Monday, June 29, 2009

My Middle’s a Muddle

Help me. Please, help me.

I've entered the dreaded "muddle in the middle."

Writers know what I'm talking about. It's that place in your novel where stuff needs to happen to move the story along, but you don't know what, not exactly (maybe not even vaguely, if you haven't outlined well enough). You've stormed through the "beginning" of the book, hooking readers and introducing characters and creating challenges for them to overcome. You've described the setting, you've wedged in a sub-plot (or two, if you're ambitious), and you've managed to bring the readers along for the ride. Everything is going along perfectly, until...shplatt. You find yourself in the muddle.

Now what? 

No, seriously, now what?

I'm 30,000 words into my current WIP, and I need some stuff to happen. Good stuff. Stuff that will propel this story into the final act. Stuff that will keep my readers turning pages and missing subway stops. Stuff that is intriguing, captivating, emotion-tugging, mysterious, amazing, humorous, unexpected, quirky, brilliant, compelling, and plot-advancing.*

Any suggestions?

Or should I just bump someone off and get rolling again?


*Stuff that doesn't involve space aliens. Although...


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Read These

Two quick book recommendations:

THE BRASS VERDICT by Michael Connelly TheBrassVerdictHC02

Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller returns in this one, and he's defending a big-wig studio exec charged with murder. Another Connelly gem (most are), and Harry Bosch is involved, in more than just a cameo appearance. (I'm not sure what I think about this--maybe that's a good topic for another post: characters crossing over from another series.) The courtroom drama is taut, and the twists at the end were perfect. I think I'm starting to like Mickey Haller more than Harry Bosch--and that's saying something!



PlayingWithMatches180 This coming-of-age YA book combines humor with all the social awkwardness of not being one of the in-crowd. I'll be looking for the next Katcher book ALMOST PERFECT, due out in October.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hold the Disco

A few weeks ago, I rented the movie FROST/NIXON. Then, a few days ago, I rented ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.* It was an All Pres Menentertaining movie--great actors (Redford, Hoffman, Warden, Robards) and a compelling story. But I couldn't help fixating on two other things that hit closer to home. 

1) The fashion/technology of the Swinging Seventies.

Having lived through that era (albeit during my impressionable teenage years), I found myself getting quite nostalgic/embarrassed at some of the stuff Redford and Hoffman (as Woodward and Bernstein) wore and used. (I mean, knit ties? What were we thinking?)

Remember these?

  • Corduroy suits.
  • Polyester shirts with crazy collars.
  • Knit ties with square bottoms.
  • Fat, fat, fat regular ties.
  • Dial phones.
  • An entire storage closet with phone books from around the country.
  • Typewriters on the desks.
  • Smoking in the office, smoking in the elevators, smoking everywhere.

(With the exception of the smoking habit, I owned all of the above. Of course, the corduroy suit looked much better on Redford than on me.)

2) The Washington Post

Fifteen or so years after Watergate, I worked at The Washington Post as a summer intern. (It was between years of business school, and I worked on the business side, not the editorial side). As part of the program, I had the opportunity to learn about many different parts of the newspaper business. I sat in on a story conference, rode with a distributor at 4 a.m., worked the night shift in the pressroom, went on a sales call (or two), and got to chat one-on-one with Ben Bradlee** (as well as Donald Graham, David Ignatius, and others).

It was fascinating, to say the least.

It brought back memories to see the Post in the movie: the front of the building on 15th Street, the fifth-floor newsroom, even the parking deck next door (since replaced by an office building). One thing that didn’t change: the reporters’ zeal for getting the story.***


What groovy things from the Seventies do you remember, either fondly or not so fondly (beside disco)?


*For the third movie in my little trilogy, maybe I should rent THE JERK.

**If you thought Jason Robards's Oscar-winning portrayal of Ben Bradlee was larger-than-life, you should have met Ben Bradlee. In real life, he was larger than life.

***Now, of course, many of the mechanics of the newspaper business are different (computers, Internet, natural fibers), but the mission--reporting news--is essentially the same. I hope newspapers survive.


Friday, June 19, 2009

What’s That Smell?

First drafts bite.

