Posts Tagged ‘author’


I recently became acquainted with Gryffyn Phoenix through a mutual friend. As Gryffyn and I began to correspond, I knew this was someone I was going to be fast friends with. I’ve seen the work Gryffyn has done in various artistic fields, and I’m thoroughly impressed by her. It almost seems unfair that one person should possess so many talents! So… it’s my honor and privilege to be able to interview her here. Gryffyn is not only a great writer, but a fascinating and kind person. She is generous, open, and fun, and I look forward to getting to know her more and more. Her latest novel, Seat of God is the first of the Ethiopian Chronicles, and is available now. Visit Gryffyn at: http://www.gryffynphoenix.com

seatofgod

Q: What would you say is the highlight of your career as a writer?
A: So far? First time I read an email from a major New York publisher which said, “Here’s a contract, we’d like to put out your book.” But in all honesty … whenever anyone says they like your writing goes up on the list, I’m not exactly picky.
Q: When did you start writing?
A: Does birth qualify? I was eleven when a friend complained she was bored. I suggested she “watch one of the stories in her head.” She informed me there was no such thing. I didn’t realize before then not everyone has a movie constantly playing in their mind. This was when I figured out I should probably be a writer.
Q: What childhood events have contributed most to your writing, if any.
A: I don’t know many writers who didn’t have dysfunctional childhoods. Complex imaginations are built because they’re an easy escape. Let’s just say mine is Technicolor with multiple worlds.
Q: What inspired Seat of God?
A: It started as all my books do, a movie inside my head. The real man Father Josephus is based on influenced the story, but it was definitely first a dream. After I finished, a friend told me “I wrote a love song to Ethiopia.”
Q: Where do your characters come from?
A: Very rarely are they based on real people. All others are my imaginary friends, who occasionally decide to drive me insane unless I get their story on paper.
Q: What are some of your favorite books by other authors?
A: I read around five books a week. This is actually impossible for me to answer.
Q: In your opinion, what is the most important thing an author must do to be successful?
A: Understand this is a business. If you want to be an “artiste”and write mind-blowing, experimental fiction, go ahead. Just don’t quit your day job. If you remember it’s your job to entertain and you are willing to research and learn about the industry, you’ll succeed.
Q: Do you prefer writing for adults, or young adults?
A: Equal. I believe you write the story inside you that needs to be told.
Q: Is it difficult for you to switch between these two genres?
A: Not at all. Different energies and motivation.
Q: What is your favorite part of being a writer?
A: I now get paid to go into my mind and explore those stories. That’s awesome. Second favorite is my commute involves walking down the stairs and across the hall.
Q: What is the most difficult part of being a writer?
A: Editing yourself. Blech. It’s like cutting off your limbs with a rusty, dull knife. Strike that. Cutting off your limbs would be more fun.
Q: Of your own fictional characters, who is your favorite and why?
A: You spend so much time with these people; you really have to love them all. In Seat of God, I love Gabriel. If he was a guy I knew in real life, I’d want to marry him. I adore Jasmine’s fierce determination for her family. Raffe’s sense of humor and patriotism is awesome. And Destiny? Well, Destiny is omnipotent. Who wouldn’t want to know and spend time with the leader of a mid-East crime ring who dresses like a female Egyptian pharaoh?
Even with my bad guys. In my young adult book I have a character named Willow. Any scene with her makes me giggle; she’s just so unabashedly rotten, and proud of it.
Q: What do you most hope your novels will do for your readers?
A: No matter what you believe, with Seat of God the thing to remember is it’s all possible. It doesn’t matter if you are a devout Christian or atheist or anything in between. Everything I write about, even the thing is called “miracle,” is actually scientifically possible.
Q: What is your writing process like?
A: First you move the cat off the laptop, and then you move the other cat off the chair, and then you pet both of them into a coma, and the writing can begin. Then you stop to check email, facebook, pet the cat some more, and go back to the writing.
Q: Do you have a “writing area?” What does this space look like?
A: Depending on the project, I’ve written all over the house.
Q: What is the first sentence of your latest work?
A: From my young adult novel, HAVEN AWAKENING, due out this Spring:
Aria ran into the middle of the junkyard and, horrified, skidded to a stop. It was gone. The gateway had disappeared.
Q: What is the last sentence you wrote?
A: I saved this question for last so I could say … this one. If you mean in my novels, the answer comes from the fifth book in the HAVEN AWAKENING series, “Just because you have a dick, doesn’t mean you have to act like one.”
Q: What advice would you give to beginning writers?
A: Listen to your parents, take those computer/accounting classes and learn something that pays actual money. If you reject that, my best advice is don’t talk about it until you finish a complete manuscript. Nothing makes a writer’s head explode faster than hearing someone say, “Oh, you’re a writer? I want to be a writer. It seems so easy.” Finish putting seventy to one hundred thousand words on a page, put it aside for a month, and then read it. Now tell me it’s easy.

Last summer, on a road trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I picked up a book I thought looked pretty interesting. This book was meant to simply pass the time; to be something I could read until I got to the beach and was able to see the ocean and all the wonderful things it had to offer my senses. As it turned out, the book I bought, titled Speak Softly, She Can Hear by Pam Lewis, very nearly trumped Myrtle Beach in the way of excitement and sheer awesomeness. Not that the beach wasn’t cool… but this book really just had a profound effect on me. It made me want to be a better writer.

I’ve since read everything else by Pam Lewis that I could get my hands on, and I’ve loved every one of her novels. I was dying to get her on here for an interview, and have since found her to be as kind and fascinating as I imagined she would be. Visit her at: http://www.pamlewisonline.com/

Q: What is your favorite part of the writing process?

A: I’m a visual writer and when things are going well, I see what’s happening as if it’s being played out in a movie. At those times I can barely keep up the pace, writing as I watch and listen to what’s going on with my characters. This always comes in a rush, misspelled, poorly punctuated, but I get the sketch down and then the fun is in going over it, taming it, making it work. I often work with my eyes closed, the better to concentrate on what I’m seeing.

