Author: Rob

Fleshing it out

Fleshing it out

I confess, this sounds like the start to a horror genre post but it’s not, despite my residence in Stephen King country. No, the image that popped into my head as I was beginning work on a new novel was a scene at the beginning of the visually compelling SF movie The Fifth Element in which Leeloo, the Fifth Element, is reconstituted from DNA from a little bit of her that survived a spaceship crash. All of this to say, I have a writing lesson for myself in all of this.

As I’m starting a new novel, I find that the basic story line feels like bare bones. Basically, my early notes boil down to “stuff happens.” It’s been a while since I’ve started a brand new project from scratch, and it’s my first time being deliberate about it. So as I lay out the major actions and events of the novel it feels like I only have a skeleton, so I’ve been struggling to figure out where the meat of the story will come from.

As a way to move things forward, I’ve returned to a favorite book for thinking about character: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I’d first learned about it at a writing conference where the presenter recommended it as a tool to help you think about complexity in character backstory. While the title sounds a bit strange, it helps me think about the things that shape us, that shape my characters, the hurdles they must overcome, and the scars their past left.

The book is organized in sections like “Crime and Victimization,” “Misplaced Trust and Betrayal,” and even “Specific Childhood Wounds.” Given that my current work is on a new thriller, being able to dial up the stakes for the character from the moment they appear in the book, carrying the baggage of a life already lived before page one, helps add depth, complexity and realism for my characters.

But more than that, the book is a great prompt for me to think about more than the “what” happens, but “why” the characters act as they do and how they react to events that transpire in the book. Most importantly, I find it keeps me from letting my book become a chain of events: A happens, then B happens. Or even A happens, therefore B happens. Instead it lets my explore that “why,” in the way E.M. Forster immortalized it Aspects of the Novel: “The king died then the queen died” is a story; “The king died then the queen died of grief” is a plot. What differentiates the two is the character motivation and emotion. Exactly what I’m working to add to my own draft: meat on the bones.

The Other Side of the Screen

The Other Side of the Screen

My wife and I have run The Maine Review for the last three years and had a wonderful time doing it, publishing some great work and learning a ton. One of our editors has stepped up to take over the magazine, making it her own, and we’re thrilled for the transition.

I’m in the middle of querying my novel The Halting Problem right now, and while that is an epic lesson in patience as I wait for replies, my work on the magazine gives me a much better sense of what it’s like on the other side of the screen.

I acted as the publisher and first fiction reader for the The Maine Review. The last issue of the magazine we produced had over 1,000,000 words of fiction submitted for consideration. Thank goodness we’d brought on readers as we grew, because that was a monstrous pile of prose to get through.

I wanted to read every word, but it just wasn’t practical. And what I learned is that in the first paragraph or two, I knew if this work wasn’t for us. Multiple typos and grammatical errors, and the story was rejected. Same with clunky prose. A stilted voice? The same. All of these things kick me out of the narrative.

I’ve received a few rejections from agents already. One agent replied “I didn’t connect with the story strongly enough to feel I’d be the advocate the book deserves,” for example. Now that may be a form letter, but it’s the truth of the matter, and I appreciated it. She looked at my query letter, and the story just didn’t grab her. I was glad for the quick reply and queried the next agent on my list that day.

But it drove home a more critical point for me. One I knew intellectually, but now understand at a gut level. Agents receive a mountain of submissions. Their first impressions are immediately focused on whether the author did the work to be considered. Is the query letter in the standard format? Is it well written? Are the opening paragraphs of the sample pages tight and compelling? In short, do they want to keep reading?

As I’ve said previously, I’m a research nerd, and I put that to good use before I started querying, obsessively reading blog postings on query and manuscript format, on honing the query letter and those first couple of manuscript pages. Among the better advice I read, and now practice religiously, is that nothing I’m submitting–manuscript, query letter, synopsis–should go out the door without having been read aloud. I find typos and bad grammar but also get a feel for the cadence of the prose, something very important in a thriller.

So despite the huge ego investment in my writing, getting a query that says “I didn’t connect with the story” seems like more of a fact than a judgement, and stings a lot less than if I’d alienated the reader on the other side of the screen who has a million words to get through.

