The Elusive “I” in PI

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Despite having worked as a private investigator for fifteen years, I had no interest whatsoever in writing a PI novel until recently. (My most recent novel, The Mercy of the Night, published earlier this month, has a quasi-PI, legal jack-of-all-trades protagonist – more on him shortly.)

The reasons for my reluctance to plumb my own professional experience were simple enough.

First, none of the PI novels I’d read, even the best – including Chandler’s, Hammett’s, and Ross MacDonald’s – bore much resemblance to the work I’d done as an investigator, though MacDonald’s came closest.

From what I could tell, readers expected their PI protagonists to be something akin to the plains gunmen in an urban setting, and that was as far from my own experience as imaginable.

For the most part – the part that would best lend itself to a crime novel – I was a cog in the justice system, a “people’s pig” who tracked down witnesses and sifted through evidence on behalf of criminal defendants to keep the prosecution honest.

Despite the job being by far the most interesting I’ve ever had outside writing, the vast majority of what I did wasn’t the stuff of action-packed thrillers. The work resembled more that of a reporter than a gunman – finding people, talking to them, writing it up – and I was only in physical danger once. (Ironically, the guy who tried to kill me was a doctor, but let’s put that aside for the moment.)

Second, it became pretty clear in my reading through the genre (and listening to agents, editors, and readers) that when it came to crime no one much cared to hear from the defense table.

It did seem that readers would at least tolerate hearing from the criminal himself, however, and that also seemed to provide me more juice as a writer. I found myself far more excited telling the criminal’s tale than belaboring the investigative steps taken on his behalf once he was caught. Continue Reading »

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The Story Iceberg

gwenwomackOur guest today is Gwendolyn Womack. Originally from Houston, Texas, Gwendolyn began writing plays in college while freezing in the tundra at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She received an MFA from CalArts in Directing for theater and film and currently resides in California where she can be found at her keyboard. The Memory Painter is her first novel (you can watch a trailer here). One lucky commenter to this post will win a copy of The Memory Painter—leave a comment to be entered in the giveway.

Gwendolyn is giving away a signed copy of The Memory Painter—to be entered in the giveaway, simply leave a comment on this post!

Of today’s post Gwendolyn says, “I’m a longtime fan of Writer Unboxed. I love reading posts about craft and other writer’s journeys. There is usually always something I can takeaway and apply to my own work. It was lovely to be invited to share my experience and hopefully offer some encouragement to others on the same path.”

Connect with Gwendolyn on Facebook and on Twitter.

The Story Iceberg

My first novel, The Memory Painter, is less than 48 hours away from publication, but the journey to the book spanned years, involved many twists and turns and a lot of surprises.

To start with, the original story was not conceived as a novel. In another life a long, long time ago, I was a struggling screenwriter fresh out of film school. The year was 1999. I wrote the story as a feature screenplay and I believed that this was the script that was going to launch my writing career—only that didn’t happen. What did happen was I had a lot of studio meetings with development executives. After I got over the thrill of driving onto the lots, I’d sit down with the executives to visit. They loved the idea, and they had all these questions about the story that I couldn’t answer. (Because I hadn’t written any of it yet.)

For example:

“The idea of all the lifetimes is so fascinating. Who were all the people? Now those pages I’d love to read.”

“Tell me more about the bad karma between your hero and antagonist. Where and with what lifetime did it all begin?”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but these people were in fact my first beta readers, Continue Reading »

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Writer Unboxed Live! Panel at the Writer’s Digest Conference (+ discount code)

If you’ll be attending the Writer’s Digest conference–held in NYC from July 31st through August 2nd–please stop by to say hello; Writer Unboxed will be there. Our Live! panel is still in development, but here’s what we know at this point.

  • Eight WU contributors will make up the panel, including Porter Anderson, Brunonia Barry, Dan Blank, Erika Robuck, Vaughn Roycroft, Therese Walsh, and Heather Webb. The eighth is mostly confirmed at this point, and his name rhymes with Donald Maass.
  • This will be an interactive experience. You and us. Us and you. We may even start asking you the questions. Goal: create possibilities where before you may have sensed road blocks.
  • Our ID code for a $25 group discount is WRITERUNBOXED, (Note that the WD conference website asks for the ID code at the start of the process rather than during check out.)

