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! :)

Can’t Turn It Off

If you’re anything like me, you spend much of your time listening to characters talk inside your head. Particularly when I’m winding down a novel, as I am now, I find that the chatter is constant. When I’m driving or I’m in the shower or I’m just lying in bed, their voices get louder, their circumstances more vivid. I can’t turn it off. (Not that I’d want to, really, but sometimes a girl has to sleep.) Jodi Picoult calls writing “successful schizophrenia.” I would tend to agree, at least about the schizophrenia part, for sure. But successful? For me, it depends on the day. How about you?

Spring Cleaning: It’s for Novels, Too

I’m working with a client on her first novel — something I love to do, watching someone take the plunge and free the words within her soul — and we discussed the importance of letting our stories unfold. I think many first-time writers tend to want to tell the reader everything there is to know about what their characters see, how they feel, and what they did, are doing, and will do. The problem is that when we do all those things, our books can become weighed down. They can become cluttered with too much background info — called an “information dump” — or idle observations or thoughts that have nothing to do with the story you’re trying to tell. With all this extra and extraneous knowledge, readers can become confused, and we authors can lose focus and wind up dancing around what our books are really about. The story and characterization can get lost in the shuffle.

Whether we’re working on our first chapter or our last, we need to always let our characters and events drive the story. If Character A is taking the bus to work, readers don’t need to know about every fast food place she passes, exactly what radio stations she is surfing through, or what she thinks at every moment of her trip. Be selective in what you tell the reader. Think: Is this important? to the plot? to the character? Does this observation convey something that is relevant or interesting? If not, chances are you can probably delete it.

As the weather outside turns delightful (today, it’s picture-perfect in New York), make it your mission to rid your books of all those cluttering details. Closets aren’t the only thing that can use a good spring cleaning.

Be a Badass

We talk a lot on this blog about just doing it — getting that novel written, setting aside time and energy to sit at your computer and peck at that keyboard until your fingers blister. It looks easy — you know, just type words and stuff — but anyone who’s tried to write a book knows that it’s damn tough. Kind of like parenting: You forget how tough it really is until you take the plunge again.

Raising Men Cover FinalRecently, I had the honor of collaborating on a parenting book with former Navy SEAL Eric Davis titled Raising Men: Lessons Navy SEALs Learned from Their Training and Taught to Their Sons (St. Martin’s Press, May 2016). The collaboration was everything I always hope a collaboration to be — fun, interesting, and challenging, a project that pushes my limits as well as my collaborator’s in order to produce the best book we can. And I think we did that. (And to think, we wrote that puppy in 90 days!)

Eric recently wrote about the experience in a SOFREP blog post in which I had the honor of being called a “badass” (does it get any better than being called a badass by a Navy SEAL, the ultimate badass?). But that’s what you have to be in order to write a book. A badass. A person who doesn’t give up when the going gets tough, when the right words are elusive, when the editing never seems to end. As Eric says: Identify your objective; stalk your target, even when in doubt; collect intel; and convert that action and info into mission success. Whether it takes you 90 days or 9 years. (I added that last part.) He did it. I’ve done it. And you can too. Because you’re a badass. As Eric likes to say: Get some.

My Writering Hole

I’ve been hammering out the last third of the sequel to Baby Grand for the past few weeks at Panera Bread (which is one of my favorite places to write, not only for the free WiFi, but for the rockin’ Mediterranean Veggie sandwich) and have found myself gravitating toward one particular two-person booth — one that’s close enough to the ice machine for when I’m thirsty and far enough from the front door that I don’t catch pneumonia. I always sit on the same side, so that I can face the restaurant and people-watch. I consider it my spot (God help anyone who sits there!), my home away from home, the place where the words flow as smoothly as the turkey chili. Do you have a writering hole?

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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