Thursday, November 28, 2013

How Not To Edit A Manuscript

I'm going to start by quoting some Mark Twain, regarding the author of The Last Mohican:

A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick.

Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.
Some people edit that way. Read a book, learn three tricks, and beat you over the head with them over and over and over again.

Their stage tricks include “never write a prologue,” “never say ‘thought to himself’ because there’s nobody else to think to,” and “no head hopping.”

The prologue as a way to make you swallow lame back story now for the vain hope of a reward later is an overworked device and a symptom of starting a manuscript way before when the story really gets started. Skip to the good stuff, son. If your book makes sense without the prologue, kill that bad boy, just as you would an epilogue or those lame chapters in the middle. But that doesn’t make all prologues verboten.

And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. True, there is nobody else to think to unless you’ve got telepaths, but not worth a verboten. Sometimes it’s cool to think to yourself. Just not all the time.

Head hopping. In the hands of an amateur, it’s horrible. I’m looking at the world through this character’s eyes, then I go over there and switch to that person’s thoughts, then I move over to the other place and look at the world through somebody’s else’s eyes, then... The poor reader’s getting whiplash.

Plus, there’s no story without character, since everything that happens must happen to somebody, so why make it impossible for the reader to identify with your somebodies?

One point of view per chapter is fine. More than one per chapter, but no more than one per scene, is fine. Just be sure that every transition tells the reader right away that you’ve shifted perspectives. But you always want the reader to care about your new POV character, and certainly to be aware there is one. Confusion is bad. Enjoyment is good.

And, of all the rules to possibly harp on, why those three? Or two, or seven, or whatever? Why those and not these?

Breaking rules out of ignorance is inexcusable. Breaking rules because you have a reason is fine. Breaking rules in such a way as to lose, confuse, or abuse a reader is not a good thing to do. Breaking rules because it makes your story better is probably mandatory. Pretending that rules must never be broken makes a so-called editor a hack and a butcher.

I tell you what’s verboten. Boring me. And this post is starting to do that, so buh-bye.

No, wait, something else is verboten. For me to edit something that you wrote so that it looks like I wrote it. That’s not my job. Editors are not meant to strip their manuscripts of all individuality. We’re just supposed to make the author’s voice come out clearly. Not my voice, not James Patterson’s voice. The author’s voice. And we’re supposed to make the reader’s life as easy as possible. Remember the reader? He’s our friend. You’ll edit, and write, much better if you walk a mile in his moccasins.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Lazarus Effect, reviewed by Todd Stone

The Lazarus Effect sees the return of Gary Drake, detective we first met a decade earlier in Vigilante Justice. Ten years haven’t been good to Drake–he’s in prison, his family is dead, he is HIV-positive, and when other inmates discover he’s a cop, they beat him to death.

But like the book’s Biblical namesake, Gary Drake returns. “After his death, Gary Drake’s life became more interesting.”

A cynical prison doc makes a last-ditch effort to save Drake’s life by administering an unauthorized injection of a secret, experimental drug code named “Lazarus.” After the injection, Drake’s fatal wounds mysteriously and rapidly heal and his AIDS goes into remission. Drake then awakens from his beating-induced coma with with no memory of the beating or last ten years behind bars.

Taking up Drake’s cause, the prison doc contacts Drake’s old friend and almost love interest, police Captain Marjorie Brooks. Brooks, it seems, has found out about the Lazarus drug the hard way. A cop killer she has in custody should be dead from the bullets her police squad put into him, but instead is fit as a fiddle.

Now Drake and Brooks have to find the source of the Lazarus drug and get and keep it out of the wrong hands. Their quest leads them into the shadowy and very dangerous world of undercover operatives, and Drake once again finds his life on the line, but this time even a wonder drug may not save him.

There’s real excitement and action in The Lazarus Effect, as well as fine writing. The Lazarus Effect moves, and LaRocca’s “take” on the classic police mystery means The Lazarus Effect is one part mystery, one part thriller, and the rest pure engagement. Moreover, LaRocca doesn’t let either Drake or the reader off the hook with a simplistic ending. LaRocca’s work puts some tough questions in front of the reader: is defacto immortality really a good thing when evil doers can live forever as well? What if ten years’ worth of guilt could be lifted from you, but only at the cost of shattering your dreams about someone you loved? Who deserves a second chance, or maybe a third?

