Are You Writing a Novel in November? Really?!

There are so many ways to write a novel, or jump-start yourself from a state of inertia on your novel. The one of choice this month is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, where some 300,000 writers have signed up to keep their word count honest, to keep their butts in the chair, to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month.

I have signed up before. I have tried NaNoWriMo. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really make me write a first draft. For one thing, I’m not compulsive enough to report my word count each day. (I am too busy actually writing for that!) Also, 50k words isn’t really a novel in my book, so a whole lot of editing, adding, subtracting, plumping, and excising would be required down the line. At the end of a frenzied flurry of work (if you wrote every single day of 30 (including Thanksgiving and Black Friday and the day you get that dreaded cold) you “only” need to get down 1667 words each day, about six or seven pages double-spaced, you are left with what? Months of organization. And frustration.

FullSizeRender-3Of course if you planned your November Attack ahead of time it wouldn’t end up such a pile of dreck. Maybe that’s how you’re doing it; if so, kudos to you for forethought. I confess to being a former pantser, that is, someone who writes from the seat of their pants, who doesn’t know where their novel’s plot is going, someone who wrote her first mystery not knowing who the killer was. [Note: this didn’t go well. Cue another 12 months of rewriting the book from scratch.]

I wonder how many of the NaNoWriMo crowd have outlined their novel ahead of time. This would make sense, if they did. Then you could actually write 50,000 words (if not a novel) in four weeks, by following your step by step breakdown.
Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.13.53 AMI have written out elaborate outlines, pages and pages of where I thought the story might go, sort of a short story or what they call in film, a treatment. “Might go” being the operative term, as these outlines rarely held up past the midpoint. Back in those days I knew where the novel started, the inciting incident, and how it would end, more or less. Definitely who the villain was after that first mess of a first draft. I almost always had to knock off a character at midpoint to get past that dreaded quagmire.

Now I use Scrivener, an outlining program with visual bulletin boards with note cards (you can do it yourself with real objects) and a template overlay that tells me basically where my plot points should be, where the midpoint is, keeps all my setting and character info and research in one place, and keeps me looking at the big picture of where my story is going. (I blogged about Scrivener and my love for it here.)

It’s easy, especially as a beginning writer, to get tunnel vision about your story. You fall in love with a character, with a scene, even though you have no idea what it means in the grand scheme of your story. Outlining really helps with this. You may think it takes the magic out of writing, and you may be right. It is less right-brained than the whole “the story came to me in a dream” thing (which does sometimes happen but usually goes nowhere.) But here’s the thing. You need both sides of your brain to write a good novel, the magicky-woo-woo side where deep emotional drama lives and breathes, and the cool, organized side that evaluates what level of crap you’re throwing down.

You can write a novel with only one side of your brain. But don’t expect fireworks. Just a whole bunch of rewriting.

I’m including these words of wisdom from Michael Crichton because I just read his last, posthumously published book, Pirate Latitudes. I’ve been on a pirate kick lately for some reason, and in general I find Crichton’s books fun, inventive, and well-written. But this book was found in his files after his death. It reads well, there is nothing glaringly wrong with it. But, as Entertainment Weekly said back in 2009, “If nothing else,  Pirate Latitudes is a reminder of the importance of picking an ironclad password for your computer.”

It reads like a young adult adventure novel, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m sure many 14-year-old adventurers-to-be will enjoy and have loved it. Crichton fans were thrilled when a last novel was found, no doubt, despite a sea of pirate sailing jingo like ”Mizzen top blown!”

But there is a reason Crichton never released it. And it probably starts with “re” and ends with “write.”

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Rides the Black-and-white Horse

Some years back at a mystery convention in Boulder, Colorado, I performed this tone poem with John Harvey on tambourine, Bill Moody on drums, and a variety of semi-volunteers snapping their fingers to the beat. I wrote this as an homage to the mystery novel. Recently someone quoted snippets of it on twitter with illustrations, and I liked it so much I’ve added a few of my own.

I’m always amused at reactions of people who don’t read mysteries and thrillers, who don’t know the excitement of entering a frightening world of evil or an everyday town where strangers wait their turn to make mayhem. Got the shivers yet?

