John G. Hartness
As I write this, I am home sick from work for the second day in a row with bronchitis, an infection that has become a nearly annual houseguest in my lungs, and I’m finally pissed off and scared enough to do something about it. I asked my doctor if there was something wrong with me other than my immune system being suppressed because I’m fat, and she looked me square in the face and said “Nope.” So all I need to do is to lose weight and everything will be better? Pretty much, was the answer.
Now I understand that it’s not that simple. Losing weight won’t make my beard turn grey and more slowly. It won’t do nearly as much for my retirement fund as winning the PowerBall last weekend would ave done, but it may very well help my writing.
Yep, I went there. I admit and understand that my health issues are directly related to the fact that as I sit here, less than 90 days from my 40th birthday, I’m nearly 100 pounds overweight, even taking into account that I’m too big naturally to weigh the 180-190 lbs, that some platforms say I should. I’m pretty good around 215-225. But 312 isn’t good for anybody. I’d have to be seven feet tall to carry this much weight properly. And because I’m fat, I’ve shown up with sleep apnea, which means that I snore like a freight train and neither Suzy nor I get enough restful sleep at night. So I’m tired all the time. So I struggle through a day at work, come home, eat dinner, and fall asleep in the recliner like some hippie version of Archie Bunker. Which means I’m making zero progress on my writing. As a matter of fact, some weeks the only writing I do is here on MW. And that ain’t right.
So I’m taking back my health. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing anything crazy like giving up meat or beer. Although I’ll still be on antibiotics at ConCarolinas, which may tame down the Literate Liquors panel substantially. But as soon as I can move without coughing, I’m on the treadmill.
Yes, like most fat people, I own plenty of exercise equipment. There’s a weight bench in my office and a treadmill in the dining room.
I’ll be on the treadmill every day for one month. Every day, because it takes that level of repetition to actually get into a habit and stick with it. And you, kind friends, are my accountability. Each week, in addition to whatever I’m spewing about writing, you’ll get an exercise and diet update. My approach to diet is a little odd, but it worked for me before, when I went from 265 to 212 in six months. Then I went from 212 to 312 in four years.
My goal weight is 220 lbs. I look good at 220. I mean, I’m a sexy beast at 312, just imagine the hotness at 220. The other hope is that once I get past the first week of ‘ERMAGERD WHAT AM I DOOOOING?” I’ll be able to get more energy and get back in the saddle with some writing again.
But now the hydrocodone-laced cough syrup is kicking in, so I’d better save this before I veer off into the truly chartreuse. I hope to see many of you at ConCarolinas, at the MW lunch, at panels, in the bar, at parties, and at the book launch party on Friday night!
Wow, look at the pretty colors on that hippo. Yep, time to lay down for a while.
Diana Pharaoh Francis
Two things converged for me this week to bring home the fact that I don’t know enough. First, I’m writing on something where in which in the first few pages I’ve run across a number of things I need to dig up: kinds of spiders in Tennessee, and what sorts of poisonous spiders do people keep as pets; who can obtain police complaint information and how and how long is that information kept: What do you call someone who is a deputy sheriff but not the elected sheriff (I figure deputy is the title, but do people in the town just call him Sheriff anyhow?). There were some other things I dug into also and more that I can see coming down the road soon.
Then the tornado hit in OK. As I’m watching coverage and trying not to think too hard about the devastation, I’m asking a lot of questions. Why was there any kind of storm shelter in the schools? What sorts of building materials could stand up to an F5? If you were building a Target or Safeway in the area, would you put a shelter in for your employees and customers? If a tornado is 2 miles wide, are the winds sustained over the entire width, or do they vary significantly?
I actually had a lot more questions. This was my writer brain asking, by the way. Because writers are magpies and we collect everything for our writing toolboxes. Or maybe as stuff to compost for our primordial ooze (phrase courtesy of Virginia Woolf). The point is, whether I’m writing or just encountering the world, I’m constantly discovering how much I still don’t know. Even when I think I know something, inevitably there is a lot I still don’t know about the subject.
That brings me back to my title. A lot of people think that writers just make stuff up, especially fantasy writers. They have no idea how much research has to go into even small moments to make them accurate and feel real–to create the believable reality for the reader. Maybe that reality is only a facade with nothing behind it (Thinking of Blazing Saddles now), but what shows is very detailed and complete. It has to be. And that means research. Who knows what you might have to find out. Because even when you make stuff up, it still has to work within what we know. You can’t make up new rules for physics, unless of course your world works differently, in which case you have to research the physics to know how differently things are and how you’re going to make consistent sense of it.