Shifting Gears

Shifting Gears

I’d posted on Instagram two months ago after I finished the final draft of my novel and was re-shelving my books. At the moment it felt great; I was entering the next phase of my writing life, floating the little messages in a bottle that are query letters.

And I got to return to research, thinking about my next book. Now, query letters out, and the waiting game begun as rejections come in and new queries go out, I’m surprised to find I’m going a little stir crazy. After I went to work full time as a writer, I worked hard to develop the “write every day” discipline, and quickly came to love it. Running up to my study every day after coffee, hammering away some days for a full 8 hours and producing as many words as I could muster (though some days it was a negative number, for sure). I loved the frenzy of drafting new prose, and surprisingly, came to love wielding the editorial scalpel. (My first draft was 140,000 words, my final is 82,000!)

But the waiting? It’s hard. There’s this “edge of the precipice” feeling, that I’m sure is just another in the long line of firsts for me as I discover the writer’s life. I feel like if I dive into the next book, I might get interrupted when (if?) I get an agent and then when (if?) I get a publisher and revisions are suggested.

Would it be so bad to be interrupted, though? I used to be (and kind of still am) a champion multitasker, working on 10+ work projects at a time. But somehow, being in “writing mode” is an all-in activity for me. And perhaps I don’t ever want to return to the way my writing had gone before I’d started writing full time: making progress in bursts every few years.

All that said, I’m expressing this fear because I know that I have to get over it. If I’m committed to being an ongoing writer, I’ll get interrupted: editing, book tours (hopefully!), conferences, the business of being a writer. So I have to learn to shift gears, revving it all up, and coming back to a halt–stop and go traffic in my creative life.

Research and Avoiding the Rabbit Hole

Research and Avoiding the Rabbit Hole

I absolutely love research. But reflecting back on how much time I spent on it for The Halting Problem, I now feel like I have a better sense of how much is enough to get the job done.

No question, research is an excellent inspiration for a novel, especially one set 30 years in the past, as mine is. I recall events from that moment, but it was useful to remind myself of what was in the news, what was current, and what technologies were new.

Thank god for online archives. I spent countless hours reading The Boston Globe from 1989 and 1990 to find out what was of concern at that moment. The TECH, MIT’s student newspaper and The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, also gave me great insights into what was happening on campus in Cambridge and what mattered to the students then. I spent time looking through old copies of Phrack, a hacker ‘zine, as well, getting into the heads of early computer explorers. In fact, I have a research folder full of ‘zines from that moment, and a long list of articles that provided me with ideas for characters, technologies, plot twists, you name it.

Research is fun, but there’s a risk: the “rabbit hole.” That’s what my wife and I call it when, at the end of the day, we chat about what we were writing that day over cocktails. The rabbit hole is that lost time when you produced zero new words but found all kinds of cool stuff in your research to distract you. And the rabbit hole is a very, very seductive place. After all, it is research for your book, so it’s productive, right? Certainly more fun than butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, staring at the blinking cursor.

The irony is that research can become the thing that gets you unstuck. Rather than a distraction, it can become a tool to bring focus. In James Patterson’s class on writing from masterclass.com, James Patterson Teaches Writing, one of his collaborators recounts Patterson’s advice to her: if you are blocked, you haven’t done enough research.

The difference between that perspective and the rabbit hole is that research to break a block is focused, not an escape, but a specific task, namely “what else do I need to know?” It’s a subtle difference, but one that served me well in completing my novel.

As I was letting The Halting Problem rest while my beta readers had it, I started thinking about the next few books in the series, doing some preliminary research. And the pull of the rabbit hole was as strong as ever. I’m not quite one of those people who has to turn off internet and email access when writing, but at least now I know my go-to “excuses for not writing.” And research? Absolutely number one.

An Ode to Beta Readers

An Ode to Beta Readers

How shall I thank thee, let me count the ways. OK, horrible pun/misquote, but this was the first major work of mine in which I used beta readers, and I’m so grateful. I know there are a ton of different opinions on how to best leverage them and when in your writing process they are most effective, but I had a very specific plan, and set of questions for mine.

