Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Parenting your manuscript

In the many years when I was struggling to find a publisher, I often heard the mantra “you have to believe in your work.” And it’s true—it’s important that a writer take pride in her work like a parent takes pride in a child. A new parent is pretty sure that her child is the best, brightest, strongest, and most appealing in every way.

But at some point good parents recognize that a child may need a little work. He’s a teenaged slob. She’s mean. He’s unable to look people in the eye. She giggles too much.

Like a child, a manuscript may need a little work. So how does a writer remain self-confident while not being so self-confident that he is blind to the need of his manuscript to for judicious editing?

With a second set of eyes, that’s how. We’ve all known parents who refused to see the tiniest flaw in their precious darlings. There are numerous opportunities to get the information that little Billy or Lucy needs a little guidance, but some parents ignore it—to the detriment of their perfect monsters.

The same is true for an author. There are plenty of opportunities to find out if the manuscript measures up. Writer’s groups, beta readers, workshops, and paid editors can give an author the feedback he or she needs. The job of the author is not just to find way to get the feedback, but to use it constructively.

“Constructively” is the operative word. When you get feedback there are several ways to receive it:

1)   Believe all of it and twist yourself into a pretzel trying to incorporate each and every comment. Do this, and you’ll end up not only with a hot mess, but also deflated confidence. In fact, it’s a mark of low confidence to not be selective in using the edits that are suggested to you.
2)   Believe none of it. What a disappointment for a reader to put in the time and effort to give honest feedback, only to have the author dismiss every suggestion out of hand. This is self-deception at its worst.
3)   Weigh carefully the advice and figure out how it fits into the feel of the story. This isn’t something that happens overnight. When you first turn your manuscript over to people to critique, the first response you often have is #1 or #2 above-that is, “my manuscript is total crap and I’ve got to start over,” or “what idiots; the readers didn’t ‘get’ my brilliant manuscript.” It’s important to give the critique time to percolate and then remind yourself of what your goal was…and then figure out what changes will work best. Don’t just look at which opinions are in the majority and blindly follow them; instead, weigh them against what you want to accomplish.

The self-confident, "good" author knows that there’s always room for improvement and will invite it and use it wisely.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Being Anonymous

I love the feeling of being anonymous. I don’t mean that I don’t want people to know about my books. I don’t even mind if people know a lot about me. The feeling I mean is being in a place where I know no one, in a hotel room or a restaurant or just walking around. It allows me to see things through my eyes only. I can people watch and eavesdrop at will.

I’ve always enjoyed traveling alone for the same reason. It leaves me open to experiences I don’t have if I’m talking to someone or worrying about their experience or listening to them interpreting what we’re seeing. I don’t mean to imply that I want it all the time—just some of the time.

My suspicion is that it’s a writer’s attitude. As a writer I sometimes feel as if I get too insular, sitting at my desk with my thoughts and experiences—with only the occasional foray into social media to keep me social. Being alone in a strange city allows me to soak in what’s happening outside my own mind. I can watch two people have an argument—watch how they use their body language and facial expressions. I can watch a mother soothe a distressed child, or observe two young people doing a mating dance, or two elderly people make their way along a sidewalk.. Another lone person catches my eye and I watch how being alone affects him. And I store all this up for when I am back at my computer writing.

But it isn’t entirely about work. Some of the pleasure of anonymity is just allowing myself to be self-indulgent—not answering to a deadline, not having to do something I “should” be doing. I can hole up in my hotel room and write something frivolous, or read or even watch junk TV without having to answer to anyone—even myself.

One of my writing gurus said she has taught herself to write while she is on book tour, and I think it’s a grand idea. I try to do it myself. But I hope I never get so wound up in the need to produce that I can’t step out of my usual roles and indulge free flights of fancy. I always want to keep alive the secret joy of being anonymous.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Crank up the traveling music!

I’m going on book tour! I’ve got a frantic few weeks coming up, which I’m actually looking forward to. When I first became a published author, I always felt a little nervous about bookstore readings. Why? Not because I was afraid to speak in front of people. I can natter on for hours, as those who know me can vouch for.

What terrified me was that no one would show up. Well, folks, I’ve been there and done that. Don’t have to worry about it anymore. I’ve heard from some of the most popular authors around, that it happens to them, too. Simon Wood said he would rather have no one at all show up than have only one or two. If no one shows up at least you can pack up your wounded pride and slink home—or to the nearest bar. But if a couple of people show up, you must act as if the room is full and give them the whole talk.

And then there’s the story Robert Crais tells of sitting in a mall with stacks of books, and getting the stink eye from everyone who passed. The one person who stopped asked if he knew where the restroom was.  Books sales? Zero.

Around home I have a loyal pack of friends and fellow writers who will usually turn up. What amazes me is when a lot of people come to see me in a place where I don’t know anyone. Some bookstore owners have terrific promotional skills. They beat the bushes and get lots of people out. (hello Chris Burke at Clues Unlimited in Tucson). And it also amazes me that writer friends will strong-arm a bunch of people to bookstore readings (I’m looking at you Catriona McPherson), and others who show up even if they’re working like crazy (Matt Coyle, Lisa Brackmann).