Q: Which of your characters has been the most fun to write?

A: Luther North is a guy in his late fifties, a rangy, outdoor person who is in charge of thirty hikers who have come from the east coast to hike in the Yellowstone wilderness. He’s a wonderful, careful leader, the kind of guy with whom people feel entirely safe. He’s inspired by my late husband who had all these excellent qualities, and the fun is recreating him in a new, perilous situation. There are so many issues around wild places – how to handle wildlife encounters, how to manage many competing interests in national parks, how to sort through all the opinions about all this to come out with a purpose and a plan. This, by the way is happening in the book I’m currently working on.

Q: What inspired Speak Softly She Can Hear?

A: It’s difficult to pick out one inspiring idea for this book as there were so many over a period of years, but one image often came to mind during the writing of the book that I will tell you about.

As sixteen-year-old juniors in high school, my friends and I went to Stowe for a week of skiing. We stayed in a dorm much like the Double Hearth of the novel. My sister and her friends were there as well and at some point during the week, my friends and I decided we didn’t like the supervision that was being provided by the older girls. Full of a sense of freedom to do whatever we wanted, we went up the road to a motel, planning to take a room and be on our own. The motel owner threw open the door to one of the rooms so we could see, apparently thinking it was unoccupied. There on the bed was a girl about our age, drunk and passed out. Beside her on the night table was a half-empty bottle of liquor. I was shocked, as were my friends. We all fled back to the security of the dorm and the supervision, but the image never left me of a girl with too much freedom too young. I’m still haunted by that image and it became the idea behind the novel: how a single wrong choice can completely alter a person’s life.

Q: My favorite character in that novel was Eddie. Do you think he was likable?

A: You did? Wow. Eddie is certainly a charmer, but that’s all he has going for him. I never found him likable; he scared me every time he showed up .In fact, in the first draft he appeared only in the first chapter. Little
by little he insisted on being present for the entire novel. He came back gradually over several revisions and every time he appeared, he scared me more.

Q: Do you do outlines?

A: I worked with a freelance editor for Speak Softly, She Can Hear and she demanded an outline, so I came up with one and found the process extremely difficult. It felt very limiting to lay out all the action in advance. But I was very glad I’d done it, and with subsequent books, yes, I do outline but roughly. I like knowing approximately where I’m headed, but I never produce a step-by-step guide for getting there. Mostly what I have in mind, what the outline consists of, is the arc of the novel, how it starts and how it ends, with a vague sense of what’s in the middle. I like to outline knowing that it can all change considerably.

Q: What is the most fascinating thing you can tell us about your grandmother?

A: My grandmother was fifteen when she left the Netherlands and went to Comodoro Rivadavia Argentina with a 45-year-old man (my grandfather). It was a terrible scandal. They married (I believe) and once in a while they traveled by ship to Buenos Aires. On one of these journeys, the ship caught fire and the crew took off with all the lifeboats. My grandfather fought his way onto one of them and to persuaded the others to allow my grandmother onboard. She was pregnant with my mother at the time. My grandmother described this in detail in a piece she submitted to the Readers Digest who used to solicit stories of true life adventure. She described the way the water was lit from underneath and seeing people she knew plummet through the bright blue water. Not until she was in the lifeboat did she realize a shark had bitten through her calf.

Q: Is your family supportive of your writing career?

A: Oh yes. They’re thrilled. My sons, my sister. Two of my mother’s sisters are living. One of them helped with the background for A Young Wife and accompanied me to The Netherlands to research the story. The other will be one hundred this year, and I have not told her about the book. It’s not so much that she would disapprove; more that she would not understand the concept of fiction, and the inaccuracies, the departures from reality would drive her crazy.

Q: What was the biggest hurdle in your writing career and how did you overcome it?

A: After having some success with short stories I acquired a fairly high-powered agent and sent her an early draft of Speak Softly, She Can Hear. I had the very naïve belief that she would take it and sell it without hesitation. Instead she called and kept me on the phone for about forty-five minutes telling how much she did not like the book. I was devastated. Really destroyed. My late husband (on whom the hike leader in the novel-in-progress is based) was very sympathetic and told me we should get in the car and go to a hike we enjoyed nearby. I said I couldn’t possibly: I was suffering from this rejection too deeply. I really felt almost paralyzed by the rejection. In the end he prevailed and we hiked. Midway through I realized I hadn’t thought about the rejection at all and discovered the immense value of physical activity. I sent it to another agent who had, I have to admit, many of the same complaints as the first one. I had to swallow the fact that there was truth in what they said and use the information to improve the story. These rejections, painful as they were, lit a fire under me, I doubled down. I rewrote that book three times in its entirety, determined to get it right.

Q: How many years of writing did you do before you got a book published?

A: I began writing seriously at the age of 39 and my first book was taken when I was 59, so twenty years. I never counted on publication. I hoped for it, wished for it, but knew better than to expect it, certainly knew better than to expect I might earn a living at it.

Q: Which character was hardest to write?

A: The characters I don’t like are difficult to write because the temptation is to make them one-dimensional.  Eddie Lindbaeck comes to mind. He was a lowlife, but every lowlife is the way he is for a reason and for Eddie, it was coming from a family with a great deal of money who neglected him and ultimately cut him off. Tinker Carteret is another such character. She’s annoying, officious, bossy. But she’s had a lifetime of being the ugly, responsible, overweight sister. I need to feel compassion for the characters I don’t like. It makes them easier to write.

Q: When you first got published, how did you celebrate?

A: I bought something called a body-bridge. It’s a sort of padded table shaped like a half circle. It’s great for relieving stress and stretching my back after I’ve spent time on the computer.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part of writing for you?

