This blog is by Susan Berliner, author of the supernatural thrillers "DUST," "Peachwood Lake," "The Disappearance," "Corsonia," the short story collection, "The Sea Crystal and Other Weird Tales," and the new dystopian series, The Touchers: "After the Bubbles" and "Soldier Girl." This page contains blog entries from January 1, 2010 - December 28, 2010.
Making a scene - December 28, 2010
I'm still writing about my evil villainess and, this morning, I thought I had finished the back-story and would be writing the last scene of the chapter. But then a funny thing happened: I didn't create the scene I had expected to write. I wrote another flashback scene instead.
That's both the fun and frustration of fiction writing for me. Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, when I sit at the computer to write, I never know what I'm going to get. The characters take over and do their own thing. But I'm hopeful that, tomorrow, my characters will allow me to compose the scene I intended to write today. We'll see.
Dastardly villains - December 24, 2010
In the novel I'm writing, I've been doing a back-story on my villain and she's really bad (yes, a villainess). My husband was surprised I could create such an evil character, saying there must be a part of me deep down that relates to her.
I don't think he's right. This woman comes from my imagination. Sure, she's based somewhat on wicked people I've read about or seen on TV or in the movies. She's also based on real people in the news who commit heinous crimes. Unfortunately, as terrible as this fictional character is, there are people out in the world who are much worse.
Sorry if I sound like a mean-spirited Scrooge. But writing novels with my heroes--and villains--makes me happy. I wish everyone visions of sugarplums--and a very Merry Christmas!
Editing observations - December 20, 2010
Recently, I read another author's manuscript and I found it rather easy to critique the novel, identifying various problems and offering what I hope are helpful suggestions about improving the plot and the characters.
Then, this afternoon, I reread the first eight chapters of the book I'm writing and the experience confirmed what I already knew: It's much harder to evaluate my own work because I'm too close to the material to be objective. It's difficult to step back and say: "This won't work."
I did however, find an unnecessary scene that I have to delete. When I wrote the scene, my characters intended to check out a place. But they did something else instead and I (and they) forgot about their original plan. I usually remember most of what I've written--but not this time!
Journal power - December 16, 2010
My husband writes very well. Currently, he's working on a book of humorous vignettes (think George Carlin's Brain Droppings) and he hopes to include many real-life incidents from his 30+ years as a middle-school English teacher. But here's the problem: Although many funny things happened in school, he's forgotten most of them. He really regrets not keeping a journal. If he had jotted down daily, weekly, or even just occasional events, he would have had enough material to fill a book--and the book would have been very funny. Now his school experiences are just going to comprise a few short chapters.
I too should have kept a journal. When I was a young reporter for Fairchild Publications in Greenwich Village, I worked with a lot of fascinating people, some of whom even became locally famous. Actually, I did try keeping a diary--and it turned out pretty good. But my problem was two-fold: First, I only did it for one month and secondly, I didn't just scribble incidents and my impressions into an ordinary notebook. I wrote, and then edited, mini-essays, which I then neatly copied into a fancy, hard-covered unlined book. The process was so tedious that I just stopped.
If you've got an interesting job, meet unusual people, and like to write, you should consider keeping a journal. It might prove worthwhile sometime in the future. And, even if you don't publish the contents, it could still be nostalgic fun to reread.
Server situation - December 11, 2010
We take the Internet for granted--at least I know I do. But when there's a problem, I remember just how tenuous the Web can be. Early yesterday morning, my website wasn't working because the server was down.
For me, everything involving my novel revolves around my website: It's my store or office, the place people visit me to converse, window shop, and sometimes buy a book. When someone types in www.susanberliner.com and nothing happens--not even, "This website is temporarily unavailable," it's like my store is closed, out of business, and no longer exists. Scary!
Of course, a "real" store would have a sign on the door stating the hours of operation or that it's closed for vacation and will reopen on a certain day. But I couldn't do that. I was just gone.
Luckily, when I checked a few hours later, my website was back. (The explanation was "intermittent server issues," whatever that means.) Now everything is fine again. The Internet is great--but only when it's working!
Marketing messages - December 7, 2010
A friend in public relations sent me an email for a "teleseminar" (conference call) featuring an author who "sold 760 books from just one day of phone calls AND got thousands of her books placed in hundred of stores across the country in just 2 months this spring...by herself!" The phone call was free so this afternoon I gave it a try. It was a strange experience--like eavesdropping on someone else's conversation.
Much of the phone call was a fawning love-fest between host and guest ("You are so wonderful," "What a brilliant idea!" etc.) because they were "partnering" in the sale of an ebook. (Special price for those attending the teleseminar!) Although I didn't learn as much as I had hoped, the interview did confirm some things I have already learned:
* Writing a book is only 10% of the work; marketing is 90%
* Marketing should begin six months before a book is published
* Book signings are valuable experiences
* Make friends with your local stores
* A book should be reviewed before it is published
The guest author suggested we answer the question: "In what stores (other than book stores) can I sell my book?" Her book dealt with alternative health and she contacted health clubs, gardening stores, and even national parks. She explained how an author of tourist guides got a book into Walgreen's in central Chicago and then into other cities. All this makes lots of sense. But it's harder for a supernatural novelist. Which retailers should I contact--fortune tellers? If you have any ideas, please let me know.
Awesome authors - December 3, 2010
This week's edition of the Putnam Examiner has a superb article about DUST in conjunction with one of my upcoming book signings (Freight House Cafe in Mahopac, NY). (See Happenings)
During the interview, I mentioned that local author, Jeff Pearlman, had helped me when DUST was first published. When I approached him at his book signing, Jeff, a successful sportswriter with two best-sellers, offered to advise me. He showed me how to form a Facebook group, told me to start this writing blog, and gave me other valuable marketing tips.
The Examiner editor contacted Jeff, who calls me "insanely talented." What a wonderful thing to say about an author he barely knows! It just confirms what a nice guy Jeff is. But I've found almost all writers to be terrific, supportive people.
Since I've become a novelist, I've made friends with many authors. I do book signings with some and discuss promotional methods with others. I've met several novelists on Facebook too and we also exchange ideas. In fact one writer friend and I are critiquing each other's manuscripts. Like I said, authors are awesome!
Casting characters - November 28, 2010
In the novel I'm writing, I'm up to the part where I introduce my very bad villain. When I mentioned this information on Facebook, a writer friend suggested I use a technique that has worked well for him, called "Switchcast," in which he visualizes movie stars as the "cast" of his novels and builds his characters around them. He even creates photo sheets with headshots of the actors and actresses "starring" as the characters in his books.
I found the idea very interesting because I too think of the characters in my novels as actors or actresses performing a play. However, I don't visualize Hollywood stars playing the roles of my protagonists until the books are written.
For those of you who imagine specific movie stars as the characters of the novels you read (about 25% of the population), check out www.storycasting.com, which encourages readers to cast actors and actresses for their favorite books. You can even choose who should play the roles of Karen and Jerry in DUST: http://www.storycasting.com/work.aspx?id=4f9a2b40-3d60-4dc7-bc16-f2440184b4b7
Giving writing-related thanks - November 24, 2010
Thanksgiving is the time of year to give thanks for all the things we have, which started me thinking about what I have to be thankful for as a writer.
Mainly, I'd like to give thanks for my computer's word processing program. Years ago, BC (Before Computers), writing was much more difficult. Everything had to be scribbled longhand and then edited before it was typed. If you made a mistake after typing the material, you had to cross out the error and apply Wite Out, or retype the entire page. And writers used carbon paper in the days before copy machines so you had to correct mistakes on that second sheet too, which invariably resulted in a smudgy mess.
Word processing is a wonderful thing for novelists! We can type our stories directly on the computer and then edit our work easily with features like cut & paste and find & replace. And automatic word counting tells us exactly how much we've written.
I also give thanks for the resources of the Internet. It's like having a library at one's fingertips. Rather than having to travel to the library to research material for my books, I can find information about almost everything at the computer. It's a tremendous convenience and time-saver.
Technology like email and fax machines also make a modern writer's life easier--and I'm sure you can think of many more helpful devices. We've got a lot to be thankful for.
Have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!
Daily writing requirements - November 20, 2010
A few days ago, one of my Facebook friends, a novelist, posted that he was in the midst of some sort of writing blitz: He had written 8,800 words the previous day--and nearly 50,000 words in half a month.
