Friday, May 30, 2008

Books on Craft

Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s when I attempted to get some things published, I invested in a number of writing books. Unfortunately, those are all but useless now. They’re not only for writing styles of earlier times, so not of much use to me, but no one else wants them either. When we looked into selling them online, we found every one of them already in attempts to be sold by others. So much for trying to salvage something from my investment.

Meanwhile, as soon as I joined the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) community, I started hearing about books that are “absolute gospel” for today’s fiction writing. I invested in four of them and started digging in. Then I laid out for a fifth one. I found all of them helpful. The four were Stein on Writing (Sol Stein), Writing the Breakout Novel (Donald Maas), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (Maas), and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne & King). All these are quoted and referenced over and over in the online discussions. The fifth one was also by Stein, How to Grow a Novel.

The problem—though maybe I shouldn’t call it a problem—is that I keep learning about more and more must-have books. Since those first ones, I’ve added Plot and Structure (James Scott Bell) and Getting into Character (Brandilynn Collins). At the Blue Ridge conference last year, I took a workshop from Ron Benrey and learned about the book he had coming out the end of the year—The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Christian Fiction. Now that’s a title for you.

Now the latest buzz is that James Scott Bell’s new book on Revision and Self-Editing outshines even his first wonderful one. Another “must-have,” according to those who have acquired it. And so it goes.

So have I read all these treasures and digested everything in them? Well, no. They aren’t the kind of book you read “kiver-to-kiver” like a story. You study them. You use them for reference when you aren’t sure and when you need to look up something. But I can promise you this: I’ve done a much better job of absorbing and applying what is in them than the gal writing on the ACFW online group today who told about buying lots of writing books but having them sit on her shelf “as virginal as they arrived.”

Not mine. Look inside any one of them, and you’ll find it well marked in multiple colors, proof that I have been working to get my money’s worth as well as to improve my craft.

In time, I know I’ll want to lay out for that new book by Bell, but first I’ve got to focus on Brandilynn’s book on character because that is still an area in which I need to grow. Or is it Bell’s first book that I need to spend more time in?

And I’ve only scratched the surface on the one for idiots. Hmmm.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

How We Got into the '50s

When I wrote about “that year” in my piece a few days ago, I deliberately didn’t mention what year I was talking about because I haven’t yet discussed the time setting for my story. Because of the way Tangled Strands has evolved over the years, the time setting has bounced around a bit.

For starters, remember that I wrote the bulk of the story in 1986-87. So I wrote it as the world was in those days. Fine. When I got it out about four years ago and starting working on it again, one of the first things I knew I needed to do was “update” it into these times. So I started working in things like cell phones, seat belts, child car seats, and the like.

Then I let my son read it. I’m not sure how far he was into the story when he said to me, “Mom, I like your story, but it feels like it happened in another time.” Well, true because it was written in another time, but I assured him I was updating it by adding things like cell phones. “No,” he said, “it is more than that. It has the feel and values of another time.”

I didn’t fully understand what he meant, and I was still sure I could “fix” it with additions of modern things. But I never forgot he said that. It wasn’t until sometime later when I was playing with the ages of my characters that it hit me full force—Don Paul was right: Tangled Strands really does take place in another time, a previous time. (Don't ask me how Don tagged it for the ‘50s since he wasn’t born until ’64! ).

My first idea for solving this was to set it in the time it was written—the late ‘80s. When I attended the Blue Ridge Writers Conference a year ago, I decided to use that question as my conversation starter—at meals and when I spoke to authors, editors, and agents. Could I sell a story set in the 1980s? Predictably, I got a variety of opinions, but more than one who really knows the field told me, no, it wouldn’t fly in the ‘80s. The ‘80s aren’t “old” enough. They aren’t current, but they aren’t old enough to be “historical.”

The idea of the ‘50s, on the other hand, generated enthusiasm. The ‘50s, one multi-published author said, are “romantic” and she could see it making a good story setting. And to think my son told me that many months before. Hasn’t it been the experience of all civilization that parents tell their children things they don’t believe until they discover it themselves much late? Occasionally it happens in reverse . Thank God for sons with two Masters degrees.

Placing it in the ‘50s, I thought, shouldn’t be too hard since I was not only alive in those years, but I wasn’t a child. I did high school, college, and marriage in those years. I know they didn’t say things like “Way cool!” in those days. Of course I now had to go back and pull out all those cell phones and seat belts. I’ve found more than just those, and I’ll share them here from time to time.

Much more weighty than things like that are a couple key story elements that are a real challenge to put in that decade. For one of them I’ve found a compromise solution, but I’m still struggling with the other one. Things just weren’t done like that in that time, yet the element is crucial to the story. I’m not giving up. As I’ve said before, stay tuned!

