Book Review: The Devil’s Star, by Jo Nesbo

Critics have dubbed Jo Nesbo “the Norwegian Stieg Larsson,” which made me want to check out his work. Though his material is stylistically different from Larsson’s work, Nesbo is a highly skilled and inventive crime writer whose expansive stories are filled with a vast panoply of memorable characters.

The Devil’s Star is the third novel featuring tormented Oslo police detective Harry Hole. Hole embodies the classic detective in this genre who is battling the twin demons of alcohol and a shattered personal life. A lesser writer might turn this character into a flat cliche, but Nesbo brings Hole to life as a true original.

The story centers on a serial killer who cuts off a finger of each victim and leaves a tiny red diamond on the body. Hole has run out of chances due to his alcoholism and his dismissal papers are awaiting the signature of the Chief, who has taken a three-week holiday. However, the Oslo police, desperate to nab the killer, enlist Harry’s unique skills since he is still on the payroll.

The case pits Harry against his nemesis, Thomas Waaler, a corrupt detective whom Harry tried unsuccessfully to bring to justice with disastrous results. Now the two enemies must work together to solve the case.

Nesbo gives readers a rich cast of characters, from an eccentric theater director whose wife is one of the victims, to an elderly woman who bore a child with a Nazi officer living in Oslo during World War II. There is a shadowy arms dealer living in Prague with his girlfriend. Nesbo introduces seemingly unrelated plot strands throughout that leave the reader wondering how they relate to the main story, but he ties them up nicely in the climax.

A rock musician, Nesbo peppers the story with references to musical artists as diverse as Duke Ellington, Iggy Pop, and the Violent Femmes. There are also numerous examples of the droll Scandinavian humor that add a hint of levity to the dark story.

When reading this book, the reader gets the feeling he is in the hands of a master. If you are looking for a roiling police procedural with a fascinating cast and stunning plot twists, Nesbo delivers with The Devil’s Star. I can’t wait to read more from him.

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Writing a Synopsis

When I was querying agents, nothing filled me with fear more than drafting a synopsis. Writing a synopsis was more difficult than writing the query letter, at least for me. The challenge was to describe a work of 100,000 words in one to three pages and in a way that will make the agent want to read your novel. Talk about pressure.

Writers who have never tackled a synopsis should know the basics. First, what is a synopsis? A synopsis is a one to three page summary of a novel, which usually accompanies a query letter to an agent. I say usually because the writer must check the agent’s guidelines on the website. Some agents prefer not to receive a synopsis and some will request one upon reading the query letter.

A synopsis is a description of the narrative arc of the story. It should show what happened in the story, what the main character’s goals were, what the conflict was and how it was resolved, and how the main character was changed. It must do so in clear, convincing language. It must avoid generalities and focus on the story. For example, here’s one approach to starting a synopsis:

“This is a story of heartbreak and hope, rejection and renewal, shame and success.”

There’s some nice alliteration there, but the reader has no idea what the story is about.

How about this:

Mary Jones had no idea the man she married was a serial killer–until the night of their honeymoon when he brandished a knife as she lay in bed. Now she must return to her hometown in shame, but first she must figure out a way to escape without losing her life.

Okay, that’s a little over the top, but that’s the idea.

Veteran publisher and editor Jane Friedman said the secret ingredient in a good synopsis is to include the feelings and emotions of the characters. “That means it should not read like a mechanic’s manual to your novel’s plot,” she wrote in this excellent post.

She continues, “You must include story advancement and color,” and she offers this formula: Incident (story advancement) + reaction (color) = decision (story advancement).

Keep in mind that an agent will make a decision on your story based in large part on the strength of your synopsis. If your story doesn’t hang together, the characters don’t work, or if the ending is not satisfying, the agent will take a pass on your work.

Former agent and author Nathan Bransford puts it this way: “A synopsis needs to do two things: 1.) it needs to cover all the major characters and major plot points (including the ending) and, 2) it needs to make the work come alive.” He advises writers to look at book cover copy for good examples of concise description, but to remember the synopsis will always include the ending.

Bransford writes, “You want to strike a balance in the synopsis between covering the plot and characters, but also conveying the spirit and tone of the book and smoothing over gaps between the major plot points you describe.”

Read Nathan Bransford’s post

Here’s another useful post on agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog written by her client, Gordon Carroll.