Finally, a brag. We’re thrilled to announce that WU made the Writer’s Digest list of top sites for writers for the 9th year in a row. We’re on that list with friends like:

Jane Friedman‘s site
Debbie Ohi’s Inkygirl
Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds
Amy Sue Nathan’s Women’s Fiction Writers
Victoria Strauss’s Writer Beware
Writers in the Storm

There are dozens of additional resources listed. Learn about all of them in the May/June issue of Writer’s Digest.

2015-WritersDigest-BestSitesPromo-v4-600

We hope to see you in NYC! Write on.

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Shame and Your Writing Career

Today I want to talk about the deeper motivations for decisions we make around our craft and career as writers. How fear and shame often play a role in decisions on how we practice our craft and navigate our career.

For instance, the person who doesn’t release their finished novel because they fear it will tank. Or the person who does no marketing whatsoever because they don’t know how to do it, so they conclude, “marketing doesn’t even work.”

Okay, let’s dig in.

What They Don’t Teach You

Over the years, I have noticed a growing number of things that I wasn’t taught in school. Hopefully some of these have changed, either in your personal experience, or in modern education in general. For example, in my personal experience:

Schools don’t teach entrepreneurship; how to take calculated risks to build a business around work that you find meaningful.

They don’t teach emotional literacy around money. They teach accounting and economics, but not how to deal with the psychological and emotional aspects of money. Instead, many people deal with money from either a fear-based mentality, remaining trapped in jobs they hate for decades, or they make decisions based on marketing alone. For example, a person might read an article about the new Apple Watch and how great the company is doing, so they buy Apple stock. In doing so, they feel they are indirectly benefitting from Apple’s success, therefore this is a sound financial investment. But that isn’t really how investing always works. It’s not just “buy whatever is successful at whatever price you can.” That isn’t investing; it’s a reaction that makes you feel good for a moment.

Schools don’t teach communication skills at a comprehensive level — skills such as debate, public speaking, interpersonal communication, negotiation, relationship management and so much else. These are life skills that are necessary in thousands of tiny moments every day, but training is typically only offered once in your educational journey, as a single elective.

They don’t teach how to recognize and cope with silent crises. Situations such as bullying, or how to recognize when a friend or colleague is suffering from some form of abuse –- be it emotional, physical, drug related, or something else. Because without knowing how to recognize when to help others, these situations are often ignored, lead to gossip, or isolate that person.

Again, I will note that this is my personal experience in education — yours may have been very different. I am aware that recognition of how to prevent and cope with bullying has (thankfully) become a very prominent topic in education recently.

Writing & Shame: Digging Deeper

How does all of this relate to writing? Like other areas of life, we often make decisions about our writing career based on surface-level excuses that mask deeper motivations.

We resist writing for deeper reasons.
“It just feels so selfish, I have a responsibility to my kids, and the house is a mess.”

We resist craft for deeper reasons.
“That teacher doesn’t know what she is talking about, all of my beta readers loved it.
Continue Reading »

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How to Use Whimsy as a Tool

whimsey too

So I was in London, riding on the Underground, when my curiosity required that I pick up a free newspaper on offer. In it I found the ad you see to the left. And it just cracked me up. They make writing sound so easy! All you have to do is start any time, have fun and make money. Gosh, I wonder why everyone doesn’t do it!

Anyway, the ad put me in mind of something called  “the Whimsy Manifesto,” which I laid out a few years ago in a little book called How To Write Good. As it resonates of the questions that you and I face every day – why and how to be a writer – I thought I’d share it with you here.

As I grow as a writer, I think more and more that whimsy is one of the strongest cards I can play. I’m not talking about funny writing, but rather a writer’s playfulness – her willingness to make choices. Like my choice just here to make she the default pronoun for this book. Choice is made. I don’t second guess. I move on. As a writing strategy, it’s a pretty darn useful one, so let’s put it on a line by itself.

Choice is made. Don’t second guess. Move on.

I had an idea to write a book called How to Write Good. I thought that the title might be sexy and alluring to a certain type of writer, one already predisposed to appreciate whimsy. I thought I could show how to use whimsy as a tool to write better.

But let’s be careful about the word “better.” Let’s be sure we know what we mean by that. To me, in this context, better is largely just faster. I consider myself a “better” writer when my process is more efficient, when I’m getting more writing done. I don’t consider myself a “better” writer when I’m sitting there staring at the blank page. That’s when I consider myself a worse writer, or worse, no writer. That’s always the point I want to get past. And whimsy is a tool I use there. Why? Because whimsy suspends value judgments. Whimsy says that any choice is a good choice. Whimsy explores ideas just for fun. Whimsy doesn’t care about broken bits of writing or storytelling. Or grammar. Or syntax. Or complete sentences. Whimsy plans to fix everything later. Whimsy, out of sheer whimsy, thinks of as many ways as it can to express whimsy. Whimsy knows there’s more than one path through story. Whimsy knows the secret of how to write good.

