Sunday, February 28, 2010

Novel Checklist

Notes from Donald Maass on how to write a breakout novel (and my thoughts on them)

Why Write a Breakout Novel
To survive in today's book publishing industry, it is not good enough just to get published.
(This was enlightening to me if only because for the past few years I've been so focused on just getting "a" book published. This chapter really made me thing further down the line.)

The root cause of most midcareer meltdowns is the author's own writing.
(I'm sure it is hard to convince most authors that there work is getting more and more rough around the edges, but it's so clear to see in some cases.)

Success does not come from agents, advances, editors or promotion . . . It comes from word of mouth.
(We've all seen the poor authors schlepping their books at a the book store. Are there lines usually waiting around the corner? How many books do you think they really sell at book store promotions? 100 at each store? 200? How many stores would that take to make a book a best seller. Don't think that it's promotion that sells books. It's good, intriguing, writing that grabs readers and makes them want to tell their friend about it.)

Your favorite novels sweep you away, have characters you cannot forget, and involve dramatic and meaningful events.
(This was the impetus of one of my earlier posts. Of all of my favorite novels . . . they all transport me away.)

A breakout premise has plausibility, inherent conflict, originality, and gut emotional appeal.
(Make the reader connect with the story and the characters at their core.)

To brainstorm a breakout premise, steer away from the obvious, seek inherent conflict, find gut emotional appeal and ask, "What if . . .?"
(Always be searching for ways to get more from your idea that the ordinary and expected.)

Wonderful Line

“It wasn’t until I had become engaged to Miss Piano that I began avoiding her.”
Into Your Tent I’ll Creep

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Three Favorite Novels

I am reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, and I believe I am going to be commenting about it quite a lot in the coming days. It is without question, and keep in mind I’m only a few chapters into it, the best book on novel writing I’ve read yet. It’s not that he is bringing up new ideas or devices on writing, but he has an incredibly easy writing style. It’s as if I am a student in a completely engrossing lecture class. I can’t put it down.

That being said, one activity he gives his readers is to pick their three favorite novels. There is a lot that goes into why he asks this, but I got stuck on this command. I can’t think of my three favorite novels, the ones I’ve read and re-read the most. I have favorite authors. That’s easy to pinpoint; Dick Francis, Vernor Vinge, Agatha Christie. But, I don’t have three favorite novels.

I have one. Lonesome Dove. I’ve read that sucker a million times. My copy is so dog eared and beat up I had to put duct tape on it to hold it together. Another favorite might be Illusions by Richard Bach. I’ve read that a few times and each time I get more out of it. Another? Deepness in the Sky was awesome. I’ve re-read George RR Martin’s series a few times. Fellowship of the Ring? What about the Flashman novels I enjoy so much. I can’t pinpoint that final book.

Nevertheless the lesson that Mr. Maass was trying to teach was not lost on me. Examine those books above. First, except for one, they all have expansive settings and character lists. Secondly, most were written more than ten years ago. These are two features of breakout novels Mr. Maass says.

Try it. What are you’re three favorite novels? The three books you’ve read and re-read a million or more times? The one that if you had only three books to read would be the ones you select? It sounds easier than it is. Do they fit into Mr. Maass’ mold?

What I found interesting, and Mr. Maass has not written about this yet, none of my three favorites are mystery novels.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

First Book on Kindle

So, other than being my first Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb book that I have read, Origin in Death also happened to be the first book I ever read on a Kindle. What did I think? I think I like it.

The system is far more portable and easy to use than I thought it would be. Paging through books is easy, chaning from one book to another, easy, and buying and downloading content is far easier than I expected. I love the fact that when I go buy the book at Amazon I am paying full price (so the author benefits from the sale) and the Amazon Kindle full price is equivalent to buying a book at Half Price Books. I’ve always loved finding great deals on books at Half Price. I’ve always felt bad that I am not supporting the authors that I like to read. Now, with the Kindle, I have the best of both worlds.

