When first isn’t always best

Suppose someone e-mails you and asks: “Could you send me a sample chapter of your book?”

Do you assume that they want your first chapter, or maybe the first couple? That’s what the Amazon Kindle site shows to the world when someone clicks “Look Inside” on your book cover. That’s what a lot of writers promptly send out automatically.

After all, why not start from the beginning, right?

Well, not necessarily.

With novels, in particular, first chapters can be problematic. Generally, they come in two forms:

1. A setup chapter that explains the background for what is to come.

2. An immediate leap into the action, to hook the reader into the drama.

In the first instance, the setup chapter can be a bit complicated. Of all the chapters in my recently published novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” the first chapter is the one I like the least.  I felt like it was necessary, but I really had to work on it to prevent it from being tedious.

Often with a first chapter, you spend so much time trying to explain the plot that you don’t show much of your writing chops. And if you’re not careful, the reader will start thinking: “Geez, this is slow. I sure hope it gets better.”

On the other hand, the “immediate leap” chapter offers problems of its own.  True, these are sometimes ideal to send out as samples — but if the idea is to go for the jugular and worry about background later, you run the risk of leaving the reader struggling for context.

So wouldn’t that be the case with any later chapters?

Well, yes, but that can be fixed. I wouldn’t discount the possibility of sending out the chapter, or chapters, that show your best writing. Then, to avoid marooning the reader on an unknown island, offer a one-sentence explanation at the top: “In this chapter, Marcia — the main character — comes to a crossroads in her relationship.”

Think of your sample as akin to a movie trailer. Most trailers don’t really tell you about the plot, but they give you a good sense of what you can expect.

Sample chapters, chosen wisely, can serve the same function.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun with fiction

As a career journalist, the term “fiction” always made me a little uncomfortable.

After all, that’s the last thing you want to see beneath your byline in a newspaper or magazine, because fiction there translates into … lying.

Indeed, that was always my comeback to people who accused me of “making up” elements of a story.

“If I could do that, I’d be writing novels,” I’d say.

But I didn’t. I could never really see the point, although I enjoyed reading novels by other writers.

All this changed, however, one morning in 1993, when I woke up and decided to create a work of fiction about the newspaper business.

“Where did that come from?” I asked my unseen muse.

There was no answer. Still, I enthusiastically tore into the project. I spent a week at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a writers’ retreat, and banged out 20 chapters, working 15 hours a day. And then, for reasons I can no longer remember, I hit a stoplight.

For 20 years after that, I would periodically summon this novel-in-utero from the womb of my computer, read those 20 chapters, and redo them. Then, a few months later, I’d do the same thing. It became like the movie “Groundhog Day.”

Finally, in 2013, I had some health problems that forced me to the sidelines as a columnist for several months. Free time surrounded and enveloped me, and one day my wife Gail said: “Why don’t you just finish that damn novel?”

So I did, and it was a revelation.

I recently interviewed a successful novelist named Garth Stein who told me: “Writing a novel is like pushing a big rock up a hill. If you’re lucky, at some point you’ll reach the crest of that hill, and then you’ll have to run to catch up with your rock.”

He’s right, and here’s what I discovered — writing fiction is actually easier for me than writing non-fiction.

It reminds me of a song I always liked, from the group REM, called “World Leader Pretend.” The refrain goes: “This is my world, and I am World Leader Pretend. This is my life, this is my time. I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit. It’s high time I raze these walls that I’ve constructed.”

How true. When I’d be stopped by walls while writing a newspaper piece, I’d have to put everything on hold in order to call more people or do more research.  With a novel, you just invent a solution.

Let’s see — why would that character mysteriously disappear for two weeks? Wouldn’t someone see him during that time? Wait! I’ll have him be abducted by aliens! Why not? It’s my book.

What I also discovered in writing “The Kudzu Kid” was that my characters became real people. I became less of a creator and more of a stenographer. When I put the main players together, they would talk to each other, and all I’d have to do was write it down.

In a way, it was like playing with Lego blocks as a kid. I created my own town, supplied it with a newspaper, and added characters. What fun!

Lest I be inundated by angry e-mails, however, I’m not saying writing fiction is easy. Sometimes those characters turn mute. all too often, the plot wanders into a dead end.

And there are reasons why everyone doesn’t write fiction. A lot of people simply aren’t curious, but see things more on a surface level. That doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent, but they don’t feel the need to let their minds wander. They could no more write fiction than they could fly.