I have the most spectacular alpha reader on the planet: my wife. With a PhD in American Literature, a background teaching grammar, and an editor’s eye, I know that my shitty first drafts will be transformed into readable prose. In addition, as I’ve noted in a past post, my protagonist is a woman, and having a reader who helps me identify nuance in diction, emotional engagement, cultural predispositions–all of the things that jar a reader if they are incorrect–is invaluable.

The What

But for beta readers, I had another set of tasks. I was bringing them in to read what I believed to be my best effort at a completed manuscript. Did they find a typo or grammatical faux pas or two? Of course. Here’s what I asked them for:

  • What I’d like the most…
    • Comments in the manuscript where you really like or dislike something. A why would be helpful if it’s something that’s clear to you.
    • Comments in the manuscript where you get lost or confused.
    • Your thoughts overall. Did you enjoy it? Is it like other books you’ve enjoyed? Or not?
    • And to get any comments back before [a specific date].
  • What would be nice to have…
    • Any scenes/characters/plotlines that you feel weren’t developed enough.
    • Any scenes/characters/plotlines that seems superfluous.
    • Comments on flow and pacing. Did it ever drag? Were there sections that were “page-turners.”
    • Anything that disrupts your engagement with the narrative.

As it turns out, this was helpful guidance for them. I knew the story was good, that there were engaging actions scenes, compelling characters, but it’s attention blindness for us as writers. We’re so focused on the object, we miss obvious things.

I got feedback on how much readers liked characters, and characters they wanted to see more of. I got a “Yay!” in a margin when a bad guy got his just deserts. And I got comments about pacing that dragged and pacing that was page-turning. Exactly what I hoped for, and exactly what I needed for that final draft of the novel.

The Who

Not the rock group, of course. The question here is “who did I have read it?” I wanted a diverse group. I asked readers who don’t read in the thriller genre. Did they have fun with it anyway and keep reading because they cared about the characters and the story sucked them in? I asked readers of thrillers who were avid consumers of the masters of the genre. How did I stack up? Did it meet your expectations? I asked a fellow crime writer. Do you think this stands up with the best of what you have seen, and is the craft up to the standard it needs to be? I wanted all of those answers.

The Next

When I got back their written comments, some with line item notations, some just a summary email, I asked them for 30 minutes on the phone. And here, I was looking to ask bigger, more gestalt questions to help my refine the work.

  • Is the start of the novel too gradual, as other readers had noted? Did it need to begin with a bang? Yes, yes, yes. Unanimous.
  • Was the title uninspiring as other readers had said? Yes, yes, yes. Change it (The Halting Problem is my fourth working title for this book).
  • Describe the pacing to me. Does it match my feeling of what I was trying to do? Generally yes (including consensus on a section I knew was dragging and just couldn’t admit out loud).
  • It’s a thriller with lots of 1990 computer technology/jargon. Was that too much? Generally feedback was positive on this.
  • What does it remind you of? A book, a movie. This one was solid gold. I got one of the most creative comp suggestions from this question, naming a science fiction series that has the same kind of long tail character development.
  • What sticks with you, how would you recommend it? This was mostly just fun. I got answers from “it was just fun to read,” to very specific appropriate comps.

The Takeaway

Nobody likes taking both barrels of critique to the face. That said, I thought the book was ready for readers to see. I was right. I thought it was finished. I was wrong (as I said above, I knew it). Did I get practical, specific advice on how to make the book better? Hell yes.

I’m grateful to my readers, and will reward them both with credits in the book and tokens of my esteem, but they all received my heartfelt thanks that they helped me make it the book I think it deserves to be.

The “When” of Your Novel

The “When” of Your Novel

I recounted in my last post a comment from an agent about the historical setting of my novel. She didn’t understand why it was set in 1990 rather than the present day. As with much of her other critique, although I didn’t agree, it did make me examine the “why” of my creative decisions.

When I’ve described my novel as “historical,” I’ve gotten a few surprised reactions from people. Especially if they were an adult or near adult in 1990, they reply “that’s not historical.” That’s an interesting perspective because it forces you to consider what changed and what remained the same in culture, society, and technology.

