Whenever I tell people I'm an indie novelist, they often seem amazed I can write and publish a book-length manuscript.
One lesson I have learned over the years is that the hardest part of wordsmithing a book is not the 50,000—60,000 or so words on the inside, but the 5—6 words on the cover.
Book titles are so challenging because you have so little space to get so much right (or wrong as the case may be). You want action, suspense and mystery, all in a handful of syllables. If I execute a poorly crafted sentence or section of a novel I can recover. The same often is not true for a title.
Teasing your story without giving it all away seems to be the key to a great title. Sadistic Businessman Seduces College Co-ed sounds like a Dateline Mystery, Fifty Shades of Gray, on the other hand, is a bit more enticing (BTW, I'm crediting Wikipedia with the plot summary of this film, as I'm more inclined to spend an evening with Earl Grey than Christian Gray). The same holds true for Psycho Dinosaurs Run Wild, as opposed to Jurassic Park.
I wish I had a great story behind how my first novel was christened. Its first title was "A Matter of Integrity", which was way too on the nose. "Above the Fold" was better, but the inside-the-newsroom jargon didn't weather much better. My then-agent suggested I take some key phrases and put them together. So I made a list, started joining nouns and verbs together. And thus was born Chasing Deception.
Other book titles came a bit more naturally. The second book in the Jim Mitchell series, Undue Pressure, is applicable to anyone placed in a morally murky situation and expected to do the right thing. And Running wraps up the Mitchell series by talking about what the protagonist is running toward and running from and whether he can stop and just rest.
The easiest and best title for one of my works was for my non-fiction parenting guide — High School Declassified: An Insider's Guide to Helping Your Student Succeed. It was catchy and had all the buzzwords. Unfortunately, it sold practically zero copies, which just goes to show there are many factors beyond title and content that can impact sales.
Now if I could create a computer program that could "read" a manuscript and suggest the perfect title based upon content and recent market trends, I could probably make a lot more money than my indie writing career ever will.
Then again, what fun would that be.
Since I previously wrote about why I like to set my work in slightly fictionalized locales, I'd like to take on the problem with using exclusively using real places and products in my writing.
Sure my characters love all things Apple (I am writing this post on a MacBook Air with my iPhone within reach, so they come by it naturally), and they drive real cars (whether your character drives a new BMW sports coupe or a 10-year-old Honda Accord tells you something about him or her), but I tend to avoid real places and things when I can for three reasons.
First, I think using real places tends to make me lazy. I can describe the iconic red-and-white interior of In-N-Out and detail their precision-crafted menu, but I'd rather introduce you to Glenn's Burgers, with an owner might be modeled after a friend of mine and whose menu is from another place I used to love when I didn't care as much about calories or carbs as I do now.
Second, if I feature real places too much it feels likes I am doing an advertisement for them. In my most recent novel, Disneyland was part of the storyline, but I found myself trimming down much of the section that described which rides people rode and in what order. I'm a novelist, not a tour guide.
Third, bad stuff tends to happen in my books and I'd rather not make our local landmark doughnut shop, for example, the scene of a grisly triple homicide. They've got these amazing strawberry doughnuts and there's no way I'm giving up my access to those on the rare occasions I frequent the old haunt .
It's just not worth the risk.
As creatives, people often think we express ourselves through just one form of art. Sure we often have a medium through which we channel our best efforts, but usually we’re are not the one-trick ponies who can be categorized into just fiction writing or poetry, or music, for example. In the case of Hannah Thomas, she is skilled at all three. The craft she is working on with the most determined focus at the moment is her writing. When she reads from her work, particularly from a draft of her fantasy novel, you are transported to the knee of the master storyteller who is weaving a tale that captures the heart as well as the imagination. I can’t wait to hear the whole story.
When did you first realize you were a storyteller?
At the age of one, I sat in my highchair at Christmastime, playing with my great-grandmother’s nativity set, moving the figures around and babbling to myself—so the official family line is that I’ve been telling stories since before I could technically talk, and I haven’t stopped since. My primary form of play as a kid was sitting in my room with my “characters”—which is what I called the various animals in my plastic menagerie—telling myself stories with them. In third or fourth grade, I gave a friend a collection of my own short stories for a birthday present. In the seventh or eighth grade, having recently exhausted all of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books (again) I decided to write one of my own. I think that project made it up to twenty-three (typed) pages, which sadly I no longer have.
What do you love about the writing process?
