Friday, July 22, 2016

What I'm Reading in July

I had read about Beth Lewis's The Wolf Road on one of the literary agents sites I've been hanging around lately and just happened to find the book at the Mt. Orab branch library in the new books section that same day. I'm only a third of the way in and am fascinated by her use of language and unique characters, especially her unusual protagonist, Elka.

When I first started reading The Wolf Road, I actually thought, Well, I'm not much for post-apocalyptic stories, do I really want to read this? But it's four days later and I haven't set it aside and taken out the next book from my library bag yet. Elka grows on you, and the apocalyptic settings are not intrusive on the story at all. I have fallen into the unusual rhythm of the language and dialect. The natural setting enhances the story, and the supporting characters, both human and animal, are perfectly portrayed. I won't try to lead you to believe that this is a sweet story. It isn't, it's often brutal and sometimes a bit gory, but those things are called for in this story, and it's no worse than some of the crime or mystery novels we read. In fact, I believe that the harsh scenes in The Wolf Road are more necessary than those in crime and mystery books.

The author, Beth Lewis, grew up in Cornwall, loves to travel, and has worked as a bank teller and a juggler. (I love it! Encourages me to think that even a lowly pharmacy tech can eventually find success in the literary world.) Currently, she works as a managing editor in a London publisher's office.    

You can read more about Beth online or on the book jacket author's bio on this first novel.
I look forward to finishing this book and to reading more from her in the future.

Before starting The Wolf Road, I read Brandilyn Collins' Gone to Ground, and was also pleasantly surprised. I have to admit, to my shame, that because Brandilyn has won a great many accolades for her books from American Christian Fiction Writers and Inspirational Readers Choice awards, I have avoided her books because we obviously write in different genres. But I found that Brandilyn's Gone to Ground couldn't have been more mainstream mystery. Her characters are drawn from real life -- abused wives, cleaning ladies, and divorced hairdressers. This was a really good novel and I loved how she used a different character's viewpoint for every chapter. She also added interest by using newspaper articles written by one of the characters. Although I suspected who done it about two-thirds through, I still wasn't sure, and the author kept me wondering if I was right. And I commend her on her great short prologue that really drew me in.

My apologies to Brandilyn Collins for thinking she was going to preach to me. 

I'm always so excited when I discover writers that I should have been reading all along. It's why I always pick such a variety of books to bring home with me from the library. At the rate of reading two books a week, I keep coming across some of the best and I would never be able to remember all of them. Two oldie but goody crime drama/mystery writers have recently caught my attention -- Harlan Coben and Michael Koryta. I wish I had discovered them sooner, but better late and all that. You can't go wrong with these two writers if you want to read a good mystery. 

It really is true -- so many books, so little time.

Enhancing Your Story Through Setting

When you tie your character to a setting, you enhance that character and in turn, enhance your plot. Through best-choice description, you can highlight the mood and tone of the story and thus the inner landscape of your protagonist. 

Obviously, you can surround your character with a setting that reflects circumstances and attitudes, but you can also highlight character by showing the difference between their gloomy or desperate or sad feelings by placing them in a setting situation that is just the opposite of those feelings. This is a little trickier, of course. You have to maintain your character's inner landscape while conversely surrounding her with gaiety if she's unhappy, gloominess if she's sweet and sunny, etc.

 So here's your exercise for the day, a few minutes of practice to sharpen a setting to its finer points. And since I, too, could use some practice (always), I'll put on my writer's hat (well, I'm always wearing my writer's hat) and try to keep up with your brilliance.

The exercise: Introduce a mood by writing about a particular setting. You can make the place dark or light, gloomy or happy, mysterious, etc. What happened here? A murder? A marriage proposal? A car crash? A birthday party? Why is that house significant to your character? What took place in that meadow?

My setting:
Upon entering the house, you first see that plaster litters the foyer floor. It crunches underfoot, and even that small sound echoes in the emptiness. Straight ahead is a staircase to the second floor, the newel post lies at the bottom of the stairs amid the plaster.
When you walk into the old-fashioned parlor to the right of the foyer, you see that the stained cabbage-rose wallpaper has spiraled to the floor in strips. The sooty fireplace is missing bricks and the mortar is crumbling to dust. There is a Victorian settee, its stuffing pillowing out in places where the cover is torn. An ornate broken picture frame lies in the corner in two pieces. Plaster has fallen from the ceiling in this room, too, and birds have flown in through a broken window and built their nests where rotting bare ceiling beams are exposed.
Upstairs, a stained bare mattress lies on the floor of the largest bedroom, and the closet door hangs from one hinge. In the bedroom down a hallway where the walls are lighter in places where family photos once hung, the room is empty but for a rag doll lying in the thick dust and bird droppings on the floor. In a bathroom farther down the hallway, the claw-foot bathtub is stained with rust around the drain. The hardwood floor is water-stained and rotting. The silver backing of a round mirror on the wall has eroded and reflection is blurred.
Back down the splintered staircase, and across the foyer and out the door, you can almost forget that the place once housed a family.

