Monthly Archives: March 2012

Break the Rules at Your Own Risk

A couple of bloggers recently posted essays about the need for writers to be flexible in adhering to some of the rules of the craft of fiction. These posts raise a key question: when is it acceptable for writers to break the rules?

Anna Elliot, in a post on Writer Unboxed, put it this way: “When I’m wrestling with plot, I don’t consciously follow any of the ‘approved’ basic plot structures.

“I suppose I’d have to say that in my own writing I tend to rely on something closer to basic, gut-level instinct. I try to dig deep into what makes my characters unique, what exactly about them made me so intrigued with them, so determined to tell their story. And then…instinct takes over.”

Writers should read every good craft book they can. Some of the best are: Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass, On Writing by Stephen King, Write Away by Elizabeth George, and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

Before they can break the rules, writers must understand them. Writers must know the various types of structures, character development, theme, tone, setting, and plotting.

Which rules should writers consider breaking?

Structure. Writers can select from a number of tried-and-true structures: three-act story, hero’s quest, journey. They’re popular because they work, but these structures may not be appropriate for the story you are writing. Examples of award-winning novels with unusual structures include Jennifer Eagan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Eagan’s novel is a series of loosely related short stories with some common characters and a thematic thread that runs through the work. Niffenegger’s novel features a non-linear narrative and a main character who travels through time. It’s at first a little confusing, but the story quickly grabs the reader.

Characters. Does the narrator always have to be the main character? In William Stryon’s Sophie’s Choice, the narrator, Stingo, is not the character who undergoes the most dramatic change; he is the reliable lens through whom the story of Sophie and Nathan is told. This can work, but it’s a risky strategy.

Narrative point-of-view: Some stories have multiple point-of-view characters. This is usually done because the author needs to tell specific scenes from a specific character’s point-of-view, or when there is a complex plot involving multiple characters. Some stories alternate between first and third person. I’m not a fan of this technique, but it can work.

Genre-crossing. Some stories just don’t fit into one genre. Agents and publishers advise against mixing genres in the same story and for good reason. It’s difficult to market a book that doesn’t fall within a single, defined genre. But your story may not fit into one genre. That shouldn’t stop a writer from writing the story she needs to write.

Which rules should writers never break?

Grammar, sentence structure. Some people are fans of incomplete sentences. Use them sparingly, for dramatic effect. Bad grammar in dialogue is okay, but not in a narrative, unless it’s part of a character’s tone.

Character development. The main character must be complex, interesting and a person for whom the reader can make an emotional connection. Writers should never strive for flat, one-dimensional characters.

Tension and conflict: Boredom and tranquility are never a good substitute for tension and conflict, which are essential for propelling the story forward.

Clarity. As a reader, I don’t want to work to figure out where the story is in terms of time and place. Unclear, muddled writing and overly complicated plots will cause me to put down a book every time.

Anna Elliot’s advises writers to read all genres and “with a critical eye. Try to peel back the story to its bones and understand why the author made the choices they did. Identify what worked for you in the story and what didn’t.”

While writers can bend some rules, they should always be mindful of them. Writers can experiment during the drafting process, but when it comes to the editing process, get those craft books out.

What kind of rules should writers break? What are the rules that should never be broken?

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Book Review: “The Last Will of Moira Leahy,” by Therese Walsh

Identical twins share a special bond. Therese Walsh’s stirring debut novel, “The Last Will of Moira Leahy,” explores the bonds that hold twins together and the painful consequences when those ties are broken.

The story begins when Maeve, a language professor in her mid-20’s, impulsively bids on a keris, a Javanese dagger, at an auction house. She wins the keris and weird things begin to happen, which unlock memories of the loss of her twin sister, Moira, nine years earlier.

Walsh alternates between Maeve’s first-person point-of view in the present and scenes from the past, told from Moira’s third-person viewpoint. Growing up in the coastal Maine community of Castine, Moira is overshadowed by her twin sister, Maeve, a child prodigy and a gifted saxophone player.  Their bond is shattered when they both become interested in the same boy, their neighbor Ian. Moira’s quest for Ian ends tragically, and Maeve, torn apart by grief, abandons her promising musical career and retreats to a safer harbor.

The search for the meaning behind the keris leads Maeve to Rome, where she connects with Noel, her close friend who is trying to unravel mysteries of his own family. The intrigue deepens when Maeve attempts to contact the man in Rome who can unlock the mysteries behind the keris, only to be thwarted by his sinister half-brother.

Meanwhile, Walsh skillfully weaves in the tragic story of the loss of Maeve’s twin through the chapters entitled, Out of Time. As both narratives build to a climax, Maeve’s inner turmoil and search for resolution with her twin sister come together in a scene that packs tremendous emotional power.