Here’s how the book sees you the reader.

 

I am a book.

Sheaves pressed from the pulp of oaks and pines
a natural sawdust made dingy from purses, dusty
from shelves.
Steamy and anxious, abused and misused,
kissed and cried over,
smeared, yellowed, and torn,
loved, hated, scorned.

I am a book.

I am a book that remembers,
days when I stood proud in good company
When the children came, I leapt into their arms,
when the women came, they cradled me against their soft breasts,
when the men came, they held me like a lover,
and I smelled the sweet smell of cigars and brandy as we sat together in leather chairs,
next to pool tables, on porch swings, in rocking chairs,
my words hanging in the air like bright gems, dangling,
then forgotten, I crumbled,
dust to dust.

 

I am a tale of woe and secrets,
a book brand-new, sprung from the loins of ancient fathers clothed in tweed,
born of mothers in lands of heather and coal soot.
A family too close to see the blood on its hands,
too dear to suffering, to poison, to cold steel and revenge,
deaf to the screams of mortal wounding,
amused at decay and torment,
a family bred in the dankest swamp of human desires.

I am a tale of woe and secrets,
I am a mystery.

I am intrigue, anxiety, fear,
I tangle in the night with madmen, spend my days cloaked in black,
hiding from myself, from dark angels,
from the evil that lurks within
and the evil we cannot lurk without.

 

I am words of adventure,
of faraway places where no one knows my tongue,
of curious cultures in small, back alleys, mean streets,
the crumbling house in each of us.

I am primordial fear, the great unknown,
I am life everlasting.
I touch you and you shiver, I blow in your ear and you follow me,
down foggy lanes, into places you’ve never seen,
to see things no one should see,
to be someone you could only hope to be.

 

 

I ride the winds of imagination on a black-and-white horse,
to find the truth inside of me,
to cure the ills inside of you,
to take one passenger at a time over that tall mountain,
across that lonely plain to a place you’ve never been
where the world stops for just one minute
and everything is right.

I am a mystery.

-Rides a Black and White Horse”
Lise McClendon

Your Second Act

What will you do with the rest of your life? Rest? Or reinvent yourself? Statistics show that people in the work force today will have several careers over their lifetimes. The retirement this month of two schoolteacher friends of mine — and my husband’s second retirement — has me thinking about how long and vital lifetimes are today. If you can afford to retire and spend the rest of your life traveling and exploring, that may be enough for you (or me!) It’s a big, fascinating world. But many of us feel a restlessness not for necessarily for new places, but an itch born of the search for meaning, maybe from our upbringing in the sixties. We are seekers, happy but not entirely satisfied with the bringing up of children and the making of a nest egg. We still hope there might be more. And maybe in so-called retirement we’ll have the time to find it, or chase it at least. As a writer I struggle to find a balance between writing about things and people that matter, and actually going out into the world to help make it a better place. Sometimes I feel disappointed in myself that I don’t try harder, give more to the world, find a cause that matters deeply and give it my all. But I am protective of my time and energy. Writers can be a bit obsessive. We tend to latch onto our projects and ride them out to ‘the end.’ What if I love this new charity work so much I forget how to write? (I don’t want to ever forget the joy I get from writing.) Continue reading “Your Second Act”

Twenty Years

Twenty years.

170-bluejayThat’s how long it’s been since my first novel, The Bluejay Shaman, came out. April 1994 was a heady month but not as exciting as nearly a year before when I sold the book to my first publisher, Walker & Company. I had already run through a couple of agents and found my editor on my own at a writer’s conference. He had liked the book but told me it was too long. I demurred about cutting it (oh my precious words!) then came to my senses, whacked away the fluff, and sold it.

Yes, I wax nostalgic about that first book. As a writer it holds a special place in your heart. An older writer told me to buy a box of books and stash them in the closet for posterity. (I did.) I remember silly things like the UPS man who asked me about the box then wondered if it was about the Toronto Bluejays baseball team. My first book signing, my first public reading. Good times.