When it’s going well, writing sometimes feels more like discovering something than like creating it. It’s as if these characters and their story already exist, and I’m uncovering it bit by bit. I’ll write something down that doesn’t make immediate sense—and then find out later why that detail was important. I love this. It feels like finding out that (in a good way) magic is real.
What is the hardest part of being a writer?
The Tyranny of the Urgent. My stories do not pay the bills at this point, so it’s easy to set them aside in favor of the things that do. Also, when I’m under a lot of stress, it can feel like a Herculean effort just to sit down and open the right file. I pour myself out when I write, and it’s easy to feel like a failure after enough days when the jar is empty.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I have encountered two kinds of inspiration, as it were. One kind comes in quick flashes when I’m not expecting it. The project I’m focusing on now started my sophomore year of college. I had just had an argument with my roommate about film adaptations of books we love. I got fed up and left, and walked down the street railing at God—out loud (because I am auditory). I realized that some people I knew were walking down the street close enough behind me to hear, minimally, that I was talking to myself, and, being in no mood to explain, I turned a corner, ran, and hid behind a tree until they passed by (because I am a mature, thoughtful adult). As I leaned against that tree getting sap all over my back, a picture and a short sentence flashed into my head. I ran back to my apartment, banged out a page of dialogue depicting that scene, and then read it to my roommate. We both got super excited; the argument was over, and I’ve been working on this project ever since.
The other kind of inspiration I’ve experienced comes from the work itself—and from the people who make it possible for the work to get done. I cannot count how many times I’ve gotten stuck and asked someone—my dad; my mom; a good friend—for input. Usually, they’ll ask a few questions and we’ll bat ideas back and forth for a while, and when the conversation is over, I will know not only how to move past the thing I was stuck on, but I’ll have other exciting ideas that make me eager to get back to work. This is the kind of inspiration that makes the hard slog of finishing projects possible.
What are you working on right now?
My first novel. This is the project that started with a fight with my roommate. I’ll say it falls under “swords-and-horses fantasy;” its working title is The Ruler’s Mark. I’m hoping to have the second draft finished by the end of this year. The first draft, incidentally, was complete (meaning that it told the whole story) at 291 pages. The current one is over 400 pages and as I said, it’s not done yet. Turns out there’s a lot I knew about this story that I hadn’t managed to get on paper—and a lot more I didn’t know that the characters have been good enough to explain to me during the writing of this draft. And I am confident there will be at least one more draft after this.
I also blog occasionally, and, if new story ideas knock on my door, I try to find somewhere safe for them to rest while they wait for me to be ready for them.
There is one other project that I’ve written 40-some-odd pages of because I couldn’t help myself, but I’m not sure yet whether it will ever leave the house. It’s swords-and-horses fantasy too, but not in the same world. I have absolutely fallen in love with two or three of its characters—but I know almost nothing about its plot.
You can find out more about Hannah's passion and her mission on her website, By The Lion Arts.
I have been a fan of Thomas’ work for years and read just about everything he has written, so I was delighted to have the chance to connect with him about the creative process. An award-winning, best-selling author, his weaves together great stories about the past, present and future with style and skill. The globe-trotting Oxford don divides his time between Florida and England and has most recently delved into the realms of epic fantasy, science fiction and techno-thrillers.
When did you first realize you were a storyteller?
I came to faith at age 28 and started writing two weeks later. Up to that point, I had never picked up a pen for anything longer than a business report. Two days into the experience, I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
This desire was tested, tempered, and used (I think) for the basis of learning the true meaning of spiritual discipline. I wrote for nine years and completed seven books before my first was accepted for publication. During that time, I ran a business consulting group based in Germany. I traveled to two and sometimes three countries every week. My goal was to maintain a twenty-hour workweek on top of that for the writing. I failed a lot. But I also learned to focus.
What do you love about the writing process?
There is a deep and permanent bond between my spiritual walk and my creative process. A great deal of who I am as a believer is bound by what I write, and how this creative process unfolds.
What is the hardest part of being a writer?
I would imagine most writers say something about the commercial process, such as dealing with rejection, or the uncertainties bound in the market and what it means to release a work. For me, all those are tough. But the hardest thing is time. I have so much I want to do, so many stories I want to tell. And there are just so many hours granted to us. NEED TO BREATHE has a song on their latest album titled "We Don't Get To Be Here Long". That song cuts like a knife.
Where do you find your inspiration?
