Monday, January 31, 2011

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

If you saw the movie, The Road, then shame on you–you should’ve read the book. This Pulitzer Prize winning, #1 Bestseller, is amazing on so many levels, I can’t begin to do justice to it here.

No wonder Donald Maass used Cormac McCarthy’s novel as an example in his The Fire in Fiction.

You’ll find The Road under the heading of “Average Joes, Jane Does, and Dark Protagonists” in Maass’s how-to book. You can’t get any darker than the main character, known only as Papa. Maass’s point is that few writers who want to nab your sympathy over their character’s plight do so successfully. They are so busy letting us know he’s pitiful, they fail to present a reason for us to care. Why would we want to read three hundred pages of “poor, poor me”?

McCarthy gave us reason to care immediately. In the dark, postapocalyptic world he paints, the only things that matter are Papa and his son, known only as “the child” or “the boy.”
When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath.

There is no backstory to this tale. The idea that the setting is postapocalyptic is written on the back cover. If not for that, the reader would know nothing of the time or setting without reading further. Occasionally, Papa will reminisce about his wife, about his youth, but even then, there is no clear indication of whether either was before the catastrophe or after. There is no sunlight anywhere in the novel. Hope comes in the form of discovered food and is dashed with the constant need to move on. Throughout the book, we see the theft of the child’s youth softly portrayed through hints and moods; and when we realize it’s gone, our hearts break.

McCarthy tells of the dangers, the needs, the incessant moving, but he shows emotion in astounding and varied ways. Here is one example. In this scene, a poignant portrayal of love and despair, the boy’s mind is troubled. He says:
Can I ask you something?
Of course you can.
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die to.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.
The boy says “Okay” quite a bit as an illustration of his acceptance of the way things are. He never knew the way things were, so he has no point of reference from which to moan his loss. As long as his father answers his questions, everything is “okay.”

Dialogue tags aren’t necessary in the book and are rarely used; when they are, a simple “he said” usually suffices. From what I’ve seen, the lack of quotation marks is typical for McCarthy, but whether the lack of apostrophes is typical, I don’t know. Unless a word would be totally misunderstood without an apostrophe, he simply doesn’t use it–particularly in contractions involving “not.” Instead of hyphens, he runs words together: diningroom, foldingtable, castiron, coalgrate. These omissions work together to enforce the hopeless of the situation. Who cares about grammatical correctness in a world where survival is the only goal?

Here are a few more examples of showing rather than telling.

When he got back the boy was still asleep. He pulled the blue plastic tarp off of him and folded it and carried it to the grocery cart and packed it and came back with their plates and some cornmeal cakes in a plastic bag and a plastic bottle of syrup.
Step by step, surrounded by “and.” They do the same thing, day in, day out.

He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.
He shoved the boy through the hatch and sent him sprawling. He stood and got hold of the door and swung it over and let it slam down and he turned to grab the boy but the boy had gotten up and was doing his little dance of terror. For the love of God will you come on, he hissed. But the boy was pointing out the window and when he looked he went cold all over. Coming across the field toward the house were four bearded men and two women. He grabbed the boy by the hand. Christ, he said. Run. Run.

All the “ands” in here just seem to add to the urgency. Short, strong words with the run-on sentences make this a powerful passage without exclamation points.

This post is already far longer than what we usually do on AC, so I'll end simply: Read the book, study the technique. Those of us who have yet to pay our dues are unlikely to get away with the things McCarthy did, but when we see why he's a best seller, we can improve our writing and become best sellers too.
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Friday, January 28, 2011

Fabulously Fun Friday: A Writing Reality Check

Jim C. Hines illustrates the truth on the difference between the dream of being a published author and the sad reality.

The Dream:

The Reality:
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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Shameless Plug

In a post last year, I made the announcement that I was taking Give the Lady a Ride on the publication trail. Well, guess what?!

It's getting published!

The debut date was moved up several months from October 2011 to March 2011, so you can imagine how much I'm scrambling to get my marketing plan up and running.

For those who don't know, Ride is about a New York socialite getting a lesson in faith and love from the back of a bull, and about the handsome cowboy who helps her learn. The book was as fun to research as it was to write. I interviewed a former bull rider at his ranch near Madisonville, Texas. Now he runs a land and cattle company, but when I pulled off the highway on a whim and asked for an interview, he ran a full-fledged rodeo ranch. He answered all my questions and even invited me back to watch them "buck the babies," when one- to three-year-old bull calves get to show their strength and agility. Of course, I went--and came back sunburned and full of ideas. It was great.

