My Book Bucket List
Has anyone seen the movie The Bucket List? It sounds like a really great premise for movie. Two terminally ill men travel the globe with a list of things to do before they kick the bucket. The movie has gotten mixed reviews from critics. But, how bad can it be with Morgan Freeman, who I've adored since he was Easy Reader on the Electric Company, and the always fab, if a little over the top, Jack Nicholson. If you've seen it, let me know what you thought. My own Bucket List is still a work in progress. But I do have a Book Bucket List, books I've always meant to read and hope to read one day before I kick. So without further adieu, and in no particular order, here is my (partial) Book Bucket List. I say partial because it's growing everyday!
Love in the Time of Cholera
The Coldest Winter Ever
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day
Memoirs of a Geisha
Eat, Pray, Love
The Other Boleyn Girl
The Emperor of Ocean Park
Nowhere is a Place
The Darkest Child
The Neon Rain
Angels and Demons
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Mixed: my life in black and white
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
My Book Bucket List
Monday, January 28, 2008
Your signature here?
I received my second contract from my publisher this weekend. At a preliminary glance, it looks fine. But I'll give it a much more thorough review before signing it and sending it back.
I have an agent, and she's great. She's already resolved one concern we had about the contract. My publisher wanted to expand its option - or first right of refusal - clause. My agent and I weren't comfortable with the addition and she got the publisher to remove it.
Although I have a great - and obviously very thorough - agent, it's still imperative I carefully read the contract myself. After all, it's my signature on the document. It's my career that will be affected by whatever I sign.
It's important every author read their contracts carefully themselves. Don't depend on other people to interprete it for you. Listen to the little voices that may be whispering warnings in your ear. Put your sensors on high alert for unclear wording. Question anything and everything you don't completely understand. Above all, remember there are no stupid questions when it comes to your career and your money.
I always find it somewhat dismaying when an author says she didn't understand a particular contract clause but signed the contract anyway. Or when an author says she signed a contract without reading it herself. It doesn't matter if it's your first contract or your 21st. We didn't work this hard to get this far in our writing careers only to sign it away.
Friday, January 25, 2008
The Case for the Virtuous Villain
By Persia Walker
It can take a few books before a writer understands the importance of having a fully developed "villain," someone who is not only strong, but believable and also sometimes sympathetic. This character is the one who drives the story. He or she is the one who upsets the apple cart, derails the train, rips the carpet out from under our feet and essentially gets the story going. If it weren't for this individual, we wouldn't have anything to write about. Isn't it time that the villain had his due?
I could also call this post "The Case for the Vulnerable Villain," since many a "villain" sees him- or herself as both virtuous and vulnerable. Every now and then, you might actually come across one who says, "Yes, I'm evil and happy about it," but most feel sorry for themselves. Each feels that he has been ignored, downtrodden. He has worked hard, been taken advantage of and deserves the money he stole. She was a faithful wife, bore his kids and put him through school. She's the one who deserves his gifts, his loyalty and admiration -- not that b*tch of a mistress she shot before his very eyes.
All of us know that crooks, criminals and their assorted bedfellows have their own point of view, a very strong point of view, a sense that they had a right to do what they did. Their world was so threatened that they had no choice but to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting community. We know this, but do we reflect it in our writing? Too often, we don't. A villain is a villain is a villain. (Oh, I know that in writing schools and creative fiction classes these days, they teach us not to label anyone as a villain, but to call them antagonists. But let's be honest: deep down, most of us do still think of the person causing all the trouble in our stories as the bad one, the villain.)
We pay a price for being so cut-and-dry when it comes to characterization. Our stories are much, much richer when we take the time to see the world through our villain's eyes. Most of us have been told that motivation for crime boils down to love or money. Almost all crime, we've read, falls into one or both of those categories. Fair enough. But I think we should take a look at what can happen within those categories when explaining our lawbreaker's behavior. Below is a shortlist of explanations just to get you going. You might want to add to the list and/or review which explanation(s) apply to your "villain."