It depends on the book. For a number of the Thomas Locke titles, there is an element of spiritual awakening, even in stories that have no overt spiritual component. I have had some of the most profound, and profoundly disturbing, dreams of my entire life become foundations of these stories.
What are you working on right now?
The Emissary series has been acquired by a UK film group, who hope to enter pre-production in April. I was contracted to write the screenplay. This has become a huge element in my current schedule.
You can find out more about Thomas and his latest projects at www.tlocke.com.
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?
A popular trend these days is binge-watching TV shows. Back when the medium was invented, you had to wait a whole week or even an entire summer to see the latest episode of your favorite show. Today, with DVDs and streaming video, you can sit for hours on end and become totally immersed in your favorite fictional universe.
While we don’t use our streaming video to its fullest, my wife and I have 3-4 TV series on DVD and tend to cycle through them when a new season comes out. The most intense experience we ever had was when we watched all of 24 in one summer. It was the definition of obsession.
For better or worse, my writing career has been defined by such binges. I greatly admire how NoNoWriMo encourages more people to write the book they've always wanted to, but there are some downsides to this race-to-the-deadline approach.
I learned how to write quickly when I was in college and worked as a reporter. These skills have been helpful as I typically have only the summer to write anything longer than a blog post or short story.
Over the last 17 years, I have written 4 manuscripts during the few summers when I wasn’t working or teaching. While I have streamlined the process with better outlining, my basic procedure remains the same: I sit down in the morning and write until I hit my word goal, which is usually 2,000 words. Some days I am under, while other days (especially toward the end) I have written up to 5,000 words in a day. This summer I wrote more than 60,000 words in seven weeks, with days off here and there to actually get outside and enjoy other humans.
While this was an immensely rewarding experience, I am not planning to repeat the process if I can at all avoid it. I imagine it’s like being on a movie set for weeks on end and you are in every scene. It becomes all-consuming.
I’m not going to lie and say I wrote every minute of every day. Sometimes my “research” time was spent discovering what my friends were saying about each other on Facebook.
Today, I have a completed manuscript, along with several notes for changes I need to make. I also have gained a few extra pounds and my tailbone really isn’t my best friend these days. We won’t even talk about what may or may not have happened to my vision during this process.
I spent most of my waking hours thinking about my story and, while I’m told things happened in the world this summer, the time has passed by in a blur.
All in all, although I love writing, there has to be some happy medium between writing for an hour a day and devoting every hour you can to the process.
When you figure out what it is, would you please let me know?
"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.
Being a child of the 80s, I am, at heart, a space buff. I poured over my kids’ science magazine detailing the Space Shuttle's specifications. I was devastated when Challenger exploded in 1986 and Columbia did as well in 2003. Then when Atlantis landed for the final time in July 2011, I was saddened we had lost something as a country. Our collective drive to discover, I suppose.
Although the Apollo 13 failed lunar mission took place before I was born, I watched with fascination many years later the Ron Howard film of the same name. I knew from history that the crew lived, but I was riveted to the screen as astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise scrambled to cannibalize their supplies in order to limp back safely to earth. They realized they had to give up on their dream so they could live to fly another day.
As a writer, I have discovered that the writing, pitching, publication and sales of each book seem almost as complex as a space mission. There are so many items on the checklist and if any of them go wrong, the entire project can crash and burn. For full-time writers, such failure might mean less food on the dinner table. Thankfully, that’s not the case with me.
On a recent book project, I realized I had to jettison my plans and disassemble the component parts. The manuscript, which was written as much from my heart as my imagination, was good but not good enough. I was passionate about the tale, but those I trust broke the news to me it wasn’t as well crafted as I thought. After the first person told me this, I dug in my heels and refused to listen to the sage advice for months on end. It took some deep reflection, insight received at a recent writers conference and the counsel of another close adviser before I knew for sure the project needed to be shelved.
Now, all is not lost. Parts of the book may find their way into future projects. They will need to be re-tooled to be sure, but like Lovell, Swigert and Haise, I am not willing to lose sight of the greater mission. Being a writer has never been just a passing fancy for me, so I won't end my career because of one shipwreck. I’m taking what I can from the experience and moving on.
One of the space-related groups I was part of as a teen had the following motto: ad astra per ardua (to the stars, with effort).
With a little effort, I am hoping to soar to reach my own stars.
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!
I've been writing stories and taking photos since I was old enough to hold a pencil and stand behind a tripod.