By the way, the year for which I needed the Easter date was 1959. And another quick search on the Web brought me the complete TV schedule for that year with all those innocent programs we used to enjoy . You’ll have to watch for some of them in Tangled Strands.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Nailing Down the Dates

This week I have ended up working on something I hadn’t had in my mental list before. When I wrote Tangled Strands and all the times I’ve worked on it in recent years, I’ve had only vague generalities in mind as to when things happened. I knew the story opened on a hot August day (but not which day). A major event and a whole new part of the story began with “a biting February wind,” but again no date. I had the baby being born in “early June,” and the events leading to the climax happened Labor Day weekend, but in between those anchors all I had were those vague generalities.

This week I’ve been trying to chart the scenes, including verbalizing how each scene contributes to the advancement of the plot, and I ran into a timing problem. I had Larry calling his mother “a week after” Chris came to see him—but that didn’t put the time anywhere close enough to the spring break he was talking about.

That got me looking up once again the calendar for that year that I’d already located and bookmarked on the Internet. Then I realized that, because of that “spring break,” I really needed to know the date of Easter that year. Again, the web came through. Easter was March 29. That helped a lot, and I managed to nail down several dates. However, since one of the major events is tied to that spring break, I’ve begun to wonder whether it is a problem that I never mentioned Easter in the story. Hmmm.

As you can see, one thing leads to another. At times like this I wonder if I’ll ever finish getting it “into shape.” So far, I’m confident that all the things I’ve talked about in this blog are things that would matter to an editor and that might make a difference between being accepted for publication or not. Or at least they are things that I would have to fix eventually, even if by some chance I should be offered a contract before having done them.

So I keep plugging away. Lord, help me make better use of my time. Help me have the wisdom to make quick decisions about what needs to be done. Help it to come together in ways that will glorify You.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Butler in the Chandelier

I’ve long had plans to share this topic with you, but I hadn’t decided when to do it until this afternoon. When I found the butler in the chandelier again, I knew I had to do it today.

Butler? Chandelier?

As usual, we need some background. When I wrote Tangled Strands in the late ‘80s, I wrote as I was used to reading. If a guy and a gal were conversing on a dinner date, the reader was cued in on what each was thinking as they talked. You knew what she felt about what he said, and you found out what he thought about her response.

Somewhere in the intervening years, someone decided (or perhaps a conclusion evolved with many authors) that it was confusing to the reader to be jerked from one head to the other. Wouldn’t it be better to keep the reader comfortable in just one character’s head per scene? Doing otherwise became known as “head hopping.” Formally, it is point of view, or POV. One author titled a chapter about it, “Keep That Camera Nailed Down!” A book should have only a few point-of-view characters. Many have only one or two.

I first became aware of this change five or six years ago. When I initially read about it (in that “Camera” book), it didn’t even register with me. When I finally did begin to get it, I was incredulous. How could one write that way? What would it do to a story? My brain was still programmed to want to know what each one was thinking during that romantic interlude. I began making some inquiries and found myself hearing the same thing from others. When I had a chance to question a real author about it, she confirmed that it as the new “trend” (just this month I heard her say she is now a “purist” on the subject).

Slowly I began working my way back through my story trying to practice the new style. Slowly I began adapting my thinking. Slowly I began getting the hang of it. One scene at a time I found ways to stay with one character. The writer signals a POV change, just as one signals a change of location or characters, by leaving an extra line between paragraphs.

Some scenes were simple to fix. Some were not. The most interesting challenge I had was when I found a scene where the best way to describe the POV was “the butler in the chandelier.” I hadn’t written the reader into anyone’s head. Instead, it was as if some unnamed, disembodied person were watching the whole scene from a vantage point up above it all. “Omniscient” is actually a valid point of view, but it isn’t good to sprinkle it around indiscriminately. Small snatches of it are now called “author intrusion.” I had to decide which character would be good to live that scene and then rewrite it accordingly.

What does that have to do with today?

Today I was shocked, after all this time, to find yet another “butler in the chandelier” scene. I was especially surprised because I worked on that very scene last evening. I was, dealing with a different kind of problem, and it never dawned on me that we weren’t seeing the scene through the eyes of anyone in the scene.

At first I drew a blank about whose scene it should be, but it came to me quickly. Instead of starting out “After they were seated, Alec shuffled papers on his desk…,” it is now “As they took their seats, Chris watched his father shuffling papers…” That’s good. Chris is already a “viewpoint character,” and he could use a few more scenes.

I must have made progress on this matter because in the contest I entered this spring, I was gratified to have more than one judge comment that my POVs were fine. Whew!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Learning Craft at a Conference

Equally important to the accessibility of editors and agents at a writers’ conference are the classes offered and taught by professionals in the field. These come in several formats, from concentrated ones that meet for an hour or two every day of the conference to hour-long workshops and late-night chats. Authors, editors, and agents are the teachers and facilitators, and the incredible opportunity to sit under them is quite incredible.

The schedule went up last week for ACFW’s conference this September, and I spent a couple of happy hours perusing it. I was especially excited to find two or three of the very courses I need being taught by authors whose books I have read in the last year. One of them was immensely helpful in the area of “back story,” another topic I am looking forward to sharing with you soon.

The conference, which lasts three and a half days, includes five workshop times. Here is a quick overview of the five I am most interested in taking.