Explanation 1 is a sympathetic one. It is so sympathetic that Dear Reader finds himself wondering if he wouldn't have done the same thing if he'd been standing in the perp's shoes. It's a question that good criminal defense attorneys successfully get juries to reflect on all the time. And it's one that a good writer of mystery and mayhem also gets his or her readers to ask.
One obvious example would be the person who commits a criminal act with the intention of saving another. Remember the movie John Q? A desperate father takes a hospital waiting room hostage to force authorities to find a heart for his dying child, who needs a transplant. This was a good, but desperate man who was driven to commit a very real crime.
Explanation 2 is a trivial one. The reason for the crime seems so trivial that Dear Reader just shakes his head in absolute, profound and existential puzzlement. Why would anyone kill someone over a chicken bone? Or because they refused to turn down the television volume? I mean yes, she might have been annoying, but did you have to kill her over it? Your killer will answer yes. If this perp is a major figure in your story, who has killed again and again, then it behooves you to make the world understand that apparently trivial answer. Just remember: To the perp's mind, whether his act was planned or impulsive, the reason was not trivial at all, but key to his happiness, ambition, peace of mind.
Explanation 3: ... is that there is no explanation. We're talking the sociopath here, or a person who is simply evil. This person enjoys hurting and maiming others. The goal is not retribution or revenge, protecting anyone, or the acquisition of anything material, such as money, a house or a job. The goal, if you can call it that, is simply the experience itself. But even these people will tell you that they are victims. They are victims of the pressure within, a pressure that progressively worsened until they had to act.
Let your villain be multifaceted. Give her an admirable talent. Show him performing an act of kindness. Give insight into her private hell. It will give your story dimension, depth ... resonance.
Your villain inhabits his or her own world. The most forceful writing drags Dear Reader, sometimes kicking and screaming, into that world -- or at least to the very edges of it. It doesn't matter whether you write suburban cozies or gritty urban noir. Your stories revolve around characters who have warped views of their world and their place in it. Lend insight into these views. Make them real. Give Dear Reader a ride for her money and she'll thank you for it by buying your books again and again.
Until next week then,
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Technology: The good and the bad
I work in a college library and I can't tell you how many students come in with questions about a project. I ask them if they've spoken to their instructor. The answer is always no. And when I point out to them that it would be best for them to speak with their instructor about any questions they have regarding their assignment, the response is always--I swear--well, I can email him/her can't I? They have absolutely no desire to speak face-to-face with the person teaching their class. I don't think this is a matter of finding the time either. Because they also have no desire to know when the instructor's office hours are. I find this very odd. There are also people who come into the library to do research who would rather be lost and confused than to ask anybody a question. Instead, they go home and call or email us. What's up with that?
I'm also bombarded all day long at work with the sound of people's cell phones ringing in the library. Not to mention people having lengthy, and loud, cell phone conversations in the middle of a room where people are trying to study. This isn't just a problem with younger students, either. I work at a community college and the average age of our students is 28 and older. When politely asked to please take their conversations outside, some of these people get irate, or at the very least, give me looks so dirty you'd think I just insulted their mama. The fact that they are being rude and disruptive never occurs to them, which makes me wonder what cell phones are doing to our brains.
Like I've said, I'm not against technology, especially when helps expedite things and cut down on mailing costs, such as email queries and electronic submissions to publishers and agents. I pay all my bills online which is a huge convenience. Or in the instance of book promotion, doing online chats with faraway book clubs, or virtual book tours. But sometimes it's just better to talk to someone face-to-face.
Monday, January 21, 2008
Today, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. While I'm enjoying the day off from work, I always take a moment to give thanks for all the doors his efforts opened for me.
MLK was only 26 years old when he led the Montgomery bus boycott. It seems absolutely remarkable that someone so young could have made such an incredible impact on society. I often wonder how much further along African-Americans would be if MLK were still around to provide his inspirational leadership to the world.
