Saturday, March 29, 2014

Aaron Allston's Writing Guidebook: An Enlightening Look at the Plotting Process

Scott D. Parker

A couple weeks back, I wrote about one of the rabbit trails we all take through the shrubbery that is the internet. The thing at the end of my trail was the wonderful happenstance discovery of Aaron Allston’s book, Plotting: A Novelist’s Workout Guide. For those who may have missed it, the following text from the opening page is what hooked me:

Do any of these statements sound familiar?
  • "I come up with good ideas, but I can't develop them into complete novels." [Yes! That’s me!]
  • "I'm going along fine with my novel, and then it just stops. I can't get it moving again." [Again, yeah!]
  • "I know what happens from start to finish, but I can't figure out what it's really about." [Sometime, yeah.]
  • "I know what's supposed to happen and what it's supposed to mean, but my story is just not working." [Still me, a bit]
  • "My novel is missing something and I can't figure out what it is." [Sure.]
If any of the above applies to you, Plotting: A Novelist's Workout Guide can help.

Well, I’m here to tell you that I’ve finished this book and it is exactly what I needed. You see, I’m stuck on a story that I’m writing and I’m trying to figure out which way it needs to go (bullet point #2). Moreover, bullet point #1 is a thing I struggle with as well.

Allston breaks down his book into two large sections. The third section is the appendix. Part one is theory. Here is where he lays out, in detail, many of the concepts most of us already know: What is a scene, the basics of plotting, the four elements of plots, etc. But where this book differs from others I’ve read is in two very important ways. One, Allston gives you exercises! Yes, you have homework. Some of these exercises might be basic, but for a beginning writer (or one who might be stuck), they are fantastic. There are exercises in each chapter (four chapters per section) and, while they start out as random exercises, they gradually turn to your own work. That’s a nice way of coming at your novel--in-progress with something akin to outside eyes.

But where this book really earns it’s keep is the sample novel. To illustrate his points, Allston uses lots of on-the-fly examples. Along the way, however, he starts a novel from scratch. He poses an idea for a story and takes it from idea all the way through two to three outlines! This was like a light bulb went off in my head. I’ve heard talk of outlining over and over and I could not get past the idea of the high school-type outline with Roman numerals. I was a bit ahead of the curve with my use of notecards, but seeing Allston ask the questions writers are suppose to ask, answer them, and then build his plot was so enlightening. Especially when he got to the outlining stage, just reading and trying to absorb all that is present in the outline is both daunting and exciting.

The book has done something I expected it to do: I couldn’t wait to finish it so I could start applying it’s teachings on my own work.

I mentioned this in my previous post mentioning this book, but Allston recently passed away. But he has left writers of all stages of development with a fantastic primer on how to plot and prepare for writing.

You can get the book via Amazon or at ArcherRat Publishing’s website (where you can get the epub or a PDF) If you head over there, Allston also posted some Author’s Notes where he examines the process he used to write a few of his short stories. If you get the Amazon Kindle version, you can highlight and annotate the book to your heart's content. I know I sure did. Afterwards, you can go and get your notes from the web and keep some of Allston's checklists on your desk while you write. Perfect!

This book, in its circuitous route, arrived at the time I most needed it. I'm now looking forward to applying Allston's processes in all my writing.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Welcome to Blurb Country

In my Do Some Damage debut, I wrote about agents and some guidelines that might help you in your quest for representation. This week, I'm jumping ahead to a shinier, happier place. One that features you already having a book deal. We are now entering BLURB COUNTRY. 

So, your book's coming out. Congrats. That's great news. Your editor has let you know it's time to think about blurbs. Don't freak out. It'll be OK. 

I've read a few great essays debating the merits of blurbs - "Do they help sell your book?", etc. Over at There's a Dead Guy in the Room, Erin Mitchell wrote a pretty lengthy and insightful blog post on it recently. Your mileage may vary when it comes to whether blurbs matter or not. I think blurbs help. Especially if you're a new writer looking to get eyeballs on your work. That's where I'm at, and the only experience I can speak to.

I was pretty happy with the blurbs I got for my debut novel, SILENT CITY. The list of blurbers (what a gross-sounding word, huh?) ranged from NYT bestsellers to up-and-coming authors. I'd love to say that was my master plan all along, but I can't. That being said, I did learn a lot in the process - here are some lessons I think you'll find helpful.