A: I made the mistake many years ago of telling people I was working on a novel. This generated persistent questions such as did I have a publisher? What else had I written? I regretted having told people but at the same time, I saw myself not just as a writer of marketing materials for insurance companies, but as someone who also had artistic ambitions. So it was vanity, I know. Nevertheless, over the years, the recurring question was, “so, how’s the novel coming?” And my replay was always, “Oh, it’s coming along.” I had the feeling people felt sorry for me and thought I was banging my head against a wall.

One day I was hiking with my usual group and one of the people asked me that question. How’s the novel coming. I was able to say “Great! Simon and Schuster is publishing it next year.” That was absolutely the most rewarding moment, followed by many others exactly the same.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: As usual the new novel has no title. I call it bearnovel. It’s based on many experiences my late husband and I had leading hikes in faraway places with groups of people who usually didn’t’ know one another and among whom there were always some difficult people.  It will take place in the wilds of Yellowstone and will include a predatory bear and a group of hikers who become isolated from the world by terrible weather conditions.

Q: What does your writing space look like?

A: I’ve recently changed my writing space. I now have a glass-topped desk that looks out a very large picture window over the woods on the east side of the house. I live in the woods and it’s common for deer, owls, hawks, raccoons and other creatures to pass by. I try to keep all the surfaces free of clutter, but am not always successful.

Q: Do you have any pet peeves about your writing style?

A: Yes! I play far too much Scrabble and solitaire online. But I understand that Joan Didion does this too, at least the solitaire part. This is the second piece of comfort I’ve had from reading about her. Years ago, when I was doing some journalism I read that she was capable of spending a full afternoon in a motel room working up the courage to call the person she was supposed to be interviewing. I can relate to that. It can take me days to make necessary phone calls. I should add that I am comparing myself to her in only those two ways.

Q: What is your all-time favorite book?

A: My all-time favorite book is R.W.B Lewis’s Edith Wharton biography. It changed my life many years ago to read of her story so beautifully written. Another of my all-time favorites is Drop City by TC Boyle. Into Thin Air by John Krakauer also comes to mind. For older books, The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler and just about everything by Edgar Allen Poe.

Q: What makes you laugh out loud?

A: I laugh easily and often at all sorts of things. Life’s foibles make me laugh out loud. So does my sister, my sons and my grandsons. It can be about anything. When I’m in their presence I know I’ll laugh, so I do. Very recently I saw a movie called 21 Jump Street by myself and I laughed out loud. The poet Bruce Cohen makes me laugh out loud. So does the short-story writer Leslie Johnson, the novelist Wally Lamb and the short story writer Sari Rosenblatt.. These people can all make me laugh so hard my cheeks hurt.


C.J. Cherryh is one of the most prompt, and easy-going people I’ve ever met. When I asked her if she’d like to participate in my recent author interviews, she said, “Sounds great.” I sent her some questions, and within fifteen minutes she’d responded to them all!

She is the author of more than 60 science fiction and fantasy novels, which in and of itself, is astounding. She has several Hugo award-winning novels, and even has her own asteroid: 77185 Cherryh. The folks who discovered the asteroid had this to say about her: “She has challenged us to be worthy of the stars by imagining how mankind might grow to live among them.”  To learn more about C.J., check her website out at: http://www.cherryh.com/

Q: Was there a defining moment in your life when you decided you wanted to be a writer?

A: Pretty well when they canceled my favorite TV show [Flash Gordon, the old serial] and there were no books like that in the library. I was 10.

Q: When you did start writing, were the people around you supportive of you?

A: My mother heard my ambition of the week and said, sternly, a very eye-opening thing: “Do something to eat.” This made me, at 10, wonder how writers got paid, and how they got to be writers. I decided publishers wouldn’t come to me, I had to get to them somehow, and meanwhile I had to eat. Teachers, I thought, had summers off. So I planned to be a teacher, so I could write.

Q: How long after you wrote your first novel did you get published?

A: Twenty years.

Q: How did you celebrate when you first got published?

A: Nobody I knew was home or would be for a week or so. So I went down and spent 200.00 completely redecorating my little office, repainting, putting up a mural, new carpet. And furniture. It wasn’t much. I invited my relatives in to admire it. They were amazed. My mum asked, “What prompted this?” I said: “I sold a book.”

Q: Is it true that early in your career you had to rewrite several manuscripts because the publishers misplaced them?

A: Yep. Moshe Feder found one at Ace, fallen down behind a cabinet, years later, and took it to an editor, who recognized it had long since been published in more than one language. I received it in the mail and couldn’t think what sort of fan would give you such a gift—I didn’t even recognize the typing: it was that old. Then I realized it was one of the old ones. I didn’t hear the whole story until Moshe told me his half of it at a convention. They lost that one 3 times.

Q: When you first began writing science fiction, was it difficult for you due to the fact that the majority of sci-fi writers were male?

A: I had no idea. I’d never been stopped from being or doing anything because I was female, except being shunted into a detestable home ec class instead of shop (but I still have all my fingers) and realizing I couldn’t fly fighter jets (but my vision wouldn’t let me do it anyway.) I write under initials because that’s the way my addy stamp was made up, because (the third reason) I lived in a rough neighborhood and didn’t like having a solo female name on the door. I’d have met them in the hall with a Persian saber—I competed in fencing—but I didn’t intend to let rascals even get the idea.

Q: Your writing voice is unique and especially powerful. What can you tell us about how you developed your style?

A: The key is viewpoint—understanding how to ‘be’ the person you’re writing about.

Q: You have won the Hugo Award for Best Novel two times, and the Best Short Story Hugo. What has that like?

A: Really, it’s hard being up for something: you do get nervous. And then I felt bad because I’d beat out some friends who also wanted it really badly.

Q: What does your writing space look like?

A: I have a little recliner beside a window in my bedroom, and I face a telly which provides white noise. I am frequently assisted by a cat.

Q: How many languages do you speak?

A: I know Latin, Ancient Greek, my best ones; can get along in French, once I get it going; and Italian [a Latin student is cheating on that one.] I know a little Russian, can muddle through several Romance languages in Latin, as long as it’s not too wild; and a couple of others.

