Monthly Archives: July 2009

Leaving Out the Parts People Skip

Elmore Leonard famously said this about his writing success: “I try to leave out the parts people skip.” I used to think his insight fell into the category of advice that sounds easy but is actually hard as hell to put into practice, along with nuggets like “Buy low, sell high” and “Just do it.” Yes, yes, but how?

Eventually, though, I realized that there’s a valuable subtext to Leonard’s comment — you’ve gotta read. When you read frequently and widely, you come to know instinctively which parts people skip, because you know where you start to get bored and flip pages in search of a good part. As a writer, stop right there and look at what made you start flipping pages. Is it a long block of dense description? An internal monologue that goes on for too long? A stretch of dialogue that feels more like throat clearing or exposition than a legitimate exchange? Even a sex scene can slow down the plot’s momentum if that scene appears in the wrong place.

Most writers love to read. It’s what makes them want to write in the first place. Occasionally, though, in workshops and writing groups, I’ve come across aspiring writers who don’t read, or who don’t read the kind of books they’re trying to write. I sympathize. People are busy, and it’s hard enough to carve some writing time out of an already-packed day. But reading is essential to any writer’s career. It helps writers develop an ear for dialogue, a sense of pacing,  a feel for character development.

And it shows you, as nothing else can, which parts people skip.


It’s Coming . . .

Three weeks from today (August 19) is the release date of my mystery Peace, Love, and Murder. To celebrate, I’m posting the first chapter here.

Peace, Love, and Murder is narrated by Bo Forrester, who grew up on a commune outside an upstate New York college town. At eighteen, Bo rebelled against his hippie parents by joining the Army. Twenty years later, he’s back, looking for a simpler life. But the commune is now a housing development and his parents have moved on without a trace. Bo takes a job driving a cab. When the body of a local philanthropist is discovered in the trunk, Bo’s simple life gets complicated, fast.

Read the first chapter.


One Year Later . . .

Random excerpt from novel-in-progress: So all I had to do was keep from dreaming, read a book written in a language I didn’t understand, and become pure through contamination. Piece of cake.

I was hoping to write this post last week, on the one-year anniversary of getting a two-novel offer from the wonderful folks at Ace/Roc, but family issues intruded. So I’m a few days late.

On July 22, 2008, I got The Call. A publisher wanted to buy my urban fantasy novel. And not just any publisher: my first-choice, in-a-perfect-world, dream publisher! Despite the surge of adrenaline that had me jumping up and down, despite the near-overwhelming urge to shout, “Omigod! Omigod! Omigod!,” I managed to carry on a semi-coherent conversation. I was pacing up and down the hallway (I never manage to stay seated while talking on the phone), and my husband rushed out of his home office to see what was going on. I was trying to let him know without interrupting the person on the phone, who was saying lovely things like “two-book offer” and “series” and “publication date.” It was every bit as fun and exciting as I’d imagined.

But in fiction publishing, there’s a long time between getting The Call and seeing your book on the shelves–17 months in my case. (I’ve published several how-to and reference books, and that side of publishing moves much faster. It can be as little as six months from offer to publication–and that time span includes writing the book.) What happens during those months? A lot. Here’s the timeline for the year since I got the offer:

July/August, 2008: I brought my agent into negotiations, and she did a great job. This is another area where fiction publishing is different from technical publishing, and I was grateful for her knowledge of fiction contracts.

September, 2008: A month of waiting. Not much going on besides occasionally pinching myself to make sure I still wasn’t dreaming.

October, 2008: The contract arrived! We popped open a bottle of champagne and held a signing ceremony.

November, 2008: I received my editorial letter. It was eight pages long, and my editor addressed what she saw as the novel’s strengths (yea!) as well as the areas that needed work. For the latter, she broke things into big-picture issues (more world-building needed here, stronger story arc there) and local issues (is this scene necessary? how about chaging this line of dialogue? does it make sense to replace this word with that one?). I had over a month to make the changes.

December, 2008: I worked on edits and submitted the revised manuscript. Also, we started to discuss alternative titles to my working title of Zombie Town. The process of kicking around possible titles and finally choosing one would continue off and on for several months. We settled on Deadtown in March.

January, 2009: My editor asked me for my thoughts on the cover design. I studied the covers of books in other Ace/Roc series. I really, really wanted Vicky (the protagonist) to be holding her flaming sword on my cover.

February, 2009: A quiet month. Discussions about the title continued. Titles are important, and a lot of people weigh in on them besides the author and the book’s editor: senior editorial staff, marketing, and so on.

March, 2009: The title, Deadtown, was finalized. Otherwise, another quiet month.