My reaction was, "Wow!" It probably takes me about a month to write 8,800 words. Which one of us has the right (or write) idea regarding word output? Actually, like most novel-related topics, there is no correct answer. Every author handles writing differently. The blitz-writing novelist needs to get his words out quickly, maybe producing a stream-of-consciousness narrative that requires lots of rewriting. Or perhaps he's just super talented and his words flow brilliantly.
I'm more the Dean Koontz-type of writer, at least in that respect: Neither of us writes many words a day. Of course, Koontz spends ten hours working on perfecting a few pages (http://www.deankoontz.com/writing-qa/), while I pace myself, creating an imperfect scene each morning that still needs work. The bottom line is that eventually, either by writing small amounts at a time or large chunks, we finish our novels--and that's really all that matters.
Keeping the story moving - November 15, 2010
When I'm writing a novel (like now), I try to develop each scene without worrying about inserting all the extra details. I'm much more interested in keeping the action flowing than in describing what the character is eating or what type of furniture is filling the room.
Of course, I try to include significant details and if I think of something I missed, I backtrack and incorporate it into the narrative. For example, today I realized I hadn't mentioned that a character is wearing the same clothes he wore the previous day. But generally, to avoid bogging down my writing, I finish the first draft before going back and filling in the necessary details.
Everyday writing experiences - November 11, 2010
I try to write a scene of my novel every morning, but afterwards I always seem to be writing something else. Take today for example. After I finished working on my book, I finalized copy for the back of a DUST bookmark and created questions for standardized test passages, both writing exercises.
Think about it. You probably spend more time writing than you realize. Throughout the day, I had the following writing experiences: I initiated and answered emails and sent and responded to messages on Facebook. Many people also text, which can be considered another form of writing. (I don't text because the abbreviations would drive me nuts: "prolly" for "probably"? Ouch!) And of course, now I'm creating this post, another writing activity. Happy writing!
The missing muse - November 7, 2010
For some reason, my head's not stuffed with creative thoughts about the book I'm now writing. (Maybe my muse is on vacation?) In any case, I woke up today with no desire or inspiration to write. It's Sunday and I was looking forward to watching football. Also, despite gaining the extra hour with Daylight Savings Time, I somehow managed to sleep later than I have in years so I lost the extra hour--and more.
Nevertheless, I closed the door to the den and forced myself to sit at the computer and write. And, once again, the words flowed easily. It always surprises me when that happens--no muse, no ideas, no desire--and I'm still able to write a pretty good scene. Then, later, to make it even better, the New York Jets came back and won in overtime.
Calculating writing time - November 3, 2010
Yesterday, I got another good question from a Facebook friend: "How long did it take you to write DUST? The quick response is, "About a year." But the answer's really much more complicated, depending on what you consider constitutes "writing" a book.
If we're just talking about creating a viable first draft--the actual story--maybe that took about six months. But the book wasn't finished. I had to make numerous additions, revisions, and substitutions to the original manuscript. Then, once I completed all the changes, I delved into several additional rounds of editing and, finally, proofing.
To me, writing a first draft is the easy part; everything else is much harder!
What's scary? - October 30, 2010
With Halloween almost here, it's an appropriate time to think of scary things. My novel, DUST, can be considered frightening since an evil swirl of dust attacks residents of a condo community. When I tell people the book is in the Stephen King/Dean Koontz mold, some cringe and say, "Oh no! That's much too scary for me!" However, I don't think DUST is terrifyingly scary because it's not based on reality (unless you've seen some colorful dust devils that are intent on hurting humans).
I love Dean Koontz's and Stephen King's work, and while those books might give me goosebumps, they don't frighten me because I know the stories aren't real. What does scare me? Current events, like yesterday's terror plot to ship deadly explosive devices on planes to synagogues in Chicago. To me, news like that is much more frightening than any supernatural novel.
The job of writing - October 26, 2010
I didn't feel at all like writing this morning. A lot of extraneous thoughts were rattling around my brain so I didn't think the muse would hit (or even lightly tap) me with the necessary inspiration. But, despite my malaise, I forced myself to sit at the desk and try to write. You know what happened? I wrote a scene in my book--and it came out pretty good, certainly better than I would have expected given my state of mind.
What does this experience prove? If you treat writing as a job, rather than a hobby, you can get the writing done. You work at a paying job whether you feel like it or not--so you should write whenever you can. It doesn't have to be for a lengthy period of time either. Your writing "job" can be for a half hour, as long as you do it regularly. It's the discipline that's important.
Modern book marketing - October 22, 2010
While waiting in a doctor's office today, one of the many afternoon "Judge" shows was airing on the overhead TV. I'd never seen "Judge Karen" and wasn't even listening to the show until I realized the case being discussed involved a book: A man was suing a woman (friend or relative, I'm not sure) for $1000, claiming she had reneged over some kind of agreement for promoting his book on Facebook.
I only listened in time to hear the verdict: He didn't get the money. But Judge Karen noted that the man got plenty of free national publicity on a nationally syndicated TV show. And she should know. After explaining the decision, the judge held up her book to promote it.
Maybe the TV lawsuit was just a clever new--and free--way devised by the "defendant" and "plaintiff" to market a book. Or maybe the producers of this program choreographed the case. Many of these types of shows are staged to create maximum dramatic effect. In any event, it's a great way to publicize a book. What do you think?
DUST for teens - October 18, 2010
Today, I dropped off copies of DUST at a middle school for a week-long book fair, an exciting event because I want to get the novel into the hands of that age group. I've always considered DUST a great read for teens: It's short, easy to follow, has lots of action--and doesn't have sex or bad language. Several librarians and teachers who have reviewed the book agree teens would enjoy it. (See Reviews.)
So what's the problem? Technically, DUST isn't considered a young adult novel because the protagonist is a 35-year-old librarian. But teens--and even preteens--who have read the book have loved it. So I'm keeping my fingers crossed that some of these middle-schoolers will give DUST a try.
When to format - October 14, 2010
I'm still being asked great writing-related questions. Here's the latest: "Do you write from the start in the proper format for the final manuscript...or do it later?"
And my answer: I format the manuscript much later. I don't do it from the start for two reasons. First of all, most publishers, editors, agents, etc. either demand or prefer the Times Roman font, which I happen to hate because it's so small and compressed. I love Verdana, the large wide font you're reading now. It's the preferred font for Internet text like this blog.
Here's the other incorrectly formatted way I write my novels: I single space between lines, but double space between paragraphs. Why? Because I'm comfortable writing that way. Of course, it makes things difficult when I have to change my book to uniform double spacing, which is how you're supposed to submit manuscripts.
I only convert a manuscript to Times Roman and double spacing when I've completed most of my revisions. In fact, I just reformatted The Disappearance. Changing the font was simple, but it took me a long time to fix the spacing of my 76,000 word novel.
The write order - October 10, 2010
Here's yet another good question from a Facebook friend: "Do you write your books from start to finish, from beginning to end, or do you write certain parts as they are on your mind?"
The majority of the time, I write my books in order--from Chapter 1 to the end. To me, that's the fun of being a novelist because, much like the reader, I usually don't know what's going to happen next and I only find out by writing. Many authors have told me they feel the same way--they enjoy the excitement of discovering the story as they write.
But there are exceptions. First of all, I do make notes about some things that will happen later in the book--important dialogue, actions, or descriptions--which I incorporate into the novel at the appropriate time. For my second book, Peachwood Lake, I even wrote several scenes introducing a key character before that person was mentioned and later inserted the material into the story.
There's also the issue of writer's block. At one point in Peachwood Lake, I had trouble writing about a period of time (an afternoon) in the narrative. Rather than agonize, I skipped past that chapter and picked up the action at a later time. Then, when I figured out what I wanted to write, I went back and filled in the missing chapter.
The name game - October 6, 2010
"When do you come up with the titles of the books--In the beginning? In the middle?" a Facebook friend wants to know. The question was intriguing because, for the first time, I don't have a title for my work in progress.
I knew the titles of my first three novels before I started writing them. DUST was a no-brainer since the book is all about an evil swirl of colorful dust; Peachwood Lake is named for the site of the novel--a tranquil body of water that suddenly turns deadly; and The Disappearance is named for the central theme of the book, a vanishing character.