Like I said though, right now I'm working on my marketing plan, and part of that plan is a give-away I'm having on my other site, 777 Peppermint Place. If you're interested in contemporary Western romance and would like a chance to win some great prizes (here's the shameless plug part), visit my other site every Wednesday! I'll have a different prize each week until the book debuts March 14th!
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Monday, January 24, 2011

Interview With Michelle McLean, Author of Homework Helpers: Essays and Term Papers

Non-fiction and YA author Michelle McLean did writers everywhere a favor when she decided to tackle the oft-confusing, oft-overwhelming topic of writing essays and term papers. Homework Helpers: Essays and Term Papers (Career Press) offers students and authors alike a handy reference guide that includes step-by-step instructions and before-and-after examples of each type of essay discussed. Michelle was kind enough to stop by AC during her busy blog tour and share some of the tidbits and behind-the-scenes from the book.

AC: What inspired you to write a how-to book on essays and term papers?

MM: My brother needed help with a paper for one of his classes one day, and I looked up the rules to refresh my memory. Now, I have a MA in English and have written a lot of essays and papers, and I already knew the basics on what I was looking up, but every source I found listed the information in such a technical and confusing way that I had a hard time understanding it. And I already knew what I was doing. No wonder people who are already confused have a hard time!

I had just started my blog at the time and was looking for good subjects to discuss, so I started doing How To posts on several different subjects. But the posts on how to write essays, papers, and poetry got the biggest response. I started getting a lot of comments thanking me for explaining things in a way everyone could understand. I had a few friends encourage me to write a book on the subject, and it ended up turning into two books – one on the essays and papers, and one on poetry.

My goal with it is to help people, especially students, get through their assignments with the least amount of pain and confusion possible. Essays are something that everyone has to write, whether they want to or not. Being confused by the process doesn’t make it any easier.

AC: Can you share one of the important tips from the book?

MM: I think the most important thing is to take it one step at a time. People get so focused on the end product, they let it overwhelm them. Instead of stressing that you have 5 or 10 or 15 pages to fill, take it in small chunks. Just focus on picking your topic. Once that’s tackled, focus on choosing a few sources, not even getting information from them, just picking a few likely suspects. Once that’s done, you can move on to the next step, and so on. If you take it slowly, in small, manageable pieces, it’s much less stressful…and maybe even fun.

AC: The book was intended for students, but do you feel it’s applicable to other writers as well?

MM: Definitely. My book highlights specific kinds of essays, but the tips and processes I use can be applied to any type of writing project. I also include a chapter on proofreading that is handy for any writer. In addition, there are some types of essays included in the book, such as the narrative essay or descriptive essay, that are useful forms for people who want to write narrative non-fiction pieces such as memoirs or stories like those in Chicken Soup for the Soul books.

AC: Describe the book’s journey to publication.

MM: For non-fiction, the book doesn’t actually have to be finished in order to sell it. You start with a proposal which includes an overview of the book, its market, competition, what you can do to help promote it, a section on you, the author, a table of contents, chapter abstracts or summaries, and two or three sample chapters. Since I knew my platform was a bit weak, I finished a good chunk of the book before querying.

Once I had my proposal ready, I queried agents. Now I’d queried a novel before, so I was prepared for a lot of rejections and long waits. But I was lucky enough to find my agent fairly quickly and we got to work tweaking the proposal a bit so she could send it out to publishers.

While all this was going on, I continued to work on the book and actually had it finished before the proposal went out to publishers, so I was able to show them the full book when we had a few who expressed interest. Ultimately, Career Press made an offer, contracts were signed, and I began working with some wonderful editors who helped me polish the book until it was ready to head to the printers.

AC: What was your greatest lesson learned during the writing and publication of this book?

MM: I think my biggest lesson was that I need to have balance in my life. I tend to either bury myself in a project while my house falls down around my ears, or ignore it completely. Deadlines loom and edits and rewrites need to get done, but if I push it too hard, then everything in my life, including my book, suffers. I had to find a happy medium.

I finally learned to give myself a break. If I needed a day off, I took it. I let myself play with my kids or read that book I was dying to read, or just sit and stare at the wall and enjoy doing nothing at all…as long as I was careful not to let it go too long :) And I usually came back energized, working better and faster than I would have if I’d continued to push. Everyone was happier. You’ve got to have that balance in your life. It’s still a struggle sometimes, but I’m getting much better at it.
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Friday, January 21, 2011

Fabulously Fun Friday: What You Need to Know About Oxymorons

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Lessons From the Pros ~ She Walks in Beauty by Siri Mitchell

Today I'd like to talk about openings and how to make your reader keep reading.

Being a novelist who hopes to break into the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) marketplace, I try to read a wide variety of books in that field. So the other day when I was at the library and saw She Walks in Beauty by Siri Mitchell on their new acquisitions shelf, I picked it up.

Here is the back cover copy: During New York City's Gilded Age... The game is played amid banquets and balls. The prize is a lifetime of wealth and privilege. The rules will test friendships and the desires of a young woman's heart. Clara Carter is the social season's brightest star... but at what cost?

I confess that based on the blurb, I probably never would have purchased this book had I been in a bookstore. (The blurb didn't really give me a "you HAVE to read this book" feeling.) But since it was at the library and was a CBA book, I picked it up thinking to thumb through it and see what it was about.

Right from the first paragraph this book had a strike against it, in my preconceived notion. It is written in the first person and I have always had trouble enjoying books written only from one POV. (Since, on a guest post I wrote for another blog not too long ago, someone thought a POV was some sort of SUV, I feel the need to clarify that POV means Point of View :)) There are so many characters with inner psyche's to delve into and I want to know them all intimately! So I've always had trouble enjoying 1st person narrative.

However, and here is Lesson from the Pros point #1, Ms. Mitchell makes her heroine, Clara, so sympathetic right from the first paragraph that I had to keep reading just to find out what happened to her. Her aunt who is stiff, abrupt, and "perpendicular in the extreme" has just moved in and we immediately feel empathy for Clara who is cowed by the woman addressing her.

Lesson #1: Your character doesn't have to illicit empathy, but they should evoke some sort of emotional response in your reader that will make them want to keep reading. Make your reader care what happens to this character whether they want them to succeed or to fail, doesn't matter. The key is to make them care.

But that is just the first barb on the hook.

We soon find out that Clara does not want to debut this season (or ever, for that matter) but is being forced to do so by her aunt. Not only that, she is expected to capture the heart of the very same man her best friend is supposed to catch. And that is the second barb on the hook, Lesson from the Pros point #2! Because we simply don't know which girl will win the guy, or if their friendship will survive the contest!

Lesson #2: Early on, give your readers a question, or series of questions, that they don't know the answer to. This will be the second barb on the hook that pulls them in and keeps them reading until they find out the answer.

In the end, even though several things about the book strayed from my normal choice in reading, I stuck with it to get my questions answered. (It is important to note the order of these two tools Ms. Mitchell used at the beginning of her story. First she made me care about the heroine, then she raised a few questions. If I hadn't cared, I probably wouldn't have been so invested in learning the answers.) And that is the sign of a good writer - someone who can make you keep reading even when all your biases tell you the book is not for you. So my admiration goes out to Ms. Mitchell for a hook well done!

How does the opening of your current WIP compare? Do you have a double-barbed hook?
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Monday, January 17, 2011

Resource Roundup: Tracking Notes and To-Do Lists

This month's roundup is designed to help you with taking and tracking lists and notes. A good writer will have a collection of great tools. Some of my favorites are on this list of lists and list apps.

Evernote is a free, cross-platform universal capture application. With support for text, images, audio, tagging, and syncing between its web interface and all of your desktop installations, Evernote offers seamless capturing of information no matter where you are. The free version of Evernote provides 40MB per month of upload space. If you need more capacity, you can get 500 MB for $5 / month. Evernote works like a breeze on a variety of smartphones. I've tested it myself on both iPhone and Android, a powerful and amazing service.

Gubb is a lightweight but intuitive list application that focuses on capturing and organizing all of your lists. gubb is for any and all the lists you can think of: from every day shopping and to-do lists to wishlists, brainstorming notes, personal goals, group projects and more. Just about as easy as jotting something down on paper, only better. You'll always know where your lists are; you can edit and organize them any time; and you can share with friends and co-workers in seconds.

Joe's Goals
Joe's Goals is a simple yet powerful web-based goal-minder to make tracking your goals the easiest part of accomplishing them. Use the simple single page interface to setup daily goals and track them with just a click. Watch your daily score to gage your success and use negative goals (or vices) to confront and overcome bad habits that finally need to get the boot. Share your success with your friends and family or post your personal score badge to your blog or MySpace page. Add as many Goals as you want and update them all from a single interface.

