Archive | May, 2010

Where or When — ?

25 May

Where or When is a show tune from the 1937 Rodgers and Hart musical Babes In Arms. It was first performed by Ray Heatherton and Mitzi Green on Broadway. Frank Sinatra gave it new life in a different style a few years later.

But really, those words are also of the utmost importance to the novelist. The first few paragraphs of your story must convey to the reader the where and when of the story. After that, your writing style and skills will add to that initial ambiance creating an entire package that can not happen anywhere or anytime other than what you say it is. If it doesn’t, you risk losing your reader. I know. I sometimes belabor that point, but what good is it to have a book that the reader can’t lose him or herself in? Trust me, you do NOT want the reader to be throwing your book against the wall!

Here’s a good word to remember in this instance: verisimilitude. According to my trusty Webster’s Tenth, it means: 1. having the appearance of truth: probably. 2. Depicting realism (as in art or literature). Here’s one of my favorite examples: Jane Austen’s Emma was updated in the 1990s and re-titled Clueless. That’s fair game. The book is in the public domain, so the characters and plot are able to be borrowed for such an adaptation. Imagine, however, if the language as spoken in Clueless, were to come out of the mouths of the properly costumed actors in the A&E/BBC production of Emma! Well. That would put the cat amongst the pigeons, now, wouldn’t it?

Or how about this one? Tarzan’s parents were English aristocrats, but he didn’t know the language. How could he, having been orphaned as a baby and brought up in the deepest jungle by caring and nurturing great apes. He could hardly be speaking the Queen’s English while swinging on vines, while traveling from one end of the jungle to the other. I doubt if the apes would have understood him!

If you want to know how people spoke during a certain time, try to read something written during that period. Contractions (I’m for I am, he didn’t for he did not, she can’t for she can not) may not seem like much of a difference to today’s reader, but it definitely marks the time as now, rather than then. Speech was much more formal even 50 years ago than it is in these rush-rush, texting times.

Clothing is also much different, and having your characters dressed properly for their time frame, will help them speak and behave as they should. (Hopefully, at any rate!) In addition to the hundreds, perhaps thousands of books on the topic, look at contemporary or nearly-so paintings in the museum, or ask for art books at your local library.

If your story is set in the last 500 years or so, there are numerous books available at libraries and museums that can clearly demonstrate the speech patterns of various eras. Read Will Shakespeare, for example, to find out how people spoke in the 17th century, or Jane Austen, for the turn of the 19th. However, you don’t necessarily want to carry that pattern throughout your entire book.

You do need to begin with the archaic speech (but not carried over board or exaggerated, please) to help establish the time frame. And then, gradually, you’ll ease up a bit, until near the end, your characters may be speaking almost entirely modern. You should still sprinkle a few archaic-isms here and there, just to remind the reader where he or she is really at in this book!

A major invention that can be of enormous help to authors researching the 20th century is – film! Indeed. Contemporary movies can be fun to watch, but once ‘talkies’ came in, you can also find little bits of speech differences, too. (By contemporary, I mean a movie that’s meant to take place very close to the time it was filmed. For instance It Happened One Night was set in 1933, which is when it was made. The clothing is accurate, as are the actions and speech of the characters.) We laugh at the quaintness of these things when we watch them now, but remember that 1933 was just 77 years ago. Lots of people who are still alive saw it then when it was new, believe me!

One small word of warning: don’t put too much reliance on costumes worn in ‘costume flicks’. All too many times, they’re chosen for how they look rather than how accurate a depiction they really are! (I think it’s safe to think a period piece that wins an Oscar for costume will be more accurate than a non-winning film.)

But paintings and/or a costume museum are the most reliable sources. There are carriage museums (not too many, but some) that can demonstrate close-up and personal the various types of carriages used during the last several hundred years. Look at furniture, too, as well as newspapers or magazines (if available). And, be sure to match occupations to the era. You might be surprised by some of the things you’ll find as you go exploring through history.

Although they are older books, now, if you can find them, I would highly recommend any books by Will and Ariel Durant. Not only are they very readable, but every page (every paragraph, even!) has some interesting tid-bit for your enjoyment and enlightenment.