Well, I'm not sure about everyone's first drafts, but I'm pretty sure about mine. They bite. They are wildly uneven, too short, too long, too slow, too fast-paced, convoluted, boring, and silly. Some of the character's names are stupid, and I find the people I’m writing about do a lot of nodding, shrugging, snorting, and weird things with their eyes. The prose is drab and lifeless, and the sentences hardly whisper, let alone sing. When I go back and re-read what I've written, sometimes I get nauseated. 250px-Monkey-typing

Like I said, my first drafts bite. 

But, with a number of completed manuscripts under my belt (and a few safely stowed under my bed), I know what to expect, and I'm not too worried. I always feel this way as I slog through the first draft of anything I've written. Before I'm finished, I'll probably go back through and change out every word two or three times (or more). I'll move sections around, re-order whole scenes, and change characters' names until I get them just right. Maybe I'll birth siblings or kill off parents or rescue an orphaned puppy. Careers will change, cars will be traded in for newer (or older) models, households will move, and I may even transform a male into a female (no surgery required!). Thank goodness for the global find/replace command in WORD.

Change is the only constant.

Sometimes when I look back on a first draft, I don't even recognize it. Believe me, that's a good thing.

There is one saving grace about a first draft--you get to keep those rare gems you find in the muck. You know, those rare instances when you've (accidentally) turned a great phrase or hit upon the perfect rejoinder or penned the wittiest snatch of dialogue ever. That's when you realize what first drafts are for. Of course, without a first draft, how could you ever have a second draft?

By the way, I'm about a third of the way through a first draft.

It bites.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Marco! Polo!




Summer has arrived.


The weather's turned hot and steamy, school is over (save for the end-of-year parties), and the Little League regular season has ended, one game short of the local World Series. As the song says, the living is easy.

I wish the writing were easy during the summer, too.

But there are lots of summer-fueled distractions. The kids are underfoot, and they need rides to camp and tennis practice and play rehearsals. The tomato plants need watering and the grass needs cutting and the raspberries need picking. The golf course beckons, and there's nothing like getting a good shvitz while running a few miles in the DC area's three-H summertime clime (Hot, Hazy, Humid). There are vacations and family reunions and barbeques to attend.

This summer, there are also a bunch of other "new" distractions for me to contend with: Facebook, Twitter, ning, and all the other shiny cyber-toys just waiting for me to discover. (Don't even get me started on all the books I plan to read this summer!)

So how am I going to get anything done on my new WIP?

It's all in the planning. I've set a good portion of my new story at the swimming pool. Now--conveniently--I'll be able to combine some research/writing with summertime distractions.

Pretty clever, huh?

So pass the sunscreen and get some ice for the lemonade. I've got work to do!


Monday, June 15, 2009

My Favorite Elvi

In my last post I mentioned Elvis. Which, of course, got me thinking about my five favorite Elvi.

Here they are, in descending order:

5) Elvis Presley - I like a couple of his songs (Suspicious Minds and Jailhouse Rock), but I'm not a giant fan. I did like my trip to the gift shop outside the gates of Graceland (and the mean streets beyond*).

4) Elvis Costello - I like a couple of his songs, too (Alison and Peace, Love, and Understanding). I never visited his home.

3) Elvis Grbac - I had him as my second-string quarterback in a fantasy football league once. Did pretty well. I like the way he spells his last name. 300px-Elvis_impersonators_record


2) Any Elvis impersonator - 'nuff said. 




1) Elvis Cole - Robert Crais's wiseguy PI protagonist. If you haven't read any of these books, start at the beginning with The Monkey's Raincoat.

Monkey's Raincoat


*When my family stopped in Memphis during our cross-country trip a few years ago, my older son and I dropped my wife and younger son at Graceland while we toured the Gibson Guitar factory. When we went to pick them up, we arrived early, so we parked on a nearby side street. About sixty yards away, in front of a house, we watched a guy get out of his car and puke. Then he got some clothes from the  back of the car and changed (right on the street). After he finished, he stumbled around to the other side of the car (I think he puked again). A few minutes later, another dude came out of the house, went over to the puker and gave him a package in exchange for a wad of bills (real subtle, if we could see it from sixty yards away). Then the dude casually walked across the street and disappeared into the neighborhood. The puker got into his car and drove off. (Of course, I shouldn't draw any conclusions--maybe the drugs were simply to cure his nausea.)