My new novel, which I've just begun writing this week, doesn't have a name yet although I know what the title will be. The story's about a mythical small town. Once I decide on a name for the town, it will also become the title of the book.
Novel ideas - October 2, 2010
A few days ago, a Facebook friend asked me how I get the ideas for my novels. So far, two books have been based on real events and two have come directly from my imagination.
DUST was born after I read a short online news story about a dust devil collapsing an auto body shop and killing the owner. Since it happened in Maine, I expected Stephen King to write the novel. He didn't and, a few years later, I did.
My second novel, Peachwood Lake (not yet published), is also based on a weird real-life occurrence. Each summer, sturgeons--big bony fish--jump out of the water in a Florida river for no apparent reason. Since these fish can weigh up to 200 pounds, they've injured boaters. In my paranormal thriller, a big jumping fish does even more damage.
Book number three, which I'm editing, and number four, which I hope to begin writing next week, aren't based on any real-life phenomena. I've always loved time-travel, so I've written The Disappearance, a time-travel thriller with a con element. Since I also enjoy mind control novels, my next book will tackle that fascinating subject. I've written a lot of the book in my head--I've just got to put it on paper!
Revising redux - September 28, 2010
So here I am again, revising the ending of my novel, The Disappearance, for what seems like the hundredth time. I think today's change works, but I certainly wouldn't want to swear to it.
I can't speak for other novelists, but I find it really difficult to make changes on my "finished" manuscript because I really like what I've already written. As a result, I tend to try to incorporate the new material into the old without destroying too much of the original wording. I'd probably be better off just starting fresh, but I can't do that. So now I've got my fingers crossed that this is the final change.
Errors (and editing) continued - September 24, 2010
It's a bit disheartening that I'm still finding mistakes in the manuscript of The Disappearance, my third novel. Some are minor: A character is driving the wrong car. (I changed a Jeep to a Corolla because I figured the character wouldn't drive a gas-guzzler. I know I could have used Find/Replace, but I foolishly thought I had changed all the references.)
Another mistake is logical: A character is carrying a large tool in a backpack, which he couldn't really be doing. Most readers probably won't notice the error, but a few may realize the situation doesn't make much sense. As a result, I have to change the way the tool is introduced. At least, that's an easy fix.
Yet another error involves my conclusion, which I recently spent a lot of time revising. I was so glad it was done--and now I've been told by my readers that I have yet another mistake to correct. So the editing continues...
Who writes these ads? - September 20, 2010
Occasionally, I get into an Andy Rooney mode to complain about things that annoy me--like so many current radio commercials. I turn off the radio very often because I just can't listen to the awful ads.
Here are some examples: Local car dealerships (e.g. MajorWorld) that scream at you to buy their cars. I'm purchasing a car from a dealer that's got good prices or great service--not from someone who yells at me. Similarly, much as I like the GEICO gecko on TV, the company's radio ad features an obnoxious man telling me I'm stupid if I don't buy their car insurance ("...unless you don't want to save money"). I'm not fond of being put down by commercials. I also hate a new radio commercial that wants me to buy gold coins. At one point the woman doing the ad says, "Oh...here's the number." I guess they think listeners are too dumb to know she's reading from a script. Speaking of dumb, the current NY lottery ads have kittens that speak in "I love you." What's that got to do with lotteries?
People get paid writing junk like the above ads? I remember really great radio commercials like the Blue Nun wine commercials with Stiller and Meara. I never turned the radio off for those. What do you think about today's radio ads? Which ones annoy you the most?
Fleshing out characters - September 16, 2010
Now that my third novel, The Disappearance, is basically done, I've been thinking a lot about the makeup of the main character. When I was writing the book, I was so involved in structuring the complex plot that I didn't pay enough attention to revealing the character's personality. If she wasn't involved in a crisis, what would she be doing? What are her interests? At this time, I'm filling in those details.
Similarly, I was overly vague about some references. My character watches a movie--what kind of movie? She's reading a book--what kind of book? These small additions should help to flesh out her personality, which I hope will make the character more believable--and appealing--to the reader.
Location, location, location! - September 12, 2010
I'm switching gears today to discuss the marketing side of writing, which, as every writer knows, is a difficult aspect of the profession. But it's also one of the most important because, if you write a book, you want people to read it.
Yesterday, I had a mini signing for DUST at the Yorktown (NY) Grange Fair that was handled by my local Barnes & Noble. Originally, I was told I would have a table next to the store's display, and that's where I started out. While I was there, no one bought a book. In fact, hardly anyone stopped at my table. The only time people looked at the novel or my flyers was as they stood by my display during the neighboring cooking demonstration waiting for a taste of free corn chowder. And it wasn't just me. A former town supervisor had occupied the same table earlier with her nonfiction books and she told me she didn't have much success.
After about an hour, I was relocated to the center of the tent--in the main aisle, all by myself--because an exhibitor had paid for the space next to Barnes & Noble. That seemed like a good spot because people had to walk past my table. But again, everyone ignored me.
Finally, the nice folks at Barnes & Noble said I could stand behind their table--and immediately everything changed. People looked at DUST, asked about it, and bought the novel. I didn't do anything differently. Only the location had changed. (Photos of my experience are posted on Happenings.)
To reread or not to reread - September 8, 2010
When I mentioned on Facebook that I'm still rereading the manuscript of my third novel (The Disappearance), a friend commented: "The more you read, the more critical you become." This is true. So when do you stop rereading?
With DUST, I stopped when I didn't find any more corrections. (Of course, you can always add or remove a comma, choose a better synonym, or delete an unnecessary word. I'm talking about meaningful changes, like errors or omissions.)
I'm still making significant corrections in my current reread. For example, a character has changed hair color and I neglected to mention that this person is wearing a wig. It's easy to fix--but I didn't notice the omission till now.
Naming names - September 5, 2010
On July 27, I wrote about how I and other novelists choose names for our characters and discussed what to do if friends ask to be characters in a book. I mentioned this could be a problem, citing an author I know who used a friend's name, but when the book was published the friend was upset because his character was a villain.
A few days ago, the (NY) Daily News ran an article about how much trouble an author can get into using a friend's name. An insurance salesman named Douglas Heimowitz is suing Random House because his namesake is a professional gambler in a book called Lay the Favorite, A Memoir of Gambling by Beth Raymer.
According to Heimowitz's lawyer, he and the author are acquaintances and she thought using his name for the character "would be funny." The suit claims he is the only person in the U.S. with the name Douglas Heimowitz and both he and the bookie character are Jewish, 6-feet 4-inches, from Queens, NY, and both attended Queens College (my alma mater). Since the book is nonfiction, Heimowitz is afraid people will think he really is the gambler.
The suit demands Random House pull the book off the shelves and pay Heimowitz an unspecified amount of money. See what using a friend's name as an unsavory character can lead to!
Writing routine - September 1, 2010
People sometimes tell me they'd like to write books, but aren't able to get started. Recently, a woman mentioned her desire to write an account of her experiences transporting six puppies cross-country to new homes. "I've made several starts, have lots of notes, just need to DO it," she explained, adding that she was "a terrible procrastinator. And busy, like most people."
Of course, I can't tell anyone how and when to start writing. That's a personal matter. But I did suggest she treat writing as a job and set aside a specific time for writing, even if it's only 1/2 hour a day or every other day. I've found that making a writing schedule--and sticking to it--really helps. Do you agree?
What happens now? - August 28, 2010
It took me several days, but I finally finished revising the ending of my third novel, The Disappearance. After I posted my proud accomplishment on Facebook, one friend asked, "What happens now?"
Here's what happens: I reread the entire manuscript, all 75,000+ words. In addition to the changes I made to the ending, I altered other parts of the book so now I've got to read it again to see if my changes make sense: Does the story still flow well? Did I make the revisions everywhere? For example, I changed a shirt color. Sounds unimportant, right? Wrong! This shirt is a small, but significant, element in the plot and it's mentioned several times. I could easily have missed one of the references.
I'm looking forward to rereading the book because I haven't looked at it for a couple of months. Let's see what I find...
Editing issues continued - August 24, 2010
If you've read the previous post, you know I'm revising my third novel, The Disappearance, based on recent feedback from two readers. As I began implementing the suggestions I agreed with, I found many of the changes worked and some didn't. However, I'm having a hard time redoing an important scene at the end of the novel that really does need revising.
