Sunday, August 29, 2010

The King of Lies by John Hart

Today I finished reading John Hart's debut novel, The King of Lies, (2006).  Hart received a nomination for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel for this book.

His second book, Down River, won the Edgar Award for Best Novel and his third book, Last Child, won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. 

The book is superbly written.  The character arc is outstanding.  This is a fantastic debut novel.

His growth as a writer and story teller in his second and third books is nothing short of awesome.  I can't imagine the next book.  My expectations are sky high.

The King of Lies is a great read.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Last Child by John Hart

When I read about how hard it is to get an agent once you have finished your book, I get discouraged.

When I read about how hard it is for the agent to then find a publisher, I get discouraged.

When I read about how the established best selling authors own what is left of the print market, I get discouraged.

It makes me fear that there isn't room for another new author.

Then, I read The Last Child (2009) by John Hart.  My eyes grew wider.  My jaw dropped and then closed into a smile.  And, I said to myself, "By golly, this guy can really write.  He's the real deal."

His first book, The King of Lies, was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel.  His second book, Down River, won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2008.  His third book, The Last Child, won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2010.  Talk about hitting home runs.  No one has ever come off the line so fast!

How come?  He's got great twisting plots, super characters you care about, really big bad guys, descriptions you can smell, taste and feel, and dialog you can hear as clear as a bell.  He's got it all.  And it is literary.

The message I get is. . .   If you're really good, agents, publishers, and readers don't care if you a new writer they want to read what you've written.

John Hart is my hero.  Read him!!!!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Gypsy In Amber by Martin Cruz Smith

Today I read Gypsy in Amber by Martin Cruz Smith.  It was was Martin Cruz Smith's first novel.   I read it as a part of my read everything Smith has written program.  He's a great writer and I have enjoyed his books.  This book is particularly  interesting because it demonstrates how much the author has improved in his later novels.  While it won an award as a best first novel, it is clearly an early work.  The plot has gaps which are unexplained and perhaps unbelievable.  Something that never occurs in his Arkady Renko stories. 

I knew almost nothing about Gypsies.  And I found the story to be a veritable fount of information about the gypsy culture.  So much so, that I wondered if telling the Gypsy culture story sometimes interfered with the primary storyline.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Red Square by Martin Cruz Smith

Today I finished reading Red Square (1992) by Martin Cruz Smith.  The book continues the tale of  Arkady Renko, Moscow’s top criminal investigator, who was the protagonist in Gorky Park (1982) and Polar Star (1990).

Learn to Write by Reading Project. 

It was a good read.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Reader Notes Template

When I read Thriller/Suspense novels, I am not just reading for personal pleasure.  I am also attempting to learn how "the best" writers do it.  I've developed this template to record information as I read.  I then make copies of the pages for analysis and voice exercises.

Reader Notes Template


by ____________________________

Published By: _______________________________
Date Published: _________________
Agent Acknowledged: _______________________
Genre: ____________________

Story Milestones / Beats:

First Scene 0% _________________________________________

Premise 2.5% __________________________________________

Catalyst 8.3% __________________________________________
Plot Point I 25% ________________________________________

Act II Metaphor
Pinch Point I 37.5% _____________________________________

Mid-Point 50% _________________________________________

Pinch Point II
“All Is Lost” 62.5% _______________________________________

Plot Point II 75% ________________________________________

Learning to Imitate Voice:
Enter page numbers to copy for exercise:
Exercise 1: 1st three pages, & last page of 1st Chapter
Exercise 2:_______
Exercise 3:_______
Exercise 4:_______
Exercise 5:_______

Introducing the Protagonist:
a. Does the author use description? Dialogue? Action?

b. How (and when) does the author convey the character’s name, gender, job, age, and physical appearance? Page number: _____

c. What character traits does the author initially reveal, and how?

d. How much of the character’s background does the reader learn at the beginning?

Character Introductions: Enter name and page number where character is introduced:
Character 1 ____________________
Character 2 ____________________
Character 3 ____________________
Character 4 ____________________
Character 5 ____________________

Point of View:
What choices of point of view did the author make?
a. First Person?
b. Third Person?
c. Single point of view?
d.. Multiple point of view?