The Lazarus Effect is an interesting tale from an interesting author. Let’s hope we see more Gary Drake stories from Michael LaRocca soon.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

On the downswing.

I'm working really hard to sustain the high I felt at the close of October and the start of November. Plots were a thickening and words were a flowing. I had so many ideas trapped in my (fairly) large head, I didn't think I'd ever stop. As often happens with my high standard of optimism life came in and said, "Go sit yourself down". It is the unfortunate consequence of being a part-time writer with aspirations of full time productivity. In the past I'd feel a bit discouraged, languish in my pile of forgotten WIPs until the example of my "failure" was too much I wouldn't open a word document for ages. This time things are different. It is possibly because I'm too tired to feel discouraged or (as my ever present optimism perks up) I may have finally reached a place where down time is good time because I'm not a factory churning out story after story.

Whatever it is, I'm going to coast this feeling for a bit. Give myself a breather, because when it passes I'm coming out strong and ready to DO!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lessons in Plotting

Do you think that a plotted novel is an abomination? So do I. I'm into character insights, and themes that rock your world. What happens is secondary. Who it happens to, and why, is what matters. Stuff that happens is just stuff that happens. I need more than that. I want a book to change the reader.

But that doesn't mean you can ignore your plot completely, the way I do descriptions of scenery. Plotwise, something has to happen. It doesn't have to be a whole lot, but it does have to be something.

Forty years ago, I'd read 100 pages waiting to get to "the good part." But people just don't do that anymore. I sure don't. There's a reason that Elmore Leonard told us to leave out the parts people skip.

So plotting, the good kind as opposed to the bad kind, means you can get to the good part before your reader quits reading.

Here's an example.

SANDLOT is, on its surface, a light easy read. It's the result of my lovely darling saying "you should write a football novel."

SANDLOT begins with a dead body. After twelve years in China, the not-quite-me main character returns to North Carolina because the not-quite-Daddy dies.

Why China? The answer to that question involves plotting, and thus the point of this rambling diatribe.

In real life, I spent six years in China, five years in Thailand, and one year in Hanoi. But in the novel, this is all back story, so I wanted to make it as brief and simple as possible. In real life, it was not. So let's prevent the truth from getting in the way of a good story.

Of the three countries, I'd much rather write about China. Plus, China does in fact have American-rules flag football. I never played it, but it exists. Part of the novel's plot is that the main character played football and honed all his coaching and quarterbacking skills "over there."

My story is about finding meaning in one's life, wondering why we're here, being 48 years old and still not knowing what you want to be when you grow up. This guy's answer, obviously, involved playing football.

So with just a wee bit of good plotting, I was able to write two pages of back story that set the dead father plot in motion, the football plot in motion, and the overseas plot in motion, while establishing the guy's character and rather quickly moving on to getting his nuts busted in a football game behind the barn in Burgaw. And thus begins the good stuff.

I usually spend more time creating my characters and my conflict, and writing the first chapter, than I do writing the rest of the first draft. If I've done the first part right, my characters tell me what they're going to do after I get the thing started.

So plotting is never the first tool you bring out of your writing toolbox. But do keep it in there. It's an option. And once in a great while, it can get you out of a rough spot.

If you're getting frustrated and/or bored, odds are you're going to write something that your reader would just as soon skip. With a bit of plotting, you can skip it too, and move on to what you really wanted to write all along.

(Oh, and if you read VIGILANTE JUSTICE and knew it was impossible for me to write a sequel, that was my intent, but wouldn't you know it? Ten years later, THE LAZARUS EFFECT, published by the fine folks here at Mocha Memoirs Press. I didn't "plot" it, but I did write the first draft in a single evening, so it's by far my "tightest" manuscript. Enjoy.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Preparing For A Reading - The Nightmare Scenario

This past weekend I went to Anthocon, a horror convention in New Hampshire. I was scheduled for a reading at 1:30 pm on Sunday for half an hour. I haven't done very many readings so here is how I prepared for it.

1. Had nightmares the week of the reading that I stood in front of everyone naked.

2. Had nightmares the week of the reading that I went to read from my Kindle when it was out of power.

3. Had nightmares the week of the reading that I left my printed copies at home so I had nothing to read.

So, I was off to a great start.

