I Blame Tommy Lee Jones

After I wrote Baby Grand, I decided to write a stand-alone novel, In the Red, before I tackled the sequel. I tend to do that, even if I’m reading (and not writing) a series — I concentrate on a work that’s completely unrelated, and then return to the next book in the series. I find that the distance creates a little perspective and pushes me more to think about the characters and plot lines and what they mean before I plunge back in.

G3stickmenI finished In the Red after a looong four years, and, unfortunately, realized that it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. It needed some major revisions, and I decided that, rather than doing that, which would take quite some time, I would instead start writing Baby Bailino, the sequel to Baby Grand. This was in late 2014.

In spring of this year, I finished Baby Bailino. So now — as I prepared Baby Bailino for publication — it was time to move onto my next book, which, based on history, would be something completely different from the series I was working on. Right? However, In the Red had so many issues, which freaked me out, and had taken so long to write. I didn’t want to wait four years to start the final Baby Grand book!

I decided (isn’t it fun making these arbitrary decisions?) that it would be best to start writing the last book in the Baby Grand series immediately instead of doing something unrelated. Perfect. Sounds like a plan. I would start writing the next Baby Grand book right away.

And then I watched an old Tommy Lee Jones movie.

I have a certain affinity for suspense movies made in the 1990s. I don’t know why. I turn them on whenever I catch them on TV. The Fugitive. The Firm. Primal Fear. Anything with Ashley Judd. I tend to find my greatest inspirations there. (Baby Grand, in fact, was inspired by Robert De Niro’s character in Heat.)

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Time to Stick my Sequel in a Drawer

Well, it took a year and a half (the same amount of time it took me to write the first book, coincidentally) but I’ve finally finished writing the sequel to Baby Grand. Woo hoo! Cue confetti!

What’s the next step? Stick the manuscript in a drawer (yes, I’m showing my age), or, perhaps, on the back burner of my life, and refrain from looking at it for at least a month. Why? It’s important to get some distance from your work, and that’s something that only time can achieve. Even when I write feature articles, I can go an hour or even an overnight between reads. Time has a way of revealing all kinds of typos and issues. My students at Hofstra University always hear me say that just because you can write “The End” on a manuscript and upload it to Amazon the same day doesn’t mean that you should. Like my mother-in-law’s chili, manuscripts need to marinate a bit for maximum flavor.

So, a month from now, I’ll go through a round of editing, and I’ll have a better idea of where things stand, because I’m sure there will be more to work through (there always is), but for the moment I am breathing a sigh of relief and giving myself a little pat on the back. My book may not yet be ready for prime time, but the first step of the publishing process is completed, and that certainly is worth celebrating. Yay, me! :)

I Gave Up Facebook for Lent & Found Me

It was a spur of the moment decision. On February 9, the day before Ash Wednesday, I decided to give up social media (excluding WordPress and any postings I do for work) for Lent. I did it for lots of reasons, chief among them being I wanted to finish writing the sequel to Baby Grand, a project I started back in December 2014. I knew I was spending too much time on social media, but I just didn’t know how much. It was a lot. At first, I was perplexed by all the oodles of free time I didn’t know I had, but soon I found new activities to fill the void, as if I were a starfish whose amputated limbs were regenerating: I wrote quite a bit (the sequel is nearly completed, and I also found time for other writing, including this essay that appears in today’s Newsday) and charged through my daily to-do lists like nobody’s business. I also found myself calmer, serene. Turns out, while I was busy scrolling through posts, my thumb double-tapping images almost absently, I had been missing out on a lot of something that was important to me: me.

 

Dear Authors: Cut Down on the Turning

Turning. We all do it. Throughout our days, our commutes, our hokey-pokeys.  We turn this way and that as we go about our lives, zigzagging through the years like a hockey puck.

But I’m finding that many characters are doing way too much turning these days:

Juliet whispered Romeo’s name. He turned and walked over to her.

Joey’s mother called him from the open window. He turned and said, “I’ll be right there.”

Turns may be a part of life, but that does not mean you have to mention all of them in your book. Turning is one of those actions that’s understood by the reader even if you don’t write it. Kind of like when a character walks down the street. Do you write that he is putting one foot in front of the other? Or that he is bending his legs at the knee to do so? That’s extraneous information.

For example:

The doorbell rang.  Guy Fieri turned and walked over to the peephole to see who it was.

The doorbell rang. Guy Fieri walked over to the peephole to see who it was.

