Tag Archives: Small Change

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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Tortured Artist: Fact or Myth?

A songwriter friend insists he does his best work after suffering a personal setback or a painful experience. Having endured a divorce in the past year, I cannot say the same is true for me. I wrote my first novel, Small Change, when I was married and reasonably content. Since my divorce my daily writing output has dropped precipitously (except during the annual National Novel Writing Month competition).

My personal situation got me thinking about the idea of the tortured artist. This theory holds that authentic art—whether in literature, music or painting—must spring from the well of personal pain and suffering.

The tortured artist idea is the subject of much debate. Christopher Zara, who wrote a book about it, defended the concept in a post in The Huffington Post. “It’s my belief that all great art comes from pain,” Zara wrote. “Van Gogh painted The Starry Night while in emotional torment, Lennon and McCartney forged their creative partnership following the death of their respective mothers, Milton penned Paradise Lost after losing his wife, his daughter, his eyesight.”

Zara explained the basis of his opinion. “Art is a reflection of humanity and humanity’s greatest virtue is its ability to overcome adversity.” Van Gogh, he pointed out, suffered from anxiety, absinthe addiction, and seizures, but his suffering gave him insight, and that insight, in turn, gave the world a new kind of art called Post Impressionist.”

Not everyone shares Zara’s view. Jeff Tweedy, leader of the brilliant alt-rock band Wilco, termed the idea of the tortured artist a “damaging mythology.” Tweedy said the concept impeded his battles with addiction, anxiety, and depression. “I look at it as, the part of me that was able to create, managed to create in spite of the problems I was having, almost as if that was the only healthy part of me,” Tweedy said. “That’s the part of me that I feel like, getting healthier, I’ve been able to nurture.”

What do the scientists have to say about the idea of the tortured artist? An article in Brain World magazine published in August of 2012 posed the question, Do you have to be crazy to be creative? Contessa Schexnayder interviewed scientists and psychologists who had conducted research in this area.

She cited recent study conducted by Professor Fredrik Ullén at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Women’s and Children’s Health, that looked to dopamine D2 receptors in the brain. The study found that many healthy and highly creative individuals had a similar dopamine system as those who suffered from schizophrenia. “Many studies have shown that high amounts of dopamine D2 receptors are responsible for divergent thoughts, which could possibly explain the link between creative people and mental illness,” she wrote. “Highly creative individuals—like many who suffer from schizophrenia—are able to think in more imaginative ways and see unusual and uncommon connections. They can create and associate ideas that most of us are unable to connect. These creative connections are often seen in those who suffer from certain mental illnesses.”

Dr. James Kauffman, a psychologist at the University of California, San Bernadino, conducted a study focused on eminent writers and creators. Dr. Kauffman found that poets, in particular female poets, were more likely to suffer from mental illness than politicians, actresses, artists, and journalists.

“A lot of writing has healthy positive effects,” says Dr. Kaufman. “It’s very good for you emotionally and even physically. But one of the things that makes this so healthy is the presence of a narrative, and the continuous writing schedules. And poetry tends not to follow the same schedule, and tends not be as narrative-driven.”

What do I think? I believe creative thought and expression is inspired by the sum total of an individual’s life experiences: the highest joys and the deepest pains and the range of emotions in between. I also believe it takes time for an individual to process pain. I believe it is critical for a writer to give it time to put intense emotional experiences into perspective, which allows a writer to gain a greater understand the source of the pain and how it impacted their behavior.

What do you think of the idea of the tortured artist?

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It’s Never Too Late to Revise

I was ready to push the button on my first novel, Small Change. The manuscript was set to go. Seven rounds of line edits and outside critiques were done. And yet, there was a nagging doubt. Two scenes bothered me. I rationalized that they were “good enough.” They weren’t great by any means, but they got the job done.

I received my cover art from my graphic designer, but I couldn’t move forward. I had to revise those two scenes. I read them again (for the umpteenth time) and I couldn’t stand it. I knew if I didn’t fix these two scenes, the book would suffer.

Let me share some background. The two scenes in question were crucial to the story. It was a turning point from the end of the main character’s adolescence to the rest of the story, which centered on the children of the two families in the book as adults. The two glaring problems with the scenes were simple: the scenes consisted of all telling and no showing, and they had a “wrapping up” quality to them, with no emotional depth or tension.

