Showing posts with label John Sandford. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Sandford. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Transitions: Building bridges
between your plot islands

Put on your waders because we're going deep into the fiction-writing bulrushes today. I want to talk about one of my favorite micro-topics -- transitions. Actually, maybe it’s quicksand we're wading into, because if your book doesn’t have good transitions, it can sink faster than Janet Leigh’s ’57 Ford in Psycho.

We talk a lot here at TKZ about how important pacing is, and transitions go along way to creating that seamless narrative flow you need as your story shifts in time, location, or point-of view. But here’s the thing: Transitions look easy but they can be tricky to get right.

I think I dwell on transitions so much because I work with a co-author. Kelly and I write our books by talking out the plot then writing alternating chapters. So we don’t have the normal one-brain flow of a unified writing procedure. We always know the purpose of each chapter but often we write with no clear idea of what the links between the chapters will be. Sometimes we just leave red-ink pleas like this for each other --INSERT BETTER ENDING HERE -- then we deal with links in rewrites.

I used to think this was nuts but then I read an interview with Katherine Anne Porter wherein she described her writing process as “creating scene islands” and "building bridges" between them. This gave me great comfort, knowing I could approach writing like a good engineer. Getting my chapters to flow became akin to making the long journey to Key West. 
It also made me think that maybe the island-bridge analogy is useful for those of you who work alone. Because the scene (and by extension chapter) is the terra firma of your plot structure and once you have that solid you can always go back and figure out the best ways to move between those plot clots. A consistent problem I see with critique manuscripts is that the writer often doesn't know where to end a chapter for maximum impact. And that leads to not knowing where to pick up the next one. It is helpful, I think, for writers who struggle with this to concentrate on figuring out what the MAIN PURPOSE of each scene/chapter is, write that plot clot, and then fine tune the bridges later. I've often found that if I just keep telling the story -- even if that means sticking in some really pedestrian transition just to keep moving forward -- that when I go back later in rewrites the perfect transition jumps out at me.

So what exactly is a transition? Well, there are all kinds. Most are straightforward and literal; some are complex and sophisticated. But all good transitions do one thing: They strengthen the internal logic of your story by moving readers from idea to idea, scene to scene, and chapter to chapter with grace and ease. I’m going to move the lens out here and just talk about chapter transitions for now. Here’s some of the ones I’ve identified. Maybe you guys have some others?

Time Transition: This is when you want to move forward (or occasionally backward) in time with your story. These are pretty workmanlike but very useful in that they simply bridge time from your previous scene. (Unless noted, all examples here are from our latest book HEART OF ICE).
Chapter 4
It was nearly three by the time Louis met Flowers at the docks.
Chapter 7
Just over an hour later, Dagliesh had left the headland and was driving west along A1151. (P.D. James)
A word about time stamps. These are the tags you see at chapter beginnings ie "Sunday" or "November 1967" or even just "Later that day." I have a slight bias against time stamps because too often they are a cop-out by a writer who can't figure out how to gracefully weave time changes in the narrative. But sometimes you really need them, especially thriller writers who work on big canvases. If your story is happening at two different times, time stamps help the reader move between the threads, i.e. “New Orleans, 1855” or "Kabul 1999.” In his thriller The Phoenix Apostles, our own Joe Moore (with Lynn Sholes) pin-balls between Mexico, the Bahamas, Paris in present time and Reno, Washington D.C. and even 1899 Chicago. Without his time/location stamps we’d be lost!

Time/location tags can be pretty elaborate. In her complex novel about 9/11, Absent Friends, S.J. Rozan weaves multiple narratives together by using tags like so:
 PHIL'S STORY
Chapter Six
___
The Invisible Man
Steps Between You and the Mirror

This is grad school stuff; Rozan knows what she's doing. Another good use of time stamps is found in Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn must find a way to bring the missing wife Amy to life so Flynn alternates the husband Nick’s present-day narrative with his wife’s diary entries, all clearly marked with time/name stamps.

Point of View Transition: When you move between characters, you could just pick up with the new character's voice. But the flow can be enhanced if you find a way to subtly link them. Here is Louis talking to a police chief about the abandoned hunting lodge where they just found old bones at the end of Chapter 6:

“Nobody comes here. It’s just a broken down old dump,” the chief said.
Louis shook his head. “No, it’s important. It’s his Room 101.”
“What?”
“It’s from Orwell...1984.”
“Never read it.”
Flowers moved away and Louis looked back at the lodge. He could still recall the exact quote from the book – maybe because it reminded him of things in his foster homes he wanted to forget.
The thing in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.

