Actually putting words on paper, as opposed to all the business stuff around making a living as a writer.

This morning I agreed to take over a podcast for my publisher.

Yeah.  I’m going to be a podcaster.  About writing.  I know, it’s weird for me, too.

Way back in January I agreed to be part of an authors’ support group my publisher was putting together.  I’m not much of a joiner, but I realized that if I were uncomfortable with being part of a group like that, I really needed to ignore my anti-social tendencies and join up.  So I did.  And it’s become an invaluable part of my week.  God help me, I understand now that our authors’ group is a great idea.

Which is why, today, when several of us asked if we could use the group time to learn more about the craft of writing fiction, our publisher mentioned that would probably be a topic better left to a podcast they had going.  He also mentioned that they hadn’t done anything with it in a while, and maybe one of us would like to take it over?

That’s when I became Arnold Horshack.*  I volunteered like someone had offered me money to eat barbeque, the good kind, the Texas kind, not your Mephis or South Carolina stuff.  At the time, it seemed like a good idea.  A great idea, in fact.

Now?  I wonder what I have gotten myself into.  Here’s the portion of the podcast I’d be responsible for, according to my publisher: Finding new podcast guests, Inviting guests to be on the show, Scheduling interviews, Hosting the show and recording interviews and keeping a minimum 4-week backlog of pre-recorded shows, Contacting guests once the show goes live, Creating a show calendar/schedule – 1 per week, or more?

Yikes!  This is the real deal, I’m responsible for stuff now.  The actual work is something I can easily do, it’s just talking on the phone and writing stuff down.  I’m good at both those things.  And yet… there are five things I’m in a bit of a sweat over.

1. I’ll have to cut back on the milk.

I love milk.  And ice cream.  And cheese.  But all those things make you phlegmy, which cuts down on the resonance of your voice, and really does affect the quality of any recording you do.  Usually you have to cut back on dairy products two or three days before any performance, so this is something I’ll have to plan for.

2.  I have to earn my acting chops all over.

I used to be an actor, back when I lived in Pasadena, CA.  I made good money at it and everything, a for-real career.  But I haven’t acted professionally in eight years.  The techniques are still inside me, but it’s going to be a bit of a process to get comfortable again.  I’m pretty sure I’m gonna choke at least once.  Which, truth be told, is probably a good reason for people to tune in.

3.  I have to convey information accurately and in an entertaining manner.

This is where having been an actor comes in, I have techniques for being heard and understood.  I also did years of comedy improv, so I know how to listen (that’s the point of comedy improv, if you didn’t know, to improve your listening skills as an actor).  But being a good interviewer/ podcaster is not necessarily the same skill as being a good improviser or actor.  A podcast has to be informative AND entertaining, which means I need to step up my game.

4.  I’ll have to plan, and stick to the plan.

Normally this is not a big deal, I plan all day every day, both in my pay-the-rent work and my writing.  But when I’m performing, sometimes – I’ve been told – I go off-script from time to time.  I hope that’ll do me good when my guests give me some sort of left-field anecdote, but it could also do me poorly if I get bored and decide to entertain myself.  Stay tuned to see how this part goes.

5.  I’ll have to trust others want to do quality work too.

I like to work alone.  It’s one of the reasons I’m a writer, I get to control everything.  But with this podcast, since it’s my publisher’s, I have to give up total control.  I mentioned above the things I’d be responsible for, here are the things they’d be responsible for: Video / audio editing, Writing show notes, Creating images for blog posts, Creating and scheduling the blog posts. That’s a large part of the work, but it’s also where the character of the podcast gets created.  Working as an actor means working as part of an ensemble, so relinquishing total control is something I’ve done before.  Just not with stuff I do in my own office, at my own desk. We’ll see how it goes.

*  a VERY old reference to a VERY old and terrible TV comedy from the 70’s.  This was back when we had three commercial channels and PBS, we had to watch whatever was on at the time.

 

 

 

I thought I’d discuss character motivation, because that’s such a frequently misunderstood concept.  Motivation is not the thing that gets your characters moving within your plot – that’s incentive – it’s the drive that gets your characters out of bed in the morning.  But it’s not usually passionate or all-consuming.  It’s boring and workaday, and your task as a writer is to instill a different motivation in your characters.

Previously, I’ve discussed Character – Position vs. Interest and Creating a Scene with the Ws.  A character’s motivation runs parallel to both these things.  You’ll see writing advice that tells you a character’s motivation is a conscious thing, like it’s something they think about every moment they’re awake.  Nobody thinks about motivation all the time, not even your noblest character.