As writers in a genre where African-American characters are rarely depicted, each of the Crime Sistahs has a chance to change how the world perceives African-Americans. I began writing legal fiction because I never saw African-American or women lawyers in the novels I read. I think my fellow authors would agree that it's been quite a challenge to get "our" stories out there to the world because of the views held by the publishing industry. We are hampered by the perception that our audience is limited because "blacks don't read." We all know that isn't true. That's why we continue to write what we love in the face of what often seems like an uphill battle.
So as long as there are readers out there who want to read entertaining mysteries that center around engaging African-American characters, we'll keep writing.
Jan. 15, 2008, marked the Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 79th birthday. The federal government chose the third Monday of January to officially observe King Day. I'm pleased to mark its observance with you today.
It's undisputed that Dr. King was one of the greatest orators of modern times, but I think you'd agree great speeches begin with great text. And Dr. King was an exceptional writer. Look at his "I Have A Dream" speech.
Through pacing, Dr. King quickly builds the intensity of his speech as he tells us, "... the Negro still is not free." Once he's captured your attention by referencing a defaulted promissory note -- what's initially at stake -- Dr. King skillfully builds a world with his words as clearly as though he's held a photo in front of you, "... we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Then he raises the stakes again by introducing our children.
He increases the pacing even further with spare words judiciously chosen for maximum emotional connection. He doesn't write, "I dreamed last night." He doesn't say, "I hope that ..." No. He proclaims, "I have a dream today." It's direct. It's succinct. It's immediate.
It's not just the way Dr. King delivered his words, but the words he chose to deliver. Those words continue to resonant with us today, keeping his dream alive.
Friday, January 18, 2008
Before getting to today's little chat, I'd like to indulge in a rare bit of BSP (blatant self-promotion). I finally got to see my name in print yesterday, in print in the same volume as Michael Connelly's that is. An advanced copy of The Blue Religion landed in my mailbox. The book, to be put out by Little Brown this year, is an anthology of mystery short stories, all inspired by a single thought: "It's not about how the cop works the case, but how the case works the cop." I'm thrilled to have my story "Such a Lucky, Pretty Girl" appear in the volume. Connelly is one of my favorite authors, so having my work appear alongside his, and that of other bestselling authors is like ... wow! I have to pinch myself -- give myself a reality check -- to make sure it's real. Plus, response to my latest book, Darkness and the Devil Behind Me, has been quite good. So yes, I'm smiling. (Ahem. She takes a deep breath and becomes serious again.) Now, back to today's subject.
The Art of Choosing Your Readers
Writers need and want to have feedback. It's an important part of the process, that process of polishing and rewriting that can make even the boldest, most disciplined writer cringe. And it's the part where family, friends, acquaintances and sometimes even strangers can become an integral part of the "writer's team."
When people think about a writer's team, they often think of the agent, editor, contract attorney or publicist. Not many think of those individuals who step back and let a writer write when he needs to be writing, and step forward when he not only needs support but supportive critique. Few think about the readers, the guinea pigs, the brave souls who agree to set aside valuable time, read (or re-read) an unfinished work, and share their unvarnished opinion.
There is an art to choosing readers. There are questions to be asked. "Does this person read a lot? Does he read books in my genre? Have a discerning mind? Does he possess strong analytical skills and is he able to give solid constructive criticism? Is analysis one of his strengths to begin with? Is he astute enough to recognize my 'voice' when reading my work, and believe in me well enough not to think I should sound like someone else?"
Your circle of readers should include people who share your socio-economic background, profession, or tastes, whether it be in literature, sports, or ice cream. But the circle must also include those who differ from you significantly. The first group can provide critique from the point of view of those "in the know." The second can give you insight into the universality of your story.