Do you find writing a synopsis as terrifying as I do?

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What I Learned as a Writer from Derek Jeter

As a diehard New York Yankee fan I have reveled in the tributes to Derek Jeter as he wrapped up his amazing career this September. Reflecting on what other have said about Jeter, it struck me that his achievements and approach to the game of baseball contain valuable lessons for writers.

Maintain a consistent level of productivity. Jeter was never the best player in Major League Baseball (MLB). For most of his 20 years in baseball, he was never even the best player on his team. Yet he leaves the game ranked first on the Yankees in hits with 3,465. That’s right. Derek Jeter had more hits than Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle, just to name a few Yankee Hall of Famers. He stands sixth all time on the MLB list in hits. How did he do it? He was consistently productive. He had eight seasons with 200 or more hits, the gold standard in baseball. The lesson for writers? Be productive. A writer who at the age of 20 (the age Jeter was when he broke into professional baseball) committed to writing a book a year would have 20 books by the time he reached the age of 40. Sure, the first three or four books might not be good, but over time if the writer developed her craft, she would have a vast library of books to her name.

Develop solid work habits. The corollary to maintaining a consistent level of productivity is work habits. Jeter’s devotion to staying in shape and taking extra batting and fielding practice to stay sharp served him well over the years. Similarly writers must adopt the daily writing habit. As Steven Pressfield wrote in his classic book, Turning Pro, one of the traits of a professional is showing up for work every day. But, the daily writing habit is not enough. Writers must commit to lifelong learning through reading craft of fiction books, reading fiction and nonfiction, attending conferences and engaging with other writers. It’s the only way to get better at writing.

Show respect for the game (craft). This may seem a small point, but when Jeter got the game winning hit in his last Yankee Stadium game, his shirt tail came out as he was mobbed by his teammates. Jeter tucked it back in before doing any television interviews. MLB gave umpires permission to be interviewed about Jeter and a veteran umpire said he knew the kid was squared away as as rookie by the way he wore his uniform. Opposing players said nobody had more respect for the game than Jeter. As writers we must respect the craft. Read great writers. Honor the best practitioners of the craft and learn from their example. Conduct yourself with class on social media. Give back to the profession. Help young writers.

Understand your audience. When addressing Yankee fans in public, Jeter always said he didn’t know why they were thanking him. It was he who should be thanking the fans. He was the most fan-centric athlete around. And we writers must never lose sight of our audience. It’s not other writers; its readers. Don’t write for other writers, Write for the readers.

Is there a person you look up to who has taught you valuable lessons as a writer?

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Revision Checklist Revisited

I blogged awhile ago about the importance for writers of developing a revision checklist. Since I am in the throes of revisions to my work-in-progress (WIP), I thought I would revisit the topic.

Keep in mind as you begin to tackle revisions there are two levels: the marco and the micro. Macro issues are the big stuff:

–What is the premise? It is clear to the reader? Is it stated early in the story?

–What is the theme? The theme might not be evident, even to the writer, upon completion of a first draft. Every writer works differently. Some cannot put a word on the page until she works out the theme. Others have to discover the theme as they write. I’ve done it both ways, but knowing the theme when at the start is a clear advantage as it allows the writer to tailor the story to support the theme.

–What is the main character’s internal goal? Is it evident? It is introduced early in the story? Are the obstacles placed in her way plausible? Are the stakes high or will the reader say, “Who Cares?”

–Does the ending pay off the story? Spend a lot of time on the ending and make sure it pays off the premise and is not predictable.

Here are some good questions on revisions posed by author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford. Read the post.

Once the writer has finished the macro level revisions, it’s time to tackle the micro level changes. Writing on the Grub Street blog, author Mary Carroll Moore offered a useful series of five checklists a writer should complete as part of the revision process:

–Continuity check, This list focuses on continuity in terms of locations, characters, and objects. Seemingly minor details can trip up the writer. If the living room is located to the left of the front door on page 30, it cannot be placed to the right on page 200.

–Table of Contents against Chapter headings, page numbers, etc. This is obvious, but important. I like to save this one until the end, when all other changes have been made.

–Beginning and ending of each chapter and the book as a whole. She offers three incredibly helpful tips here. One is this: if a chapter ends with one point of view character, make sure there is an identifier early in the next chapter when that point of view changes,

–Sentence and paragraph length. When writing long-form fiction, it’s easy to get this wrong. Too many long sentences and blocks of text will feel daunting to the reader. Break up sentence and paragraph lengths for readability.