There are a few dislikes. I don’t like the fact that I have to tell the Kindle how to orient itself when I read it. I positioned that sucker in a multitude of ways (usually horizontal) to read it. My brother’s iphone re-orients itself automatically, not so the Kindle. I didn’t like the fact that in extremely low light, I aint reading. I can’t seem to find a back light function. I don’t like the fact that it looks as though Apple is going to do the same thing they did with the ipod, not allow Kindles to download from itunes. That would have been a nice feature. The itunes app is far easier to utilize than Amazon.

All in all, I love it. I would never have bought one for myself, now that I have one, I’m not going back. Two thumbs up. And, I’ve already bought another book for it.

Another Great First Line

“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”

George Eliot, Middlemarch

Monday, February 22, 2010

Book Review: Origin in Death

Every now and then I try and break out of my reading mold. In general I tend to read mystery novels, and if I didn’t force myself, I’d never read anything but Dick Francis, Lawrence Sanders and Agatha Christie novels. Breaking out of this mold however has lead to my reading some wonderfully inspiring, and well written works. I’ve enjoyed JA Konrath’s series of books, George MacDonald Frasier, Vernor Vinge, and George RR Martin’s series. Then there are the stinkers. The books that having finished them I wish I had the time I invested back. Time that I could better spend doing something worthwhile like watching paint dry or following the pattern in the office carpeting. Some books that are in this category? Ellen Crosby’s first book . . . another? Neal Stephenson’s Anathem . . . yet another? Anything by James Patterson. No offense to Patterson fans, but BLAH!

Anyway, I just finished Origin in Death by J.D. Robb, aka Nora Roberts. Apparently Nora Roberts is the romance side of the authoress, while J.D. Robb (the pseudonym) is the mystery novelist; the futuristic mystery novelist to be precise.

The story for Origin in Death takes place in the near future, the 2050’s. Setting the story in future New York City allows the author the ability to throw in some interesting inventions and cut down on travel times via the use of “jet copters” and “glides,” but in general, and perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Origin in Death is like the twelve of thirteenth in the series, I felt Robb/Roberts did a rotten job of creating a believable setting. In terms of world building, something sci-fi authors tend to do well, J.D. Robb left a lot on the table.

The mystery and the characterization was well done however. This is something I’ve learned over the past few years. Character counts more than anything else. You can have a fabulous plot and story, but without compelling characters, the story aint going nowhere.

I don't know if I LIKED this passage, but I did read it twice. “But he didn’t ooze like evil fog out of the walls or woodwork. He always oozed like evil fog out of the walls or woodwork. She had a moment to be puzzled, then irritated, then mildly concerned he’d dropped dead during the day.”

Another passage that caught my eye, and what I felt was perhaps the most well written and succint line in the story: “It’s difficult to say with any accuracy. It was war. Personalities cope, or shine, or shatter during war.”

Finally, you have to give J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts serious props for how prolific she is. I looked her up on Wikidpedia to see how many books she has had published under her various pen names . . . I stopped counting at two hundred. That’s some serious dedication to writing.

So where does Origin in Death fit in my range of good book to waste of time book? Squarely in the middle. Not a complete waste of time, but definitely could have been better. (Lord knows it wasn’t as big a waste as Neil Stephenson’s Anathem. Truly, that tome may have skewed the curve for all future books.)

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Nibble

I got a nibble from an agent. I wrote to an agent a few weeks ago. I received an email from another agent (or agent assistant) at the agency yesterday. In the email this agent explains that she showed the query to another agent at the agency, and he is interested.

Having completed a bit of research on this third agent, I see that he represents mysteries, and sports non-fiction. Perhaps he is intrigued by my blending of the two. Nevertheless, the email said that they would like to see the first ten pages of my manuscript. This is a tactic used to ensure that they aren't wasting their time. They want to see if I can write at all well before they ask for the whole magilla.

This is also something that could leave me completely and utterly crushed. If they don't like the first ten pages, they're basically saying, " aren't that great a writer kid."

So, in preparation for this monumental disapointment, I went back and re-read my first ten pages. It never ceases to amaze me by how with each successive reading I find things that could be said better, and worse, I find mistakes. I've re-read and edited Toe the Line at least five times. Lana has read it. Roger has read some of it. Others have read it. And yet, there are still mistakes.