Okay, so I was going for abandonment. I'm not sure I got there, but it was good practice. Hope you enjoyed your own practice work.


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Agents in a Nutshell

If you're a new writer -- or even if you're not so new -- you will no doubt ask Do I really need an agent for this pile of paper on my desk that I hope to call a book someday? Well, agents, of course, will tell you that you do. After all, writers feed them.

But even though many (ok, some) writers think literary agents are mean characters that Stephen King thought up, they really do want to help you. And if anybody deserves help it's that writer with that big pile of paper that she wants to sell.

If you're trying to sell to major publishing houses (uh huh, good luck with that first time around) like Penguin, Harper Collins, or Simon and Shuster, you definitely need an agent to negotiate the sale and insure that you're treated fairly. If you've written a book that is wonderful and excellent but not yet the one that will win you any literary prizes, you can try to sell to a publisher on your own. Those good-but-not-gonna-win-any-prizes books are sold to publishers every day and the writer happily skateboards to the bank without handing over 15% to an agent.

We know what we want from an agent, but what does an agent want from us? Well, it's recommended that you've finished your book (and polished it until you're almost ready to set it on fire and become a snake oil salesman) before you contact an agent. Agents who handle fiction don't have time to read a query outlining that brilliant book you're going to write someday when the kids are grown or after the laundry is done or when you finally grow up enough to know what you want to do with your life. They want to see a query from you that will tell them whether your book is worth trying to sell.

Your initial query is a one-page introduction to your work and who you are. Yeah, I know -- how do you possibly explain the book and yourself on just one page? Don't ask me, I'm still trying to cut down that seven page query letter that I continue to think is even more brilliant than the book I've written.

Briefly, the first paragraph is basically Hey, I hear you're a phenomenal agent and I can't think of anyone else in the business I would want to represent me. Seriously? No, don't say that. Simply let the agent know you know the kinds of books they handle and that yours would fit that particular genre.(That's called research.) The second paragraph should be a synopsis of the book, the tantalizing meat of your story, no side dishes, no condiments, though. The third paragraph is your brief bio as a writer, publishing credits, etc. (Probably shouldn't mention that your 16 adorable grandkids, or your cats, are your muse. This stuff comes under the heading of cutesy, and agents don't want cutesy, they want good writing. This ain't Facebook.) If you have no publishing credits, you don't have to say so, they'll figure it out when you don't say so.

In addition to your query letter, agents will want to see at least two or more chapters to prove you're not lying to them that you are smart enough to put as many as 100,000 words on paper while avoiding unnecessary adverbs, adjectives, and cliches. Not to mention changing the names of the innocent.

So where do you find these mythical creatures called literary agents?

Literary agents hang out on the Internet, and one of the most comprehensive sites is Of course, there are hundreds of literary agents online, and a great many helpful blogs written by both agents and writers. These blogs will obviously be far more helpful than this one. I certainly hope so, because I surely would like to get paid for my work someday.

With regard to writing a book, George Orwell said "One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist or understand."

I'd hate to think I'm possessed by a demon if I'm not going to get paid for it.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Welcome to Writing for Real

Welcome to Writing for Real, my new blog dedicated to all writers and readers. The struggles, the accomplishments, and the excitement every writer feels for the written word. I'll be sharing tips, and sometimes begging for help with my own literary efforts. Although I'm not a poet, I might throw in a poem or two. (Probably not, I know some excellent poets and I'm not one of them, but I just might throw some of their work up for my readers here to enjoy.)

I'll do my best to give good advice and share the lessons I've learned -- many of them learned the hard way. I also plan to post exercises to prod writers to write and reviews of great books to encourage readers to read. I'll also be shamelessly bragging about the best writers group ever, the Brown County Writers Group based in Mt. Orab, Ohio. The "eclectic gleeks". (Sorry, can't explain, you had to be there.) Our members are both brilliant and mega-supportive. (See? Told you I would praise shamelessly.)

I've been writing since I was a child and read the adventures of Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot. (If you are under the age of 50 or 60, you won't know who these characters are, of course.) I remember thinking, "I can write a much better story about those kids and that dog", and so I did. The next thing you know, I was putting a book together with paper clips and staples and trying to sell it on the playground at recess. Of course, I ended up giving it away because seven-year-olds don't have money.

I've written essays, short stories (my favorite writing), health magazine articles, and several general magazine articles. Now that I'm retired, my life has been taken over by the most serious endeavor of writing novels people will actually want to read.  A late start is better than no start, wouldn't you say?
Since my first full-length novel is finished, my attentions have now turned to exploring the marketing of my book. And this search will be the subject of this blog's next posting. I'll try to give practical tips on how to get your book published, and the ins and outs of finding an agent or publisher.

So welcome to Writing for Real. I'm gonna love this. Hope you will too.