I can't speak for other novelists, but sometimes I fall in love with the words I've written, which makes eliminating them more difficult. I like a lot of the material in this scene (dialogue especially) so it's taking me longer than it should to revise. I've thought a lot about this issue today, but I wasn't very productive, making just a few minor changes elsewhere. As Scarlett O'Hara says, "I'll think about it tomorrow...Tomorrow is another day."
Editing issues - August 20, 2010
I've just gotten feedback from two readers on my time travel novel, The Disappearance. Their approaches to the manuscript were entirely different. One reader, a former English teacher, was mostly concerned with my word choices. For example, this person thought I had too many characters frowning. Okay. Line editing is a relatively easy fix: I can eliminate some "frowned" or "frowning" words, substitute a synonym, or revise the descriptions. None of those options is difficult to do.
However, my other reader's comments impact the gestalt of my novel. This person, a law enforcement expert, told me that an important criminal offense in my story, which I (and most people) would assume is a serious felony, is not. So I've got to change that. Also, I made another technical mistake in a courtroom scene. And both readers felt some of my time travel description was too sketchy and not believable enough. So I've got to improve that part of the novel too. Although both readers liked the story, obviously, I've still got lots of revising to do!
Reading remark - August 16, 2010
Since I don't have school-age kids, I can only draw second-hand conclusions about the state of reading among children. Recently, however, I mentioned the subject of books to a smart 10-year-old girl.
"I don't like to read," the girl said.
"Why?" I asked.
"Reading is just words on paper," she replied. "It's boring."
I was shocked at the girl's response. To me, reading is a wonderful opportunity to use your imagination. I really hope this girl doesn't represent the majority of today's kids. If she does, we're in big trouble! For those of you with kids in school, what do you think? Are your children interested in reading?
Writing short stories continued - August 12, 2010
In my last post, I discussed short story writing and asked for feedback about the genre. A fellow author responded, saying she found writing short stories to be "difficult but wonderfully exhilarating." I had complained that short story collections are often disjointed, but she suggested a terrific way to unify them: Develop a protagonist and put that character into a different situation in each story.
The author also mentioned writing flash fiction, super short stories of about 500 to 1000 words. That's quite a challenge for a novelist! But it sounds like an excellent way to make sure your writing is succinct.
Writing short stories - August 8, 2010
I'm a non-fiction writer turned novelist, but I've never had the desire to create short stories. Yesterday, however, a friend mentioned she had recently completed a collection of short stories, which she intends to publish. Although I haven't read any of her work, and she hasn't mentioned specific themes or plots, she did tell me that all the stories have twist endings.
I think that's a neat idea. My problem with many short story collections is they're so erratic: Some stories are great; others are boring. Also, many volumes of short stories are disjointed, with nothing in common except they were written by the same author. It's like that box of chocolates described by Forrest Gump: You never know what you're going to get. At least my friend's short stories promise interesting endings. What about you? Are you a fan of short stories?
Character concerns - August 4, 2010
If you follow this blog, you know I love time-travel novels. In fact, I've written one (The Disappearance), which I'm currently editing. This week, I read a time-travel novel, Time for Patriots by Thomas Wm. Hamilton, that's completely different from my book. It's about a military academy that's transported back to pre-Revolutionary War time.
When I realized the story didn't have any main characters, I was afraid I wouldn't like it. How do you get emotionally caught up in a book without continuing characters? Well, I did. This novel is all about changing history. Since I love American history--and the Revolutionary War is my favorite era--I enjoyed the book. Imagine what you could do if you went back to the past and knew the future. What events would you alter? Which people would you help? The novel was fun--even without being able to connect with any characters.
Organizing ideas - July 31, 2010
I've written about my new concept for a novel and the way ideas drift into my mind at various times of the day--and night (see July 19, 2010). What happens with all these random brainstorms?
I described this situation on Facebook and another author mentioned she jots her ideas on index cards, files them, and keeps them near the computer so she can refer to the cards while writing a novel. I'm not quite as organized: I just jot my ideas on a legal pad in no particular order. Then, when I write, I refer to this jumble of notes and either use them or discard them. However, the majority of my ideas aren't written; they remain rattling around my head until needed. It may be haphazard, but this filing system works for me.
What's in a name - July 27, 2010
I've been asked several times how I choose the names of my characters. Often, a name just feels right. That's what happened with Karen and Jerry, the stars of DUST. Otherwise, I think of people I know and names I like. Also, I try to vary the beginning letters of first and last names so readers (and author) won't get confused. At one point with DUST, I discovered I had an abundance of characters with "D" surnames so I changed one of the last names to a "G."
Several authors have told me they simply skim through the phone book for names. Others combine and tweak names of friends and associates. One writer holds a reader contest: The winners become names of characters in his next novel. (That's one way to boost sales!)
What about friends who ask to be characters in your book? One author said he used the name of a friend--but when the book was published, the friend was miffed because his character was a villain. I guess if you're going to use a friend's name, you'd better make sure the character isn't offensive (unless you're not too fond of your friend).
How writers write - July 23, 2010
Recently, a fellow author mentioned she had seen a news clip about the way Dean Koontz writes: He edits a page until it's perfect before moving on to the next one. According to Koontz's website (http://www.deankoontz.com/writing-qa/), this tidbit is true. Apparently, he works 10-11 hour days and produces 5-6 pages on good days; less than a page on bad days.
That's an interesting way to write, but it's not my method. I write an entire scene without stopping, letting my characters dictate the action. After I finish the scene, I review it and make necessary changes. Then, before I write a new scene, I again review the previous one and make additional revisions. However, unlike Koontz, my pages are far from perfect when I finish this routine. I still have to edit each chapter and read through the entire manuscript--many times.
The wonderful thing about writing a novel is there is no right or wrong method. We all write differently. What works for Dean Koontz doesn't work for me--and what works for me won't work for someone else. What writing method works for you?
Early morning muse - July 19, 2010
This morning, I woke up at 4:30 am. Since I'm not a farmer, that isn't when I want to start my day. Usually, I'm able to fall back to sleep, but not this time. This good news is that I spent the next several hours developing an idea for a new novel.
As I lay in bed, I realized I want to write a mind-control story. Dean Koontz (one of my favorite authors) has published a couple of terrific ones--Night Chills and False Memory. With the muse hitting me, I came up with an interesting premise, which should make a good story. Of course, it's just the beginning since the characters and plot are still very vague. This afternoon, I jotted down some of my ideas (although the entire concept is stored in my computer, i.e. brain). Before I begin writing this book, I still have to finish editing my second and third novels. But it's great to have a handle on book number four.
Villainous voices - July 15, 2010
How do you decide which villain would make the best murderer? I haven't had this problem since the killers in my first two novels are forces of nature (dust swirl and an evil fish) and the bad guy in my third book (not a whodunit) was always evident to me.
But for many writers, determining the murderer is a complex process. At last Saturday's book fair, one author said he wrote lengthy descriptions of all his villains and then developed his novel until he saw which one worked best (or worst). Another novelist emailed me a similar tale: "the killer changed on me three times during the course of the writing," she wrote. "Surprised me so much, I had to go back and add the character into several more scenes so the reader wouldn't feel gypped!"
A third writer spoke about the need to get into your villain's head in order to better understand the character. This soft-spoken man said his wife called him to dinner one night when he was heavily involved with his bad guy. "Don't talk to me right now!" he screamed at her. "I'm a killer!"
The end game - July 11, 2010
Yesterday, I participated in a book fair in upper Manhattan with eight New York-area authors, most of whom I had never met. I love interacting with other writers--especially novelists--because we all write differently and I always learn something interesting.
Here's one example: Before I write a novel, I know my characters, the general plot, and the ending. Then I let my main characters take over and develop the story. Although they sometimes surprise me and significantly alter the action, they never change the ending. However, a couple of novelists at the book fair said they purposely don't know the endings when they write their books because they want to experience the same excitement the reader has--not knowing what will happen. Of course, this means they often have to go back and rewrite parts of their books. I think it's an interesting way to compose a novel--but it wouldn't work for me. What do you think?
Getting the details right - July 7, 2010
When I'm writing a book, I find it tough to remember all the little details. I'm so busy developing the plot and the characters that I sometimes make mistakes with the small stuff--days of the week, spelling of names, eye color, etc.