Chapter 7
There were thousands of them. Small, black jelly-bean creatures crawling around the plastic bin, piggybacking one another to get to that one last shred of meat on the bone.
The beetle larvae were hungry today.
This skull would be ready by nightfall.
Danny Dancer made sure the lid was secure on the bin and left the room.
By using the Orwell "room" quote we tried to lead the reader to the horror of what they were about to see in Danny Dancer's room. Change of POV but bridged with purpose.


Continued Narrative Transition: Here, the story simply continues from what came in previous chapter. The main artistic choice you makeis how much time elapses between scenes. It can be minutes, days or years. Here's John Sandford ending Chapter 14:

“He tried to hang Spivak, for Christ's sake," Lucas said, exasperated.
"That was just part of the job," Harmon said. "You can understand that."
Chapter 15
Lucas couldn't. He got off the phone, breathing hard for a few minutes, backed off the gas.
Sometimes, the continued narrative transition can be deep in a character's pysche. Here’s a nice transition  from Jeff Lindsay’s Dearly Devoted Dexter at the end of chapter 10:
The only reason I ever thought about being human was to be more like him.
Chapter 11
And so I was patient. Not an easy thing, but it was the Harry thing.
The thing with this transition is that you the writer have to make calculated decisions on where to pick up the action  and what you can leave out in the lapse. Say you end a chapter with a cop getting a call at home to come to a  crime scene. Where do you pick up the thread? Do you show him strapping on the gun, getting in the car, walking up to the yellow tape? Or is it more effective to begin the next chapter with "As Nick took his first look at the woman's body, he realized with a start he had seen her face before." Here's exactly such a passage from Val McDermid's splendid A Place of Execution:


End of Chapter 11

The door to the caravan burst open and Grundy stood in the framed doorway, his face the bloodless grey of the Scardale crags. "They've found a body," he said.
Chapter 12
Peter Crowther's body was huddled in the lee of a dry-stone wall three miles due south of Scardale as the crow flies. It was curled in on itself in a fetal crouch, knees tucked up to the chin. The overnight frost that had turned the roads treacherous had given it a sugar coating of hoar.

Action/Reaction Transition: When you have a juicy action scene it can be very effective to break at just after the action peak and open next chapter with a character-focused reaction: Here is the end of our chapter 17, an ambush where Chief Flowers gets shot.

“Clear! We’re clear! Get the ambulance in here now!”
Louis’s heart was finally slowing but he still had to blink to clear his head. Joe was kneeling by Flowers, and from somewhere down the dirt road sirens wailed.
He heard a whimper and looked down at Danny Dancer. The bastard was crying. Curled up like a baby and crying.

 Chapter 18
How could he have been so stupid? He knew that anyone who showed an abnormal interest in a crime scene was someone who needed to be treated with suspicion.
Yet he had allowed Flowers, who was blind to the idea that anyone on his island could be a cold-blooded murderer, walk into a crazy man’s line of fire.
At beginning of Chapter 18, an hour has elapsed and Louis is waiting in the hospital as Flowers lays dying. We chose this transition because the "quiet" moment of Chapter 18 provides relief for the reader after the tension of the ambush, much like letting you catch your breath after the steep drop of a roller coaster. It's all about pacing.

Descriptive Transition: This is another way to alter your pacing. Say you had a explaining-the-case chapter with heavy dialogue between investigators. It's often effective then to go from staccato to legato and open the next chapter with a descriptive passage. And yes, you can use weather -- in moderation!  It is also a good way of telling your readers where we are. I'm of the mind that description transitions should only be used early in your story because they can slow things down too much once your plot-engine gets really chugging. UNLESS, like Joe Moore, you are globe-hopping, and then a well-honed location description can be a sturdy bridge. Here's Elaine Viets in Murder With Reservations, opening chapter 3 with a description that also slips in some protag's backstory:

Helen grew up in St. Louis, where houses were redbrick boxes with forest green shutters. To her, the Coronado Tropic Apartments were wrapped in romance. The Art Deco building was painted a wildly impractical white and trimmed an exotic turquoise. The Corondado had sensuous curves. Palm trees whispered to purple waterfalls of bougainvillea. 