–Final grammar and spell check. Enough said.

Read the full post.

Finally, Fiction Writers’ Mentor offers an excellent editing checklist here.

Self-published writers often shortchange the revision checklist in their eagerness to publish. Reviewing these checklists and others available on the internet can save writers a lot of embarrassment.

What about you? How do you go about revisions?

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Book Review: The Authentic Swing, by Steven Pressfield

Don’t be fooled by the slimness of The Authentic Swing: Notes from the Writing of a First Novel, by Steven Pressfield. While it clocks in at just 143 pages, The Authentic Swing packs the power of a 300-yard drive straight down the fairway in golf.

The author of Turning Pro and The War of Art, Pressfield’s books on writing focus not so much on the craft, but on the mindset and habits of the writer. The Authentic Swing tells the story of Pressfield’s hard knocks journey to publishing success. He was writing spec novels when he decided to pen, The Legend of Bagger Vance: A Novel of Golf and the Game of Life. The novel would eventually become a movie.

Pressfield preaches a tough love message in Turning Pro and The War of Art. Writers must overcome Resistance and develop serious working habits to develop into professionals. The Authentic Swing touches on these themes, but is more philosophical. Consisting of short chapters, the book makes interesting parallels between writing and golf. In golf, every golfer has an Authentic Swing.

“To say that there is no such thing as the Authentic Swing is to build upon the concept of not-learned-but-remembered,” Pressfield wrote. Later, he elaborates on the meaning. “What is the struggle? It’s the quest to connect with one’s true ground,. To become who we really are. It’s the search for our true voice.”

The chapters are brief (one or two pages) and easily digestible. For example, in a chapter entitled, Finding the Theme, he quotes Paddy Chayefski: “As soon as I figure out the theme of my play, I type it out in one line and Scotch-tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes into the play that isn’t on-theme.”

The chapter, How Writing Works, consists entirely of this: “The Muse gives you stuff. That’s how writing works.
The writer’s job is to get out of the way.”

In How Writing Works, Part Two, he wrote: “The trick to writing, or to any other creative endeavor, is that once you start, good things happen. You can’t explain it. You don’t know why.”

And then there is this pearl from the chapter, My Philosophy: “The act of writing, or the pursuit of any art, is that adventure by which the Knower injects himself into the Field. You go in not-knowing and you come out knowing.”

This is the kind of book that should be read twice to capture all the useful nuggets.

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Joan Rivers: Lessons for Artists

As the tributes have poured in for the iconic Joan Rivers, the one word that struck me was “fearless.” Jimmy Fallon used the word to describe Rivers on his Tonight Show tribute.

Joan Rivers was a trailblazer, launching her career in standup comedy in Greenwich Village during a time when there were few female comedians. I recall watching Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller (another important figure who blazed the trail) perform on The Ed Sullivan Show back in the 1960s. Their comedy was different from the standard standup fare. They were edgy, irreverent, and self-deprecating.

Rivers’ breakthrough occurred when she appeared on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, which eventually led to a permanent guest host role. Later, Carson would end their friendship over her decision to host a new latenight show on Fox.

What I remember most about Rivers was her no-holes-barred style. She was fearless. Nothing was off-limits. She made the red carpet a must-see event with her quick, acerbic wit. Her fashion takedowns on the show Fashion Police skewered Hollywood’s biggest stars.

In the span of one month, we have lost two legendary figures in comedy, Rivers and Robin Williams. I recalled in reflecting on Rivers’ life a comment made in relation to Robin Williams. I couldn’t find the reference, so I will paraphrase. Basically the tribute centered on the premise that comedians must overcome fear (that word again). Fear is a natural emotion in the performing arts. What if I’m not good enough? Am I going to humiliate myself in public, in front of an audience? What if my jokes offend people? The tribute basically concluded that comedians and performers must have no fear. Fear is paralyzing. Performers of all types cannot be at their best if they let fear control them.

The same premise applies to writers. Are you afraid your subject matter is too edgy? Are you afraid you are going to offend people? Worse, do you fear you are not good enough? Are you afraid critics are going to publicly savage your work?

Joan Rivers conquered her fears. She was absolutely fearless. Writers can take a valuable lesson from her. RIP, Joan Rivers.