Those, of course, were the people who got A’s in high school while I sat at my desk and looked out the window. Now, at last, my propensity for imagination has become a plus.

Sometimes, I think, we all get so hung up about how many books we aren’t selling or how much money we’re not making that we forget that writing fiction can actually be fun.

The thing to remember is, you’re not starting from Ground Zero. As I always tell other writers with whom I work, everyone is unique. No one who has ever lived, or ever will live, will have your combination of genetics, geographic location, parents, friends and life experiences. No one else has watched all the same movies or read the same books as you have. In other words, we all have our own window on the world, and that will make your writing fresh and different, if you let it.

My Mom once gave me a T-shirt that said “Be nice to me, or I’ll put you in my novel.”

“The Kudzu Kid” contained literally dozens of war stories from my long newspaper career, and all the characters were people I have known, or composites of those people.

And if my memory of those prior events is a little flawed, so what? It’s only fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Technically incorrect

“Welcome, my son. Welcome to the machine.” (Pink Floyd).

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Dave.” (Hal, the evil computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)

Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against technology. The fact that it seems to have something against me is just another obstacle I need to deal with.

As I’ve often told people with Asian accents as we struggle together over a trans-Pacific phone connection, I’d like to think I’m trainable. The problem is, like too many others of my generation, I tend to be literal.

Whenever I deal with someone who is technologically savvy (and I include my son Jeremy, who has been a great help over the years), I always feel that I’ve missed a step in the instructions.

I don’t want to know computer theory. I probably won’t respond to jargon. Just tell me: “Hit this key. Then hit this key.” And so on.

I love it when something goes wrong with your computer and a message pops up that says: “Error No. 249.”

“Are you sure?” I want to reply. “To me, it really seems more like an Error 519.”

Of course, there is no one to reply to. That pronouncement seems to come from somewhere in deep space, perhaps a black hole.

Computers, to me, are like automobiles. I know how to use them, but I don’t know (or care) how they work, and I don’t know what to do when they don’t.

Unlike cars, however, computers require occasional upgrades. It’s as if you received a notice saying, “For your information, the Interstate highway system has now been upgraded, and your car will no longer be able to drive on it. You must buy a new car.”

The process of editing my first novel became grueling when my editor chose to use “Track Changes.” This software does seem kind of neat, and I was able to click on it and clearly see suggestions and corrections my editor had made. The problem was, my computer wouldn’t let me respond to these notes.

So we finished the edit in little chunks over a too-long period of time, me sitting at a computer in my local public library, surrounded by unemployed people checking the want ads. By the time it was over, my editor and publisher were ready to kill me, and I don’t blame them.

I needed an upgrade, but my computer wouldn’t let me.

Finally, I can’t get used to that subliminal sense of dread that always underlies any creative endeavor on a computer. Anyone who has ever had a story inexplicably wiped away (“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Dave”) knows what I mean.

I envision this inscription on my tombstone: “Here lies Darrell Laurant. He wrote the greatest novel in the history of American literature, but no one ever saw it because his computer ate it.”

OK, so here’s my point, which I have taken a long time to reach. My wife Gail and I are taking a two-week trip this month, during which I probably won’t be sending any more posts. (I’m trying to upgrade my computer so it will watch the house while we’re gone).

This blog can be viewed at snowflakesarise.wordpress.com. The official launch of the “Snowflakes in a Blizzard” project will be April 17. You will notice that my blog is currently unadorned by anything remotely resembling graphics or art, and when we return, I will either try to dress it up or (far more likely) hire someone to do that.

In the interim, though, I would love to get any suggestions. What we will have is a page dedicated to a single book, hopefully (I think the word “hopefully” should be given a grammatical pass and welcomed into the English language, but that’s another blog subject) with pictures of book and author, a bio, a description of the book and “back story” on how it was done, a sample chapter, credit to the editor (editors never get enough credit) and information on where to find it and how to buy it.

I don’t need a video game with flashing, vibrating bells and whistles. I do want it to look nice, and any suggestions toward that end would be appreciated.

And if you look in the upper left corner at the brief description of the blog, you’ll see that the word “writers” has been oddly tagged on to the end. How do I make it go away? Nothing on the site tells me.

Sigh. Have a nice two weeks, Hal.

