Thursday, July 14, 2016

If at First, You Don’t Succeed…


How long did it take for you to become an overnight sensation? (How many days/months/years after you began seriously writing a novel did it take for you to get published?)

If I ever become a sensation—overnight or otherwise—I’ll be sure to let everyone know. (Of course, if I become a sensation, then everyone will already know. Hmm…)

My novel publishing history, in brief:

My fiction-writing career began in 2004 when I took a Fairfax County Adult Ed class on genre writing, taught by the wonderful Elaine Raco Chase. I remember writing a story, and although it contained about 80 semi-colons, it didn’t stink.

Which was encouragement enough.

So I kept at it, taking a few writing workshops at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD (from the terrific Ann McLaughlin and the fabulous Noreen Wald). I wrote some short stories, then began a novel, and my work continued “not to stink.” I plugged away, improving my craft, and eventually hooked up with a critique group. I finished a manuscript and revised it, but I could tell it wasn’t “publishable” quality. (Right now, that manuscript is stored in a lead-lined container which is buried in my backyard, posing no threat to society.)

I wrote another manuscript. My writing was getting better, but it still fell short of where I wanted it to be. So, after attending a Citizen’s Police Academy, I began a third manuscript based on an experience during a police ride-along.

I finished that manuscript, then revised, edited, and polished it until I was pleased with the result. I took a workshop on how to write query letters and wrote a killer query. In my bones, I knew I had a winner! Over the course of several months, I sent out about 100 queries to literary agents.

Over the course of those same several months, I got about 100 rejections.

Clearly, my idea of a winner differed from the agents’ ideas. (By the way, I self-published a revised version of that novel, called RIDE-ALONG. Available on Amazon!)

But I was not deterred.

I wrote another novel, FIRST TIME KILLER (for those keeping track, this was manuscript #4). Queried it, and this time, I landed an agent. He sent it around, but no editor bought it. (I ended up revising and self-publishing that novel, too. Available on Amazon!)

My agent wanted to concentrate on non-fiction, so we parted ways.

Again agentless, I went to work on manuscript number five. Finished it and queried it. Found an agent (for those keeping score, this was agent #2), and the novel found a home some months later (at Midnight Ink). That book, DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD, was a finalist for the Best First Novel Agatha Award. After that, I published two more books with Midnight Ink.

DIAMONDS 72From first workshop to publication: about six years (and it was my fifth manuscript).

To date, I’ve published seven novels—three and a half “traditionally” and three and a half “self-published.” I’m also on my third agent. It’s a wacky business!

Lesson learned: Don’t give up!

(*And don’t throw away your early attempts—some of them may, one day, see the light!)


            (This entry “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Anxiety Times Thirty

 
What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological and logistical) in bringing your latest book to life?
 
runningcoverforwebsiteOne year ago, my latest novel, RUNNING FROM THE PAST, was published by Kindle Press (an Amazon Publishing imprint) after winning a contract through the Kindle Scout program.

What’s the Kindle Scout program, you ask? A brief summary:

The Kindle Scout program is sort of like American Idol for books. If you’re an author with a completed manuscript (in one of a handful of select genres) and a cover, you can enter. There’s an introductory screening, and if Amazon approves, then the cover, a bio, a short book blurb, and an excerpt (up to about 5000 words) of the novel itself get uploaded onto the Kindle Scout site, and your 30-day campaign begins.

During this campaign, readers (“Scouts”) can peruse the different campaigns and nominate those books they would like to see get published (each Scout can have three books nominated at any one time). The books with the most nominations after their campaign ends get further reviewed by the Kindle Scout editorial staff. Then, those books that the editors like (and see sales potential in, no doubt) receive contracts.

The Scouts are rewarded, too. Each Scout who nominates a winning book gets a free copy of the book two weeks before it gets published.

Now, to answer this week’s four-part question.

Were there any research challenges?
Not really. I set the book in places I’d vacationed, so there wasn’t a whole lot of research necessary.

Were there any literary challenges?
None, beside my lack of a formal education in grammar! (Me never let that stop myself!)

Were there any logistical challenges?
Again, not really. I’d put this manuscript on Wattpad, so it was already fully edited and ready to go, and I already had a professionally-designed cover.

Were there any psychological challenges?
Just every single day, for thirty straight days!

Because getting a lot of nominations is an important part of the process, I tried many things to garner votes. Some things worked, some things didn’t. Each day brought new challenges and worries, including those days when I didn’t do any promoting (I should be promoting!). Stressful!

My book was in the first wave of Kindle Scout books, and I didn’t know what to expect. There were no real metrics regarding how well the book was doing, except for a Hot & Trending List, which would get updated hourly. (Now there are more real-time statistics about how a book is doing, I believe.) So, basically, I was anxious for thirty straight days as I checked the Hot List hourly every waking hour. Yes, my mouse-clicking finger developed a callous.

