Be prepared for stops and starts. A coaching client of mine recently apologized for not getting me pages for Chapter 2 as quickly as she had for Chapter 1. As I told her, no apologies necessary. Chapter Twos are often a lot harder for authors. The first chapter of your book comes easily, as if from a dream (and in many cases it was), but then the next one, and then the next one and next one, can be more difficult to write as you grapple with the best ways to tell your story. I’ve said this here before, but writing a novel is supposed to be hard, it’s supposed to give you pause, make you think, make you doubt yourself, make you want to throw the entire thing in the garbage (an author-friend of mine deleted tens of thousands of words because they weren’t working — you gotta do what you gotta do). As far as I’m concerned, if the writing feels hard, you’re doing something right. As Jimmy Dugan says in A League of Their Own: ” It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” So feel free to stop and rant and bang your head against the wall all you want while you write, just as long as you always start up again.
Use Google Alerts as a research tool. I’m sure by now you’ve heard of Google Alerts, but for those who haven’t it’s a content change detection and notification service offered by Google. What it does is notify anyone who sets a Google Alert when new content is available online — on whatever search query you’ve denoted — from news sites, blogs, video sites and discussion groups and provides you with the links on where to find it.
Writers often plug their own names and books into Google Alerts as part of their promotional efforts, so they can keep track of any news stories or blogs or discussions in which they are mentioned.
However, Google Alerts can also be used in research. Currently, I’m working on a nonfiction book about Daft Punk, so I’ve set a Google Alert to notify me once a day of any new items related to the French music duo (and with the hit “Get Lucky” racing up the charts, there are plenty). In my contemporary fiction, I will sometimes set a Google Alert if, say, I need to stay up to date on a certain subject. In Baby Grand, I have a character who is on death row, and I wanted to — over the course of writing the book — keep up on any news or controversies that cropped up. Setting a Google Alert for “death row” saved me the trouble of having to scour the internet for these things; instead, they popped up in my inbox like magic.
Google Alerts is super-easy to use. Just go to Google Alerts, and enter your search query, how many search results you want and how often, and what email address you want it all to go to, and that’s it. Easy-peasy, as Sookie Stackhouse might say. :)
Have you used Google Alerts in your writing research?
I was recently chatting with a fellow thriller writer who admitted he did hardly any research for his books — a fact that he rarely discussed with readers. (“That’s not what they want to hear,” he told me.)
I, however, tell readers all the time that I’m not really a research-hound when it comes to my novels. Maybe it’s because I’m a trained journalist and my day job is spent worrying about the facts, and being accurate, and getting it right, that when I write fiction I just want to let my mind wander into new and interesting places. I mean, that IS the fun of novel-writing, isn’t it?
That is not to say, however, that I DON’T do research. I do. I actually do CONSTANT research, but in very small doses. If I’m writing a scene about, say, Bryant Park in Manhattan, I’ll scoot over to the Bryant Park website to do a quick read on the latest news, and then continue on with my scene. If I decide that my character, Bob, is going to buy a Brooks Brothers suit, I’ll go to the Brooks Brothers website to look at the kinds of suits they’ve got. Hey, in May 2010, I even traveled to Albany, New York, to get a feel for the city, since it is the primary setting for Baby Grand. It’s not that I’m averse to research, but I’m not a stickler for it. I look at novel-writing as playtime, where I can mix fact and fiction.
In my opinion, novels simply need to be believable. As long as readers think that, sure, this could happen, I’m happy. (A recent blog post on Writer Unboxed discussed how thinking too much about the Reality Police will actually derail your writing. Sometimes writers get too caught up these tiny details of whether or not something is true, whether or not they’ll receive hate mail from readers about how they screwed something up, that they can’t manage to write a word.)
Most of the time I go by my own reality compass. Do I think this is credible? real? believable enough for readers to keep reading? I’m sure I don’t get EVERYTHING right, but I’m okay with that as long as I TRY to.
Recently, at a book club appearance, the discussion turned to a scene in Baby Grand where a visitor who has clearly had a few drinks goes to see a death row inmate. One of the ladies in the group said, “There’s no way that guy would be allowed to go in there drunk.”
For months, I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a series of YouTube videos about writing, similar to the writing tips I have here on Sundays. If you search through YouTube you’ll find all kinds of tips — some really good and some really bad. I thought I would throw my hat into the ring, and, as a test run, I took my very first writing tip from this blog and created a short video for it. Not sure if it works. I’m trying to make these tips helpful, but also personable. Casual and fun, but informative. Here’s the first one. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is this worth pursuing? Or should I stick with type tips?
“”I wasn’t watching a lot of ball games.” So said crime writer George Pelecanos during the “Inside The Mystery Writers Studio” panel at Book Expo America on Friday that featured, in addition to Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, David Baldacci, Scott Turow and moderator Marcia Clark. The discussion turned to how — in those early days — the authors balanced their writing with a full-time job. Pelecanos, whose new book The Double will be published this fall, said this:
“For my first eight novels I had a full time job during the day. so I would get up early in the morning and then I would come home at night to write. And I just considered it to be my second job…But in order to do that and sort of sacrifice, I mean, I wasn’t watching a lot of ball games on TV. All these things that you give up. You gotta love your other job too.”
I thought this was completely spot-on. As readers of this blog know, while working on Baby Grand, I set my alarm for the middle of the night to write or I didn’t go out as much with friends or my husband or my kids. I cut back on freelance writing. It’s all about sacrifice, yes, that’s true. But the key is this: While there’s guilt (and often lots of it) associated with sacrifice and not doing some of the things you want to do, you’re so passionate about what you ARE doing that it really doesn’t feel like sacrifice at all.
