Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Just Go Read This . . .

Right now, I'll wait:

Raymond Chandler's Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel.

Beta Reading 2014 Style

I can honestly say that one of the best evenings ever was having my bestest bestie in the world beta reading my novel and keeping up a steady Facebook comment stream.

First, it is instant typo repair and ferreting out a couple of small continuity issues. 

"How do they know there isn't anybody left in the barn?"

"Just a second . . . "


"They do now. There isn't anybody in the barn."

Second, and even more fun, was the commentary.

"You did not just tase him."


"Shit be getting real . . ."

"Oh, just wait."

I highly recommend this to everyone who has a sense of humor about their own work and someone close to them that believes in them. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Editing Out Loud and Why Every Writer Should Have a Dog

Luckily, I have two dogs, so if I can't get a consensus, then I know I have a problem.

My manuscript is still in the queue to get on the query-go-round, but I'm within sight of the ticket booth. The twentieth revision of the query letter and synopsis permanently live in the tray on my homepage and I take another swipe at them at least once a day.

As I wait for beta notes to filter in, I am also taking my book, section at a time, and giving it the ultimate stress test. I'm reading it out loud. This is where having dogs comes in handy. Typically, they love the sound of your voice and will sit at your feet for hours listening or napping. Such an attentive audience keeps me going:

Scruffy loves the car chase scene.
The point about reading it out loud is the clunkers will shine like neon in the night. Here is what I've typically been finding:

1.  Places where the dialogue doesn't ring true or run smooth. If my brain auto-corrects something in the speech, then my fingers should manually correct it on the page. Really, don't overthink this one. Especially if you are trying to capture patois in your dialogue. As one of my characters responds to the question about how he knew the meeting was a trap:

"There was something wrong about him. Linguistics isn't just about the words, it's the whole package. His accent and cadence told me he was play-acting and trying to sound foreign. English was not his second language. I don't know where his parents might have come from, but he was as Texan as I am. So I told him to go fuck himself, and I didn't say it nicely."

In dialogue, the cadence is as important, if not more important, than the actual words. There is one chapter where there are few words over four letters. It is pretty intense. Reading it out loud was entertaining. I envisioned myself at the open mic at a conference. Hey, if I won't say it out loud, it's unlikely I can type it in a way that has the tang of authenticity.

On the subject as English as a second language. A hint I got from someone who knows of what they speak, and that works for me, is if you have a character with an accent, rather than trying to write it out phonetically, adjust the cadence.

Before going with, "Zees is zee silliest theeng I have ever zeen," try first eliminating all contractions and idiom.

When you learn a second language, your speech is stilted and formal until you are fluent enough to adopt local usage. I remember getting around in Mexico and France pretty much on noun/verb pairs and hand signals.

2.  The next thing reading out loud tells you is passages that are too damn long. I found several. It was taking too many breaths to get through the paragraph. My main character was being tortured, for heaven's sake, I did not need to digress, at length, into the location of the three flash drives that the bad guy needed to get what he wanted. That one has bothered me since I read it last night. Tonight, I fix it.

3.  I'm limiting my reading sessions to thirty minutes. After that, my throat gets scratchy and I lose my enthusiasm.

4. Because enthusiasm is key. This is the audio version of the damn novel that has lived in my head for months. Play to the rafters. Give your characters different voices and test out the cadence of the dialogue. Speed up and slow down the action. Test drive it right into the wall.

These late night sessions really do work best with a forgiving audience:

Foxy loves a happy ending. 
Note: I read this post out loud and now have a black eye from face-palming myself for typing the phrase "answered in response." The dogs earned a treat for having to listen to that clunker.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Serial Novel: Burning Kansas - Chapter 2

Chapter 2 in the serial novel I am currently publishing in my little monthly community newspaper, The Deadline. I'm putting the chapters up here because our website is currently, to put it mildly, a mess.

Miss the first chapter? Never fear, you can check it out here.  Also, clicking on the labels "Burning Kansas," or "Serial Novel" will bring up all the posts. I hope you enjoy it.

* * *

Burning Kansas: Chapter 2

The only reason Creighton Blaylock crossed the border from Missouri into Kansas was to find his son. He hadn't counted on meeting Caroline Cassett.

“Ma’am, I think you and I have a problem.” Blaylock's statement was heavy in the cool afternoon air.