One workshop is on the intricacies of using an “ensemble cast”—i.e., several characters who play key roles all the way through the book. Tangled Strands has an ensemble cast, so that workshop will be great for me.

Another workshop focuses on “creating a world that engages, captures, and immerses your reader.” I look forward to developing a bit more the setting for my story.

One class says we will work with our own stories and characters to develop characters that are “third-dimensional rather than flat.” That sounds both fun and practical and exactly what I need because, back in the beginning when I didn’t know much what I was doing, some of my characters started out pretty much carbon copies of each other.

The Tangled Strands has some pretty powerful emotions, so I plan to sign up for a class that promised advanced techniques for writing about them.

Tangled Strands didn’t start out to be a “historical,” but since I wrote it twenty years ago, it was already in a different time. How it got to be placed even a bit earlier is another little saga I will be sharing with you somewhere along the line. I’m looking forward to a class on that topic as well.

You can see how all this is “learning the craft.” Attending conferences costs a good bit of money, but in today’s world it a essential if one is going to compete in a hugely competitive field such as getting published. With publishers not accepting unsolicited materials anymore, attending conferences becomes almost essential if one is serious about getting published.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Interacting in Person with Other Writers

When I joined American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) in late 2006, I discovered a local group of Christian fiction writers that meets once a month at a coffer shop near downtown Nashville. Since then, I haven’t missed a meeting unless I was out of town. Almost always the meetings are a highlight of my month.

Yesterday’s, on May 10, was no exception. We have four published authors in our group and another who has one contract and two more in the works. She also has an M.A. degree in Creative Writing. Often we choose a topic, and she puts together a great lesson on it. We learn from all these authors, both formally or informally. Yesterday we had a first-timer visitor, and all of us profited from the questions she asked.

I was especially encouraged in my personal writing journey. I brought some questions with me, passages I had struggled with, and found out I was on the right track. I was confirmed in the fact that I am experienced enough a writer that it will be fine for me take exactly the workshops I’ve picked out to sit in on at the Minneapolis conference this fall, even two that are third level (out of five levels). I was affirmed for being serious about “studying my craft.”

I’ve been struggling lately with motivation and the ability to really stick to the task. After all, I’m into my fourth year of trying to bring this story up to the standards of today’s writing styles. It is natural sometimes to wonder if I will ever finish and if it is worth the effort (not to mention the time). Yesterday’s meeting helped refresh my conviction that I will and it is.

Last week I had a sort of epiphany—a sudden realization of a another major change I need to make. This will involve completely rewriting three chapters. No, I don’t have to change information in the chapters; I just have to change the principle characters and thus the perspective. It’s another case of what I mentioned earlier—getting Sharon as my main character more directly involved in what happens in the story. I'll tell you more about it when I get at least one of them done.

Yesterday’s meeting, over all and including simply being with other writers, refreshed my vision for getting those chapters rewritten and continuing to plug away at the revisions.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Minneapolis Writers' Conference September 18-21, 2008

The American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) holds a writers' conference every year, usually in September. Though I joined the organization in November of 2006, I have yet to attend one of their conferences, but I’m hoping this will be the year.

Writers' conferences are something else that has changed in the last twenty or thirty years. There are far more of them, and they are being better attended than ever before. As usual in life, there are reasons for this.

One of the reasons is the proliferation of people writing books. All kinds of people dream of writing a book, of seeing their name on the cover, and signing their autograph on something that bears their name. When books were handwritten, having that happen was seldom even a daydream for all but a tiny few. Even with the advent of printing, it was still a dream beyond the reach of anyone except a rare few because the letters were still set by hand with tiny pieces of metal type—again a time-consuming and painstaking task.

Through the centuries, producing books has become easier and easier, until with the advent and availability of the computer and a personal printer in almost every home, almost any Tom, Jack, or Susie can make the dream of writing a book happen.

For many decades in the last century, the norm was that you wrote your book, then you drafted a query letter giving a good “pitch” for why the book should be published, and you sent the letter to an editor at a publishing house. Those who were really sharp did their research and were able to address the query to a specific editor by name. As the editors worked their way through that “slush pile,” they spotted a few they felt had potential, and the other received the dreaded rejections.

However, year by year, the editors in the industry became more and more swamped by unsolicited material, so much so that they had to draw a line in the sand and make a firm policy that they would no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts or even proposals. And, in most cases, that included query letters.

So what does that mean? How can one get an editor to look at one’s material these days?. The primary answer is writers’ conferences, but it is an answer with two prongs. One prong is the editors themselves, and the other is the agents. Agents do have access to editors, so if an author does not succeed in getting an invitation directly from an editor, that author needs to work on acquiring an agent. The agent will work as the go-between to get the author’s work seen by an editor. The standard practice is that the agent gets 15% of what the author gets, providing the agent engineers a “sale” for the author.

So editors and agents, as bridges into the publishing world, are key elements of writers’ conferences. But they aren’t the only thing conferences are about. Conferences are about learning the craft of writing, learning it from the pros. We’ll talk about next time.