And remember, even what you think you know, you should probably double check it to be sure. I have a big library of research books on all sorts of subjects. I also have a ton of links on my webpage to various research sites so I can return to sites when I need to. I go digging up people with knowledge to ask questions. You never know who might be an expert in something. So one of the things to do as a writer is to keep track of who of your acquaintances knows what and be able to hit them up when needed.
A few days ago I received an email from PMI Publishing. You probably haven’t heard of them – they don’t publish books, or magazines or short stories. Apparently they’re a promotions agency. Nothing wrong with that – lots of folks employ promo people to help get the word out about their careers. But this particular email made me uncomfortable. Let me share the bulk of the email with you, so you can get where I’m coming from.
“We just signed an exclusive deal with the three monthly publications in Florida to provide book reviews. As part of our agreement we are required to review between 36 and 64 books over the course of the next 12 months, which will appear in print. There is no cost for the review.
Our goal is to provide a win-win scenario for both our client and for you, the author… so all reviews will be positive (we are not looking to slam any authors). Our client has a reader base of in excess of 120,000 readers per month, so it should be a great way to promote your book.”
Where do I begin? How about with the first sentence? They’re writing book reviews for three monthly publications in one state. They conveniently leave out the circulation stats for these three unnamed publications. I can guess why…because no one is reading magazines that much anymore. Every day more and more people are turning to the internet for the kind of light reading they used to enjoy in the pages of magazines, so print magazines are disappearing quickly. They say they have a reader base of 120K but without knowing what magazines these are and more specific circulation numbers, you already have a less-than-exceptional promotion opportunity. I’m not crazy about the reviews being seen in only one state, too. Why don’t these publications have online presences, which would allow people all over the country to access the reviews?
But then we get to my favorite part – all the reviews will be positive. That tells me the reviewers won’t be sharing their personal opinions – they’ll be writing their reviews according to a formula that tells readers nothing useful. It’s hard enough now to know which books will please me and which won’t, but to find out that reviews are being slammed out 50 at a time reminds me of the old complaints about Harriet Klausner and her speed reading. No one trusted anything she said because she never disliked a book, and she reviewed a ton of them at once. We may not like unfavorable reviews, but they’re more honest than a guaranteed positive you had to pay money to get.
Not everyone will love your work. Some people will flat out hate it, with spit and vitriol and maybe even a few curses thrown in for color. It happens, and it’s okay. Treasure the honest good reviews you get, and let the unpleasant ones fuel your fire to write a better book the next time. A very wise pal of mine (*coughDavidCoecough*) said, “Chances are I’m going to tick off someone, and I’m okay with that. I once had a reviewer of the third book in my first trilogy say that it was the worst conclusion to a trilogy ever written. I figured if I’d reached this reader so deeply that he felt compelled to trash it so thoroughly, I must have done something right.”
Isn’t that better than paying some yes-man to massage your ego? Yeah, I thought so, too.
Today (Sunday), my older daughter was graduated from high school. It has been an emotional weekend, full of celebration, of wistful remembrance, of joyful anticipation of adventures and journeys to come.
Throughout the various events, as I have watched my child take these first decisive steps into adulthood, even as she still smiles at me with a face that doesn’t seem to have changed at all in the past eighteen years, I have found myself thinking about many things, most of them having nothing at all to do with writing. But I have given a good deal of thought to the notion of narrative, to the ways in which we humans seek to shape a coherent story out of events and circumstances and milestones that do not necessarily lend themselves to a coherent progression of “plot points.”
It seems to me that we do this at moments like these. A rite of passage — a birth, a tenth birthday, a first driver’s license, a graduation, a marriage, another birth — is rarely viewed as an isolated moment in one’s life. Rather, it is part of a continuing progression, an unfolding tale. Even the language we use to speak of such things reaches for the expression of life as epic. We turn a page, we begin a new chapter. There is comfort in narrative, reassurance in the idea that life is something more than random unrelated events strung together over the years.
We do something similar when confronted by tragedy. We want to understand why two young men, immigrants to our country, would plant bombs to kill and maim strangers on a day of friendly competition and patriotic expression. We seek a narrative in their lives that can help us grasp the incomprehensible, that perhaps can impose order and clarity on chaos and grief and horror. And so we turn something inherently irrational into part of a logical progression. As I say, there is comfort in narrative; perhaps there is healing to be found in a story well told, even if that story leads to terror.
The problem is, narrative is an elusive and at times artificial construct. To turn on its head the old Tom Clancy quote about fiction and reality, fiction makes sense because we create events to fulfill a preordained narrative; reality has to have narrative imposed upon it. Otherwise it is incoherent, untamed, frightening.