I can understand my finding things I think I can say better, but mistakes. Finding mistakes after this many re-reads is just embarrassing. The struggle continues. Brace yourselves for the rejection of my ten pages and the devestation that will bring.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dick Francis

Today, my mother made the startling announcement that Dick Francis had just recently passed away. Despite being a huge fan of Dick Francis, I found this news far less moving than I found the news of the passing of Robert B. Parker, of whom I am only a sometime fan. I believe the primary reason I was not shocked by the news of my favorite writer’s death is that I had thought him dead for almost ten whole years.

I have narrowed it down to this, I think I read an article about the death of Dick Francis’ wife back in 2000. I read about her death in an article that discussed a conspiracy regarding Dick Francis’ writing, where in many people thought that it was his wife, not Dick Francis himself, who authored so many of his books. Graham Lord's 1999 unauthorized biography Dick Francis: A Racing Life suggested that many of his books had in fact been written by his wife Mary. For some reason I went away from that article expecting to see no new Dick Francis novels, and therefore wrote Dick Francis off.

Nevertheless, I am sorry about his passing, but thankfully, due to my mistaken presumption, I’ve already dealt with the grief.

Historical Fiction

Months ago, at the behest of Roger via the book How to Write a Blockbuster Novel I read The Man from St. Petersburg. It was a fun thriller to read. It had a fast paced plot, dynamic characters, intrigue, conflict, everything that the author of How to Write a Blockbuster Novel was trying to highlight in his own book. One aspect that I have always found particularly intriguing, and The Man from St. Petersburg did not disappoint, was the way in which authors can wrap a thriller or mystery into actual, historic events.

One aspect of this publishing adventure that I have found surprising is the proportion of non-fiction books published to fiction. There are vastly more non-fiction books published each year. Prior to this year I never would have guessed that to be the fact. But, once I stopped to think about it, it made perfect sense. Whenever I go to the bookstore I am surrounded by a far greater diversity and number of non-fiction books than fiction. If I wanted to get published I believe I would have a far easier time as a non-fiction author than as a fiction one.

I believe novels like The Man from St. Petersburg are the perfect combination of fiction and non-fiction. They weave a completely fantastic plot with the realism of historical events. In the case of The Man from St. Petersburg it was the suffrage movement in London in the 1920’s. I’ve always been enamored by this style of writing, but believe I would lack the patience required for the research. The speaker at the last Sugar Land writer’s conference, David Liss, I believe employed the same or similar techniques.

But, it can be taken too far. Mischner for instance. I have read a few of his books and his style is so to the point and non-fictionesque that the reader finds it difficult to know what to believe and what not to believe. At least with The Man from St. Petersburg, one knew exactly where the real world ended and Follet’s imagination began.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


If you think I post too many articles on the iPad and on the evolution of publishing, you haven't read Nathan Bransford's blog. Granted, he is an agent, and probably has more right to be concerned with these aspects of the publishing world, but some of his posts in the past year have been about how much he enjoys reading on his iPhone.

For the past year or so I've been trying to work up the nerve to buy either an iPhone, or now a new iPad. I've kinda been fascillating and stalling since I still have six more months on my Verizon contract. The question is moot (in the famous words of Jesse Jackson), Lana gave me a Kindle.

I'm surprised by how much I like the Kindle. I immediately downloaded the very book I was reading and am now reading it on the Kindle. I think I like it more on the Kindle. I love the quick content searches and even more, I love the fact that buying a book for the Kindle on Amazon is like buying a book at Half Price Books.

There is also an option to publish via Kindle. So if I don't get any hits on my manuscript in the next year, look for Toe the Line on the Kindle. Two thumbs up so far.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Spectacularly, and Absurdly Intriguing First Line

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

The Next Step (providing the one I'm on yields no fruit)

Sarah Berges (a writer friend who I know from high school) told me to give up on query letters and try a writer's conference. She said she got more leads that way than query letters ever provided. It gave her a chance to connect with agents on a far more personal level. This article tends to support that How to Pitch and Agent at a Writer's Conference.

