’s a format I’ve learned to like. This will sound crazy, but the biggest obstacle for me was sharing the solution to the mystery before the synopsis reader read the book. I can write flap copy easily, but that only includes the hook, not the cooked fish! Agents might request a one, two or four-page synopsis and with any of them I think there are a couple of vitally important things to keep in mind. The agent is looking for the same level of tasty prose they expect to see if they then ask for pages. Don’t rush it and miss the opportunity to show your talent and creativity. Even with a tight word limit, don’t give up a few telling details of character, or setting, or tension. Second, the agent wants to see how well you’ve organized your story. Don’t skip around, don’t waste space on back story or flashbacks or side explanations or history of the setting. Focus, focus, focus is critical here. You can do it because you were focused enough to write an entire manuscript that is in the best shape you’re capable of making it before submitting. 


Be strong, be brave, be creative and be optimistic!

MURDER AND THE MISSING DOG is up for pre-order and comes out in early March. It's set in my favorite Burgundy town, includes more than one mystery, and was fun to write. I'll be doing some guest blogs (and will talk more about it next time I'm up here) and a few appearances. I hope to catch up with you somewhere! 






Thursday, February 22, 2024

Of dragons - and the human quest to dominate nature - by Harini Nagendra

 What is the most surprising book you’ve read in the last few years? 

This week's question is a tough one. As we all have, I've read so many books that moved me to tears, annoyed me, got me angry, feeling dejected, feeling positive - all shades of the rainbow. But what's been the most surprising? I had to think for a long while.

And then, when I got the answer, I was surprised - how obvious it seemed in hindsight.

So, dear readers, wherever you are - here is my most surprising recent read. Although I picked up the first in the series over ten years back, it's still the only book that comes way at the top of my list. 

And that would be Robin Hobb's Farseer series - starting with the first book of the first trilogy, Assassin's Apprentice, and going all the way to the last book in the last trilogy, Assassin's Fate. 

For those of you who love discovering new series and authors, you're in for a real treat if you haven't read Hobb yet - while I like her other work, including the Soldier's Son series (set in a different time and space), and the Liveship series (set in the same world as the Farseer series, but with a different set of characters) - I don't think they hold a candle to her other Farseer series: beginning with the Farseer Trilogy, and then moving to the Tawny Man Series, then the Rain Wild Chronicles, and finally, the Fitz and the Fool trilogy.

So many books. And surprising, I said. Why surprising?

Apart from writing 1920s historical mysteries, in my alter life I am an ecologist. As someone who teaches one of the classic dismal disciplines, speaking of topics as grim as climate change, biodiversity collapse and pollution to young people, it is clear that there are no easy techno-fixes for the world. Moving to renewable energy, driving electric cars, finding biodegradable alternatives to plastic - yes, we need to do all of this, and much more. BUT - unless we, as humans, rethink our approach to dominating the planet, and understand that nature is far bigger, grander and more intricately organized than we can fathom in our very utilitarian imaginations - we are doomed to failure.

Science and scientists have tried, and failed, to communicate this to the rest of the world. But fiction can succeed in a way that science cannot manage alone. Hobb speaks to these big picture issues in her work. While I don't want to get into the specifics of the story - please do read the books - she imagines a world in which dragons used to dominate the skies, and shape the rhythms of everyday life, but vanished forever one day - hunted, caged, and butchered by people. The question at the heart of the book is this - what happens to humanity, when we no longer have nature - nature at its grandest, most terrifyingly dominant - to remind us of our own finitude, our limitations? 

We grow arrogant.

The heroes at the heart of the book set out to rescue dragons, restoring them to the world of people. Not because they are biodiversity enthusiasts, or dragon aficionados. Not even because returning dragons to the world will be good for humanity. But they do so because we need dragons - to be reminded that we are only one of the species that live in our planet, to be reminded of the need for humility, introspection, and of wonder. 

Magic is wonder. Nature is magic. And writers like Hobb, by keeping us in touch with our inner selves, remind us of these important issues.

Are there books that did the same for you? I'd love to know about them... 

A Secret Surprise from James W. Ziskin

What is the most surprising book you’ve read in the last few years? 