Q: Do you write anything outside of the Science Fiction genre?

A: Fantasy. Jane and I are talking about collaborating on the next vampire book.

Q: What has your greatest moment as a writer been?

A: I think when I went to my first convention and met people who’d actually read my books.

Q: What is your writing process?

A: I outline a little, because I have a life, and travel, and need to pin the bare bones down so I can remember it. Then I don’t look at that unless I need it and just go forward. If I get stuck I start editing from the beginning. A good shower is really essential to the process, too. If you get stuck, shower.

Q: Which of your own books is your favorite and why?

A: Gate of Ivrel remains dear to my heart; Cyteen is one I’m quite proud of.

Q: What is the best novel you’ve ever read?

A: Hard to say: that varies by my mood. Jane and I read each other’s, and of course we love what we’re working on. Vergil’s Aeneid occupied a lot of my college study: he had a great influence on my sense of expression—Latin’s impressionistic and tricky. He was a great ‘sensory’ writer and it doesn’t come across well in English.

Q: What is the most discouraging thing about being a writer?

A: Isolation. There is NO instant gratification in the writing biz. It’s a long battle with white space. But it’s wonderful when it’s going well.

Q: How large of a role do you play in the marketing of your novels, and what are some of the best marketing strategies you know of?

A: Since NY has not been able to keep up backlist—Jane Fancher, Lynn Abbey and I formed our own e-book company for just the 3 of us, to keep our backlist in print and to experiment with books and stories that the bean-counters who try to dictate to publishers what they CAN buy — might not like.

Q: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

A: I garden, I do fish tanks, I figure skate, I travel, I hang out with my friends.

Q: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A: In the same month I wanted to be a writer? An astronomer and a fighter pilot. Astronauts weren’t on the horizon yet.

Q: Are you working on anything now, and can you tell us about it?

A: I’m working on a Foreigner book, I’m putting out the Rusalka books (3) as e-books, I’m advising the Audible people who are doing some of my books, I’m talking with Jane about that vampire novel, and meanwhile we’re doing our own covers and conversions, and thinking up other stories.


The prologue is that first page (or few pages) at the opening of a story which gives readers background information, establishes character and setting, and/or gives readers a quick glimpse into the central conflict of the story, sometimes in an attempt to grasp the reader’s attention enough to motivate further reading. There does not seem to be any real rules about what a prologue may or may not contain, or whether or not a prologue should be used at all, therefore, whether or not a book should or should not open with a prologue is a subjective topic. While I’ve known people who feel that prologues are no more than a lazy way to introduce information, I’ve also known people who will only read a book if it has a good prologue; so there really is no right or wrong answer.

I’ve never used a prologue in any of my stories, mainly because it never seemed called for. That being said, I personally am a fan of the prologue, but it has never been a subject to me that seemed to require any of my attention, until just recently when a good friend of mine asked me to critique the opening chapter of the book she’s currently working on.

As I started reading this chapter, I noted that as soon as I’d just begun to get involved with the present situation in the story, I was thrust backward in time, where the events that lead to the present were revealed. While there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this, it felt too soon to me; I wasn’t ready to flash back yet. I finished the chapter and considered ways that my friend might more smoothly incorporate the information into the story, but found no reasonable opportunity for it. Then I read the chapter again, skipping the background information, and was stunned by how much smoother the ride was. Finally, I read the flash back, separate from the rest of the chapter, and it struck me that it would make an excellent prologue. The problem is, my friend hates prologues.

I was very cautious as I approached her with the idea of beginning her story with a prologue. At first, she was adamantly against it, but now, as far as I know, she is considering it.

It’s been said by many that a “good” writer can work background information into a story without resorting to a prologue. It’s also been said that the best way to judge a good book is by its prologue. I am sure there are literary agents out there who scoff at prologues and shove manuscripts straight into the slush-pile just because the story begins with a prologue. I am equally as sure that there are those agents who will not represent a book without one. The point is, using a prologue or not using a prologue is the author’s choice and should be a decision based on his or her own judgment.

To me, it’s a simple matter of the author’s style; some use prologues, some do not. But there are no rules for or against it, and in a business that is over-saturated by an endless and ever-changing list of do’s and do not’s, we sometimes have to keep in mind that writing, at its core, is still a form of art… and that art, for all it’s marketing rules and its potential levels of salability in the retail world, is still subjective.


       

You have about fifteen seconds to get their attention, and given the average modern-day attention span, which is about that of a coffee-buzzed gnat, it’s best to try doing it in five. This being the case, one of the most important lines ever written in a novel is the first one. For contemporary writers, the days of Charles Dickens-style, drawn-out opening passages are gone. Not that we don’t still love the “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” type of opening lines of the golden oldies, but we generally adopt a different mindset reserved only for the classics; and even concerning them, that first line has to contain enough intrigue to move readers to the next sentence. This is a truth that has withstood era after era. One of the best examples I can think of to support this is probably the Holy Bible. Even though the bible goes on to confuse, bore, or entirely evade many of us in a literary sense, you can’t help but be a little intrigued by its first line. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth,” is, if nothing else, a pretty good hook. The bible though, is not a novel, so unless I am looking to write my own bible (which I certainly am not), I should probably look elsewhere for insights that will improve my own fiction writing techniques.

 

Probably my favorite opening line is that of Margaret Mitchell’s, Gone with the Wind. That first passage, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but seldom men realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were,” is, to me, a brilliant starting point; not because it thrusts the reader into the heart of some on-the-verge-of-death conflict, but because it is so thick with insight into human nature, and as well, gives us an immediate but subtle sense of duality and arguably, deceit. Scarlett O’Hara herself is the conflict, and that alone presents a whole new breed of hook.

 

Mystery can also be a good approach. Stating something that intrigues a person, yet doesn’t say much at all about what’s happening, can (if done well) propel the reader forward with a strong level of interest. Human beings are, by nature, very curious creatures, and a writer who knows how to strike the precarious balance between not enough information and too much information can carry a reader quite a long way on this tactic alone. A good example that comes to mind which uses this technique is the opening line of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.” How can you not continue reading something like that?