No matter how popular the author or the bookstore, attendance at readings is a crapshoot. No one knows what makes people flock in one day and a few months later same day, same time, no one shows up.. There are a few things that can definitely skew the results, though:

1)   Weather—I had a few loyal people show up at a bookstore in Phoenix IN AUGUST. But generally that’s a bad time of year for a reading there. On the other hand, I had a terrific turnout in Austin in the middle of a sleet storm—one book club said they had driven an hour on treacherous roads to come to the reading. Go figure.
2)   Competition—the worst showing I ever had I found out I was competing with The Blue Angels, as well as one of the most beautiful days of the year. Who wanted to come out of a glorious Sunday afternoon and into a bookstore—especially since traffic was at a standstill pretty much all over town. Runner up for worst showing was a very cold night in Dallas when no one showed up. At least not for me. They did, however, turn up for Amy Tan down the street.
3)   Lack of promo. It’s up to the author and the bookstore to promote, promote, promote. And as the author you need to make sure the bookstore personnel has done its job. I learned that at my hometown bookstore. I thought I had arranged everything—but my assumption that the bookstore would order my books was totally wrong. Turned out they were used to only hosting independent authors who brought their own stock.
4)   Overexposure. I’ve had books come out in pretty rapid succession, and I realized that no matter how generous friends are, they may not be thrilled to hear me speak yet again. So this time when my book came out, I’ve only booked a couple of events at bookstores. That doesn’t mean I’m hiding out-I have some multi-author events scheduled—but that I’m being judicious.

What I’m learning is to do the best I can and to treat every person who attends as if he or she intends to buy a carton of books to hand out to family and friends.

On that note, I will close so I can get started packing for Southern California. I will be at Mysterious Galaxy tomorrow night and Book Carnival Thursday night. Wish me well!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Launch Day Thoughts

Today was launch day, and I find myself feeling impatient to write more, publish more…more….more. So I paused today to remind myself of a few things:

1)   Three years ago at this time I didn’t have a publishing contract. I was beginning to gather information in case I decided to go the independent route. The latter didn’t particularly appeal to me for a variety of reasons peculiar to me, but I was willing to do it.
2)   Two years ago at this time I was terrified and excited because I was three months away from my first, ever book launch. I had gotten a couple of early reviews that seemed pretty good, but still felt like I was dangling over a cliff.
3)   A year ago at this time I was in the middle of changing agents. My prior agent was personable, but for some time I had thought we were not a good fit. It was a scary step to step off the wagon in mid-stream, but it worked out really well. I wouldn’t have been able to have the courage to do it without good advice from those who had taken the same risk.
4)   Which leads me to this year, when I’m awed by the support of my amazing author friends in this journey, who are always there with advice, support, and a good laugh.
5)   I’m so grateful for the support and love from family and friends. Sure, they have to be nice to me, but they’ve gone above and beyond.

6)   Next year?  Who knows? For right now, I’m just going to be glad that today was book launch day for # 4 and let the future stretch out ahead of me—enticing me rather than driving me.

And here's what the launch is for: 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

And Then the Dog Showed Up

I rarely read crime fiction that focus on animals as part of the investigative milieu. With a few notable exceptions, I find them too far-fetched. So imagine my surprise when I was working on Craddock #5 and a dog pushed its way into the scene. Okay, so somebody has a dog. That’s nice. But then after a while, the dog showed up again, and this time it wanted more attention. There was a new character and it was nice to have a dog to give her something to do.

But then, the dog stayed. It’s not Craddock’s dog, but I thought it might as well get to have some fun. It rode around with Craddock and went to his house and generally hung out. I didn’t mind. Seemed like a nice dog.

And then….the dog suddenly had an important scene.

Which brings to mind a question of how the writerly brain works. I didn’t set out to give this dog anything to do in the book. He was in the last book, too, as a little side note. Something to add a little jazz to a scene. So how come he showed up in the latest book and made a place for himself? I guess you could ask that about any character, too, but usually you know in advance that a character is needed to carry out certain elements of the plot. I rarely find myself completely surprised by a character.

It almost feels eerie to me that this dog appeared so naturally and continued to be a part of the book—almost as if he was in charge and I should get out of the way.

I would think of this as an anomaly, but it has happened too many times in my writing: something that pops up early later becomes important. In fact, in a couple of books, I realize later that the first few pages foreshadow everything that happens in the book—even though I had no conscious intention of that happening.

More than once I’ve told people that my first two books seemed to write themselves. Some writers say they have never had that experience and others say it has happened to him. I’d love to know what that process is—the thing that makes the story come full-blown into a writer’s mind, as well as the thing that makes a writer include a new character (even a dog) not knowing consciously what he’s doing there, and only realizing later that he or she is vital to the story.

Readers: Any thoughts about this?