Friday, February 26, 2010

How to Get That Deer-In-The-Headlights-Look on Lauren’s Face

I just read my friend Sunny Frazier’s informative post, Welcome to Your World about a writer’s pet peeve: Meeting people who say they have a book in them, but are just too busy to write it. If you are a budding writer who simply can’t seem to get your book on paper, I suggest you read it.

This week I have been dealing with my own writer’s pet peeve: Unpublished manuscripts from those who managed to get their books onto paper.

Flooded with manuscripts, both agents and publishers tell writers that their best bet to get their foot in the door is to have their manuscript recommended by someone they know, like a published author.

I met my first unpublished writer at my very first booksigning for my very first book, A Small Case of Murder. The booksigning was held at the general store in Chester, WV. When I arrived on the scene, I was thrilled to find a line of people waiting to buy my book, written by their local author.

Clutching his manuscript, this writer had been waiting for close to an hour to beg me to read it. Nowhere had I read in my research about booksigning etiquette anything about this type of situation.

In the heat of the moment, I had no idea what to say. With that deer-in-the-headlights expression that I have perfected over the years (We can thank motherhood for that.), I stammered out some pleasantries while trying to ease him over to the side to let the next customer in line come forward. But this writer was not to be deterred from this opportunity to get his work noticed. He pulled up a chair and sat behind the table next to me! After several minutes of my ignoring him in order to concentrate on readers who had come out to meet me, he left. At least he bought a copy of my book on the way out.

I feel honored when a fellow writer asks me for advice. It’s a pat on the back that says they recognize that I have come a far way, baby! However, when a writer asks me to read his work, I have to confess that feeling of honor is drowned by a tidal wave of fear.

This is how it is supposed to happen:
  1. Writer gives unpublished manuscript to published author. That’s supposed to be me.
  2. Published author reads manuscript and recognizes that it is the next great American novel.
  3. Published author calls their big New York City literary agent.
  4. Big New York City literary agent breaks leg rushing to sign up the next Dan Brown.
  5. Writer becomes published author.
As the published author, I’m having problems fulfilling Steps 2 and 3. Let’s address Step 3 first: I don’t have a big New York City literary agent.

Many inexperienced writers assume that every published author has a literary agent. Almost always, when a manuscript is thrust at me, the writer will say, “…and if you like it, maybe you can pass it on to your agent...” at which point I hang my head, look at my feet, and confess, “I don’t have an agent.” Then, I feel like I have to defend my status as an author by explaining that a lot of us don’t have agents. At which point the writer will say, “Well, maybe you can call SOMEBODY!”

Who? My publisher? In some cases, that might work. Unfortunately, almost every manuscript that has been given to me has been out of my, and my publisher’s, genre, which brings me to my problem in fulfilling Step 2.

I write murder mysteries. The vast majority of books I read have a dead body in them and detectives trying to find out who made that dead body that way. Yes, I have degrees in literature and I am very well read, but, when it comes to judging the quality of unpublished works outside my genre, I can’t offer a critique beyond character development, plot flow, and sentence structure.

The manuscript I have minimized on my desktop right now is about cannibalistic vampires. Unfortunately, this writer chose the last living and not yet undead person on the face of this earth who has not read any of the hundreds of vampire books that have come out recently. For all I know about this genre, this manuscript could be the next Dracula. Maybe it is. I don’t know.

Understanding the frustration and, sometimes, desperation of the unpublished writer in trying to get their foot in the door, most authors want to help if we can. But sometimes, we fear the consequences if we can’t. I know one author who got her own book slammed on Amazon and every other book site that accepts amateur reviews by an angry writer after giving his manuscript an unfavorable critique.

Right now, I have a manuscript on my desk written by a teacher my son will have next year. It’s extremely good, but I can’t help but ask what I would do if it wasn’t. Would I have to start homeschooling my son?

Many published authors won’t read other writer’s manuscripts. They simply don’t have the time between families, jobs, and writing careers. However, many of us will make the effort.

If you want to submit your manuscript to an author, please keep a few rules in mind:
  1. If you want an honest critique, it is best to get it from an author in your genre. Also, they are more likely to have the connections you need.
  2. Don’t approach the author at a book signing event. The author is there to publicize their book. This isn’t to say you can’t make contact. The most appropriate way is to introduce yourself, mention that you are a writer, and even give her your business card. Say nothing else about your writing unless you are asked. E-mail the author with your request later.
  3. Be gracious if the author fails to meet your expectations either by giving you a poor critique, not being able to introduce you to the right people, or simply declining to read your manuscript.
My last and most important piece of advice: Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

In a Setting Far, Far Away Only in My Mind, Or--

What’s a writer to do when she wants to humiliate someone but they won’t go along willingly?