I recently read a remarkable manuscript about a young girl of mixed heritage who is growing up under strict parentage in the Caribbean. Before passing it to me, the writer had given the manuscript to a reader who is white and Irish. The reader said she identified with the main character's struggle for personal development because it reflected issues that she too had faced, issues that surpassed ethnicity, nationality and geographic location. "It made me feel very good that she connected (with the story) in so many ways," the writer said. She also handed her story to a male reader, who saw enough of the human story in it to enjoy it and not simply dismiss it as "women's literature."
So try to have a diverse group of readers. It's good to have at least three; better to have four. After all, people do get busy. The most important thing is to have people who really do love to read, who are passionate about it, and to have people who respect and support your efforts as a writer. Please avoid naysayers and dream-killers.
All of this sounds obvious, doesn't it? The need to have readers and how to choose them. But over at Gentle Pen, we've been surprised at how little thought some writers put into selecting their readers. They haphazardly ask spouses, parents, folks they've run into. The results can be disappointing at best, hurtful and damaging at worst. So think before you ask someone to read your work and choose wisely.
Until next week, I wish you the best!
Thursday, January 17, 2008
THERE’S A BOOK IN YOU!
WEEK 11: WRAPPING IT ALL UP
For those of you just joining us, for the past ten weeks we’ve been talking about going from idea to realizing your dream of having your book published. For the past two weeks we’ve been discussing the all important promotion and publicity campaign for your book. Publicity and promotion is as important as writing your book, because if no one knows about it, all of your hard work has been for nothing.
This week we’ll wrap up everything that we’ve been discussing. In short, these are the key points that I hope that you’ve come away with:
- WRITE SOMETHING EVERY DAY: Once you’ve come up with the idea for your book the most important thing is to write something every day. Even if it’s one page, at the end of the year you’ll have 365 pages and at least a rough draft of your book.
- PERSIST, PERSIST, PERSIST: No matter how long it takes, don’t get discouraged by the inevitable rejections that you’ll get when you start sending your book out to agents and then ultimately when they (or you) start sending it out to publishers. The majority of best selling authors faced years of rejection before they hit it big, so don’t despair, because you’re in good company!
- STAY TRUE TO YOUR VISION: When you do get that big break and a publisher agrees to publish your book, stay true to your own vision of your book when working with the editors and while most of their comments are probably helpful, if there’s something that you feel will fundamentally alter the vision of your book, don’t be afraid to say no. Remember, it’s your name going on the cover and you want to make sure that the finished product reflects something that you can be proud of.
- BE YOUR OWN BEST PUBLICIST: Promote your book online, through book clubs, signings, word of mouth, cards, contests and awards, in short with everyone and every where you go. In order to sell, people have to know about your book and at the end of the day you need to take responsibility for making that happen.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this blog and most importantly I hope that you’ve taken something away that will be helpful in realizing your dream. If you would like more information on my novel A DEAD MAN SPEAKS, check out my website: www.adeadmanspeaks.com or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday, January 14, 2008
A healthier writers' life
Since the holidays, I've battled one ailment after another. First, it was a week-long headache, followed by a two-week cold. The cold's finally going away only to be replaced by another headache.
It occurred to me, not for the first time in my life, that my anxiety to meet self-imposed and contractual deadlines, causes me to push myself too hard. The pace weakens my ability to fight off minor illnesses. Do you find yourself doing the same thing? I thought so.
I think together we should resolve to take better care of ourselves. That means at least six hours of sleep every night, regular exercise, three square meals - or six mini-squares - eight glasses of water, as well as vitamin and iron supplements.
Really, in the long run, we're doing ourselves a favor. We can't write when we're not feeling well. At least, we can't write anything good. And then we fall further behind schedule. It's a vicious cycle.
So, let's make sure we take care of ourselves, so we're fit and healthy to take care of everything - and everyone - else.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
THERE’S A BOOK IN YOU!
WEEK 10: PUBLICITY AND PROMOTION PART II: WHAT YOU CAN AND SHOULD DO!