To alleviate these feelings of sheer terror, I stood in front of a mirror and read the first page of one of my stories. I was fine as long as I didn't trip over my tongue. I also made sure I had a glass of water handy for the inevitable dry mouth. Note to self: bring bottled water to the reading for when I inevitably became parched.

Another lesson: I read the first page of another story and enunciated as I read. The exercise gave me one hell of a mouth cramp but it worked.

Still another lesson: S L O W   D O W N! When nervous, I read at machine gun speed. If I put my mind to it, I can sound like a carnival barker or an auctioneer, which may be entertaining but isn't conducive to people enjoying what I'm reading.

Yet another lesson: BREATHE! I noticed I could go for several sentences without taking a single breath. By the time I needed to breathe, I felt like I was suffocating. My chest tightened and I felt as if someone rubbed the insides of my lungs with a scouring pad. So after each comma and period, I made a point of remembering to breathe.

By the time I mastered reading, I had slowed my pace, breathed at regular intervals, and became familiar enough with my stories to look up as if making eye contact with my audience. My speech was clear and easy to understand.

By the time Friday rolled around I was ready for my precious half hour. I even hoped to sell a few books. The best part was those awful nightmares stopped. A little confidence goes a long way.

Where to find me on the web:

Blog and Web Site



Amazon Author Page

Sunday, November 10, 2013


So I had a great post for you. I was typing it and typing it and it was all about how I was grateful and thankful for my writing. Then my seven year old accidentally knocked the cord off my computer, the battery died, and I lost it. Because you know, I forgot to save it.


I am thankful for my writing. I am so grateful that the words are no longer bottled up inside of me. But I’m also a mom managing a 7 year old who wants attention. What’s a girl to do? 

In the tradition of moms everywhere… I’m going to punt.

Writing has always been a part of me. From the moment I learned to read, I wanted to tell stories. I’ve had the pleasure of riding a dirt bike down a mountain, flying with dragons, being the first mage of an eon to have power enough to heal the world, and walked down the path to my own salvation. Just because it never happened doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It’s where I work out the truth of my life, even if it is often against the backdrop of dragons, castles, mages… or even a witch, a ghost and a vampire who are best friends (my current work in progress).

I’ve also had the privilege of listening to my son tell a story, making sure that he had a beginning a middle and an end. For a while he was dictating a story every single night. That kind of dedication awed me. Lets be honest, it also made me work on my wip just a little bit more because if a seven year old can have that kind of discipline, how could I not follow his example?

Storytelling is a part of our lives now, and it feels good.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Finding your muse in hyper space...

Writers who lean toward science fiction and fantasy often have to contend with the doubts and scorns of the reading public, and other writers.

If you write sci-fi or otherworldly stuff in general, you're not a real writer, they say.

My own mother has said to me:  "It must be easy to be a science fiction writer; you don't have to worry about character depth or motivation or anything like that, just the sci-fi stuff."  Ugh.  That really hurts.

Writing science fiction or fantasy does present a set of unique challenges for any writer.  As with any kind of fiction, if it's a story worth telling at all, you have to know your characters, what drives them, how they'll react to whatever situations you put them in, how they'll adapt, how they'll grow.  What's different about SF and fantasy is that it puts the point-of-view character in a world that's completely unfamiliar to the audience.  At least, one they don't physically live in or have to cope with.  So, of course, it's harder to make the reader identify with your characters, much less care about them.  Sometimes, it helps if the character is like a typical member of the reading public who suddenly finds him or herself dropped into some alien world, Alice down the rabbit-hole style.  The greater challenge is when the protagonist is part of the imaginary world you create.  You have to set the rules of that world, explain how it came about, and in a way that flows with the story so as not to bore the audience.  You have to put the reader right there with the character,  and make them understand how this character grew up in that world, how it shaped him or her, and most importantly, make the reader ask him or herself:  "How would I react in that situation?"