I didn’t sell a zillion copies of The Bluejay Shaman. But that didn’t matter because now I was a professional writer. It would be a rocky road, these twenty years, with ups and downs, falling outs with editors, divorcing agents, new editors,  new series and long stretches without books. I’ve probably done everything wrong with what I laughingly call my “writing career” but really – I don’t care. One thing twenty years in the writing game teaches you is to develop a thick hide.

The Bluejay Shaman new coverWhen Katy Munger and I decided to get our out of print books back into print and started Thalia Press we became cover designers by default. We had a graphic designer set up a template for our first books and we put the photos, stock or otherwise, into that. Here’s how The Bluejay Shaman turned out. I still love that tepee shot and I’ve never changed that cover.

Other covers to come: yes, there has been evolution. Some I got tired of, or decided as we transitioned from just print-on-demand books to e-books, that the type was too small when seen in a thumbnail size. Over the years we’ve learned a lot about covers from trial and error. I have decided I love to fiddle with Photoshop! But I’m not great at it, just barely competent. But I do love the control.

Control of the cover image, the emotion that it projects, the story that it implies, the tone it offers, is a two-edged sword. As writers we love to gripe about our covers. Sometimes the publisher gets it exactly right in our minds, and yet the marketing department hates it and says it won’t sell. Or we hate it ourselves and the sales guys love it. And now as author/publisher/cover designer I have no one to complain to but myself.

This first cover of Blue Wolf, the final book in the Alix Thorssen series set in Jackson Hole, was just short of abysmal in my opinion. Everyone thought the wolf looked like a puppy and it was a children’s book.BlueWolfFrontCover-Nook

The next version, left, from the mass market edition, was an improvement.

 

 

 

But it wasn’t until I convinced Montana artist Carol Hagen to allow me to use her fabulous and colorful wolf painting that I got a cover I really loved, right.

BlackbirdFlyCoverIn 2009 Thalia Press published its first original novel, my women’s suspense book, Blackbird Fly. In my role as She-Of-Many-Hats I designed the cover. It’s set in France so I used what I thought were iconic French images, lavender and wine corks, on the cover. The only problem was the corks looked like cheese. I redid the cover in 2011 and now, in conjunction with the publication of the sequel in a couple weeks, there is a brand new cover. I’ve learned my lesson. This time I got a real cover artist, the fabulous Lisa Desimini. She also designed the cover of the new book, using the blue French shutters in both to connect them.

Blackbird_FLY=ebook-NOOK

Girl-in-Empty-Dress-ebook-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twenty years — of hunching over the computer, blundering through covers, and proofreading. Of neck pain, expanding ass cheeks, and eye strain.  Twenty years of waking up at night with ideas, of following false leads, of plodding to the finish and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. I loved it all, mostly. Please excuse me for a second while I have a glass of wine and toast the young innocent I once was. 🙂

One Picture, One-Thousand Words

Here at Thalia we are word slingers. We craft sentences that lead to paragraphs that morph into scenes that join into chapters and eventually become novels. We love words. They are our clay, our seeds, our bricks, our dirt.

Movie.jpg

That said, we live in an image-driven world. A world of television, movies, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and the next big photo site. For me writing stories is a way to describe the movies in my head. I am a visual person. I really wanted to be a film reviewer right out of college. I love movies. I love the stories they tell, the subtleties conveyed in a passing look on screen, in a touch, in the twitch of a smile. Film is an emotional medium. A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. An image conveys different emotions to different people. Words work on readers the same way but there is something about a picture.

Assuming then that I have added all sorts of pictures to this post and you are still engaged, I’d like to point out that a thousand words makes a very short story. Like short-short. One-thousand words times five is a short story. One-thousand words times seventy is a novel. So a series of seventy photographs might tell you the story depicted in a novel? In a comic book there are twenty or thirty pages with six or so panels per page. That makes 120 to 180 images per story. Does that mean a comic book is richer and more textured than a novel of 70,000 words? Your call. To each his own entertainment.

reading-life.jpgI come to you with no agenda. I don’t write comic books or screenplays. I am a novelist. I love the long form story. I can write short stories but I don’t find them as, well, rich and textured and satisfying as a novel. A novel takes months to organize. It takes another big chunk of time to write from that hilarious outline you wrote before you started. Six, ten, twelve months, sometimes much more. Then more time to clean up the mess of the first draft. If a novelist is lucky and extremely organized — and can we say ‘driven’? — writing a polished long work of fiction in twelve months is good, honest work. That doesn’t include time spent promoting your book, blogging (yes, here we are!), tweeting, traveling to conferences, doing public appearances and booksignings and even getting your book copyedited and proofread. And if you’re not with a traditional publisher, getting your cover designed.