Of course, if you’re writing (or planning to write) a contemporary story, then you have other worries. Try not to use too many current celebrities, for instance. By the time your book comes out, that person may be only a figment of someone’s imagination or fodder for a ‘whatever happened to . . .’ trivia contest. Songs, books, films and other media might last a bit longer in the popular memory, but—really–who among us can predict the future?

Have you started your book yet? Hmmm.
If you have questions about any of this, please ask? My e-mail is: bookmechanic@gmail.com
Thanks for reading, and please feel free to tell others about this blog! Happy writing!

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Why you WON’T really write a book, unless –

18 May

The actual writing of a book IS hard, but it isn’t all that time-consuming. Most of the time spent in writing a book – especially that first one – is all those hours, days and even years spent in thinking about it before actually putting your rump in a chair and getting down to work.

I know. I’m guilty of that very thing. I think I was – maybe 16? – when I first thought about writing a book. But the actuality is that I was very near my 51st birthday before the first book finally appeared. However, the year before that one, in honor of my upcoming 50th, I’d actually started something – and even finished it! Wow! What a surprise! In more ways than one. I’d done the research and was fully intending to write a book (still unwritten, by the way) but instead, I ended up by writing a one-woman play. Surprise to everyone, most of all to me.

So, even if it wasn’t a book, I’d still learned important things, and when the next brainstorm hit, I went berserk and wrote a 70,000 word manuscript in three weeks. All this, while I was working, although only part-time. I had no family nearby or significant other to get in my way, so I just typed like a maniac. Typed being the key word here – the night I finished it was the night my very first computer was hooked up and I was shown how to use it. So the next day, I started re-typing the manuscript into the computer, editing and changing words as I went along. I hadn’t even read the entire book when I did that. But the process taught me several very important lessons.

Nothing happens ‘til somebody writes something! Make that your mantra. I put off even starting to write my first book for about 15 years, based on the ‘I’ll write when I get caught up financially’ excuse.  Huh. That’ll happen never! Then it was ‘I need to get myself emotionally stable before I start on my book’. Another Huh! Probably at some point was ‘I need a better typewriter or computer‘, or printer or paper or something. Anything to put off actually plopping my rump in the chair and writing.

Now I just need to do that again. Just like you do, maybe. I’ve done it before, so I know I can, but there are just so … many … reasons… that get in my way.

Some things I learned along the way, however, might be of benefit to you, as well. While I was writing that first book, I was in such a hurry to get it done, I couldn’t be bothered reading it over every day or so to see what I’d written. I mean, I had written it, hadn’t I? Didn’t I know what was in there? Well, yeah, mostly I did know. (I pride myself on my exceptional memory, and we all know that saying ‘pride goeth before a fall’.) Anyway, I had planned to finally read it once it was done, and so I did–as I typed it into the computer. Remind me to tell you that story, some day. All about my first computer, I mean.

Anyway, all unknowingly, I’d stumbled on one of the great secrets of writing. It’s to WRITE, not read. Reading comes later—much later—when the writing is done. Of course, you can read before it’s ALL done, but you shouldn’t read it over and over and over before it’s done. It’ll never get done if you do that.                                                                                                                                                                                  When I typed that first book into my first computer, I quickly discovered one small problem. I didn’t have a printer! Ooops. How could I read this masterpiece if I couldn’t print it out? I didn’t worry about it. I figured that sooner or later I’d have a printer, and I could read it then. In the meantime, I wrote. Once I finished that book, I started on another play. For the next six years, I wrote either a full length book or a play each year. Then I made the mistake of easing off for a bit, and while I’ve written at least the equivalent of a set of encyclopedias in the intervening 16 years, I’ve yet to finish another full-length book. I’ve written lots of short stories, but no novels. That situation is going to change, soon. Guaranteed.

At any rate, eventually, I did get a printer, and printed out my book. I sat down and read it and thought – this isn’t that bad! I made corrections here and there plus a few changes, printed out new pages, and put the pages in a binder. Then came the fun part. Trying to figure out what to do with it. I made every mistake in the book as far as query letters and sending to the wrong publishers. But in the process, I discovered Romance Writers of America™, and they got me on the right track real quick, like.