This book is difficult to pigeonhole into a genre and that’s part of its appeal. Walsh draws on elements of mystery, romance, historical fiction and the paranormal and beautifully blends these into a suspenseful and poignant story of love, loss, and redemption. It takes a gifted writer to make these diverse elements work, while building the suspense in a way that is authentic. Walsh is such a writer and I can’t wait to read more from her.

Walsh is the co-founder with Kathleen Bolton of the popular fiction-writing blog, Writer Unboxed.

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What Makes a Good Book Cover-Part II

Since I published my novel, Small Change, through Amazon.com I have received a lot of compliments from my writer friends on the cover design. The praise is misplaced for I had little to do with the cover design. I was fortunate to work with a friend who is a talented designer, Greg Reese of West Hartford, Connecticut, who was really the brains behind the cover.

Here was the process. Greg and I had lunch and I explained what the book was about. We reviewed some of my ideas for what I wanted the cover to convey. Since many of the dramatic scenes in the story took place at a lakeside resort, I wanted to feature the lake on the cover. There was a dock located between the cottages of the two families in the novel, the Sykowskis and the Crandales. My original concept was to have the main character, John Sykowski, sitting on the dock looking out at the lake, with his friend, Rebekka Crandale, standing behind him with her back to him. It would be dusk and the figures would be shadowy. This reflects a key moment in the story when Rebekka asks John if he loves her and John tells her that he does not.

Greg and I discussed typography and art work. One basic question Greg asked was whether I envisioned a drawing or a photograph or some other type of image. After discussing it, we agreed a photograph would work best. Greg asked me to send him three book covers that were similar in concept to what we had in mind. I did a quick Google search and sent Greg three images.

Based on our discussion, Greg came up with nine basic designs. We narrowed it down to two, but we needed a specific photograph to make them work. I called my son-in-law, Brian Marzi, a budding artist who enjoys photography. Brian took more than 200 photographs at a lake in Ohio, Twin Lakes, located in the Twin Lakes section of Kent, Ohio. He brought one of his friends who looked close to the age John would have been to pose for pictures on the dock.

As soon as we saw the photograph of the young man sitting on the dock with his back to the camera, looking out at the lake, we knew we had the shot we wanted. It spoke to so many elements in the story: the water representing surface truths but hiding secrets, the dock as both a unifying and dividing line, the young man who is gazing out at his future, the trees and the clouds representing the horizon of his life.

Our only remaining issue was the typography. One design had the title in white with a black border. It was stark and basic, reflecting the tone of the work, but the other design, with the title in red, drew the reader in. We ultimately decided on the red lettering with my name in black on the next line.

The image displays well on the Amazon page, which is a must for e-book covers.

So here are some key lessons learned:

  • Use a professional graphic designer.
  • Meet with your designer and explain the concept and your vision.
  • Make sure you and your designer are on the same page in terms of the basic cover concept.
  • Be frank with your designer. If a design doesn’t work for you, speak up. Your designer will appreciate the feedback.
  • Ask for several options working within the basic design. For me, there was a cover design I didn’t choose that I really liked, but everyone else thought the design we selected was superior (and they were right).
  • Just as you cannot hurry the creative writing process, don’t rush the design process. Design professionals know what they are doing. Don’t put undue pressure on them.
  • As is the case with editing, ultimately you are the boss—not that this was ever an issue for me since we were totally in synch.

An attractive book cover is essential for a self-published author. Be sure to put in the effort to ensure your book cover attracts readers.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

What Makes a Good Book Cover-Part I

Writers can spend years working on a novel, sharpening and polishing the manuscript until it’s ready for publication. Shouldn’t writers spend at least something close to that kind of effort on the cover design for their book?

This isn’t an issue for traditionally published authors. Unless you are a superstar author the publisher generally determines the cover art for your book. For self-published authors, however, the cover design is crucial. It’s as important, if not more so, than the book itself. Why? Your friends and writing colleagues will buy your book based on their familiarity with your work, but consumers who don’t know you are going to be drawn to or repelled from what they see on your book page on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

So what makes a good book cover? A good book cover should have:

Visual Integrity. I was going to write “visual attractiveness,” but that’s subjective. What one person might find attractive, another person might view as ugly. Visual integrity means all of the elements of the design work together to evoke an image in the mind of the reader. Think of your book cover as a marketing piece for your work. It is the number one marketing piece for your book. From a non-designer’s perspective, what I don’t like in any marketing piece is clutter. A book cover should not be so busy the reader’s eye doesn’t know where to go.

Elements that reflect the tone and emotion of the book. The cover art should express what the book is all about. Look at the covers of a romance and a mystery novel. You will see how the different elements support and reflect the genre. A reader would not confuse the covers of a Carl Hiaasen novel and an Anne Tyler novel. One screams out “over-the-top” funny, while the other is quiet and introspective.

Readability. This means selecting fonts and typography that are clean and readable. Stay away from fonts that are difficult on the eyes. If the reader can’t make out the book title at a quick glance, you could lose a sale. It’s the same with colors. Choose colors carefully. Bright colors have a certain connotation to the reader. You wouldn’t buy a novel with a dark theme if the colors on the cover were bright pink and yellow. This also means that the type size should be big enough so a reader can clearly see the book title and author’s name at a quick glance.

Compelling images. Whether it’s a murder weapon or drops of blood –essential for a mystery book cover – or a spaceship with aliens, the images should draw the reader in. The reader remembers powerful images on a book cover.

An emotional appeal to the reader. This is one of those things that hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.

Distinctiveness. Your cover must stand out from the crowd. A book with a religious theme could have a cross or a crucifix on the cover, but it’s been done a thousand times before. Unless the cross is displayed in an unusual fashion, it’s not going to stand out.

Should a self-published author design her own cover? My answer is a resounding, “No.” Unless you have no other option, find a graphic designer. You wouldn’t perform brain surgery without a medical degree and years of training. Why do you think you can design a book cover? If you can’t afford a designer, barter or try to get a young designer who is looking for work to design your cover.

For more detailed information on book cover designs read this excellent post by Jeff Kleinman from Folio Literary Management site:

Here’s another helpful discussion in this post by Andrew Pantoja

There’s also a site called 99Designs, a crowd-sourced design site where the author names his price and graphic artists submit designs in a contest with the author selecting the winner. I cannot vouch for or endorse this site because I’ve never used it, but the point is there are low-cost resources out there for self-published authors.

So how did I come up with the design for my first novel, Small Change? In my next post, I will describe the process I used.

What do you like in a book cover? What are some of your favorite book covers?

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Book Review: “Tender Graces,” by Kathryn Magendie

Kathryn Magendie’s novel, Tender Graces, reminds me of that famous line from the Sting song, “If you love somebody, set them free.”

Tender Graces is more than a story of the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters. It is the story of a young girl named Virginia Kate, who overcomes great obstacles to discover who she is. Above all it is a story that teaches valuable lessons about what constitutes a family.

The presence of ghosts is a recurring theme as almost all of the characters are haunted by the past. In some cases, the ghosts represent the pain of a wrenching decision. In other cases, the ghosts are actions the characters cannot take back.

Spanning an entire generation, Tender Graces is set in the mountains of West Virginia and the muggy and wet terrain of Louisiana. The story begins with the courtship and quick marriage of Virginia Kate’s mother, Katie Ivene Holm, to Frederick Carey, a Shakespeare-quoting traveling salesman. Katie’s mom, Grandma Faith, sees Frederick as the best hope for her daughter to escape a future of poverty and abuse, so she sets her free. Life with Frederick isn’t much better, though. His drinking and womanizing cause Katie to hit the bottle herself. Three children come in rapid succession: Micha, Virginia Kate, and Andy.

Magendie skillfully uses images such as the ice hitting the glass, shouting behind closed doors, and Virginia Kate taking refuge in the closet to dramatize the pain the children endure. The couple divorces and Frederick moves to Texas and then to Louisiana, where he marries Rebekha. When Virginia Kate first meets Rebekha, she wants nothing to do with her. Eventually, Frederick takes all three children, one by one, from his ex-wife, whose life continues on a downward spiral.

Rebekha’s relationship with Virginia Kate provides some of the more heartwarming moments in the novel. Virginia Kate comes to see Rebekha as a mother figure and Rebekha gives her love unconditionally to all three children. When Virginia Kate returns to West Virginia to nurse her mother back to health after a serious car accident, her mother sends her away again. It is not an act of rejection, but an act of love. Like her mother before her, Katie Ivene knows she must set her daughter free.

Magendie’s prose has a simple elegance. She uses imagery and setting to underscore the themes of the story. This is a touching family saga that I highly recommend.

Kathryn Magendie is based in Western North Carolina. She is the publishing editor of The Rose & Thorn.  Her published novels are: The Graces Sagas (Tender Graces – April 2009 & Secret Graces – April 2010), and Sweetie – November 2010. A novella-length work “Petey” in the anthology “The Firefly Dance” was released Summer 2011. The final in the Graces Saga Trilogy, “Family Graces” will be released spring 2012.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Think Big. Write Small.

My alma mater, the University of Rhode Island, launched a branding campaign a few years ago that featured the tagline, “Think Big. We Do.” When it comes to fiction writing, the “think big” approach has great appeal, but it’s a double-edged sword. Writers want to write about big things: universal themes, stakes that matter, larger-than-life characters, wars, planets colliding, magic.