However, once I start editing the manuscript, I list dates, plus descriptions of characters and events, and double check all the details to make sure everything is correct. I'm being especially careful with Peachwood Lake, the novel I'm reviewing now, because I've changed the time the story takes place from the vague present to a specific recent year. That means the dates and days of the week have to coincide with the calendar. I'm sure famous authors have assistants who take care of these mundane tasks; for me, it's just something else to do. But all writers have the same goal: To make our books the very best they can be.
Writing for your audience - July 3, 2010
I'm in the middle of a freelance writing project that involves creating standardized test material for elementary school students. Although I'm enjoying the work, some of the words in the prepared reading passages are much too difficult for these kids because English isn't their native language.
At the same time, I'm rereading the manuscript of my young adult novel, Peachwood Lake, and I've got a similar issue with my book: Some of the language isn't appropriate for the age group I'm writing for (teens)--especially if I want the novel to be allowed in schools. The problem with Peachwood Lake is some of my characters curse. I don't--but they do. So now, as I read through the novel, I'm modifying their most offensive words. I just hope my characters don't complain!
Word improvement - June 29, 2010
In between the two phases of the freelance project I'm working on, I was able to sneak in a few hours of editing the manuscript of my second novel, Peachwood Lake. After reading about half of the book, here are my latest findings:
The dialogue is okay, probably because my characters do the talking. (If you've been reading this blog, you know what I mean.) The plot is fine too. It's my descriptive writing that I have some problems with, particularly my lazy use of a vague word instead of a more descriptive one. A few examples: I changed "got" into a car to "slid" into the car, a girl who "put on" a tight bathing suit now "wriggled into" her suit, and a boy who "put" a towel on a chair now "tossed" a towel there. Yes, these are minor revisions. But any change that makes my writing better also improves the novel.
Writing is writing - June 26, 2010
For the past week, I've been working on a freelance writing project with a tight deadline. (Isn't that always the case?) As a result, I didn't have any time to edit my manuscript.
But here's the good part: I was still writing. Okay, I was creating simple little passages for elementary grade standardized tests--but writing is writing. It was creative work and I'm getting paid for doing it. These days, with so many people unemployed, having a job is a good thing--and having work in my chosen field is an even better thing.
A variety of literary riches - June 22, 2010
If you're reading this, you probably know I write supernatural novels. But, of course, there's a wide variety of other book genres out there. Recently, a non-fiction author friend told me she's started to jot down incidents (many of them funny), gleaned from experiences in her mother's nursing home, thinking the notes might one day form the basis for a book. I thought that was a great idea.
And I have relatives and other friends who are authors too. My husband is writing humorous vignettes, which describe the quirkiness of everyday life. One friend has completed a book of short stories while another is writing a historical novel about Long Island (NY) Indians.
I think it's terrific that so many people I know are writing such a variety of books. I just hope--in this texting and emailing era--that, when these books are published, enough folks will read and enjoy them.
Weird things really do happen - June 18, 2010
Yesterday, I had a terrific book signing experience at Tazza Cafe in Somers, NY. But a strange thing happened there: The electricity suddenly went off--the power outage occurring just when I arrived and lasting for the next couple of hours.
When did the power come back? Owner Ed Novak escorted me to the restroom at 1:30 and just as I flicked the light switch, the electricity returned. That gave Ed the goosebumps and he even asked me if I had paranormal abilities.
Do you think writing a supernatural novel could have given me some kind of supernatural talent? Apparently not. According to news reports, heavy winds knocked down a nearby power line. So much for my new career as Electric Woman!
Why do writers write? - June 15, 2010
A reader recently asked me what inspires writers to write. Of course, I can't speak for any other authors, but I've always written, until recently specializing in non-fiction. I became a novelist when I had an idea for a book (DUST) and needed to write the story (See Real "Dust" Events). I felt I had something inside my brain that just had to come out. It was almost like having a baby. In fact, for me, the novel-writing is similar to the birthing experience--painful, but the end result is worth it. ("It's a...book!")
I had a similar feeling with Peachwood Lake, my second novel. Once the concept rattling around inside my head formed a story, I had to write it. My experience with my third novel, The Disappearance, was a little different since I created a story specifically for the genre I wanted to try. But after I developed the plot, I had to write the novel. Right now, I've got a bunch of stories in my mind that are begging to be released--I don't yet know which idea will be victorious.
When is a novel finished? - June 11, 2010
After I blogged last time about rereading my second book (Peachwood Lake) and finding things to change, several people cautioned me not to over-edit. That brings up the age-old question: How do you know when your book is finished?
Of course, there's no easy answer. I knew DUST was done when I couldn't think of any revisions that would improve the book. (I don't mean substituting a word or adding a comma, which you can always do; I'm talking about meaningful changes.) Neither of the two manuscripts I'm currently working on is at that stage. I've reread about one-third of Peachwood Lake and have made numerous revisions, but I haven't changed the story, so perhaps that book is close to ready. I've got more work to do with my third novel (The Disappearance) since I'm still tweaking the plot and fleshing out characters. Eventually, I'll reach a point when I can't find anything in these books to change--I hope!
Varying sentence size - June 7, 2010
It's amazing how much revising I can do! I'm taking a break from working on my third novel while someone else critiques it and I'm rereading my second novel, Peachwood Lake, which I thought was in really good shape. Well, it's not. I hadn't looked at the manuscript in several months and, after reading the first five chapters, I was disappointed with a number of my sentences. They're simply too short.
I really like short sentences--in moderation. However, the use of too many makes the narrative sound choppy. As a result, I'm adding connectors to lengthen some sentences, which should improve the novel's flow. On the more positive side, the story still reads well so I haven't had to make any major changes--yet.
Technology talk - June 3, 2010
A radio report this morning said a new iPad is being purchased every three seconds. Wow! According to the reporter, this new technology will eventually make PCs obsolete. Who would have ever thought something like that could happen? But then, I remember record players, tape decks, and VCRs, so I guess personal computers can eventually disappear too.
That news item got me thinking about my second novel, Peachwood Lake, which I've just started rereading. That book's got a significant technological element. Although all my novels are set in the present, I've now decided to predate Peachwood Lake just a little so it takes place in 2009 (when it was written)--before the iPad revolution. It's a small tweak, but hopefully one that will make my fish story more believable.
Dialogue tag humor - May 30, 2010
The inadvertent pun I recently wrote about reminded me of dialogue tags, which can be funny. When I first started writing DUST, I wanted my dialogue to sound clever so instead of "Karen said" or "Jerry asked," I used a variety of tags like "stated," "remarked," "questioned," "queried," etc. But someone reading an early draft of DUST said my creative synonyms distracted from the dialogue and suggested I just use "said" and "asked."
After skimming through some best-selling novels, I found the criticism was valid. Successful novelists stick to the basic "he said/she asked" formula--so I went back to my manuscript and did the same.
Now here's the humorous part: Dialogue tags can be intentionally (or unintentionally) punny. The following punny tags are from Written Expression: A Specific Skills Program, a high school language arts series that I co-authored: "I've always loved classical music," Ralph noted and "That brush hurts my hair," she bristled. See what I mean?
Inadvertent humor - May 26, 2010
Sometimes I write funny stuff--but usually not on purpose since my novels are supposed to be thrillers. Occasionally one of my goofy sentences even makes me laugh.
As I printed 274 pages of the fourth draft of my manuscript, I couldn't help reading various snippets of the novel and this line caught my attention: "...an acne-faced woman pored over a racing program." Since I didn't create that pun on purpose, I guess I wrote it subconsciously. I certainly don't want to distract readers from the story's action so, in my next revision, either the woman won't be acne-faced or she'll scan (not pore over) the program. I enjoy writing humor--as long as I'm aware I'm doing it!
Concentrating on characters - May 21, 2010
In my last entry, I wrote about advising a fledgling novelist to tell her story rather than worry about developing her characters. But my situation is just the opposite: I've written the narrative of my third novel and now I have to concentrate on developing my characters.
Here's what I did today: In rereading one of the final chapters, I realized I didn't like my main character's behavior. I want to show that she's grown and gained confidence, but her actions in a key moment were much too passive. I revised the scene, addng a confrontation--which she initiates--with the villain. Much better!