Now, the only extra bit of info the first sentence gives us was that the poor sap wasn’t facing in the right direction when the doorbell rang. But is this so important that the reader has to know this? When Guy discovers no one at the door, will he TURN back the other way and walk into the kitchen? Well, he will, but does the author have to mention it?

Turning is one of the surest identifiers of the newbie author. Turns clog our manuscripts with unnecessary words. A good idea is to do a search for all the turn mentions in your book. What would your text be like without the word? Take it out. Does your sentence have the same meaning? My hunch is that unless your character is doing things like turning off the television or turning red with embarrassment, it will.

Handling Criticism from Author-Friends

Chances are your closest family members will love whatever it is you have written — even if it’s just a shopping list. They love you and, in turn, will love it.

But what about your author-friends? Those people who, like you, pen books? Many of my friends, who are authors themselves, have taken the time to read Baby Grand — out of the legions of books out there — and I am truly grateful for their time and their support. Many times, these author-friends will have positive comments (yay!) or have questions about plot and character and back story (that I love to answer!). But, other times, author-friends have had criticisms. And because they are authors themselves, we tend to take these critical comments — which can be very specific and very insightful — seriously. One author-friend went as far as sending me an email itemizing all the “errors” he said he found in Baby Grand. Now, THAT was a fun day. :)

Okay, so what do you do when faced with such criticism. What did I do on that fateful day I received an innocuous-looking email with the subject line: BABY GRAND? Did I open up a can of whoop-ass on him? Tell him he was ugly and his mother dressed him funny? No. Actually, I did nothing. There’s nothing TO do. Damn, I may have even thanked him for his time.

But, why?

Well, first of all, I do believe — with all my heart — that, despite the laundry list of “errors” he was kind enough to send me, this person had my best interests at heart. After all, he is my friend.

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Don’t Let a Few Beta Readers Throw You Off Course

In the past 24 hours, I’ve heard from no fewer than three fellow authors talk about reworking their books, second-guessing their instincts, or scrapping their manuscripts altogether based on comments from a few beta readers. Now while I’m the first to admit that novel writing is a two-way street — books are meant to be read and loved and cherished by other people or else we’re simply writing diary entries — I am seeing authors put way too much emphasis on early reader input.

I can hand Baby Grand to 10 people and get 10 different opinions about it — all of them valid, of course, because reading is very subjective and personal, but that doesn’t mean that I, as the author, should be adapting my book to honor each and every one of them. As with parenting, I think ideally we should listen to what everybody has to say, but only put into use what resonates with us. After all, these are YOUR characters. This is YOUR story. We don’t just toss our kids out the window when they aren’t to others’ liking.

Listening to input is great and helpful, but it shouldn’t be used as a replacement for your own instincts. You cannot make everyone happy. Only yourself.

This discussion brings to mind an article I recently read in the New York Times about actor Zach Braff crowdfunding his latest film, Wish I Was Here. The crowdfunding aspect aside, I loved this quote from Braff about the final cut of his film, which, by the way, received lukewarm reviews by critics: “I can say wholeheartedly that it is a full articulation of what we wanted to say.”

THAT is what I think we should be striving for as novelists. Is this book a full articulation of what I wanted to say?

If it is, and a few beta readers aren’t getting it, the answer may be to get new beta readers rather than a new manuscript.

 

Writing Tip #118

Idea capture is not writing, but it IS the first step to writing. A coaching client of mine, in response to an email I sent to her offering suggestions on a chapter, decided “you are right. I am throwing out most of Chapter 2.”

I was confused. I didn’t think I said she should.

She had submitted a chapter to me that had some issues — with pacing, clarity, information dumping — so I made quite a few notes and suggested she take another look, never thinking she’d decide to start again.

Of course, that is her choice, and she is very brave to do so. Starting over — whether it’s a chapter, several chapters or an entire book — is always a disheartening prospect, whether you are a new or a seasoned writer. The thought of killing those darlings, crafted with such care over hours, days, weeks or years, can be painful. But sometimes it’s necessary.

But not always. As I wrote to my client regarding her decision to scrap the chapter: “That’s totally up to you. There’s a lot of good stuff throughout the chapter that may just have to be fine-tuned. I think what you say…is true: ‘Idea capture is not writing.’ But it IS the first step to writing.”

Remember, there are times when you don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater when a simple siphoning will do.

I told as much to my client. Just so she knows. In the end, the decision will be hers.