April, 2009: I received and reviewed the back cover copy for Deadtown. It was fun to see how readers would be introduced to the book. Blurbs also started coming in–I got some really great ones! It was a thrill to read the words of authors I admire praising my book.

May, 2009: My editor sent the copyedited manuscript and gave me about three weeks to review it. This process includes checking over the changes the copyeditor has made to the text and answering any queries she’s inserted. There were several inconsistencies the sharp-eyed copyeditor caught that needed fixing. My editor also sent the preliminary cover art for Deadtown–the email’s subject line read “Prepare to be WOWED,” and I was. The only problem was I couldn’t share it with the world yet because it wasn’t finalized. I did spend a lot of time staring at the cover-to-be and grinning, though.

June, 2009: A flurry of activity this month. I got Deadtown‘s publication date (12/29/09). I returned my review of the copyedit. Ace finalized the cover (very similar to the preliminary version), and I promptly posted it all over the Internet.  I also got the green light to post the blurbs Deadtown received. Reading through them again, I was struck by the generosity of the authors who’d provided the blurbs.

July, 2009: I cleared my desk of (most of) my other projects to spend the month whipping Deadtown‘s sequel into shape. A Facebook friend let me know that Deadtown was available for pre-order on Amazon.com, so I immediately rushed over there just to look at the page. (Not much to see yet, but just knowing it’s there is fun!)

And there it is: One year in the life of a debut novel. Next month, I’ll review page proofs to look for any lingering typos. And soon I’ll be talking to Ace/Roc’s publicist about spreading the word about Deadtown as my late-December launch approaches. When I look out the window now and see full-blown summer, it’s hard to believe that December and Deadtown‘s publication will ever get here. On the other hand, the year since I got The Call has flown by, and Deadtown has morphed from a slush-pile manuscript into an almost-book. It won’t be long before I’m in my local Barnes and Noble, jumping up and down and pointing to my actual, physical book, right there on the shelf.


Be Back Soon

There’s a medical situation going on in my family right now that’s taking up a lot of time and most of my attention. I’m hoping it’ll be resolved in a few more days (fingers and toes crossed). Thanks for your patience in the meantime.


My Slush-Pile Query Letter

Random excerpt from novel-in-progress: There are few places creepier than a deserted computer lab in the middle of the night. And believe me, I know creepy.

In February 2008, I decided to send a query to my top-choice urban fantasy publisher, Ace/Roc. A month earlier, a small press had bought my mystery, and I was feeling successful and optimistic. Ace/Roc publishes some of my very favorite authors. I’d recently finished an urban fantasy that had been fun to write and that I was hoping to sell. When I saw that Ace/Roc accepts submissions directly from authors, I thought, “Why not?”

So I whipped up a query letter. I went through that and the novel’s first ten pages about a gazillion times, polishing and polishing and polishing some more. I pasted them into an email and clicked Send.

Five months later, I received a request for the next 50 pages. Two hours after that, for the whole manuscript. A couple more weeks, and I had a two-book offer. And Deadtown comes out in December.

Query letters have a difficult job to do. They need to have an up-front hook. They need to show a plot that has momentum. They need to convey a sense of the book’s tone while introducing the central conflict and main characters. For fantasy, they need to open a door into the world the characters inhabit. Say the words “query letter” in a room full of writers, and you’ll hear a chorus of groans. Maybe some gnashing of teeth and weeping, as well.

So I thought it would be helpful to share the query letter that got my book noticed in the slush pile. (Back when I sent this, the novel’s working title was Zombie Town.) I think it does a pretty good job of doing all those things a query letter is supposed to do. Of course, if you’re sending sample pages with the query, make sure those are in the best shape you can get them.

My name is Victory Vaughn, and I live by two simple rules: Never tell a human you’re a shapeshifter on a first, second, or third date. And never, ever bring along a zombie apprentice wannabe on a demon kill.

When Vicky broke Rule #2, she almost got trapped in dream limbo–in someone else’s dreamscape. And now, thanks to sexy human cop Daniel Costello, who needs her help to solve a murder, she’s seriously tempted to break Rule #1. That is, if Daniel ever asks her on a date.

Vicky kills demons for a living–other people’s demons. Her job keeps her busy at night, which is one reason why her on-again, off-again relationship with workaholic werewolf lawyer Alexander Kane never seems to go anywhere. That and the fact that he’s pressuring her to go with him–as a wolf–on his monthly full-moon retreat. But Vicky isn’t a werewolf; she’s Cerddorion, part of a long line of shapeshifting demon-slayers who trace their lineage back to the goddess Ceridwen. Besides, she’s got bigger things to worry about right now, like being stalked by the Hellion who killed her father ten years ago. And this time, that demon-from-Hell has bigger plans than one little murder.

