I received a suggestion several weeks ago from an old friend and fellow writer, Carol Lach, that I should consider having an audio version of Sparkles of Discontent. She even suggested a reporter she knew from WCVB channel 5 in Boston, Josh Brogadir, to do the project. He read the book and liked it so after a number of email swaps, he agreed to do the audio version. We planned a phone conversation to discuss the book, and the voices of all the characters. I didn’t remember there being so many, but we covered even minor ones who make only a brief appearance. He sent me a sample of the first chapter and I gave the go ahead to do the entire book. It will probably be a couple of more months before I see, I mean hear, the finished product. I’ll let everyome know when it’s released. It will be available first through Audible and Apple books, before it’s available through other distributors.
I received a suggestion several weeks ago from an old friiend and fellow writer, Carol Lach, that I should consider having an audio version of Sparkles of Discontent. She even suggested a reporter she knew from WCVB channel 5 in Boston, Josh Brogadir, to do the project. He read the book and liked it so after a number of email swaps, he agreed to do the audio version. We planned a phone conversation to discuss the book, and the voices of all the characters. I didn’t remember there being so many, but we covered even minor ones who make only a brief appearance. He sent me a sample of the first chapter and I gave the go ahead to do the entire book. It will probably be a couple of more months before I see, I mean hear, the finished product. I’ll let everyone know when it’s released. It will be available first through Audible and Apple books, before it’s available through other distributors. Here is a sample of Chapter One.
Two weeks in social isolation and I’ve already started walking around in the house like a zombie craving a face to face, conversation that is. And to think at the beginning of the crisis, I was looking forward to getting more writing done. I’m sure I’ve done a lot less. I never realized how unsetting and pit of the stomach troubling it would be when every communication screamed new corona virus updates. In the past, crises seemed to drive people together to seek comfort and support. This one has pushed us apart, driving us to seek more virtual comfort and contact…a poor substitute for the real thing.
But, I reasoned that at least we could still go to the store and buy groceries. So I grabbed at the opportunity like a drowning man reaching for a life preserver. I naively thought I’d just go to Wegman’s, one of the larger stores in the area, and get everything I’d need. When I arrived, ropes were set up to guide the serpentine lines of shoppers waiting to check out. What was this? Had everyone suddenly gone mad? I was uneasy, but confident the lines would be shorter when I was ready to leave. I turned into the fish and meat aisle – bare shelves. I felt I had wandered into a black hole and been warped back to Mother Russia. I reversed direction. Get to the staples – bread and milk. All the bread was gone. I headed over to the milk aisle. Only two left of the variety I needed. As I reached in, another beefier hand grabbed one. What was this relief I felt at scoring a half-gallon of milk? I kept wanting to slap my head and yell, wake up, wake up. Fool, you’ve only managed to get one item. I had an inspiration. I’d make my own bread. I desperately looked through the refrigerated glass cases. No more fresh yeast left. Picking up speed, I headed for the baking aisle looking to pick up some of their pre-made mixes. I scanned the shelves. It looked like disappointment was going to be my new best friend. Everything was mostly gone except for a few exotic items I had never heard of.
I watched shoppers with crazed eyes and carts full of toilet paper cruise by. Toilet paper? How is that connected to this whole virus epidemic? Out of curiosity I headed for the paper aisle. Toilet paper and Kleenex were totally gone. The next aisle was cleaning products and hand sanitizers. Everything was sold out except for things like furniture polish and stainless-steel cleaner. I guess I know what people are not doing during this crisis. I walked to the end of the self-checkout line and did a count. There were thirteen carts in front of me. I looked down. One item. Decision time. I put the milk back and walked out empty-handed. I’d be smart and come back when they opened first thing in the morning.
I arrived just before 7:00 am, curious what dozens of people were doing standing outside. I slowed as I approached the entrance. Not just standing, but lined up and waiting to get in and nobody would dare try to cut in that solemn line. Another choice. Is this really going to be the new normal? I hung my head and joined the nervous queue.
I recently shared my second (unpublished) novel with author Jeffrey James Higgins (http://jeffreyjameshiggins.com) for him to critique. He provided incredibly valuable feedback that I have been using to improve my writing. I’m indebted to him for his thoughful analysis and have taken the liberty of including some of his more general suggestions below.
- Structure can vary a bit, but people comprehend and enjoy stories the most when the fit classic structures. I recommend reading The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler, and Story, by Robert McKee. Every genre also has certain reader expectations and requirements. I also recommend reading Save the Cat Writes a Novel, by Jessica Brody. She outlines the fifteen beats that have to be in every story, where they need to be, and the differences in each genre.
- Avoid too many POV characters in the book. I would pick two or three, tops. You can have more, but it dilutes your character development.
- Use only one point of view in every scene. Don’t head hop within the scene.
- Avoid an omniscient POV, which is not used much in contemporary novels. It kills the tension. Stay inside the POV character and only show what they see, feel, hear, or think.
- Thrillers and mysteries work best in truncated time frames.
- Filter in background, no more than one paragraph at a time, and don’t put any of it in the first five pages.
- Flashbacks and background kill pacing. It’s better to deliver the information through action and dialogue, but if you do need flashbacks or expository background, limit it to one or two paragraphs.
- Start the novel in action. The inciting incident or catalyst usually comes about ten percent of the way into the story, but the first scene needs to show action, create questions in the reader’s mind, and hook them into the novel.
- You need to have conflict in every scene. Someone wants something and something else prevents them from getting it.
- Eliminate scenes which don’t move your plot forward or develop character.
- Start scenes in the middle of action. For example, a police interview at the station should begin with the interview underway, not all the set up leading to it.
- Don’t include the minutia of every movement or action. Only give the reader what they need, and not everything a character does. Jump to important moments.
- Don’t use mundane scenes as a device to feed the reader backstory.
- Once in those critical scenes, cut the excess dialogue and actions which the reader doesn’t need to know.
- Plots are important, but character makes novels. Every POV character needs to have an arc. I recommend reading “Writing the Breakout Novel,” by Donald Maass. He does a good job of explaining the complexity and importance of character.
- Your POV characters need to have some character flaw they need to fix. They don’t have to know it themselves and other characters can express it for them. This is the theme of your book. Their need is satisfied by the end. Donald Maass explains this well.
- POV characters also have wants, which are different from their needs. Jessica Brody explains this better than anyone. For example, solving crimes is what your protagonist wants, but what is the underlying psychological need it serves? Quitting her job and moving to the island may show she is finally taking charge of her life, but if that is her need, it needs to be more evident early.
- All of your POV character’s wants and needs should come early and the conflict preventing them from getting it should be evident.
- You have many characters, good for complexity, but it may be bordering on too many. A reader has to keep them all separate. Distinctive voices and appearance will help.
- We all make the same craft mistakes and they are easily fixable. Agents and editors usually read less than five pages before rejecting a manuscript. I’ve heard many say they see the craft problems in the first few paragraphs then spot check the rest before rejecting. I recommend reading The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman. He does a good job of pointing out common errors.
- The first sentence needs to grab the reader. It is the most important line of the entire book. It should be memorable, clever, make the reader want to understand what is happening. ThrillerFest even has a contest for the best first lines.
- Every chapter and every scene should open with a hook, which pulls the reader into the action.
- Every chapter and scene should end with a cliffhanger, or by putting a question into the reader’s mind. Makes the reader want to continue to solve the unanswered question. A good trick is to end scenes before the action finishes.
- Try to avoid adverbs.
- Limit your use of adjectives.
- If you’re using italics as internal monologue, write it in first-person, present tense as if it was dialogue.
- When you’re using third person limited (close third person), the reader knows they are in your characters head, so you can skip much of the italicized thoughts and just say what your character’s thinking.
- Limit the length of the internal thoughts, especially those in italics.
- Avoid filter words that create space between the character, like felt, saw, heard. Just use the action. The reader knows the POV character is experiencing it.
- Use active instead of passive. Replace “to be” verbs with stronger verbs. Get rid of was, were, etc.
- Limit “ing” words.
- Watch word repetition. Try not to repeat words or phrases on the same page.
- Do a word frequency search and eliminate words you use to often throughout the manuscript. We all overuse some words.
- Avoid using phrases like “started to,” continued to,” “began to.” Just write the action.
- Try to avoid telling the readers what’s happening and show them instead.
- Be succinct. Rewrite to make scenes shorter, which will help with pacing.
- Some of the dialogue feels wooden and unrealistic. There is too much use of dialogue as a vehicle for dumping info.
- In dialogue, cut unnecessary words and responses, like “okay” and “oh, thanks.”
- In dialogue, have character fail to answer questions.
- In dialogue, have characters cut each other off.
- Try reading your dialogue out loud to improve the cadence.
- Don’t use characters’ names in dialogue. They know who they are speaking with, and only do it for emphasis, like a mother scolding a child.
- Eliminate the repetitive dialogue. The reader has already heard it, so don’t repeat it again. Just say, “She related what X told her.,” or “She briefed him on the conversation.”
- Don’t have characters tell each other things they already know.
- Lose the niceties in your dialogue and cut right to the important conversation.
- Cut phrases like the “she knew,” “she thought,” and “she wondered.” They put distance between the reader and the character. Readers already know who is speaking.
- Spell out numbers from one to one hundred.
- Always use either the first or last names of suspects. Don’t alternate between the two. It confuses the reader and doubles the names they have to track.
- Manuscript needs to be formatted to industry standards before submitting to agents or publishers. Most agents have interns screen the slush pile and are told to discard anything that doesn’t adhere to the standard or to the specific agent’s submission requirements.
- Readers need white space on the page. Long blocks of text are unwelcoming and make it hard to follow. Shorten your paragraphs and insert dialogue or even one sentence paragraphs to break up the page. This is especially important at the beginning.
- Your paragraphs and sentences should have varied lengths. Avoid patterns.
- Start new paragraphs when new characters or speak when other characters do something.
- Start chapters one-third of the way down the page, which is seven returns when double-spaced.
- The Chicago Manual of Style is the standard for novels.
In this case, I’m talking about first person snowflakes. Confused? Well, I suppose describing life from a snowflakes point of view could feel intensely personal, but also could be a little confusing to write. And that brings me to what I wanted to discuss today. I’ve been writing a new novel from a first person point of view perspective for several weeks. It’s about Theo, a thirteen year old boy living in 1961. It’s trickier than I thought but I’m doing it for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted the story to feel very personal and immediate. If it’s written well, the reader should be seeing and feeling everything from Theo’s perspective. Second was the challenge of experimenting with a very different point of view from my previous couple of novels.
Writing about anything from fifty years ago presents it’s own challenges. Life was very different in 1961. Everyday language, customs, dress, fads, music, technology, politics, travel, and so on. Readers who are knowledgeable or were alive in 1961 will quickly pick up on story elements that are impossible for that time period, like using a cell phone or using a laptop or iPad to jump on the internet. But I’d like to table those issues and focus on writing in the first person. Everything we learn in the novel is filtered through one person, in this case Theo. There’s an internal dialogue that can be observations or reflections, and external dialogue when the character is speaking.
Here’s an example of an internal observation from the novel:
My father’s footsteps got louder, then stopped. His deep voice rolled up the stairs. “Theo, come down here, we want to talk to you.”
We learn from Theo that he hears his father’s footsteps and then his father asking him to come downstairs.
Here’s an example of an internal reflection from the novel:
I wish I could erase the image of my dead grandmother, Nana, standing in her jonnie waving to me at her wake. It all really started three days ago as I lay on my bed trying to count the dead squished mosquito bodies, some outlined in blood, on the ceiling.
In this passage, we learn a little about what Theo is thinking, as he lays on his bed staring at the ceiling.
