Friday, June 25, 2010

What Charlaine Harris Reminded Me About Fun

Last summer I briefly met Charlaine Harris, creator of the Sookie Stackhouse novels (see also HBO series True Blood) at the Anhinga Writer's Conference in Florida, where she was the featured speaker. She was a delightful speaker and, while she signed a book of mine, asked me what I was working on. I mumbled something about this little mystery I was writing and she smiled and said, "Well, don't give up. Don't ever give up." It was a nice encouragement from a woman who had well over 100 people in the autograph line behind me.

So when I snagged the recent issue of Writer's Digest, I was delighted to see an interview with her. And the one thing that kept jumping out at me in her answers was the fun she has in writing. She mentioned it a few times, I believe.

It reminded me that I often drain the joy out of my writing by stressing too much about it. I must write today or I'm not a serious writer. I must make this chapter sing. I must.... It goes on and on. Yet one of the main reasons I write is because I enjoy it. I love those golden moments when I can barely keep up with the ideas and words that are flowing out of my head. When I look up and realize I've been in the coffee shop for three hours and they've completely flipped their clientele.

I need to keep remembering why I do what I do on this journey.
What about you?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Mini Mystery Writing Workshop

I'm always on the lookout for great writing resources, especially for mystery writers, so I wanted to pass this find along.

Several years ago my brother gave me the gift of Writing Mysteries, a handbook published by Writer's Digest. It's edited by Sue Grafton. I read it when I wasn't very serious about my writing.

Recently, I picked it up again and realized what a treasure chest of advice is contained in its pages. I just finished an essay on characterization by Michael Connelly and am looking forward to the one about writing a series character by Sara Paretsky. It's chock full of great advice about writing from authors such as Tony Hillerman, Tess Gerritsen, and Ann Rule.

The essays are arranged in sections: Preparation, Process (split into Beginning, Middle, and End), and Specialities.

It's kind of like going to a very good writing conference, but for less than $12. Not too shabby.

What books have you found to be invaluable in your writer's toolkit? Which ones do you turn to again and again?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hooking the Reader: How Rowling and Others Pulled It Off

In an effort to understand the art of hooking the reader, I decided to take a peek at a cross-section of authors in my library to see how they managed those first few lines.

I'm interested in seeing if they have anything in common, what magic they bring to the page, and perhaps if they can inspire some direction for those of us who are struggling with revising that first chapter. Just so you know, I didn't have any strategy in picking these authors. I just grabbed some books off the shelf that I knew held my attention.

For time constraints, I'm just including the first few lines. As a note, some of these books have prologues or a note to the reader in the voice of the book's character. I'm going to include that because that's the first encounter a reader has with the book.

First up, Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. This one begins with a note to the reader from the point of view of the main character:

The story that follows is one I never intended to commit to paper. Recently, however, a shock of sorts has prompted me to look back over the most troubling episodes of my life and the lives of several people I loved best. This is the story of how as a girl of sixteen I went in search of my father and his past, and how he went in search of his beloved mentor and his mentor's own history, and of how we all found ourselves on one of the darkest pathways into history.

This is pretty much straight up narrative and sets up what will be an epic (and I do mean epic; this book is 642 pages long) story. But it's very intriguing. Check out what is happening in those sentences—she never intended to tell the following story, so we already know that this is a letting out of a secret. Then Kostova uses words such as "shock" and "troubling" to give little hints as to what may be in store, pumping up the premise with "one of the darkest pathways into history." Not "in" history but "into." Interesting word choice.

There's no dialogue or action.

Next up is Aldous Huxley's Brave New WorldI'm going to include some of his foreward and his first chapter.

Foreward: Chronic remorse, as all moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.

And the first chapter:
A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, and, in a shield, the World State's motto, Community, Identity, Stability.

I'll admit, I haven't picked up Huxley since I probably had to write a report about him in high school. It's fascinating coming back to it as an adult. In the foreward, we get a sort of reminiscence from someone who is trying to move past something that happened, something he is responsible for? Trying to justify it? And what a fantastic visual sentence, "Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean."