Echo Transition: This is a nifty little device wherein you end a chapter stressing a certain word then use that word again as your bridge to the next. It's like a grace note in music. Lee Child is a master of this and here's the end of his chapter 6:

"You have to do something."
"I will do something. Believe it," Reacher said. "You don't throw my friends out of helicopters and live to tell the tale."
Neagley said, "No, I want you to do something else."
"Like what?"
"I want you to put the old unit back together."
 Chapter 7
The old unit. It had been a typical Army intervention. About three years after the need for it had become blindingly obvious to everyone else, the Pentagon had started to think about it.
The Parallel Transition: This can be really cool but if you whiff on it, it just looks like you're showing off. This is used when you are shifting POV's. It is conscious repetition of an idea, image or symbol between two chapters. Like the Echo Transition, it creates an almost musical connection in the reader's mind, like a good hook in pop music. And it doesn't always come at the end/beginning of chapters. Here's the first paragraph of Chapter 1 of our thriller A Killing Song. We are in the killer's POV in Paris as he watches his next victim:

He couldn't take his eyes off her. The last rays of the setting sun slanted through the stained glass window over her head, bathing her in a rainbow. He knew it was just a trick of light, that the ancient glass makers added copper oxide to make the green, cobalt to make the blue, and real gold to make the red. He knew all of this. But still, she was beautiful.

Here is the opening of chapter 2, from the protagonist's POV as he watches his sister dancing in a Miami Beach nightclub:

I couldn't take my eyes off of her. Maybe it was because I hadn't seen her in two years and in that time she had passed through the looking glass that separates girls from women. Whatever it was, Mandy was beautiful and I couldn't stop staring.
This was a calculated thing for us because the book's theme is partly about the two men whose lives spiral out of control and the fine line between violence that is driven inward and outward. (And yes, we mixed first and third POV but that's a different post for another day.)

Two last thoughts about building bridges. First, transitions are just a tool, a part of your writer's technique, and as such you can learn to use them with flair and confidence. Study writers you admire. Go grab a book and open to the blank spots between chapters. Then analyze how the writer has moved through time and space, how he has bridged the gaps between his chapters. You'll find that most of the time, the best writers adhere to the golden rule: KISS. They keep it simple, stupid. Which leads me to my last thought:

 Don't over-think this. Resist the urge to build this:


When all you need is this:

Your first job as storyteller is to just keep the reader moving between your islands. You don't want them to stop and admire turrets, filigree and gargoyles. More often than not, a sturdy little span is the best way across.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

When Titles Go Bad


By P.J. Parrish

Okay, we’re starting out today with a quiz. No Google-cheating for the answers either. Here are the original titles for some books. I guarantee you’ve read at least one. (I’ve read them all which is why I picked them) Can you guess what they wound up being called?

The Last Man in Europe
They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen
Fiesta
At This Point in Time
Wacking Off

Now let’s talk about what you're going to call your book. Because this is the most important marketing decision you will make and frankly, given the quality of some titles out there, we all need some help on this front.

The naming of books is a difficult matter. 
It isn't just one of your holiday games. 
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter 
when I tell you, a book must have three different names.

Apologies to T.S. Eliot but I’ve found that his rhyme about naming cats works for books. In my life I’ve had sixteen cats and published sixteen books. Weird stat, huh? Got me thinking  about how important a name is when it comes to your book.

How important? I found a marketing survey that asked readers what was the element that most influenced why they bought a book. Excluding Gigantoid Author Name (ie James Patterson can put his name on an Altoid can and it would sell) here is the order:

1. Title
2. Cover
3. Back copy
4. Opening paragraphs
5. Price

This is why when Carson McCullers submitted her first novel The Mute to Houghton-Mifflin they bought it and renamed the book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. This is why after William Golding’s first novel Strangers from Within was plucked from Faber and Faber’s slush pile, it was retitled Lord of the Flies.

First impressions count. And your title is like a business card, a quick but well-calculated introduction you offer your reader in the hopes it will entice her to want to know more. It doesn’t matter if you’re traditionally published or doing it yourself, the wrong title can make or break your book – and you.

Going traditional? In your average publishing house, there will be many people with their hands on your book: editors, sales reps, marketing managers, publicists, even book buyers at the major booksellers will weigh in on the consumer appeal of your title. (Walmart threatened to not stock our book South of Hell because of the title; they backed off) Chances are your title will be challenged or even changed.

Going self-published? What you call your book will be entirely up to you so it’s really important to understand what a title needs to do. More on that in a moment.

Let’s go back to T.S. Eliot for a sec. He says that cats have three names: the first is the one the family uses in every day life. For us this was UNTITLED LOUIS KINCAID THRILLER NO. 1. That’s how it appeared on our contract. Lots of writers call their book WIP or The Book. Or in some sad cases, That Thing That Has Eaten Up My Life For Ten Years.

