I recently launched Running, the third novel in my Jim Mitchell series and the student magazine at the college where I teach evening classes graciously agreed to review the book.
The review was mostly a positive one, for which I was grateful. The critic noted, however, that I should have developed a secondary character more, as she found him interesting.
You know what? She's absolutely right. There definitely was more to tell of his story that was not in the book. As a matter of fact, the character is worthy of a whole separate story, which is what he had a few years ago.
The story of that book, which began as an intense short story that morphed in a powerful novel that never made it across the finish line, is my go-to example of how not every idea is golden. I was able to salvage some of the story and sneak it into Undue Pressure and some of what was left was enough to convert Running from a novella into a full-length (if shorter) novel.
While I was happy with the final result, there was much more of his tale to be told. I was afraid that if I went too far afield with the secondary character, people would get frustrated that I had forgotten about our main guy.
Maybe I was right, maybe I was wrong. One thing I do know is that Monday morning quarterbacking is easy to do, but I'm not sure it's a good thing to do.
Sometimes you just have to accept that all work, even after its published, is still a work in progress.
Writer friends of mine often talk about “the olden days” when literary giants used to scribble out their manuscripts and fairy godmothers known as publishers took care of all that pesky publicity stuff. All Austen, Fitzgerald and Hemingway had to do was show up, sign books and bask in the adulation of their fans.
OK, I’ll be the first to admit we might be looking at the past through rather rosy-colors lenses, but, with the rise of print-on-demand platforms, both indie and traditionally published authors are competing for the same audiences and need to employ new tools and techniques to get eyeballs to read your latest masterpiece.
This has led to the creation of the Launch Team, a small cadre of loyal fans who read your work in advance and use their personal and social media network to boost interest (and eventual sales) of your work.
People make this sound easy, but rest assured it is not. Basically, you need to recruit friends that will act like a literary Navy SEAL team. You want people who like your work and you enough to spread the word but do so for little pay or few rewards (unless you have the budget for that, which you probably don’t). You are, in essence, asking people for a favor with the hope they will help create the all-powerful “buzz” your book requires for success.
My first book did fairly well, but, because of some mistakes on my part, book two sold rather poorly. This time around, I’m hoping that a little advanced planning, plus the kindness and generosity of my friends, this book launch will enjoy a bit more success.
Next week we’ll find out if this hare-brained scheme actually works.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I saw the film Authors Anonymous. As budding authors ourselves, we weren’t sure if the story was cute, fascinating or just plain sad (I voted for sad). If you’re a writer, this is one of those “inside baseball” type movies you totally will understand. If you aren’t a writer, you might not get why we put ourselves through all this torture.
Don’t worry — I often wonder that myself.
For those of us who haven’t yet established a beachhead in the land of literary success, the challenge is that our writing careers tend to bob among the waves of a very large and seemingly solitary ocean. We sometimes find fellow travelers who are treading water in the same seas and share with them hopeful tales of those who have reached the shore and are exploring this wondrous land of opportunity (When you’re a not-yet-successful writer, you tend to spend weekend mornings coming up with over-extended metaphors while waiting to hear back from editors, agents or your friends on social media).
Recently, I had a solid lead on getting a dust jacket blurb from a highly successful author in my genre. Having laid the ground work over several months, I shipped out a copy of my work with eager anticipation.
The author, a very kind and gracious soul whose writing I absolutely adore, was so generous in declining to endorse my work that I felt uplifted by the rejection. He spoke of his own struggles in getting published and how he took these early challenges as an admonition to improve his craft. In closing, he said the following: “I implore you to look beyond the one story, and strive forward towards greatness. Our community needs writers like you.”
Some might reasonably argue that he was trying to let me down gently, knowing that it's bad form to be mean to under-performing kid in class.
But instead of being cynical, I decided to take his counsel at face value. So I sent portions of two manuscripts to contacts who might be able to help me out and spent the next Saturday starting the arduous process of looking for agents in preparation for when the next edit of my manuscript is complete.
In my home office I have a file with at least 50 rejection letters in it. On the bookshelf about a foot and a half away sits my first novel. Am I willing to go through the cycle of eagerness, hope and rejection all over again for the possibility of publishing the sequel to the manuscript that took 15 years to get into print?
"He was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being."
— Uncle Jack Finch in Go Set a Watchman
As a child, we have our heroes. Whether they are on the TV or movie screen or a bit closer to home, these deities are set apart from mortal men and women. For many, those heroes are our parents or other adults in our lives. We revel in their positive character traits and are blinded to their foibles. They can do little, if any, wrong.