Writers must write - May 18, 2010
At the Yorktown Community Day event last Saturday, a woman stopped by my table to talk about her own writing. She had written about 15 pages of a novel and was very excited about her work. "I love what I wrote," she told me. "Every time I read it, I can't believe how good it is."
Sounds terrific, doesn't it? But this woman had written those pages a few years ago--and she hadn't added to her novel since then. Why not? She'd been afraid she wouldn't be able to develop her characters properly. I suggested she get back to writing the book and just concentrate on telling the story. "You can flesh out your characters later," I said.
What's the point of having a great beginning to a novel if you're never going to finish it? If you're a writer, you have to write!
Redundantly speaking - May 14, 2010
People are often surprised when I mention I'm editing my manuscript for the fifth--and not the final--time. I explain that, although the story is basically complete, the book still isn't finished. One problem is unnecessary words.
In the chapter I reread yesterday--which I thought was in great shape--here's what I found: A character is "wearing a pair of brown-rimmed glasses." (If the person's wearing glasses, I don't need the words "a pair.") In another instance, someone opened the door to a room "and then closed it quietly." (Why do I need "then"? Obviously, the door was closed after it was opened.) And here's my favorite redundancy, which needs no explanation: "a white cloth tablecloth." So, as you can see, my manuscript definitely needs line editing!
Comma, comma, comma - May 11, 2010
The comma: It's a punctuation mark that some writers love to use and others choose to ignore. Me? I'm a proud member of the comma-lovers group. I use lots of commas because they indicate pauses, which make sentences like this one easier to understand.
But maybe I like commas a little too much. While rereading my manuscript, I've found some overuse of my favorite punctuation mark, especially after introductory clauses and phrases. The novel I'm working on includes sentences with very short opening phrases that don't really need commas, so I've been removing them. But knowing me, I'll probably reinsert some of them in a later read. (Please note the comma in the opening phrase of the above sentence.)
One writer's problem (and solution) - May 8, 2010
People who aspire to be novelists often complain to me that they have trouble getting into a regular writing routine. My suggestion is very simple: Set aside a specific time to write--and try to stick to it.
Last week, I met a young author who had a different problem. He told me he had "Writers' ADD" (Attention Deficit Disorder). His problem wasn't finding time to write; it was finishing whatever he started. He'd have a wonderful idea for a story and begin his novel. But the next time he sat down to write, he'd have another terrific idea--so he'd start the new book instead of returning to the previous one. As a result, he never finished anything.
His solution? He switched to short story writing, figuring he'd have a better chance to complete a brilliant idea in one sitting. Using this approach, he's written some sci-fi stories, which he plans to submit to a magazine. This young man was able to work it out: He found a way to overcome his difficulty. Since there are no "rules" for how to write, each of us has to do what works best.
Blog story - May 4, 2010
Shortly after DUST was published, I met a successful sports journalist who encouraged me to start a blog. Easy for him, I thought after checking his popular blog. He wrote about sports so all he had to do was follow the news and react to a sporting event.
"But what should I blog about?" I asked. "I can't report on supernatural dust happenings."
"Then just blog about something you know," he suggested.
What I know is writing, having been a reporter, editor, and non-fiction writer.
Last Sunday, I met a number of talented authors at the "New Writers for Haiti" Bookfair in White Plains and one novelist mentioned she had a successful blog. "I get 5,000 unique visitors a day," she boasted.
"Wow!" I said. "That's terrific. What do you blog about?"
"Murder and sex," she said, smiling.
Maybe I should revamp my blog!
Being Specific - April 30, 2010
As I continue to reread my manuscript, I still find instances of lazy writing--times when my descriptions are unnecessarily vague. For example, I mention that a character works for a local bank. But why not be more specific and give the bank a name? And some of my minor characters need to be better defined--not in great detail, but in a few, well-chosen words. (I hope I'll be able to choose them!)
Even though my novel has an element of fantasy, adding these touches of realism should make the story much more believable. And, as former New York Mets pitcher Tug McGraw said: "You gotta believe!"
The written word - April 27, 2010
The 21st century is wonderful--full of electronic marvels like computers, hi-def TVs, and cell phones. I especially love word processing, which makes it so easy for me to write and edit. But sometimes I yearn for a time B.C. (before computers) when folks actually wrote complete sentences using words that were spelled correctly. Today's instant messaging, emailing, and phone texting have eroded these writing skills.
Recently, I was criticized for my instant messaging "technique" because I ended my sentences with periods. "You're the only one who does that," someone chided. If that's true, it's pretty sad. Sentences are an integral part of writing and it shouldn't be wrong to use them.
What about correct spelling? With all the abbreviations and acronyms used today, many people don't know--or care--how words are spelled. I routinely see misspellings of simple words: noisey, trys, hungery, get's. Does anybody besides me care?
"Setting" the stage - April 24, 2010
Every story needs a setting--a real (or unreal) site where the action takes place. DUST is located in Rock Haven, a mythical northeastern suburb. I gave the town a "Haven" name to make it sound authentic because Connecticut already has so many of them: New Haven, East Haven, West Haven, and North Haven.
I created another northeastern town for The Disappearance, the novel I'm currently editing, calling this place, "Southvale." Since northern New Jersey has a Northvale, the name sounds plausible. Although the town itself doesn't play an important role in my story, it still needs to be defined and, in reviewing the manuscript, I realized that in my rush to develop the plot, I barely described Southvale. So now it's back to the beginning of the book to add detail to my setting. And the neverending revisions continue!
Keeping in character (continued) - April 21, 2010
As I continue the neverending correction/revision process of my manuscript, I've found yet another instance in which the characters don't behave properly. Here's the scenario: One character, who's always hungry, is looking for a place to eat. Sounds logical, right? Wrong! At this early chapter in my novel, the character is supposed to be greatly confused so he certainly wouldn't be thinking about food. On the other hand, my protagonist has a good reason to suggest visiting the restaurant, so the concept does work. After I switched speakers--and of course, revised the dialogue to fit the characters--this brief conversation works much better.
It's surprising (and a bit discouraging) that, after reviewing this manuscript so many times, I can still find a number of serious flaws. I'm always hoping I'll read the entire novel, not find anything to change, and be able to smile and shout, "It's done!"
Keeping in character - April 17, 2010
If you follow this blog, you know my characters talk to one another, advancing the action, and also entertaining me as I write. However, my characters aren't perfect and sometimes they don't act exactly as they should. That's when I have to intervene.
While editing my manuscript, I reread a scene in which my protagonist doesn't behave in character. Although she's supposed to be vulnerable and afraid, she doesn't exhibit these emotions, so I had to modify her behavior. I added a brief dialogue in which she expresses her fears and removed a sentence that contradicted these feelings. Again, it wasn't a major change--but it was an important one.
Fleshing out the book - April 13, 2010
I'm editing my entire 73,000+ word manuscript again (fourth time!) and making some important plot revisions. However, since some of my descriptions lack depth, I'm also adding minor--but helpful--details. For example, I mention a character sitting behind a desk. What kind of desk is it? Is it large? Wooden? Cluttered? These kind of little details make the story more realistic.
I've only reread three chapters so far and found many descriptions that need to be fleshed out. Here's the good news: The dialogue is basically okay (thanks to my characters talking to each other) and the overall plot works well (although it still needs more tension). I'm hopeful I will--eventually--finish this novel!
In a few words - April 10, 2010
Ever since I was a young reporter for Daily News Record (the men's wear/textile trade paper of Fairchild Publications), I've known the importance--and difficulty--of writing headlines. We reporters wrote our stories and then the copy editors, a group of older men whose breaths usually smelled of liquor, "proofed" our work and added the headlines. They created wonderful succinct phrases, which were much better than anything I would have written.
A couple of days ago, I was put in the position of having to create a zippy headline/title. I've been invited to speak at a local fair--Yorktown (NY) Community Day--on May 15, and the event coordinator asked me for a short descriptive title of my talk (four or five words) so she could promote it.
Although I've spoken many times about my writing, I've never had to create an overall title. After much thought, I came up with these six words-- "Supernaturally Speaking: The Creative Writing Process." I think it works!
Anticipation - April 6, 2010
Even though I don't watch much TV, I'm blogging about the subject again while I wait for the muse to hit me regarding manuscript revisions. Actually, I do like a few shows--mostly supernatural programs like "Fringe," "Medium," and "Flash Forward." Lately, when I watch one of these shows, I'm able to anticipate much of the action--and even recite some of the dialogue along with the characters. I don't remember having this "psychic" ability in the past.