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Writing Process Blog Tour

Author and blogger Kim Bullock has invited me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour. Kim is a historical fiction writer currently working on a novel based on the life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens, and his wife. She blogs at What Women Write.

What am I working on?
My work-in-progress is a family saga tentatively entitled, “A Prayer for Maura.” The story centers on the estranged relationship between Frank O’Malley, the patriarch of a Boston Irish-Catholic family, and his daughter, Maura. They had a falling out over Maura’s decision to have an abortion, which triggered a series of events that culminated in the murder of Betty, Frank’s wife. It is now ten years later. Frank is dying of cancer. Maura never did have the abortion, but couldn’t face her family after her mother’s death. Frank’s dying wish is to reconcile with his daughter and solve the mystery of how his beloved wife was murdered.

How does my work differ from others in my genre?
There are a number of authors who specialize in family sagas. My favorites, my personal Holy Trinity, are Anne Tyler, Alice McDermott and Alice Munro. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t write as well as any of those three esteemed authors. A common thread running through their stories and those of others in the genre (Sue Miller comes to mind) is the unhappiness that sets in for a female as she advances toward middle age trapped in an unsatisfying marriage. As Peggy Lee sang, many of these characters seem to be saying, “Is that all there is to life?” In some cases, these characters act on those feelings and in some of these stories, they decide the grass isn’t always greener or they don’t fully appreciate what they have. So what’s different about my work? In both of my stories, my first novel, Small Change , and my current WIP, the protagonists were much younger—teen-agers when the stories began and on the cusp of middle age when the stories ended. My two main characters, John Sykowski and Maura O’Malley, are defined not only by the choices they make, but by regrets over missed opportunities, feelings not acted on and dreams not pursued. They are very different characters, but they share some common struggles.

Why do I write what I do?
I read many genres and enjoy many types of writers. I like mysteries, literary fiction, Young Adult, psychological thrillers, legal thrillers (Grisham and Turow), and even horror. I am drawn to stories that center on families. There is something about the dynamics of family relationships that makes for powerful fiction. Of all the relationships that humans have in their lives, the family is the most enduring, complicated and often the most difficult. The potential for conflict and tension—the twin staples that move stories forward—are always present in a family situation. Even families that appear content and happy on the outside undoubtedly have tensions simmering somewhere beneath the surface. What I aim to do through my writing is to show (not tell!) that when it comes down to it, when all else in life fails, a person’s family is all she has. And if a person does not appreciate and love his family, he’s lost something fundamental to his being. And I try to convey that in a way that is not preachy. OK, sermon over.

How does my writing process work?
Oh boy, that is a good question. The short answer is I am a pantser at heart who is trying to be more of a plotter. I start with a germ of an idea. In the case of Small Change, I was thinking about a family’s first real summer vacation. That’s not much of a story, though, so I asked a series of “what if” questions. What if this blue collar family from the Chicago suburbs meets another family that is the polar opposite? What if this other family is from rural Iowa and is headed by a minister? What if these families become intertwined over the years through various relationships. And, of course, what if there was a big family secret that even the first-person protagonist did not find out for twenty years? So I started there.

I do a lot of outlining in my head before committing any words to the page. My mental outline usually consists of about a dozen milestone scenes that get the story from the beginning to the end—in this case from 1973 to 2000. The nice thing about a general roadmap is that you can make mid-course corrections. The first draft for me is one of discovery and one of my major ones was that I had drawn the character Rebekka all wrong. I pictured her as the typical wild child of a clergyman, but that didn’t feel right to me. Instead she became the victim of withering verbal attacks by her mother and grandfather, the mother believing Rebekka’s birth had ruined her life and the grandfather believing it had ruined his son’s life. Rebekka became the heroine of the story and her inner strength and fortitude allowed her to rise above a bad childhood. A more dramatic mid-course correction occurred in A Prayer for Maura. Originally Frank O’Malley was the main character, but I had trouble writing scenes from his point of view. The scenes from Maura’s point of view felt more alive and full of energy.

The lesson is that every writer has a different process. If you are a pantser and it works for you, that’s great. If you cannot write without a detailed plot outline, that’s great, too. I’ve become a believer in thinking through major story questions and character development before beginning a draft because it can save a lot of unnecessary revisions later on.

I am attempting to line up some of my author friends to participate in this tour. If you are interested please contact me at cblake55@comcast.net.

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