And three years later, I held my first published book in my hands. (It was the third one I’d written, however, not the first one.)  Shortly before the book came out I went to get publicity photos taken. When I called to make the appointment, the photographer asked why I wanted the pix, so I told her. There was a gasp from her end of the line then she chuckled and said, “Couldn’t you just die happy now that your book is being published?”

“Yes,” I responded. “But I’ll tell you what. I could die a lot happier if I had a copy of my book in the coffin with me.” Someday, maybe.

In the meantime, it’s WRITE, BABY, WRITE!!! Always remember . . .

Nothing happens ‘til somebody writes something!

If you have questions about any of this, please ask? My e-mail is: bookmechanic@gmail.com

You’re writing a what?

12 May

In an earlier post I used the word genre. It’s a French word, of course, and means: kind, type, sort. Here’s the official Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary definition:

genre \’zhän-rə, ‘zhän-; ‘zhänr; -‘jän~rə\ n [F, fr. MF, kind, gender –more at GENDER]-(1770) 1: a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content 2: KIND, SORT 3: painting that depicts scenes or events from everyday life usu. Realistically

Strange as this may sound – first you must figure out what kind of book it is that you want to write. I’ve talked to so many people who say they are writing a book (or GOING to write a book) and when I ask them what kind of book, a blank look takes over the person’s face, as though I’d suddenly started speaking a foreign language! It’s very difficult to write a book if you don’t know what you’re writing. There are certain rules to be followed regardless of type, but even more for specific genres. In some cases, the word ‘category’ may be substituted for ‘genre’. They mean the same thing, however, so don’t be confused.

For starters, the two main categories are fiction and non-fiction. Everything falls into one or the other of those categories. If you make it all up – it’s fiction. If your story is based on a real-life event, then chances are it’s non-fiction, unless you really disguise it well, in which case it may be turned into fiction.

Or suppose you’re writing a story about someone who lived a hundred or more years ago. You’re being very careful with the history and the timing, and that’s great. But wait!!! You can’t relate the conversations in which each of the characters indulged, but neither can you have a book without any dialogue. Well, you can, but almost no one will read it! So, what do you do in this case? Adhering to the facts as well as you can, you create believable dialogue. This is a blending of the two categories, known as ‘creative non-fiction.’

It’s allowed, and even encouraged, providing you don’t get too carried away and have your characters using anachronisms or talking about things that haven’t yet been invented. Writing about historical persons or events can be exhilarating if you like being a detective and nosing out all sorts of fascinating facts. It can also trip you up quicker than a banana peel thrown carelessly on the sidewalk!

But what about historical fiction? Historical romance? Historical mysteries? They’re all fiction, but the latter two are usually what’s referred to as genre fiction. Historical fiction that’s heavier on the history with little or no ‘romance’ or ‘mystery’ to it is generally known as literary fiction. Of course, contemporary stories may also be either genre or literary. Probably 90% of the mass-market type paperback is some sort of genre fiction.

There is a writer’s group out there for every genre of book. Investigate and find the one that’s best for you. All of the major genre groups have local chapters here and there, and if there should not be one in your area, you can still have the benefit of the organization itself. It’s very helpful to have a relationship with other writers who have embarked on the same journey that you have, including many who’ve made that trip more than once.

If there is a conference available, try to attend. The yearly national conference, while more pricey, is invaluable for meeting people and finding more specific information about the type of book you want to write. This is a good place to actually meet editors and agents, and maybe get to make a ‘pitch’ to them about your book. (I’ve listed the major groups at the end of this article, but you can also do a web search for your genre to find other possibilities.)

Generally, the main categories of genre fiction are: Action-adventure; Crime; Detective; Fantasy; Horror; Mystery; Romance; Science Fiction; Thriller and Western. Within each of these main categories, however, are several sub-divisions. For instance Romance, the field I know best, contains both sweet and sensual contemporary or historical stories, fantasy (paranormal), inspirational, suspense and western (specifically, the US in the mid-to-late 1800s). In addition, there is mainstream (a novel with strong romantic elements, but romance is not the plot) and young adult, which are usually not as sensual in nature.

Each of the other categories also have sub-divisions, and in the last few years, there are blended or cross-over type stories, which tend to defy conventions, and make it very difficult to sell to a conventional publisher. This is but one reason for the terrific increase in E-book publishers, which are not so rigid in their requirements.