But it didn’t end there—after the campaign ended, I was in limbo for a few days, waiting for Amazon’s decision. More anxiety.

I wish I could say that after I received the contract, my stress dwindled. But as many authors know, the stress doesn’t end with a book’s publication.

There’s always some marketing or promotion to do, and the feeling that you’re never quite doing enough persists!

Kindle Scout t-shirt selfie




(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Multicolor Mulch

If you could go back five years and change something about your writing life, what would it be?

I generally don’t harbor regrets, and I’m not much of a second-guesser (when it comes to my own decisions, anyway). Looking back, I’d probably make all of the same decisions I made with the information I had at the time. But since this week’s question specifically allows us to use hindsight, I’ll force myself to come up with something (or many things. Maybe I SHOULD become more of a second-guesser!).

colored spiral If I could roll back the odometer five years (to right around the release of my debut novel), I would:

Stick to one genre. Instead of writing mystery, thriller, horror, and YA, I’d pick one (or two) and cultivate more of a fan base/track record before trying to branch out.

Move on more quickly when things aren’t working. Rather than stay “stuck” in a certain situation, I’d make changes more rapidly. Although the waiting game is a big part of publishing, I think there have been many times when I’ve waited too long before acting.

Not get so “hyped up” over book releases. Now, after having been through more than a few, I realize how much of the promotion/marketing is really out of my hands—I can only move the needle so much through my own efforts. (I still put forth plenty of effort, but I now understand that sometimes immediate results aren’t always evident.)

Not order so many bookmarks. (If you’re driving around Northern Virginia and you see a yard where all the trees and bushes are mulched with shredded bits of multi-colored paper, that’s my place!)

Eat more cake.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Ch-Ch-Changes

We're asked a lot about how we write, but less about how we edit. How do you know what to change and when to stop?

The End When I type “The End” on a draft, it’s a great feeling, for sure. I exhale deeply, crack my knuckles, and unclench every muscle in my body. Yet, there’s a small, squeaky voice in the back of my head, whispering, “You know you’re not finished, bucko. You know the pain is just beginning.”

I do know that, but I still savor the moment. After a brief period of celebration, I stuff my manuscript in the proverbial drawer for a cooling-off period. Could be a couple days, could be a couple weeks. Could even be longer (I think I’ve got one still chilling in my drawer from 2009).

When I’m brave enough, I pull it out and the revision process can commence. First thing, I’ll reread the entire manuscript, all the way through. I generally realize it’s not as bad as I thought (in spots) and not as good as I thought (in other spots). One thing I do know: it will be very uneven. There will be plot holes and timeline issues. (I once had a day contain about 36 hours. Another time, I’d set a roaring fire in a fireplace, but it was the middle of summer.)

On my read-through, I take copious notes.

After the initial read, I’ll go back and fix things. What do I change? Everything that “doesn’t work.”

When I write the first draft, I write linearly—straight on through, no editing. When I revise, I jump around, usually fixing the bigger stuff first. I find that sometimes it’s an iterative process. Changes in one spot will prompt changes in another spot, and this, in turn, will force me to go back and change things some more.

After that, I’ll make a few separate editing passes, mostly to address specific things. The next time through is usually for the plot. Does it make sense? Does it hold together? Are there gigantic holes or flaws in logic? At this stage, I’ll map everything on a timeline to make sure it all works within the constraints of the universe

Next time through, I read for characterization. Are the characters consistent? Are their motivations sound?

Then I’ll beef up the dialogue, or the descriptions, or the settings, or any of a dozen other things.

At some point, I need to lock down some of that research I’ve put off (place names, dates, esoteric stuff that requires some one-on-one time with Mr. Google).

As I go, anything that gets deleted gets dumped into a “clips” file. Who knows, I may change my mind and put it back into the manuscript, or I may find a way to repurpose it in another work. Those words don’t always come easy, so if I can recycle them, I’ll do it!

When I write a draft, I don’t include chapter breaks; I usually wait until I’m pretty far along in the revision process before doing that.

I also don’t polish the prose until sometime toward the end of the process. (No sense doing it earlier, especially if you’ll be deleting a lot of prose along the way). I always make sure to search on my crutch words (just, pretty, that, maybe, etc.), run spell/grammar check, make sure the formatting is okay, and other important stuff.

After the manuscript is “ready,” I give it to some beta readers. When I get their comments, I start the process all over again. All. Over. Again.

When do I stop revising? I guess when the changes I make simply make the manuscript different and not better.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Hello, My Name is…

How do you find the perfect name?

hello nametag I open up a phone book (remember those?) and stab my finger blindly onto the page. That’s the name of my protagonist. Flip more pages and repeat for all the other characters.