It took me some time to decide how I was going to answer this week’s question. Because the book that most surprised me in recent years was one I had little interest in reading. I didn’t know how to present the book without sounding condescending or dismissive about the subject matter.

Let me explain. I’m not a fan of comics. I don’t read them and I don’t watch movies about superheroes or anyone traipsing around or swinging above the metropolis in tights and a cape. A couple of years ago, a book called SECRET IDENTITY came out. It was a mystery set in the comics industry in 1970s New York. Award-winning author Alex Segura wrote it. I know Alex from writer conferences and we’re friends on social media. We were even up for an Anthony Award once. (He won.) Alex is wildly talented and a stand-up, good guy, too. So when I started hearing great things about SECRET IDENTITY, I decided to leave my comfortable little bubble and explore something I wouldn’t ordinarily read.


And, as things turned out, SECRET IDENTITY surprised me. Delighted me. I was floored by it.

Maybe it’s the way Alex writes dialogue. Easy, natural, but sharp and on point. Or maybe it‘s the way his characters are so distinctive, believable, and engaging. So rich and unexpected. Odious one minute, seemingly sincere the next. Never stencils or borrowed from popular imagination.
Or maybe it’s his voice and the layered emotional description. Alex takes his time to show us what his characters do, think, and wonder. How they debate with themselves before giving a response. This patient storytelling pulls you in deep. You know these people better. You might dislike them or despair at their bad decisions. But they’re full and real, not just stock characters, placeholders, or clich├ęs. I found myself growing more impressed—and I confess, somewhat jealous—with each chapter read.
Anyway, never mind all that. Whatever it is that wowed me, Alex wrote one hell of a book. His heroine, Carmen Valdez, is a sparkling character. She sizzles in only the most contentious ways. Her courage, her foibles, her bad choices, and her talent all conspire to make her unforgettable and iconic. An inspiration to girls, boys, women, and men, the underrepresented, the dreamers, and even the patriarchy. At least she is if those folks are paying attention.
Alex’s feel for the 70s, his portrait of a decaying, bankrupt New York City, and the incestuous comic book industry are painted to what feels to me like perfect authenticity. Remember, I knew nothing about comics and, in all honesty, I hadn’t been interested in learning anything about them. But this book showed me how wrong I’d been.
SECRET IDENTITY got lots of attention and earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist. It was named one of NPR’s best mysteries of the year, and was a finalist for the Barry and Lefty awards. Finally, it won the prestigious Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller.
My advice is to read this book. Like me, you might be surprised.

Here’s the synopsis, provided by Macmillan Publishers: 

It’s 1975 and the comic book industry is struggling, but Carmen Valdez doesn’t care. She’s an assistant at Triumph Comics, which doesn’t have the creative zeal of Marvel nor the buttoned-up efficiency of DC, but it doesn’t matter. Carmen is tantalizingly close to fulfilling her dream of writing a superhero book.

That dream is nearly a reality when one of the Triumph writers enlists her help to create a new character, which they call “The Lethal Lynx,” Triumph's first female hero. But her colleague is acting strangely and asking to keep her involvement a secret. And then he’s found dead, with all of their scripts turned into the publisher without her name. Carmen is desperate to piece together what happened to him, to hang on to her piece of the Lynx, which turns out to be a runaway hit. But that’s complicated by a surprise visitor from her home in Miami, a tenacious cop who is piecing everything together too quickly for Carmen, and the tangled web of secrets and resentments among the passionate eccentrics who write comics for a living.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Moved by THE HELP

What is the most surprising book you’ve read in the last few years?

by Dietrich

It’s hard to boil it down to just one book, but here goes . . .

While I loved the movie, The Help, it wasn’t until some time later I read the book by Kathryn Stockett, and wow, I was blown away. It was such a treat to read, a balance of hope, courage, with a good mix of humor.

It’s powerfully written and set in 1962 Mississippi, turbulent times indeed. The story looks at women subjugating women, inequality and civil rights in that time and place.

The details around the setting paint vivid pictures, and Stockett has a keen ear for dialogue too, it’s perfect and adds much to bring the main characters like Skeeter, Minnie and Abileen to life. Although they all seem world’s apart, the women come together and form a wonderful bond, while dealing with hate and mistrust all around them. And the characters will stay with you long after you set the book down.

