Sunday, January 4, 2015

If you don’t have anything original to say, leave Lord Lytton alone.

So there I was, seated in the second row, at a daylong writers How-To. The room was filled with published, soon-to-be-published, and if-I-could-only-get-this-down-on-paper writers. On the dais were a collection of published authors assembled to share their experiences, love of craft, and general writing tips and principals. These authors were what I would consider mid-level authors—authors not yet on the NY Times bestsellers list so they also have day jobs. That’s ok. I didn’t expect someone on Dan Brown’s level, so I wasn’t disappointed. Truth be told, I was excited. I had every expectation of it being a full day of tips and insights I could run home with and polish up my latest manuscript.

It started off with a meet-and-greet over Danish and coffee, the obligatory smiles and raised eyebrow interest in our latest projects, and then got down to business. The morning session centered on character development, eased into plotting, and slid right into foreshadowing before the lunch bell signaled the end of the session.  The morning was light, interesting and involved audience participation, and I captured it all within four pages of notes. I was going to be a polishing fool by the time I got back to my manuscript that night.

Lunch was enjoyable. We clustered at tables in groups outside, going over different aspects of the morning session. We hurried through our box lunch, getting ourselves ready for the pearls of wisdom we were sure would be forthcoming in the afternoon session. Personally, my interest for the whole day was focused on an author in the afternoon session whose topic concerned the setting as a character. He was an author who also had an academic background.  

I yawned through the first author, whose name I forget. He spent most of the time convincing us he was well known. I pondered to myself how well known could he possibly be if he had to go through that much of an explanation? At some point he mentioned a few things about dialog, but my interest was forfeited long before he got to his talking points. He finally finished.

It was time. The topic I came to hear was about to begin. I turned to a fresh page in my notebook, neatly wrote the topic on the first line, and sat ready to be mesmerized. Imagine my disappointment when he starts out by reciting a portion of the opening paragraph of Paul Clifford, an 1830 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He posed it as a question and did so while omitting the opening sentence—a sentence much parodied and one most people would recognize whether you new the origin or not. This was followed by a regurgitation of myopic critiques on Lord Lytton. Needless to say, I put my pen down.

What was that first line, you ask? It read thus: “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” Sound familiar? It should, even Snoopy got in on the act by typing that line for the opening sentence in his attempt at the great American novel. But he wasn’t the only one. Poe penned the same line in one of his short stories, as did Madeleine L'Engle in her Newbery Medal-winning novel A Wrinkle in Time. So why pick on Lytton? I ask myself that every time someone uses it as an example of poor scene setting. It all goes back to Lytton’s contemporaries scoffing at such an opening for a book. Personally I would say it was more sour grapes than editorial critique. Edward Bulwer-Lytton was one of 19th century England’s most widely read and prolific authors, so it naturally makes him a target to the rest. Every great writer has his critics—before there was a New York Times best seller list it was the only way the public knew they were great writers. Face it, who would quote a nobody?

 Those opening their How-To lectures using this one obscure line from a vast body of work might want to think about basing their direction on something from this century and leave Lytton alone.  Or at least, give the man some credit while you’re at it. Bulwer-Lytton had a varied and prolific literary career, writing historical fiction, romance, mystery, and even science fiction. His plays were produced in London and New York, and his novels were the basis of operas by Richard Wagner and William Henry Fry. Here’s a couple other famous quotes penned by Lytton that should sound familiar: “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and, “pursuit of the almighty dollar.” Even Great Expectations would have had a very different ending if it weren’t for Lytton convincing Dickens to revise the ending to one the reading public would find more acceptable.

So, what does this all have to do with the How-To’s of writing fiction? It basically comes down to this. What someone did or didn’t do a hundred years ago is going to be more confusing than helpful, especially when it’s taken out of context. There are only four basic rules to follow.

1. Write your book. Not one based on how someone else says you should write it. Get it all down on paper. Reread it and refine it until you’re happy with it.