Why is this happening now? Maybe it's because I'm writing novels in the same genre, so my mind is attuned to these types of sci-fi stories. Or perhaps it's just that today's TV shows are so simple, they're easy for viewers to figure out. What do you think?
Dialogue revisited - April 3, 2010
I know the "Criminal Minds" type of FBI/police shows are plot driven, with everything else secondary, but I found the staccato-type dialogue distracting. I think even in these dramas, the talk among police officers should sound more true to life. When I write my novels, the characters usually talk to each other and I basically transcribe their words. Hopefully, this makes my dialogue more realistic.
The snowball effect - March 30, 2010
I'm continuing to revise my manuscript based on suggestions from readers and, of course, from my own ideas. Yesterday, I made some minor changes, just altering a date and a phone reference. But in a novel, nothing is simple. Everything is linked so one change leads to another, resulting in what a fellow writer termed--the snowball effect.
When making revisions, I find I have to be very careful and follow up on all the potential "snowballs" so that each revision--no matter how little--makes sense throughout the overall story. In this respect, small changes are trickier than major ones because they may have effects later in the novel that can easily be overlooked.
Making revisions - March 27, 2010
My first critics have read the manuscript of my new novel and have given me valuable feedback. While most of the comments were positive, the readers did have some issues. Now I have to decide which criticisms to ignore and which to act on.
The major problem one reader had was a lack of danger in the middle of the story (not a good thing since this novel is supposed to be a thriller). I think this criticism is valid so I've got to figure out how to add more suspense. I've already created one new scene that I believe adds tension, but I think more is needed. This is the toughest part for me--inserting new text. What else to add and where to put it are major questions I still have to answer.
Young DUST readers - March 20, 2010
I just received another rave review of DUST--this one from an 11-year-old girl who "Loved the book!" and "couldn't put it down!" (See last Review.) While I've always thought DUST was great reading for teens (even though it's not considered a young adult novel because the protagonist is a 35-year-old librarian), I had never recommended it for preteens.
Could preteens read DUST? When I mentioned this possibility on Facebook, several parents of 9-year-olds who read well above grade level (high school and up) assured me their kids could understand and enjoy DUST. "You may come to find you will have many more readers younger than you expected. :-)" one woman wrote. I sure hope she's right!
Reader feedback - March 16, 2010
As a struggling new novelist, I'm still very insecure about my writing and need to have people tell me how much they've enjoyed DUST. But I don't get feedback from most readers, which I understand. Life is hectic. Even if people love the book, they're usually too busy to take the time to report back to me.
However, in the past few days, two readers--without being asked--have posted glowing five-star reviews of DUST on Barnes & Noble's website. Both called the novel a "page turner." One reviewer wrote, "Loved It. Loved It. Loved It!" http://my.barnesandnoble.com/communityportal/Review.aspx?page=Review&reviewid=1335908. The other reviewer said, "I just finished DUST and couldn't put it down," calling the book "Well-written and exciting!"
Reviews like the ones above encourage me to keep writing. Thank you!
Literary lunch - March 11, 2010
Authors are terrific people! Of course I'm prejudiced, but many writers--most of them strangers--have been kind, supportive, and helpful to me. Since writers are also clever, I find brainstorming with them an excellent way to generate ideas. Two days ago, I had a wonderful "working" lunch with the author of a nonfiction book on parenting.
Obviously, we couldn't compare our theories on plot, dialogue, or character development. But we were able to give each other marketing advice. I suggested she start a Facebook group for parents of young children and elicit questions from members. When I mentioned DUST was a great teen read--even though the main character is a 35-year-old librarian--my lunch date suggested I visit high school or college creative writing classes as a guest speaker--an excellent idea, which I intend to follow up on. (By the way, the meal was terrific too!)
Writers should write - March 8, 2010
On Facebook, I have the opportunity to "talk" to people all over the U.S.--and the world. Some of my text conversations are with young writers. Yesterday, I chatted (simultaneously) with a teen girl, working enthusiastically on a supernatural novel, and with a former poet, who emailed me one of his poems.
The young novelist told me she had written three chapters and loved her book, a good sign. Of course, I encouraged her to keep writing. I know many people who have started writing novels, completed one or two chapters, and then given up.
The poet had composed this piece several years ago based on a real incident in the Middle East. Since I was able to read the poem, I was able to tell him my opinion: I found it powerful--deeply moving, very well done--and suggested he get back to writing poems. People who write well should keep on writing!
Talking tech - March 4, 2010
As a writer, I've jumped from the typewriter age into the computer age--and not very gracefully. Like many authors, I use Microsoft Word to create my novels and I love the freedom Word gives me to edit my work. (Anyone remember carbon paper?)
However, I'm a writer--not a computer expert--and I really hate dealing with technology. And that's my current problem. I'm trying to get DUST on Kindle because it's another way for people to read the book (not my choice, but that's another story - See Jan 5, 2010 post). I'm sure putting a book on Kindle is very easy for computer-savvy folks, but I've spent two days trying to get the block text to wrap properly--and I still can't fix one stubborn quote! Sorry to gripe, but since I can't fix the problem, writing about it at least makes me feel a little bit better.
Short scenes and chapters - March 1, 2010
Since I envision the action in my novels in terms of a play or movie with my characters acting out their parts on a stage (i.e. page), I mentally divide the narrative into scenes and acts (i.e. chapters). When the characters finish performing their roles, the curtain falls--and the scenes, and then the chapter, ends.
In DUST, many of the chapters are especially short, which many people seem to like. A few days ago, a reader reported she "loved the brief chapters because it allowed me to refocus my 'what is it?' scenarios while still keeping pace." Another reviewer wrote, "I especially like short chapters that allow you to take a break without being in the middle of a plot line." You can read more reviews of DUST here.
DUST: the movie version - February 25, 2010
About 25% of all fiction readers (including myself) visualize characters in a novel as actors in a movie. As I write, I picture my characters performing their roles in scenes and acts (chapters). Therefore, I'm not surprised many readers have said DUST would make a great movie.
A recent reviewer--who "adored" the book--commented on DUST's film possibilities, saying she imagined Drew Barrymore and Gerard Butler starring as Karen and Jerry. What do you think of her choices?
Here's a neat website that allows you to cast movie roles for characters in DUST--or any other favorite novel. Check it out:
Dust devil coincidence - February 21, 2010
If you've read my posts or checked this website, you probably know DUST was inspired by a strange weather phenomenon called a "dust devil"--a miniature tornado that's strong enough to toss dust and dirt into the air. These weird little wind events occur all over the United States, especially on hot spring days.
Last Thursday night, I gave a book talk at the East Fishkill Library (see Happenings), located in Hopewell Junction, New York. Here's the odd coincidence: Last April, a dust devil appeared in this small Dutchess County town--on the grounds of the Beekman Country Club, five minutes from the library--and injured two golfers. (For more on this story and other dust devil happenings, see Real "Dust" Events. If you know of another dust devil incident, please contact me and I'll post it and credit you.)
Using concrete language - February 17, 2010
My novel, DUST, is not profound. It's quite easy to read and (I hope!) entertaining. I keep the language straightforward and concrete, aiming to evoke specific images. For example, I describe the evil swirl of dust by its colors (red, green, and blue), by its shape (a spiral, like a miniature cyclone or twister), and by its actions (how it attacks and harms people).
Abstract words, on the other hand, refer to concepts or qualities rather than tangible things. They work well in thought-provoking philosophical or theoretical writing--but not necessarily in supernatural thrillers.
The apostrophe issue - February 14, 2010
Happy Valentine's Day! That's an easy possessive apostrophe--It's the day of Saint Valentine, thus St. Valentine's Day. Tomorrow's holiday is a lot more fun.
What do we celebrate on February 15? It's the birthdays of two great presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Therefore, it's the day of the presidents or Presidents' Day. The possessive apostrophe should be after the "s." But is it?
Every year, I check the newspapers and TV to find out which advertisers have misspelled the holiday. In 2010, more companies are taking the chicken way out and avoiding the apostrophe altogether. For example, Macy's is having a "Presidents Day Sale" and Bay Plaza Shopping Center is promoting a "President Day Sale."