Friday, June 12, 2009

What's in a Name?

I spend a lot of time choosing names for my characters. I believe the “perfect” name can give readers a sense of who your characters are, even before they learn another thing about them. Of course, different names mean different things to different people*, but I believe many distinctive names come "pre-loaded" with character qualities.

For instance, I have certain preconceived notions about people with these names. Do you?

  • Raquel
  • Bubba
  • Shaquille
  • Elvis
  • Angus McDougalbrangelina
  • Lolita
  • Charles Wellington III
  • Abraham
  • Ishmael
  • Travis
  • Homer
  • Brangelina


Some things I consider when picking names (or nicknames):

1) Physical appearance. What does the character look like? What mannerisms do they exhibit? I think it would be weird to write about a guy with black hair named Red.

2) Nationality or cultural heritage.

3) Socioeconomic background. Charles Wellington III doesn’t sound like a pauper to me.

4) Family names. If a character has a mother named Mary and a father named John, I wouldn't name him Xerxes.

Elvis5) Similarity to famous people. If I read a book with a character named Melvis Prasley, I'd be thrown right out of the story (even if he did wear a nice, understated jumpsuit). 

6) Age. This is one of the biggest factors I consider. Agnes might work for a senior citizen, but I don't know too many four-year-old kids named Agnes.** The Social Security Administration has an invaluable site that lists the most popular baby names for any year, going back to 1880.*** I always check my names against their database before making a final decision.

7) The initial letter of other characters' names. I don't want to confuse readers (okay, I don't want to confuse myself), so I track the letters I use, for both male and female first names, as well as for last names. I won't use the same initial letter for two characters, if I can possibly help it. (Have you ever read a book with a Jim, John, Joe, Jeff, and Jerry? Tough sledding.)

8) Is the name easy to type? If I’m going to be typing someone’s name a ton of times, I sure don't want something like Xanthippe or Rumpelstiltskin. (On the other hand, too many three letter names would seem a bit odd…)

Finally, after I pick a name, I conduct the smell test:

Knowing everything I know about my character, can I "picture" him/her with that name? If not, it's on to the next possibility.

What are some of your tips for naming characters?


*A lot depends on the people you've met throughout your life. If a jerk named Dirk used to steal your lunch money, then you might be predisposed to dislike anyone else named Dirk.

**For the record, I have nothing against anyone named Agnes.

***In 1880, John was the most popular male name, and Mary was the most popular female name. Xerxes didn't make the top 1000.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Idea Store

It's a common question for writers:

Where do you get your ideas?

I used to get my ideas from local, independent, mom-and-pop idea stores. Back in the day, it seemed like there was one on every lightbulb corner. You'd wander in, not quite sure what you were looking for, and some nice--and knowledgeable--idea clerk would come over, chat with you for a while, then walk you over to a certain shelf and select the perfect idea.

Why, that's it! How did you know I wanted something in an 80,000-word mystery with a twenty-nine-year-old male protagonist who works in a sandwich shop?

But the indies were overwhelmed by the big-box chain idea stores. Cavernous warehouses full of ideas. You could get lost for days, wandering the aisles looking for that hard-to-locate gem. But try to find someone who really knew ideas to help you? Fuggedaboudit! (Of course, the prices were appealing. Everyday Low Price: Ideas - Twelve for ten cents.)

Then the Internet arrived in a big way. You could go on-line, browse a catalog from the comfort of your own home, and order an idea (hey, order two--save on shipping!) to be delivered to your doorstep. But I never seemed satisfied with the quality of the ideas, and you couldn't hold the idea in your hands and give it a good squeeze to see if it was robust enough. After all, you were going to be with this idea for months, even years. You and that idea better be a good match.

So I was left with only one option. I had to think up my own ideas.

goldstars Once I started, I couldn't stop. Ideas flowed from my head like words from Joe Biden's mouth--nonstop, and some even made sense. I couldn't turn off the idea spigot. And it's still spouting ideas to this day.