Who should blurb your book? Like trying to find an agent via authors you admire, I think it helps to target authors you look up to when asking for blurbs. Which author's readers do you think your book would resonate with most? Written a cozy? Then you may not want a blurb from a gritty noir writer. Then again, maybe you want to expand your audience to attract edgier readers. That's cool, too. Just make sure your book delivers for those potential readers.

Do not SPAM people. OK, you've got your list of targets. You may even have email addresses for them. DO NOT SEND A MASS EMAIL. DO NOT SEND A BCC EMAIL. Write a unique, personalized and honest email to each person on your list. Let them know you've written your first book, why you're a fan of their material and ask them if they'd consider reading your book and maybe blurbing it. Be gracious. Be friendly. Be honest. Send.

Ask your friends. Networking! It's hard. Sometimes annoying. But essential. If you want to write crime novels, you should probably get to know other people that do. They're pretty nice people, I'd say. Before I first considered writing SILENT CITY, I was a crime fiction fan, and I'm extremely grateful to the writers that were friendly and welcoming to me when I had no book credits under my belt. Over time, you build relationships and friendships with people. Who better to have praising your work than someone that really knows you and the struggles you've been through to get to the finish line? By all means, go pie-in-the-sky with your blurb list, but don't forget your friends. They know you and want to help you. Let them.

Do not be a pest. You sent out your emails asking for blurbs, or maybe your editor did based on the list you provided them. A few weeks have passed. Some authors responded quickly and excitedly. Some declined. Some haven't responded at all. For declines - be gracious, thankful and understanding. Authors are busy - they're writing their own work. It's OK. And hey, maybe your book didn't click with them. Do not force them into saying that. If they cite their schedule, then be grateful they're letting you know and move on. If they're upfront and say it wasn't their cup of tea, do not get defensive. The crime fiction community is a small one, and you should be trying to make friends and advocates, not rivals and enemies. Plus, it's your first book. It might not be for everyone. Heck, your twelfth book might be for everyone. Like pinging agents, be judicious in your reminders. Two reminders and no response? Assume it's not going to happen. If it does, great. If not, that's OK. Do not treat potential blurbers like people that owe you something. They're doing you a huge favor - they're taking time out of their busy schedule to ostensibly read and blurb your book. If they don't have the time, let it go. If they do, treat it like a gift from Santa.

Don't burn people. "Burn them? How is that possible?" Simple - remember earlier when you put together that list of people you wanted to blurb your book? Keep in mind, you're promising these people a spot on your book if they deliver. So, if and when they do, you have to hold up your end of the bargain. Got too many blurbs to fit on the book? Not good. So, try to gauge space and keep in contact with your editor about how many you need, exactly. The last thing you want to do is apologize to someone who spent hours of their time reading your book and writing something nice because their blurb didn't make the cut. Actually, the last thing you ever want to do is not use a blurb and not tell the author. That's a quick way to burn a bridge.

Be understanding. "Alex, you said that already." Well, it bears repeating. Also, authors have different rules of the road when it comes to blurbing. Some do it all the time. Some are extremely selective. Some never blurb. Keep that in mind when researching your list and when reacting to a pass - you might be asking someone to do something they're not comfortable doing, per se. Do your best to preserve the friendship/relationship over the short-term gain of a blurb.

I know some of the above can sound harsh - but I share these tips because I've made some of the mistakes myself. I've been a pest. I've over-booked blurbs (though, thankfully, managed to fit them all in the book) and I've been emo about declines. These are normal things that happen. We're so close to our work and care deeply about the time we've put into creating it, that even the slightest hint of negativity can stir us up. It's all part of growing a thicker skin.

Speaking of thicker skin…next time we'll chat about REVIEWS.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Just Popping In

This is how I'm feeling right about now:

Although in my case, a death in the family and now, a wicked stomach flu, make Holly a dull girl.

I have stuff to talk about that we'll get to in the next few weeks: I'm just got back from my first writers conference as a published author and I'm just finishing copy edits on my second novel.

But just so we have something to discuss here and now, tell me what your favorite movie about writers is? Although I posted the video of The Shining, I'd have to say that Sunset Boulevard is my all time favorite.

Also, welcome to Kristi Belacamino and Alex Segura, both of whom are now blogging on Do Some Damage. I'm no longer the new kid on the block!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Trouble in the Heartland


There’s no official publication date yet but I think the buzz has started to really build about a new anthology of stories inspired by Bruce Springsteen songs, Trouble in the Heartland.

I’m thrilled to have a story in the collection, especially since I grew up in a big city very far from the ‘heartland.’ untitled (9)

And yet, even though through the 70s Montreal was famous for hosting some massive prog rock concerts in the Olympic Stadium – ELP and their full orchestra and choir, Pink Floyd and the giant pig (legend has it that it was at the Olympic Stadium concert that Roger Waters first got the idea he wanted a wall between himself and the rowdy crowd – and then the rest of the world), Queen Rocks Montreal is a pretty good DVD – Bruce Springsteen is also massively popular there – as he is everywhere.

Sometimes I watch YouTube clips of Springsteen playing at soccer arenas in Europe and wonder what the crowd there really knows about Nebraska?

The Vietnam War is pretty much at the heart of America’s baby boom generation and yet there are audiences in Amsterdam and Oslo singing, “Got into a hometown jam, so they put a rifle in my hand, sent me off to a foreign land, to go and kill the yellow man.” (you’re singing along right now, aren’t you). It can’t just be the catchy beat.

So, while no other country had its young men drafted and sent to war in Vietnam, the feeling – the feelings, the strange, confusing, contradictory feelings that young men go through as they make their way from adolescent to adult – the desire to be a ‘good guy’ and a hero, to defend their country, to do their part, to not let people down – is universal.

And so is what Springsteen hit on so perfectly; “Go and kill the yellow man.”

Lately I’ve been doing some research on Vietnam War Resisters – draft dodgers as they were called at the time – and one thing that keeps coming up again and again isn’t men saying they were afraid to die, but men saying that they did not want, “to go and kill the yellow man.”

So I guess Springsteen gets to the universal heart of the matter for young men.

But what I’ve always loved about Bruce Springsteen songs are the women. And the relationships. He also gets to the heart of the matter there, too.

Springsteen songs aren’t about guys who try really hard and the women who don’t understand them. The women in Springsteen songs aren’t manipulative femme fatales selfishly getting what they want and tossing the men aside. These are people who struggle together.

Or not together. And there’s always that possibility that things will fall apart.

“Cherry says she’s gonna walk, ‘cause she found out I took her radio and hocked it, But Eddie, man, she don’t understand, that two grand’s practically in my pocket.”

Oh no, Cherry understands. Cherry’s been through this before. More than once. That radio’s gone and there won’t be two grand in this guy’s pocket. He’s an amateur and he’s going to get schooled by a pro. He’s the only one who can’t see it coming.

For my contribution to Trouble in the Heartland I picked the song, “Spare Parts,” from the Tunnel of Love album because I really like Janey. Sure, maybe after she gets pregnant (“Bobby said he’d pull out, Bobby stayed in”) Bobby gets let off a little easily, “Bobby got scared and he ran away,” and Janey has to deal with everything, but it is Janey’s story.

It was a thrill to imagine a little more to Janey’s story and I want to thank Joe Clifford and the guys at Zelmer Pulp and Gutter Books. I can’t wait to read the stories.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Quick Notes

One For My Baby by Barry Graham

Clear motives, menacing characters, the right amount of raunch, and quick violence are all pack tight into this short, sharp, lean and mean noiry tale.  It was the perfect Sunday morning read for me.

Highly Recommended

What Happens in Reno by Mike Monson

I've got a lot of nits to pick with this book and I think it gets off to a shaky start but, once it gets going it mostly works. What Happens in Reno features a four way race to the bottom that will entice most noir readers. 


Federales by Chris Irvin

A strong novella and one of the better pieces of fiction I've read so far this year. The narrative is very tight and, at times, it reminded me of Man on Fire (a movie I loved). I thought that the book took a really interesting turn late in the story that I would have liked to see Irvin spend more time exploring.

Highly Recommended

And the Hills Opened Up by David Oppegaard

I've read a few weird westerns lately and this one separates itself from the pack by being a western first and foremost and then introducing the weird in a really subtle, but effective way. We get to know the town, then we get to know all of the characters, then the other is introduced. (I basically used the various cast members of Deadwood to voice the different characters in the book -- don't judge me.)

Highly Recommended.

The Door That Faced West by Alan M Clark

Tells the story of The Harpe Brothers via the perspective of the youngest of their wives in a brilliant narrative voice that fits in with Mattie Ross (True Grit) and Ree Dolly (Winter's Bone). An outstanding book that fires on all cylinders and succeeds on many levels.

Highly Recommended

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The quest to become a unicorn

By: Joelle Charbonneau

When I started the first page of my first book, I knew nothing about the craft of writing or about the publishing industry.  I wanted to tell a story.  I wanted to see how the story would end.  The funny thing is that by hitting THE END of that story, a whole new story began.  The story of a unicorn.

I started writing in 2003.  And as I am fond of pointing out, I never took an English class in college.  There was nothing that made me qualified to write a book other than the fact that I sat down at the computer and decided to try.  And wow did I try.  And try.  And try.

Each book racked up dozens of rejections.  During that time, e-publishing through Amazon, B&N and other sources had begun to grow at an amazing rate.  Lots of writers I knew ditched the idea of traditional publishing in order to independently publish their work.  I cheered them on.  Meanwhile, I kept writing.


That question comes up a lot when I talk to writers groups.  Do I think those books were bad?  The first one is.  Trust me on this.  It is BAD!  But the others – I don’t think so.  None of them were bad.  Readers might have enjoyed them, but I’ll never find out if that is true.   I put them to the side because deep in my heart I wasn’t sure I was good enough to be an author. 

I grew up reading any book I could get my hands on.  I loved stories and books and thought authors were different from the people I knew because they had the power to make worlds and characters come alive on the page.  They made me gasp and my heart pound.  They made me sigh and cry.  They were like unicorns.  They weren’t quite of this earth.  They were magic.  

So, perhaps it isn’t strange that I was skeptical that I, who while growing up had never considered being a writer or who had never taken a single creative writing class, could ever write a book that was good enough to be read.  I doubted that I could ever be a unicorn.

Each manuscript taught me something new.  Every day I wrote made me better.  But still I doubted.  Until finally, I found a literary agent who said that she believed in my book.   She believed in me.  

Those words were a kind of magic.  A validation that I might some day be good enough to be an author.  And when that manuscript (my fifth completed novel) sold to St. Martin’s Minotaur, I waited for the magic spell that would make believe I was a unicorn.

The spell never came. 

The first book came out.  It got positive reviews from the trades and found a home with readers who embraced Elwood the Camel and Rebecca Robbins.  And still I waited for the magic.  That moment where I believed I had the right to call myself an author.

I’ve published 9 books since the Fall of 2010.  The 10th will come out on June 17th of this year.  I’ve been nominated for some awards (how did that happen?), have seen my work on the New York Times list (HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?) and have signed thousands of copies of title pages that bear my name.  I always thought those would be the things that made me feel like a real author.  And while I’m grateful for all of them, they were not the magic spell that made me believe I had the right to claim the title as my own.

A little over four years ago, a group of writers asked me if I’d be willing to blog with them.  Many of them were multi-published novelists.  Others had a slew of short fiction or film scripts to their names.  They were all talented and smart and writers I admired.

And they wanted me.  They believed in me.  They still believe in me.

Looking back, I realize that the journey to becoming an author was filled with important milestones and moments.  Some like my first call with my agent or hitting the New York Times list are big, huge, noisy moments.  Others are quiet, like finding the perfect hook to a chapter while sitting in the living room while everyone else in the house is asleep.  And then there are moments like the day that I was asked to join Do Some Damage.  The day where my fellow writers by their request made me realize that even if I didn’t feel like one – I really was a unicorn. 

Or I guess I should say I am a unicorn.  How strange is that?

I am honored and lucky and so thrilled to have this job and to have shared this blog with so many incredibly talented writers for the last 4 years.   And I am humbled by every reader who has given me the most precious gifts you can give – your time and attention.  You have made these past four years on this blog an incredible experience.  And now it is my turn to share that experience with someone else.

It is time for me to step aside.  Although, you won’t get rid of me.  I plan on guest posting whenever I can swing it and I will always consider myself a member of Do Some Damage.  But after four years on Do Some Damage, surrounded by the most amazing and supportive group ever, the time has come for me to give another author a chance to shine. 

And trust me – she is going to shine bright. 

Kristi Belcamino is an incredible unicorn.  Her debut novel, Blessed Are The Dead, will be published on June 10th from Harper Collins.  It’s going to be one heck of a ride. 

The ride on Do Some Damage will start next Sunday with Kristi’s first post.  I hope she enjoys her time with you as much as I have. 

So, I guess I will sign off this last post saying Thank you.  Thank you to the Do Some Damage gang for believing in me.  I hope I have done you proud.  And thank you to each and every reader who has taken time out of your day in order to spend it with me.  You make me believe in magic.  You are the ones who have made me a unicorn.