And to think this was Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel. It’s an instant classic, and I’d put it on the top shelf right next to To Kill a Mockingbird. I can’t wait to see what her next novel’s going to be.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024



Terry here, with an interesting question this week: What is the most surprising book you’ve read in the last few years? 

 I read so much that I thought it would be hard to choose. In thinking about this question, I wondered whether it means the most surprisingly good book or the most surprisingly bad book. Whether it means I was surprised that a writer I considered pedestrian came up with a gem of a book—or vice versa, if someone who I thought of as a stunningly good writer laid an egg. 

I decided on a different tack. A writer I was unfamiliar with who surprised me. I went to my trusty Reading lists, which thank goodness I started keeping a few years ago. I didn’t have to work hard to find what I consider the most surprising book I’ve read in a while. Most surprising for several reasons. 

 The book is Dance of the Returned, by Devon A. Mihesuah.
Briefly, it’s about American Indian time travel. Leroy Red Bear Ears is the instigator of the portal to the past for this Choctaw tribe. The book is beautiful and poetic. The reason it surprised me is that I don’t generally go in for paranormal books. I like sci-fi and time travel, but woo-woo turns me off. And this book is seriously woo-woo. But I loved it. Which goes to prove how good writing can sweep away a reader’s hesitation. 

 I would never have read the book if I hadn’t been invited to moderate a panel at Tucson Festival of Books last year. The panel was a strange one in that the books written by the three writers on the panel had almost nothing in common. One was a techno-thriller, one a police procedural, and this American Indian time travel book. What they had in common, though, was an ability to write great characters in chilling situations. The time travel in "Dance" was fraught with a hint of danger that was largely felt rather than apparent. 

 Mihesuah is a member of the Choctaw tribe and a serious writer. She mostly writes non-fiction about American Indian culture. But a few years ago she got the urge to write fiction centered on the non-fiction work she’d done. I don’t know if she discovered her poetry or knew it was there all along, but her words are lyrical, the descriptions lush, and the story grounded. It think the latter is why the story worked so well. Even though you know that mystical time travel is happening, it feels real and substantial. 

I highly recommend it if you're looking for something a little out of your zone.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Surprising Reads

 What is the most surprising book you’ve read in the last few years?


This question is a thinker. I usually like to have a crime fiction novel on the go, but I belong to a book club, and our choices range far and wide. I'll therefore pick from both categories.

I suppose in the 'surprising' crime fiction category, I'd have to go with Denise Mina's standalone Conviction. I'd read many of Mina's books, my favourites including her Paddy Meehan series, but Conviction is original and a departure from her other books that I'd read up until that point. It is a 'Reese's pick' and New York Times Best Novel of the Year, so not too shabby accolades. My book club also read and loved this book to a person - best accolade of all! Here is the synopsis on the Amazon site:

The day Anna McDonald's quiet, respectable life exploded started off like all the days before: Packing up the kids for school, making breakfast, listening to yet another true crime podcast. Then her husband comes downstairs with an announcement, and Anna is suddenly, shockingly alone.

Reeling, desperate for distraction, Anna returns to the podcast. Other people's problems are much better than one's own -- a sunken yacht, a murdered family, a hint of international conspiracy. But this case actually is Anna's problem. She knows one of the victims from an earlier life, a life she's taken great pains to leave behind. And she is convinced that she knows what really happened.

The writing is what makes this a stunning read, in my opinion. And being a fan of Mina's earlier work, it is refreshing to read an accomplished author stretching, growing and taking on new challenges.

Now as for the most surprising 'literary' or general fiction book that I've read recently, the award goes to Yellowface by R.F. Kuang. The manager of a local bookstore recommended it to me, saying it was 'hilarious'. My reaction to the story was the opposite -- I found the book troubling and depressing, to be honest. Topics of privilege, appropriation, authenticity and power structures within the publishing industry are raised. The random way a book is picked to be a bestseller is painfully mapped out, and the role of social media in making or breaking an author is also portrayed. The stunning thing for me about the book is how many industry taboos the author speaks bravely about, albeit fictionally. The plot is like a train wreck that you can't take your eyes off of until it reaches its inevitable climax. All in all, a worthwhile and illuminating read for those both in and outside the publishing industry.