The deluge of ideas presents a different challenge--trying to determine which ones are worth pursuing. (I can hear all the writers out there, saying in unison, "Ah, there's the rub.") Many, if not most, of them I talk to have tons (tons!) of ideas. It's time that's in short supply.

So how do you determine which ideas are worthy of your time and energy? Which ideas will make the best books?

Do you:

  • Write out the pros and cons of each idea, then do some kind of cost/benefit analysis?

  • Write a synopsis for each and see which comes easiest? palm

  • Make a visit to your palmist?

  • Go straight to the marketplace and ask your agent or editor what you should work on?

  • Throw the ten most intriguing ideas into a hat and pick one at random?

  • Pick whichever idea lends itself best to having a vampire protagonist? Or a boy wizard?

  • Choose the idea most similar to the last Michael Connelly book?

Any other ideas? I'd settle for a single good one.

This entry is “simul-posted” on InkSpot

Comment thread is here


Monday, June 8, 2009

Say It Isn’t So

I went to see the new Star Trek movie over the weekend and thought I would write a review (Star Trek: The Trouble With Quibbles*). After thinking about it for a while, I changed my mind--I don't want to inadvertently spoil anything. Star Trek

So I'll just say I liked it.

Everywhere I looked in the theater, I saw Trekkies. Which led to an unsettling thought: Was I a Trekkie, too?

I'll let you decide.

Trekkie: I've seen every episode of the original Star Trek series at least fifteen times.
Not-a-Trekkie: I haven't seen a single episode of any of the spin-offs.

Not-a-Trekkie: I don't own any Starfleet uniforms.
Trekkie: Just four more boxtops and I'm there! (I know, I know, don't get a red uniform if I wish to live long and prosper.)

Trekkie: I won't get a new phone because the one I have looks just like a communicator (and, amazingly, just like a phaser--not the pistol kind, the other kind).
Not-a-Trekkie: I never flip it open and say, "Beam me up, Scotty."**

Trekkie: I know the rules of Fizzbin.
Not-a-Trekkie: I don't try to play it during Dealer's Choice poker night.

Trekkie: I have nothing against green women (in fact, the greener, the better).
Not-a-Trekkie: I'm not big on android women.

Trekkie: I used to Vulcan pinch my little brother all the time.
Not-a-Trekkie: It never rendered him unconscious (it bugged the crap out of him, though).

Trekkie: I used to own a cassette recorder (and black vinyl carrying case) that looked like a tricorder.
Not-a-Trekkie: I didn't make beeping and whirring sounds when I carried it around (although I did hold it up to my brother's chest and say, "Jim, it's not human."***)

Kahn Trekkie: I like Kahn.
Not-a-Trekkie: I like Kahn. (Come on, who doesn't like Kahn?)

Not-a-Trekkie: I waited a few weeks before seeing the movie.
Trekkie: I saw it in IMAX (which made everything bigger and louder--and more explosive.)

Not-a-Trekkie: Seriously, I'm not a Trekkie.
Trekkie: Beam me up, Scotty!


*I'll just choose to ignore the few quibbles I did have (like if I included a coincidence as intergalactically improbable in one of my books as they did in the movie, I'd be lambasted. Of all the gin joints, er caves, on all the planets, in all the time-skewed alternate realities, I run into you...).

**True (pathetic) story: When I was a lad (okay, I was about 15), I was watching Star Trek in my family's rec room (do houses still have rec rooms?). During a commercial, I picked up the house phone (it was one of those "flip phones"), flipped it open and said, "Beam me up, Scotty" to amuse my siblings. I didn't know my mother was talking on the upstairs extension. D'oh. Sorry, Mom!

***I love my brother. Sorry, Bro!


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Inspire This

Everyone needs inspiration from time to time. Sometimes the spark comes from within, other times it’s something external that kicks us in the arse.

I don’t know about you, but when something inspires me, I want to tackle it, put it in a box, and wrap the whole thing up with a few layers of duct tape. That way, I can mete it out when I need it, in just the right amount to get me moving. (Can’t be wasting any motivation mojo!)

Here are two recent blog posts, each inspiring in their own way:

Nathan Bransford: Stepping up Your Game

Stephen Parrish: My First Rejection


What has inspired you lately?