Two films are in the public eye right now:  "Twelve Years a Slave," which tells the real-life story of a free man illegally sold into slavery in the 1840's, and "Ender's Game," which is an adaptation of a science fiction novel.  One draws from life, the other from imagination, but both offer the same challenge:  How to put the audience in a situation alien to their daily lives and make them feel what is being felt, either by a nineteenth century free man facing the hellish nightmare of waking up a slave, or by a young boy facing another hellish nightmare, pulled from his family and trained to fight in a genocidal war on another planet.  For writers, (and actors as well, I'd imagine) the challenge is always getting inside the character's skin, no matter how outlandish the outward situation, and bringing the audience in there with you.  Bringing a totally unfamiliar situation to life in a timeless way is the test of the writer's ability.

The key difference of science fiction from mainstream fiction is of course that in mainstream, the character's place in the real world, past or contemporary is part of the flow of history that shapes all of us; the audience has a connection with it.  Science fiction, especially the far-flung future variety, presents a theory or speculation of where we might be going as a people (some readers just don't want to go there; they just want to experience life day to day.)  But, the moral, psychological and spiritual issues presented in a story that puts people in a hypothetical situation of the future is every bit as real and valid (if well though out; that's the other challenge of SF) as a story drawn from history.

"Twelve Years a Slave" brutally depicts the cruelty that we already know human beings are capable of committing against their fellows when the world they're living in teaches them that 'those others' are less that human.  Once that's socially programmed in, it always brings out the worst in the weakest of us, because it's self-serving and convenient, especially in hard times when you have someone else to blame for your own failures.  "Ender's Game" depicts a situation in which the completely hypothetical 'others' really are inhuman.  Humanity unites (sort of) in a common struggle against an alien enemy we can't understand or identify with.  Or, can we?  It's a story about sending children off to war.  Putting aside the expensive special effects of space ships zapping each other over alien planets, the essence of that subject is of course drawn from reality; we know (or think we know) something of the suffering of child soldiers.  In the movie, the story doesn't take place in some impoverished African village, but on gleaming futuristic space stations where the kids are trained to kill in theory, with video games.  Their trainers watch them on hidden vid screens, arguing complex psychological stratagems of which emotional strings to pull, of which primal needs in these kids to tap into so as to turn them into the most efficient killers.  It's a cold, clinical dissection of how human evil works.

It's easier to put the audience into the skin of the man who actually feels the whip on his back, feels the shackles on his wrists and ankles.  We feel the pain of the boy, too, in the young actor's tears of guilt when he nearly kills another trainee in a fight.  But, diffused through the high-tech wizardry of computer-generated illusion, and the maze of mysterious dream images that have to be navigated and interpreted, it's harder to get the point across to the audience with sufficient force.  "Ender's Game" makes its moral and philosophical point, but somehow, it never lays the necessary groundwork to drive the cruel 'aha' surprise at the end into our hearts with the same pain that the young protagonist feels at the end.  It comes part of the way, in the course of the boy's training, in forcing our society to morally question the philosophy of kicking an enemy when he's down, to make sure he never gets up to threaten us again another day.  A timeless moral question, to be sure, and an ambitious attempt.  But, in the end, I feel they depended too much on the dream-like visual and neglected the human core; it came across as a myth telling a moral, but not a real story of flesh and blood.

That's really the challenge of science fiction and fantasy;  Daring to do the story for real, in however fantastic a setting, and doing what all writers have to do:  Really showing, not just telling.  I say, go all the way, or don't try to go at all.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Walking a Kitten..

So, I wasn't sure what I would write about today, being rather mind-wiped from a convention last weekend. (And I do apologize for missing last month, but THAT convention included the 5th, and I was drained.)

I was toying with doing something about NaNoWriMo, and then it hit me. A perfect metaphor for the whole experience. Writing a novel is like walking a kitten on a leash.

You see, today we stopped in to the pet store with the kitten (Marvin, the Adorable) to see if we could get his shots, and left with a harness and lead.

My husband dropped me at the top of our street with kitten and went on to work. Here is where I learned how like a NaNoWriMo novel a kitten on a leash can be. First of all, they go where they want to go.

Whether you want to go there or not. Your story has a mind of its own, and pulling back against its lead just makes it obstinate. Let it wander a bit. But remember, you hold the end of the leash, and you can reel it back in if you need to.