2. Get it copyedited. This is the tough one. When I say get it copyedited I don’t mean give it to your niece because she got straight A’s in English, I mean spend a few dollars and have a professional editor go over the whole book. They’ll look at grammar, pacing, continuity, etc. Working with a professional is an eye opener, and will be the best investment you can make in your writing career. If you have it in you to be a successful writer, a good copyeditor will help you bring those talents to the surface, with the result being a publishable manuscript.

3. Querying agents. This isn’t as bad as everyone makes it out to be if you keep one thing in mind—a rejection is only one person’s opinion. There are also 2 parts to this: 1-Query, 2-Submission.
The Query: Writing a query is to some extent harder than writing the book, but not necessarily undoable. Start with a high level outline and distill it down to 3 things: who your protagonist is, what they need to overcome, who/what is stopping them from achieving their goal. Open with a tag line (the Hook) and jump right into the 3 Things. Finish off with any writing credits you might have, but don’t worry if you don’t have any.
The Submission: Do your homework. There is a plethora of information at your fingertips about the agents dealing in your genre.  Look over their current deals on their websites, check MS Wishlist for what agents are excited about that week. Purchase the latest copy of Writers Market. Think about attending writing conferences where you can have a scheduled one-on-one pitch with an agent. The list goes on.
This could take some time, so be ready for that. Like anything else in life, you have to put your manuscript in front of the right person at the right time. Getting a rejection doesn’t mean your book stinks; it just means it wasn’t right for that agent at that time. I’ve always looked at a rejection as a badge of honor. It proved to myself I was serious about my writing. I was out there, pitching my book, taking my best shot. So you keep doing it until you hit it right smack in the center. And until that day comes, you continue to query but concentrate on #4.

4. Start the next book. If you followed 1 through 3 think about all you’ve learned. Apply it to your next book and start the process all over. I think you’ll be surprised at the result.

One final thought. Allow me to quote the inspiration for this rambling on a more positive note. There’ll be a lot of dark and stormy nights in your writing process. As long as you remember you have all the tools necessary to whether the storm, you'll be just fine. So, get back to work.

Picture Credit: Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton by Henry William Pickersgill

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Character Mapping


Ernie Bisquets is an accomplished pickpocket, plying his trade in the affluent Mayfair section of London. Always impeccably dressed, and well versed in the current topics of interest to the swells he targets, he is able to blend in amongst them without raising a suspicious brow. He has his own code of honor ‘I don’t steal from those who can’t afford it’, and always thinks twice before putting himself or others in danger.  Likable, philosophical & pragmatic, streetwise, capable, and knowledgeable in his own fashion. He suffered hardship in life, never knowing his father and losing his mother at an early age, but has kept his kindness toward others and a positive attitude. Etc., etc., etc.
This is character mapping, one of the most important aspects in story creation. Besides the basic physical appearance of a character, you need to map the background, cause and affect of motivation, and, most importantly, how they interact with all the other characters. A simple grid can accommodate this last portion of the mapping, but for the essentials try this link- It’s rather extensive, but for complex characters you’ll need all the background you can dream up. For most characters you won’t need to fill in the entire chart at first, but as your story progresses you can continue to fill in as needed. All this is extremely helpful for a character series.
Once the backgrounds are established you can move on to relationships. I use a basic chart for this. Starting with character #1, chart their relationship with character #2, character #3, etc. After that, move on to character #2, charting their relationship with character #1, character #3, character #4, etc.  Do this until you’ve got a sound relationship between all your characters.
To continue this further, take your main characters–antagonist and protagonist–and detail what their intentions/motivations are, what obstacles are in their way, how they intend to overcome those obstacles, and who will ultimately triumph through the interaction between themselves and other characters. This will also give you the bones of a synopsis.
Once this is established, move on to your plot lines. How many plot lines in the story? The main plot is a given, but then there are the sub-plots. How do they affect the overall story? Which characters drive the plot lines? I find sub-plots to be an especially fun part of story creation. Taking what appears to be an unimportant plot diversion at the beginning of the story and weaving a specific aspect of it into the main story for that “Aha!” moment near the end is always exciting. Think of these little sub-plots as great foreshadowing tools.
Now, down to the writing. Like anything else, there is always more than one way to do something. Sift through all the advice that’s out there, but you need to find your own voice. As for the mechanics, some writers work from detailed outlines, some just forge ahead with a basic idea and a keyboard. You also need to figure this out for yourself. As for me, I start out with a basic synopsis of the story, and write a three of four line outline for the first three chapters. Once these are underway I let the characters takeover, continuing to jot down additional chapter outlines as we move along. My thought here is–if the twist in a chapter surprises me, it will probably surprise my readers.
Above all this advice is one basic rule, never give up. If you have a story to tell, tell it. Take the criticism in stride, pull from it what you can to make the story better, and then keep at it until it’s published.