If you’ve just joined us this blog is about getting that book idea from your head to the shelf . Last week we talked about some of the important promotional things that you can do with your publisher. This week we’ll explore some of the many things that you can and should do on your own. This list is by no means exhaustive and I would encourage everyone to be creative in your marketing approaches. Talk to other authors, attend BEA (the national book convention which this year will be held in Los Angeles) to get an idea of what other authors are doing to publicize their book. But the most important thing is to do something, don’t just wait for your publisher (or publicist, if you have one) to do all the work. Promoting a book is an active “sport” and one where you’ve got to be the one to roll up your sleeves and get it done.
The following are just a few of the basics that you should do:. (1) Create a web site and/or My Space page. This is very important in terms of creating a place where you can post information about yourself, your book your upcoming signings and of course put in place viral marketing. This is frankly an area where I wish that I had concentrated more resources on, and will for my next book. Web marketing can be a powerful tool and increasingly “A” list authors are using their sites and web marketing to generate substantial sales;. (2) Set up book signings in as many cities as possible. You can approach local book stores or the chains through their Community Relations person at each store, to see about setting up signings at the book store or what are called “off sites” where you have the book signing at a friend’s house, restaurant etc. and the book store sends someone to “vend” the event.
These book signings take some leg work and time on your part but they’re worth it. I’ve found that the “off sites” which are done as a book party at a friend’s house with their guest list usually work particularly well. You’ll generally have at least 30-50 people and most people will buy one and sometimes several books. At the book signings I would suggest that you read a passage from your book and then discuss your journey in getting the book published. (3) Submit your book to on line reviewers and major Black book clubs (not the book of the month type above) but some of the larger Black book clubs with hundreds of members. These clubs also receive submissions from hundreds of authors but it is worth at least reaching out to them because if one of them does pick up your book it’s great word of mouth on top of the sales. (4) Meet with local book clubs, these are the book clubs that friends or colleagues are a part of or can recommend you to.
Often there may be less than ten members, but again the positive word of mouth plus the guaranteed sales make book clubs great marketing vehicles. (5) Reach out to local radio, print and magazines in your area. Get out your rolodex and make a list of anyone that you know who may know someone at any local or national media outlet and get a copy of your book to them. This is essentially what PR agents do, but if you do it yourself, at least you know it’s being done.
A note on PR agents, like anything else some are good, most are not. Before you spend a lot of money on a PR agent (because they’re not cheap and they never guarantee results) I would suggest that you only go with one who has been recommended by someone who has had positive results with that agency promoting a work similar to yours.; (6) back to what else you can do: submit your book for awards, most rewards have entry fees but again if you win, or are at least nominated, it’s great publicity; (7) Submit your book to the local public library and if they have author panels or discussions with authors try and be a part of those. Libraries can be important vehicles in establishing reader loyalty. Finally, shamelessly promote your book to everyone that you meet. Have cards made of your book cover with your website and contact info and pass them out liberally.
These are just a few of the many things that you can do to promote your book, but if you do most if not all of these you should be on the way to really getting the word out! Next week we’ll talk about some of the other alternative platforms for promoting your book. If you’re interested in more information about my novel A DEAD MAN SPEAKS, check out my website at www.adeadmanspeaks.com or you can email me at email@example.com.
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
Hello everyone! I hope you all had a great holiday season. I’m finally back after an extended vacation, which included too much down time, way too much food, and not nearly enough writing. But it’s back to the old grind. I’ve decided to dedicate today’s post to something I’ve been wanting to address for a long time: requests for advice and help that many authors get from aspiring writers.
I get a lot of these emails, which I have no problem with. I’m always happy to help. I’ve spoken to writers groups, book clubs, and libraries about writing and publishing. I always try and give people resources for further info. But what I can do is very limited.
For instance, I got an email from someone about a week before Christmas telling me that they were going to be in town on a certain day and wanted to know when I would be available to meet with them to answer their questions about publishing and writing. I didn’t know this person from a hole in the wall. I politely wrote back and told them that while I was more than happy to answer any question they had via email, I was not available to meet with them in person. I didn’t get a response back, which didn’t surprise me.