Twitter (X): brendaAchapman

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Friday, February 16, 2024

How To Fall in Love With Your Work, by Josh Stallings

Q: What hooks you into an idea enough so that you want to write it? Character, setting, plot, genre? Or …?

A: Anything I’ve ever written that I felt was of value, came from a place of pure intuition. My most intricate and well laid out plans inevitably led me to drivel. I wish that wasn’t true. If I knew how to come up with the big idea and then write it, I would. Just isn’t how my process works.

What pulls me into an idea? I am attracted to writing about worlds and genres I haven’t done before. The challenge of the unknown excites and terrifies me. But that is often a secondary consideration. First thing that gets my attention is a glimmer I see in my periphery. Stare too intently it will disappear. I will think about it while walking in the woods. With no pressure to develop it farther. 

I was eleven years old when I fell in love with the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I read anything I could find on the real life outlaws. In a book written by Butch Cassidy’s sister I discovered the true story of how it ended. After that famous freeze frame, Sundance was dead, Butch wasn’t so lucky. This tickled my pre-teen creative brain. Four years later I heard The Who’s Behind Blue Eyes. In a flash I saw a film I wanted to write. I wanted to tell the story of Butch’s life after Sundance was killed. How did he go back to ranching after all he’d seen and done? I never got that story written, but it still feels like a cool idea. 

Elvis Costello’s Oliver’s Army led me to write a screenplay about a young man who lies to a group of mercenaries, telling them about his demolitions expertise. It wasn’t bad, almost got made for a minute. Point is those two ideas sparked from listening to music. 

My most recent work came from driving with my son Dylan making up songs. By accident we came up with the theme song to a story that didn’t exist. So I decided I should write it. Like a faithful detective I have hunted that story down, following the leads where they take me. 

One of the concepts I felt strongly about in TRICKY was the danger of confirmation bias. Bad things happen when a homicide detective believes they know what happened before they have all the facts. The same applies to writing, but with less dire consequences. If I believe I have all the answers I will never discover the truth in a story. Knowing everything limits what I learn along the way.

Does this sound crazy? Yes, it does. But it’s the only way I know to access the intuitive part of my brain. The part that knows what I don’t know.

Sometimes I know a character from page one, Cisco in TRICKY was based on Dylan. But as I wrote he slowly morphed into his own person. Cisco has Dylan’s humor. But Cisco also carries a heavy load of guilt. Cisco worries that his past makes him a bad man. Dylan seems sure he’s a good guy who makes mistakes. I wouldn’t have discovered these differences if I had decided I already knew who was who and how they should be reacting. I try to take this into real life. Realizing I know very little about what other people are thinking or feeling, allows my view of them to evolve.  

Sidebar: Is there anything worse than having come up with a very clever plot turn only to discover that your character wouldn’t do what you have them doing?

My first book Beautiful Naked & Dead started from an opening line that I heard in my head. That opening line is the only thing that survived all the many drafts. And it is still the best opening I’ve written. It contained the entire DNA sequence of what the novel would become. 

Regardless of where the spark comes from, I am aware of how damn hard writing a book is. It’s also joyous and thrilling and frustrating and big fun and hard work. To take the writing of a book on I need to find a reason to fall in love with it.

A couple of days ago Erika and I celebrated our 44th Valentine's Day together. That’s a long time to love someone. And it all started when I met a pretty girl with a sweet smile, a wicked intelligence, and a strong heart that called to me. Along the way it’s been hard work mixed with long days of riotous joy. Sometimes we cut each other deep. Danger of pain from unintentional cruelty comes in equal proportions to how much and how long you love a person. I have felt loving support and tender words at the exact moment I needed them. 

The late night I asked Erika to marry me, I was a scared kid running from everything. There was no logical reason for us to expect getting hitched was a good idea. At the time I dreamed of making it in film or theater, but I had no job or backup plan. All I had was a deep feeling that this was the correct next move. Pure intuition. Faith in her. Faith that I wouldn’t irrevocably fuck it up. Turns out by trusting our guts we beat the odds. 

This is the same as falling in love with a story idea. Intuitively I have to know that it won’t be easy but the book will be worth whatever the cost it extracts from me.

All faith is blind. 

Following intuition is by definition illogical. 