And so my daughter graduates from high school. In the fall she will head off to NYU and begin her college education. And a decade from now, perhaps as she is marrying someone she will meet there, or beginning a career that will grow out of the intellectual awakening she will no doubt experience during her college years, it will seem as though she was destined to go from rural Tennessee to New York City. It will seem that the combination of college application choices and outcomes and final matriculation decisions all pointed her to this one fated path. That is a convenient and satisfying narrative. More, there will almost certainly be threads and connections and coincidences that reinforce the idea of predetermination. I can tell you, though, that while we have been in the midst of the process it has felt pretty random. At times, disturbingly so.
This is a post about life as much as it is about writing. I look toward my daughter’s future and I see amazing possibilities; I envy her the adventures she will have; a small part of me — the protective father — harbors some trepidation for the setbacks she will suffer, and for the unspoken dangers inherent in a life well-lived. This last, though, I try to conceal, from her and from myself. Most of all, I hope that her life will lend itself to the narrative we want to impose upon it. My life has seemed a well-structured story, in large part because I have found the joys of a wonderful marriage, a loving family, a fulfilling career. The narrative “works.” I hope hers will as well.
Thinking for a moment as a writer, rather than as a father, I realize that the need to impose narrative on life can be mirrored in our creative attempts to shape plot points into a satisfying story. Because while I would like for my daughter’s joys and successes to have that sense of coherence that sometimes comes with a happy life, I don’t want my characters’ successes to feel that way. This, I suppose, is the paradox of narrative, of fiction, of reality. Returning to Clancy’s quote once again, I agree that fiction has to make sense. But it has to make sense without feeling predetermined. Our job as writers is not merely to shape a story that holds together, but also to give it that sense of randomness, of pandemonium that we associate with “real life.” When our readers reach the end of our stories or books, they can look back and say “Yes, of course. It had to unfold that way.” But when they’re in the middle of them, each new twist and turn should be a revelation.
Fiction and real life. I believe that those of us who live with one foot firmly planted in each have a wondrous opportunity to explore the deeper meaning of what it is to love and to hurt, to celebrate and to grieve, to discover and to experience. And so today, with my heart so full it feels constantly on the brink of overflowing, I wish all of you lives that lend themselves to narrative, and stories that capture the amazing unpredictability of life.
David B. Coe
So, last week, I promised to post my own synopsis. Here’s one for an as-yet-unsold novel. I don’t follow my own formula perfectly (for a series of long, boring reasons that I’m not going to go into here…) Nevertheless, I mostly stick with the formula I shared. Obviously, on this website, you can’t see proper formatting, but assume that I nailed that, okay? In comments, let me know what you think — does the synopsis hold your interest? Does it show you the development of the main characters? Does it give you a view of what the novel is actually about?
* * * BEGIN SYNOPSIS * * *
ASHLEY WARNER is a typical high school senior: a good daughter to her widowed father, a great friend to the brilliant, high-strung KAYLA BARKER, and the somewhat unlikely girlfriend of Lincoln High’s ultra-popular All State pitcher, BRANDON METHENY. Ashley understands the way her world works; she lives and breathes social rules and academic expectations. Her life is in perfect order until she gets hit with after-school detention for a minor offense. Until she meets ZACHARY JACOBS.
Zachary is the guy no one likes. Saddled with the moniker “Super Nazi” since an elementary school prank, the computer genius is a repeated victim of bullying. His lunch is stolen; he’s tripped in the classroom aisle. Everything Zachary does seems doomed to draw the wrong sort of attention from the popular kids.
Nevertheless, Ashley finds herself spending a lot more time with Zachary after she volunteers to help overworked Kayla with the school literary arts magazine, Crossroads. Due to funding cuts, the magazine is being published electronically for the first time, and Zachary’s computer skills are vital to a successful launch.
Ashley helps Kayla with another task—the distribution of Valentines Day carnations as a Student Council fundraiser. Ashley is astonished to receive a full bouquet from Brandon, and she’s proud of the attention—until Brandon informs her that he expects sex as a fair trade for the flowers. When Ashley refuses, Brandon flies into a rage. Their break-up is soon brutally public.
Ashley’s life begins a new trajectory. She’s no longer a happy, well-adjusted senior; rather, she is astonished to discover her classmates’ cruelty. When Zachary is beaten by Brandon’s friends, Ashley stands with the outcast. Day by day, she finds herself more isolated, more separate from the easy school life she’s always known. These changes create friction with both Kayla and her father.
A chance encounter between Ashley and Brandon’s mother leads the jocks to take major revenge for Ashley’s perceived impertinence. They draw a compromising caricature of Ashley on the bathroom wall and add the legend, “ASH TAKES CASH.” Ashley’s excision from Lincoln’s mainstream society is complete; her only friend is Zachary. (Kayla is so wrapped up in academic challenges that she’s unable to help.)
By spring break, Ashley is grateful to escape the hallways of Lincoln High. She spends time at Zachary’s house, working on the final formatting for Crossroads. While there, she discovers that Zachary’s life is very different from hers. He is distanced from his unemotional father, and he is infantilized by his mother. Ashley is both compelled and repulsed by the shooting range target displayed in Zachary’s room—the one relic of positive time shared with his father.
While working on the magazine, Zachary reveals a plagiarized submission from Brandon. Ashley reports the violation to school officials, but Brandon manages to escape censure. Nevertheless, Brandon seeks revenge. He shares a website with all of Lincoln High—www.AshTakesCash.com. Disgusted by the graphic images and sickened by the lurid text, Ashley spurns ineffectual support from Kayla and turns to Zachary.
The computer genius hacks into Brandon’s account and takes down the revolting website, adding substantial charges to Mrs. Metheny’s usurped credit card. Still stunned, Ashley spends the night with Zachary. They bond (chastely) through their shared pain, through their unjustified victimization at the hands of Lincoln’s bullies.
By the light of day, things are more complicated. Brandon, enraged by the hacked charges on his mother’s account, threatens bloody vengeance. When Ashley phones Zachary to warn him, he crystallizes into a different person. He instructs Ashley not to come to school the following day, and then he refuses to say more.
Panicked by Zachary’s implied threat, she runs to his home and discovers him holding a handgun. Alone in the house with a boy pushed past endurance, Ashley begins the argument of her life. She begs Zachary to think about the families of the boys he will murder. She pleads with him to imagine the penalties he’ll pay—prison or execution. She tries to make him understand how his actions will destroy his parents. Ultimately, she demands that he recognize the impact his actions will have on her—on the girl who knew him, who understood him, who could be held as an accessory to his crime.
Zachary only breaks when he realizes the harm he will bring to Ashley. He sobs and pleads with her, trying to explain that he only wanted to keep her safe. Ashley comforts him, but she demands that he reach out for help—to his parents, to a school counselor. Ultimately, Zachary agrees to give the gun to Ashley’s father. Ashley places the call and settles down to wait, unspeakably relieved that disaster has been averted.
In a brief epilogue, Ashley relates that Zachary is getting the mental health treatment that he needs. She is working on her own emotions—anger and fear and sorrow. She’s healing, patching things up with Kayla and reaffirming her bond with her father. And she’s eager to head to college in the fall, to a new life free from the bullying and violence of Lincoln High.
* * * END SYNOPSIS * * *
John G. Hartness
No, I promise this isn’t a complaining post about stupid questions people ask writers. But before I get to the meat of the post, I have a couple of ConCarolinas-related announcements.
1) The Book Launch Party for The Big Bad:An Anthology of Evil will be Friday night at 10:30PM in one of the Programming rooms. Check your program for the exact location. In addition to me, we’ll have my lovely co-editor Emily (PeaFairie) on hand, plus contributors Bobby Nash, James Tuck, Jim Bernheimer, Darin Kennedy, Eden Royce, Nico Serence, Matthew J. Saunders, Jay Requard, S.H. Roddey and more! Come join us for cupcakes, libations and get your copy of The Big Bad autographed by as many people as possible. They’re like Pokemon – gotta catch ‘em all!
2) On Saturday night, I will be hosting a Literate Liquors Live! event! This is more official programming, so check your con schedule for details, but we’ll be drinking with some of our favorite writers and talking about what booze goes best with what books. Bring your own designated driver!
Now let’s talk briefly about ideas. Brief because I’m exhausted from working a day job and designing a show this week. Avenue Q opens at Theatre Charlotte tomorrow, and I’ve been in tech all week. Special thanks to Misty and her son for coming out to help me work on the show last weekend. I really appreciate it.
I’ve found that if you’re short on ideas, it’s because you’re not paying attention. Writers are, at our hearts, observers. We look at the world and ask “What if?” We look at a lump in the bed and think “What if that wasn’t my wife, but an alien that had replaced her?”
We look at the cat and think “What if my cat suddenly grew opposable thumbs?”
I’d spend less time with a can opener and my cat would be obese. But I digress.
It’s not a matter of getting enough ideas, it’s a matter of storing them and retrieving them later. For this, I use a piece of software called Evernote. It syncs with my phone, web and desktop accounts, so I don’t have to be in any specific place to make notes, and I can access notes from anywhere. This lets me keep track of all those awesome ideas I get while driving. I can just make a voice note in my phone, and get it back later when I’m ready to write.
I do find that an inordinate number of my ideas come while driving or traveling. Maybe that’s because I’m paying more attention to my surroundings when I’m away from home, or maybe I just go awesome places. Who knows? But I do know that I need to take some way to scribble notes and outlines with me, no matter where I am. I’ve written outlines of novels waiting on a tire change, waiting for a dentist or just sitting in the hallway at a con.
Where are you when inspiration strikes? How do you keep the idea? I won’t be around in the comments too much because I’m designing another show tomorrow (today, I’m writing this Wednesday and posting Thursday through the magics of the interwebs!) and have limited computer access during load-in. But let me know what your favorite note-taking tool is. Do you have a special pen? Are you a tech-head like me?
If the Writer Isn’t Having Fun, the Reader Probably Isn’t Having Fun
So . . . in 2003, JC and I launched a series staring a female vampire hunter—in a dark medieval fantasy setting—and the Noble Dead Saga was born. I’m the first drafter in our team, and I was having a blast. I “get” why readers enjoy stories about vampires and about vampire hunters, and I think as a result, the series did well.
About four years in—and four novels later—we had some other writers over for a dinner party, and one of them was a fairly bitter soul who’d taught creative writing for years and had not managed to land an agent or a publisher. When everyone at the party went outside to play croquet after dinner, I stayed in to wash the dishes, and this writer stayed behind to talk to me. I did feel bad for him. He really had hit that “bitter wall” of wondering if he’d ever find a publisher.
As I was loading the forks into the dishwasher, he said, “Well, I know that if I could just lower myself to writing a series about a vampire hunter, I could have a best selling series too.”
I’d just cooked this guy dinner.
However, I’m nice, and so I nodded sympathetically. But on the inside, I was thinking, “Yeah, baby, why don’t you try that and see what happens.”
If he’d tried to launch a series about a vampire hunter, it would have failed miserably because 1) he’d have hated doing it, 2) he wouldn’t have had any fun, and most of all, 3) because he didn’t remotely understand why people love those stories.
Fast forward a few years. The Noble Dead Saga was still doing fairly well, but JC had taken into it BIG epic fantasy, and I sort of missed the more emotionally intimate dark tales of the first three novels. Then . . . in a situation far too complicated to explain here, I was offered a chance to write an independent series based on a contemporary vampire novel I’d written back in grad school. My editor asked me, “Can you slant this into urban fantasy?” I answered, “Absolutely.”
I mean . . . how hard could it be to write urban fantasy? I didn’t know anything about urban fantasy or why readers enjoyed it, but I jumped in with both feet. Good God! What was I thinking? I was completely out of my element, and yet, I wrote four more books based on that early work from grad school. This was the Vampire Memories series. I had no business writing urban fantasy. I pulled the plug on that series myself—without waiting for my publisher to do it for me.
Then I started thinking about what I really wanted to do. I absolutely loved writing Sister of the Dead set in Droevinka, the land of Magiere’s birth, and I often thought that if I had the chance to write a new series, I’d go back there. I’m drawn to the medieval politics and the warlord princes. I love the heavy forests and cloudy skies and the traveling gypsies and superstitious villagers and the old stone castles. I mean . . . who doesn’t love traveling gypsies and old stone castles?
I also remembered how much I enjoyed working with main characters who begin to realize they have more power than they ever could have envisioned.
So, I sat down and wrote a proposal for a series called The Mist-Torn Witches about two sisters, Céline and Amelie Fawe, who start off in one of those grubby little villages in Droevinka, with Céline playing at being a “seer,” and soon, the sisters find themselves rushed into a rapid change of circumstance due to the ambitions of two of those warlord princes, and the sisters begin to discover a good deal more about themselves, their abilities, and their connections to the traveling gypsies . . .
Then I wrote the first three chapters, and I was just having a blast. I was having soooooooo much fun. I showed the proposal and sample chapters to my editor at Roc. She’s no hand-holder, and she pulls no punches, and after reading the submission, she nodded and said, “This is good.”
I’m now back to writing in a setting that I love, working on a series I find extremely fun, and as a result, I think the readers will have fun too.
Barb Hendee is the nationally best-selling co-author of the Noble Dead Saga (along with her husband J.C.). She is also the author of the Vampire Memories series and the newly launching Mist-Torn Witches series. She has a master’s degree in English and taught college for twelve years. She was born in the northwest, later migrated to Idaho and then Colorado, but she missed the rain and the moss too much and now lives just south of Portland, Oregon in the Willamette Valley with JC and their two yearling kitties, Ashes and Cinders. Visit her website at: http://www.barbhendee.org/