Here it is. Continue Reading »

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Creating Strong Female Protagonists

4036462091_b548c428b2_o I’ve been happily immersed in the new seasons of Outlander and Game of Thrones, as I’m sure many of you are. I also recently binge-watched every available episode of The Fall, a wildly popular BBC thriller.

The trio of shows have many things in common, but as I’ve been pulling together a talk about female protagonists, I noticed in particular that all three of these shows boast very powerful female protagonists, some of my favorite in recent years. Stella, in The Fall, is a British police detective, called into a Belfast police department to help solve a crime. Claire, in Outlander, is a WWII era nurse who finds herself back in time in Scotland in the 18th century. Daenerys Targaryen, in Game of Thrones, is the last of a line of of royals who ruled dragons. The dragons have been extinct for hundreds of years, and it appears her family line is going to be extinct as well. (There are many examples of strong females in GoT, but I’m going with my personal favorite.)  I’m going to use them as examples here, but don’t worry, there are no big spoilers. I’m only speaking in general terms.

What are the steps to creating a strong female protagonist? What are the pitfalls? How do men and women protagonists differ?

She has goals for herself.
Stella, in The Fall, wants to catch a serial killer
Claire, in Outlander, wants to get home

She is conflicted.
Stella is thwarted by officials, by her own nature, which we’ll go into in a minute, and by the killer himself

Claire wants to return to her husband in the twentieth century, but she also falls wildly in love with a Highlander she is forced to marry.

Daenerys faces many many challenges over time, but her first is survival, which means making peace with the barbarian king, and winning him over.

One of the great flaws I see in female protagonists is that they are often so very good.

She acts to reach her goals.
In other words, she doesn’t just let events happen. She makes a decision to go forward and then faces the consequences of those actions, right or wrong. Claire makes bad choices for the 18th century at times and is beaten for it, but she doesn’t cower afterward and feel apologetic. No, she’s furious and stands up for her own beliefs, even when others don’t agree with her.

Stella is a complex character, but one of the things that makes her very interesting is her unapologetic sexual tastes. When she sees a detective on the street changing his shirt, she gives him her hotel room number, and he comes to have sex with her, but the whole thing is kind of bewildering to him because the culture is still quite sexist in the way Catholic countries often are. When she’s later questioned about him and asked what he was doing there, she says clearly and without apology, “Sexual intercourse.”

We don’t expect that. Her fellow officers really don’t expect it. She refuses to apologize for having the tastes she has.

When Daenerys is married off to a barbarian king, she’s nothing more than a beautiful child. But as sometimes will happen, she bonds with him, Continue Reading »

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Feeding Your Readers Information: A Look at a Master

lecarre    As so often happens, the comments on last month’s piece (What Do Your Readers Know and When Do They Know It) showed that there was a lot more to the topic than I could cover in a single column.  So I thought it would help to look in some detail at how a master of the craft created tension by how he fed his readers information.

If you’re not already familiar with John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the quickest, easiest way to get to know the story is to stream the movie.   The plot follows the book very closely.  Besides, Richard Burton and Claire Bloom are always a pleasure to watch, and keep an eye peeled for a very young Robert Hardy.  If you’d like to check it out now, I’ll wait.

 

So, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold opens with Alec Leamas, the head of the Berlin bureau of MI6 (i.e. the Circus), waiting for Karl, his last remaining operative, to make a desperate run across the border from East Germany.  Karl finally appears but is gunned down before he can reach safety.  All of Leamas’ other operatives have also been hunted down and eliminated by Mundt, a particularly vicious chief of the East German secret service (i.e. the Abteilung).  So when Lemmas’ boss, Control, offers him a chance to destroy Mundt once and for all, he jumps at it.

Given that setup, le Carré then proceeds to feed his readers information at three different levels of reality:  what the world thinks is happening, what Leamas thinks is happening, and what is actually happening.

We first watch level one develop as Leamas comes apart at the seams.  He’s given a makework job in accounting at the Circus, starts to drink, is accused of embezzlement and fired, drinks more, and winds up in a grimy apartment working a menial job at a library.  There he meets and starts to fall for a young, idealistic communist named Liz (‘Nan’ in the movie).  Despite the light she brings into his life, he continues to spiral downward until he assaults a grocer and is jailed.  When he’s released from prison, he’s approached by a bumbling East German agent, who has heard about his situation from Liz.