A lot of people aren’t really looking for advice. They’re looking for the almighty hook-up, or at the very least they want someone to read their work and declare them the next big thing. In short, they think I can help them get published. Well I have news for you: Most authors, myself included, have absolutely no power to help anyone get published. Some of us are barely published ourselves. But, here’s what I can do:
1.I can give you the contact info and submission guidelines for my publisher.
2.I can share how I got published, for what it’s worth, since everyone’s journey is different.
3.I can recommend a list of websites, books, and blogs on publishing and writing.
4.I can come talk to your writer’s group, book club, etc.
5.I can recommend mystery authors to read and books or articles about the mystery genre.
Here’s what I can’t do:
1.I cannot read your manuscript. In these litigious times it’s just unwise. Plus, if I read everyone’s manuscript I’d have no time to work or write.
2.I cannot refer you to my agent. This is a very touchy question that puts an author on the spot. I mean, would you refer a complete stranger whose work you were unfamiliar with for an opening at your job? Because that is in essence what you are asking when you ask an author to do this for you. You are asking us to put our reputations on the line for someone we don’t know. Of course they’re are exceptions to this rule. If you are already published, established, have and agent and are looking to switch, or you’ve already been offered a book deal but have no agent to negotiate for you, you can usually find someone willing to make a referral for you.
3.I can’t give you advice on genres I don’t write in. I’m a mystery writer. I don’t know squat about romance, poetry, or nonfiction. But I get tons of emails from people who write in these areas. I can only give them limited help.
Here are a few tips on how to approach an author for help.
1.Be aware that most of us have day jobs and families on top of our writing deadlines and may not have time to give you immediate answers to your questions.
2.Never be rude! Publishing is a very small world. If you do get published and have been rude and difficult, it gets around and can have a negative impact on your career.
3.Give some indication that you know who we are and are familiar with what we write.
4.Always say thank you! Honestly, out of every ten emails I answer about publishing and writing I get maybe one thank you and that’s no exaggeration.
I hope this post doesn’t make it sound like I don’t want to help people because that’s the furthest thing from the truth. But no one can do it for you. You have to create your own destiny and chart your own course. All I can do is help point you in the write —yes, I spelled it that way on purpose—direction.
Have a good one!
Monday, January 07, 2008
MY "TO DO" LIST FOR 2008
I’m the Crime Sistah who pretty much did a disappearing act for 2007. But I’m back!
These days, I’m gearing up for the release of my third novel, Murder on the Down Low, which is scheduled to go on sale July 1, 2008. While, I’m anxious to move forward with another project, I can’t seem to let the book go, so I tweak, and tweak and tweak. Soon, I’ll have to say, enough is enough.
I want to share my list of New Year’s resolutions in the hope that by making them public I’ll stick to them. Luckily, I only have five. I vow to:
Spend daily time in prayer and meditation, even if I only have five minutes. I have so much on my plate at the moment that all I seem to do is throw balls in the air and hope that they don’t come down. Well, no matter how busy I think I am, I’m going to start the day out giving thanks. So far, so good for 2008 on this one.
Exercise at least three days a week, even if I can only find 20 minutes. Didn’t meet this goal for the first week of the year, but I have 51 more weeks left.
Read my snail mail at least once a week. I’m an email addict. If you send me an invitation via snail mail, don’t expect to see me at your event. (Thank God for electronic bill pay!) I now have a bucket of mail that I vow to read before Saturday. We’ll see.
Blog once a week. (I promise!)
Continue to pursue my passion: writing legal thrillers. This one is a sure bet!
Respect the writing time
We've all had this experience. A loved one calls during prime writing time and wants to ... just chat. About nothing really.
Those plaintive pleas - "You don't spend enough time with me" - can really break your heart. But how do you quantify "enough time"? And, more importantly, how do you stretch that quality time when you're basically working two full-time jobs? Can someone tell me? I'd really like to know.