 

 

 

 

Overriding the myth

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview an author named Garth Stein. We talked on the phone, it was a freelance story for my old newspaper, and I was once again grateful that my job provided me with this access.

Stein’s latest book, “A Sudden Light,” is a big deal. His previous effort, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” — narrated by a dog owned by a race driver (and for all you genreheads, where’s the genre there?) — was a New York Times best-seller.

He told me that people have named their dogs, and even their children, after Enzo, the dog in the book. And that he once encountered a young man who had tattooed one of the lines from “The Art of Racing in the Rain” all around his neck.

That was Stein’s third book. His first two went nowhere. Hardly anyone bought them, and nobody talked about them.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to sit in on a press conference with John Grisham. His first book, “A Time to Kill,” was placed with a small New York publisher and failed to clear the launching pad. Finally, frustrated by the publisher’s inept marketing, Grisham bought the last 500 copies and drove around Mississippi selling them out of the trunk of his car. After awhile, he simply started giving them away to anyone who wanted them.

Grisham’s next book was a hit, and so the new publisher re-released “A Time to Kill.” Only now, people thought, “Hey, this guy is famous, so his book must be good,” and that first book ended up eclipsing the followup. (Meanwhile, those first editions that Grisham gave away became valuable collector’s items).

One moral here, obviously, is “Don’t give up too soon.” But after talking to Stein, I started thinking of all the other successful writers I was fortunate enough to interview in 15 years of doing a newspaper book column. And I wondered: What was the common denominator?

I think I’ve come up with one. Through it all, most of these people never stopped thinking of themselves as writers. It was their identity. Not people who wanted to be writers — Writers, with a capital “W.”

Not that they didn’t get discouraged and frustrated at times. But having wrapped that identity around them, they couldn’t casually shed it.

Once you accept that identity, you cross a threshold. After that, whatever job you may be doing to earn a living has to become secondary. That doesn’t mean you don’t continue trying to do it well, but you must start thinking of it as just the means to an end. Writing.

Otherwise, writing for you is a hobby, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Some excellent books have been written by hobbyists, and it’s a great way to exercise your mind. But it’s not the same.

If you play golf on weekends, you can’t really call yourself a Golfer. If you enjoy getting up and belting out your best Sheryl Crow imitation at your local karaoke bar, that doesn’t make you a Singer. If you don’t think of yourself as a Writer, you’ll never be a Garth Stein or John Grisham. And if you don’t see yourself that way, no one else will take you seriously.

Why, then, are so many writers leery of thinking of themselves as Writers? Partly, I believe, because of that cruel myth that has torpedoed more careers than any harsh editor or unresponsive publisher. It goes something like this: Writing is a gift; you’re either born with it, or you’re not.

Hogwash. With any human endeavor, it is said, perhaps 10 percent of the population is naturally gifted at it. On the other end of the scale, 20 percent of us could never master that particular skill no matter how hard we tried. With the remaining 70 percent, however, it all depends on how much you want it and how hard you’re willing to work for it. As a longtime sportswriter, I saw dozens of cases of high-level athletes who had overcome some kind of limitation to get there.

But that writing myth is a straight path to anxiety. If our early efforts are not best-seller-worthy, we fret, then we must not have “the gift”, forgetting that not being a good writer is only a temporary, transitional condition.

Think about it. You may be drawn to playing professional golf, but you’re not going to break par the first time you walk out onto a course. You may envision yourself as a symphonic musician, but you’ll have to endure a lot of sour notes before you learn how to play an instrument at that level.

What happens with so many writers, though, is that they go into denial.  Because they don’t want to admit to themselves that they haven’t been gifted, they forge ahead before they’re ready. It would be like the aforementioned golfer competing in the Masters with a 20 handicap. Their writing isn’t reader-ready, and the readers know it.

Yet I believe that when someone is strongly drawn to something, they have a future in it. I’ve often thought it would be cool to be an airline pilot or a rock musician or a dozen other things, but the urge was never fierce enough to forge a commitment.

I was extremely fortunate in that my newspaper job gave me validation as a writer. Early on, I wrote clumsily, but I had editors who helped, and I read other writers and tried to figure how they were doing what they did, and I learned. But I always considered myself a Writer, and probably a classic case — bad grades, no shiny social life, just an innate drive.