The novel, despite its name, isn’t all that new any more. Today the definition is “a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.” Realism is a bit of a stretch these days. Novels of urban fantasy, science fiction, and time travel exist. What ties them together is the understanding they have of the human psyche, human existence, its vulnerabilities and ironies. Is that touch, that indescribable something, more easily conveyed by a film clip or a photograph? Or is the depiction of the journey a character goes through, the barriers, the trials, the highs and lows, more honest?

child-watching-movieDuring Oscars week we can take some collective joy in the stories told on film, and every medium. Some movies are adapted from books we love. We hope they translate well. (If not we can always go back to our books.) More are delivered via letters and words and sentences, between pages, on screens, wherever people read. Wherever we get our stories is fine.

Our stories bring us together, help us connect with one another, and illuminate the fabulousness and ironically  deep pain of life. Which makes us all better humans, if only we continue to read and listen to stories.

————

PS: I was watching ‘A Good Day to Die Hard’ while I wrote this. Not saying it changed my life. Just saying. 😉

Cross posted at lisemcclendon.com

This Is the End

“I hate writing. I love having written.” –Dorothy Parker.

THE END.

I wrote those words today, and I have to ask: are there any sweeter words to a writer? Those last two words that signify that that’s it, the story’s done, th-that-that’s all folks!

For some writers, of course, that’s just the beginning. There are rewrites, edits, proofreading, and more rewrites. I do all of that. But my practice is not to put those magic words on the page until all that’s done and I’m ready to either start getting the thing uploaded (if I’m self-publishing) or send it off to my agent or editor (if I’m going through a publisher, as I am with the one I just completed).

But how do you know when it’s done? How do you know when to stop fiddling and fussing with it and put those fateful words on the screen, save the file with the word “FINAL” in the title, and release the monster on an unsuspecting world?

Sometimes, the question is easier than others, like when you have a deadline, or when (like me) you’ve blown said deadline because pretty much your entire December was an unrelieved personal nightmare.  But even when I know it’s got to go, my finger still hesitates when pushing the “send” button. I always feel like there’s one more thing that I should change, one more scene I could tighten up, one more line of dialogue I could have rewritten one last time in an attempt to kick it up from merely very good to awesome.

There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about Bruce Springsteen and his classic album “Born to Run”. I’m a Springsteen fan, and I think it’s one of the best rock albums ever made. I’ve worn out multiple copies over five different formats. So I was kind of shocked to hear that Springsteen almost didn’t release it. He spent months messing with it, re-recording, re-mixing, chasing the sound he had in his head that he couldn’t quite seem to get down on tape. The title track alone reportedly took over six months to get right. Finally, in despair, Springsteen proposed to his producer, Jon Landau, that they scrap the whole thing and start again. “Listen,” Landau is supposed to have said, “you think Chuck Berry was in love with everything he ever released? Put the damn thing out there.” So he did, and rest was history.

I said I was shocked to hear about Springsteen’s travails in getting the record out, because I heard the story before I was writing on a regular basis. After the first time I spent weeks agonizing over whether the book was actually polished enough to let anyone who didn’t love me see, I understood.

So, is this next one my “Born to Run”? Who knows? One of the side effects of all this editing and rewriting is that I’ve spent so much time second-guessing that I can’t tell what’s good about it and what’s not so good. Quite frankly, I can’t even stand the sight of the damn book anymore, which is my usual criteria for writing “The End.”

As for the book itself, it’s the long awaited fourth Jack Keller novel, entitled DEVILS AND DUST.  I’m tremendously excited to be working with writer-turned-publisher Jason Pinter and his new venture Polis Books, which will be re-issuing the first three Keller books, then the new one, as e-books.  Look for them wherever e-books are sold.

So how about you, fellow Thalians? When do you know when it’s done?