A significant other keeps up a running commentary while you're desperately trying to figure out if your characters' dialogue works. Does the dialogue have enough emotion? Does it move the plot forward? Well, maybe you'd know - if your loved one wasn't wondering out loud where he'd left the television remote.
We've all been there. And we'll be there again. It's not that we don't love our families and friends who feel like family. We want to continue to share in their lives. We don't ever want to lose touch. But at the same time, we need to protect our writing time to the very best of our abilities.
It's all about the writing. Writing is a calling; not really a choice. If I could turn it off and on, trust me I would. In a heartbeat. And I'd help my husband find the remote. That's much easier than trying to craft The Breakout Novel on a deadline.
But I can't turn off the call to write, so I'll just sit over here and continue to train my loved ones to respect the writing time.
Friday, January 04, 2008
When is Enough Enough?
The beginning of a new year, with the attendant emphasis on endings and beginnings, is an appropriate time to discuss a matter that often confronts writers: the question of when -- or whether -- to shelve a manuscript and start a new one.
When I'm wearing my editing hat over at Gentle Pen, I often see manuscripts that are in dire need of a rewrite. Of course, the authors are upset when I impart this news. Some say they'll buckle down and get to it; others refuse. Why? Quite bluntly, some are just lazy. But others are so exhausted after having done at least one major rewrite that they freak at the thought of having to do another one. So I suggest ways to handle the edits, ways to break them down into manageable stages. (After all, sometimes just a few changes in choices can having resounding effects.) But even with the task broken down or when given line-by-line directions, some writers feel overwhelmed. They're so horrified at the idea of having to work on their manuscripts again that they inwardly shudder. What to do?
First, I reassure them. I explain that rewrites, or even multiple rewrites, are simply a fact of the writing life, sort of like death and taxes. Some of our most lauded and/or bestselling authors have written, and rewritten, a work five, or six times or more. And sometimes that encouragement helps. But every now and then a writer just shakes his head and says, "I'm sorry. I just can't bring myself to work on the dang thing anymore." What do I say then?
I tell them that I fully understand. Believe me, I do. There have been times when the thought of rereading, much less actually reworking, one of my manuscripts has made me ill. I've "rewritten" myself out, so to speak. Those are the times when I start wondering, "When is enough enough? When is it time to set this baby aside and work on something else?"
Scenes tend to come to me with almost 3D cinematic brilliance. I can see the sparkling evening gowns, smell the sexy perfume and the gun smoke; I can hear the jazzy saxophones, the screeching cars, and the scream of the silenced witness, etc. So when I start typing, it's with high hopes. But then I reread what I've written and, low and behold, everything is in flat 2D. The mental images conjured up are washed out, the pace slow or inconsistent. The dialog just doesn't have that snap, crackle and pop it's supposed to. So I work on it, work on it, work on it. The manuscript improves. I set it aside, wait a while, and read it fresh eyes. It's better, but it's not quite there yet. I work on it some more, set it aside, etc., and the cycle continues. For weeks or months, it goes on. Does any of this sound familiar?
Eventually, comes a time of reckoning. A decision must be made. I've run out of ideas for improving the book and it still isn't as rich an experience as it could be, should be. What do I do? Depending on the story, I might actually decide that I don't YET have the storytelling (i.e., technical) skills to tell a tale the way it should be. It's time to set it aside and move on.
If I make such a decision, I do it with faith, not frustration. I don't toss the manuscript aside, bury it under a pile of papers, or banish it to the nether regions of my hard drive. I know that I've done the best I can and know that I will return to it -- when the time is right. I have learned something new with every book, so I look forward to the wonderful experience of applying a new insight or skill to a previous finished but unpolished manuscript.
(Please note that I said 'finished.' You can substitute the phrase 'full draft.' I've often seen people rework one or two chapters to death and never get any further. It's important to set those chapters aside and move on. For the most part, rewrites should not be attempted until you've written down as much of the story as you can. Most of us get new ideas while writing and the story can take off in unforeseen directions. You'll never get to that point if you confine yourself to the first few chapters. So write the story through, then do your cycle of rewrites and set asides.)
