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.
I recently was invited to deliver a message about the themes in my book to a locally based charitable group. As a teacher, I talk for a living and, armed with a seminary degree, I figured I could prepare my comments without much difficulty on the Saturday before the mid-week event.
Spending several hours on my remarks, I handed them off to my wife for proofreading. With us both being former reporters, I have learned well that not having her look over my work can lead to disaster.
Well, what I thought would be a few recommendations here and there turned out to be an admonition to re-structure the entire message. What she thought was the best part I considered a mere afterthought and what I loved she felt was disjointed.
I wish I could have said I absorbed the advice quickly and went back to work, however it took some time of reflection to realize that, as usual, she was right.
Eventually I returned to the keyboard and spent another half-day rewriting and pruning the 20-minute message. The final product was a couple minutes longer than the original draft but the tone was significantly different.
When the day came, the event went off without a hitch. While my delivery could have been improved, the content was spot on. People expressed their appreciation for the way I presented my ideas in such a concise format.
While it would be easy to take complete credit, I know better. Without my wife’s help, my words would not have been as well organized and their impact not nearly as great.
Through this experience I was reminded again of a lesson I learned long ago but I frequently manage to forget—Always listen to the smart one.
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.
If you’ve been to your local booksellers lately, it is clear the Young Adult offerings have grown from occupying a couple of shelves into a legitimate section with assorted subgenres springing up. Like any genre, there are great, OK, and fairly poor examples of writing in this category, but to dismiss it wholesale, as some are wont to do, is unfortunate.
Now, I’m not saying this because I am secret fan of boy wizards or vampires who sparkle. I came to this particular party rather late and primarily because I was curious as to why my students were so fascinated with certain authors.
I started with Suzanne Collins and her Hunger Games trilogy and devored them as fast as I could get copies from the school library. I found her sense of voice to be fascinating, as I did the theme of sacrifice that runs throughout the series.
Recently I consumed the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. I loved how she wove notions of identity, self-sacrifice, forgiveness and healing into a dystopian Midwestern landscape.
Don’t get me wrong, as I am well aware these books are not perfect from a literary standpoint. While many teens not have a problem with sentence fragments and the obsessive usage of present-tense verbs, the English teacher in me has to take a deep breath and put such concerns aside in order to find the often-compelling story within. A friend of mine recently said that he didn’t care how a book was categorized, because a good story was a good story. I totally agree with him.
I may have two Eric Metaxes books, one from my friend Joseph Bentz and the latest John Grisham novel on my Kindle all ready for me to read but it was nice, just for a while, to imagine what it would be like to be a member of the Dauntless faction in a rebellion-ravaged Chicago.
If you ask me, that’s a good story for young and old alike.
Some events in your life are watershed moments and this, for me, is one of them. Today I became a published author!
After 15 years of earnest faith slipping into ragged disbelief turning back into faith again (the latter primarily because of the unflagging support of family and friends), I can say with a strong, proud voice that I have done something I have dreamed of for years.
The feeling of euphoria coursing through my veins seems to have negated the few hours of sleep I logged last night waiting for this moment. It is a birthday present coming two days late and a Christmas gift arriving 25 days early.
When all the technical aspects were said and done, in the spirit of Walt Whitman, I did “sound my barbaric yawp”. To be fair, since it was 7 a.m., the yawp was somewhat restrained so as not to wake the neighborhood.
The best part of this moment is that it is perfect. I am not concerned about royalties, critical reviews or typos. I am not hungry, tired or stressed. All that will come in due time, but not yet.
In my mind at this moment I am enjoying a beautiful sunset at the beach with a gentle breeze tempering the warmth of the day but not yet bringing forth the chill of evening.
Worry not, as I’ll get back to promotional postcards, book signings and other marketing devices soon enough.
Right now, I’m just enjoying the view.
As a child, I fell in love with the places books could take you if you were only willing to dedicate a little imagination to making the journey. Being so passionate about reading, I soon was bitten by the writing bug. My first efforts, not surprisingly, were childish as I copied what I had seen and read rather than created original work of my own. And, while my ability to write journalistic stories grew in high school, college and beyond, my short stories remained slight twists on my own life or ideas from others.
In the summer of 1998, I began to work on what would become my first novel. What I thought was a pretty good product was, in reality, a very rough draft that needed much more work. Foolishly discarding wise counsel, I rushed my story to agents and publishers expecting a book contract in short order.
Instead of instant success, rejections quickly filled an ever-expanding file folder. All aspiring writers have visions of royalties and recognition coming at the end of a long road of struggle. People whose oft-declined manuscript goes on to eventually become a best-selling novel inspire us all to keep writing, submit to agents, grieve over the rejections and submit again.
Many drafts later, I had reached the dreaded milestone of receiving more rejections than there are states in America. That’s when I decided to take a new path, one that would lead me out of this literary wilderness. While tempted to simply give up, I realized I had come too far to abandon the dream that has grasped my soul so many years ago. I tell my students every day not to give up on their dreams, so how could I throw away on my own and not be seen as a hypocrite in their eyes?
A few still may frown at those who take the self-publishing route, but sometimes you just need to move forward in faith and boldness and see what happens. President Teddy Roosevelt famously tipped his hat to the man waging battle in the arena willing to fight with all of his might and “if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
Win or lose, I am happy to finally be stepping into the arena.
I've been writing stories and taking photos since I was old enough to hold a pencil and stand behind a tripod.