But the most common error is the one Sears makes in its current TV ad, copied by many print advertisers (including the aforementioned Bay Plaza Shopping Center), touting "President's Day" sales. The apostrophe placement shows these stores only celebrate the birthday of one of the presidents so I always want to ask them this question: Who are you honoring--George or Abe?
After Presidents' Day, the holiday apostrophe issue stays dormant--at least until Veterans' Day.
Literary dreams - February 10, 2010
Like many folks, I sometimes have rather vivid dreams. They're usually in full color, and, they make lots of sense when I'm asleep. But when I wake up, most of my dreams seem nonsensical and I rarely understand what they mean.
Last night, I dreamt about about several people leaving a large office building. One of the group--a young woman--was targeted to be murdered and an explosion was set to go off. (I woke up just before the bomb blast.) I know this dream was part of a book, not a movie, because it included a typed manuscript page with a small piece torn off. I woke up wondering: Am I supposed to write this story?
I've had literary dreams before. A few years ago, I dreamt a short story for young children, which I later wrote. And, of course, well-known authors have turned their dreams into literature. For example, Samuel Taylor Coleridge is supposed to have written the famous poem, "Kubla Khan," following an opium-induced dream. The brain is always working!
What's in a name? - February 7, 2010
If you read this blog, you know my characters generate their own dialogue so it's not surprising that, when they speak to each other, they sometimes use nicknames. This is especially true with couples, who tend to have pet names. For example, in DUST, Karen and Jerry often refer to one another as "Jer" and "Rennie."
Last night, a friend asked about the name "Rennie," wondering where it came from. Of course, I didn't come up with the nickname; Jerry did. But I do know the answer: It's derived from the second syllable of "Karen."
In the manuscript I'm currently working on, one of my characters has a rather strange pet name for her boyfriend: She calls him "Dodo-Roc." But, again, don't blame me. I didn't make up the name; my character did!
Eliminating errors - February 3, 2010
Okay, so I'm still revising my manuscript, trying to correct missing details, awkward sentences, typos, etc. However, my first reader discovered a disturbing problem: a contradiction. One character can't do something and then 20 pages later (with no explanation), suddenly he can. The incident is subtle so other readers might not notice the error, but it's there--and it's not good.
Also, I've got a technical (i.e. supernatural) issue to modify, but at least I was aware of that problem. Because the plot of this novel is rather complex, I'm going to compile a comprehensive list of important events, including dates and details, to make sure everything else in my story makes sense.
Getting the details right - January 30, 2010
I've been away from my manuscript for nearly a week and, as I predicted, I'm starting to get ideas. (Unfortunately, the muse hit early this morning, keeping me awake. I wish I had better mind control!)
Right now, my brain is focused on details. I was so busy writing the intricate plot that I missed some key points. For example, this book includes a winter park scene in the East Coast. Obviously, some trees would be bare, the grass would be brown, and it could be snowy. But I forgot those small, but significant, details. Here's another point I overlooked: One character takes a long drive in a Jeep. No! With the high cost of fuel, he wouldn't do that.
And this is still the beginning of the editing process. I'm sure there'll be many more changes before this novel is finished.
Stepping back from the book - January 26, 2010
I've finally finished editing the first draft of my new novel and, as soon as I type in the last batch of changes (I always edit the hard copy), I'll print out a clean version of the manuscript. Then I'll ask two readers to review the book and give me their valuable feedback. Of course, the novel isn't done. Although the story is complete, the characters still need to be fleshed out and other elements need tweaking.
But, right now, I need a break. After spending so much time with a manuscript, I find it helpful to step away from the book for a while. Sometimes, during this hiatus, I come up with important ideas. That's what happened with DUST. I let the manuscript sit for several months and then reread it with a fresher, more objective outlook.
What will I do meanwhile? I'll reread my second novel (Peachwood Lake) and make revisions. In fact, I've already decided to make one important change. It's all about recharging my creative battery!
Keep the action moving - January 23, 2010
In reviewing the beginning chapters of another author's historical novel, one of the problems I've found is repetition. Fiction writers have to be careful not to repeat information they've already told the reader.
For example, let's say the protagonist has a secret. The novelist can allude to the secret, build up the suspense, and then, finally, reveal it. But telling the reader the entire secret--and then just repeating it another time, won't work.
This doesn't mean a writer can't repeat elements of the plot for emphasis. In DUST, the swirl attacks many times, but each incident is different, building suspense. It's important to keep the action moving--and repeating something the reader already knows will only slow down the story.
What is a young adult novel? - January 19, 2010
Last Friday, I participated in Putnam Valley's Literacy Fair, kicking off the school district's Parents as Reading Partners program. (See Happenings.) Most of the authors and illustrators attending offered products aimed at younger children. DUST, however, is definitely not a read-aloud-with-your-parents book.
But I (and many reviewers) think DUST is a terrific novel for teens. Why? It's a short easy read with a fast-moving plot. And I'd rate it PG. Although the book contains violence, it isn't overly gory, and it doesn't have sex or bad language. So as I recited the premise of DUST to families with teenagers at the Literacy Fair, I pointed out the book's merit for older kids. However, the criteria for a young adult novel is very simple: It must have a teenage protagonist. Since Karen McKay is a 35-year-old librarian, technically DUST isn't a YA book. What do you think?
Being consistent - January 15, 2010
I'm editing a friend's partly-written historical novel, and while I'm enjoying the well-crafted story, I've noticed some of the elements are not consistent. Of course, this manuscript is in a preliminary stage, but still I find it distracting that some of the chapter headings are titled and some aren't; some of the headings have quotations while others don't.
I think it's important for a writer to be consistent--to determine one way to introduce a chapter, name a place, or even spell a recurring word (hyphenated or not?), and then stick to it. To me, in addition to improving a book, consistency shows the author cares, that he or she has taken the time to make things uniform. (By the way, reading someone else's novel has reminded me how much easier it is to be objective about another person's work than my own.)
A novel is finished when... - January 12, 2010
It's almost a neverending process, editing one's own novel. I've been posting my progress on Facebook and a friend recently asked: When do you know you're done?
This is another subjective question with no definitive answer. But, in my experience, my book is finished when I can no longer think of ways to make it better. I'm not talking about minor word substitutions or comma additions, but actual changes. For example, yesterday I thought of an important suggestion my main character should make. After I found a place to insert this brief dialogue (not an easy task), I was pleased because it definitely improved the story.
Eventually, I'll reach a point with this manuscript when I can't find anything to fix. But, unfortunately, that won't be for a long, long, time!
Fleshing out characters - January 9, 2010
If you follow this blog, you know I'm editing the manuscript of my third novel. As I do so, I'm trying to add more depth to my main characters. In the first draft, I was mostly concerned with telling my story. But now I'm fleshing out the characters, trying to give the reader more information about them.
Even though my novels are plot-driven, it's still important to have believable characters. When I was writing DUST, a reader of one of the early drafts said she didn't understand why Karen acted the way she did. I agreed with the criticism and wrote a backstory to define Karen's character more fully.
So now, in addition to correcting and revising my current manuscript, I'm trying to better describe the lead characters. It's just another important element of the neverending editing process.
Defining a book - January 5, 2010
Although I do operate a website (with support), I'm really a technologically-challenged person: I don't have an iPod and just recently (and reluctantly) got a cellphone that I rarely use, so it's not surprising I'm not a fan of Kindle and the other new electronic reading devices.
My dictionary (published in 1996) defines a "book" as "a printed work on sheets of paper bound together between protective covers." To me, there's something magical about turning those text-filled pages and reading the printed words. I know I'm hopelessly old-fashioned, but I can't imagine reading a book any other way. In this new decade, I'm probably a dinosaur, heading for extinction. Is it just me--or do I have any company?
Using specific words - January 1, 2010
It may be a brand new year, but I'm still editing last year's manuscript. Although I just finished reading the first draft and made numerous changes, I'm still not satisfied enough with the novel to print out a revised copy.
Again it's my descriptions. In too many places, the writing appears lazy and vague. For instance, one of my major characters drives "his car." That's fine. But what type of car is it? What color? What condition? Although this information isn't crucial to the plot, calling the car "a blue Ford" or a "Civic with a dented front bumper" is a much more concrete image and improves the narrative.
So now I'm reading the manuscript again and trying to make my writing more specific...Happy New Year!