“What do you mean?” said Caroline in a voice hinting that she understood everything.

“If you'll pardon my language, I think our damn fool kids may have run off together.”

With fluid grace, the shotgun was back at her shoulder. “What you mean is that your son has taken my daughter heaven only knows where.”

Even though this was far from the first gun barrel he'd stared down, prickles of fear ran up his back. Normally, he squared off with men over everything from politics to gold. He knew what to do in those circumstances. He either talked or shot his way out of it. This was something altogether different. He'd just told a mama bear that her cub was missing and he was partly to blame.

“Mrs. Cassett, please. Let's talk about this. We both know what things are like right now and our children may be out in it alone. They need us. Please, just put that gun down.” He repeated it twice, each time in a softer tone. Blaylock hadn't become an officer in the Missouri Partisan Rangers without being able to calm down a hot situation.

After an eternity of two or three minutes, she lowered the shotgun. Caroline straightened her back and looked him square in the eye.

“I'm sorry Mr. Blaylock. That was quite rude of me. This news is shocking. I suppose the only polite thing to do would be to offer you some coffee and hear what you have to say.”

He heard the strain and barely held tears in her too-proper speech. She held her head like a queen as she turned and went up her stairs in a swish of skirts.

Now that is a hell of a woman.

Blaylock waited a moment and followed her, stopping at the threshold. She nodded from the cookstove and handed him a mug. He took a chair on the far side of the table where he could keep an eye on her and the front door.

“This is easily the best coffee I've had in ages. I thank you.”

“My mother sent it along with the stationery. Luxuries are far between and dear out here since the troubles started. When she wants to help us, I'm not ashamed to take it.”

The mention of the letters reminded them both of why they were talking.

to be continued . . .

Monday, February 10, 2014

Serial Novel: Burning Kansas - Chapter 1

A few months ago I took over a small community newspaper. It has a circulation of about 2500, up and down the Kansas-Missouri border. One popular feature of the paper is the serial novel that has been running for a long time. Too many people had missed the early chapters, so I decided it was time to start a new story. My new feature in The Deadline is called "The Dime Novel Series."

I publish roughly 1000 word chapters per month (maybe more often on the website,) each with a niblet of a cliff-hanger. My plan includes posting the on-going chapters online so no one gets too far behind. But until our newspaper website is fixed, I'd thought I would put them up here. Each will be labeled "Burning Kansas." I hope you enjoy it.

* * *

The year is 1856 and in the hatred and tension of Bleeding Kansas, Creighton Blaylock and Caroline Cassett, from opposite sides of the border, face every parent's greatest fear. Their children are missing. However, there may be more to this than meets the eye. 

* * *

Burning Kansas: Chapter 1

The distinctive sound of the hammers locking on a double-barrel shotgun told Creighton Blaylock he wasn’t alone.

Raising his hands he said, “Whoever you are, I mean you no harm. I’m looking for the Cassett place.”

“Well, you found it. At least what’s left of it. If you’re looking for pickings, you’re too late. Bushwhackers have been here and gone.”

The feminine voice surprised him. Without thinking, he turned around.

“You looking to die? Keep those hands where I can see them.”

“No Ma’am, actually, I’m looking for my son. My name is Creighton Blaylock.”

The woman stepped into the light and he got his first good look at her. Spilling from under a wide-brimmed straw hat, the streaks of gold glinting in her auburn hair looked like the surface of a river in the sunlight. However, before he could muse any more, her voice came sharp and keen across the small yard.

“That name means nothing to me. I say again, keep your hands up and tell me what you want.”

Blaylock didn’t know what to think. After coming home yesterday and finding his son Jacob gone, he’d torn apart the boy’s bureau drawers and found a wooden lockbox containing letters signed ‘Emma,’ and a hand-drawn map that brought him to this farm in Kansas.

“Do you know an Emma Cassett?”

She snapped the shotgun up to her shoulder as fast and true as any battle-hardened veteran Blaylock had ever seen.  However, her finger was still outside the trigger guard, so he relaxed a bit.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

“Mr. Blaylock, you can tell me right now how you know my daughter, you can get the hell out of here, or I can drop you where you stand. Those are your choices.”

He stayed silent for a moment to gather his thoughts. “I don’t know your daughter, but I think my boy does. My son Jacob is missing and I found some papers that led me here. Can I get them out of my saddlebag?”