It is also the only way I know to discover stories worth writing.


My latest reads: 

Chain Gang All Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. The New York Times named this one of the 10 best books of 2023. It is one of the best novels on incarceration in the USA. It is a dystopian world where prisoners can fight and kill each other for reduced sentences. But it is so much more, it speaks to the morals involved with who we as a nation are becoming. It also has flawless footnotes to keep you tethered to the factual basis of the not far fetched story. It isn’t for the squeamish, but damn it is important.   

City of the Beast by Isabel Allende, translated from Spanish to English by Margaret Sayers Peden. Published in 2002. A fun YA book set in the Amazonian rain forest. While on an anthropological search two teenagers come in contact with real magic and local gods. My only problem with the book was its use of the word “Indian” to describe the indigenous people. This may be from the translation, or it may just be that in the last twenty years we’ve learned to use more accurate language when speaking of first nation folk.   

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Fizzy Pips, by Catriona

What hooks you into an idea enough so that you want to write it? Character, setting, plot, genre? Or …?

Definitely "Or . . ." for me. 

Well, genre is a given. I've spoken before about the unpleasant experience of not writing a crime novel: in short, I found out that my time-travel caper was women's fiction (because I was a woman, I think) except it wasn't quite there yet so it needed to be changed and softened and clipped and packaged until I was scared I'd end up publishing a book I wouldn't read. I fought back. Lost on the title but kept most of the humour.

If you know, you know.

So crime-fiction it is. But I often find myself casting around for a setting, so it's definitely not that that lights the spark. With Dandy Gilver, I study the map of Scotland for locations she hasn't been and try to find an interesting social or institutional background nearby: a school in Wigtwonshire; a hotel in the Borders; a publishing house in the city of Dundee ...

For the standalones, it seems I try to find the bleakest, grimmest, most depressed area of either poor agricultural land or post-industrial-decline towns and plonk my characters there. And then I make sure it rains every day. Unless there's a hailstorm.

Case in point. Pre-order here

The Last Ditch Motel setting is easy. Big clue in the name, right? Except that last time I sent them to Scotland for Christmas (where it rained every day, except when it was snowing). The new series - Can I say series when there's only one out and the second one is sitting in draft form on my desk? - is the same deal. It's set in about half a square mile of Edinburgh - a pretty grim bit with lots of smells. It actually didn't rain every day of book one, mind you.

Edinburgh is much less glam inside

Is it character? Sometimes a character comes along early and stakes a claim. Lowell in QUIET NEIGHBORS was based on a bookshop owner I saw once for about twenty minutes in Norfolk. He made a huge impression, mostly cardigan-based, and sprang into the book fully-formed. Other times, I've had to write numerous desperate notes to myself in my oh-so-swanky notebook. Notes like "Who is this though?" and "Yeah but who is it who does this?" and "WHO IS ANY OF THIS EVEN HAPPENING TO????"

Complete with left-handed smudge

Another kind of note I write to myself a lot during the first draft is "What's going to happen?" and "What is this book about?" and "Yes but where is ANY of this GOING????" So plot definitely isn't there in the beginning. Sometimes, plot is so late showing its face that I get quite panicky and have to remind myself that it always works out in the end if I just keep on writing. MAN, though, I wish I was a plotter. I don't think anyone ever wishes they were a pantser. You'd have to be clinically insane.

So what is it? Well, it starts with a pip, like a pebble in my shoe, something that keeps just sitting there, troll under a bridge, toad under a rock, doing nothing useful. This pip could be something like "It's not illegal to buy and sell skeletons in the US, except in three states" or "Could a dental hygienist tell if a severed head belonged to a right- or left-handed person?" or "Capgras Delusion - blimey!" 

None of those pips turned into this 

But then, every so often, one pip brushes against another. "People get married in graveyards?" or "Punch and Judy men are called Professors!" or "Cotard's Syndrome - blimey!" and together the two pips start to fizz and a story grows around them like something I can't quite remember from chemistry lessons at school. They attract settings and characters and - eventually - a plot.

Nor this - and check out
picture-postcard Britain, eh?

I wouldn't recommend it. I don't enjoy it. I certainly won't make my fortune running workshops that teach it. But that's the way it starts for me. Thirty-eight times and counting.