As we age, the veneer wears off and the faults that were always there readily appear. Sometimes the flaws are minor and common to the lot of humanity. At other points, they are so significant that learning of them rocks us to our very core.
Such is the case with Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. Many Americans were raised on Lee's first book, To Kill a Mockingbird, which has been taught to teens for decades. I know it a bit better than most because I teach it every year in my freshman English classes. One of the key themes we highlight is the concept of Atticus Finch as ideal father. He always has sage advice, protects his children from harm and defends the rights of the oppressed against their oppressors.
Even when he knows he won't win a case that is clearly stacked against his African American defendant, Atticus still fights the good fight because that's what good people do. His daughter, Scout, remains proud of him even when Tom Robinson loses in court and eventually his own life. At times, Atticus Finch seems like a fabled knight on a one-man crusade.
Well, that myth in dashed in Watchman. It's 20 years later and Scout is no longer a child, having abandoned more than just her childhood nickname. Jean Louise smokes, has no problem kissing boys or cussing and has lived it up a bit in New York City. On a pilgrimage home to see her arthritic father in still mostly rural Macomb, Alabama, she learns things about him that shatter her perception of Atticus Finch, defender of the defenseless.
The storyline aside, there are some technical glitches in the meta-narrative that connects the two stories. Clearly the idea of the Tom Robinson case was firm in Lee's mind when she wrote Watchman, but there are differences between the cases in the two books that will set the teeth of loyal Mockingbird readers on edge. I'm not a big fan of the third person narration, but it's a modified third person, since we really see the world from her point of view. Also, there is some repetition that a good editor would have pruned away. It's like when your favorite TV show has a guest writer and she strays from the accepted canon of the series.
These issues aside, there's a reason her publishers told her to put Watchman aside and write a prequel. Mockingbird is a positive story of one man fighting against an unjust system. It has its complexities to be sure, but at its heart it is a fairy tale. Perhaps with the death and injustice it's more like a Grimm's Fairy Tale than a Disney fable, but morally muddled characters like Mayella Ewell and Walter Cunningham Sr. still pale in comparison to the virtuous Atticus Finch.
In Watchman, however, Atticus has feet of clay. The moral purity Scout saw in him is peeled away, layer by layer, until we see his view of African Americans is much less enlightened than we previously thought and he has little desire to promote immediate societal change. His approach flies in the face of Dr. King's comments at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism."
What's brilliant in this book, and what it should be remembered for, is the climatic scene between Jean Loiuse and Atticus. This is where his beliefs are laid bare, and the woman who once idolized her father completely loses faith in him. It would be easy for this moment to be orchestrated solely by Jean Louise herself, but the reader is blown away when Uncle Jack reveals Atticus had arranged the firewood and kindling for his own destruction and all she needed to do was strike the match.
Jean Loiuse struggles, as do we, when we're forced to see Atticus as anything less than the perfect dad. "As she welcomed him to the human race, the stab of discovery made her tremble a little." Perhaps you were stung when you discovered your own father was just "a man with a man's heart and a man's failings…." Maybe you revered Atticus because the man who fathered you was bereft of the values and integrity imbued in this simple country lawyer.
In the end, no matter how much our view of Atticus Finch may have been tarnished, Lee offers us a message of hope. She asserts, in a much less grandiose fashion that we had previously believed, that Atticus is fighting for what sees as good. And, in this era of using technology as a weapon to assail those who hold opposing viewpoints, Lee suggests through the words of Uncle Jack that we should always offer the counsel of a friend rather than the venom of an enemy.
"[T]he time your friends need you is when they're wrong, Jean Louise. They don't need you when they're right."
That's something Atticus Finch, and the rest of us, should all stand for.
I was recently reading a novel that takes place partly in Southern California and was put off a bit by a couple of what I, as a native of the region, would consider mistakes. Well, through the magic of the Internet, I was able to contact the author, who shared with me his research of the area and that any issues I might have considered mistakes might be chalked up to artistic license. The reply was quite unexpected considering the fact we met once for a few moments more than a decade ago when he signed one of his books for me.
The more I have thought about this response, the more I can see the validity of his argument. I make a big deal about the geography in my work, but I most often write about fictional places based on real-life locations, so I can bend all kinds of rules. For those who write about real places, we are taking their word for it that they have done the requisite research. The challenge is that it becomes very easy to expect writers to tell great stories and get all the details right according to our exacting standards.
I remember watching episodes of 24 when the series was based in Los Angeles and complaining the characters were getting from one part of the city to another way too quickly. Perhaps considering the fact that the fast-paced nature of the series required a little suspension of reality, I probably should give Jack Bauer a bit of a break, because at least one day a year, he did not eat, sleep or, as far as I could tell, ever use the bathroom.