The power of this writing approach is that it pulls us immediately into the novel. There are at least a couple of drawbacks. First, it’s easy to slip into a third person point of view and have an omniscient narrator who isn’t Theo. So for example, if I wrote: Theo’s Dad worried that his son was being being bullied at school, I’d no longer be writing in the first person, and the effect would be to pull the reader out of the novel and create some confusion.
Another drawback is that Theo can’t know everything that is going on in the story. So it forces the writer to consider carefully how Theo will discover and plan things that will keep the reader engaged and the story moving along. It also means the writer must consider what other story elements have happened that Theo doesn’t yet know about and how will these be brought into the story.
The days are getting shorter and colder, the fireplace hosts sparking embers and dancing flames to warm frozen toes and fingers, and a favorite beverage sits close by ready to warm the insides. The writer sits intensely focused, fingers perched over keys ready to begin the long textual journey. Sounds idyllic, right? But unfortunately, it’s not very realistic.
Let me start again. My fireplace insert needs a part and I won’t be able to use it until Thanksgiving. I’ve got to to pick up some things for supper, and my wife also asked me to get some super glue so I can fix a small stone turtle that she dropped. If I carve out a couple of hours later today for writing and I pour myself a nice merlot, it’s unlikely there’ll be any supper waiting when she gets home.
That’s a long way of saying that finding time to write regularly isn’t always easy especially if you are juggling other responsibilities like children and a job. If you work nine to five during the week, sitting down to write after you eat may be the last thing you feel like doing. Add kids into the mix, and sleep may be higher on your priority list after a long day. So what do you do?
If writing is something that you really want to do, try to set realistic goals. Trying to write five or ten thousand words a week may not be realistic. Writing a thousand words (or 2 pages) may be. Think about what you have to do to set aside a couple of hours of ‘me’ time. Some people do this by getting up early before the chaos of the day begins and writing. Other folks do this by going to the local library (or coffee shop) while the kids are in a library program or playing soccer or over a friends house.
Another way to keep up your level of enthusiasm, learn how to improve your writing and get feedback on your current writing project, is to join a local writing group. Many cities and towns have these and they often meet at the local library. I found out about two groups by inquiring at the circulation desk.
The past several weeks I have been preparing my first novel, Sparkles of Discontent, for publishing. https://booklocker.com/books/10538.html
For those of you interested, the story is about Nia D’Amato, a feisty but impulsive Boston Police detective, struggling with demons from her past and a biased deputy commander. She is called to a pawnshop robbery gone wrong and questions an eyewitness with a suspicious cover story. Days later she meets the witness again in an alley in back of the jewelry store where he worked.
Her investigation uncovers an inside robbery of high-end diamonds. She follows one of the suspects fleeing on a greyhound bus to Canada through a raging snowstorm. The bus gets delayed by downed power lines and is forced to stop at the Vermont Inn.
Ongoing tensions at the inn between the owner and his wife escalate and she storms out, quickly finding herself lost and fighting to stay alive. An increasingly nervous suspect, an obnoxious bus passenger, an undercover cop, a frantic owner, and a handyman who is more than he appears to be, set the stage for a tension filled evening at the inn while a blizzard rages outside. Nia arrives at the inn in time for a final dramatic confrontation with a murderer.
I have been using BookLocker (https://www.booklocker.com) to handle most of my publishing needs. I tortured friends and family to read and provide feedback on the manuscript. My wife, daughter, and I scoured the text for spelling or grammatical errors. Even after a number of careful reads through the document, we would find some errors. When we reached the point of what we thought was an error free document, we sent it off to Angela at BookLocker. I used a graphic designer recommended by them for the book cover, providing only a stock photo from iStock.
A few weeks later I received a printers proof copy in the mail that I quickly approved for printing. So the paperback can now be found at BookLocker (which also has a PDF version), Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. (ISBN: 978-1-64438-989-8). There were formatting issues with getting an epub version out at the same time, so I’m told it won’t be available for a couple of weeks.
