Category: writing advice

Coming Up with a Character: Behind the Scenes on The Perfect Place to Die

We’re coming up on a month to go until THE PERFECT PLACE TO DIE comes out. Yesterday I got my author copies, and the book looks fantastic. The cover really pops, and the illustrations I commissioned turned out really nicely, as well. (They’re floor plans of the infamous Murder Castle.) Seeing the starred review from Booklist on there definitely gives me warm fuzzies. It’s in paperback, not hardcover, so it’ll be gentle on your wallet, as well. Now I need to figure out what to do with 25 copies of the book. I imagine I’ll hold onto them to give them away when I get to that halcyon day when I can actually visit classrooms again . . .

If you want to get a sense of the book beyond the synopsis, Daily Dead just posted an excerpt from the middle of the book. It’s exclusive to their site, so I encourage you to head over there to check it out.

In the meantime, I also wanted to give you something over here focused on the book today. I thought I might talk a bit about the main character. This was the first time I’ve gone back to a female protagonist in a good long while. It was also only the second time I’d ventured into historical fiction. Trying to get into the head of a 17 year-old girl in 1893 was an interesting experience, to say the least, and sticking with a first person point of view made that even more complicated. But I really wanted the first person for a couple of reasons: I feel like it’s a POV I excel in, and I wanted the immediacy you get with first person, especially since she’d be going up against a historical villain who many readers would already recognize.

(Reading over some early reviews, that aspect of the book hasn’t clicked with some readers. I get it: how do you write a suspense book when the audience all knows who the killer is, but the main character doesn’t? In the end, I decided to approach it like James Cameron’s Titanic. Yes, everyone knows the ship is going down. But we don’t know who might survive. Knowing the ship sinks is no reason to hold it against the people for getting on board. They don’t know that. Likewise, Etta (the main character in my book) only knows her sister has disappeared. Plus, she’s living in an era long before the grisly stories of murders and killers would become common place.)

Setting out, I had the premise of the book and that was about it. A teenage girl goes undercover at Murder Castle in Chicago to find out the fate of her missing sister. It’s a great premise, and it had a lot of promise, but there’s a whole ton to dig into before you can make an actual novel out of it. How much of the history was I going to follow? Who was the girl? Was she on to what was happening at the hotel, or didn’t she know. (As I said, I went with “she didn’t know,” because if she knows, then you have to ask how she knows. That implies proof of some sort, or at least her witnessing something first hand. If she’s got something that strong, then it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to have her just go to the police. End of story. Who wants to read that?)

One of the works that really helped me figure out how to approach this was actually Charles Portis’ True Grit. I first encountered the work in the John Wayne adaptation, which was fine, but I loved the Coen adaptation that came out in 2010 enough for me to want to read the source material. I adored the book, and I was blown away by the main character: 14 year-old Mattie Ross. The setting was 1878, but it was close enough to the time period I’d be in to give me some inspiration.

One of my favorite parts is the horse trading scene, hands down:

When I first watched the movie, I was convinced the Coen Bros. must have done the dialogue for the scene, but when I read the book, I realized it was practically all Portis. (I should have remembered the same scene from the Wayne adaptation in 1969, but on the other hand, it isn’t nearly as memorable.)

See what I mean?

With that in mind, it helped bring the rest of my book into focus. I actually began to think of it in terms of a western. Not that I’d be having shoot outs and horse trading, but this was set in the tail end of the Wild West. Just in Chicago, not rolling prairies. I wanted a strong protagonist, because any 17 year-old girl who was going to try and make her way through Chicago in 1893 was going to have to have a really strong backbone and plenty of persistence. But I didn’t want her to be too experienced, because I wanted this to be a challenge for her. I didn’t want her to be an ace detective, or to have extensive knowledge of the ins and outs of the city. I thought it would be better to have her be much more out of place.

At the same time, I was trying to come up with her name. I’m not a huge fan of naming things. It feels like such a commitment. And in this case, I had to have a name that was right for the period. What names were popular back then? When I was writing, I was also doing some family history work on the side, and it suddenly hit me: I could just check out what some of my ancestors from back then were named. In the end I settled on my great-great grandmother, Zurretta Eliza Palmer. (And I used her real life sister’s name (Ruby) as the name of the sister in the books as well.)