Oh, if only it were that easy.

Character names are important to me, so I spend a lot of time thinking about them. Once in a long while, a name pops into my head that’s perfect. In THE TASTE, one of the secondary characters is named Bogart, and it took me about three seconds to come up with that one.

Usually, though, it’s a much more protracted process. With a character in mind, I’ll generate/brainstorm a list of names. As my list grows, somehow the character becomes more defined in my mind, and the disparity between the names I’m generating and the “perfect” name narrows.

After I’ve got a list of between ten and fifty names, I’ll go through and start eliminating. (And adding others, as I think of them). When I’ve narrowed it down to two or three, then I sleep on it.

And often, four days later, I’ll change the character’s name to something brand new. Naming characters is more of an art form than a science.

I agree with Meredith on many counts when it comes to naming characters (see her post on Monday). Like her, I’ll test drive a name for a while (even half a book!). If it doesn’t feel right, I have no resistance to changing it.

Like Meredith, it’s important to me that my characters have age-appropriate names, so I also use the SSA website to authenticate my names. And she’s right about getting sidetracked!

Also like Meredith, I try to avoid using character names that begin with the same letter. To keep track of things, I use a chart, with the letters of the alphabet down the left hand side and three other columns: male first names, female first names, and last names. I try to fill out each block in the grid before using the same initial letter in a name.

I also try to avoid names that rhyme: Jill, Bill, Will, Phil, McGill. And I try to vary the length of the names, too—can’t have everyone with a one-syllable name!

Last rule? No characters named Alan.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


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Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Little of Me, a Little of Someone Else

Is your protagonist really you?
How do you separate him/her from you?

Frankensteins monster I am not my characters. I’m not a depressed stand-up comic. I’m not a rich workaholic. I’m not a radio talk show host. I’m definitely not someone who must eat human flesh to survive (at least I’m pretty sure I’m not).

I am my characters. I laugh. I cry. I strive to be a good person. I get annoyed. I’m rude (not very often, but it happens!). I know what it’s like to wait in line to buy a ticket, and when I get to the front, they’re sold out. I hate traffic. I like cake (actually, I love cake).

Sometimes I even talk out of both sides of my mouth (just like my characters!).

Of course, I don’t consciously try to pattern my protagonists after myself. I mean, who in their right mind would want to read about me? I’m dull (seriously). Readers would be bored after a page and a half. And I don’t try to write characters who are simply an exaggerated version of me. That just seems weird and egocentric. Introducing Alvin Worloff, the smartest, funniest, most interesting man in the world. He doesn’t drink beer often, but when he does, it’s Dom Perignon! There he goes on his jetpack to rid the world of talking velociraptors!

Um, no.

On the other hand, how can my characters be anything but me, at least on some level? I mean, they emerged from my head; their actions are informed by my thoughts, experiences, and emotions. Their every thought is filtered through my lens. They have to be part of me, almost by definition.

Sure, I do my best to portray them as being unique individuals, unlike me for the most part. Give them a different set of values, have them believe in stuff I don’t. Make them do things I would never, ever, ever do (cannibalism comes to mind). But I think if you’ll examine any of my characters, you’ll recognize at least some aspect of me, no matter how hard I try not to let any of my DNA creep in.

But what should I expect? I created them.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Eyes Open! Stay Awake!

No boredom Sometimes you become so interested in the research for your book that it takes over the story. What do you do to keep it from becoming a treatise that only serves to make your readers’ eyes close with boredom?

Some people, old roommates mostly, call me lazy. I prefer the term efficient. I don’t like waste, be it energy, food, money, brainpower, or time (especially food).

I know a lot of writers enjoy spelunking in the proverbial stacks, unearthing long-forgotten historical tomes. Their jaws drop in wonder at a newly-discovered journal from the 1300’s or a never-before-seen map of the ancient Roman empire.

I’m not one of them. I strive to do exactly as much research as necessary and not one iota more. I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of including too much research in any of my books or stories. Ever. Really, EVER.

Readers don’t need to know how the sausage is made. They just need to know that one of my characters has stopped at a street vendor to get a delicious brat on a bun.

Don’t get me wrong, I work hard to make sure that what I write is as accurate as possible and, in order to do that, research must be conducted. It’s just not my favorite thing. That’s why I rarely worry about bombarding my readers with all kinds of arcane knowledge. I try to give them just what they need to understand whatever is going on in my book.

I operate on a simple plan: if it serves the story, it goes in.

If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

*****

Still a few more days left in Amazon’s The Big Deal sale! More than 350 Kindle books for up to 85% off, including RUNNING FROM THE PAST for only $1.99!

RUNNING cover

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


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