One final observation in this jumbled entry: So many not-yet published writers are so focused on getting that one book out that they lose sight of the fact that authors mature and develop over time. The publishing industry's emphasis on its bottom-line has put writers under the gun to have a "bestseller" the first time and every time we come out of the gate. What a terribly unrealistic and destructive idea.
The fact is, authors build up their skills over the course of writing book after book after book. And they build up their fan base by putting out a body of work. Have you ever heard of the term "one-hit wonder?" Well, it applies to writers, too. If you don't want to be a one-hit wonder, then as a writer, you'll have to produce, again and again, at a fairly consistent level of quality. That means an investment of time and practice and learning from your mistakes. Writers who focus too long on one manuscript, telling themselves, "It just has to be perfect," run the risk of neglecting other ideas that could be developed and of stunting their learning curve.
In conclusion, I'd say please do acknowledge the realistic and unavoidable need for writing a story to its end and then doing rewrites of it, but don't let a sense of frustrated obligation to one manuscript keep you from going ahead and working on others. Strike a fair and realistic balance. Each manuscript is a work of art; each provides a lesson in the practice of your craft. Give each your best and then move on.
My best wishes for a Happy and Productive New Year!
Thursday, January 03, 2008
Sundays with Gammy on Friday
Just moved into my new home near the Catskill Mountains and I'm loving it! Sitting amongst boxes, and boxes, and boxes. I've been computer (and Time-Warner) challenged for a coupla' weeks, and am just now getting everything somewhat settled and working. My blog-comeback was to start Sundays in January--and because I'll be out of town on Sunday--I'm writing thoughts down today--better early than never?!
One of my passions is films. I look to see what's au courant, what's selling, and try to check out and analyze the "concept-driven" movies. Hey, I'm really serious about my intention of getting my books to film, and thus am certainly influenced by this medium.
Films I've seen lately that have made me flip--backwards! Ghoulish, gruesome, arty and disgusting. Sweeney Tood: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Sorry, I couldn't take it. Too much blood and gore--and premiering through the holiday season?! Peace on earth, good will to men, and guv'nor, your slit necks on the side? Ugh.
Next on my list of do-not-recommend movies is: No Country for Old Men. It stops, for god's sakes. It doesn't end--it stops! Unforgiveable. Yes, okay, Javier Bardem is absolutely juicy and vicious and villainous, a great performance, but the plot crumbles badly two-thirds of the way through, and if you listen and look carefully, inconsistencies pop up all over the place and it dissembles rapidly. Some terrific actors in the movie, however. Interesting performances to watch--in spite of the Cohen brothers mangling the end.
Ah yes, and the heartwarming, awe-inspiring movie that I loved--The Great Debaters. Denzel is in great form and you get a piece of history you don't want to miss. It tells of a time when black pride was vested heavily in education and intellectualism revered. As I watched it, it reminded me how our people have always been great speakers and preachers. All of this silver-tongued oratory paved the way for the rappers today, believe it or not. I'll bet black youth today don't even know who James Farmer was, didn't realize his contribution to the civil rights movement. For me, his was the more important story, even though Tolson (played by Denzel) was the focus of this film.
And ba-a-a-by, Jurnee Smollet is all grown up and smokin' in her role as one of the debaters--that slap she gave Jermain Williams resonated round the world. That was no stage slap. That was FOR REAL! Whoa., baby. And another historical fact resonated. Black women were out there TCB, challenging men and giving them a run for their money long before the feminists could get a band wagon together. All together, a feel-good movie for blacks and whites alike. Kudos to the writer, Robert Eisele.
Next up, I'm looking forward to Will's Smith new feature, I AM LEGEND. I'm trying to get to Will Smith for a project. Anybody know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody?
That's all for now. What about you? Seen any movies lately?
Gammy L. Singer