I've read most of these tips before, but now, with the understanding that going to a writer's conference may and should be in my future, I'm reading them with new eyes. I particularly like this advice: The trick to a good pitch is to practice it so you are familiar with the content, but to present it in a way that is more conversational. Practice your pitch with friends, family and your writers group. Get some feedback and try to get rid of that nervousness.

I'm a bit dubious of this other bit of advice: our goal is to become an expert on this person. Then when you sit down for the pitch session, you will feel like you know the agent. You can break the ice by commenting on something you learned, “I read on your blog that you are re-reading War and Peace. What page are you on?” I know I have a limited experience, but just from querying, I've found that most of the information you find on agents is so dated and so wrong, it isn't worth acknowledging, much less remembering.

I don't know why I'm not looking forward to going to a writer's conference. I've been to the little writer's workshop here in Sugar Land twice. It wasn't too bad. Good test run. Time to move up I guess.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Today's e-book is a direct descendant of the 1930s paperback

I realize that in terms of publishing news I’ve posted a bunch of Ipad articles lately, and today will be no different. HOWEVER, this article (Article) tends to validate the rationale behind the Ipad centric blog posts. This article was written by the CEO of Penguin Publishing.

I did not know that Penguin started by contracting with larger publishing houses, to produce paperbacks of their novels. Apparently, Penguin was the first one to aggressively market paperback books. This article states that the same revolution in publishing that Penguin began in paperback books, will be seen via the Ipad in the coming months and years. “Today's e-book is the direct descendent of the 1930s paperback.”

The most relevant passage I found was this: “Allen Lane founded Penguin in 1935 on the basis of a brilliant and simple idea. He would buy the rights to publish paperback books from established hardback publishers for not much money, package the books beautifully, and then sell them around the world at a ridiculous price—sixpence in the U.K. Many years later, Jeff Bezos invented an even more creative, and much more profitable, model for the distribution of physical and digital books. He called it Amazon. Today's e-book is a direct descendant of the 1930s paperback. Like its predecessor, it should be less expensive than a hardcover book as it costs almost nothing to produce, and the rights can be acquired separately from other formats. Amazon has quite legitimately pursued the same logic as Allen Lane, buying up exclusive digital rights directly from authors and agents, and pricing its best-selling e-books at $9.99, a huge discount compared to the price of the competing hardback."

The good news, according to the author was this quote “This was true of book clubs, of superstores, and of online retailers, and it will be true of digital platforms. So our authors will sell more of their work, pirates permitting.”

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Another New First Line

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, General Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Another Great First Line

Don't know where it came from, but I think it's good.

“The last man on earth sat alone in a room. A knock came on the door.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Book Review: The Dog Walked Down the Street

As part of my New Year's Resolution I dedicated myself to reading more books about the publishing industry and about writing novels. I would have said for every novel I read I have to read one non-fiction, but I want this resolution a bit more open ended. If I gave myself a one to one relationship, I doubt if it would have lasted a month.

Nevertheless, I have just finished The Dog Walked Down the Street by Sal Gynn.

It is a very short, book about how to deal with the work of finishing a book, finding an angent and the process of being published. Lot's of snippets and adages, such as:

Novelist James Lee Burke, Pulitzer Prize Nominee and winner of Two Edgar Allan Poe awards, started writing fiction in college. His English professor returned one of his stories with a "D" and the remarks, "Your spelling is an assault upon the eyeballs. Your penmanship makes me wish the Phoenicians had not developed the alphabet. But I couldn't give you an F because you have so much heart."

"The dog walked down the street" has all you'd want from a sentence, but needs a bit more to give color and show it importance in the story.
So much better is "The spindly, dun-colored mutt staggered along the broken sidewalk."

Books are made of words, but you have too many in this sentence. "Down the street on the 13th of May in the year that Roosevelt died (Franklin, not Theodore), a spotted dog with a limp (which bespoke years of wandering, looking for a master who, oddly, disappeared the night of his high school graduation) was seen walking by a third grade teacher and his twenty-nine students."

All in all, it was inspirational, and there was a nugget or two of worthwhile in it.

Monday, February 1, 2010

More First Lines - Makes Me Want to Read On

This first line definitely makes me want to know more.
High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.”
David Lodge, Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses