Joeseph Finder’s Tips for Writers

I recently had the pleasure of attending a lecture at The Center for Fiction given
by Joseph Finder, The New York Times Best Selling Author. He shared his story
—a fascinating one—of how he went from working for the CIA to writing thrillers.

51e-V7ZwpwL._AA160_He also shared his10 Tips for Writers from which he believes every writer can benefit. Here’s a summary:

1. Rejection can be useful. It can prompt you to do more work and get it to the right      editor.
2.   Be stubborn but be smart about it and be persistent.
3.  Learn to value criticism. It can give you good feedback.
4.  The best fiction is about character, not plot. The plot should arise from the character.
5.   Avoid backstory dump. It takes people out of the story.
6.   Every scene should do some work Ask yourself why is it there.
7.   Reveal. Surprise. Cut out the slow parts.
8.   Never underestimate your readers. Surprise them rather than fool them.
9.   Just write the book. Don’t get hung up in the prose or the words.

10. Get lucky. Hopefully get in front of the right people at the right time.

I’ve read several of Joe’s books and have enjoyed them all very much. His last thriller, THE FIXER, a stand alone, certainly proves he takes his own advice.

How about you? What, if any, rules do you apply to your writing? We’d love to know.

Opening Lines: A First Impression

large_open_bookIn a recent Huffington Post Blog, author Mark Rubinstein, talks about the power the opening sentences of a novel have to grab the reader and pull them into the story.

With examples from authors as diverse as Charles Dickens and David Morrell, we see how they structured their opening lines to make us want to read on.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the craft of novel writing and just how important a good opening is in making that first impression, not only in enticing your readers, but also in setting the premise of the story to come.

Some of my favorite first few sentences are from the novel BACKSEAT SAINTS by Joshilyn Jackson, the story of a young woman who’s finding her way back to herself.

“It was an airport gypsy who told me that I had to kill my husband. She may have been the first to say the words out loud, but she was only giving voice to a thing I’d been trying not to know for a long, long time.”

I read on, curious to find out whom the protagonist was and if she was really going to do the deed, why. I won’t tell you here, but I think you’d find it fun to read the book.

Here are a few sentences from a novel I’m working on, OUT OF TIME. It features
Nick Donahue, the protagonist from the novella, NICK OF TIME.

“Just ask Marina.
If you want to know how I wound tethered like a sacrificial goat to a flimsy spire swaying
in the wind on top of the world’s tallest building, maybe she can explain it.
Because I definitely can’t.”

How about you? Any first sentences that drew you in? Or, any that you’re working on?
We’d love to know.

Boring Characters? Write Them Secret Spirit Animals!

Cup of Carolina Wren photographed by Suzanne LaPalme

Cup of Carolina Wren photographed by Suzanne LaPalme

If you’re like me, you have writerly tendencies, I mean, irritatingly stubborn habits of style that vex you. When facing these, I really appreciate an icebreaker, like one of those party games that might feel dumb but gets me out of talking to/about the same old people the same old way. This can be especially helpful with necessary secondary characters. They don’t have your heart like your protagonists or your oddball sidekicks, but they’re critical to the action and can’t read like wallpaper. So here’s one idea: If you’re fatigued to distraction and self-loathing by the way you’re characterizing, but can’t seem to think up anything new, try writing a character as an animal.

I do NOT mean writing “She was a wren of a woman.” You’ve written that and you’re done, what else can be said? No, no. Keep the identification of your character’s spirit animal to yourself. But, when you struggle for a description or a reaction beyond the usual (are you typically a tracer of eyebrow heights, an eye-color obsessive, a smile documenter, a recorder of chuckles, a wink-counter, a freezer of glances, or sketcher of fidgets, until you scream at your own monotony?), then take a break from yourself. Think of what’s true for the wren.

In whatever scene this character appears, you can pop in elements of the wren’s coloration, its high activity level, its attribution of humility and industriousness, how it disappears when alarmed, its ground-feeding focus on mundane details, its willingness to chat and chat. “Nosy busybody” gets repetitive, but it can be tough to think of other, richer ways to imply that. If you start dotting in the characteristics of a wren or whatever animal fits, without even saying that’s what you’re doing, the characterization starts to get round and full and to hold together. Moreover, it rings true with us as readers.

Whether country or city folk, we know something about ubiquitous little brown birds, and they are part of our subconscious and collective understanding of the world, as well as part of our conscious education. A la Jung, animals are archetypes, too. So beyond earth-wise mothers and power-mad tyrants, tapping into this kind of animal archetype, without using overtly comparative terminology or labeling, I think you may be surprised how well readers make the intuitive leaps of understanding. They’ll comprehend the characters in subtler ways than simply recalling what you flat-out narrated at them. When bright readers (and all ours are clever, of course!) get to fill these imaginative gaps themselves, it’s an enjoyable process that engages them more deeply with the writing. Most of all, a secret animal identity like this can bring revelations to the writer of what might be in-type and playing against it for a particular character. Then, the writer can thoughtfully employ either side of that axis as the story demands. A character’s spirit animal does all this while giving you a blessedly new range of behaviors, sights, sounds, even smells to get you out of your description-reaction rut.

So, if you have a secondary characters that feel boring or repetitve, try writing them with secret spirit animals!

Image via the lovely Birds and Blooms site.

I Spy With A Writer’s Eye

gallery-thumbnails.phpA recent blog post from thriller and suspense author Ed Kovacs, discussed gadgets every thriller/spy novelist should have at their disposal. Many were digital and some seemed items you would think of immediately, such as a camcorder watch for undercover videos and a smart phone, a great multi-tasker, while others, such as four-cipher locks and hide safes were things I hadn’t heard of before.

As you may know from previous posts, I’ve always wanted to be a spy. So, I decided to do a little research and add my own must have spy items, if not for myself, for the next time one of my characters goes undercover.

Here are my results:
Night vision goggles, perfect for stakeouts

Voice activated recorder pen, so you never miss a word

Air freshener hidden security camera, for those hard to spy on settings

Tripwire, the invisible alarm

A drone, for the complete overview

And a pair of oversize dark sunglasses for glamorous camouflage

Now that I’ve amassed these items (figuratively that is) I’ll have to write a story
in which to use them.

How about you? Have any equipment your sleuth could use on a case? Let us know.

TV’s Hannibal: Gross, Perverse, Artistic. I Like It!

Mads Mikkelsen stars as the cannibal and serial killer Dr. Lecter in TV's Hannibal

Mads Mikkelsen as TV’s Dr. Hannibal Lecter

Based on Thomas Harris’s novels, the Hannibal TV series, created and produced by Bryan Fuller, is not for the squeamish. But I’m not. I just ask that gore be purposeful, be interesting, be done with care for what it causes and the consequences. Hannibal mines the rich inspiration of art that’s in the books and marries it with aesthetically inventive visuals, sharp but minimal dialogue, and great performances to make a show that doesn’t feel or look like any other. Dramatic, cultured, very close-up and personal, it meanders the deceptive byways of the human mind. As far as shows that could be considered mainstream horror, you can think of Hannibal as the other end of the axis that the also-unique Walking Dead occupies.

For me, the shock value of the usual red-dyed corn syrup wore off after, oh, maybe watching the already dated Toolbox Killer in high school. Most horror isn’t that horrible once you’ve seen a bunch, and when you suspect a new story is just graceless, hopeless, manipulative three-card monte, it can lose its appeal. I make an exception for trope-licious campy fun, sometimes great fun, as TV’s American Horror Story often plays in this sandbox. In my least favorite kind of horror, the effects of all the bizarrities and carnage have no cumulative effect on the characters. They could be stepping through the stations of Candyland for all it matters. That’s how you know the writer made the victims of cardboard, because not even their nearest and dearest seem to care. The slaughter-forget-repeat cycle isn’t that captivating.

But it’s not merely horror, because Hannibal is also a lawless serial killer. Whether his pursuers on TV are now retired, estranged, or recuperating, it’s their connections to law enforcement, FBI specifically, that brought them into contact with Dr. Lecter. This show is set before the events of the novel Red Dragon– seen in the movie versions Manhunter (1986) and Red Dragon (2002)–and the even later-set novel Silence of the Lambs, the basis for the 1991 movie of the same name. In the TV series, we’ve gotten to backward to see the FBI’s star-profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) meet Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikklesen) for the first time. We have explored the earliest, dangerous, see-sawing interaction of hunter and hunted. Later, we know, the cannibal will perfect with profiler Clarice Starling a method of corruption which is in-development here with Will Graham. Now, in the show’s third season, Hannibal has escaped the U.S. after dramatically revealing himself as no ordinary psychiatrist-consultant to the feds. His pursuers, who are all now also profoundly wounded victims, are closing in. Which is exactly what he wants. What he craves.

I know this kind of fare is NOT to the taste of everyone among the WoM or our regular visitors, not by any means. However, I thought I’d make a stab (ha) at trying to explain the appeal of the form and of this show in particular. I’ve been doing weekly show recaps at Criminal Element. Each week, I try to explore at least one of the cultural or artistic elements raised in the episode with more detail as bonus info, if you will. The episodes you’ll notice are all named after courses or categories of cuisine. Season 1 was French, Season 2 was Japanese. This season, which takes place partially in Florence and Palermo, is appropriately Italian. So here are the links to those posts if you’re interested!

Hannibal 3.01: an “Antipasto” of Drains and Snails — more on comic opera Don Pasquale and the medieval torture device called the Catherine Wheel

Hannibal 3.02: “Primavera” Springs Will Graham — more on true-crime killer, Il Mostro, the Monster of Florence, and Botticelli’s painting Allegory of Spring

Hannibal 3.03: “Secondo” Means Choosing — more on ancient Rome’s meat apportioning and how Death’s Head moths and entomological imposters are used on screen

Hannibal 3.04: “Aperitivo” Whets the Bloodlust — more on the conspiracy to kill Caesar, mythological death goddesses, and John Donne’s sonnet “A Fever”

This will be the show’s last season on NBC, and credit to them for sticking so long with something so different. However, I have high hopes this quality show will be picked up by another network or streaming service. After all, it has a built-in base of passionate fannibals, and there’s a whole world of cuisine, art, architecture, and music left to explore!

Poirot and Tisanes for Me and Thee

Need-Another-Tisane-PoirotFor some reason, I’d forgotten about Hercule Poirot’s tisanes, otherwise known as herbal teas, often intended to have medicinal properties. They’re a big thing for him, perhaps how he thrives amid such rich gastronomy, and a pleasure to which I’ve only recently returned.

Over at Ellen Seltz’s Writer Blog, discreet inquiry, she has some delicious-sounding musings around the canny Belgian’s preferences, even if perhaps thought “noxious” by Captain Hastings:

He is mentioned in “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” as being inordinately fond of Chamomile tea, which has a very delicate greeny-floral taste.

The link to another “fatal” tisane also looks great, but I was most thrilled to be reminded the brilliant Hercule shares my current passion for this other flower in the famed echinacea family. I was recently drinking some chamomile tea, purely for the pleasures of the herb-y taste, and was later surprised by how supple it made me feel, having (I learned) natural anti-inflammatories along with its myriad other benefits. I also discovered, oddly enough, that one of my dogs with a chronically itchy skin condition is soothed by being sprayed with cooled chamomile tea. So here’s to Poirot, who knows what the heck he’s on about, as if that were ever in question!

Bone to be Wild by Carolyn Haines

HainesBone to be Wild is the fifteenth book in the Sarah Booth Delaney Mysteries. Sarah Booth’s old friend, Scott Hampton, is bringing his special brand of the blues back to Zinnia in the wonderful old club located at the crossroads of Sawmill and Pentecost roads. It was rumored to be “the location where the devil made more than one bargain for a musician’s soul.” Playin’ the Bones would be the happening place—unless someone kept Scott from fulfilling his dream.

See my full review at Criminal Element. Carolyn Haines is a prolific writer from Mississippi, and her heroine Sarah Booth Delaney is a charming private investigator who doesn’t let her Southern politeness keep her from digging up the truth when it’s needed.

Check out www.criminalelement.com!