Though it was late in the game (nearly five years after I started this book), I had to scrap both chapters and do a complete rewrite. The first scene centered on the moment the main character, John Sykowski, met his future wife, Madeline McInerney. Here is the original scene:

SC Chapter 26_original

It described what happened but it didn’t get the job done. I needed to take the reader on John’s first date with “Maddy.” I needed to show the reader why they were attracted to one another. John was a stoic, not prone to showing his feelings. Maddy was the opposite. She was smarty, mouthy and knew John’s strengths and weaknesses. And she saw his basic goodness. Okay, so I had a date scene, but it needed a focal point. It couldn’t be the dinner conversation during the date—too pedestrian. I came up with the concept of a jukebox. Maddy would take John to a dive bar with a juke box and they would each pick out a song. Their selections and their reactions said a lot about themselves. Here’s the revised scene:

SC Chapter 22_Revised

The next chapter was the last one in part one of the book. It would be the last time the two families gathered for their annual summer vacation at the lake before significant changes would take place. Here’s the original scene:

SC Chapter 27_original

Not bad, but it lacked tension and foreshadowing. I decided to eschew the birthday party at the beach. The scene instead focused on John driving his younger sister, Mary, to the airport for a trip to the West Coast after she had spent only a day at the beach with her family. This would foreshadow her withdrawal from the family. Here’s the revised scene:

SC Chapter 23_Revised

There is a major risk in making revisions that late in the process. When I make wholesale revisions, I like to let them marinate, like a good steak. I would put the scene aside for a few days or even a week, tweaking and massaging it. In this case, there wasn’t time. I was committed to uploading the manuscript to the Kindle. I read the revised scenes twice and then it was time to publish. I didn’t even have time to show the scenes to any outside critics.

I knew in my heart the two revised scenes improved that section of the book immeasurably, and the feedback I received from other readers validated that opinion.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend making wholesale revisions that late in the game, but you have to trust your instincts. If you’re not happy (or your editor is not happy), it’s never too late to revise.

Do you ever find yourself making late revisions as you are about to submit your work?

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Guest Post on Writer Unboxed

It was an honor to be selected for a guest post on the popular blog, Writer Unboxed. My post was featured on July 7. Started by two writers, Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton, who wanted to share their journey as they each wrote their first novel, Writer Unboxed features a diverse group of contributors, ranging from agent Donald Maass to former publisher Jane Friedman. Make Writer Unboxed one of your favorites. It is a fantastic blog. Check out my post on writer’s block:

Read my post on Writer Unboxed

 

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First Revisions: Shaping the Mound of Clay

You finished your first draft. Hurray! You’ve set it aside for a period of time to gain distance and perspective. It’s time to dive back in for that first round of revisions. Not so fast.

Getting those initial revisions right is crucial to your success. How well you do may make the difference between a publishable manuscript and a deeply flawed work.

Picture that first draft as a mound of clay. There is a shape to it, but it needs definition. Maybe it’s a pyramid, but you picture a house surrounded by a picket fence, or a high-tech spaceship. The first revision is your best opportunity to shape the manuscript as you work toward the final draft.

You may have the urge to plunge in and start re-writing scenes, reinventing characters, and adding new dimensions to the story. That’s only natural, but first you should put on your reader’s glasses and go through the entire draft. Make notes in the margin or use the Comment feature of your software program. Circle typos and grammatical mistakes, but don’t get hung up on grammar or spelling. Focus on the big three: story, character, theme.

Some helpful questions as you read through your draft are:

  • What is the story really about?
  • What does the main character want, fear? What is the main character’s goal? Is it clear to the reader?
  • What is standing in the main character’s way of achieving the goal?
  • Is the central conflict evident to the reader?
  • Is there enough tension and uncertainty?
  • Does the main character engage the reader?
  • Why should the reader care?
  • Is the story plausible (note I didn’t write ‘believable’)?
  • Are there any scenes that can be cut?
  • Is there a theme? Is it apparent to the reader? How well-developed is the theme?

Don’t make any revisions until you’ve read the entire first draft. Then go back and read your notes or comments. A couple of things should become clear: where the holes in the story exist and where the theme needs to be embellished.