The good news is, there are myriad opportunities today to get better — hundreds of writer-friendly online sites and blogs, college and on-line courses, etc. Find yourself a mentor. Find yourself a good editor.

Most of all, never lose sight of the fact that we can always write better, clearer, with more originality. We’re always learning. That’s what Writers do.

Using song lyrics as condiments

When I wrote my first novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” last year, I  began several chapters with snippets of song lyrics. My editor took them all out.

I didn’t complain, because I liked him as an editor, and because I had never written a novel before and wasn’t sure if I hadn’t violated some unwritten rule. But I’m still hooked on using song lyrics in this way, maybe to a fault.

Realistically, these little “samplings” should probably be employed the way we use condiments on food — good for spice, but potentially sickening if overused. I edited a book in which the author used a song lyric sample to start every chapter, and I nicely suggested to him that perhaps that was overkill. If you lock yourself in that way, you can find yourself reaching for questionable tie-ins in some chapters, and why do that?

Here’s what I like about using song lyrics, though.

1. It’s a chance to connect, if only in a small way, with some of your readers. Unless a lyric is just perfect, I try to borrow from artists who are relatively familiar to a mass audience.

2. I think it shows a certain creativity and intelligence on your part that you are willing to stretch out beyond the boundaries of literature and into another creative realm (although quotes from other authors and books can also be very effective).

3. A well-chosen lyric can sometimes summarize the theme of your chapter — or, if used at the beginning, your whole book — far better and more succinctly than you can. It’s what lyricists do.

With “Even Here,” a non-fiction book I wrote several years ago about a series of “outsider” murders in Bedford County, VA, I started with a setup chapter about how the county was rapidly transforming from rural to suburban, and the tension that engendered. To start out, I used this lyric from Don Henley’s song “The End of the Innocence”:

“Who knows how long this will last; now we’ve come so far, so fast; but somewhere back there in the dust; that same small town’s in each of us.”

I loved that, and I now think of that book every time I hear that song.

The Kudzu Kid is about a big city investigative reporter whose career crashes. The only job he can find after being fired is as the editor of a small weekly in Southside Virginia, a place almost as alien to him as West Africa. At first, he struggles with culture shock, but gradually he begins to realize that he has been given complete freedom to do as he likes with “his” newspaper, and the thought energizes him. So I started one chapter with a bit from REM’s “World Leader Pretend” to emphasize that realization:

“This is my world, and I am World Leader Pretend; this is my life, this is my time; I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit; it’s high time I raze these walls that I’ve constructed.”

You get the idea, and I won’t belabor the point. My musical taste runs mostly to rock music (a generational thing) but song lyrics can obviously come from anywhere — country music, hip hop, old 1940s standards, whatever.

To be honest, I’m not certain about the legalities of this. It is my understanding that it’s OK to borrow a line or two of a song if credit is given, but not the whole thing. There is also the issue of whether the artist should be credited or the songwriter, if the two are different.

Anyone have any thoughts?

Ten cool things about being a writer

Some days, when writers’ block descends, our query letters return like boomerangs and our books aren’t selling, it’s nice to reflect upon what we have going for us.

1. We can travel light. Unlike plumbers and brain surgeons, writers need only a small notebook and a pencil to do our jobs (the current electronic paraphernalia is fine, but optional). And if you’re one of those fortunate souls able to conjure lengthy passages in your head, you don’t need anything at all.

2. We can eat and drink while we work.

3. We face no institutional barriers.  You can’t call yourself a doctor, a lawyer, a minister or a police officer without jumping through some societal hoops. To call yourself a writer, though, all you have to do is write. It doesn’t have to be how you make your living, you don’t need to be published, and you don’t even have to be good at it.

4. It’s OK to be poor. True, it’s not fun — but our literary culture has elevated the starving writer into something of a noble sufferer.

5. It’s OK to be weird. Indeed, for writers, artists and musicians, it seems that the stranger and more anti-social you become, the more intrigued people are by your work. Creative types also get a pass on habitual drunkenness, self-destructive drug use and sexual adventurism.  Think about it: In what other profession would Edgar Alan Poe and F. Scott Fitzgerald have been considered success stories?

6. We can change identities at will. All of us, in our darker moments, have fervently wished we were someone else. Fortunately, writers can use a time travel device called “first person” to transport themselves anywhere we like, at any point in history.

7. Writers are allowed to use pen names, a rarity among professions. How would you feel if your banker told you: “You know, this isn’t my real name”?

8. The best writers can become famous without the downside of fame — no paparazzi, no autograph hounds. Most of us wouldn’t know any of the current Top Ten best-selling authors if they were standing at our front door.

9. Everyone has the right to our opinion. If you stood up in a bar or on a street corner and told the world what you thought about some controversial issue, you’d risk being punched in the face or arrested (or worse, in some countries). But if you express your opinion in writing, you generally need fear only a few nasty e-mails.

10. You may never be published, but chances are you will have the ability to write memorable responses to creditors (See No. 4 above), devastating breakup letters to end bad relationships, and, if worst comes to worst, suicide notes.

What I’m looking for in a Snowflake

OK, I know that headline sounds kind of cutesy. Sorry — it goes with the general concept, which is: “Getting noticed as a writer today is like a snowflake trying to stand out in a blizzard.”

The problem with most marketing devices is that they just toss your book in with thousands of other books — or millions, in the case of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. How does that help?

I know, because I’m also on this journey, snowblind like the rest of you.

My novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” is not great literature. At least, I don’t think it is — I’m not even sure what constitutes great literature any more. But it’s my first novel, so it was a learning experience. The next one will be better.

Still, I was happy with it. My goal was to tell an entertaining story with interesting characters and provide some insight into what the profession of journalism is really like, especially on the gut level of a small town. I feel like I accomplished that, and I think a lot of people would enjoy reading it.

Except, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, why should they?  I’m an unknown novelist whose book doesn’t fit into any of the popular genres. Hoping that the average reader might snatch it up off a Barnes & Noble shelf or click on it on Amazon is a little like my Dad’s faith in his perpetual New York State Lottery number.

After nearly two decades passed, during which he never won a dime, I asked him: “Dad, don’t you think it’s time to try another number?.”

He bristled.

“Are you crazy?” he said. “That’s my lucky number.”

What’s that Einstein quote about doing things the same way but expecting different results?

I have a dozen or so reviews posted on Amazon, all of them complimentary.  Yet it wouldn’t matter if I had a thousand if no one ever looks at them.

So the idea behind “Snowflakes in a Blizzard” — a free service, by the way — is to take a book like mine that’s struggling for attention and place it in a setting where it can go one-on-one with prospective readers. Think of it as like a winery or brewery offering twice-weekly tastings of off-brands.

I’m looking for books that are self-published, or came from small presses, or were published a while ago and have seen sales level off.  Or maybe books by authors from other countries looking to get traction in U.S. markets (fluent English is, however, a requirement — our books can’t have subtitles). I’m especially interested in good books that are as yet unpublished, hoping that exposure on this site will help create a pre-publication buzz and maybe influence a publisher or agent (although there is nothing at all wrong with self-publishing). These books can be fiction or non-fiction, and the 27 authors I’ve plugged in so far represent both.

Much as I hate to become just another gatekeeper, I do need to make sure that what is submitted is something most people would want to read. This, I realize, is subjective, but there are standards. Something riddled with typos and grammatical mistakes obviously won’t pass. I will also read enough of a submitted book to make sure it makes sense. Other than that, I have a broad tolerance for different styles, genres and viewpoints. It can be weird, as long as it’s readable.

I have tried to schedule books in such a way as to provide variety. I don’t want two mysteries back-to-back, for instance, or two self-help books, or a couple of consecutive sci-fi efforts. Ironically, the one exception will be the first three blogs, where I’m featuring books that connect in some way with the Vietnam War (but all in different ways).

We have to maintain our collective credibility, or risk chasing our audience away. And without an audience, we’re just another tree falling in the forest. There would be no point.

Therefore, I’m working hard on that element prior to the official launch of this blog sometime in April. And I do have some ideas.

1. What if we gave book or two away in connection with every blog entry, based on a random drawing of people coming to the site?

2. What if the author let it be known that he or she would love to talk about their book, how and why they wrote it, and about writing in general, for a certain period after the book was featured?

3. What if we took a vote of readers at the end of the year and gave some sort of significant prize to what was deemed the most popular blog entry? I, for one, would be glad to offer a free edit for some future piece of writing.

4. What if we featured a person or company every Snowflake edition that helps writers in some way?

5. What if we did a really good job of archiving prior posts?

Anyone else have any ideas? The time is getting close.