Here are the major genres with representative organizations listed. This list is NOT complete, so you should also investigate on your own. There are also groups devoted solely to published authors of any genre, who are required to have at least two commercially published books in order to be eligible for membership.

http://www.thecwa.co.uk/ (crime/detective)
http://www.horror.org/ (horror)
http://www.mysterywriters.org/ (mystery, including private eye and/or violent content) http://www.sistersincrime.org/ (cosy mystery – the blood is mostly off-stage)
http://www.rwanational.org/ (romance)
http://www.sfwa.org/ (science-fiction and fantasy)
http://www.thrillerwriters.org/ (thrillers)
http://www.westernwriters.org/ (western)

If you know of other such organizations, please let me know. I’ll be happy to add to my list, so that everyone can benefit.

Have you started your book yet? What are you waiting for? It won’t write itself!

Are you absotively, posilutely sure you really want to write a book?

5 May

Are you really, really sure you want to write a book? It isn’t easy! You could easily go broke in the trying. Honest.

Why does everyone want to have written a book? If you think you can get rich by writing a book, forget it. You may think that’s harsh, but really, I’m just being facatual. I would respectfully suggest that you find another get-rich-quick venture to try.

Of course, there are more than a few authors who command huge advances and earn healthy royalties, but they’re pretty few and far between. Chances are they’re already famous (former Presidents or some other variety of politician, athlete or other celebrity come quickly to mind) or they’ve been writing (and selling) books for a good many years: Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark, John Gresham, Danielle Steele, Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts, etc. They’ve proven themselves to be knowledgeable, reliable and have, over the years, developed a built-in audience for each new book. Furthermore, all of the above started writing more than twenty years ago, when the publishing world was an entirely different place than it is today.

Generally speaking, however, today’s world has many more options available to the new writer. It is very possible for you to have your book published for less than an arm and a leg, or the cost of a second mortgage on your home. Furthermore, the stigma of self-publishing in this techno age is not anywhere near what it used to be. In fact, it’s sometimes impossible to tell a self-published book from a commercially-published volume.

There is, however, a major difference between writing a book, and then having it published. The same person can indeed do both things, and even though it is more common these days, it’s still not quite the norm.

The process for writing a book and seeing it in print is this:

First – someone (you? me?) writes a book. (We’ll talk about content and length and other such fascinating topics in future editions.) Once the manuscript has been cleaned up and perfected to within an inch of its life, the author then embarks on the quest for the Holy Grail – a publisher.

Although a publisher may well be a person, (frequently the owner of the company) the term publisher usually applies to the entity that actually produces the book. The publishing company, if you will. Laboring for this company will be editors (in several different categories); marketing gurus; visual artists; accountants; salespeople; production specialists; designers; typographers, and probably others. Time was when there were also proof-readers and fact-checkers, too, and even maybe indexers. These days, those tasks are assigned to free-lancers. Or else ignored. They’ll protest and say ‘not ignored’ but let’s face it, they are. There is no time—and less money—available in today’s world, to indulge in the leisurely schedule of bringing a book to market, at least in the way it was done fifty or so years ago.

And let’s face it. In today’s world, painful as it is to acknowledge, books are largely a throw-away commodity. In the 1940s through the 1970s, a new book by one’s favorite author was issued no more often than once a year—generally in hard-cover, and possibly followed the next year by the paperback version, about the same time as the next NEW book by said author would come out in hardcover. Some books (literary or major non-fiction bios or historical topics) actually took more than a year from time of submission by the author’s agent to release date. These were hard-cover (with dust jacket) books meant to be kept on one’s shelf forever. They were made to last and be lovingly treasured by the owner.

In today’s paperback romance market it’s not uncommon for an author to have 2 to 4—or even more!—new books issued each year! The market is insatiable for some genres, but once read – what happens to the book? 99% of the time it gets re-sold (for which the author and the publisher receive NOT ONE CENT!) or given to a library book sale, or – heaven forfend! – thrown away. (Ouch. That hurts, even to write those words!) That is also as opposed to the ‘throw the book across the room in disgust’ pitch. We’ll talk about that in a future blog post.

If you have questions about any of this, please ask? My e-mail is: bookmechanic@gmail.com