Eliot’s second name for cats is “fancier names that sound sweeter.” For us, it was The Last Rose of Summer, the title we submitted. We loved this title. We thought it spoke volumes about our thriller which was about the vestiges of Old South racism, forbidden love and death. But it wasn't dark enough. It sounded like a romance.

Eliot’s third cat name is one that's “particular, peculiar and more dignified.” This is the title your book really needs. For us, it was Dark of the Moon. We came upon that title after weeks of gnashing our teeth. I pulled my volume of Langston Hughes poems from the shelf and there was his poem “Silhouette” and our final title.


Southern gentle lady,
Do not swoon.
They've just hung a black man
In the dark of the moon.

They've hung a black man
To the roadside tree
In the dark of the moon
For the world to see
How Dixie protects
Its white womanhood.

Southern gentle lady,
          Be good!
          Be good!


I think some authors have “the title gene” and come up with the perfect names. Others lock onto signposts like Sue Grafton’s alphabet, John Sandford’s “Prey” or Evanovich’s numbers. Although I have to say I’m not crazy about this approach especially since it has spawned some lazy imitation gimmicks. (Hey, I’m going to write an erotic-suspense series! I just Googled condom names! Want to buy my book Vibrating Johnny?)

We’ve been lucky and have had to change only two of our titles. Maybe it’s because I used to write newspaper headlines so my brain is trained to take a story and smash it down into ten words or less that you can read from a passing car. I do know that authors struggle mightily with their titles. There’s even a award for the worst title -– and of course it’s awarded by the British.


Bookseller Magazine gave their prize this year to Reginald Bakeley for his book Goblinproofing One's Chicken Coop – and Other Practical advice In Our Campaign Against the Fairy Kingdom. The runners-up were:

How Tea Cosies Changed the World.
God's Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis.
How to Sharpen Pencils.
Was Hitler Ill?

In twelve years of teaching workshops and doing critiques I’ve have seen maybe one title that I thought really captured the book’s tone. (It was our own Kathryn Lilly’s Dying To Be Thin.) So I know how hard this is. Here is my advice on titles, for what it's worth:

  1. Capture your tone and genre. Go on Amazon and look up books similar to yours (cruise the genre bestseller lists). Words have inflection, mood and color. Choose them carefully.
  2. Grab the reader emotionally. Two titles that do it for me: The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold 
  3. Don’t settle for clichés. Yes, it’s hard to come up with fresh permutations on old standby words (especially in genre fiction where we rely on “dark” “blood” “death” etc.) But you have to find words that are unique about your story and draw upon them. Here’s a great title that twists a cliché word: Something Wicked This Way Comes.
  4. Don't use empty arcane words that you think sound cool. Examples of bad titles: The Cambistry Conspiracy. (about world trade) The Hedonic Dilemma (about psychology ethics).  Penultimate to Die. (the second-to-the-last victim).  Don't worry...I made these up. 
  5. Create an expectation about the story. You know why I love this title: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? It makes me say, “Oh yeah, buddy? Show me!” and he does.
  6. Be brief and punchy. Okay, I know I just gave you a bunch of long titles I love but there is something wonderful about short titles and studies show most bestsellers have short titles: Gone Girl works. So does Tell No One, Lolita and Jaws (original title A Stillness in the Water).
  7. Make the title work on other levels. This is hard but worth the brain-sweat if you can do it. Consider what these titles come to mean once you get deep into the stories: Catch 22, Silence of the Lambs. But don’t get too clever. I love Louise Ure’s book Forcing Amaryllis and the title is brilliant because it is about a rape and murder. But do most understand that the title is from a gardening term about forcing a plant to bloom early? Not so sure.
  8. Make a list of key words that appear in your book. Is there something you can build on? For our book A Killing Rain, the title came when I heard a Florida farmer describe that drenching downpour that can kill off the tomato crop and we used it in the book. The title was there all the time and we didn't see it at first.
  9. Search existing works -- the Bible, poetry, Shakespeare. I found our title An Unquiet Grave in an 17th century English poem.
  10. Write 20 titles and let them sit for a week or so. Go back and read them and something will jump out. Find some beta-readers you can test with. Titles usually evoke visceral immediate responses. You will know immediately if they connect.