James Scott Bell, in his book, Plot & Structure, urged writers to get through the reading of the first draft as quickly as possible. “Do not get bogged down in details at this point,” he wrote. “What you want is the big picture, the overall impression. You can take very brief notes if you wish, but try not to slow down for any considerable period.

“You should work from the big issues down through the small ones,” he wrote.

When I reviewed the first draft of my novel, Small Change, I discovered I had started the story in the wrong place. It wasn’t a simple fix, either. I made the agonizing decision to eliminate the first four chapters, which, among other benefits, trimmed down an unwieldy manuscript.

Once you’ve reviewed your notes and comments, it’s time to go to work. Take on the big changes first, as Bell advised. Fix the story. This will involve changes to the characters. Pay attention to the way the story flows as you work. Mold that piece of clay.

The second draft is where you discover your story, hone it, strengthen your characters, shore up the weak spots, trim the fat. In most instances, you won’t have your final draft, but you’ll be a lot closer.

How do you tackle that first revision? Do you dive right in or read the manuscript?

 

 

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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.

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Pricing Your E-Book: What’s the Sweet Spot?

Authors who self-publish their work must weigh a number of considerations when determining a price for their book. Among these are:

  • Perception of quality
  • Consumer appeal
  • Author royalties
  • Marketing
  • Time spent

Let’s examine these considerations:

  • Perception of quality. Does the 99-cent novel consign our work to that wasteland of low-quality, error-riddled novels? Are you banking on savvy consumers to somehow pick out your high-quality novel among the scores of amateur efforts? I decided to price my first novel, Small Change, at $2.99, which is the lowest price on Amazon for which the 70 percent author royalty applies. Why? Frankly, I thought it was worth at least that, but as a new author, I didn’t feel confident pricing it above that level. My thought on perception is this: if you believe your novel is of a high quality (don’t we all?) and you have put a lot of time and resources into your work, I see no reason not to price it at $2.99 or higher. That’s less than the cost of a latte at your favorite coffee shop.
  • Consumer appeal. The 99-cent novel has great appeal. It is low risk (no risk, really)/high reward for the consumer. If the consumer doesn’t like the book after finishing the first page or chapter, what has he lost? The consumer has paid less than he would for a pack of gum. The price point matters to consumers. Just ask Amanda Hocking or John Locke. I haven’t ruled out dropping my price to 99 cents, but I would like to have a second book out there before I do that.
  • Author royalties. If you are confident your book will sell and are willing to put in the time and effort to market it, you are leaving a lot of money on the table by opting for the 99 cent price. Amazon offers authors a royalty rate of 70 percent for books priced at $2.99 or above through its Kindle Direct Publishing program and 30 percent for books priced below $2.99. The example often cited is John Locke, who sold one million e-books at 99 cents, but would have made a lot more money by setting his price at $2.99. Of course 99 cents is part of a deliberate marketing strategy, which brings me to my next point.
  • Marketing. 99 cents is seductive. An author doesn’t need any descriptors like “only” or “such a bargain.” The price speaks for itself. Put on your marketing hat and ask yourself: is it possible to underprice a book in these times? I don’t think so, especially when authors are offering “free” promotions to get their work in the hands of readers. However, it is possible to over-price your book. If you are a first-time author and you are charging $4.99 for your book (just to pick a number out of the air), why would a consumer want to take a chance on you when he could buy the hot new 99 cent novel? Besides, if you charge 99 cents and sell a ton of books, a publisher will take notice, as was the case with Amanda Hocking, who was signed by St. Martin’s Press.
  • Time spent.  Here’s where things get dicey. You have no problem charging 99 cents, but then you think about all the time you spent on your manuscript. Let’s say you spent 1,000 hours on the first draft. Figure another 1,000 hours on revisions, editing, proofreading, and polishing your work. These are conservative estimates. Throw in 50 hours for marketing and coordinating your cover design. That’s 2,050 hours. I’ve made close to $60 on my book so far. If you calculated an hourly rate for the time spent, I’m making pennies on the hour. And that’s fine with me. This is a passion, not a job. It all comes down to your goals and how to achieve them.

So what’s the bottom line? Authors should experiment with price. Err on the low side. Don’t get caught up thinking your book is the best one ever written and the reader will gladly pay eight or nine dollars. It’s not going to happen, unless you are Jonathan Franzen or Stephen King.

How much would you pay for an e-book by a first-time author? How much would you pay for an e-book by a renowned author?

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