Monday, June 25, 2007

The Paranoid Writer

This is a subject matter most people tend to shy away from because no one really wants to admit they are in this paranoid category. However, if it is never pointed out or identified they may never reach his or her goal of becoming a published author. With that said, let’s get down to business.

The Paranoid Writer

What do you do when you complete your final draft of your manuscript? Do you immediately seek friends and family to read it to give their opinion? On the other hand, are you so confident that you hold a masterpiece in your hands that you want to submit it immediately to an agent or publisher? After several days, weeks or months, you’ve found that you’ve done absolutely nothing. Why? Because you’re afraid someone will steal your story. You’ve become so paranoid of that notion; your book is collecting dust in a desk drawer or closet.

Signs of a Paranoid Writer:

  • You want to copyright it before it is read by anyone
  • You join a writers group but won’t let anyone read it
  • You won’t allow anyone beyond your spouse or close family member to look at it
  • You start every conversation about your book with, ‘I’m hesitant to let anyone read…” or “I’m worried about someone stealing…”
  • You write inside your query letter to the agent/publisher that you are worry about them stealing your work
  • You avoid joining a writers group because you don’t want anyone to steal it
  • You won’t even talk about the premise of your book to anyone

Questions you should ask yourself when hesitating:

  • What’s the point of having a masterpiece if no one will ever see it?
  • Do you really think that an agent or publisher wants to work with someone who’s going to constantly question their motives?
  • Am I really so arrogant?

What can I do?

  • First of all, there’s nothing wrong with a little paranoia. It’s very possible that there are people who would steal your story. Just don’t become so paranoid that your novel will never see the light of day.
  • Get in your head that copyrighting the manuscript ahead of time is not only a waste of time (I’ll explain later) but may hamper your chances of getting it published; unless of course, you self publish your novel.
  • A good writers group affords you the ability to do some needed editing. When self-editing, it is easy to missed minor mistakes, especially when the author has read his own manuscript half a dozen times already. Friends and family tend not to be honest with the author and keep their real opinion to themselves. A writers group can offer honesty.
  • Publisher/agents will not work with authors they deem too much trouble to work with; it is neither appropriate nor condone to mention in either query letter or if you should make it that far, too say during a phone conversation.
  • Lastly, if you won’t talk to anyone about what you have written, how can you test the waters to see if there is an interest in the subject matter you have written?

If any of the above does not help you at all, then perhaps you should consider self-publishing.


Copyrighting – There are a couple of problems with copyrighting your manuscript before it is contracted. Number one, if any type of modification occurs within the book, the author must copyright it all over again with the changes. Two, publishers/agents are reluctant to work with an author if he has already copyrighted the book. Three, as soon as the author has written anything into the manuscript, it is considered copyrighted and is legally binding in a court of law. As long as the author has proof that he possesses the original, he is protected. (Never submit your only copy of the manuscript)

Monday, June 4, 2007

8-Point Checklist For Successful Fiction

June 4, 2007
Before you start writing and definitely before you send your manuscript off to an agent or editor, think about the following eight elements of your work.

1. Is your main character proactive?
It's okay if your main character is a victim at the beginning of the novel, but they need to actually be doing something to solve their problem(s) by the end. And by the same token, the solution should come about as a result of their actions. The days of damsels in distress being rescued by the hero are over. Damsels rescue themselves. They might be hanging off a cliff by their fingernails or tied to the train tracks, but they'd damn well better be the primary reason they escape. That said, if you foreshadow a rescue properly, it's okay to have help. As those great sages, John, Paul, George and Ringo once said, we all can use a little help from our friends.

2. Are you using good verbs?
Verbs do all the heavy-lifting in our writing. Kill your adverbs and use good verbs. Your main character doesn't go get his mail. He plucks it from the mailbox, retrieves it from the post office, etc. Your car doesn't come to a stop. It rolls to a stop, lurches to a halt, or glides to rest. (And as for adverbs, your car doesn't need to roll smoothly to a stop if it can glide, does it?) You can solve at least half of your writing problems by replacing weak verbs with strong, active verbs.

3. Are you trying to entertain?
Shakespeare wanted to fill up his theater. Nobody at the Globe was saying, "Ooh, let's go catch Bill's play with all that beautiful language and the deep themes about action and inaction." Nope, they were saying, "Hey, I hear there's a great play with lots of swordfights, ghosts, murder, intrigue, sex and romance. It's called 'Hamlet.' Let's check it out." Entertain first. All that theme, message, blah, blah, blah comes second.