 

In The Servants of Twilight, Dean Koontz begins with the passage, “It began in sunshine, not on a dark and stormy night.” This is a strong opening for several reasons. First, it’s ominous. By saying, “a dark and stormy night,” we know something bad is going to happen, and we all love it when bad things happen. Second, it’s mysterious. We don’t know what “it” is, and we really shouldn’t care, but somehow, we do, (probably because we know it’s something bad).  The third element of this opening line that strikes me (and probably my favorite part of it), is that it gives the middle finger to the dark and stormy night cliché that so many horror stories depend so heavily on. With this line, Dean Koontz is taking fear to a whole new, far deeper level by telling us (as if we needed to be more afraid) that really horrific things can happen just as likely in the broad daylight as anywhere else. Thank you, Dean Koontz.

 

Shock value, is of course, also an option. Using shock value as an opener is probably the riskiest approach because you chance offending, and thereby losing, the reader right off the bat. In a way, I respect this approach though because if the content of a novel is going to be offensive, at least its author is being respectful enough to let you know upfront. Still, it can’t be said that shock doesn’t do a pretty good job getting, and in the best cases, holding an audience’s attention. The opening of Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth is a shining example of that. With the novel’s opening line, “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over,” we are either immediately hooked, or immediately offended. Whether or not it was Roth’s intention to shock the reader, only he knows, but there’s no denying it’s an eyebrow-raiser. This line, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much has it all: mystery, sex, shock, profanity, and self-confidence; all this in nine words, and with a poetic edge to boot.

 

Regardless of how I choose to begin each story, I have to keep in mind that the first sentence needs to pack a little punch, and that it doesn’t get any easier from there. In my experience, an interested agent will ask to see five to thirty pages of a person’s work in order to determine whether or not a submission is a worthy investment of their time. I recently re-wrote the first four pages of my third manuscript because as I reread it, I realized I’d given the reader very little, if anything at all, to hold onto. My initial intention was to start in the heart of the action, and while this is often times a fine idea, it was, in this case, not working. So I challenged myself to compact as much into the first five pages as I could, while still moving the story forward. In five pages, I tried to reveal a sense of who my character is, what normal life is like for him, and that some kind of conflict is on its way. This, while introducing a couple of characters, laying down a setting without going too heavy on description and detail, and moving the storyline forward at an interesting and engaging pace, without relying on back story and too much exposition, is no easy feat. But it can be done.  

 

In an era when people are tapping their feet, impatiently waiting for the microwave as it heats up their frozen dinner; when folks are rolling their eyes and looking pointedly at their watches in the less than ten seconds it may take while the internet uploads an entire library’s-worth of world history on their computer screens, there’s no time to dawdle. You have fifteen seconds or less to get their attention. Make it count.

 


     Although all stories are vastly different from each other, there is a basic formula to all storytelling that must take place. In essence, even though subject matter, characterization, setting and plot can vary immensely from story to story, every story has the same skeletal layout.

     There are four parts to every story. The first is the introduction. In this, you establish the norm; you decide what normal life is like for the characters in your story and give the reader a feel for what every day life is like in the world you’ve created. In the second segment of storytelling comes the introduction of the conflict. Here, the writer introduces the problems or problem the character is about to be faced with. The third part of the story is the climax. This is where your characters’ challenges reach their peak and the ultimate confrontation takes place. The climax is the beginning of the end… and the end of course, is the resolution… where the challenges are resolved.

     Right now, I am in mid-climax! The joint effort book I am writing with Kim Williams-Justesen has finally reached its peak. You’d think that this would be my favorite part of storytelling, but the truth is, it’s not. The climax always stresses me out and I much rather prefer the introduction because there, you can take your time and lie back to let the characters reveal themselves and their situations at their leisure.  In the climax, there isn’t room for wasted words. The climax, for me, is the most tedious part of the story because it’s so limited in its spectrum of possibility. After all, you can’t write two hundred and fifty pages leading up to a certain point and suddenly take a left turn. The climax is why readers have stuck with you, and it’s at the story’s peak that they want action, intensity and emotional potency; and after all the time they’ve invested in your story, you owe them that satisfaction.

Another reason why writing the climax is difficult for me is because it feels like goodbye. For some reason, the resolution doesn’t make me sad… the climax does. You’ve spent hours and hours agonizing over these characters. You’ve spent days and days getting to know them and understanding them on the most intimate levels. You’ve spent months trying to tell their story in a way that not only satisfies you, but also does your characters’ justice, and will hopefully keep the readers’ interest. And now… everything you’ve been building up to is reaching its peak and coming to a quick close.

In the project I am working on now, my co-author and I are writing alternating chapters and the resolution isn’t mine to tell. The character I am writing disappears and it is Kim’s character who gets the resolution. I am on my last chapter. In twelve to fifteen pages, my character Sterling Bronson, who has been in the making for over eight months, will be no more.  I am moving out-of-state in two and a half weeks, so there won’t even be any chance of prolonging the goodbye… savoring it. Kim and I have sixteen days to wrap this baby up and say goodbye to it, and this, for me, is the hardest aspect of writing.

After resolving the story, there are of course revisions. These can take days, weeks or even months, depending on the condition of the first draft. In a way, this is still spending time with the characters and the story, but it isn’t the same as that first time around, when everything was new and you were excited to see what shape it would all take.

The end of the story is sad, there’s no doubt about that, and there is only one way I know to combat that sadness, and that is to start the next one and begin the process all over again.

So needless to say… that’s what I’ll be doing!

Happy climax!