And, while authors often churn out 1-2 books a year, it is rather unfair for someone who is writing his fourth manuscript in 17 years this summer to judge a person who has to make a living by meeting tight deadlines. I know that some of my reporting as a journalist was at the surface level because I was up against a 5 p.m. deadline every day, so I suppose I should extend a bit of grace to others who do what they need to in order to meet the needs of their agents, editors, publishers and adoring readers.
I suppose it all goes back to the first rule of writing: never let anything get in the way of telling a good story.
One thing I have learned as an author is that once you have drawn readers into your type of storytelling, they are hungry for more. There is a reason John Grisham uses the same structure in most of his novels: it sells really, really well.
But sometimes as a writer you want to explore a new type of story or different genre altogether. The fear, of course, is that people won’t join you on this journey. I have a manuscript in the works that is a significant departure from my first book and I am pondering how to market the project. I even briefly thought of using a nom de plume to separate it from the sequel I also am planning to Chasing Deception.
Speaking of assumed identities, one of my favorite authors who I had a chance to meet at a writers conference a decade ago, has written a new mythic fiction book under a pen name. Revell recently sent me a complimentary, advance copy of this book, Emissary by Thomas Locke, in exchange for an honest evaluation of its merits. While I normally don’t write book reviews on my blog, I thought I would make an exception here because I admire how this award-winning author bravely is striking out in a new direction with this work, thus encouraging me to do the same.
Locke was wise to publish this title under a different name, as it is a departure from what people expect from him. His other works are distinctly Christian in nature and Emissary, while not anti-Christian, stays true to the mythic fiction genre in a way that might make his regular readers uncomfortable. In particular, there are mages who use spells to battle evil forces. While this might upset some in his traditional audience, he would not be true to the body of literature he is joining if he ignored such elements.
Having said that, I must note Emissary is quite well structured, blending character development and conflict to engage the reader throughout the tale. The work is reminiscent of Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle in that it embraces the mythic fiction genre but avoids some of its darker elements. You may have the use of magic, but the force is more of a weapon against evil than a blueprint for the reader channeling such powers for his or her own use. There are battle sequences and a romantic subplot, but Locke refrains from the graphic narrative techniques so popular today. Game of Thrones, it is not.
In Emissary, Locke reinvents himself, writing in a grand style evocative of his earlier work. He takes us to a new land resplendent in rich detail and introduces us to flawed heroes driven to impact the world around them in a powerful and dynamic fashion. Locke dives deep into the world of mythic storytelling, creating compelling characters readers would follow on a grand quest to fight the forces of evil.
Sign me up for the next adventure!
If you’re like me, you probably have a favorite author or collection of authors you like to read. Right now I am in the middle of a series about time travel written in a style that reminds me a bit of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. This author is well known for his mythic fiction, so this series is something different. As an established author, I imagine it was easy to sell this concept to his agent and publisher, since they both know people will pick up his work based on name recognition alone.
For those of us who are not “internationally acclaimed” authors, we have a harder time when we switch gears in our writing. This summer I was planning to write the sequel to my first novel. I had done some research and even worked out a secondary plot line with a book editor. But then I was inspired to write a practical non-fiction title that has received some early positive feedback but has put me on the hunt for a new agent because this work isn’t in his area of expertise. I am having to rebrand myself a bit and counting on the same people to buy my second book is much less of a sure thing.
The real problem comes when you start talking about my third book. Several years ago I wrote a short story that scared me so much I shoved it in a drawer for a year. It was creative, but it touched on themes that were surprising to say the least. After a writers’ conference where the keynote speaker talked about “going to the dark places” and being willing to pull our inspiration from such journeys, I retrieved the story and made it the foundation for another novel. The initial response for the piece was not as positive as was my first book, so I put it away again. I am taking it out a third time and passing it around to a couple of friends to see if these initial impressions were right or if I need to try harder to revise and sell this project.
The biggest worry I have is one of creating a consistent reader base. People who liked my first book want a sequel, which I plan to write next summer. But will these same people buy a book that is a bit experimental in both form and content? Will an agent who knows what I have written before want to take a chance on something different? Since my first work was self-published, will a traditional house be willing to make the same “gamble”, especially considering how risk-adverse the industry has become?
I don’t think publishing is a charitable pursuit, nor do I think authors should blithely ignore the conventions of branding and marketing, but if writing comes from the soul, then sometimes we need to open rooms others would leave closed and compel readers to take a look inside. For what is hidden in the secret places often reveals who we are or who we may become.
Wanna peak? I’m hoping you do.