As soon as that connection was made, I made another. I could have my main character come from Utah. I was familiar with what life was like there at that time period (generally), and it would certainly make for a good fish-out-of-water background for the main character and her sister. (In the course of writing the actual book, I began to feel progressively guiltier for everything I was putting my great-great grandmother’s namesake through. (Imagine if Stephen King decided to name Wendy Torrance in The Shining after a family member. Yikes.) Nothing about the character was based on her other than the name. Hopefully she understands.

In any case, once I had those pieces in place, the book began to move forward. Knowing where a character starts and where they are later on in the book does a lot to give you a sense of trajectory. I might write about that later, but that’s all the time I have for now. The book comes out August 3rd!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

My Current Take on Plotting a Novel

I’ve had a pretty wide range of approaches to plotting over the years. Back when I was first starting out, I avoided plots almost completely. I’d start off a new book with a general idea of what I wanted it to be about, almost no concept of the main characters at all, and I’d just discovery write my way through the entire novel. I felt like this kept the feeling of spontaneity for me. One of the main motivators I still have while writing is to find out what happens next. You’d think, as the author, I would already know, but I almost never did for the first 8 or 9 books I wrote.

On the one hand, this method got 8 or 9 books written, so it was successful in that measure. On the other, it meant that I had to revise those final books a whole ton to get them in any sort of shape where they were ready for other people to read them. VODNIK went through something like six or seven huge revisions, for example. Not that I mind the revision process (I actually think it’s one of my strengths, taking what’s already there and making it better), but that’s still a very inefficient way to write.

These days, I’ve come around on plots a great deal, to the point that I almost always write a general outline before I dive into the book. I try to have a better idea of who my characters are, what the main conflicts are, and what the shape of the book is going to be before I start the real writing. It’s a very broad description, however. Then, I’ve been treating each chapter like a new discovery writing exercise. I’ll sit down to write the chapter and check my notes to see what was supposed to happen in the chapter. Then I’ll free write about that, trying to figure out where it should happen, what else is going on in the background, who’s there, potential conflicts with what I’ve already written, etc. That usually ends up being about 2,000 words or so, and can take a day or two. Once I’ve got that in place, then I write the chapter itself and move onto the next one.

Is it perfect? No. In my latest book (I’m 54,000 words into THE AXEMAN at the moment), I’ve gotten to the point where what I had plotted out ahead of time no longer feels right to me. (Hard to describe that feeling. I just know that if I were to continue to stick to the plot, then I wouldn’t be happy with it. The characters don’t want to do that. It feels too contrived, etc.) So I’m free writing my way out of it. The good news is that I have a much better idea of the plot and the characters by now, so it’s much easier to know what the general ruleset is that I have to follow. (A plot, in the end, is the solution to a problem, constrained by restrictions put in place by the novel itself. It’s a puzzle: coming up with a satisfactory conclusion taking into account everything that’s come before. Thankfully, you can cheat. You just go back and fix things earlier in the book to make the ending match the beginning . .)

Anyway. That’s my general approach for now, and I’m happy with it. It still lets me feel like I’m discovering new things along the way, and it’s cut down on the number of revisions I (typically) have to make. Any of you writers out there want to share your own approaches? I’m always interested to hear everyone’s current takes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

An Overview of My Current Editing Process

Over the holiday, I took some vacation days (the first vacation days I’d taken since January, believe it or not. It’s been a crazy year). But one thing I couldn’t take a vacation from was the PERFECT PLACE TO DIE copy edits. For those of you who don’t know what copy edits are, allow me to explain.

The editing process for a book goes through many, many stages. There’s the first draft, when it’s just me and my computer, bravely hammering out something that hopefully mostly resembles the story I’d like to tell. These days, I typically start with an outline that’s two or three single spaced pages, painting a basic picture of what the main conflict is and how the protagonist goes about solving it (or succumbing to it). However, during that first draft, I still find out a ton about the book. Who the main character really is. What makes them tick. It’s like when you plan out a vacation and have an agenda of what you want to do, but then when you get to the city, you find it’s rarely just what you expected. You make changes to your plan based on how things go in real life.