I’m just starting to plan my marketing of the book which includes advertising it at conferences (CrimeBake, etc.), setting up talks at local libraries, using this blog, facebook, twitter, email contacts, working with other writing groups like the Maine Mystery Writers, etc.
I hope you’ll tell your friends and family about the book. Word of mouth is a powerful ally. Thanks.
Most of my recent writing takes place at least ten to sixty years ago. A dilemma for me and I suspect other writers, is how to acurately capture the look and feel of the times we are writing about. For example, consider mobile phones. They didn’t come into widespread use until after 2007 when longer range 3G networks and improved battey life made regular use of these handheld devices practical. So if I’m writing a story about a teenager from a lower middle class home whose borrowed car breaks down on the way home from the prom in 2005, it’s unlikely he would pull out a cell phone to call Mom and Dad for help. If I do choose to use that technology, I run the risk of alienating my readers by raising questions about the authenticity of my writing. So I make it a point to research the settings, slang and speech patterns, period clothing and dress, and everyday artifacts in common use, relying on newspaper clippings, letters, diaries, as well as novels from the same era by other writers. Another good source is converations with folks who lived during that time frame. The best source, of course, is drawn from personnal memory. Here is an example I wrote yesterday of a twelve year old recalling his grandparents home in Dorchester: My grandparents and two great aunts moved a few years ago from their home of almost forty years in Dorchester to a two-family house in Hyde Park where they rented the bottom floor. The change in house style was dramatic – from their former home, rich in architectural detail including two ornate circular verandas facing the street to their current modest-sized box of a house that looked pretty plain and was identical to all of the other houses around it. The inside of their apartment still hosted much of their drab olive-green overstuffed furniture, which also included a mahogany rocker with arms worn white with age along the edges and a corner chair with dark twisting spindles and very cool claw feet. A chiming grandfather clock and a sloping top mantle clock competed for attention by interrupting conversations at regular intervals. Sitting on shelves and tables were assorted ceramic and lethal-looking lead crystal vases. Many of the walls were adorned with darkly moody religious pictures filled with pain and agony. Those I religiously tried to avoid looking at. The floors were covered with a bewildering assortment of heavily detailed oriental carpets, many with serious wear patterns. When my great aunt Aggie opened the front door to greet me, I was reminded by the rush of aroma that all the old smells of Lindsey Street had made the move safely along with its occupants. I’d love to hear what you use to insure the authenticity of your writing.
Where do story ideas come from? I’ve read somewhere that you should write what you know and know what you write. Write what you know: I think sometimes the best ideas are those closest to the heart. We want to connect with the reader, engage them, make them want to turn to the next page. If what you are writing is compelling, has some thematic elements that resonate, and feels authentic, you are halfway to your next masterpiece. Ideas born of first or second hand experience will have an authenticity if you can help the reader experience the sights, sounds, smells, dialogs, etc. that you experienced. Know what you write:As you begin to tell your story, you’ll find elements that will need additional research. For example, I might be quite familiar with a recent event, but not the geography of the place, or other events taking place that are related. Or I might write of an experience from my childhood that was quite vivid. But many of the artifacts from that era, such as song titles, toys we played with, clothing worn, expressions commonly used, have been fogotten with the passage of time. How do you go about finding your story ideas?