Think about your own motivation, what makes you get up in the morning?  If you work for Corporate America, your motivation is probably very basic in Maslow’s hierarchy.  You need to make rent, buy food, and pay bills.  This isn’t a motivation you think about a lot, but it certainly comes up when the ‘downsizing’ emails start flying.  Unless you’re very lucky, in Corporate America your motivation almost never rises to self-actualization.  But what if you work for yourself?  Same thing, you’re working to pay the bills.  Maybe you’re working at something you love to do, maybe you’re just good at it, but your work probably doesn’t rise past ‘Safety’ in Maslow’s hierarchy.

The same is true of your characters.  They lead regular lives, for the most part.  Until your plot starts, when their motivation should change.  But even with a new, more urgent motivation, the old motivations are still there, and possibly even more powerful.

Let’s use Batman as an example.  He’s just a man, with a man’s courage, but he has an epic motivation: make Gotham the kind of city where no little kid ever has to see his parents gunned down.  He’s got a long row to hoe there, Gotham sucks.  But that’s why he does what he does, so no other eight-year-old has to endure what he did.

Is that his motivation all the time?  Yes.  And no.  If that were his sole motivation he’d probably end up a billionaire social worker, using his money to put orphans through college and rehabilitating crooks.  But he also has a secondary motivation, to stop crime that’s happening right now.  And revenge, there’s a strong streak of vengeance in his work.  And justice, of course, he wants justice too, after all the punching is finished.

That’s a conflicting mish-mash of motivations: societal change, crime fighting, vengeance, and justice.  And trying out cool toys, that’s a large part of what Batman does.

Do your characters have multiple, conflicting motivations?  Of course they do.  In my novel I have a character who is very motivated to fight the good fight for the little guy against the system.  It’s what drives his career, even if most of the time his work is pedestrian and low-paying.  But he’s also very strongly motivated to be right all the time, even to the point of cutting ties with his brother for ten years.  Those two motivations  wage war inside him although nothing changes until outside elements (the plot) force him to reevaluate those motivations for a third one: finding the truth, even if the truth shows him to be wrong.

Motivation is not all-or-nothing, not for real people and not for your characters.  Any all-consuming passion usually turns out to be cartoonish.  Your characters should have many things that motivate them, that also drive your plot forward.

 

 

Up until now the editing process has been pretty sweet.  I felt it was a collaboration, my editors making recommendations based on their experience and their reading of what’s best for my story.  You need someone to point out your blind spots, you know?  Keep you honest.  And it was going well.

And then 17 May happened.

Houston, we have a problem.  During my regular proofread edit I came upon a ‘suggested’ change that I did not agree with at all, not in the slightest.  I felt it was arbitrary, with nothing behind it but the editor’s preference.  To make it worse, that edit changed a foundational element of my story, a main character’s reason for a decision he made 10 years prior to the story, that directly led to the story taking place.  It was like deciding that Bruce Wayne’s parents weren’t killed by a robber, they were just inconvenienced by a kindly panhandling hobo.

I fixed the suggested edit as best I could, without changing the tentpole premise of the entire story, and sent it back with the rest of the proofread edits.

On 17 May my manuscript came back.  There was a ‘plot change comment that was not addressed.’

Well… I addressed it, I just didn’t gut my story to suit someone’s whim.  To make matters worse, I got that email after a 16-hour day working the job that pays my mortgage.  The phrase ‘did not take it well’ would be something my neighbors might say if you asked them.

Now I was in a dilly of a pickle.*  Up until this very last minute, all my publisher’s suggested edits made my manuscript stronger.  This one made it much weaker.  I really, really, really disagreed with their suggestion.  What could I do?

There is very specific language in my contract that states if the author (me) refuses to make edits the publisher deems necessary, the publisher has every right not to publish my novel.  To pull the plug and never look back.  This is my debut novel, I can’t make waves, I can’t stand up and fight, I can’t adamantly refuse to change a very, very basic story element.  I have to surrender.  I have to be someone else’s bitch, or I won’t see my name on that nifty cover.

So I made the change.  23 words out of 83,204.  I tried to face down the playground bully and ended up stumbling home bruised and shoeless, with my mouth full of sand.

Am I overstating this?  Possibly.  Am I concerned that this edit changes my story for the worse? Absolutely.  Am I right now stabbing voodoo dolls of editors I’ve never met in person? No comment.

I don’t think I’m being a touchy author here.  Sincerely.  I took the notes they gave me, I made the changes they suggested, I engaged in the process fully.  I played well with others.  Until the very last day, when they wanted a major change that made the story weaker.

No, I’m not going to tell you what that change was.  When my novel is published, you tell me what the weakest part of the story is.  If it’s the change I’m talking about here, I will definitely let you know.

 

*dad joke

I thought I’d share some of what I know about storytelling, since I seem to be good enough at it to land a book deal.  At least one book deal, anyway.

I’ve had many people tell me they want to be authors, that they think they have a story to tell, but they don’t really know where to start.  I usually smile and nod and give them some sort of platitude like ‘start anywhere, you need to learn by doing.’   But that’s really just me being polite, most people who tell me something like that aren’t ready to write.  They might be ready to think about writing, but that’s not the same thing as writing, not by a longshot.