Nutshell helps you search the web, take notes, and manage your to-do list quickly and easily.

Remember the Milk
One of the most popular to-do list trackers, RTM sports powerful integration with e-mail (such as Gmail and Microsoft Outlook), SMS, most IM clients, and Twitter. It also integrates seamlessly with a number of powerful Google services.

Ta-da List
Ta-da List is the web's easiest to-do list tool. Make lists for yourself or share them with others. And it's free.

For Apple fans, I recommend ToDo. Todo is a powerful set of tools that makes task management simple and fun. Use Todo on your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, keep your tasks synchronized using Todo Online, a new cloud sync service for tasks, and even access your tasks on your desktop in iCal or Outlook. Todo helps you focus on what matters most and allows you to integrate the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology or your own.
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Friday, January 14, 2011

Fabulously Fun Friday ~ Oh How Words Can be Twisted!

A politician discovered that her great great uncle, Gunther, was hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in Tennessee in 1889.

The only existing photograph of the man shows him standing on the gallows. On the back of the picture is this inscription: 

"Gunther; horse thief. Sent to Tennessee Prison 1883, escaped 1887. Robbed the Tennessee Flyer six times. Caught by Pinkerton detectives, convicted and hanged in 1889."

After letting her large staff of professional image consultants review this discovery, they took the following actions to assist her campaign. They decided to crop Gunther's picture, scan it in as an enlarged image, and edited it with image processing software so that all that is seen in the final picture is a head shot. Along with this enhanced photo, the accompanying biographical sketch was sent to the Associated Press:

"Gunther was a famous cattleman in early Tennessee history. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Tennessee railroad company. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to service at a government facility, finally taking leave to resume his business enterprise with the railroad. In 1887 he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889 Gunther regrettably died suddenly during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform on which he was standing collapsed."

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Realistic, Challenging Writing Goals

(Personal matters prevented Linda from being able to post her scheduled Writing Tips article this month. In its stead, we hope you'll enjoy this reprint of one of her popular posts - just in time for New Year's resolutions!)

"Reach for the stars, at worst you'll capture the moon."

I don't know who first said that, or even if I quoted it right, but I love the sentiment, the invitation to strive to make your dreams come true. Dreams are achievable for those willing to work for them.

Do you want to grab those stars?

The best way to nab them is to develop a game plan. Here are a two simple steps that will help.

Although the strategy is effective for any dream, if you're visiting this site, chances are you want to be a successful author. First, break your dream down into its components. Each component then becomes a goal.

As an example of goals for writers, consider these:

* Improve your writing skills (an on-going process).
* Write ________ words per day toward a book.
* Finish the manuscript within _______ amount of time.
* Finish your edits within _______ amount of time.
* If you haven't already, research the agents and editors who might be interested in your work.
* Develop the query letters and submission packets according to the requirements of the professionals you've researched.
* Send out your masterpiece to those most likely to help you succeed.

All of us have to factor "real life" into our goal setting. We have to divide our time among the many demands of our families and our obsessive love of writing. Make your goals realistic, but challenging. I'd rather fail to write 5000 words per week, than succeed at a goal of 2000 knowing I could've done better.

In the words of Monte Alkire, champion rodeo team roper and author of the motivational book, Rope Your Dream, "When you choose your goals, you need a clear understanding of whether you are going to try to jump over a picket fence, a clothes line, or a windmill." It's up to you to decide how high a leap each goal will be.

Second, measure your successes. If you want to know whether your writing is improving, enter contests and allow your scores to be your measurement. Join a writing group (I recommend, submit your work for peer review and read the responses. Do they improve with each submission?

If you are in the writing or editing stage, make a chart that shows how many words or chapters you wrote/edited each day. Is your synopsis done? How many editor/agent letters did you write? As Monte says, "What gets measured gets done."

Once you've sent out your query letters, your dream is out of your hands. We long for immediate acceptance; we crave the quandry of determining which eager publisher is offering the best deal for our efforts.

Chances are stronger we'll cry over rejection letters. Wipe away the tears and study the letters. What advice is offered that will make you a better writer? Set new goals based on the advice.

Perhaps you're one of the lucky few whose work was accepted. From here on, you have an entirely different set of goals. Do you have a marketing plan? Have you begun building your platform?