On the other hand, sometimes, they just plop down and refuse to move. When that happens, you may have to tug on the leash a bit. Force it back into motion with a nudge in the right direction. Add a sentence that restates something from earlier in another way. Anything to get the words flowing again.

And sometimes, you have to give in, pick the novel...up and carry it forward, holding tightly to your vision of what it needs to be, because in the end, it is too precious to give up on, and too beautiful to allow it into dangerous territory.

Okay...I may have stretched the metaphor a bit -- but isn't my baby adorable?


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dude, You're Wearing Some Classy Underwear

So there I was, driving from one place to another place, and I saw a young man walking along the sidewalk with his baggie pants so low that I could see his underwear. Boxers, not briefs. Hmm. Then he reached down below the underwear, to the baggie pants, and I thought he was going to pull them up. I was relieved. Nope, just scratching an itch or something. Faked me out.

An hour later, at home, a guy parked beside me and got out of his car. Despite baggy pants hanging down low and showing me his underwear, he moved faster than me and bolted up the stairs. I don't know how that's even possible.

Sharp underwear. Forest green boxers with a broad white band. Probably a bit pricier than the baggie pants that could be from Goodwill. Perhaps underwear under the underwear. Probably not hiding a gun under the baggies, which is how the fashion started a lifetime ago.

Only guys do this, by the way. The girls of their generation don't wear underwear.

But really, do I know too much about the guy's underwear? We haven't been properly introduced. I don't even know his name.

Is my age showing? I don't know. Submitted for your approval:

1) A man walks into an examination room, baggies hanging down and underwear showing, and says, "Good afternoon. I'm the doctor. Now according to your chart..."

You're out of the room, aren't you?

2) I take my lovely Australian bride out for a romantic dinner at the Outback Steakhouse. A dude comes over to our table with his underwear showing. "G'day mate, m'name's Bruce and I'll be your server this evening."

Dude, there better not be any bloomin' pubes in my jackaroo chops.

3) Presidential debate, one candidate comes strolling out with his pants way down low so you can see his underwear and says "I'm Mitt Romney and I'm down with the 47%."

I don't think he's got my vote.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Problem With Asking Me Questions Is That I Answer Them

Q: How long does it take to write a book?
A: That depends on how good you make it.

Q: What's the hardest thing about catching an editor's eye?
A: Getting someone to throw it to you.

Q: How can I stop people from stealing my ideas?
A: Don't worry, nobody wants them. Ideas are the easy part. You can do that in a day. Writing takes months. Maybe years. There are no new ideas.

Q: Where do you get your ideas from?
A: I steal them. Got a book for me to edit?

Q: Why don't women blink during foreplay?
A: They don't have time.

Q: Did your mother have any children that lived?
A: Nope. Did yours?

Q: Why don't senators use bookmarks?
A: They just bend over the page.

Q: Why don't Buddhists vacuum in the corners?
A: They don't have any attachments.

Q: How much do you have to pay to get published?
A: Time for me to stop joking. Please, please, please don't pay to get published. Readers pay publishers and publishers pay authors. Don't believe anyone who tells you different.

Q: What's the worst part about seeing five lawyers in Cadillac go over a cliff?
A: A Cadillac seats six.

Q: Why can't a pony sing?
A: Because it's a little horse.

Q: What do you call an author without a girlfriend?
A: Homeless.

Q: Why did the cowboy get a dachshund?
A: Because he wanted to get a long little doggie.

Q: Why does Mike Tyson cry during sex?
A: Mace will do that to you.

Q: How many years do you have to write before you can quit your day job?
A: 42.

Q: Who's your agent?
A: Huh?

Q: Who's your publicist?
A: Huh?

Q: Who's your editor?
A: Huh?

Q: What's the difference between an editor and God?
A: God doesn't think he's an editor.

Q: What's the difference between a golf ball and a woman's G spot?
A: A man will spend 10 minutes looking for a golf ball.

Q: What does a Ziploc bag have in common with a walrus?
A: They're both looking for a tight seal.

Q: What's does it mean when they fly the U.S. flag at half mast at the post office?
A: They're hiring.

Q: What's the difference between a PhD in English and a large pizza?
A: The pizza can feed a family of four.

Q: Why did you start writing?
A: Why not?

Q: Where can I learn more about your writing?
A: Mocha Memoirs Press!