    

     Life is incredibly short.  The saddest part about this is that we spend so much of what little time we have wondering how to spend it, and once we do figure out how we want to spend it, we are met with resistance, negativity and that two-letter word we all hate most of all: No. After so much of this, we just want to throw our hands in the air and go back to our places in line, accepting the grind as our lots in life and carrying on, moment to moment, day after day, playing it safe and making sure not to rock the boat of monotony.   This might work for a while, but eventually, those notions of something greater, something more meaningful, will catch up to us, tackle us, and pin us to the ground, demanding we heed our own instincts that we’re capable of more.  When we’ve reach that point in life where we’ve put fear in its place and thickened our skins enough to take the punches, there are a few things we can do to counter-balance the effects of the coming obstacles and impediments in order to keep our spirits and our passions in check.  At the forefront of that list, in my opinion, is to have a support network. 

     Whether you’re a writer, a college graduate, a stay-at-home mom, or a poodle groomer, you don’t have time to divulge in anyone else’s version of reality, unless it supports your own success unequivocally.  The fact is, no one but you knows those core truths about you that, if listened to and acted upon, will carry you to your root allocation in life.  We’ve all been out of our elements.  We’ve all taken jobs that simply paid the bills, we’ve all catered to the fear of failure and we’ve all fallen into the designs of someone else’s masterpiece.  It isn’t a good place to be.  We struggle, we fight, we get by… and we don’t even know what for; and all the while we try to ignore the fact that we simply don’t have time for that; that sadly, life comes… and then it goes.

     I’ve reached a point in my own life where, if someone dared to tell me I couldn’t do a thing, I would smile, nod and walk as far away from them as my feet would take me.  My own mother wouldn’t be afforded the luxury of discouraging me, so one can imagine how I might feel about even the gentlest of promptings from a stranger, a friend of a friend, or a stagnant and embittered second cousin through marriage.  If I let these people affect me, I will be discouraged and impotent,  and, as far as I’m concerned, if I let these people make my decisions, I have no right to occupy my own body. 

     So I surround myself with people who have dreams of their own and who believe in mine.  I don’t view this as a simple choice so much as a strategy move essential for survival.  Whatever paths we choose to execute in life, we will be met with enough interference, restraint and discouragement.  It’s just not lucrative to allow it into your immediate personal space.  Your social life should be reserved for those who foster your goals, stimulate your drive and help cultivate your personal empowerment.  In his book, The Master Key to Riches, Napoleon Hill refers to this as the “Mastermind Alliance.”  While I am not typically a fan of self-help or motivational literature, I think he was definitely on the right track with that one, and I recommend the book to anyone.

     If you’re walking, talking and breathing, you have passion.  Even if you have to look for it a little, it’s there.  And passion without purpose and precision is just white noise.  Part of who and what you surround yourself with is part of that precision, so I’ve come to believe in the value of choosing wisely my immediate environment.  I’m standing in a foreign place in my life right now.  Not just in my writing but in everything else as well.  I am at a precipice, looking over the edge at everything I know, just daring the wind to blow a little and knock me off my feet.  But everything I feared is twice removed.  There are a million reasons I can’t succeed and yet all I can think about is the one reason I can: because I want it that damned bad.  Now, more than ever, I’m glad I have nothing around me except the highest caliber of believers, and I’m grateful that, as depressing as it is, I realize how little time there is.

     There isn’t time to listen to anyone else tell you what you should do.  All you need to know is that fish belong in water, painters belong on canvas and writers belong on paper.  It’s just a matter of finding out who you are… your station in life will follow.  Time is precious.  So, if you’re going to stop and smell the roses, first be sure you’re not standing in someone else’s garden.


     Plowing through my collaborative novel with my mentor/writing partner Kim, I’ve recently come across some interesting issues.  I’m writing about a guy who lures beautiful women into his home, murders them, and then stores them in a mine he calls, “The Gallery” in some far off canyon.  The problem is that, as far as the death scenes go, I have no idea what I’m talking about.  I did a google search of all things death related and of course, found only meager pieces of valuable information buried deep in the trenches of nonsense, morbidity for its own sake, and things I couldn’t even be sure were true.  I should have expressed my uncertainties on this topic to Kim earlier on.  As it turns out, one of her good friends of about twenty years just so happens to be a mortician. (On a disturbing side note, he is also a professional masseuse, but that, hilarious as it is, is neither here nor there.)  When I told Kim about my uncertainties, she recommended we meet with this guy.  I, of course, was all over it.

     Because of scheduling conflicts, we were unable to meet with the man in person, so instead, we set a time, called him, put him on speaker phone and took very scrupulous notes.  What first struck me about this guy was his incredible sense of humor and lighthearted approach to the subjects of death and dying.  I suppose that on some level, I bought into the cliché that in order to be a mortician, one needed to possess that introverted, far away, brooding disposition, complete no doubt, with an eerie glazed over look in the eyes.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  This guy was completely normal (well, except that he’s a mortician/massage therapist anyway).  The point is, I felt comfortable with him immediately and had no hesitation to ask him even the most hideous questions concerning the macabre topic of death.

          He left the conversation wide open to us, answering whatever questions we had, no matter how intimate, about the dying process, rigor mortis, decomposition, and even, for story purposes,  what effects a snug plastic wrap job would have on a body.  I was repeatedly stunned by his easy way of describing to us the goriest details of this sensitive topic.  Many people are not comfortable with those details, and so for their sake, I will forego them and simply say that yesterday, I learned more in under an hour than I have in just about any classroom I’ve occupied in the past.

     I’m glad we asked.  As it turns out, there were a couple erroneous pitfalls that blew holes in the story which really needed to be fixed.  Consequently, I will need to tweak the murderous methods of my main character to match reality, but I’m glad I found out now rather than later. 