At this point, le Carré pulls back the curtain on the second level.  Leamas sneaks off for a secret meeting with Control that makes it clear his disgrace and collapse are a ruse to get the East Germans to recruit him.  In this meeting, Control challenges him on his relationship with Liz – it’s out of character for someone spiraling into degradation to fall in love – and offers to help her out.  It’s during this meeting that readers also learn, almost in passing, that George Smiley, the Circus’s legendary strategist, wants nothing to do with the operation (a detail omitted from the movie).

Le Carré still hasn’t revealed how Leamas’ staged collapse will lead to his getting revenge on Mundt, so curiosity about the plan will keep readers turning the pages.  But they’ve also come to realize by this point that Leamas is intelligent, brave, idealistic, and loving.  They care about him, and are worried that he’s essentially turning himself over to the enemy.  At the same time, they’re eager to see him defeat Mundt, who has done so much damage to his life.

While all these sources of tension are in play, le Carré slips in the first hint of the third level at work – that there is a plan beyond the one Leamas knows.  Continue Reading »

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Confessions of a Serial Non-finisher

SnailsI’ve been telling myself that no one wants to read a heavy-duty confession on a Monday morning. But since this is when my WU slot arises and since my brain refuses to cough up an alternate subject for a post, it appears we’re stuck with seeing this through.

You ready? *deep breath*

Hi. My name is Jan and I’m a recovering serial non-finisher of long-form fiction.

I’ve been writing for about six years now. Five years ago, much to my astonishment and delight, I became the Voice of the Unpublished Writer for WU. The implication of that honor — at least in my mind — was that I’d immediately begin working to put myself out of a job, both to give another writer the chance to be part of this awesome community and to satisfy my own ambition. Yet until a few months ago, barring the travelogue I wrote in grade seven, and which exceeded the suggested word count by 900%, I had never finished the first draft of any long-form fiction.

It’s not that I don’t write or can’t write, though there was a gap of twenty-five years when I pursued the practice of medicine and gave up all dreams of writing fiction. (Perhaps entrenching a habit of self-denial that I’ve had to break again and again.) Since picking up the pen as an adult, I’ve written nearly 500 blog posts for various sites. For a time I edited and wrote for the WU newsletter. I’ve entered flash fiction contests and sent in pages for agent-sponsored critiques. In all instances where I’ve had deadlines set by another party, I’ve met them with time to spare and work, I believe, of a reasonable standard.

I also have a hard drive littered with fiction projects. In one world of linked characters alone, I have three first drafts in the 50,000-80,000-word range. One novel’s first draft is approximately 85% complete, which was how far I got before I started down a frustrating and circular path.

You’ll note, however, that I said I was in recovery.

While I have theories about what holds me back, and theories about what made this project different than my numerous false starts, we can talk about that in another blog post. Today I have a different goal.

Today I’d like to talk to the other serial non-finishers in the crowd, because from casual comments to pleas for help on WU’s Facebook page, I know I’m in good company.

First, to those of you who publicly blew off steam and bared your soft underbelly to the world, thank you. Your comments helped the struggle become impersonal. They gave me hope in the form of thoughts like this one: If X, who is otherwise put-together and a fabulous human being, also struggles to finish, maybe I’m not hopeless. Maybe this is just my awkward writing adolescence. So X, while while I’m sorry for your pain — and trust me, I know how discouraging those months and years of self-doubt can be — allow me to express my gratitude for your openness.

Second, this post is my attempt to pay it back, because when you’ve been a non-finisher for any length of time, two questions lodge in your mind and, like a tick, siphon off creative blood.

Continue Reading »

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That Awkward Moment When…

erikamitchellToday’s guest is Erika Mitchell, author of Blood Money and Bai Tide, the first novel of a new series about CIA case officer Bai Hsu (Champagne Books, 2015). Erika cut her espionage teeth on James Bond marathons with her father at a formative age and has never looked back. She lives in the Seattle, WA area with her husband and their two tiny spies-in-training and welcomes new online friends at her blog, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Of today’s post, Erika says:

One of the things that meant the most to me when I was just starting out as a writer was how helpful the more successful authors were to me. If, from my tiny corner of the Internet, I can promulgate that attitude of kindness, I will be well pleased.That being said, lines do occasionally need to be drawn. Equipping fellow authors with ideas for addressing these situations when they strike is as important to me as spreading the love. It’s vital that authors be able to mean what they say, and it should be understood that sometimes a kind “No” is an invitation to keep working on something that might not be finished yet.

