Hey Jealousy

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“Fine, Bill. We’ll discuss this later.”

“The hardest thing about being successful is finding somebody to be happy for you.” -Bette Midler

“The only writer to whom you should compare yourself is the writer you were yesterday.”
-Thomas Pynchon

I’ve been thinking more about what happens when you encounter even a modest bit of success with your writing. To me, writing is a profession and should be treated as such. It is unprofessional to sneer at someone if they succeed. Even if you think it on the inside. Would you do that to a co-worker in an office? No. So I was surprised when I sold a book and got that reaction.

I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. I completely understand feeling jealous or comparing yourself to another writer. I look at other people’s writing and feel depressed that their writing is so much more polished or witty or that they can bring a character to life in a few succinct phrases. That’s not helpful, but I still do it. I just don’t see the point of sharing those feelings or dwelling on them. They’re a drain on your energy and will get in the way of your own writing if you let them.

Jennifer Crusie wrote a great essay about professional writers and professional jealousy.

Annie R Allen wrote about people who love to cut you down to their level of negativity.

Virtue vs. Indulgence

“Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.”
― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I’ve got a lot going on right now. The day job is heating up, to the point of working several 15 hour days in a row. Times like that, when a break comes, I tend to collapse in a heap instead of getting back to important things like writing. I get out of the habit and have trouble getting back in.

So I had to resort to an old trick. I turned off the computer, the TV, the music. I turned off everything but the timer. I set it for an hour and I sat down and wrote. Most of what I wrote was not usable, and writing it down was painful, but it helped break the logjam. If I’d sat around eating chocolate and hoping for a bright idea, the manuscript would still be stuck.

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Finding the right title

Lavery Maiss AurasA British sitcom had a running joke about a man who wrote a memoir:
Man: “I’ve written a book.”
2nd character: “Oh? What’s it called?”
Man: “My Life in Kenya.”
2nd character: “What’s it about?”

In a way, that’s a successful conversation. Even if the subject matter should be obvious from the title, at least the potential reader wanted to know what the book is about. Anything is good if it generates a spark of curiosity long enough for the person to turn the book over to read the back cover, or to click on the More link to read the description.

Writer’s Digest has 7 tips for coming up with the perfect book title.

His Forgotten Fiancée is another title that sums up the book nicely. I wish I could take credit for it, but my kind editor was responsible. The story started, for me, with a man waking up in a strange room with no memory of who he was or how he got there. A woman came into the room and told him they were engaged. Figuring out how he would react was what started me writing this story.

Do you choose a book based on its title? Or do you go for a nice cover instead?

Creating Tension

Ropetrailer2Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Rope isn’t a movie that I like to re-watch because I always feel uncomfortable in a story where the murderer is the protagonist. But it’s a great example of how to create tension. In the picture above, the murderers are being confronted by the one person in the story smart enough to figure out what they’ve done, which is murder a man and hide his body in a trunk.

The murderers and the ‘detective’ are in the background. Hitchcock put the trunk with the dead body in the foreground of the shot. He always kept the tension right in front of the audience.

I have to resist the urge to keep everything secret from the reader until the Great Reveal. That doesn’t produce tension so much as it produces annoyance. It’s far more effective to use suspense instead of surprise.

Hitchcock had the right idea. if the audience can see the danger coming, the tension is high. You’ve caught their attention and they want to know what happens next.

Note to self: Twists in the story are great. But if given the choice, go with suspense every time.

What do you do when the book stalls?

Kulikov Writer E.N.Chirikov 1904
I’m judging entries in the Golden Heart contest again this year. It’s like pulling out gifts from a grab bag; you never know if what you get is going to be something you like. So far I’ve read a couple stories that fell into the “well, it’s okay” category and one that absolutely made me sit up and want more.

I think the “it’s okay” stories might be published after some re-writing, but I’m curious to see what happens to the “Wow!” story. I’ve read stories in contests that were better than most published books that I’ve come across — and yet I never see the stories published. (I do look. These are stories that made it to the finals of their contests, so I could google the author’s name.) So either the author published under a different name and title or… they never published at all.

A lot of manuscripts are contest winners because the first few chapters are incredible, and the rest of the book goes downhill faster than a slalom run. But if these authors were that wonderful in their early chapters, I find it hard to believe that they couldn’t polish the rest of the story as well, given time and persistence.

And that, I think, is the problem. Persistence. Especially when you’ve been listening to inner voices (or outer ones) that say you can’t finish. Or facing the fact that you’re simply not sure what to do to finish the book.

Napoleon Hill built a whole career writing books with titles such as “Think and Grow Rich.” His philosophy on how to succeed boils down to these steps:

  1. Try something.
  2. If it doesn’t work, analyze why.
  3. Try something different, based on what you learned in step 2.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until you succeed.

That’s where I’m at right now with the manuscript I’m revising. One chapter is falling flat and I am analyzing why it doesn’t feel like it’s working. I’m trying different ways to write it to find a way to that works. Not exciting, but it’s still progress.

Writer’s Digest wrote a post on how to resurrect a stalled manuscript.

Rant: Prologues, or how to make this reader put down a book quickly

Your opening pages are the first impression the reader has of your story. Don’t throw them away.

When I’m reading, I want to imprint onto a character and follow them about, seeing the world through their eyes. I’ve learned to tolerate two points of view, since that’s endemic in Romance novels these days, but any more than that and I become less invested in the characters. I start to lose interest.

One common mistake that I see new writers make is starting out a story with a prologue. Almost invariably, the prologue is in the point of view of a character that I’m not going to meet again for several chapters, maybe not until the end of the book. This is throwing away your prime time slot on a character who does not play an active role in the story.

As I read the story, I’m still waiting in the back of my mind for this original character to come back. They’re the one I first met in this world. I imprinted on them. Starting off with someone who then disappears is a great way of ensuring that I’m never going to be fully involved in the main POV characters. It weakens the link I have to the story and makes it much easier for me to put the book down.

I’ve heard authors argue that this POV character is going to make sense once the reader makes it to the end of the story. That assumes that the reader is going to care enough to make it to the end. Why should they care? You’re telling them you have a big secret and they have to finish the book to find out what it is. As a reader, my response is “So what? I don’t see any point in learning this secret. It feels like you’re playing a game with me. If you don’t give me a reason to care, I’m going to feel manipulated.”

The whole reason I start to read a book is that I’m looking for a reason to care. You need to hook my interest within the first few pages or I’m going to put your book down and go find something else to do. Don’t waste your first pages on a prologue or on a character who isn’t going to show up again until the end of the story. If the information is so important to the story, slip it into the active story line bit by bit. If the character is so important to the story, make them the main POV character of the story.

Slow and steady may win the race, but it’ll lose the reader’s attention and in that case who cares about the race?

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“When you print out your manuscript and read it, marking up with a pen, it sometimes feels like a criminal returning to the scene of a crime.”
― Don Roff

It’s revision time. Oh, how do I love thee… not. Looking at the mechanics of the story.

  • Not too much thinking. If the characters sit around thinking all the time, the reader will fall asleep after a page or two, if they haven’t tossed the book aside already.
  • Not too much dialogue. Talking heads are disconnected from the senses and the emotions.
  • Not too much narrative. Long descriptions of the scene… yawn.

It’s a balancing act trying to get the mixture right. I never feel as if I done it correctly, but maybe feeling like that is part of the process.

Joanna Bourne has an excellent post on balancing the elements of writing.