What is specifically interesting to me are those cultural and behavioral norms that change as technology, specifically, changes. I had a conversation with a reader about pay phones (one is featured early in my novel). She and I reminisced about them, recalling the physical culture of them. The clunky handset, the fact that the white and yellow pages were often missing or damaged.

A phone is a phone, right? But what is substantially different is that most of us didn’t have a cell phone with us all the time in 1990. We couldn’t make a call from almost anywhere, and receive one at any time. If we were in trouble, we had to go find a phone. If you hadn’t heard from a loved one, you had to just wait it out. (Spoiler alert: I do use that fact as a suspense-building plot device in the book!)

Viktor Shklovsky said, “art makes the familiar strange so that it can be freshly perceived,” a fact we novelists depend on to keep the reader turning pages. I’ve found that near-history settings help intensify this. 1990 feels much like now, but the differences become obvious fairly quickly. Very few first-generation analog cell phones. No world wide web. News delivered only a few times a day via radio and TV networks and print newspapers. The list goes on.

There are a few historical events that are important to the plot, but what was most interesting to me was the status of computers in popular culture at that moment. Computer use, popularized by games, chat rooms, and the world wide web, was a few years from its explosive growth. It was a final moment of a kind of technological innocence, an almost alien concept now.

The agent who asked why I didn’t set it in the present got me to dig in and make sure I had a purpose for my setting, that I used it to maximum effect to move the story forward and develop my characters to keep you reading.

And, for readers lived through this moment, remember that you always had to carry change. You never knew when you might need to make a call.

Submission, or Learning to Love Critique

Submission, or Learning to Love Critique

I had the opportunity to attend Grub Street‘s wonderful yearly writing conference, Muse and the Marketplace, last week. I participated in their Manuscript Mart program, in which you provide your query letter, synopsis and first 20 pages to an agent or editor.

It’s a great program, one I’ve participated in both in 2018 and 2017 when I attended the conference. It’s helped me know what to expect, to get a feel for how agents think, and to learn what they are looking for. Plus, it takes some of the fear factor out of the interaction (“wow, agents are people too!”)

But this year I was taking these meetings more seriously. My novel The Halting Problem is currently out to my beta readers and, based on their feedback, I believe that this next revision will be relatively minor and the novel will be ready to start querying very soon. So this was the last practice before the big game.

This morning I was reading the most recent Poets & Writers, enjoying a lovely article about the writing process by Camille T. Dungy titled “Say Yes to Yourself.” One particular quote stood out for me, and helped me catalyze some of what I’ve been feeling about my agent interactions at Muse.

“…submit work that you feel is finished and ready to go into the world. I love that word: submission. It is in fact the best word for that act. I have to humble myself in the process of submission. To give over my trust to another reader. And often it will not go well. Usually it will not go well. That’s part of the process. You can’t please everyone. You shouldn’t even be trying to do that.”

My first agent meeting was OK. She doesn’t represent much in the Thriller genre, and clearly wasn’t into my book. But she gave me some really practical advice about how my early chapters are too dialogue heavy (a point my first two beta reader responses so far agree with). So she didn’t love the book, but was constructive in her feedback.

My second agent meeting didn’t go quite as well. She clearly didn’t like the book, didn’t like the characters, didn’t understand why I’d set it in 1990 rather than today. She criticized the slow start to the book, my choice to start out with character development rather than with a bang. I was defensive about that because I’d made a decision over a year ago to remove a prologue that showed a critical death, instead having a character discover it in the early chapters. She also didn’t like the title, said it was boring. She upbraided me saying that I’m marketing as much to the agent who might represent me, even if the publisher changes the title later.

I left that meeting pretty annoyed. I felt like she didn’t like the project and piled on. Then over the next week the dim refrigerator bulb began to shine over my head. She responded as a reader. I needed to listen to that. So when I connected with my first two beta readers over the last week, I asked them: would you want to see the death in a prologue, and is the title wrong? No surprise. They said yes to both. To be clear, they both loved the book, but the critique was valid and I needed to listen. I’m working on the prologue now, and the book title has already been changed to The Halting Problem.