Look for Passage Of Crime, 3rd book in the Ernie Bisquets Mystery Series. Available now!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

What's in a name?

In case you missed my guest post on Christa Reads and Writes, here is a recap...

You would think naming a character would be relatively easy task. We are surrounded by names of all sorts–heavy in regional or foreign origin; plain as the nose on your face; barely pronounceable; etc. So, what’s the big deal? The big deal is you most certainly want your character to be memorable to your readers and, perhaps, beyond. Maybe it’s the Dickensian spirit in me, but I believe the mere utterance of a name should conjure up a visual of the character it relates to, or at least give the reader a glimpse into what is to come. This is never more important than with supporting/tertiary characters.
When I do the character mapping for a supporting character in a book the last thing I pen is the name. I’ve found this to be the easiest way. Done right, the name almost presents itself. In Along Came A Fifer I had a tertiary character that, though only briefly presented in the book, had an important roll in establishing the character/motives of two of the main characters through sub-text. For this, his character description was of the utmost importance, and from there his name. He’s only briefly included in three chapters, but is mentioned by name throughout the book. For that reason he needed to carry his character along with him. This is where the right name comes in.
In my mapping of this character he his described as such:
He was a vile little man, devoid of friend and conscience. He was just short of five feet, but every inch meaner and lazier than the one below it. His character was as crooked as his smile, but he was well known in the London underworld as a source of information. Anyone wishing to extract that information from him did so with contempt and then made every effort to leave behind any recollection of the transaction. To say he read the daily papers is an understatement. He dissected them, line-by-line and word-by­word. He could read an obscure article in the classifieds relating to a grieving woman’s attempt to locate a lost article, and by the time he was done he would know who had nicked it and how much they had gotten for it. Anyone else of questionable character would parlay this kind of knowledge into a handsome income, but to him, the gathering of information was nothing more than a hobby that filled his otherwise empty afternoons.
Women found him most unnerving, cringing at the sight of his lascivious glare and fending off his endless advances. They certainly wouldn’t have him over for high tea, but if someone nicked their silver tea service it’s a good bet he’d know where to take the fairy cakes. He very rarely left his flat in the church building, so a person would have no other choice but to inquire for him there. To anyone outside the murky puddle of villains he associated with he was just a rambling fool of little or no social value.
So, what would you name this character in keeping with the description above? It took about an hour of perusing the digital thesaurus, but I came up with what I thought best framed this vile little man–Maunder. First name? Last Name? It didn’t much matter, in the book he is just Maunder.  

maun·der [mawn-der]
verb (used without object)
1. to talk in a rambling, foolish, or meaningless way.
2. to move, go, or act in an aimless, confused manner: He maundered through life 
    without a single ambition.
Origin: 1615–25; origin uncertain

In the first book he’s there and then gone, but Along Came A Fifer is part of the Ernie Bisquets Mystery Series. Developing tertiary characters like this allows me to call on them again in future books to fulfill similar rolls.

