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Archive for novels

How to avoid a too-big book

Even an author who’s published multiple books feels the siren call of a big book. One day, they might think, I can get that 150,000-word epic published. I’ve cut a lot, they might say, already 20,000 words. I need to stick to my guns, submit something that big, and not get talked out of it.

Don’t cut. Divide and conquer.

As a novelist who’s finishing a draft likely to be 170,000 words, I can relate. “The I-Like-Big-Books and I Cannot Lie” lure is always in the water for us. We pick up the scent of something like the Karl Marlantes epic about Vietnam, Matterhorn. We say to ourselves, “Somebody had to believe extra hard about a book of that size.” We think, Hey, that somebody could be me.

You’ll need two or three or four other people to believe in that mantra. Most of them have more on the line than you do. As an author, you poured months and years into a book of that size. Now you’ll need an agent to believe, then an editor, then sales and distribution, and finally the influencers and reviewers, that 150K is not all that big.

They all have books smaller to embrace, unless your agent only has you as their client.

Is a sequel a solution?

Why, you must ask yourself, is that Big Book so essential to your story? Be honest about whether what’s creating the bloat is really world-class scenarios that would spice up any narrative. Perhaps these are scenarios that belong in a related book. The second in a series. Volume II. A sequel.

Too-big books surface. But not many survive into readers’ hands here in 2021. Those that survive hail from the genres built for massive books. Fantasy. Science fiction. Historical fiction. Even those books are shaped and tempered by beta readers who are asked one important question by the author:

Where did you start to lose interest when you read it?

Until you’re ready to consider where your sails flagged, you’ll struggle to avoid your too-big book. Flagging sails can lead to flagging sales. That’s a condition that publishers and agents work hard to avoid. Make a couple of books. My own book is really two. I just need to find a better ending to the first half. It might be inspired by the ending to the second half.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Point of View: how many do you need?

Writing stories in first person is a electric thrill for many authors. You have easy access to emotions and sensations, plus the mystery of solving the problems of the plot are intense, too. Sometimes it’s tempting to want to use multiple first person points of view. If you can imagine Silence of the Lambs told in first person by Hannibal Lecter and Clarise Starling, you’re looking at a different book. Plenty challenging to write but maybe worth it.

How you decide to introduce first person POVs, and how many, is a juicy and complex choice as a storyteller. Julie Carrick Dalton even toyed with time, using her heroine’s point of view at age 11 along with the character’s POV three decades later. I began my second novel with a single first person point of view, then added a second as a character took a leading role in the book. Right now it’s just got a single first person narrator, with the rest of the book told in close third person. You don’t need a first person POV to show the heat of a character’s heart. First person gives and takes.

Willing to walk away

The choosing will mean revising and walking away from earlier attempts. Jessica Brody’s fine website Writing Mastery Academy examines many aspects of multiple points of view. As the author of the craft book Save the Cat Writes a Novel, she says you’ll need to decide who your book’s super-hero is if you have more than one protagonist. Each of the first person narrators needs a Beat Sheet, if you’re applying the Save the Cat method of storytelling.

It took her 13 years to write her novel. Dalton says, “The structure of this book gave me fits. In its final form, Waiting for the Night Song is a dual timeline narrative that switches back and forth from Cadie’s point of view at age 11 to Cadie’s POV three decades later. In the early drafts I wrote the story chronologically, including all the stuff in between – high school, college, and beyond.”

Then she reveals that the story’s middle section meant more to her than the reader. “After several drafts, I realized I only wrote the middle part for myself, so I would know who Cadie was and where she had been. I cut out the middle and wove the childhood and adult parts together to tell a single story. It was exasperating, but definitely the right way to tell this particular story.”

I want a great cover. What is that, anyway?

Everybody wants a great cover on their book. That’s a few things at once, the greatness.

Sales.

Storytelling.

Beauty.

Creating a cover concept meets one or more of those needs. If the cover does none of those things well, you won’t know until the book goes on sale, or when your novel is considered for review coverage, or when it gets its shot to be stocked in a retail store, or selected for the email promotion you’ve applied for. (Yes, the best promotions have a waiting list.)

See all the things a cover does? It’s even more complex when you factor in your writing style, genre, and subject. What you don’t want to do while building a cover, though, is to mistake whatever you’ve written for the cover your book needs and deserves. Your writing might be powerful, but your writing doesn’t have to capture a reader in five seconds. A good cover must do that.

Your publisher — whether it’s you, or a company that’s paying you to publish your book — will be constrained by cover budget. Good covers start around $450. Great covers can be as expensive as $2,500. Covers come from cover designers, people who can Do This All Day, this cover magic. Cover designers won’t say, “Well, that’s good enough, isn’t it?”

It’s not difficult to see the difference, side by side.

Both books won notable awards for literary fiction. One had an independent self-publisher. The other was built for the Literary Industrial Complex, where sales and buzz matter most.

Book covers are a matter of taste, and they’re also something that calls authors to the ramparts to battle over. Not That Cover is an argument often made by an author. “It misrepresents my story,” the author might say. The publishing pros can retort, “Yes, you think it does. But it also makes readers stop and consider it. It’s beautiful. And it doesn’t make the mistake of being so abstract it can’t tell any story, or so specific that it acts like a table of contents or a synopsis.”

Those are not the things a great cover is supposed to do. Essence is the element you want to capture. Worst of all might be the kind of cover that does that abstraction mistake, plus telling a story in so much detail it’s mysterious.

My own, self-designed cover from my debut novel Viral Times did that.

“See, the icon at the bottom indicates the SexNet, where the virtual hook-ups happen. The icon on the top right is the virus that gets transmitted over that network. The green area represents health using natural cures for virus infections. The orange represents the toxic nature of the Mighty Hand virus.”

Or something like that. You don’t get to explain your cover. It’s supposed to captivate and express emotion.

My re-do (circa 2015) is still a DIY, even though I designed for print for more than 30 years. It’s got its problems, the biggest one being that it relies on a photo image. Photos are not in vogue today.

At least you can see a person in some danger there. I’m letting the title do all the rest of the work. Still, not a pro cover. I hired out for the next book’s cover and got a great job for good value. It’s nonfiction, though, and it behaves by different rules. You must still be subtle in a nonfiction book. Sometimes you get lucky and there’s a story theme that makes itself obvious to everyone. At other times, the visual theme is the star itself.

I’m proud of the Stealing Home memoir cover that I hired Asya Blue to create. I got comps (different ideas to consider) from her — plus so much input on her tuning of the art.  Yes, it’s art, to build a cover. Because I self-published, I was the ultimate decision-maker. I needed that, but you may not. Whatever that cover does is ultimately my call. Or as generous artists sometimes say after a collaboration, “Whatever’s not working is my fault. The best stuff came from the others.”

Hire a pro and set your cover expectations higher. Engage with someone who can Do This All Day, because they have, and for years.

Open your wheelhouse: submit your requests

You might have been fortunate enough to have an agent request pages for your book. You may have taken a lot of time to make them better first. For example, if you’re writing crime fiction (a mystery) you may say

1. My book is too long today
2. I don’t want my mystery to be obvious.

Also

3. My plot is intricate, so I’m wary of severing the links throughout.

Those are all related. Your book is probably running as long as it does so it will contain everything to keep the plot bolted together. The complexity of the plot makes a mystery deeper, for example. If it’s longer for any other reason, it becomes a bit easier to cut. If it was a piece of seasoned beef, it might be overseasoned with characterization or scenes that run long.

That effect of “goes on too long” is a matter of taste and talent. Even when you’re writing well, you don’t get as many extra pages as you think. You get more pages, but you have to keep readers turning those pages.

If you want to be double sure that your plot is durable, you will need a second check. That’s a set of outside eyes. I’m talking development editing, not copy editing or line editing.

Letting your story loose into the world is the solution to these problems.

“I want a book that holds together and keeps the reader wondering what’s going to happen.” That’s noble. It can be a road sign toward complexity, of course, depending on how many subjects are in play. Your book should have a primary story mission, and that mission had better fulfill the protagonist’s desire.

Just because a book’s structure has come together over years of work, like it does for most of us, doesn’t mean it can’t get streamlined. I think here about the rivets in the planes that Howard Hughes built for competition. Always streamlining. He set records, his accomplishments you can see in The Aviator.

I once edited a book from 140,000 words to 75,000. The author went too deep in many passages and her protagonist was inside internal monologue at great length.

I edited my novel Viral Times down from 144,000 to 98,000 words. To do this, I discovered Scrivener and used it to identify what was in the book and what could go. It helped that I’d already worked 30 years as a copyeditor. Cutting isn’t easy, but it feels good after you face it down. At some point every creator has to have some compassion for readers who, frankly, would like to get to the next book, either in the series or from another author. Savoring a big novel is a delicious thing, of course.

It also helped that I performed in and watched many hours of theatre — where the dramatic arc includes nothing but scenes, and they each must have good work to do to serve the narrative.
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Emotions, feelings, and the differences

Dramatic writing always begs for feelings. Or is it emotions? It’s actually both things, that begging. The differences tell us when to rely on each one as we create our scenes and stories.

Simple enough

Rage = Emotion

Contempt = Feeling

Feelings are emotions refined. Emotions are raw, unconsidered, sudden and unbidden.

The rage boiled up in me.

There was an air of contempt in his speech.

Three key mile markers for a story’s journey


Summarizing who’s in your story, plus a single sentence that guides the story, and writing a synopsis, are golden nuggets to mine. When you share your work for editorial evaluation, these are the mile markers.

The synopsis is the hardest. I had to do one for Sins of Freedom back when it was called Monsignor Dad. I entered the first 10 pages in the Writers’ League of Texas manuscript contest and earned a spot as one of four finalists.

They only gave us 275 words for our synopsis.

Years later, the synopsis sentence for my book that’s now become Sins of Freedom is

Faith can be a weapon to protect hope and dreams, or kill freedom and justice with no remorse.

That’s my latest theme sentence. The story is driven by faith, shows us the promises fulfilled for Anna, plus the damages that faith brings her.

In the pages of Robert McKee’s masterwork of narrative craft, Story, he says that once you get a sentence like mine above that you can live with, everything in your story must serve that sentence.

How to give readers a break with chapters

Photo by Justine Camacho on Unsplash

“I like big chapters, long ones,” said just about nobody who reads books. Readers need rests, like the rest stops on a 100-mile century bike ride. I did one of those rides a couple of times. Never ride the century, we’d say. Just ride to the next rest stop.

Books can be centuries, with historical fiction running above 100,000 words and even more. Unless you’ve got extraordinary break points within a chapter, though, readers need rest.  Locations shift, and times of the week, month, or year advance. Even a POV shift or just a focus on a new character’s activities calls up chapter possibilities.

Creating chapter breaks gives your skills of transition a way to shine. When a reader picks a book back up, they can restart easiest at the chapter break. Good, obvious section breaks will do the same kind of job.

The biggest chapters I ever read in a book were All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, the Pulitzer Prize winner. I got to the end of each of them (maybe 10 in all, for a 80,000-word book) gasping for a break. You’re always going to want to make 20,000 words represent four chapters of a book. It serves a story well to break it into episodes. If not, let’s hear your reasons for leaving it as one chunk.

As to what’s inside that chunk, it’s more of a matter of how well does the material serve the main mission of the main character. We need color and context. Making choices is important, I and I like a willingness to cut things out. Just because something is interesting doesn’t automatically win it a place in the finished story. As a novelist, you can make me trust you when you cut something out and make the leap. “Two weeks later, she had different ideas about that.” Just skip over time, for example.

I’m reminded of the line in the movie Wonder Boys about the main character, award-winning novelist Grady Tripp. He’s had a real problem finishing his second book. One of his students discovers the 2,600-page manuscript draft and reads it (somehow). She says, “Professor, you taught us that making art means making choices. And with the details in here, the geneology of the horses of the characters, for example — it doesn’t look like you’ve made any choices.”

I hate making choices and need outside eyes to help. We all do. Grady Tripp never had anybody read his book while he made it. Then a windstorm boiled up and threw all of his pages into a riverside breeze. He had to start over. Wonder Boys is a great book and a great movie. Make your book great and find the points where the story can rest. Not everybody has time to binge.

Ten Key Scenes get your book on the road

Writers dry up and falter all the time in their quest to create.  One great process to keep words flowing into the big file is to have an outline at hand. It’s like your writing to-do list. Saying the word outline makes some writers roll their eyes and sigh. Creating by the seat of your pants is one way to put 50,000 words into a file. Making it into a story will keep you coming back to the months-long task.

Dreaming up 10 Key Scenes gives the pantsers and the plotters a middle ground to make that to-do list. You imagine the 10 turning points for your novel, each represented as a scene. Write the scene and all of the juicy narrative you want to lead in and fall away from it. Space them out so you’re getting one key scene written in rough draft every 3 days. Start with any scene you want, but get them all mapped out before hand with dead-simple summary. Something like “Anna gets arrested at the march.”

The Ten-Scene method is from the great guidebook The Writer’s Little Helper. The swell graphic shows off how to set up the sequence. Five of the ten are essentials and you can do those first. James V. Smith says “every novel I’ve ever written, ever read, or ever heard about can be deconstructed into ten scenes. Plan the central story line of your novel to go ten scenes or fewer.”

NaNoWriMo, the November writing contest-collective, was started by Chris Baty, who wrote a guidebook for the process called No Plot, No Problem. He’s not completely incorrect with his advice for those 30 days, because characters are the soul of plot. You can fill up that big file with a lot of character writing.

Putting those heroes and villains of your story into action in scenes shapes them to make them real. We all start with gusto in November, but about Day Six we wonder if our story is worth all the time at the keyboard or in the pages of our notebooks. The Ten Scenes are lighthouses to steer the boat of your story toward. Make yours, and then get to work on sailing the course to a rough draft.

Use 10 Key Scenes to Win NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is November, a time when hundreds of thousands of authors make a public promise to write 50,000 words during 30 days. The contest amounts to writing just about anything in a file that grows to that size and sending it off to the NaNo website for your “certificate.” There are quotes there because nothing is mailed. Your smile and bragging rights are delivered, though.

The month isn’t about the word count for the dedicated author. It’s a rededication to your work in a public way. Most of all NaNo is about 30 days of work. If you’re aiming at 50,000 then writing every day puts the word count at about 1,700 each and every day. Every day is what NaNo is about, getting you into a flow for creating your book.

Writers dry up and falter in their every-day quest all the time. One great process to keep words flowing into the big file is to have an outline at hand. It’s like your writing to-do list. Saying the word outline makes some writers roll their eyes and sigh. Creating by the seat of your pants is one way to put 50,000 words into a file. Making it into a story keeps you coming back to the month-long task.

Dreaming up 10 Key Scenes gives the pantsers and the plotters a middle ground to make that to-do list. You imagine the 10 turning points for your novel, each represented as a scene. Write the scene and all of the juicy narrative you want to lead in and fall away from it. Space them out so you’re getting one key scene written in rough draft every 3 days. Start with any scene you want, but get them all mapped out before hand with dead-simple summary. Something like “Anna gets arrested at the march.”

The Ten-Scene method is from the great guidebook The Writer’s Little Helper. The swell graphic shows off how to set up the sequence. Five of the ten are essentials and you can do those first. James V. Smith says “every novel I’ve ever written, ever read, or ever heard about can be deconstructed into ten scenes. Plan the central story line of your novel to go ten scenes or fewer.”

NaNo was started by Chris Baty, who wrote a guidebook for the process called No Plot, No Problem. He’s not completely incorrect with his advice for these 30 days, because characters are the soul of plot. You can fill up that big file with a lot of character writing. Putting those heroes and villains of your story into action in scenes shapes them and makes them real. We all start with gusto in NaNo, but about Day Six we wonder if our story is worth all the time at the keyboard or the pages of our notebooks. The Ten Scenes are lighthouses to steer the boat of your story toward. Make yours and then get to work on sailing the course to a rough draft.

Find some support for your month, too. All over the country, there are Write-Ins where authors gather to tap away in the company of other artists. We’re having one on Saturday, November 3 at the Milwood branch of the library in Austin, starting at 1 PM. Bring your list of scenes and see where they can lead your writing.

A good Shepard for writing narration

Fifteeen years ago, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop named Lan Samantha Chang as the first female director of the program, perhaps the most prestigious writing school in the world. Much has been said about Chang, who as a 1993 grad of the program was one of the youngest writing teachers to hold the post.

Iowa has the cache of Harvard among graduate writing programs. It celebrates its 85th year this summer. “Students are always interested in finding a place and a group of people that allows them to pursue a writer’s true work, which is thinking,” Chang said in an interview. Indeed, a group of people is essential to the writing life.

While I researched book cover artists this week (all hail John Gall!) I ran across another director candidate that made that 2003 Iowa short list, novelist and short story author Jim Shepard. The summer of 2003 was the season of a couple of stops in my writing training. I  took a seminar from Shepard at the first Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, and earlier in that same trip, stayed in Iowa City while studying at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

Not to take anything away from Chang, but Shepard would have been a good choice, too. In looking over my notes from his classes, I found a day when we examined narration within a story. In using dialogue inside narration, you can

  • Minimize the dialogue’s importance
  • Move things along quicker
  • Show the reader that you’re hurrying

Shepard also told us — by way of teaching from the balls of his feet as we took apart a manuscript to see what make it work — that narrators are more sympathetic when they treat themselves with a brusque manner, “rather than those who piss and moan.”

Shepard was like that: funny in a tough way, but never mean-spirited about his advice and counsel. I consider myself lucky to have learned from him for a week. For a great book on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I recommend The Workshop, edited by Iowa grad Tom Grimes. It’s full of remembrances of the community in the workshop, as well as great stories from its graduates. To find a bit of Conroy’s legacy, dig up and enjoy The Eleventh Draft, a series of essays Conroy assigned to Iowa graduates about the craft of writing.