He couldn’t see much of her face between the hat brim and the shotgun, but her posture told him she was both surprised and curious. Maybe even a little worried as well.

“You put that Army Colt and the knife in your boot on the ground and go real slow over to your horse. Just in case you’re thinking of doing something stupid, the first shell is rock salt and bird shot to get your attention. The second is buckshot, just in case the first didn’t get the message across.”

Blaylock couldn’t help chuckling, but still kept his hands in the air. Even though her low musical voice held a hint of a smile, he had no doubt she was serious. This damn war-that-wasn’t-a-war between Kansas and Missouri had made soldiers of the most unlikely people.

“May I?” he said, pointing at his gunbelt.

After she nodded, he did exactly as instruct, pulling his pistol out with two fingers on the grip and putting it on the gravel path with the barrel pointing off to one side. The same with the springy Damascus steel knife almost invisible in his boot.

She has good eyes.

Once he’d disarmed himself, he backed toward his horse and pulled out the oilcloth-wrapped sheaf of papers. He undid the ties and exposed a stack of lavender vellum, each sheet decorated with a spray of violets and covered in dainty copperplate writing.

Even though he was a good ten feet away, he heard her intake of breath. When he looked over, the shotgun was by her side and one hand was to her mouth.

“Where did you get that?”

“I told you. I found it in my son’s things.”

“Give it to me.” Her hand tightened on the shotgun stock.

“Whoa, just wait right there. Why don’t you tell me what this is about? Can we maybe start with an introduction? You know my name. It can’t hurt anything to tell me yours.”

“I’m Caroline Cassett,” she said in a voice as brittle as glass.

“I’m pleased to meet you. I’d offer my hand, but I’m afraid you might just blow it off. I’ve grown fond of it over the years.”

Now it was her turn for a small laugh. She released the hammers on the shotgun and cradled it in the crook of her arm.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Blaylock relaxed. He still moved slowly, know she could cut him in two, but the crisis seemed over for the moment.

“That stationery belongs to my daughter. Her grandmother sent if from back East. None other like it around here, it came from England. Emma only uses it for poetry and drawing. And evidently for writing letters. 

Alright, Mr. Blaylock, you’re got my attention.”

“Can I ask when you last saw Emma?”

She pulled off the straw hat and Blaylock got his first real look at her.

Damn, if this Emma is half the woman her mother is, I’m not quite so mad at Jacob.

Beneath her tumble of fiery hair, Caroline Cassett’s eyes reminded him of the aquamarines in the brooch from his mother’s hope chest. Her ivory skin with its sprinkle of freckles across her nose bore testament to life lived on a farm rather than in a drawing room. While her cheekbones gave her a dainty air, her strong chin and the determined line between her fine brows told him this was a woman who didn’t suffer fools lightly.

“Mrs. Cassett, may I ask again?”

“I last saw her this morning. We had breakfast and I took the wagon into town. When I got home, there was a note saying she had gone to spend the day with her cousin. She does that from time to time. Their place is farther in from the Missouri border and hadn’t taken the beating we have.”

“Ma’am, I think you and I have a problem.”

To be continued . . .

Saturday, February 8, 2014

It's Getting to be "That" Time

You know the one I mean. Time to take off my tortured writer hat (the pointy one with bells on it) and start looking at this like a business.

The WIP is no longer "in progress." After the seventh revision of the third draft, it is a manuscript in the hands of a half-dozen beta readers. Now, it could snap back to the in-progress stage in a heartbeat if the consensus comes back with "What were you thinking?" However, I truly believe that I'm in the final proofread-and-nitpick laps with only one or two more pit stops left to go. I'm reaching the "This Book Sucks and I Hate it," stage, so I know I'm closing in on it.

While I wait for notes, it's time to start looking at what it will take to get on the query-go-round. I'm still in the proto-stages, but the steps I take now will help grease the process in a month or so when I start cringing and hitting the "send" button.

1.  First, foremost, and on-going, I got my carcass over to Query Shark. Irreverent and insightful, it is an on-going look at what works and what doesn't in a query letter. If you don't hang out here, well, I'm not sure we can be friends. I've kept up on my homework in the archive the last couple of years, so I wasn't too far behind in my reading. Now, I am looking at the "wins," particularly the ones in my genre, with a critical eye as to why they were effective.

