How to Fix a Book

Novels are easy to write if you turn off your thinking and dive into the story stream. They might be easy, but the results are not always pretty. Such was the case with my WIP, Jane. I got a first very bad extremely horrible draft done in a couple of months last year.

This year I am revising. Jane needs to be almost completely rewritten, despite the fact that I really kept the first plot I came up with and all the original characters. I had to lose one subplot, snip an annoying thread and significantly improve upon one character. Nobody who read my early draft liked her, they wondered why she was even in the book. I considered cutting her but I couldn’t do it.

I liked her even though I didn’t know her very well. She intrigued me. That was good news but also a problem. I’d written Barb into a short story I wrote after Lily White was finished and I needed something to bring my critique group. I caught a charming criminal and pinned him to the page. It felt effortless. And just as easy to sketch was his foil, an FBI agent who captures him and suggests he change his ways.

Short stories are fun. In and out. None of this hundreds of pages stuff. But novels propel themselves from the inside out and after a few short stories, I had one in me, begging to be let out. And it involved the reformed and relocated criminal. Also, the FBI agent, Barb. Also a few other people, but Barb is the one my critique group was hung up about, she felt like air. How right they were.

In the short story, I’d been able to do quick and dirty FBI research. After months of thinking about it, trying not to think about it, making excuses to myself, and continually running into walls with Barb, I sat down and did my homework. With revision, I have to stop rewriting and do some research, because I don’t do much research in the first draft. When it becomes apparent to me that I need to research, I’ll just take a day to read, jot notes, form a first scene and, most important, adjust my attitude.

When I started Jane, I promised myself it would be a lighter book than Lily White. More caper than crime. Amateur sleuth falls into murder mystery. Sure there was a cop because with murder there’s always a cop. But the FBI? I decided to let Barb be on vacation. No FBI business to attend to. No FBI rules to follow. What I concluded was that Barb’s vacation was in fact my own vacation. From research and the hard work of revising a weak first draft.

When I first begin a novel, I have some set ideas. I have a firm concept of the overall theme. I want this character of this age with this background in this setting. I want X point of view voices. Usually there are at least a few elements I’ve never tried before. I like to challenge myself to try new things with each book.

For this particular book, I was determined to write the whole thing in one point of view. One character tells the entire story. That would be Jane. The problem before me was Jane. She is a law abiding civilian. She knows nothing about the FBI. From Jane’s pov Barb is just a woman in love with her friend who has come to St Pete on vacation. Sure she’s in the FBI but that doesn’t impact the story from Jane’s pov.

You can see where the problem comes in. I had to decide if I wanted to keep trying to stay in one person’s head the entire book. I’d never done it before. I just wanted to see if I could do it. By the end of that excellent FBI book in the featured image photo above, I had a lot of ideas about Barb, none of which I could convincingly convey via Jane. That’s fine. I know enough about revision to stay open to new ideas, to be flexible with my first idea wish list.

So I wrote a scene starring Barb. I like it. I think I just solved several problems, one of the biggest being the book was way too short. It needed a substantial meaty subplot. I’d made a start before I gave Barb a primo role, and it was good. But she’s going to take things up a notch. Sure, now there’s a huge problem I didn’t know about before my research weekend.

But huge problems are conflict by another name and novels thrive on conflict. Almost the minute I cracked open the book, I read this FBI mantra “Never fall in love with your informant.” In fact, agents are not allowed to socialize in any way with informants. It apparently always leads to tears. The pages I’d written for Barb on vacation and in love with George blew up and scattered around me like gleeful confetti.

Fine. I already knew this was a major rewrite. Now I at least have an idea how to fix it. And more conflict. Always a good thing.

Writing Native American Characters

There’s an author interview I read every Sunday in the New York Times Book Review. It’s a pretty much set in stone list of questions. One question, about what these writers read, gives me glimpses into writing practices of wildly successful writers. All writers read widely in several genres. They have their quirky likes and dislikes. One thing mentioned often is if the Famous Writer reads in the genre they are writing in while working on a book.

Some do, some don’t. I will read mysteries when I write a mystery, so I was relieved to be in good company there. My problem has never been answered in these interviews, but that’s fine, I have a mind of my own and I can figure out that there is one book–There There by Tommy Orange– I should not read while writing the current WIP. At first I thought it was essential I read it, but now I’ve changed my mind.