Everyone knows where to start a story.  At the beginning.  If you have trouble with that concept, sit down with a five-year-old and tell her a story.  She understands how it goes, and she’ll correct you when you get it wrong.  You start at the beginning, work your way through the middle, and finish up with the end.  Easy peasy.  Yet, somehow, when you’re an adult, you forget all the very, very basic storytelling structure you knew by heart when you were five.

So here it is, the breakdown of the story parts:

The Beginning – this is the bit where you introduce your characters, the world they live in, and the problems they’re likely to face.  ‘Once upon a time, a princess lived in a poor but happy kingdom, across the lake from a family of ogres.’

The End – this is the bit where you wrap up the tale you just told, giving everything a conclusion, though not necessarily a happy one.  ‘And the princess realized that, despite her best efforts, she had been as cruel and hateful as she supposed the ogres were.  She resolved to be better, and to listen first, instead of reacting.’

Everyone has the beginning of a story.  Literally, everyone.  Ask a random stranger on the street if they have a story they’d like to tell and you will get an answer every time, and that answer will be the set-up.  The beginning.  Many times, though not always, people also have an ending to their story, even if that ending is ‘it was all just a dream’ (my father pitched me a story with this ending once.  I’m not joking).

The Middlethis is your story.  All of it.  The ups, the downs, the betrayals, the sacrifices, the twists, the red herrings, the daring deeds, and the vile crimes.  How did the princess come to the realization that, perhaps, she wasn’t as pure and noble as she imagined?  That’s the story.  What did the ogres think of her and her actions?  That’s the story.

No one has a middle to their story.  Literally, no one.  Unless you’re a writer, because writers realize the meat of the story, the most delicious bits, come in the middle.  Everything you remember about a story happened in the middle.  In the Watergate story, the break-in has already happened, before the action begins and off-screen.  What people remember is the revelation of the break-in, and the slow unwinding of the truth, all the way back to the White House.  The story is the investigation, and how all the bits come together.  If you took that story linearly, it would be a boring procedural, maybe a court record.  The drama comes in gathering the pieces.  The middle.

Think of the three parts of a story this way, with font size indicating the importance of the part and effort you should put into writing it:

  • The Beginning
  • The Middle

  • The End

Remember that everyone has the beginning of a story, many people have an end, but a writer – a real writer – spends her time on the middle.

More in a later post.

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It’s been a week since I turned over my pass at developmental edits on my manuscript, and I’ve had some time to digest the experience. It was, in turns, both infuriating and gratifying.

Infuriating: ‘You use this word too much to describe this character.’
How dare you question my authorial voice? I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: do a simple count of the offending word to find that, in fact, it’s in every description of that character.
Oh yeah, I see what you mean now. That is annoying. You’re right, I’ll fix it.

Infuriating: ‘You state your theme very plainly several times when you don’t need to. Let the narrative state your theme for you.’
I would never state my themes outright! Do you think I’m some kind of hack? I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: read the offending passages out loud to myself.
Holy cow, I really did exactly that, three different times. You’re right. I’ll fix it.

Infuriating: ‘This bad guy turns good guy, and it doesn’t feel authentic to the character.’
My characters are mine alone to manipulate! I am their God! I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: read the last scene the character is in and get the same feeling.
That character’s wrapped up in an inappropriate little bow, isn’t she? You’re right. I’ll fix it.

Overall, I’d give it 10% infuriating, 90% gratifying. When I found it infuriating I was really being defensive and blocking myself from the process. If I took a deep breath or two and listened instead of reacting, I discovered that my editor was trying to make my manuscript the best it could be. He’s got skin in this game too, you know? He’s not making edits to piss me off ( or not just to piss me off ), he’s very invested in putting out a great product.

Authors, when your time comes and you have your first work with an editor, embrace the process. Listen to what your editor’s saying; they’re not always 100% right, but they’re almost always right. They do this all day, every day. Trust them.

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My novel has a new title!

As is fairly common, my publisher retains the rights to re-name my work. This is actually a good thing for me because:

  • They have a finger on the pulse of the market and can come up with a title that will grab eyeballs and sell.
  • I suck at titles.

At first the new title didn’t send me. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. Over the past week, however, I have come to like it. It’s got a noir feel to it, and while my novel is decidedly not Chandleresque, in the plot there are a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous, so I think the title is appropriate. Maybe even a little foreshadowing.

My publisher came up with a new title, sub-title, and series title. Yes, this is a series, at least three books. I’m working on the outline for the second book right now.

Title: The Guilty Die Twice
Sub: A Legal Thriller
Series: Brothers in Law Series

Since dev edits are done, we’re closer to a publishing date. I’ll keep you posted on when that might be. A few more months at least, I think.

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