Action:  Enter page numbers to copy for action, fight, chase, etc. scenes


Sex: Enter page numbers to copy __________________

Read the first three chapters. Make a list of the backstory elements and notice how the author chooses to convey each.

Story Milestones / Beats

I have been reading a lot about story structure this spring and summer.  My primary sources have been Syd Field - Screenplay; Viki King - How To Write A Movie In 21 Days, Blake Snyder - Save The Cat!, and Larry Brooks - Story Structure.

I've tried to apply this structure to my work-in-progress, Bon Secour.  And, I've been studying each of the Thrillers I've been reading to see if and how these books conformed to this structure. 

And, while I've talked about structure in this blog, I haven't tried to describe it.  Structure consists of story milestones or beats which occur at specific points in the story.  They are:
• The opening scene(s) of your story.

• A hooking moment in the first 20 pages (10 pages for a screenplay). The hook is something that grabs the reader very early in the read and makes them want to stick around.

• The first Plot Point, at approximately the 25th percentile mark. The First Plot Point is defined as the moment when the story’s primary conflict makes its initial and meaningful center-stage appearance. This may be the first full frontal view of it, or it may be the escalation and shifting of something already present. In either case, nothing about the story is the same from that moment forward.
     The First Plot Point isn’t necessarily the occurrence of something big. Rather, it’s the moment when the ramifications and implications of it become clear to the reader, and usually to the protagonist (but not necessarily the latter), to the extent that it defines the forthcoming story-journey that lies ahead.

• The first Pinch Point at about the 3/8ths mark, or precisely in the middle of Part 2. A pinch point is defined as an example, or a reminder, of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force, that is not filtered by the hero’s experience. We see it for ourselves in a direct form.

• A context-shifting Mid-Point, at precisely the middle of the story. The Mid-Point is defined as a moment when new information that enters the story squarely in the middle of it, that changes the contextual experience and understanding of either the reader, the hero, or both.

• A second Pinch Point, at about the 5/8ths mark, or in the middle of Part 3. A pinch point is defined as an example, or a reminder, of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force, that is not filtered by the hero’s experience. We see it for ourselves in a direct form.  This pinch point is sometimes described as the 'All Is Lost' moment.

• The second plot point, at about the 75th percentile. The Second Plot Point: the final injection of new information into the story, after which no new expository information may enter the story, and which puts a final piece of narrative information in play that gives the hero everything she or he needs to become the primary catalyst in the story’s conclusion; at this point the story shifts into resolution mode, based on this new information or some decision or action on the part of the hero or the antagonist.

• The final resolution scene(s).

It is not suprising that Thriller/Suspense movies follow this structure. 
What has been suprising is how closely the best Thriller/Suspense novels follow this structure. 
I think there is some truth to the theory that this structure is organic, a part of our sub-conscious.  It's the way the best story tellers have always told stories.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What In A Name?

Development of Bon Secour Characters Names:

Role                              First Try               Interim Try             As of now

Protagonist                    Joe Ed                  Jed                        Jed Frazier
Antagonist                     Bob Lee               Bob Lee Rankin
Damsel in distress          Jennifer                 Ashley                    Lou Ann Frazier
Jed’s love interest          Jo Ann                 Michelle                  Emily Catlett
Jed’s mother                  Barb Mary           Mary Frazier
Deputy Sheriff               Michael Fike        Michael Parker
Damsel’s roommate       Becky McGahan  Chrystal McGahan
Mechanic                       Lester Roberson
Damsel’s co-worker      Jane Sanfeld         Dani Sanfeld
Damsel’s ex-boyfriend    Bill Marler           Wesley Marler
Deck Hand #1               J. T. O’Bryan
Deck Hand #2              Skip White
Damsel’s friend             Ashley                  Jennifer                Jacki Anderson
Bob Lee’s Father          John Rankin

One of the really interesting things about asking friends and family what they think of your story and its characters is how many more suggestions they have about character's names than ideas to improve your story.

I had a couple of specific ideas based on Southern naming styles that I wanted in my character names when I began:
1.  I wanted a double named male character = Bob Lee.  Bob Lee coming from Robert E. Lee.  Using the name of a Southern hero for the villain is just perverse humor on my part.  Rankin is a name from my family history.
2.  I wanted a double named female character = Lou Ann. 
3.  I wanted a male character who used initials = J.T.

I wanted to use but didn't:
1.  An adult female who goes by "Sissy" or an adult male who goes by "Bubbie" (not Bubba).  I have friends who are both and I just love it.
2.  A double named female where one name is masculine. e.g. Tommie Lou, Sally John, Bobbie Sue, etc.

My protagonist started out as Joe Ed.  I have a friend named Joe Ed and I have always liked his name.  Suzy said "You can't use your friend's name."  I had been abbreviating Joe Ed as 'JEd' in my outline so I decided to just change it to Jed, short for Jedadiah.  A little quaint, but hey I've got some Jedadiahs in my family tree.  Frazier is my favorite grandmother's maiden name.

The Damsel In Distress' name changed the most.  I started out with Jennifer based on the most popular baby names in the year she would have been born.  Then I didn't really like having Jed and Jennifer both starting with 'j' so I changed her name to Ashley.  Then, the critics said she needed to be Lou Ann.  I like double names so I said OK.

Jed's Love Interest started out as Jo Ann (my original double named female).  The name of a very Southern friend now deceased.  But, I ran aground of too many names starting with 'j'.  Then I picked Michelle.  I think this is a really pretty name and I knew a Michelle back in high school who I thought was pretty hot.  But, alas, Michelle turns out to be the name of a friend's soon to be ex.  It was pointed out that making my Michelle really sweet and nice was bad manners and might offend the friend.  Who knew you had to think of these things and be so politically correct when you named a character.  I obviously didn't.

Becky & Jane got their names changed when it was pointed out to me that those were "old" names and would not have made the top 100 baby names in the years they were born.  Oh, well!

Every Sunday morning they show the names of servicemen who were killed in Iraq and Afganistan on This Week.  This has been the source of my non-family last names.  But, no one liked Fike so it got changed to Parker.  Probably because I just finished reading a book by T. Jefferson Parker this weekend.

So everyone has a made up name except, Lester Roberson.  This is name of a real person, now deceased, whom I loved and respected.  I hope my character can come close to representing the goodness that his life exhibited.

So now Bon Secour character names are locked and loaded.  Or at least until another of my helpers shows me the error of my ways.  :)

The Renegades by T. Jefferson Parker

Only four men have won the Edgar Award twice: Dick Francis [Forfeit (1970), Whip Hand (1981) & Come To Grief (1996)]; James Lee Burke [Black Cherry Blues (1990) & Cimmaron Rose (1998)], John Hart [Down River 2008 & The Last Child (2010)] and T. Jefferson Parker [Silent Joe (2002 & California Girl (2005)].  That is an exclusive club.  I've read every book Francis and Burke have written.  I've read Hart's 2008 winner Down River.  I hadn't read anything by Parker.

That changed today when I read The Renegades by T. Jefferson Parker (2009).  This book came to my attention when I read the Strand Critics Award nominees for the 2009 Best Novel.  I was aware of the previous Edgar Awards but I had not gotten to Silent Joe or California Girl in my read through the Edgar's quest.

I was thrilled.  I've added T. Jefferson Parker to my "to read everything by" list.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Canto For A Gypsy by Martin Cruz Smith

Martin Cruz Smith's second book, Canto For A Gypsy, was published in 1972.  Back in those days he was simply Martin Smith.  His first book, Gypsy in Amber was nominated by the Mystery Writers of America as one of the best first mystery novels of 1971.

My good friend, Perry Pringle, first put me on to Martin Cruz Smith when he told me that I must read Gorky Park.  'In contemporary Moscow, Chief Homicide Investigator Arkady Renko unravels the mystery of a triple murder--involving three corpses buried in the snow with their faces and fingers missing--complicated by the shadowy and uncooperative presence ...'

Since that time I've tried to read all of his novels.  My favorite to date is Rose 'Down-on-his-luck mining engineer Jonathan Blair undertakes a mission at the request of Bishop Hannay to find the missing curate engaged to Hannay's daughter, an investigation that takes him into the heart of coal country and into a romance ...'

These days I am all into story structure.  And it was very interesting how close Smith followed the beats espoused by Blake Snyder in his screenplay book, Save The Cat!.  Smith hits each of the beats within two pages of the structure Snyder teaches.  Amazing considering Canto For A Gypsy was written 30+ years before Save The Cat! or Syd Field's Screenplay which teaches a similar structure.  No one was teaching this kind of story structure in 1971 when Canto For A Gypsy was being written.

I think it just goes to show that the Greek 3 Act structure and subsequent refinements simply go along with the organic storytelling structure that is hardwired into our sub-conscious - probably since the first story was ever told. 

Ignore structure at your own peril.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Bland Heroes

Today I read an interview with Tess Gerritsen creator of the Rizzoli & Isles characters in The Strand Magazine, Jun-Sep 2010 issue.

Q.  "So what advice do you have for aspiring writers?
A.  "Be persistent, and get a good agent (laughs).  That's about it....I think, if you aren't published yet, you've just got to find the right voice.  You've got to find the right character.  Sometimes it is searching for the character who needs to have a story told.  I think too many beginning authors, their heroes are bland;  their heroes are uninspiring.  They haven't really been able to crawl into those heads yet and inhabit those characters well enough.  And a large part of the successful book is really in the point of view of the characters."

Uh oh!  I'm going down this path.  My everyman hero, Jed, is bland to me.  He's definintely uninspiring.  He's only a means to tell the villain's, Bob Lee, story.  Whoops, I'd better figure this out.  Like now!

While I conducted a one person focus group session with Katy this week.  She said, "You don't really know Lou Ann (my damsel in distress) do you?"  No.  Guilty.  Again, she's just someone I need for Bob Lee to threaten.

I did some backstory and character planning on Jed and Lou Ann.  But evidently not nearly enough.  If Tess Gerritsen is correct, and what she says rings true.  I won't have a successful book until I want/am compelled to tell Jed and Lou Ann's story, not just Bob Lee's.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

Suzy and I had a conversation recently about how I am beginning Bon Secour.  She was telling me that I didn't need to begin with a big bang.  That I could do it like Ken Follett did in The Eye of the Needle

I think she had just read [listened to an Audible book on her iPhone] The Eye of the Needle.  But then, her memory is much better than mine and could have remembered it from back then. 

I read The Eye of the Needle in 1979.  I couldn't remember squat about the story.  Just that it was good enough that it launched my reading everything Ken Follett wrote over the years except The Pillars of the Earth.  (I bought that one and it sat on my to-read shelf for 15+ years.  It was just too long to start until this Summer when the TV mini-series peaked my interest again.)

Anyway, I read The Eye of the Needle again today.  A thoroughly great read.  I'm going to add this one to my style development exercises. 

But, I think I'm going to still start Bon Secour with a big bang.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Derailed by James Siegel

Today I finished reading Derailed by James Siegel.  The "New York Times" bestselling thriller about a businessman whose life becomes a nightmare when he gets involved with the wrong woman on a train.

It was recommended by Syd Field in his book Screenplay as a thriller which had been made into the movie Derailed.  In the movie, Charles (Clive Owen), a successful ad exec and devoted family man, meets a sexy woman (Jennifer Aniston) on his morning commute. But their casual flirtation turns serious -- just not in the way either expected -- when a criminal pulls them into a dangerous plot. Now, with their lives thrown off-kilter, Charles and his paramour must turn the tables on the bad guys to save their families. Mikael Hafstrom directs.

I can heartily recommend the book and the movie.  The plot of the book is unique and I loved the twists and turns.  The voice is great.  The dialogue wonderful.  You get the idea.  I hope Bon Secour can be 1/4 as good.

I wish I hadn't already seen the movie when I read the book.  I think I would have loved the suprises more if I hadn't been able to rememeber the movie.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Today I finshed reading Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. 

I bought the book 15+ years ago and its been sitting on my to-read shelf, unread, because I'd look at how thick it was and say to myself, "I don't want to spend that much time on this one."  Then after I had watched the first two hours of the TV miniseries.  I decided I wanted to read the book first.

At this same time, I was hiding in the corner from the actual writing of my work in progress, Bon Secour.  Then I read Pillars of the Earth and I said to myself, "There is no way in God's green earth that you can write like this."

Of course, if I could, maybe they'd pay me $40,000,000 like Forbes reported that Follett made last year.