     I blogged not too long ago on writing research and the fascinating places it takes you, but my experience yesterday, I must say, trumps even the kink parties and church hopping.  The reason I say this is because the things this man told me went far beyond necessary informational material for me.  It’s death, after all.  It’s personal, and I was D, all of the above! (startled, mortified, relieved and baffled) by the things I learned.  And this is just one facet of writing that I love.  Granted, I had terrible dreams last night and was plagued throughout the day by images of things I’d never before conceived of, but that is, in all its terrible glory, the beauty of writing.  The mortician, or as I called him, “The Stiff Stacker,” turned out to be an invaluable resource, one that, given the general direction my writing tends to go, I will undoubtedly utilize in the future.  Kim and I are setting another date with him, in person this time, do further discuss the horrible truths of this topic.  I figure as long as he doesn’t look like John Wayne Gacy, I will be okay.

   And by the way, before I got off the phone with him, I did say to him, “I have a personal question for you.  Tell me… do you see the morbid humor in the fact that you are both a mortician and a masseuse?”  He was quiet for just a moment and then, “Yes,” he said, “as a matter of fact… I do.”


     Every writer must eventually part ways with some of his or her favorite creations for the sake of the greater good.  There are dozens of names for this process:  Slaughtering your sacred cows, Killing your darlings, or the term I find most fitting, Cutting the fat.  No matter what you choose to call it though, it sucks.

     There are two types of “cuts”, and although both can be equally painful, the first one (which is the removal of an unecessary sentence) is substantially less time-consuming than the second (which is the deletion of an entire scene.)  In deleting an uneeded sentence, I can at least take solace in the fact that I didn’t spend hours and hours working on it.  For me, these kinds of space-wasters are usually just flowery details that, for some reason, I’ve become unreasonably attached to.  I guess this is where my inner poet likes to rear his stubborn but eloquent and impassioned (and often pompous), beautiful head.  (Uncle Carlos is only there to give dirty looks to the main character.  Does he really need to be “a blandly handsome man with an air of quick-thinning tolerance about him”?) But over all, I am able to see the ultimate detriment to this kind of self-indulgence, and generally have no trouble toning down the details.

     Then there is the second kind of cut: scene deletion.  This, for me, has always been far more demoralizing.  It’s one thing to just clean up the excess portions of a scene, and quite another to look at it in its entirety and disheartedly realize (or worse be told by an outside source) that the entire piece is basically no good.  I got my first real lesson in this right off the bat when my mentor, Kim (Williams-Justesen), and I did the first read through of my first manuscript, The White Room.

     We were at the cemetery downtown, (now that I think about it, that sounds very odd.  Why were we at the cemetery?  Oh yeah… because it’s peaceful, beautiful and well, dead people don’t tend to interrupt), sitting on the lawn on a warm spring day.  I was all kinds of excited because it was the first time I’d be able to hear my story out loud and with continuity.  Kim began reading.  It was a disaster.  Instead of gently rowing down the stream as I believed we would be, the first thirteen pages or so felt more like being in an aluminum canoe on a wind-peeved sea.  Had I had any Dramamine handy, I would have taken it… and without protest to the inevitable drooling drug daze those pills always put me in.  Anyway, Kim was kind enough to continue to the end of the chapter which thankfully, had smoothed out a bit.  When she was done, she looked at the pages in her hand and then looked at me.  “You want to know what I think?” she asked.  I said that yes, I did indeed want to know, but in truth, I wasn’t sure I really did.  She turned the manuscript back to page one, and then one after another, plucked page after page away from the stack.  Somewhere around mid-chapter one, she stopped and pointed to a paragraph in the middle of the page.  “I think this is where your story starts,” she said.     

     I was stunned.  I argued.  I made excuses.  I rationalized and justified.  But worst of all, in truth… I agreed with her.  The reality was that the first half of that chapter was nothing more than a confusing warm-up.  I’d struck on some significant points in those pages, but over all, it was crap.  I stewed the rest of the day as we read the other chapters, and that night, I went home with my tail between my legs and started re-writing and implanting the few decent scraps from the trash pages, as needed into the newer, better beginning.  I made a decision that day that I would never let that happen again.  Unfortunately, however, I think that, at least to some degree, writing some crap is inevitable. 

     For me there are two reasons an uneccessary scene gets written in the first place.  The first, and most common reason, is that my “muse” gets an inspired hair up his ass… and just runs like hell with it, as if trying to outrun my sense of good judgment and discrimination.  I start with a plan… and end up not only in left field, but in an altogether different tennis tournament entirely.   When the muse gets this kind of head start, I find myself reading page after page of unholy gibberish that, if ever seen by a professional, would seal my fate as a failed writer.  Forever.

     The second reason I write bad scenes is simple: laziness.  I don’t feel like writing, but I know I have to, and therefore, I sit down and very simply fill white space with whatever nonsense comes into my mind.  Perhaps my character needs to pee.  At times like these, that seems pretty important.  Or maybe Henry the optometrist will spend a few hours petting the dog.  Nevermind that there was no dog before now.  Now Henry has a dog.  Yep.  Pet the dog, it is.  That will fill the empty space.  That being said, I actually prefer this kind of “very bad scene.”  It’s much easier to say goodbye to utter nonsense than to the flowery grandeur of my terribly possessive (and I suspect, alcoholic,) muse.

    Any way you look at it, editing is a bitch.  You wind up deleting hours of your life you will never get back, but alas… it’s necessary, and what works for me is I try to get it as close to perfect as I can, not because I’m such a perfectionist, but because I am insecure enough that I really don’t want to invite any more criticism than necessary. Still, it’s a drink-inducing, hair-pulling, teeth-grinding emotional calamity that although I might (let’s be honest) wish on my worst enemy, I do not wish on you.  Happy travels!


     In September of 2010, I met my first literary agent at a writing conference in Salt Lake City.  She’d flown in from New York City to be on the panel and to meet new writers.  At that time, I was just more than half way finished with my first full-length novel, The White Room.

     This agent is maybe five feet tall, weighs perhaps ninety pounds wet, and is probably nearly ten years my junior.  I had no reason to be intimidated by her.  However, as we talked and she asked me more and more questions, I grew very anxious.  For the first time that I can recall, I broke out into a terrible and embarrassing sweat.  I was that nervous.  But she was very polite.  She asked me all about the story, the dynamics between the characters and how the story would end.  After trembling my way through the conversation, she did something every aspiring writer dreams of: she handed me her business card.  Then she said something every aspiring writer hopes to hear.  She said, “When you are finished, and if you are interested, I’d like you to send me the full manuscript.”