These days, I take that first draft and throw it to my writing group. If I had more time, perhaps I’d do a second draft before I send it to them (that might be nicer to them, I suppose . . . ) but they’re hardy readers, and they can take a first draft just fine. I get feedback on what’s working and what’s not. Often, I get even more ideas about things I could do in the book. New directions to explore. Settings. Conflicts. I also reread it myself when I send it to them, and I inevitably see things I don’t like about it as well.

So then I take all that feedback and make a second draft. It’s usually very different from the first. I’ve found out through the process of writing that the story I thought I wanted to tell might not actually be the one I really want to tell. (The end goal is to tell the best story I can.) I get that second draft ready and then send it to my agent. We might have some back and forth drafts that happen then until we get it to the point where we feel like it’s ready to go on submission.

Assuming an editor likes it and buys it, then there’s always the next round of edits, where my editor opines on ways to improve the book even further. Once again, there’s usually some repeated rounds of drafting, with each pass getting easier and easier, as the final draft gets closer.

Once my editor and I agree we’ve got the book in top form, then it’s time for the copy edits. The copy editor looks through the book for grammar errors, factual errors, and inconsistencies. So in THE PERFECT PLACE TO DIE, for example, I found out from the copy editor that the giant Ferris wheel at the Chicago World’s Fair held 60 people per car instead of the 40 that I had put in there. That’s a factual error that’s now correct. An example of an inconsistency would be a spot where Etta (my main character) is sitting down at one point in the book, and then a few short sentences late sits down again. (Kind of hard to sit down twice, you know?)

And then there’s finally the grammar errors. I don’t usually have too many of those, but I definitely have my share. This time through, I discovered that I had a tendency to include a lot of interrupters which, grammatically speaking, needed more commas than I was comfortable with. Specifically, I’d include interrupters right after a conjunction. Technically, they’re supposed to have a comma around the entire interrupter, but I felt like that was just too many commas, and so in the end I decided to stet almost all of those commas. This might make my text more grammatically inconsistent, but . . . I just didn’t have it in me to leave those commas. They read wrong to me for the voice of my character.

In any case, the manuscript at this point is back with my editor, and they’re working on incorporating those last changes. I’m glad to be done with them, because it means I can go back to the first draft of THE AXEMAN, and the circle of life of a manuscript can continue.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Revision Complete!

Yesterday I finished the sixth draft of THE PERFECT PLACE TO DIE. There was much rejoicing. It wasn’t a huge revision in the grand scheme of things, but it came at a very difficult time. Between the kids’ school starting back up, the university getting in gear again, the puppy, and general anxiety, it’s a tough time to force yourself to get creative. But I did, and I’m happy with how it turned out. (Now here’s hoping my editor is also happy . . .)

Of course, I also realize that when I say “wasn’t a huge revision,” it might mean different things to me than it means to you. For me, a revision is something much more than checking for spelling errors and internal consistencies in the book. (Such as, “Does a character’s description remain constant?”) No, an actual revision is going through making real changes to the text itself.

For this revision, there were a number of things I set out to tackle. First, my editor had read through the whole manuscript and had some great suggestions about what needed to happen. The first third of the book dragged too much, so it needed to be slimmed down. (I cut it by almost a fifth.) The climax was over too abruptly. (I extended it by about 40%.) Some of the characters didn’t appear often enough. Some areas needed more tension. In all, I probably trimmed about 7,500 words (out of 75,000) and added back in around the same amount I cut. (The final length did drop by a few hundred words.)

Once I’d read her suggestions, I read through the book myself again, looking for ideas on how to execute her suggested edits, as well as checking for things that still didn’t sit right with me. It’s always super helpful to be reading with a purpose. I get to the point on a book that I can’t take it any farther on my own. I’ve made it as good as I can without feedback. Once I have feedback, I can almost always see what I was missing before.