Invite your writer-self to your evening out, but don’t let her monopolize it. One of the most difficult things about being a writer is trying to live your life in the moment and, at the same time, try to mentally record everything that you see for your current and future projects. There’s a constant struggle between living and observing. Last night I attended a local fire department event with my husband, and it just so happens that one of the characters in my next novel is a volunteer firefighter — which meant that although my intention was leave my writer hat at home for the night and just have a good time, I observed lots of things during the evening where the hatless writer in me would whisper in my ear, Oooh, that’s good! Remember that.
Generally, what I do in those situations is whip out my cell phone and then email myself whatever observation I’m trying to capture, so that I know it’s safe and preserved and then I can go back to the living part of the evening. Sometimes I’ll take my phone out ten times within the span of a few hours, but then once the business of writing is done I can go back to my herb-crusted salmon and dinner conversation. You might think that’s a bit disruptive (or obsessive), but for me it’s better than spending the entire night worrying that I’ll forget whatever it is I want to remember — I’ve tried it, and in the end I neither live nor observe, because I wind up spending the night worrying and forgetting.
Don’t imitate. Interpret. Today’s writing tip comes from Peter Beston, an East Quoque, New York-based artist I had the pleasure of meeting during a recent taping for The Writer’s Dream. “Don’t imitate. Interpret.” It’s the advice Peter gives to aspiring painters, but of course his words can apply to any creative artist. When you imitate, you aim to replicate what another person has done; you essential take yourself out of the creative process. When you interpret, you embed your own viewpoint into your creation — you make sense of, add to, depict, question. When I think of “imitating,” I think of an assembly line, the mindless act of placing images on a canvas or sentences into a Word document — an act of the body rather than of the mind. When I think of “intepreting,” I think of a collaboration, a synergy between the mind and body. Although I’m sure there are those who believe that the act of trying to imitate alone will yield an interpretation, my feeling is that if the intention is only to duplicate what is already there, then the artist is not utilizing her most important asset: her point of view. And a well-developed point of view is what separates a beautiful work from a singular work.
Make your chapter endings count. A book club member recently commented that she enjoyed the ending of each chapter in Baby Grand: “They made me want to keep reading.” Yay, I thought, I’ve done my job. The way I see it, chapter endings should serve two functions:
- To end whatever scene is going on in the book at a logical place that feels satisfying to the reader — the plot has moved forward and the reader had learned something new.
- To keep the reader engaged enough to want to turn to the next chapter.
I’ve read books, particularly thrillers, with chapters that just seem to end willy nilly, as if the author took a knife and just randomly cut one big chapter into two. Perhaps the author thought some of his chapters were getting a bit too lengthy or unruly and needed to be shortened — thriller readers seem to like brief, tidy chapters. Still, to me it just seemed like a waste of a new chapter heading.
Chapter endings need to make sense, need to bring a scene to a close. They should make readers stick in their bookmarks and wonder, Hmmm, what will happen next? And if they’re really good, the reader will reopen the book to find out.
Always remember why you became a writer. Yesterday, I had the privilege of speaking to prospective MFA students at Hofstra University about my experiences in grad school there and about publishing as a career. I got to see old professors and old friends, but perhaps the most exciting aspect of the afternoon was the opportunity to hear current Hofstra students perform readings of their work. How inspiring it was to see these students recite their poetry, their creative nonfiction and fiction. How proud I could tell they were to have been asked to showcase their stuff. You could see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices. It’s been, gosh, almost four years since I graduated from Hofstra, and I had forgotten how exciting it was to be in a place where the written word was cultivated and so valued. (Can you tell I miss being there?) As I struggled with my current work-in-progress this morning, I thought about the faces of those students I saw yesterday who didn’t seem worried about agents and publishers and readers and sales. They just seemed to be enjoying the moment, the opportunity to share their thoughts with others. That’s why most of us have become writers, isn’t it? Because we thought we had something to say, stories to tell. Good. Bad. Long. Short. Funny. Sad. Whatever it is that we’re struggling to say, we have to always remember that it deserves to be written.
Feeling ‘trapped’ when penning a sequel. A fellow writer, Betsy Arnold, sparked a very interesting discussion on my FB page today. She said — with regard to penning a “companion book” to a novel:
“I keep having to go back and check the facts from my first book which were throwaways at the time. Now they are parameters with which I’m stuck. Is that true for you?…I keep having to consult my maps and timelines. Ugh. I want to change a few things in the first book, but can’t. It’s a strange feeling.”
Indeed, it is. And she is totally right. In a sequel, or companion book, you are confined by the “throwaways” (good word!) that you created in the first book — your character was born here, in a place and time that you provided for him, whether purposefully or arbitrarily (it makes you realize how very important every decision you make in your novel is!). As I told Betsy, you can always have a character dye his hair or decide he doesn’t like mashed potatoes anymore. But it’s true that that character has to be born where you decided he was born in the first book — unless, of course, the entire first book was a hallucination or dream (Bobby Ewing, anyone?). Although the novel I’m working on now, In the Red, is a stand-alone, my next book will be a sequel to my first novel, Baby Grand. I’ve started working on it a bit, and already I’m experiencing the things Betsy mentions: Having to check back to the first book to make sure I’m being consistent so that fans of the first book won’t be standing outside my house with pitchforks demanding a public apology or a new edition.
Yes, it can feel confining, but remember that only those starting points have to remain the same (character names, descriptions, etc.). Characters can move, change their minds, denounce their families, find a time machine and do just about anything they want to do. Although some things may be etched in stone, the rest is a wonderfully blank canvas.