Single-handedly saving Boston from utter annihilation wont be easy. Kane is obsessed with defeating the anti-Monsterchusetts candidate for governor. Vicky’s vampire roommate Juliet (yes, that Juliet-as in “Romeo and”) is more amused than alarmed at the prospect of a widespread massacre. The demon-plagued client who’s Vicky’s best hope for confronting the Hellion keeps firing her. And Daniel may have betrayed her to her second-worst enemy.

On the night her father died, Vicky was burned by the Hellion, marked forever with its essence. Now, her demon-marked arm–her fighting arm–won’t raise itself against the thing. As Vicky struggles to avenge her father and save the city, she wonders: How can you fight something that’s inside you?

Zombie Town is a 100,000-word urban fantasy. Although this is the first book of a projected series, it can also stand alone. I’m submitting the manuscript to Ace/Roc because I enjoy many of the authors you publish, particularly Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Charlaine Harris, and Rachel Caine. I’d be proud to see Zombie Town sit on a bookshelf next to these authors’ novels, and I believe it would appeal to their readers. Per your submission guidelines, I’ve enclosed the first ten pages in this email.

I’m a published author of technical books, including several books in O’Reilly’s popular Missing Manual series. My first novel, a mystery, will be published by Five Star Mysteries in the summer of 2009.

Thank you for your consideration.


My First Review!

Random excerpt from novel-in-progress: If I had to list Norden’s good qualities, I’d say he was rude, annoying, and an all-around prick. Somehow, “loyal” wouldn’t have come to mind.

Armchair Interviews has just posted a review of my mystery Peace, Love, and Murder. Still a month and a bit to go before that novel is published, but how exciting to read my very first review. And it’s a good one!

Here’s my favorite line: “I was pulled in at page one and could not put the book down.” What author doesn’t want to hear that from a reader? You can read the whole review here.


The Outlining Question

Random excerpt from novel-in-progress: “When I woke up after the plague,” he said, “I looked in a mirror and thought, ‘Well, Paul, that’s it. Nobody’s gonna want to hear a zombie sing love songs.’”

Thanks to a comment on my previous post, I’ve been thinking about outlining. There seem to be as many approaches to outlining as there are writers. Some people start with a very detailed outline that may be pages long, a sort of prototype draft. Others start with some characters and a situation — but no outline — and discover how the story unfolds in the writing. And of course, there’s a whole spectrum of approaches in between these two.

I’ve tried different approaches to outlining. For me, if the outline is too detailed, it takes some of the fun out of writing the first draft. But if I jump in without anything other than the conflict that launches the story, I tend to get lost–and that means lots and lots of rewriting in the second draft (if I even get that far). Also, because a novel is such a long project, there’s a danger of writing a middle that sags or meanders without a clear sense of direction.

For Creature Comforts, I tried working with a loose outline based on Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist, which uses a three-act model for the novel. Instead of planning everything out in detail, I identified the scenes that serve as pillars to hold up the plot:

  • Inciting Incident: The event that sets the plot in motion.
  • Plot Point 1: This is the end of Act 1. It’s a point of no return.
  • Midpoint: Ray calls this the “fulcrum” on which Act 2 turns.
  • Plot Point 2: This is the end of Act 2, which pushes events into the climax.
  • Climax: The big, exciting scene where everything comes together.

Ray adds “wrap-up,” the denouement, to his plot structure, but I don’t worry about that at the beginning of a project. I never know exactly what I’m wrapping up until I’ve made my way through the second draft.

For Creature Comforts, I began by asking myself a lot of what-if questions. When I found one that seemed to open up some fun possibilities, I wrote that down as the inciting incident. Then I asked more what-if questions to see how that event might lead to Plot Point 1. And so on. By identifying these key scenes, I gave myself goals to write toward. I had an outline of just five points, giving me an arc for the story but also leaving room for surprises along the way.

As I wrote, I kept revisiting the outline. After each of the key scenes, I filled in a new section: Response to Inciting Incident, Response to Plot Point 1, and so on. I also stayed open to how the key scenes might change, revising the outline as necessary as I went along. So I had both structure and flexibility: the structure of a loose outline, and the flexibility to change that outline as the story took shape. (And it did change. Plot Point 2, for example, was completely different from what I’d originally envisaged, although the climax remained substantially the same.)

I’m still doing a lot of rewriting in the second draft, but not as much as I’ve done in previous novels. This time around, the rewriting is more to develop subplots and themes that emerged in the first draft. So I’ve been really pleased to (finally!) hit upon an outlining method that works for me.

Do you outline? Why or why not? I’m always interested to hear about other writers’ processes.


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