His first chapter begins with a world-building that is immediately intriguing. What is a hatchery and conditioning center? Who is the World State? In those first two sentences he raises a ton of "what-if's" that keep reeling the reader in.

Let's turn now to J.K. Rowling. Whether you are a Potter fan or not, when you consider what these first few sentences launched, it's worth looking at how she did it. From Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.

Again, this starts with narrative, and it isn't until the third paragraph that Rowling starts any action. Yet she sets up a premise here from which seven novels and a world so enchanting they actually built a theme park around it. Worth taking note. She doesn't start in the middle of a spell or a fight with a dragon or the Great Hall of Hogwarts. She starts with a very ordinary suburb, in a family that wants, above all, to fit in, and twists it. I like how she puts the "thank you very much" on the end of that first sentence. It gives a nice flavor to the Dursley's personalities.

Finally, I'll end with  Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie:

It was as black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door. I breathed heavily through my nose, fighting desperately to remain calm. I tried counting to ten on every intake of breath, and to eight as I released each one slowly into the darkness.

Bradley doesn't mess around; he drops the reader right into some major conflict (as we perceive it). The first line is quite a simile. Old blood? It's jarring. In the next line we understand this person is in captivity, and in the next line she's trying not to panic. Because of that first line, it's as if the reader is in there as well, seeing nothing, confined. So there is a vested interest in seeing if this person gets out. It certainly kept me reading.

So what is the common thread from these very different authors in how they started their stories? For me, I'm seeing how they kept crafting the those "what-ifs" and spinning them out. Each sentence works hard, but there is also a great variety in how the stories are launched, some of them breaking "rules" that get hammered at us writers as no-no's: telling, prologues, internal monologues, etc. But it's the way that they are handled that makes them intriguing.

What about you? What do you notice in them? What books do you think have a great beginning?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Taming the First Chapter

I want to kill my first chapter.

I know that's harsh, but I've lost track of how many times I've rewritten it. I'll take off in a direction, certain I've finally nailed it, only to read those words days later and wince at the flat characters and stilted dialogue. I walk away in silent self-condemnation. (Writers tend toward the emotional. At least, this one does.)

I have all the pressure of knowing the first chapter has to be IT. It has to have the hook that grabs the reader by the throat and throws that person onto the couch, never to rise again (at least until they've finished it). Characters must shine. Dialogue has to snap. It must be well-crafted, seamlessly showing (never, ever telling) the Main Event. And it must have voice, that elusive ingredient that no one quite defines well, but you know it when you read it.

My biggest problem is that I feel like so much of the chapter is simply a set up to the Main Event, which happens at the end of the chapter. It pretty much reads that way, too.

So today I made a list of what the reader needs to see in the first chapter. It boiled down to this:

1. Stick Main Character in Main Event

That's pretty much it. Everything else can be woven around that. Of course, this means that my first chapter is now cut by two-thirds. Perhaps this means that my Main Event was not nearly big enough, and I still have to pull off the high-wire act that a first chapter must accomplish. I only hope that a couple days from now I don't pull this iteration out and wince again, but I think I might be getting a little closer to where it needs to be.

How do you handle revising your first chapter? Any tips?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Two More Don't Miss Posts about Editing and Rewriting

As my plane soared into the air toward St. Simons Island, I reached into my laptop bag and, surprised, pulled out a sheaf of papers. What were they? Printouts of two of the best posts I've read about rewriting and editing. Yep, these two posts are ones I found worthy of actually printing out and they didn't make it into my last post. I apologize because they are really quite good.  

Top Ten Things I Know About Rewriting
By Alexandra Sokoloff. What's unique about this take is that she breaks down the process from a screenwriter's perspective. Make sure you read the end, where she lists Story Elements in each Act.

Ten Mistakes Writers Don't See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do)
This is from Pat Hold over at Holt Uncensored. The article uses excerpts from published books to point out 10 mistakes that most writers don't see. Very intriguing.

The only reason I'm updating the blog at the moment is because I came down with a lovely sinus infection, which gave me some time in the cottage. Here's to hoping the Atlantic ocean air helps.