Monday, July 25, 2011

Books I've Read on My Summer Vacation

Summer is a terrific time for me to dig in to the towering pile of books that has long outgrown the basket I keep in a corner of the bedroom and read, read, read. Might as well. I can't start writing a new book of my own until school starts after Labor Day and I have time to work. So summer is the perfect excuse to read thrill fiction (which I write), and I can justify it as honing my craft. Sounds too good to be true? I agree! Being a writer is the best thing I can think of, next to reading books.

I began my summer splurge with Nora Roberts' audiobook, Dark Hills, on the long ride from the midwest to the Hamptons. I began it last summer, and finished it on the ride out. Loved it. Picking it up a year later was no problem. Her characters have staying power! And the crimes were grisly, the setting unforgettable, and the ending was gripping. What a happy way to while away the miles.

I stayed up turning pages in the motel with Hold Tight by Harlan Coben. Ripping good fun. The perfect summer read, even though I find his books to be perfect pageturners at any time of year. As a writer, I continue to be amazed (and jealous) at his intricate plots featuring characters that live in suburbia and raise kids. My biggest challenge is to feel close to my characters (tough when you write about people who steal, lie, cheat and even kill each other if the closest you ever get to living on the edge is forgetting to put the recycling bin out the night before). Harlan Coben does this with ease, humor and grace, inventing elaborate backstories for his people and making them likable all the while.

Next was one a book I stumbled across in the first round of Borders liquidations. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. The cover blurb was from Stanley Kubric, and you don't see that very often. It's a short, quick read by the man who also wrote The Grifters, and is widely considered a classic in crime fiction. It's written in the first person singular about a serial killer. The story is set in the 1950s in Texas Hill Country. I began reading with a heavy dose of skepticism ('He had it easy. My agent would never let this pass. Any editor I've worked with would mark with so many Track Changes I couldn't read it,' etc.). But I was hooked. That book gave me chills. I know I'll remember it always. And the best, creepiest scene was one of the most subtle (a sign of true brilliance), when the main character comes across an old photograph hidden inside one of his father's books, and it brings back memories he'd buried long ago. Chilling! Anyone who is serious about crime fiction needs to read this book. I wouldn't recommend it to casual readers.

After that, I finally got to crack open The Cypress House by Michael Koryta, which got such a great writeup in The New York Times last spring that I rushed to buy it in hard cover. Of course by now it's out in soft cover, and if you're looking for a good thrill read I'd say run out and buy it. The writing is lyrical and the story is a good, old-fashioned take-your-time-and-savor-every-bit scary plot. Again, the cover blurb got me. Dean Koontz vouched for it, so I knew I'd get a terrific read. And it certainly is. Michael Koryta weaves a complicated tale involving events of history (the Great Hurricane of 1936, that formed Tiana Bay on Eastern Long Island where my grandparents' summer house was, and decimated the Florida Keys) and characters who are truly larger than life. I got to the last 200 pages at 10 p.m., just as a series of violent thunderstorms rolled in over the beach house I was staying in. I knew I couldn't stop reading. By the time I finished the book late that night, thunder booming and rain lashing at the windows, I was ready to go down the hall and sleep on the floor in the room with my kid and the dog. Honestly it took me a while to turn out the light. Great great read! I'm going to put his others at the top of my TBR pile.

I'm currently halfway through a classic by John Grisham. A Time to Kill. I found a used copy for 25 cents at the Big Yellow Barn in Riverhead, NY, the weekly used book sale for the Riverhead Library (if you're in the Hamptons on a rainy day you have to go). The book is gorgeous, with a Dickensian cast of characters and plot. I can't put it down. There are some parts that were almost too painful to read. I remember what a sensation it was when this book was released in the 1980s. Grisham invented the genre of legal thrillers, and even though other writers have followed in his footsteps, the premise is shocking and grabs you from the first paragraph. He's brilliant. We share a literary agency (I keep hoping some of his talent will rub off through some distant third-generation osmosis, like when I step onto the elevator for the ride up to the agency's midtown Manhattan offices once a year, thinking about whether Grisham still makes the trek sometimes, too.). Now I know watching reruns of The Firm (love that movie!) is not enough. I need to read more of his books. He's a genius.

Next up, in my immediate future. A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah. I love her work so much I usually don't wait for the U.S. release, I order direct from AbeBooks in the U.K. And at my visit late last week to yet another Borders liquidation sale (this time it's the end, alas), Donna Leon's Death at La Fenice, the first in her Venice series, a place we visited and adored B.K. (Before Kids), and a CD of Harlan Coben's Play Dead for the long drive back to the midwest now that my summer vacation is winding down, and which I'm sure will give new meaning to the term 'thrill ride.'

Watch this space . . .

Friday, June 10, 2011

How to Start Writing a Novel

People ask me this all the time. I spent most of my life wondering the same thing. I didn't dare ask the few novelists I met. I felt like Dorothy approaching the great Wizard of Oz. I never had the nerve to ask, even though it was the thing I most wanted to know.

I have four books in print. I am currently at work on my seventh novel. Word has spread, so I get approached all the time by people who want to know how to start their own books.

Here is my quick answer. It should at least get you started. There is no magic, so use this as a jumping-off point.

Buy a bunch of unlined index cards. You will write one scene on each. A 400-page novel of mine usually requires anywhere from 65 to 80 scenes. You'll fill them in as you go. Find a place on the floor where you can lay them out end to end. You won't get much of the scenes at first, but you can start with the three critical scenes:  beginning, climax and end.

Let's use my debut thriller, A Dark Love, as an example. Do it with your idea (I know you have an idea!) as we go.

A Dark Love is a cat-and-mouse story of a young wife on the run from her abusive husband. So, the opening scene needs to take place on the day she walks out. That's one critical scene done. Put that on the floor at the top of what I call my Conga Line of cards. I knew from the outset they would have a confrontation (what's the point of having someone get stalked if they don't face their stalker?). That is the denouement, a very critical scene. I jotted that one down and put it in the middle of the Conga Line. There needed to be an ending where the heroine of the story has resolved her issue and faces a better future. I call that the Wrapup Scene or HEA (Happily Ever After). That's the final card, and you can put that at the end of the Conga Line.

So now you've got three cards with a ton of empty floor space in between. Don't panic. Just start filling them in. Your hero/heroine will undoubtedly have helpers and hindrances along the way. Trials and tribulations. Adventures. So will your villain. Start jotting these down. Each time a new character is introduced, it's another scene. And another card to put on the floor. Many of the cards between the first and the critical denouement will be scenes to introduce those characters and perhaps secondary plots.

Most of the scenes in the second third of your rough Conga Line will be action-oriented, where your characters interact, play out the drama and work toward that final resolution. Just write them down as they come to you.

Only the big major key scenes will come to you at first.

You'll feel great by the time you have a dozen cards on the floor.

By that time, you're ready to begin writing your first draft. I know, I know! It's only twelve cards and I said you'd need to have up to 80. More ideas will come to you as you write. This is so important, I'll say it again. The ideas will come to you as you write. Your characters will start to dictate what scenes you need to write. This is the magic of being an author, the special grace that is given only to novelists. It is a beautiful and mysterious thing, born of process not thought.

A wonderful friend gave me a crucifix many years ago with the word 'Grace' painted on it. I keep it in the kitchen so everyone who comes into my house can see it. Every time I look at it I remember that the scenes won't come to me unless I start writing.

By the time you're into the second or third chapter of your first draft (and you do have those first two cards on the floor already), you will start to fill in more and more of the cards.

The really fun part is when you start picking them up off the floor. I pick up each one as I finish the first draft of that scene. Over the course of the six months or so it takes me to write an approximate 500-page first draft, those cards become my security blanket. It feels really good to pick them up (and hopefully vacuum the floor at last).

I hope this very brief piece is of some help on the vast topic of starting a novel. It's as much practical advice as I ever received! Which is to say, there is no magic. Just jump in and get started. Good luck, Margaret

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Plan for Outlining Your Novel

There are as many ways to write a novel as there are people who want to write them. I am currently at work on my sixth novel, a tale of suspense, and I am writing it the same way I've written all the others. I sit down and write it. As painful as this is, and it is painful at times, it's the only way to get the job done. Because, as every aspiring novelist can tell you, it's tempting to go to conferences (to talk about writing with other writers), to take online courses (to talk about writing with other writers), to blog (to tell people who visit about writing), and even to hang out at your local Starbucks (to tell your neighbors all about writing and how tough it is).

The only solution is sit in the chair and write.

This leads, for me, to a lot of extra work. My first drafts run to 500-plus words. I cut many of them, and wind up writing new scenes, different scenes, scenes that tell the story better than the ones I labored over.

It's time for a change.

I recently received excellent advice about a new approach, devised by Al Zuckerman (The Writers House). In his book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel, he recommends beginning with an outline of 15-20 pages. This is the place to work out all the major plot points, nail down character descriptions and set out the conflict that will carry the story from start to finish. A good solid outline gives the writer a sense of exactly where the story is going and when.

That's the theory. The challenge, for writers like me, is to think it through before starting to write that first draft. I don't seem to be able to nail down the next scene or chapter until I've finished writing the one that comes before it. Which is tough, because in real terms this means your first draft is nothing more than a 500-plus page outline.

Talk about killing your darlings. With a first draft of that size, you practically become a mass murderer.

And so this 'pantser' (a term I learned in Romance Writers of America that refers to those of us who plot our novels as we write them) is about to change her ways and start plotting advance. I'm hoping to learn how to nail down the fine points of a story I haven't written yet (gulp) and gain a clear vision for my next book before I start writing.

I'll let you know how it goes.