Monthly Archives: April 2012

Author Spotlight: Richard Ford

It’s rare when a reader comes across a protagonist who seems to speak directly to him. For me, Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, the main character of his trilogy of novels, was such a character. Perhaps it’s because Frank was a middle-aged male who did a lot of thinking about the world, his connections to the people in it, his emotional state, and the right way to live.

Ford is best known for his three novels that feature Bascombe: The Sportswriter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land. Bascombe is the embodiment of the rootless, restless, middle-aged male—a character who evokes those of John Updike (Rabbit Angstrom from the Rabbit series), Saul Bellow (Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift) and Phillip Roth (American Pastoral).

In The Sportswriter, Bascombe’s marriage falls apart after the death of his son, one of three children of he and his wife, Anne, referred to as X in the first novel. The story takes place over Thanksgiving weekend. Frank is visiting the family of the woman he is dating and has arranged an interview with a former Detroit Lions football player who was paralyzed during a game—an interview that is as disastrous as it is hilarious. Much of the novel—and the sequels—take place in Bascombe’s head. He is a man who seems to crave the security of a marriage and family, and yet he finds himself out on his own, trying in his own way to maintain some semblance of a relationship with his ex-wife, son and daughter.

Imbued with an intense introspective quality, Frank looks for meaning in the ordinary routines of daily life. Having suffered the unimaginable horror of losing a son and a marriage, Frank avoids emotional entanglements. After writing an acclaimed first novel, Frank finds he cannot write fiction and becomes a sportswriter. Ford wrote fiction before turning to a career as a sportswriter for the short-lived Inside Sports magazine.

In Independence Day, Frank tries to connect with his emotionally fragile son, Paul, by taking him on a Fourth of July weekend tour of the basketball and baseball Halls of Fame, a trip that starts with the best intentions and ends in utter disaster. A related subplot focuses on Frank’s new career as a real estate agent, a well-chosen profession as it underscores how people’s hopes and dreams are often bound up in the homes they buy.

The Lay of the Land finds Frank somewhat more at peace with himself. Still selling real estate, Frank is in a committed relationship and he is attempting to make up for lost time with his daughter, Clarice, who we learn is a lesbian. In the third book, Frank seems to have learned how to get over the things he has lost in his life. As Ford once said, “The art of living your life has a lot to do with getting over loss. The less the past haunts you, the better.” With Frank no doubt in his mind, Ford observed, “Life is the thing that happens…a sort of acceptance that is not incompatible with aspiration, or self-knowledge, or joy. Frank wants to fail less often, even at the expense of trying less hard, and that seems to me a philosophy of life that a person could actually live.”

Ford has a singular devotion to his craft. He once said, ”A lot of people could be novelists,” he says, “‘if they were willing to devote their lives to their own responses to things.”

A native of Mississippi, Ford received his Masters of Fine Arts from the University of California, Irvine, where one of his professors was E.L. Doctorow. His first published novel was A Piece of My Heart, which he followed with The Ultimate Good Luck.

Ford’s newest novel, Canada, will be published in June. I can’t wait to read it.





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Bad First Drafts-Not Just for Beginners

In her classic craft of fiction book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott devoted an entire chapter to bad first drafts. She used a more colorful term, but her overriding message was almost all first drafts are bad. This reminded me of a quote I came across on Karen Miller’s blog from Terry Pratchett that was so on target I wrote it down: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Whether new or experienced, most writers find the first draft a daunting task. Writers are still discovering their story and yet they expect too much from the first draft. When the story isn’t flowing the way it should, writers get discouraged. Experienced writers work through this, but novice writers should mind Anne Lamott’s advice. The truth is first drafts don’t have to be great, or even good. First drafts just have to be finished. Even if the writer believes his first draft is the worst piece of fiction ever written, there’s a story somewhere amid those 80,000 words. There are characters waiting to be filled out and completed. The writer’s job is to find the story and the characters, polish them and refine them.

The first draft is easier when the writer approaches it with an uninhibited mindset. As Lamott put it, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

Like many writers, I constantly fight the urge to edit my first draft. I’m one of those writers who has to read what he wrote in the previous session before continuing with the first draft. This does two things: it gets me into the flow of the story and I also discover some glaring error that I correct. However, we must recognize that too much editing and obsessing over scenes already written can derail the writer.

Here’s another quote from Lamott that I should tape to my laptop: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”

When you finish your first draft, put it aside for at least four weeks. When you return to it, some of the questions to ask are:

  • What is the essence of the story? Is the premise fully developed? Is the theme evident?
  • What is the main character’s strongest trait? Biggest weakness? Is it evident to the reader? Does the main character grow or change?
  • What is the central conflict in the story and has the writer maximized it to its full potential?
  • Is there enough tension throughout to sustain interest in the story?
  • What is the best scene? What is the worst scene? Can it be cut?
  • Who is the weakest character? Can this character be cut without harming the story?

Here are some other perspectives on first drafts:

Karen Miller

Harriet Smart

Learn to Write Fiction

Writer Unboxed-Anne Greenwood Brown

Write to Done

Writer’s Digest

What’s your view on first drafts? Do you labor over them or rush to get them done?




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Do Book Sales Mean Anything?

Authors should care about their book sales. That’s obvious. Strong sales provide income to authors and validation for the work. The work must have value if so many people buy a writer’s books. But is the converse true as well? Does the work have no value if few people buy it? Not necessarily.

When I published my first novel, Small Change, in February through the Kindle Direct Publishing program, my expectations for sales were low. I was an unknown author with a blog, but no real platform. The redoubtable Jane Friedman, in an article in Writers Digest, advised writers not to self-publish their work until they had built a significant market for it. That makes perfect sense, but a writer could only wait so long. How long should a writer continue to dispense his alleged expertise and advice without delivering the goods? So I launched my novel before I built my market, even though I believed Jane Friedman’s advice was right on target.

Why did I do it? Writers must take the long view. Their first book may not sell. It probably won’t sell. Their second and third books may not sell, either. What’s most important in the early stages of a writer’s career is to produce the best work they can. The rest is in the readers’ hands, which begs the original question: do sales mean anything? For me, what was more important than the sales of my first novel was the feedback from readers—and not just friends and members of my critique group (though, to their credit, my critique group members are brutally honest and not afraid to tell the truth). Here’s what I want to know: does the average reader, who knows nothing about me as a writer, like my work? Why does the reader like my work? What are the strengths and weaknesses of my work?

If you buy the argument that sales don’t matter for the first-time author, then what should the writer expect? Here are a few suggestions. A writer’s first novel should:

  • Create awareness. Bob Mayer has blogged about the importance for new authors of creating awareness as an essential first step. A friend of mine enrolled his novel in the KDP Select program, in which Amazon can manipulate the price. During a free promotion day, readers downloaded 5,000 copies of his book. Though he didn’t realize any income, what an audience he has built. If half of those people pay $2.99 for his second novel, that’s a significant amount of income.
  • Build loyalty. When a reader has a positive experience with an author’s work, she will want to read the next book. And the writer needs to make sure the second book is much better than the first one.
  • Gain insight into your audience. Who bought your book? What else do they read? Engage in a dialogue with your readers. Get them to come to your blog.
  • Obtain feedback. Those reader reviews posted on Amazon are like gold. Read them. Take them to heart—not the mean-spirited, nasty ones, but the ones offering constructive advice. Learn from those reviews.

That adage, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” is the way I look at the writer’s career. Don’t get hung up on sales, especially if you are an unknown author who has just self-published a first novel. Do the work it will take to create awareness, build brand loyalty, and gain insights to help with your future work.

How important are book sales? Would you sacrifice sales to build a following?



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Book Review: “Defending Jacob,” by William Landay

William Landay’s bestselling novel, “Defending Jacob,” is both a legal thriller and a searing portrayal of a family’s anguish as it endures a crisis alone, abandoned by friends and neighbors.

The main character, Andy Barber, is the first assistant district attorney in a tony Boston suburb. He adores his wife, Laurie, and their son, Jacob. He is at the top of his game professionally. As the senior staff attorney reporting to the elected District Attorney, Barber gets his pick of the high-profile cases to prosecute.

When a student is found dead in a leafy park near the high school, Barber takes the case. But this is no ordinary murder. Andy Barber’s comfortable world is turned upside down when Jacob is arrested for the murder of classmate Ben Rifkin.

Landay explores these central questions: do parents really know their children, how far will they go to protect their children, and what happens to the fragile family dynamic when their beliefs about the basic goodness of their children are challenged? He also explores the variables that shape our children, from nurture versus nature to genetic behavioral predispositions.

The 14-year-old Jacob is in many ways a typical teen-ager. He is a puzzle to his parents, an unpopular student in school, and an active user of social media. He has few friends and some classmates view him as weird. He is guarded in his communications with his parents, revealing little about his life.

Andy Barber has a secret of his own. His father and grandfather were murderers. After Jacob’s arrest, he finally reveals his secret to Laurie, fearing the prosecution will use it to demonstrate the existence of a “murder gene” in his son’s DNA.

When the evidence begins to point toward Jacob, the District Attorney takes Andy Barber off the case and he is suspended with pay. Classmates tell police Jacob had a knife and a possible motive, since Ben Rifkin bullied him. And then Jacob’s fingerprint is found on the dead boy’s jacket.

The scenes where the Barbers meet with their attorney and a psychologist hired by the defense are among the most interesting in the book. During these meetings the Barbers learn some harsh, uncomfortable truths about their son. Landay, a former prosecutor, gives the reader an insider’s glimpse of the strategies and tactics of both the prosecution and defense and adds deft insights into the courts and the legal system.

As the trial progresses to its conclusion, a surprising plot twists jar the reader, but it’s the brilliant and shocking ending to this story that leaves the reader both satisfied and unsettled.

Readers who like Scott Turow will enjoy this story, though I found Landay’s characters not as complex as the characters that grace Turow’s novels. Still, this is a suspenseful story and a worthwhile read.

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Book Review: “Before I Go to Sleep,” by S.J. Watson

Our memories define us and connect us emotionally to our friends and loved ones. They form the basis for our past and present, but memory can be a tricky thing.

S.J. Watson’s debut novel, “Before I Go to Sleep,” is a psychological thriller that centers on a middle-aged woman in London. Christine Lucas suffers a traumatic brain injury that leaves her unable to retain long-term memories for more than 24 hours. Each day, Christine’s memories of her life are wiped clean. She awakens in bed next to a man who claims he is her husband, but she has no memory of him or her own life. Each day, her husband, Ben, must re-orient Christine to who she is and the life they have shared. He posts photos in the bathroom and writes helpful messages on a white board.

Christine struggles each day to piece together her life. With the help of a neuropsychologist, Doctor Ed Nash, who mysteriously contacts her, she begins to write in a journal each day. Dr. Nash tells her to read the journal each day to remember key facts about her life. After a time, she discovers her husband is withholding important facts about her life from her. She learns she published a novel and she bore a son, information her husband has withheld from her. She begins not to trust her husband.

The journal is a clever device that allows Watson to slowly unfold a complex, multi-layered plot and parse out to the reader the puzzle pieces of Christine’s life. When the journal suddenly ends seven days short of the point where the story begins, Christine and the reader are left to wonder what happened during that time.

The pacing of the story is one of its strengths. It starts slowly as Watson brings the reader into Christine’s frighteningly confusing head. As the story progresses, the tension and suspense build and the reader begins to doubt those who claim to love Christine. At one point, the reader is left to wonder who can be trusted.  Even the saintly Dr. Nash, who is painted as a model of altruism, becomes suspect in the reader’s mind. Is he working for Ben? Why is Ben lying to Christine about their life together?

One of the most intriguing aspects of this novel is Christine’s internal struggle. At one point, her only desire is to feel normal. “To live like everybody else, with experience building on experience, each day shaping the next.” She thinks about growing old with no memories to hold onto, no accumulated wisdom to pass along. “What are we, if not an accumulation of our memories?”

At another point later on, Christine feels she is going mad. “I wish I knew one thing for certain. One single thing that I have not had to be told, about which I do not need to be reminded.”

After reading her journal one day, she reflects on the fragile state of a life without clear memories. “My life, I thought, is built on quicksand. It shifts from one day to the next…I am desperate for solid ground…” And that is the point here. Our memories, though sometimes faulty and self-serving, define who we are and how we relate to the people around us.

Altered memory can serve as a cheap plot device or an intriguing technique for building suspense, most notably in movies like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the more recent Inception. It takes skill for a writer to use this device effectively. Watson draws on his experience as an audiologist for the National Health Service in Great Britain to create a chilling scenario. Watson, who lives in London, wrote the novel after he was accepted into the first Faber Academy Writing a Novel course.

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How to Come Up with a Book Title

The New York Daily News has some of the greatest headline writers in the business. Who could forget the classic headline the Daily News ran after President Ford rejected New York City’s request for federal aid to stave off bankruptcy: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” A great headline is like a great book title: memorable, dramatic, and punchy. Book titles, though, have to do more than newspaper headlines.

Creating a great book title won’t ensure success, but without one, a writer’s chances of failure increase. This is especially true for self-published authors. Traditionally published authors generally don’t get to choose the title or cover art for their books. For self-published authors, there’s a lot riding on both the cover and the title. We discussed book covers in two previous posts.

What makes a good book title? Literary Agent Rachelle Gardner wrote an excellent post on the process for creating a book cover. Here’s the post.

A book title must:

  • Grab the reader
  • Appeal to the reader on an emotional level
  • Create an expectation about the story.
  • Match the tone of the book.
  • Be brief and punchy.
  • Be memorable.

Your book title is your sales pitch. It’s your business card. It’s what readers see first.

So how do you come up with a great book title? Rachelle Gardner’s method is sound. Here are a few more tips:

  • Brainstorm. Let your imagination run wild. Write down key words or phrases that pop into your mind.
  • Focus on a key element of the story and write down words or phrases associated with it.
  • Think about your main character. What is it about her that strikes you? Think of her defining characteristic. Compare her to a symbol.

I cannot start writing my first draft until I at least have a working title for my work-in-progress. Once I come up with a working title, I revisit it after I have completed my first draft. At this point, the theme is more apparent and the title should relate to the theme.

For my first novel, Small Change was the working title, based on a remark that the main character’s mother made, which was nearly cut from the final draft. It was one of three titles I considered. I also weighed The Secret Keepers, but a quick Google search indicated there was a recent novel by that name and I didn’t want to do that to another writer. Plus, the term was used in the Harry Potter series and I didn’t want to create a false expectation about my book. The third option, which I seriously considered, was calling it, Reason to Believe, after the Tim Hardin song popularized by Rod Stewart. The song plays a key role in the story as the main character, John, and his first love, Jennifer, adopt it as their own.

I was stuck so I “test marketed” the various titles and Small Change came up the winner, hands down.

Let’s look at a popular example of a title that works in several ways: Gone With the Wind. What is it that was “gone with the wind” in Margaret Mitchell’s 1939 classic? There are the obvious things: slavery, the Old South, a nation divided, the genteel upper class. What else was gone with the wind? Tara as Scarlett O’Hara knew it, Rhett Butler, Bonnie (their little girl), her one true friend, Melanie Wilkes, a romantic view of the world, and Scarlett’s world. One can see on how many levels the book title works.

Your book title is crucial to your success. Spend as much time on it as is necessary.

How do you approach the task of coming up with a book title?



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Guilty Pleasure: The Work of Carl Hiaasen

Writers read books for a variety of reasons. They seek literary value, a good story, insight into the human condition, memorable characters, and the discovery of greater truths. I suspect, however, that every writer has his guilty pleasures. I’ve got mine.

During the early 1980s, I was in the hospital for abdominal surgery. My brother, while studying for his master’s degree at the University of Florida, discovered the work of Carl Hiaasen. My brother brought me Hiaasen’s debut novel, Tourist Season, to read while I recuperated. I laughed so hard I nearly popped my stitches. I was hooked.

Hiaasen is more than a guilty pleasure, though. He’s no pulp fiction writer. Hiaasen is one of the brilliant satirists of our time, a modern-day Mark Twain. Dubbed the Conscience of the Sunshine State, Hiaasen has written twelve novels, including Skin Tight, Double Whammy, Strip Tease, Sick Puppy, Native Tongue, and his most recent, the hilarious Star Island. The novel centers on a Britney Spears-type rock star who hires a double to stand in for her during her regular visits to rehab. He even collaborated with a cadre of other South Florida writers on a shared novel called Naked Came the Manatee, another treasure.

I’ve read all of Hiaasen’s novels, even his children’s books. He writes about a side of the Sunshine State you don’t see in the slick tourism ads. Hiaasen’s Florida is a crazy menagerie of sleazy developers, corrupt politicians, clueless tourists, snow bird retirees, garden-variety sociopaths, and militant environmentalists.

Hiaasen has a special knack for dialogue that crackles with humor and authenticity. He also has a talent for portraying the fuzzy line between good and evil. The phrase, “honor among thieves” comes to mind. His stories recognize we are all imperfect human beings and that cops and PIs and criminals and lowlifes suffer the same foibles.

I’ve always identified with Hiaasen because of his background as a newspaper reporter and columnist. I was a reporter for fifteen years and it got in my blood. I missed writing when I left the newspaper business. The transition from reporter to fiction writer is not easy. Hiaasen spoke about it in an interview with The New Statesman. “The one thing a lifetime in the newspaper business teaches you is pace—you spend all your time trying to make sure the reader’s going to finish what you’ve been writing…It affects not just the pace of the writing, but how you put together a scene. All the senses you use covering a news story are the same senses you use when creating a scene for a novel.”

The real world provides a rich inventory of bizarre stories and Hiaasen sees this is a challenge for fiction writers. In an interview with The Guardian, Hiaasen said, “The hardest thing for me, for anybody who writes satire or any kind or contemporary fiction, is to invent a scenario that doesn’t eventually come true, and if you’re writing satire, you don’t want to be behind the curve, but ahead of it. Sarah Palin. You couldn’t have invented a plausible character in fiction as outrageous, unqualified and unintentionally comical as she is.”

As a columnist for The Miami Herald Hiaasen noted that Florida provides plenty of grist for novels. “The Florida in my novels is not as seedy as the real Florida. It’s hard to stay ahead of the curve. Every time I write a scene that I think is the sickest thing I have ever dreamed up, it is surpassed by something that happens in real life.”

Hiaasen has built characters around crazy stories he has come across in the newspaper. His characters are among the most interesting in fiction. Skink, who appears in several novels, is a former Governor of Florida who abruptly left office to live in the wilds and eat road kill. And by the way, he has a glass eye that he yanks out every now and then to scare people.  Another character juggled human skulls and still another, the memorable Chemo, sported a weed whacker for an arm.

You can’t make this stuff up. Oh, wait a minute. You can.

Do you have an author who is a guilty pleasure?


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