During my writing career, I have discovered that people are both thrilled and anxious about the prospect of ending up in a book involving murder and mayhem. After meeting me, some have to wonder, “How does she see me in one of her books? A detective? A suspect? Oh, my heavens, certainly not a corpse!”

The Joshua Thornton mysteries are set in Chester, West Virginia; the small town where I had grown up. In A Small Case of Murder, Joshua’s parents discover a dead body in the barn on my brother’s farm. Mark has fun telling people that actually no dead body was ever found on his farm. When researching A Reunion to Die For, I took a tour of the county prosecutor’s office. Hancock County’s prosecuting attorney thinks it’s a kick having a fictional counterpart.

However, while writing the Mac Faraday mysteries, I learned that when it strikes too close to home, some people would rather the author take her murder elsewhere.

My sister-in-law had asked me to set a murder mystery in her home town, a sweet summer place in Wisconsin called Pelican Lake. At the time, I was working on a storyline that wasn’t a good fit for Joshua Thornton. So I went to work on a new series set on a lake in a resort town modeled after Pelican Lake.

I had completed the first draft of It’s Murder, My Son in time for a visit from my sister-in-law. Excited about a murder set in her town at her request, she asked for all the details. When I mentioned that the murder victim was killed in her house, I was surprised to see horror in her eyes. Since her home and property had a unique design and layout, anyone knowing her could easily tell that the murder took place in her home.

For the sake of family harmony, I decided to do a re-write.

As luck would have it, my family had started vacationing at Deep Creek Lake. Like Pelican Lake, this Maryland town is a resort area. It was child’s play to pick up my murder in Pelican Lake and plop it down in Deep Creek Lake, until I asked the local police department to let me portray them as a bunch of idiots.

In It’s Murder, My Son, homicide detective Mac Faraday discovers that his birth mother is the late Robin Spencer, America’s Queen of Mystery, and he is her sole heir. Upon learning that he has a half brother, police officer David O’Callaghan, he moves to Deep Creek Lake to meet him.

Mac is drawn into the murder investigation of his neighbor after Gnarly, his inherited German shepherd, drags home a dismembered head. When he sees that the chief detective is an incompetent, Mac joins David in the investigation. It is the perfect opportunity to get to know his brother better. But, as luck would have it, Mac ends up making David the prime suspect.

While rewriting It’s Murder, My Son, I was surprised when the local police department refused to cooperate in my research. Unlike the Hancock County sheriff (a protagonist) in the Joshua Thornton mysteries, the police in Deep Creek Lake (an antagonist) would only give me a tour of the jail if I brought my toothbrush and planned to stay a while. Their resistance was understandable. Even though I promised disclaimers in my acknowledgements about my work being completely fiction and not based on anyone real, the police department was concern about their image.

So, out of respect for the real law enforcement, I created a fictional resort town resting on the shores of the real Deep Creek Lake and had a blast doing it.

In my previous series, my imagination was fenced in by the boundaries of Chester’s realities. While I was able to move the barn on my brother’s farm, I couldn’t get away with placing a twenty-five story high-rise on Carolina Avenue. Nor could I change the town’s history to fit a storyline.

When a murder mystery is set in a real town, readers expect the writer to be true to the facts. Even with a work of fiction, readers familiar with the area have a hard time forgiving authors when they rewrite their hometown’s history or change the streets. Even if the author had a legitimate reason for making the change, to the reader, it looks like sloppy research. For example, a woman once told me that she had stopped reading a series set in Washington DC when the writer had placed an exit ramp off Rock Creek Parkway that wasn’t there.

When I sat down to create the setting for It’s Murder, My Son, like a bird set free from a cage, my imagination opened its wings and soared. Since this was my town, I had the freedom to do with it as I saw fit.

Thus, Spencer, Maryland, was founded.

Nestled in a corner of Deep Creek Lake, Spencer is named after my protagonist’s ancestors. As the descendent of the town’s founders, the character of Mac Faraday has political influence that he otherwise couldn’t have inherited.

Since my first draft had already been on a lake in Wisconsin, I duplicated that setting in Spencer, but added some of my own touches. Mac Faraday’s cedar and stone home rests at the end of the most expensive piece of real estate on Deep Creek Lake. The peninsula houses a half-dozen lake houses that grow in size and grandeur along the stretch of Spencer Court, which ends at the stone pillars marking the multi-million dollar estate that had been the birthplace and home of one of the world’s most famous authors.

My fictional setting’s affluence is born out of necessity. While this lakeside town is small, it also has its own police department. In order to make that feasible, I had to make Spencer a getaway for the rich and famous.

From the lakeshore, Spencer’s border stretches up and over a mountain, on top of which rests the Spencer Inn, a resort and spa, which is also part of Mac’s inheritance. Ironically, before his windfall, he couldn’t have afforded to eat there.

While it is fun to create a fictional setting, the writer does need to keep hold on the reins. The setting needs to fit with the surrounding area. Readers familiar with Deep Creek Lake would never buy an exclusive resort town like Spencer on their shores if in fact the area was an impoverished swamp. In reality, Deep Creek Lake is a popular vacation spot for people from Washington, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and all the surrounding areas. The million dollar homes in my setting fit right in with the other vacation houses that dot the lake and mountainside.

Writing It’s Murder, My Son was an amazing ride. As a writer, it is exhilarating to let your imagination go free without the reins of reality. Who knows, maybe in Max Faraday’s next adventure, I’ll have him go into a galaxy far, far away—or was that already done?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Where Has The Time Gone?

My family has been snowed in six days. Today, a second blizzard is dumping another two feet of the white stuff. With Jack, my husband, immersed in his imaginary world of HO-scale trains; and Tristan, my son, conquering empires in the world of Wii, I should have the first draft of the great American mystery novel completed by the time we’re dug out around Easter. Don’t you think?

When it comes to explaining my lack of progress, I like to recount how on Sunday I offered to make my men a nice hot breakfast. Jack declined. As soon as the kitchen was clean, after I turned off the light, he asked, “What are you fixing me?” How else can I explain only a few readable paragraphs after clicking away on my laptop all afternoon?

My family has been wrongfully accused. The true thief that has been stealing chunks of time is a gang called Technology. Its members (E-mail; Facebook, Ipod, and Twitter) sneak in through the portals of cyber space to rob us of uninterrupted progress.

Produced by PBS, Digital Nation addresses the monumental changes in our society, both enlightening, and some disturbing, since we have plunged into the digital age. While viewing Digital Nation, I was hit by how technological advances have adversely affected my writing habits.

Thirty years ago, I wrote my first book on an electric typewriter. Determined to be a novelist, I devoted all of my spare time to banging away on my IBM Selectra. The television was off. Meals consisted of peanut butter sandwiches that were quick and easy to make. Hours that I used to sunbathe for a golden tan were spent composing my masterpiece. I stopped going out with my friends. Not a minute that could be devoted to literary creation was wasted. At the end of the summer, I proudly emerged from my bachelorette apartment pale, thin, and socially bankrupt.

In three months, I had written the Great American Catastrophe, all 846 pages of it in hardcopy.

We have come so far in just the last twenty years that there is no excuse for anyone to not be a writer (except for complete lack of talent). So, with no place to go and no demands on me, why is it so hard to compose a simple strangling in Windows 7 when three decades ago I was able to kill off the whole membership of the Screen Actors Guild over three short months without the benefit of a spellchecker?

While the delete button has opened a whole new world, it has also slashed my attention span to the length of an inch-worm. While we sit in front of our laptops thinking that we are actually writing and doing it well, in reality we are constantly being distracted and giving in to those distractions freely. We feel like hotshots being able to check e-mails; program our DVR; make dozens of new friends who we’ve never met or most likely ever will; download the latest tunes; write a job proposal; IM our spouse in the bathroom about what he wants for dinner; spy to see what our son is really doing on his laptop in his room; and google to find out what had become of that teen idol we had pledged our luv-4-ever while in our underwear. Then, at the end of the day, we scratch our heads and wonder why we’ve only written seven paragraphs in the last seven hours.

As much as I would like to blame technology, or even my family, the problem doesn’t lie with the distractions. There were distractions back when I wrote the Great American Catastrophe. They just weren’t as convenient to give into. With the click of the button, I can escape choreographing a shootout in a parking garage to check out Jill’s dog Elvis in the snow on Facebook. Swooning over Elvis should only take thirty seconds, but before going back to the shootout I need to accept Shanti’s friend request. Suddenly, I have only six minutes to forward an e-mail to eleven friends or suffer the curse of Mother Theresa. By the end of the day, that moment has turned into three hours with only one hour spent doing actual writing.

I have had to be reminded that writing takes discipline. It is the same discipline I had back when I was a teenager when I gave up Fantasy Island to become the next Jackie Collins. Today, I have to tell my thumb, "Don’t touch that button! Keep on writing until Mac Faraday catches up with his killer."

Elvis will still be on Facebook.