In my WIP, I have a sprinkling of Native American characters. I don’t have any other reason for this decision other than I see urban Indians in the town I live in. They are lives off the reservation. They are just neighbors. Well, on the surface. Their lives, their grief, their heritage and the prejudices against them go deeper than that, as did the beyond my scope of experience black characters in Lily White in Detroit. With the characters in Lily White, at least I had some knowledge of black culture from my years as a white student at a black college.  

The only truly American Indian person I know is a good friend from my pre-college days. I never thought of Jesse as Indian and he never talked about it. He was just one of us, part of the gang of friends from high school. Then years later he began to embrace his heritage and it came out in subtle (and sometimes blunt) ways. The pow wow he was attending. The regalia he’d wear. His rage over the pipeline that was meant to be built over a sacred burial site. His mixing in Indian words from his tribe in Facebook posts. Reading Tommy Orange’s book right now would certainly give me a much wider perspective of how it feels to be Native in America today. But the question is–why do I need to know for my work in progress?

When I began this book, I was sure I wouldn’t have to deal with race. It’s a tightrope for a white woman to understand what life feels like to any other person, especially if they are from another segment of society, like black or Indian. I finally figured out as I was writing this brand new book that needs so much revising that this writing experience is not the same as writing about a black cop working with a white private detective. I had to know something about black culture just to make my black police detective live on the page. For the Native Americans, things are more removed.

At first I thought I’d do a lot more with the Indian community. I read up on the natives of Florida and the 100 year war fought in Florida over the territory. I still want to visit some of their museums. I have a scene set at a casino and on a reservation in Tampa, where the powerful Seminole tribe thrives to this day. And I can still do all that, do the research and field trips required. But I’m afraid to read Tommy Orange’s book until I finish my own because I don’t want to inadvertently use any of his characterizations. There are 12 Indians and each has his or her own story in Orange’s novel. It seems like I could, without knowing, easily take something from them.

And that would make me no better than my ancestors who took much more from a people who were here in America far longer than my white ancestors had been.


Strawberry Moon

Full moons are always about the fullness of life, when something or everything has reached a peak. This full moon is special because it is happening at Solstice, the longest day of the year. Native Americans called this particular moon the Strawberry Moon because it signaled that the fruit had ripened to its fullest flavor.

My life has been pretty full-to-bursting in the last few weeks. Feels like I’ve been on roller skates half the time. Let’s see, bought a house, finished edits on my Christmas novel, designed and ordered promotional material for my series, wrote out the lecture for my workshop coming mid-July, joined Sisters in Crime, signed up for a workshop in police procedure in Wisconsin, revised WIP chapter for critique, started summer walking program…I am replete with this summer moon energy.

Now, it’s time to relax. Now it’s time to release. To let go. To spend some time quietly gathering strength for the work to come. To refill the well. To make strawberry crumble and serve it with vanilla ice cream. Because as much as I want and need to replenish my inner self, I also need to replenish those pantry and fridge shelves with healthy food. Grocery shopping waits for no woman.

I realize I slipped “bought a house” in there … the deal is not yet complete. It’s an awesome step of a lifetime, I’ll say that. Al and I are happy and amazed, and you’ll be hearing a lot about this decision in the weeks and months to come, as the impact is going to change my life in considerable ways. But not for awhile.

Other changes are coming sooner. Smaller but significant ones, like the turn my writing life is taking toward the darker parts of the human heart. I have written six novels loosely classified as “women’s fiction.” I wanted to write about the light. About love. About home and family. It’s what I knew, it’s what I struggled to make real for the first half of my actual (as opposed to fictional) life.

I’ve had a bit of resistance to this turn in my fiction writing toward the darker aspects of the human heart, but only a little. I know I need to follow where my creativity wants to take me. I’m gathering my courage, and my research, for this new direction, this new work-in-progress. Yet another something that is too new, too unfinished, to talk much about. Just to say that when I took one of my characters out of Blue Lake and put her in Detroit I really had no idea what I was in for. But it’s fine.

Character and setting are so aligned in my mind that I soon realized I would not be able to write this book without being honest about Detroit and that means I need to talk about race. Also guns, drugs, and corruption, but race, that’s a scary thing. The thing I resisted writing about the most. Racism is so far from love.

And yet, I am going there. I’m taking my writing, and in fact my life, to places that will require courage. Also knowledge, which is why I’m doing the police academy seminar, but mostly the new things in my life, the things just coming now, will require courage. I have never thought of myself as a particularly courageous person, in fact quite the opposite. I like feeling safe. But to grow into fullness, in writing and in life, I must gather my courage. Also strawberries.

 

Plotting a Thriller

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I’ve had the idea for a psychological thriller for almost a year now. The minute I finished my latest novel (on my editor’s desk as I type this) I started planning the new one. I quickly realized there would be a LOT more research than usual. I had a new genre, a new setting, a new profession, which has since turned into several new professions. I almost said “maybe not.”

But my critique group meets next week, and a month ago I’d promised them a first chapter of the new book. I’d already done quite a bit of research on the setting and I knew the character since I’d written about her in two previous novels. Also, I had read How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey when I wrote Sweet Melissa, so I knew some stuff. Enough for a first chapter.

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I had also done “research” of a sort when I attended Sleuthfest in Miami last month. I picked up a few books, read a couple of them, skimmed the reference text I knew I’d wear out before the WIP is finished. I’d attended workshops and even had an enlightening talk with an editor who gave me some names of agents who might be interested in the type of story I was planning to write.

Sometimes writing gets interrupted by social media. Occupational hazard. I “somehow” saw a post by Tim Baker yesterday, a writer I follow on Twitter.

Tim’s guest post had the word “research” in the heading. Because I finished my first chapter and realized I had a lot more research to do, I clicked the link. And learned a lot. Inspired, I got out James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Thriller and started taking notes. It turns out that a thriller does not have to be a mystery! It ONLY has to be “nonstop action, plot twists that surprise and excite, settings both exotic and vibrant, and an intense pace that never lets up until the adrenaline-packed climax.”

I sort of knew I wanted to write an action packed page turner. I wanted to challenge myself to write at that intense pace. I have the exotic and vibrant setting (just hope I can bring it to life). I didn’t know I’d need a high concept that can be contained in one sentence, not more than thirteen words. So I thought about all that and got some ideas. I actually wrote my high concept sentence! And then outlined a few of the twists coming up.

I found out that some high concepts are cliches. Like 9/11 terrorist stories. Oh. That was one of my first ideas…because of my setting. But I had another idea, so I went with it. James N. Frey says the goal of a mystery is to catch a killer, but the goal of a thriller is to stop evil. Makes sense; the page-turning thing would be easier to execute if the stakes are higher than just “catch a killer.”

So thanks for giving me some timely reminders to do my research, Tim, as it is already paying off. And thanks to Sonya for hosting Tim on her blog. It takes a village (of authors) to write a book.

Researching Fun

Since I’m not a sports fan, I’m kind of surprised that I’m actually looking forward to going downtown to a baseball game later today. Usually I’m more excited about going out to dinner after the game. But this time my interest has been piqued by a research opportunity. All week my story has been building to a trip my lovers and her kids take to a baseball game.

When I was trying to come up with an idea for their first outing as a foursome, a baseball game came to mind for a couple of reasons. The time of year is right, and Al & I used to take our boys down to Tiger Stadium and they loved it. 

Tiger Stadium is gone, and I never much paid attention to the kid stuff at the new ballpark. Our boys were grown when it was built, but I’ve seen the miniature baseball Ferris wheel, and I think there’s a carousel with tigers instead of horses. I can’t imagine what they charge for rides on those things.

I’ll also have to check out the souvenirs, because Mike and Tim always took great delight in choosing something to take home. The kid food is likely still ball park franks but the vendors have gotten a lot fancier than peanuts and Cracker Jacks. I need to pay attention to what the kids around me are eating.

For once I’ll buy a program (mystifying all my friends and particularly my husband) so I spell the players’ names right. I know I could look this stuff up online, but it’s way more fun to gather the artifacts. And I didn’t plan it this way, but it seems a good omen that the baseball scene comes right after the scenes I’m writing today, because of course I’m going to get my 1000 words in before we go to the game.