As a funny coda to the conference, my third agent meeting was in the final hours of the conference. He was totally pumped about the book and told me to make sure to submit when I am ready.

And I will. Submit, that is.

Write it Down

Write it Down

There’s a scene in an early season of Mad Men in which the character Kinsey, staying all night in the office, has a great idea while drinking, then wakes to find the idea gone and nothing for his pitch to Don Draper. “I had an idea and I lost it,” he admits. In a moment of surprising camaraderie, Don nods sagely, and says, “I hate when that happens.”

I’ve run across all kinds of advice–always keep a notebook with you, always keep one beside your bed–so you never lose that moment when inspiration strikes. I, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, find the shower inspiring. But notebooks aren’t so compatible with water. Nor with driving, which is another time ideas often come to me.

What I do, and have done for several years, is record it into my phone via Siri, creating a reminder with the name of the topic and what I wanted to remember and she transcribes it for me. New story ideas, new plot twists, character quirks are all saved for the moment when I can get back to my computer and build it into my manuscript or add it to the Evernote notebooks which house all my research until I start a manuscript and move into Scrivener. Like with being able to record on my phone or watch, which I can do everywhere (except in the shower!), Evernote works on all my devices, so I almost always have access to it.

It’s all a bit of a kludge, but I do manage to capture most of my ideas. Once in a while Siri’s transcription is absolutely incomprehensible, and that can be frustrating. But mostly, I never have to say, “I hate when than happens.”

Women in Coding

Women in Coding

The protagonist of my novel The Halting Problem is a woman programmer at MIT in 1990. My own career has been in IT, and I was a programmer myself early on (albeit a mediocre one, so I went into management!). And as a person in the field I was aware of the change that happened around that moment, when suddenly there were fewer women entering the field.

A great article in the NY Times yesterday, “The Secret History of Women in Coding,” tells much of the underlying story. As it turns out 1984 was the high water mark, when 37.1% of students graduating with IT degrees were women. But by 2010 it had fallen to an abysmal 17.6%.

There are a number of sociocultural reasons for this that the article outlines, but the real tragedy is the dominance of “bro culture” in many software companies, and an unsurprising list of sexual harassment cases at companies like Google.

It was interesting writing about the gender and power politics at that moment in time, and to recognize that little has changed. That, ironically, it’s actually gotten worse.

Down in the Weeds

Down in the Weeds

Awesome author friend Brenda Buchanan was shocked that I didn’t have Crime Bake, the yearly Massachusetts crime and thriller conference, on my schedule. I just went to my first one, and wow, what an experience.

What really hit home for me was thinking about editing, the process, the outcome, the skills. I’m in heavy edit mode now on my novel, and am blown away at how exhausting it is to keep the focus needed to abstract from your own prose. We all fall in love with our own writing, with our own characters. The darlings we are exhorted to kill don’t die easily. I’ve got almost 60,000 words to cut to get the manuscript to a publishable length. And it’s putting up a pretty good fight.

But I got some amazing insights in the very first panel I attended at the conference: Hank Phillippi Ryan’s “Great Beginnings,” a deep dive into the importance of your first 100 words. What I’ve found is that there are moments when the novel is just too big for your head (from Walter Mosley’s great Thrillerfest 2018 Keynote I described previously), and you just can’t face undertaking such an overwhelming task as editing the beast. So you have to switch it up and go deep.

She talked about the micro-level considerations you need to have in mind when you put yourself in the reader’s head. After all, your reader wants to find a character to love and care about. We’ve all put down books that didn’t engage us. But the reader also must quickly know what genre they are in, have a sense of action or suspense that propels them forward. We’ve all also put down books where some promise gets broken by the author. A mystery that’s solved Deus ex Machina, or a thriller with stupid technology mistakes (my wife has mostly gotten used to me yelling at the TV when a show screws up some tech issue).

Readers will put up with some bumpy writing if they’re already committed. So the in the weeds edit, starting with that first page, and extending that same care to the rest of the book is what makes it good. It’s what makes the reader want to stay in it for the long haul. So I’m deep, deep in the weeds now.