A Day at Henry’s Palace

Neely Powell 2014-31-1Jan Powell and I make up the writing team called Neely Powell. We recently were privileged to go to England together and explore the familiar landmarks while visiting with my son and his family, who live in Weybridge.

Not far from Weybridge is the town of Hampton Court, where the famous Hampton Court Palace, a favorite home away from home for Henry VIII. It’s just ten miles from London and rises up beside the River Thames. Stepping through the gates takes you back in time 500 years. You actually feel the enormity of the history. All of Henry VIII’s wives came here. Henry’s heirs were born here.

HCPalaceThe first thing you notice is the immensity of it. There’s no way you can stand in the grounds and fully comprehend how big the palace is. There’s also no way you can see everything in its mighty walls in just one day, so I’m sharing some of the highlights that we really enjoyed. It was one of 50 or 60 palaces Henry owned, but it was by far his favorite.

You can feel the power still hovering in the corridors. Epic decisions and petty jealousies were familiar guests in the royal bedrooms. The amount of food and wine consumed in one day is staggering. The court required 600,000 gallons of bear every year and around 10,000 gallons of wine. FountainThere is actually a replica of a wine fountain in the courtyard used to provide unending red wine during a peace conference, complete with resident drunkards. A temporary palace made to look like Hampton Court was erected just for the conference, which was called “Field of Cloth of Gold” because of the many gold-plated tents used for housing.

Henry’s life was defined by his lavish lifestyle and preponderance of wealth. When he visited Hampton Court Palace, he had a court of 1,000 people. It’s interesting to note that the Great Hall, where Henry and his court dined was the last medieval great hall built for English royalty. Henry was so anxious to have it done, he made the masons work by candlelight at night.

When we walked down The Gallery outside Henry’s chambers, we hoped for a sighting of the ghost of Catherine Howard. Throughout the day a number of events are portrayed by actors in the palace. We happened upon the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, just outside the king’s court. He confided in us that he had found evidence of the queen’s deceit and had informed the king. However, Henry was reluctant to believe him, and he was distressed. Of course, Henry came to believe the Cardinal, and Catherine was beheaded for adultery while married to the king.

CardinalIt was fascinating to speak with the actor who portrayed the Cardinal. He never dropped character. We felt like a part of the tense drama going on in the palace. As we watched the dialogue between Henry and members of his court, the audience weighed in with their opinions on matters. It was great fun.

Unfortunately, we had to leave the grounds when they were closing for the night. We strolled along the river as we made our way back to the busy 21st street with its traffic and familiar noises.

We finished our day enjoying Sticky Toffee Pudding at a pub across the street from the palace called The Mute Swan, where we promptly began plotting a short story. We are now working on this little murder mystery, which will include a visit to one of Henry VIII’s favorite palaces.

Anne of the Fens: Giveaway Winner!

Anne of the Fens by Gretchen Gibbs

On Friday, we ran an Interview and Giveaway of Anne of the Fens  (The Bradstreet Chronicles) by Gretchen Gibbs. I’m happy to announce the winner of the free paperback copy is Anne Wein! 

Thanks to all who expressed interest in the book.  Anne of the Fens is available in paperback and ebook at all online retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble,  iBookstore, Google Play Books, Kobo, Powells, Books-a-Million

You can read more about Gretchen Gibbs here and Anne of the Fens here.

What others are saying about Anne of the Fens

“Gibbs weaves a story of a young girl coping with adult feelings and questioning her religious beliefs. Anne of the Fens takes the reader on a historical journey from the marshes of England to the wilds of a new land.” ― Gayle C. Krause, author of the award nominated YA novel, Ratgirl: Song of the Viper

“Set against the dark, threatening landscape of pre-English Civil War, when men and women were hanged or burned alive for their religious beliefs, Anne of the Fens is a very quick read and easy to fall into.” ― Jenny Maloney, CriminalElement.com

“Take one part spunky adolescent, two parts woman-to-be, a generous helping of smarts, and you’ve got Gibbs’s extraordinary protagonist. Whether she’s reading forbidden literature or making her way through the dangerous fens, we are right there, rooting for her. Anne of the Fens is a breathless ride.” ― Carole Howard, author of About Face and Deadly Adagio