By the way, I did my own parody query in the format of the legendary break-all-the-rules-for-the-freaking-win query for Josin McQuein's superb Premeditated. I recommend the exercise highly.

2.  Next up is a quick stop by Slushpile Hell just to remind myself of what can happen if I don't do my homework now.

3. And then, I couldn't put it off any longer, I had to start making query words. Facebook messages to my best friend, "does this work?" and the answer, "I hate the first sentence of the second paragraph." Which wasn't a bad thing, I hated the first sentence as well. But, along with the critique, came suggestions and that evil word string was fixed. It's also now completely changed and reborn as the third sentence of the second paragraph. After several hours of wrangling, the tenth iteration of the second draft is now sitting and marinating to see how much I hate it when I reopen the file tomorrow.

4. While the query simmers, I slacked off at work today and surfed agent websites, seeing what's what out there. It had been a while and I wanted to compare my running list with who is closed, who has moved, and what the latest and greatest in sub requirements are. It also helps me classify the genre of the book. It has the ticking clock of a thriller, the suspense and legal machinations of a crime drama, and the bow-chicka-wow-wow of a romantic suspense. I'm still up in the air on what to call it, but I'm getting closer.

One of my big technical take-aways was that I need to create a ten-page format free double-spaced sample and one-page synopsis that will translate through email. That way I can just pick one from Column A and two from Column B when I am building the e-query. Again, do the work now when I'm in the mindless robot stage and I'll be less likely to accidentally send out fifteen pages of single-spaced brick-o-text because I'm too impatient to stop and do it right.

In construction, this is known as "punch-listing." The project isn't done until those chores are done. I like that name, it suits my mood when I discover I've just done fifty pages of copy-edits on an older version of the manuscript.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

How and Why of Writing

Today at my favorite writing blog, The Kill Zone, the topic of the day was the "What, How, and Why of Writing.

The What is fairly straightforward, genre and style. For me it is thriller short stories and novel-length with an occasional cross-genre foray into sci-fi and romantic suspense.

The How called back to the previous day's comical post about what kind of writer you are. Pantsers, out-liners, word-count Terminators, and the harried frantic writer. Some days, I'm all of the above.

There were no great surprises in this part of the discussion. Writers do share some characteristics.

The big discussion came in the Why we do it.

To quote Joe Moore:

"Because if you know beyond a shadow of a doubt why you write, it will come out in your work. It will make your words more believable, stronger, and heartfelt. Your reader will know."

This post struck home with me because I just typed the fateful words, "THE END" to my manuscript. Because of how I write and revise, that was the end of the seventh revision of the third draft. It was ready to go out to beta and into intense copyediting. I sent two packages out today, waving goodbye like I was sending a kid off on the bus to kindergarten.

So why write?

I can only answer for myself, but, for me, it's the way to explore and wrangle my emotions, memories, and dreams into coherent form. All those feels bouncing around my head and heart make their way onto the virtual page.

My WIP, with the working title "Jewel," when all the muscle cars, shotguns, tattoos, legal wrangling, taskforces, and international smuggling are peeled back, is about trust and what happens when it's sundered. That dead zone of betrayal and loss of faith.

It didn't start out that way, but as the story and relationships developed, that's the theme that emerged (gah, did I say theme?) I had wells of emotion to draw from to craft what I hope is a credible story that resonates.

It is also fun to put my memories and experiences to work. Not just a love of muscle cars but the memories of dating someone for his forest green '70s Challenger and my dad's '69 Camaro. The droning tedium of a courtroom when all the action that got you there is reduced to a three-minute speech and lives can change because of a single-page motion. All those little experiences that clutter my brain can be put to work.

And Springsteen . . . I can damn well make my hero look any way I want.

There is one intensely violent scene in the book. Lots of mayhem throughout, but one really gutting scene. It was hard to write. The fear, the pain, and the loss of hope made me walk away from the work for a couple of days while I processed it.

When the notes come in we'll see how the betas think of it. Structure I have no problems with. I can take an edit. I welcome it. But I will be most interested in finding out if it resonated. That's why I did it.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Home Again . . .

I will confess, I've been cheating on this blog with other blogs. I've been trying out some different formats and venues, but this has always been home.

Okay, my blog wandering done, I'm back home again.