Not all are this difficult to establish. In Rook, Rhyme and Sinker an old friend of Ernie’s gets himself into a bit of a jam. He’s a pick pocket/confidence man like Ernie, but still on the wrong side of the law. I called him Simon Railes. His street name is “Slippery”, Slippery Railes. That name came to me while listening to a weather report and the reason for the local train delays due to a surprise snowstorm. It isn’t hard to imagine his place among the characters. He’s returning in a new story, but that’s a post for another day.

It was great sharing some insights with Christa and her readers. If you get a chance, stop by her blog and read other insights from the authors that have stopped by.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A day in the life of a London pickpocket...

In case you missed my guest blog spot on Dru’s Book Musings, here is a recap...

Ernie Bisquets blames his lot in life on many things, but never on his name. To the contrary, it rolls off his tongue as if he were the mayor of London. Add to that the confident swagger in his walk and you have a gentleman who fits right in among the swells of Mayfair society. He’s always impeccably dressed, with shoes polished and the day’s paper tucked neatly under his arm. On a leisurely stroll through Grosvenor Square he might stop you for a light, commenting on the weather or a bit of business he thought you might find of interest. You would share pleasantries, even commend him for seeing your point of view on the latest headline, and then with a wink and a nod he bids you good day.

Most people walk away feeling good about sharing a pleasant moment of their day with a new acquaintance. I’m sure a few even convinced themselves they had met before over cocktails at the club. Did he mention his name? No matter, you’re quite sure you’ll see him again on Bond Street or strolling through Berkeley Square. Ernie Bisquets has quite an effect on people, so it’s no wonder it would be hours before you realized your wallet was missing.

Common pickpocket? Not Ernie Bisquets. In the shadows of London, where others less skilled in his profession can be found, his name is whispered with respect. “Anybody can nick a purse at night in a crowd” they would say, “but it’s a true artist what does it midday in Mayfair.” And it was midday in Mayfair that Ernie Bisquets earned his reputation.

Lord Patterson Coats, now retired, was HM Chief Inspector of Prisons at the time Ernie Bisquets was working in the prison cafeteria in Edmunds Hill. A dripping soup ladle at lunch one autumn day brought the two together. Ernie’s life took a hard right turn, though the aspect of murder and mayhem tugging relentlessly at his coattails was somehow overlooked in Patterson’s proposal of uniting their talents.

From time to time Patterson Coats is called on to investigate particularly challenging police cases, or handle delicate matters for the Crown. Despite his personal reach into all aspects of British society he lacks the ability to walk about in the shadows of London. It was to fill that void he extended an opportunity to Ernie to give back to the society he spent years making withdraws from. Ernie was quick to accept. His stay at Edmunds Hill was enough for him to consider stepping over to the other side of the law, but not everyone welcomed him with open arms.

If putting his past behind him and the new challenge of dealing with proper villains isn’t enough, Detective Inspector “Derby” Flannel stands just out of the shadows waiting for Bisquets to slip back into his old ways. The good inspector and Ernie have a history, and Flannel intends to write the last chapter sooner rather than later.

This last fact makes the new book, Passage OfCrime, that much more intriguing. Flannel finds himself navigating a very treacherous course. The recent murder of a young woman has links to 5 previously unsolved murders. Flannel’s superiors have warned him for the last time to tread cautiously around an MP he suspects was involved in the past. Because of the MP’s association with Patterson Coats, the inspector is left with no choice but to go behind his back and rely on the assistance of Ernie Bisquets. Together they disentangle a mesh of old lies and current clues attempting to bring a ruthless murderer to justice–ignoring the dangerous notion of murder being a carefully disguised trait passed from one generation to the next.

It was great having the opportunity to share a little bit of the life of Ernie Bisquets with Dru and her readers. If you get a chance, stop by her blog and see what's new.