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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Point of View & Narrative Voice

When I was in grad school, my long fiction professor used to say that she really, really wanted to teach a course on point of view and narrative voice — topics, she said, students seemed to find troublesome. These days, as I work with students and clients, many of them new writers, I find that she is right.

I never found point of view/narrative voice to be particularly confusing, but I’m thinking the uncertainty has to do with the excitement and enthusiasm that comes with telling a story — authors want to tell readers absolutely everything that everyone in the book is thinking every step along the way.

And you CAN do that. Sometimes. Not all the time. There are some decisions that have to be made about how you, as the author, want to tell your story:

  1. Decide which character’s point of view you want the reader to experience your story through. It may be one character. It may be many. In Baby Grand, I have something like 10 main characters, each of them with several chapters devoted to his or her point of view.
  2. Once you decide on a point of view, STICK TO IT. If a serial killer is your narrator, then the reader should only be experiencing the book through that person. Readers will know what he sees, what he feels, hears, smells, and tastes, as well as his or her thoughts, plans of action, etc. That serial killer will take readers on your journey.

I find that writers have the most problems with #2. They often run into the danger of what’s called “head hopping” — they’ll suddenly switch point of view in the middle of a scene in order to write what’s going on in another character’s head. Here’s an example. In this case, “Janet” should be serving as our narrator for the entire book:

There he was again.

Janet saw the tall, dark stranger at the far end of the frozen yogurt counter, filling his overflowing styrofoam cup with Oreo pieces and chocolate sprinkles. This was the third time he had come into the shop this week! Janet was determined to work up the nerve this time to do more than smile at the guy. She was going to speak.

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Writing Tip #115

Be prepared for stops and starts. A coaching client of mine recently apologized for not getting me pages for Chapter 2 as quickly as she had for Chapter 1. As I told her, no apologies necessary. Chapter Twos are often a lot harder for authors. The first chapter of your book comes easily, as if from a dream (and in many cases it was), but then the next one, and then the next one and next one, can be more difficult to write as you grapple with the best ways to tell your story. I’ve said this here before, but writing a novel is supposed to be hard, it’s supposed to give you pause, make you think, make you doubt yourself, make you want to throw the entire thing in the garbage (an author-friend of mine deleted tens of thousands of words because they weren’t working — you gotta do what you gotta do). As far as I’m concerned, if the writing feels hard, you’re doing something right. As Jimmy Dugan says in A League of Their Own: ” It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” So feel free to stop and rant and bang your head against the wall all you want while you write, just as long as you always start up again.

New Writing Tips Series on YouTube?

For months, I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a series of YouTube videos about writing, similar to the writing tips I have here on Sundays. If you search through YouTube you’ll find all kinds of tips — some really good and some really bad. I thought I would throw my hat into the ring, and, as a test run, I took my very first writing tip from this blog and created a short video for it. Not sure if it works. I’m trying to make these tips helpful, but also personable. Casual and fun, but informative. Here’s the first one. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is this worth pursuing? Or should I stick with type tips?

Writing Tip #66

Never use “that” when referring to a person. This is a common mistake — one that I often find in my own writing during the editing stage. For example:

(wrong) The first person that walked on the moon was Neil Armstrong.
(correct) The first person who walked on the moon was Neil Armstrong.

(wrong) The teacher that she was referring to was Ms. Santorelli.
(correct) The teacher to whom she was referring was Ms. Santorelli.

People: who/whom. Non-people: that/which. Got it?

Okay, quick quiz. Which one is correct? Hmmm…

1. The student was indebted to the weekly writing tips from the author who helped improve her writing.
2. The student was indebted to the weekly writing tips from the author which helped improve her writing.

(Careful, this may be a trick question!)

Writing Tip #36

Just make stuff up. People always ask me where I get ideas for my fiction. And I usually just shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know. Things just come to me.” That’s partly true. I will be driving or showering or watching TV and suddenly have the urge to jot something down. But I do know where those ideas come from. They come from me. Sure, I get inspired by the outside world, from everywhere and anywhere, never knowing what’s going to strike me as interesting or clever. But ultimately that input is filtered through my imagination, my way of deconstructing the world and putting it back together in a new and unique way. That’s the fun of it — to see a man walking down the street and imagining where he’s going or what his name is or what he might do when presented with a challenge. That’s how novels are born.

Research is not a very big part of my novel-writing. At least, not yet. As a journalist (my day job), it’s all about the research, about being factually correct, taking pains to diligently convey what people tell me in interviews, making sure I tell their stories as accurately as possible, making sure I’m “getting it right.” I think that’s why as a novelist I just let my imagination run wild and shy away from topics that require extensive research, anything that goes beyond a quick visit to a few websites.

As a fiction writer, “getting it right” is more about being in tune with yourself, with how you see the world, how you want to see the world. If you can “accurately” portray that vision, put it into words that are not necessarily factual, but relatable and understandable, then you can convince the reader that anything is possible.

As Laura Lippman wrote in her author’s note to I’d Know You Anywhere: “Mainly, I sat in front of my computer and made stuff up. That’s what novelists do.”


Writing Tip #7

Write TK for missing facts. I do it automatically. Without even thinking about it. Which is why I was stopped in my tracks when GalleyCat posted this tip this week (which referenced a similar post at Lifehacker). I realized two things:

1. Not everyone does this, although perhaps they use some variation like “xxx.”

2. My journalism background, which has served me well as a creative writer, got me into the habit.

When you are in the throes of a scene, fingers typing feverishly across your keyboard, don’t let some tiny detail — a fact, a name, a date — throw off your momentum. It is far easier, and more productive, to place a “TK” there and look it up later than take yourself out of your story and begin what could be the beginning of  a long Google search and an array of new browser windows. Plus, the fewer distractions, the better. Especially in my case where distractions (read: noisy, famished children) abound.

A little trivia about the origins of the “TK,” which I had forgotten: Using the combination “T” and “K” is designed to catch the eye, and since there are relatively few words that have “TK” in them, it would not be mistaken as a deliberate part of the text, making it easy for a journalist or copy editor to find a factual hole that needed to be filled — long before there were spellchecks — so that the story doesn’t go off and get published without the necessary info. Same goes for your manuscript: When you’re ready, whether it’s after a chapter, page or even paragraph is written (however long you can hold out), search for “TK” (yay, spellcheck!), and you will find your “holes” and can go back and fill them. And if you still worry those “TKs” might be accidentally overlooked, type “TKTKTKTK” rather than a single “TK,” which I’m apt to do, just to be sure.

To check out all of my writing tips, click here.