     “I’ll be finished by the end of November,” I said, and even as I spoke the words, I mentally kicked myself for having said them.  No way was I going to be finished that soon.

     “Don’t rush,” she said, “I want you to write a good story.  But if you can have it finished within the next six months, just send me the manuscript and your cover letter.  If it takes longer than six months, send a query letter as well, just to remind me who you are.”

     I went downstairs, not really understanding the weight of what had happened.  My mentor, Kim Williams-Justesen (Mimi) was sitting on a sofa in the lobby (we were at a hotel by the airport).  When she asked me how it went, I told her placidly that I guessed it had gone okay.  As I told her the details of my conversation with the agent, she became ecstatic.  “Do you realize what this means?” she said.  I replied that no, I really didn’t.  “It means she asked you to send your entire manuscript!  And you can send it ‘requested material!'”

     I went home that night and plowed into the story with everything I had.  For the next two months, I did nothing but write.  I wrote sometimes for twelve hours straight.  I didn’t eat.  I didn’t go out with friends.  I didn’t do anything outside The White Room.  I even called in sick to work on several occasions to write. 

     I finished the first draft of the manuscript on October 24th, 2010.  With the help of Kim, I’d been revising and polishing quite a bit as I went along, but I still needed to do a full read-through and incorporate more revisions.  That took just over a month, and by the seventh of December, Kim and I were standing in line at the post office, manuscript in hand.

     We got into my car after mailing it off.  I looked at Kim and I remember saying to her, “It’s going to kill me if she doesn’t take it, you know that, don’t you?” 

     I’d promised myself I wouldn’t get too excited.  I was fully aware of the odds.  To meet one agent, one time, on your first book, and being taken by that agent… well, that’s a lot of lightning to strike in same place at once.  I knew this.  So I wasn’t going to get my hopes up… but a funny thing happens when you’ve finished a novel and sent it out to an agent that has expressed interest in you:  you get your hopes up.  Despite the odds, despite the plethora of rejection letters every writer is wise to expect, you get your hopes up. 

      “It won’t kill you,” Kim said, “this is just part of the game.  If she says no, you’ll send it to someone else.  And if they say no, you’ll send it out again.  I hate to tell you this, but writing the book is the easy part.”

     For the first month or so after sending the manuscript off, I was fine.  By week seven, I was a mess.  According to the website, it takes four to eight weeks for the agents to respond to manuscripts sent Requested Material.  Despite my efforts, I was obsessed with whether or not the agent had read it and whether she loved it or hated it.  Then I began obsessing over whether or not it even made it to her.

     In the meantime, Kim and I began a joint project we’re currently calling An Evil Heart.  This new book was the only thing that distracted me from the imagined fate of The White Room.  It makes no sense to write a book, send it off and wait.  Most agents require sole viewing rights to your manuscript, which means you can’t print off a hundred copies of your book and send each one to a different agent to further increase your chances of snagging someone’s attention.  Well, you could do this, but it is considered unethical and unprofessional, so I surmised that with me being so new to the game, I would be wise to play by the rules.  Since this agent had personally requested my manuscript, I figured she deserved that much from me.

     But here’s the hard part about that.  As of tomorrow, this agent will have had The White Room for three full months.  If I get an e-mail, a phone call, or a letter in the mail saying, “Thanks, but… well, this sucks,” that’s three months the book could have been circulating among other agents who might be interested in the story as well.  I’d be lying if I said that didn’t bother me just a little bit.

     On the plus side, I did receive an e-mail from the agent on February 8th saying that due to the holidays, she was behind schedule and thanks for understanding.  I guess that’s something.  But again… that was a month ago.

     Truth is, I don’t know if I’m tough enough for this.  I’m not saying I will quit if the agents passes on The White Room, but I am saying that, despite my efforts otherwise, it will not be easy for me to accept.  I went into this business full knowing I was in for a lot of waiting and a lot of rejection.  I thought I could handle it.  But what if I can’t?  The waiting alone just floors me some days and I am continually astounded by the wide range of emotions this whole thing invokes.  It’s exhausting is what it is. 

     There are days I think I’ll be okay if she says no to me.  After all, there are thousands of agents out there, not to mention, I have about a hundred more books to write before I die.  But then there are the other days when I am sure that if she says no, especially after all this time, I will implode on myself and lose faith in my writing… and never dare put myself through this again.

     But this is part of the game.  This is how it works, and I know of only one thing that alleviates the agony: keep writing.  Write your ass off and start dreaming of the next storyline, the next agent… the next novel.  So that’s what I’m going to do.  I’ve decided that I need to understand the difference between the things I can control, and the things I can’t.

     This is what I can control:  I can keep writing and I can write damned good if I want to.  I can continue to search for the next great storyline and I can learn and improve the skills I need to execute it beautifully.  I can present myself accordingly and hopefully garner a reputation as professional if not a marketable writer. I can understand how this business works and continue to send my work to agent after agent after agent if I have to…

   And here’s what I can’t control:  I can’t control who publishes any of my work or when.  I can’t control what anyone thinks of my style, my content or my talent.  I can’t control the market, nor can I accurately predict what’s hot and what will sell.  In short, I can’t control the world or anyone in it.

     But, despite the agent’s silence, I am at peace now.  I’ve decided that I’m not in the results business.  It’s up to me to do the footwork and write the books, and write them well.  But it’s up to the agents, the universe, whoever… to control the results.  I can’t control any of that.  All I can do is write and be good at it, and that’s okay.  The writing of the story is the real joy of this process.  That is a fact I nearly forgot.  So I don’t need to think about my manuscripts once they’re in the mail.  It’s not my business anymore.  All I can do is… keep writing…

     So I’m gonna.