And last: Never get emotionally attached to a title. It’s the worst thing you can do because it probably will be changed. Or needs to be. Because your first title is usually, as T.S. Eliot said, a prosaic every-day thing. You can do better. It's there. You just have to dig deep. Sweat out that great title that Eliot called the “ineffable, effable, effanineffable deep and inscrutable singular name.”

Answers to the quiz:
The Last Man in Europe (1984)
They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen (Valley of the Dolls)
Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises)
At This Point in Time (All the President’s Men)
Wacking Off (Portnoy’s Complaint)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Who Is Reading What

Who Is Reading What

It seems as if I’ve spent the last two weeks doing nothing but driving. That of course isn’t entirely true but for various reasons I’ve had to make two or three round trips into downtown each day for the last fortnight, and while it has been interesting in some ways it has been mind-numbingly boring in others. I don’t have any witty advice (even of the half variety) wry observations, or heartfelt descriptions, sappy or otherwise, of what has occurred recently, at least that I care to recount right now. Maybe next time.

So...I thought I would just cut to the chase and ask a question: what book are you currently reading? I’ll go first. I am reading two books, actually. One is THE BOYFRIEND by Thomas Perry. It may be his best work so far. It concerns a private investigator in pursuit of a man who is killing high-priced escorts of a certain type, though never more than one in any specific city. The other is an extremely sure-footed debut novel by Becky Masterman and which is titled RAGE AGAINST THE DYING. It is narrated by its protagonist, a fifty-nine year old ex- FBI agent named Brigid Quinn. The book will go on sale on March 12; read the first sentence in the book and you will want to read the rest. That first sentence does everything it is supposed to do and more: it draws you in, makes you curious, scares the hell out of you and leads to even better things.

That’s me. My wife is reading ONE DAY AT A TIME by Danielle Steel and  listening to another Steel book. MISERY by Stephen King is being read in fits and starts by my younger daughter (how in heaven’s name do you read MISERY in fits and starts? I read it once a year on a day which I set aside for that express purpose). My older son, for his part, is juggling a couple of John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport novels, as he works his way through the canon with the kind and occasional permission of my six year-old granddaughter, who in turn is reading an issue of Highlights for Children.

And you? And yours?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

More, more, more...

by Michelle Gagnon images.jpg

So like Clare, I'm currently out of town on vacation (nowhere as exotic as Australia, but I'm still enjoying a bit of a break from the San Francisco fog).

Last week I attended Left Coast Crime in LA, where I was fortunate to have the opportunity to catch up with John Gilstrap and James, and to meet Kathryn for the first time. Which was kind of shocking-the funny thing about blogging like this is how well you get to know each other without ever meeting face to face. For instance, I feel like Basil is practically family at this point (albeit as that crazy cousin who kicks off the conga line at family events). The post 9/11 literature panel that John and I were on made episodes of the Jerry Springer show look dull in comparison. In the bar afterward, almost every passerby stopped to tell John that they'd heard about his performance. He's officially a legend now, and will probably start showing up late to our Denny's meetings, if he makes them at all.

I got the chance to talk to Lee Child briefly at the conference (I know, I'm a shameless name dropper), and we were discussing the fact that for the first time he's releasing not one but two books this year. This has become a trend with the recent industry downturn. It's easier for publishers to push more books written by their stable of well known authors than to build up a new name, so old faithfuls like James Rollins, John Sandford, and of course James Patterson are being offered nice bonuses for increased productivity.

Even authors who aren't household names are being urged to try to churn out multiple titles a year. Now, I'm not saying there aren't people who do this well. But when my agent and I were negotiating my last contract, and they pushed for an increase to two or three books a year, I said no.

It's a struggle for me to finish one book a year. It takes between 4-6 months for me to compose the initial draft, then I send it off to my editor and have a few weeks head start on the next book. Then the edits come back, and I have in general another month to polish it. At which point I mail it back, work a little bit more on the next book...just when I'm getting in the groove again, it's time for round three. Add in the months I need to coordinate marketing for that book before its release, and it's always about a year, start to finish. The thought of adding another book, never mind two, into the mix would be hive-inducing.

Yet many writers do manage to produce more than one book a year. Which raises a few questions for me. Firstly, does the quality suffer? Dennis Lehane claimed that the book a year grind made him feel like his work was deteriorating, so he took two full years off to write the next book- which turned out to be MYSTIC RIVER.

I also question whether or not having an author flood the market with books actually helps their sales if they're not James Patterson or Stephen King. Is it better to come out with three books a year, rather than one? What does everyone think?

Now, back to the sun...