That Awkward Moment When…

I’m going to paint you a picture. You are at a writer’s conference (let’s make it in Hawaii because I’m nice to you). You’re standing on a lanai with a dozen other writers, a sweating hurricane glass full of sunset-colored Mai Tai in one hand, a business card in the other. The person who just handed their business card to you is standing about a foot away, jabbering about their novel because you asked, “What’s your book about?” Let’s go wild here and say the other person’s novel is about a zombie love affair set in apocalyptic Boston. And there are lasers in it for some reason. Oh! And cat vampires!

The awkward moment comes in a variety of flavors, but many of them share a common theme: Someone wants something from you you’re not willing to give. A review, a blurb, an endorsement, an introduction to your editor, a private meeting in an alley somewhere. You get the idea.

What happens next slows everything down. Suddenly you’re Quicksilver from the X-Men movies. Your brain chugs along at normal speed while the world around you lurches to a stop. Your eyes track a single drop of condensation as it zigzags down your glass, out the corner of your eye you can see each flap of a hummingbird’s wings, and you know with some kind of creepy, prescient pessimism what’s going to come next:

The person in front of you is going to take a deep breath, blink, and then blurt out, “I’m actually going to self-publish my book next month. Will you blurb it for me?”

Welcome to the awkward moment (author edition).

The awkward moment comes in a variety of flavors, but many of them share a common theme: Someone wants something from you you’re not willing to give. A review, a blurb, an endorsement, an introduction to your editor, a private meeting in an alley somewhere. You get the idea.

Unless you’re a made-for-TV jerk like Dr. House or that new detective Backstrom, these kinds of moments are cringe-inducing in the purest way, because most of us in the writing community want to be helpful. Authors helping authors is a big deal, so what do you do when you’re suddenly faced with the dreaded awkward moment?

In my experience, it comes down to a matter of integrity, decorum, and ye olde Golden Rule. Let’s discuss.

In the example above, with the zombie-lovers-apocalyptic-vampire-cats-with-lasers self-published book, it ultimately comes down to a matter of integrity. Do you feel you’re the best person to do what they’re asking you to do (meaning, blurb the book)?

Not long ago, I was asked by a young writer I know to blurb her self-published book of poetry. She’s a brilliant, ambitious, talented young woman, Continue Reading »

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How to Plan Your Own Book Tour

Hacks for HacksWarning: Hacks for Hacks tips may have harmful side effects on your writing career, and should not be used by minors, adults, writers, poets, scribes, scriveners, journalists, or anybody.

They say book tours don’t sell books. In fact, they can actually cost authors a lot of money. So why bother? Well, you’re making connections with readers and building your brand and a bunch of other slick-sounding, unquantifiable marketing-speak. If you want to be a big-shot author, you need to act the part, and that means taking your show on the road. Think of a book tour as a tax-write-off-able vacation where people tell you how awesome you are every night. Plus, you have a few days away from your family and those brats of yours, so you can hear yourself think for once. For that kind of payoff, you can’t afford not to go. Here’s everything you need to know to book your own book tour.

Six Months Prior to Tour

  • Set a budget.
  • Ask your publisher about kicking in some money for—wow, that was a faster rejection than when you sent that butterfly erotica story you wrote to the New Yorker.
  • Adjust budget, start buying packs of ramen noodles.

Five Months Prior to Tour

Sure, library patrons love books. What they don’t love is paying for books. You’re far too busy for those moochers.

  • Choose cities. Do you mention any cities in particular in your book? Make sure to hit those. If you set your book in a faraway city, maybe ask your publisher one more time for—okay, still no, that’s fine.
  • Contact venues and explain to them that you’re a famous author who wants to have a reading/signing in their establishment. Tell them how many people will be there. You’re not lying when you say fifty people, you’re demonstrating the power of positive thinking. Besides, you’ll be long gone before they can do anything to you. Contact the following types of venues:
    • Bookstores. Duh.
    • Schools. Kids have disposable income, and best of all, it’s a captive audience. They literally can’t leave! Also, they’ll find your unremarkable adult achievements like owning a car and wearing a sport coat as the hallmarks of a successful author.
    • Libraries. Just kidding! Screw them. Sure, library patrons love books. What they don’t love is paying for books. You’re far too busy for those moochers.
    • Disneyland. Shot in the dark. Maybe they’ll let you in free? I dunno, worth a shot.

Continue Reading »

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