“With wit and an eye to sumptuous detail, Gretchen Gibbs catapults us into 1627 England. This is a terrific book, and Anne’s story is both romantic and harrowing. From its opening scene at Lincolnshire’s fair to its unpredictable end, I couldn’t put it down.” ― Donna Reis, author of No Passing Zone and Certain

 

Anne of the Fens: Author Chat & Giveaway

image004Last Friday I posted about Gretchen Gibbs’ newly released Anne of the Fens,  a YA historical romance. What follows is my interview with Gretchen, but first let me tell you about our Giveaway: Readers who leave a comment following this post are entered in a contest to win a paperback copy of Anne of the Fens. I’ll announce the winner on Tuesday, May 12, so check back then. (Be sure to give me some way to reach you.)

Now, here’s Gretchen, who’ll be responding to comments and questions when she returns from her morning tennis game.

Congratulations, Gretchen, on publishing Anne
of the Fens!
  I’ll start with the hardest question: I think readers most want to know why they should read your book!  
“Thanks for inviting me! I can tell you some reasons why I think readers will like Anne. First, people say it’s a page-turner, what with a secret room in a castle, a handsome scoundrel, and a chase scene through the fens, no less. Anne of the Fens by Gretchen GibbsSecond, the novel’s a love story. Who can resist a romance? Third, it’s about a fascinating woman who became America’s first poet, Anne Dudley Bradstreet. She came to the Colonies on an ocean voyage fraught with hardship, and she bore eight children under circumstances of extreme deprivation. I thought, what kind of adolescence would such a strong woman have had?”

How did you get interested in Anne Bradstreet?   “I’ve always loved poetry, but IMaggie_Cover_Thumb
discovered Anne in a different way. My first novel, The Book of Maggie Bradstreet, told the story of the Colonial witch trials from the perspective of one of my ancestors, a young woman who found herself caught up in them. Anne Bradstreet was Maggie’s grandmother, and once I had told Maggie’s story I began to get interested in Anne as a character. I owe my interest, ultimately, to my mother, who discovered we’re descendants of the Bradstreets.”

What kind of research did you do for the book?   “I read a lot about Anne; there are several good biographies, the latest by Charlotte Gordon, and a number of books about Anne’s poetry. Then I discovered that intriguing, key fact: The family emigrated because of the traitor they housed. Not much is known about her childhood, but she wrote a few things in a notebook that her own children scribbled over. (She said she had been religious, but became ‘loose from God’ at fourteen or fifteen, when she was taken over by her carnal feelings.) I also read some English history, as I was unfamiliar with Charles I and his struggles with Parliament. I’m sure most Britons know all about that period, but Americans are apt to associate the name ‘King Charles’ with a handsome breed of spaniel!”

Given that kind of unfamiliarity, was it hard to set your book in England?   “I spent some time in England, where I found myself quite taken with the fen lands. Many people love mountains, and I admire them too, but I am often drawn to flat areas; oceans and big sky country, as they say in the American West. The fens were like that; they’ve been drained and filled in dramatically in the 400 years since Anne’s harrowing adventures, but there’s still that flatness. Tattershall was the only castle made of brick I’d ever seen – warm, and beautifully restored. Nearby Boston was a great town, with a street called “Wormgate,” and St. Botolph’s church, the largest in England, if you don’t count cathedrals. Seeing it helped me visualize the book’s first scene, where Anne runs after Sarah around the corner of the church.”

So what’s next? Anne of the Fens is the second in the Bradstreet Chronicles. Will there be a third?   “I’d love to write about Anne’s great-grandfather, who was from the nobility that Anne’s father was so proud of. At fourteen, he was a British spy. He was imprisoned twice in France, escaped both times, and became a Knight of Malta, which is where he lived.”

Thank you Gretchen. You’ve given us a real feel for Anne Bradstreet and your own enthusiasm.  “It’s been fun.
I’m happy to chat about Anne.

Read more about Gretchen and her young adult historical novels at www.gretchengibbs.com.

Don’t forget to comment here for a chance to win a copy of Anne of the Fens, then check back next Tuesday for the winner.