Now that I have finished writing the core of my latest manuscript, the time has come for the editing process. Several friends are reviewing the work to offer their critiques and then 2–3 rounds of editing will occur. While this step may sound boring, and a few years ago I would have agreed, I have come to enjoy the editing process.
The most important reason editing is necessary is to improve the quality of the work. When I write, I do so quickly, performing scant editing along the way. Some days I feel like a 5-year-old trying to paint a house. I probably used the right color, but you can be sure there are several spots that need to be redone before I show my work off to others. Similarly, to get the best manuscript possible takes time and, quite often, the insight of others. In addition to removing the grammatical and typographical errors, I want to cut out extemporaneous verbiage and rework tired phrases. My question is not “Did I say it well?” but “Is this the best way to say what I have to say?” Obviously, these queries often elicit radically different responses.
Roman poet Marcus Fabius Quintilianus spoke to this issue in AD 65 when he said: “Prune what is turgid, elevate what is commonplace, arrange what is disorderly, introduce rhythm where the language is harsh, modify where it is too absolute.”
One of the hidden benefits of the editing process is it reminds me I am not as good a writer as I imagine myself to be. Revising a work again and again is an exercise in humility. Your initial thoughts may have been sounded good in your head, and seemed fine upon early review, but when you look at a work again and again you learn how much you have to grow, as a writer and a person. You have nightmares about mistakes infesting your work like termites in an old attic. Not surprisingly, Quintilianus had something to say about this as well.
“The best method of correction is to put aside for a time what we have written, so that when we come to it again it may have an aspect of novelty, as of being another man’s work; in this way we may preserve ourselves from regarding our writings with the affection we lavish upon a newborn child.”
I suppose there is another similarity between writing and newborns – both need to be changed from time to time to keep them fresh.
While I may be a Southern California native, I am not, nor have I ever been, the stereotypical surfer dude. Some experiments at boogie boarding in my adolescent years is as close as I came to riding the waves. I would like to blame my flawed eyesight for this, but I suspect I also was never good at reading the signs.
Now I am trying to ride the waves again, metaphorically speaking. As a writer, I enjoyed some early success with my first book, but then there was a lull in the waves, as it were. Sales dropped off and I was left with the question of how to make them rise again. But one thing I have come to learn about the world of publishing is that it is more like a water park or swimming pool—you have to make your own waves.
So here I go with my latest attempt at boosting interest, and sales. I am distributing copies of the book strategically and the next big wave is coming: a bargain basement sale on the electronic version of Chasing Deception. While I don’t expect sales in the tens of thousands, I am learning this is a step-by-step process. We’ll see how far this wave carries me before I plan my next move. I also have two other writing projects in the works, giving me a chance to get better at making, and riding, those waves.
If you have ever written anything from a Post-it Note to a full-length book, you know all composition is fraught with the possibility of error.
We all chuckle when we see a text message or social media post with a typo in it. Such quick communication is prone to error and the mistakes often garner more attention than the original message ever would.
When writing something of greater length and importance, giving it more than a cursory glance is critical. When I wrote Chasing Deception, for example, I went through several rounds of editing for content and grammar. Since it is a self-published work, changes were being made even on the day of submission, making the work that much more prone to mistakes worming themselves on to the pages.
Two months after original publication, I realized I should take advantage of the self-publishing format and correct any typos I could find. Knowing the best way to catch errors is to read your work out loud, my wife and I spent a 3-day weekend taking turns reading through the entire 81,000-word manuscript. I discovered two very important things in this process: 1) about 97% of the book was just fine, 2) but the last 3% requiring improvement was not insignificant. We made changes here and there and brought the work as close to 100% as we could.
Throughout this process, I learned three valuable lessons. First, I am so thankful to my friends and family who purchased a book with errors but have been gracious enough to still say nice things about what I did with the story and characters. I tell them it is like having one of those stamps with the upside-down biplane on it and the errors improve its value. They’re even nice enough to laugh at that one.
Second, I have been reminded of the wellspring of wisdom residing within my lovely wife, who constantly seeks to reign in my enthusiasm with a full measure of patience. She firmly believes if you can find the time to make something good, you should take just a little more time to make it better. She embodies the Lexus slogan of having a “Relentless Pursuit of Excellence”.
Finally, I think I am becoming more sympathetic when I see typos on billboard, fliers or signs as I drive around streets and freeways of Southern California. While I still notice the errors, I might be a little less likely now to comment about them. Something about throwing stones while living in a glass house comes to mind.
And, of course, the next time I am ready to submit a final draft to an agent or publisher, I think I’ll start warming up my reading voice.
I've been writing stories and taking photos since I was old enough to hold a pencil and stand behind a tripod.