Maybe you've already been published and have a book on the market. You're goals are different, too. Are you contracted to write others? Are you prepared for your book signings and promotional events?

Wherever you are in the process, the dream is the same: to become a successful author. Your idea of success may be to publish the one book that expresses all you wish to convey. You may measure success by contracts, dollar signs, and name recognition. "You know what you want, you set the goal, and you assess the results."-Monte Alkire.

This is where I stand in my dream:

Do you know your dream? Do you have your goals set? Are you achieving them? Write me using the e-mail function on the right sidebar and let me know how you're doing, or just leave a comment below. We can encourage each other.

"Success is up to the individual. No one cares whether we succeed or fail; it's up to us." Monte Alkire, Rope Your Dream.
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Friday, January 7, 2011

Fabulously Fun Friday: The Worst Opening Lines in Fiction

Enjoy some of the worst opening lines in literatures, à la the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, sponsored by the English Department of San José State University,

“A small assortment of astonishingly loud brass instruments raced each other lustily to the respective ends of their distinct musical choices as the gates flew open to release a torrent of tawny fur comprised of angry yapping bullets that nipped at Desdemona’s ankles, causing her to reflect once again (as blood filled her sneakers and she fought her way through the panicking crowd) that the annual Running of the Pomeranians in Liechtenstein was a stupid idea.

—Sera Kirk, Vancouver, British Columbia

Paul Revere had just discovered that someone in Boston was a spy for the British, and when he saw the young woman believed to be the spy’s girlfriend in an Italian restaurant he said to the waiter, “Hold the spumoni—I’m going to follow the chick an’ catch a Tory.”

—John L. Ashman, Houston, Texas

As the fading light of a dying day filtered through the window blinds, Roger stood over his victim with a smoking .45, surprised at the serenity that filled him after pumping six slugs into the bloodless tyrant that mocked him day after day, and then he shuffled out of the office with one last look back at the shattered computer terminal lying there like a silicon armadillo left to rot on the information superhighway.

—Larry Brill, Austin, Texas
Dolores breezed along the surface of her life like a flat stone forever skipping across smooth water, rippling reality sporadically but oblivious to it consistently, until she finally lost momentum, sank, due to an overdose of fluoride as a child which caused her to lie forever on the floor of her life as useless as an appendix and as lonely as a five-hundred-pound barbell in a steroid-free fitness center.

—Linda Vernon, Newark, California (1990 Winner)
Professor Frobisher couldn’t believe he had missed seeing it for so long—it was, after all, right there under his nose—but in all his years of research into the intricate and mysterious ways of the universe, he had never noticed that the freckles on his upper lip, just below and to the left of the nostril, partially hidden until now by a hairy mole he had just removed a week before, exactly matched the pattern of the stars in the Pleides, down to the angry red zit that had just popped up where he and his colleagues had only today discovered an exploding nova.

—Ray C. Gainey, Indianapolis, Indiana
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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Review of The Writer's Survival Guide to Getting Published by Terry Burns

Adapted from an online course offered through the American Christian Fiction Writers Association, this compact book by literary agent and multi-pubbed author Terry Burns (and edited by AC’s own Linda Yezak) offers a glimpse behind the curtain into the truth of what agents really expect from supplicant authors. Burns opens with a fabulous chapter on banishing shyness and projecting confidence in both personal meetings with agents and written proposals.

From there, he goes on to offer an accessible battle plan for adopting the right mindset in querying agents and editors. He discusses the particulars of the art of querying and shares insights from his extensive experience as both an author and an agent. His unique perspective offers readers a balanced look at both sides of publishing business, and his calm and reasonable suggestions, encouragement, and precautions are invaluable.

Most chapters concluded with a Q&A section, taken verbatim from his online courses, which offered further clarifications and, in many instances, answered any outstanding questions I had after completing the body of the chapter. Burns closes the book with a peek at one of his own successful submission packages, rounding off a thoroughly useful and expedient read.
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Monday, January 3, 2011

Two Tips To Sell More Books on Amazon

While going through my daily routine, I use Evernote to tag and store useful articles / posts / videos for later use. I tagged this one for AuthorCulture's Marketing posts and present it to you now. It's a short little video from Phil Davis that contains two powerful tips for how to sell more books on Amazon.

In the video, Phil refers to how to create Amazon Listmania lists, and how to create So You'd Like To... guides.

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