4. Is the length right?
If it's a first novel and it's 200,000 words in length, it's too damned long. Each category of fiction novel has an expected length. Romances tend to run short. Mysteries tend to run in the 70-90,000 word range. Thrillers overlap from the 85,000-120,000 length. There are a lot of factors here, but most beginning writers don't think too much about the fact that longer books cost your publisher more to produce. They're thinking about that when you send them a 150,000 word mystery; they're also thinking, nobody will buy it, it's too long.

5. Is there a market?
Okay, you want to be an artist and not worry about the market. I'm happy for you. Go away. You don't need to read anything about writing because you're probably going to self-publish and hand-sell books out of the trunk of your car. Original is good. Too original means the publisher's never seen it before and will probably say, 'hell, it's interesting, but who will buy it?' There are exceptions. And trends. Currently, there's a market for mixed-genre novels, those werewolf-time travel-romance novels. Go figure.

6. Did you start in the right place?
We're a short attention span group of readers. Did you start your novel in the right place? Lawrence Block often said you should flip your first and second chapters. What he meant is, if your first chapter is backstory and the action starts in the second chapter, start with the action--or in the middle of the action (in media res is the technical term) and fill in the backstory later. Many, many unpublished novelists start at the wrong place. Take a hard, cold look at your beginning and see if you've started at the right place.

7. Does your ending satisfy?
Are all the threads tied up? Does the reader come away feeling... something? Anything? Mickey Spillane once stated that the last chapter sold the next book. Believe it.

8. Is there conflict?
This is right up there with the right verbs. There are basically two types of conflict: internal and external. External are all the things that happen to your main character. That could be the murder they're trying to solve, the bad guy they're trying to stop, whatever it is that keeps the main characters from falling in love, etc. Internal conflict is whatever fears and/or problems your character must overcome to attain their goals. Ideally you have both. You can get away with just external in some sorts of fiction, but it's better if your character has to overcome something internal. I interviewed Michael Connelly (hear the name drop?) a couple years ago and I commented that one of the things I found most interesting about his main character, Harry Bosch, was he brought his own conflict with him just by the way he interacted with people. Michael said, "Have baggage, will travel. Yeah, Harry does bring his conflict with him, doesn't he?"

If you ever, ever hear an agent or publisher say, "Lacks tension," what they're probably referring to is lack of conflict (or in some cases, your verbs aren't active enough).

I hope these are helpful.

Mark Terry

Friday, June 1, 2007

Spooky is "In": The Return of the Gothic Novel

An inherited house with a seeming life of its own . . .a young woman with a troubled past. . .a dark family secret that will not stay buried . . .

These are the classic makings of the traditional gothic story, a type of story that continues to thrill readers to this day. Dating back to the 1700s, gothic novels are suspense novels that frequently contain a romance element and a tinge of the supernatural. Readers love the combination of romantic intrigue with bumps in the night.

There is a clear distinction between gothic novels and horror novels: gothic novels have more to do with psychological horrors, horrors of the mind, or of family secrets, not so much the full-fledged creatures or serial killers of horror novels. They also deal with societal issues such as the rise of cities and how humans cope with modernity and science. Also, these novels get really popular during eras where there is considerable upheaval in the world, such as now, where people tend to reach for stories set in the past. Look at the box office success of recent films such as “The Others,” “The Illusionist” and “The Prestige,” all with elements of the supernatural.

I am a longtime fan of these stories, and my novel, Dark River, is part of this “resurrected” trend. Gothic novels never quite go away, but industry trends spotlight some fiction sub-genres over others. The past decade saw the rise of the crime procedurals, and all books with movie tie-ins. Romances were popular, as well, and still are. But gothics are always there, too, just lurking in the shadows.

While my new novel fits within the gothic tradition, Dark River is a modern gothic, even though it takes place in the past. Compared with early gothics in which young heroines were at the mercy of unseen forces and met destructive fates, Dark River’s heroine, Isabelle Fontaine, is reminiscent of the heroines in more recent novels of beloved authors of my youth. These two authors, Barbara Michaels and Phyllis A. Whitney made their heroines of the 1970s and 1980s spunky. My heroine, Isabelle, is concerned with getting to the truth of her family’s legacy, despite the great danger to herself. She refuses to leave the house until she solves the mystery.

Gothics will always be with us. We all have deeply hidden fears and desires, and gothics allow us to walk through the darkened halls of the characters’ psyches, thereby walking through our own. And it’s just plain fun to see how they [the characters] get out of their predicaments.

Heather Buchanan has always loved gothic stories. Inspired by a series of local articles about the little-known truth of an unknown dead woman buried at Ste. Anne Catholic Church of Detroit, Heather embarked on a ten-year odyssey to bring Dark River to life. An award-winning author, Heather is currently on the faculty of Lansing Community College, Schoolcraft College, The College for Creative Studies and Wayne State University, respectively.
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