(It reminds me in many ways of the days when I was still searching for an agent. I’d send off a manuscript, confident it was perfect. I’d get back feedback and suddenly see all its flaws. This isn’t to say that a book always has those flaws. Sometimes I’m trying to do something that appeals to some people and not to others. You can’t just give up on your vision because someone doesn’t think it’s great. Sometimes you need to stick to your guns. A lot of the trick is knowing when to do that.)

Anyway. Glad to have the revision done and be that much closer to sharing it with you all!

And in other good news, Ferris didn’t just keep his cage poop free last night, he went to bed at 10 and didn’t get up until we got him at 6am. That’s a huge win in my book. If we can keep that up, things are looking rosy!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Making It as an Author: Friends, Family, and Social Media Just Won’t Cut It

Like many aspiring authors, I used to think if I could only get a book published, then all my writing woes would be gone. And like every actual published author I’ve ever spoken to, I now know how naive that idea was.

The thing is, we like to think of ourselves as different. Special. We’re the hero in our own lives, and the heroes in the story always end up overcoming the odds. It’s been drilled into us by years of narrative. And so we come up with reasons for why it’ll be different for us. The one I hear most people say is that they have a tremendous support group. An active blog. Tons of friends who will spread the word of their new book far and wide.

I don’t doubt that people have many family and friends. I don’t doubt that they have an active social media presence. But where I do put on my skeptic glasses is when they claim that presence and those connections will translate into success.

To put it bluntly: your book just doesn’t mean nearly as much to everyone else in your life as it does to you.

Don’t get me wrong. There will definitely be people in your life who will go and spread the word about your writing. But they will be few and far between, and sometimes who does do it will surprise you just as much as who doesn’t.

I don’t mean this as a slam to my friends and family. I definitely feel like I’ve been supported in my efforts as an author. I just realize and acknowledge that there’s only so much that support can get you. As an aspiring author, you look at all your friends and family and see each one of them going to give you reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Those hordes of reviews will translate into people taking notice of your book, and BAM! You’re sailing into the sunset.

Folks, I’ve got 795 Facebook friends. MEMORY THIEF has 64 ratings and 30 reviews on Goodreads. VODNIK has 294 ratings and 86 reviews. CAVERN OF BABEL has 9 and 4, respectively. I think anyone can do the math pretty easily. Does this mean my friends don’t love me? Don’t care about the fact that I’ve written novels?

Not at all. It means they haven’t read them, or they don’t use Goodreads, or they didn’t like them, or they haven’t had time to write a review, or any number of things. And that’s okay.

You will naturally hear of exceptions. Hear of authors who made it big because they already had a big following before their book came out. But the fact that you’re hearing about those authors means something: it means that story is an outlier. Something different from the norm.

So what can you do as an author to make a difference? To move the needle?

You can write better books, and you can get better luck.

Yes, you can try to force feed your book to all your friends and family. You can blog like a madman. You can turn into a walking advertisement. And I suppose there’s a chance that might work for one or two people (though imagine all the people they’re alienating and annoying in the process). In the end, people share things with other people that they really loved. That they’re passionate about. And your friends and family love you for sure. But they’re not sharing you. They’re sharing your book.

You are not your book.

So if you want more people to love your writing, write better books. Write books that simply have to be shared. That demand other people go out and tell other people about them. Books that cause complete strangers to become your fans. It’s the one and only thing authors have any real control over: the quality of their writing.

What’s the last book you recommended to a friend or reviewed online? Why did you recommend or review it?

And then there’s luck. You can put yourself out there and hope that luck smiles on you, but all I know about luck is that it only comes to those who have their hat out, ready for it when it does. It’s no guarantee that it will, but you hope for the best.

All while writing the best books you can.

I don’t mean for this post to be depressing or discouraging. But I do think it’s important any aspiring artist has a realistic view of what success will take. You can dump a whole lot of time and effort into building a robust social network, but I think taking all that time and putting it into developing your craft would be a better use of it, unless you like social networks. (Which I do, so . . .)

There’s always the real chance that my personal experience is different than the majority’s, but I’m basing this post not just on my experience, but on the conversations I’ve had with other author friends. So they’re a bit more robust than just a single sample size.

In any case, to those of you about to write, I salute you. It’s a tough business, and not for the faint of heart. Keep at it!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

%d bloggers like this: