Monthly Archives: October 2014

Hard-won Na No Lessons

November 1 is the start of National Novel Writing Month, that insanewonderful competition in which aspiring novelists attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

I have competed in NaNo and won each of the past three years. This year, I’m going to take a pass–not because I don’t get a lot out of the competition, but because I am much too busy. I do urge all writers to try NaNo.

There is some controversy when it comes to NaNo. Critics say it encourages novice writers to rush books into publication too quickly. But NaNo’s website advises writers to take the time to revise their work and there are loads of tips on how to do that.

The chief benefit of NaNo is that it instills the daily writing habit. Writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days breaks down to 1,667 words a day. This is a real stretch goal. It is beyond my comfort zone. My sweet spot is about 500 words a day. So why crank out 1,667 words per day for 30 days? It challenges writers to discover what’s possible. It causes writers to break their outer limits.

As we embark on NaNo month, here are some hard-won lessons:

–Write every day, even if you’re not feeling it. Our region’s Municipal Liaison (ML-what NaNo calls its regional leaders) offers this advice to every contestant. If you keep up the pace for 10 days and then you don’t write at all for a couple of days, you will fall way behind. Even if you don’t write 1,667 words, write 500 or 1,000.

–Take your story wherever it leads you. This is a big one. All three years in which I competed, I finished my story well short of 50,000 words. What did I do? I kept going. I challenged myself to take the story in a new direction. And I discovered new dimensions to all three stories.

–Don’t give up. I almost did last year. I kept the pace for 21 days, then I did some revising and actually lost words. I was at 42,000 words on the last day and wrote 8,000 words in two long writing sessions. It can be done.

–Don’t stop to edit. It’s tempting to want to revise your story as you go, but it will bog you down. As much as you might want to stop, you have to keep going.

–Find your regional group and attend their events. Regional groups are tremendous resources for writers. You will find your home region on the NaNo website once you register. Get to know your ML and folks in your region. Events in your region are posted there. Attend at least one event. It’s fun to write with others. You will share ideas and make new friends in the process.

NaNo is grueling, but it is loads of fun. I would do it again. Good luck, NaNo’ers.

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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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