Today’s blog is about writing your story from one perspective – in this case, the main character. This presents some challenges as well as some unique opportunities. First of all, information is acquired and filtered through the eyes, ears, and accumulated experiential baggage of this character. This provides the reader with a particularly intimate look at the character’s observations, thoughts, fears and prejudices. Of course, there may be events that have happened that the character knows nothing about. This means the reader will be ignorant of these events as well. Consider this passage from a new novel I started writing last week:
We passed through an arched entryway into a large dimly-lit double room. Half of it was occupied with dozens of people sitting or standing, talking in hushed tones. Most of them were not looking at the center of attraction at the other end of the room: my grandmother. She was all dressed up, lying in a casket, her head propped up on a small pillow. Flowers from friends and family spread out on either side like little tiered bleacher seats filled with a display of colors and smells that made my eyes water. A small kneeler maybe big enough to hold two skinny people was placed in front of it. My grandfather, and the four children which included my mother, stood like a row of tall thin darkly garbed trees with thin armed branches in a solemn receiving line, thanking the mourners who came to pay their last respects with bobbing heads and clasped hands. My Dad gave me a nudge. I walked up to the casket and knelt down, transfixed by the perfectly made-up sleeping woman who only vaguely looked like the Nana I remembered. A pair of rosary beads were artfully draped around her bony wrinkled hands and someone had attached a cross to the inside white satin lining of the lid. I stared at it, mouth open, wondering how it stayed up like that without falling. A little voice inside my head that could have been my father’s embarrassed whisper behind me, told me to say a prayer.
I knelt down, pushed my hands together, and shut my eyes, wondering what prayer I should say to the dead body lying in front of me. Every prayer I could remember just didn’t seem to fit. I recalled her sitting beside me on the front steps of our house. I turned and looked up into her sad, kindly, green-gray eyes. I didn’t remember her reaching out and laying a strong thin arm on my shoulder. I felt a jolt like static electricity ripple across my back and down through my body. My eyes snapped open in surprise and I sucked in a sharp breath. “Nana?” My grandmother was standing between two oversized prayer plants to the right of the casket, nodding sadly at me. I started to stand up, looking from the body in the casket to Nana dressed in two wrinkled hospital jonnies. My father put an arm on my shoulder, a concerned look darkening his face.
The reader is instantly thrust into into the world of a ten year old boy who experiences something frightening and quite confusing. If I choose to use an omniscent narrator to describe this scene, I might have written it like this:
Theo and his Dad passed through an arched entryway into a large dimly-lit double room. Half of it was occupied with dozens of people sitting or standing, talking in hushed tones. An angry older couple standing in one corner of the room were in the middle of a heated conversation, the woman looking up occasionally with wet eyes staring at the mahogany casket. Most of the people appeared to be studiously choosing not to look in that direction. Theo’s grandmother, Catherine Coyle, was dressed up in a light blue dress, lying on a bed of pleated satin in the casket, her head propped up on a small pillow. Flowers from friends and family spread out to either side like little tiered bleacher seats filled with a riotous display of colors. A small kneeler was placed in front of the casket. Joseph Coyle, her husband, and the four children which included Theodore’s mother, stood like a row of tall, thin, darkly garbed trees in a solemn receiving line, thanking the mourners who came to pay their last respects. Theo’s father gave him a nudge. He walked up and knelt down, transfixed by the perfectly made-up sleeping woman who only vaguely looked like the Nana he remembered. A pair of rosary beads were artfully draped around her bony wrinkled hands and someone had attached a cross to the inside white satin lining of the lid. He stared, mouth open. His father leaned over behind him and told him to say a prayer.
The boy shut his eyes, and put his hands together appearing to pray. His eyes suddenly snapped open in surprise and he sucked in a sharp breath. “Nana?” He stared at the two oversized prayer plants to the right of the casket. He started to stand up, looking from the body in the casket back to the plants. His father put an arm on his shoulder, a concerned look darkening his face.
The narrator in this second version provides provides the reader with some additional information, such as peoples names, the kind of casket, as well as other conflicts that might be going on during the wake, etc. It also allows the writer to introduce an element of suspense and raise lots of questions. Did the boy really see the ghost of his grandmother? Can he see other people who have died? What was that argument all about?
However, we do lose the unique perspective of Theo. Unless he tells someone about what he saw, the reader is left to guess what’s going on. This may not be such a bad thing, if the writer intends to surprise the reader with some answers later in the story. It should be noted, that changing the point of view within a chapter (say, suddenly jumping to Theo’s point of view) can pull the reader out of the story and be quite jarring, so generally, it’s a good idea to avoid it.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about writing a story in the first person.