However, I believe some writers, especially novices, would do well to “think small.” Huh? You might be thinking I’ve lost my mind. Why should you as a writer limit yourself when the world is your canvass?

Let me share a cautionary tale. When I launched my “starter novel” in 1997, I yearned to write a big novel, grand in scope and concept. It was a story about baseball and politics, two of my passions. This story had everything: murder, kidnapping, extortion, political machinations. And it was terrible. I didn’t know enough about the craft. I got caught up in the giddiness of telling this big, complicated story. I figured if I piled on enough plot twists, mayhem and upheaval, I would have a runaway bestseller on my hands. It doesn’t work that way. I forgot about some important fundamentals, like story structure, character development, and theme. It was one 300-page, far-flung mess that will never see the light of day.

My second attempt at a novel was equally futile, though I had the wisdom to pull the plug a lot sooner. It was a political novel that I abandoned after 150 pages when I read Joe Klein’s novel, The Running Mate. It hit me then that Klein’s novel was exactly the kind of story I was trying to write, except that I lacked his skill, experience and knowledge.

At that point, I took stock. I didn’t even think about writing a novel for three years. I wrote some short stories and took part in my critique group. The fire to write a novel still burned in me, though. So I asked myself some hard questions:

Why did my first two novels fail?

Was it the subject matter? The story? The characters?

Was I just not that good?

These led to a tough self-diagnosis and then it hit me. These were the wrong questions. What I needed to figure out was this:

What do I really want to write about?

In pondering that question, I thought about what I liked to read and why. At the time I was reading Alice McDermott’s masterpiece, Charming Billy. I had read nearly every Anne Tyler novel and most of Alice Munro’s work. And that’s when it hit me. I knew what I wanted to write about: families in crisis. I didn’t write anything right away, but I waited for an idea to take hold. Two years later, I came up with the idea for Small Change. It was, pardon the pun, a small idea and a small story. I wanted to write about one family and their struggle to keep from falling apart. But I soon discovered I needed a second family that was the opposite of that family. And the two families would become connected in some way and there would be family secrets and the bonds would fray. For the first time, I was writing with passion. There are no spaceships or wizards or battles or vampires in this story. No hocus pocus. No kidnappings or murders. And it’s the best story I’ve ever written.

 

 

 

 

 

12 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

I’d Like My Stakes Well Done, Please

One of the reasons Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy became such a runaway international bestseller was his uncanny ability to raise the stakes throughout the three-book series. In an interview published in the November/December 2010 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, bestselling author Ken Follett put it this way: “There’s a rule of thumb that says every four to six pages the story should turn. If you leave it longer than that, people start to get bored. If it’s shorter than that, it’s too frenetic.” Larsson did a masterful job of that. Pick up any of the three books and every four or five pages, something happens that quickens the reader’s heartbeat.

Stakes don’t have to be large. The fate of the world doesn’t have to hinge on every plot twist. Stakes do have to create tension. They have to matter to the reader. Agent Donald Maass, in another Writer’s Digest article, talked about three types of stakes: personal, ultimate and public. The type of stakes an author chooses to employ will depend on the genre. In a mystery, the stakes are obvious. Someone has committed a crime and it’s up to the main character to solve it. In a spy thriller, the fate of the world might rest with a character who must stop the bad guys from destroying the planet. In a family saga, the stakes are more personal, often involving an inner conflict or a battle of wills between two characters.

Here are some common mistakes a writer might make in developing stakes:

  • A relationship between two characters develops too fast, sucking all the tension and uncertainty out of the story. This could work in a romance when the main character wins the heart of her man, and then loses him. She then embarks on a quest to get him back, but a quick resolution will wreck the suspense.
  • The initial stakes are too high, leaving the writer with nowhere to go. If the main character is involved in a fierce firefight on page one and one thousand people die in the first chapter, how does the writer top that? A rising body count won’t do it.
  • Surprise twists that the writer fails to  tie to the central conflict or to the story as a whole. Surprises are an essential element in building suspense, but the consequences that arise out of the surprise twist must be consistent with the story.
  • Giving away too much information too soon. The best writers hold something back. They don’t drop a giant info dump that tells the reader everything she needs to know about the protagonist on page 2 of the story. They parse information, often withholding important details until just the right moment.
  • Relentless action. The reader needs to take a breath. Watch a suspenseful movie. There’s always a pause, a lull in the action, because the viewer cannot process nonstop action.

One of the best techniques for raising the stakes is to put the main character through a series of ever-more-difficult challenges. The character must summon an inner strength she never knew she had to overcome these stakes. When the stakes are significant and the main character struggles heroically or must make a difficult choice, the reader feels satisfaction.

Think of stakes as the engine that drives your story. When you feel your story lagging, raise the stakes.

What are the best examples of novels where the author skillfully raises the stakes?

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized