Monday, May 31, 2010

Writing Has Its Ups and Downs

I'm still catching up on the story of my development as a writer, so although I'm adding this at the end of May, it actually happened the first week in March. It started with a Holy Cabooses moment. I sent an email query to an agent at 1:00, and got a return request for a partial before 2:00! Then at my writers group meeting in the evening, I learned the group would be going into hiatus because the others had life plans that would make writing and meeting very difficult for them. This was seriously bad news for me. Even though I chivvied them with my "bear went into a bar" analogy, these ladies were the best help I had ever had. Maybe I'd better amend that. These ladies were one of the best editing sources I had. My husband is cutting-edge accurate at strategy--pointing where a chapter should build, when to lay the da-bump-bump on the reader, and what's drivel. My writers group excels in tactics--where a sentence doesn't flow, when there's an illogical change in tense, what's the right word. I still have the wonderful husband, but I seriously miss those ladies! Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Friday, May 28, 2010

Cozies Gone South

I think most of the cozy mysteries that I loved have gone out of popularity. The good old English plots that started Chapter 1 with a dead, but not ghastly dead, body in the library and Chapter 2 with a roster of suspects, are no more. Instead we seem to have a passel of homey ladies dishing out recipes and accidentally stumbling into a crime solution while they bake brownies for the Cub Scouts. I miss Miss Marple. Even the home-baked pie and home town murder books seem to be published in diminishing numbers. We have all been given too many apps and seen too many post mortems on TV. The not-ghastly dead body in the library that would have shocked Queen Victoria, no longer amuses us. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Jumping From One Novel To Another

I was 10 or 12 chapters into SLEEPER and felt I was doing well. I was using third person limited point of view, but changing the person from chapter to chapter, while at the same time intermixing chapters of the events of 1938 which seemed innocent but ended horrifically, and chapters of the events in 2009 which started innocently and became increasingly horrifying until the people who actually lived through both--the ghosts--create destruction. At about that time I began reading the P. J. Tracy books with enormous delight, and realized that these ladies and John Sandford and Robert B. Parker were my all-time favorite reads. Why was I writing horror, I asked myself, when I should be writing what I loved to read? Suddenly a police procedural concept popped into my mind.

I have to explain the way my mind works. We've all seen an infinite number of movies and TV series where the cop sees or hears a little thing, and s/he stands frozen, usually with mouth open, while the people and sounds around fade into silence. After a bit of drop-jawed thinking, the cop snaps back to full focus and says "I know who did it!" That's exactly the way my mind works. Every now and then, seemingly from not much, a concept will occur to me, and if I stand still and let it come, it grows and grows, rapidly piling up detail and event, until I have close to a full-blown story. I rush to record the idea. I know this sounds a bit pretentious, but remember, I'm not claiming the ideas are any good, just that they come suddenly in a rush.

So... I wrote a lengthy outline of the police procedural concept, put aside SLEEPER, and started a new pp novel with a working title of DEATHBLOW. My writers group was not totally sure I was doing the right thing, but I assured them that the outline for SLEEPER was so extensive and detailed that I would have no trouble picking it up again in the future if I wanted to. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Starting a Horror/Haunting Novel

With NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE making the rounds of agents, I wanted to start another novel right away. Amanda Hocking recently interviewed me in her blog, one of her questions being what monster I feared when I was young. In the process of answering I mentioned that our house had a ghost who was not frightening. That house, its rural location, and that ghost had been perking in the back of my brain for some time. I determined to write a horror/haunting novel. The location descriptions would be easy because I had lived in that weathered two-story frame house for seven years. It had a ghost whom I saw often and named Oscar, but he was benign and occupied himself by walking from room to room and staring out windows. What did cause a little frisson of spookiness, however, was the name of the previous owners of the property. The family's last name was Sleeper. I would title my novel SLEEPER, it would take place in that old remote frame house, and it would have three malevolent ghosts rising from a bloody incident 70 years previous. I was excited by the idea and began by creating a 14-page, single-spaced outline. The outline is my way of knowing if my concept has meat on its bones and if I have enough arc to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. It's something like the way The Man I Married first builds a fully-detailed scale model before he begins construction of a stage set. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bad Query

It was at about this time that I was talking to another writer who had completed a mystery thriller. He wished me well in my quest, but bemoaned the fact that even though he had carefully researched how to send submissions to agents, he had gotten nowhere after three years of trying. I asked to see his query letter, and he sent it.

It was addressed to a literary agency, and started out, "Dear Audrey, Bob, Robert, and Adrienne." (Address one and only one agent specifically.) "I have wanted to be a writer since I was nine years old. My dream has always been to..." (Mention your few best writing qualifications. Do not go into your hopes and dreams; they don't care.) "You ask for the first ten pages, but to save time I am sending the entire manuscript...." (Send exactly and only what they ask, how they ask.)

I won't go on, but his query didn't get any better. The letter mentioned a title, but never exactly what the novel was. I hope that I never have brain freeze, thinking I have been careful about good advice when I haven't been. I read submission instructions 16 times before sending anything. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Query Letter

I was ready to start sending queries to agents. I researched how to do it. The advice was simple: (1) Only query agents who handle what you write, (2) Address one and only one agent specifically, (3) Describe your book as excitingly and briefly as possible, (4) Mention your few best writing qualifications. Do not go into your hopes and dreams; they don't care, (5) Send exactly and only what they ask, how they ask. This is the query letter I devised.

Dear Ms Smith;

There are thousands of batty middle-aged antiques dealers in Minnesota, but only two of them are vampires---and they refuse to play the game. They may be undead, but they're going to be nice about it.

In my campy mystery NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE, complete at 85,000 words, Louise and Erleen return from a vacation in Romania to discover they can't see themselves in mirrors., they can lift cars, and can see in the dark. Horrified, they vow not to reveal what they have become, and to continue to lead normal lives.

The challenges inherent in their new lifestyle---really bad breath, makeup without mirrors, dining without biting, going to church, not letting on that they're you-know-whatses---are difficult. Wiping out a drug ring masterminded by a Norwegian crime lord from Minneapolis, and two drug dealers from Colombia is easy. After all, staying alive no longer seems to be a problem.

Some might call this a paranormal mystery, but it really isn't a vampire vampire book; it's a funny take on remaining "nice" despite the temptations.

I am a published columnist and an unpublished novelist. NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE is my second completed novel. I'm an MFA, former regional vice-president of Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas, and founder of Minnesota Writers' Alliance, a nonprofit support group for writers in southeastern Minnesota.

May I send you the full manuscript of NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE for your consideration?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fixing The Novel

I went back and rewrote much in NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE. I made my villain unappealing and slimy, I added two heartless Colombian drug lords intent on killing my girls. I made my first MacGuffin a red herring, then added a second MacGuffin, which turned out to be a red herring, then added a final surprise revelation of what the prize was. I deleted my climactic chapter. In it, I had tried to keep my girls pure, but the only logical thing to do was for them to reluctantly use their vampire transformation and scare the main villain into a confession. They may have tossed him around a bit and gnashed their fangs at him, but they DID NOT BITE. I actually thought the new final chapter was a winner. When all was done, I was still hovering around 90,000 words.

Then I had The Man I Married read the book. You think, yeah, yeah, her husband; what does he know? Fortunately for me he is a voracious and somewhat omnivorous reader with a fine sense of timing. He's not the "I really liked this chapter" type; he's the "Okay, the tension is off in this chapter. You need to move this conversation closer to the end and have it happen just after they learn where the villain is going. Then you'll have a ta-bump, bump right at the end that should spring people into the next chapter." He's that kind of guy. Isn't he wonderful? This time, upon reading the entire manuscript, he gave some good pointers, but looking at the book as a whole, he said, "You're too in love with writing dialogue. Your ladies talk too much, too long, and it's boring. You've got to seriously tighten up the whole novel. I had another moment of clearly seeing what I should have been seeing all along. I went back to the beginning, and tightened that puppy up! I now had a novel that was much less boring and had slimmed itself down to 85,000 words.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The End

I did it! I wrote the last word of the last chapter of my 90,000-word novel, NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE, and a pretty good chapter it was, I said to myself. I triumphantly sent the final chapter to my writers group. When we met, they went over the chapter bit-by-bit, as was their habit. Then, they leaned back, and said, "Let's look at the book as a whole." Their collective opinion was that (1) The book had no red herrings, no surprises, the desired object, the MacGuffin for you Hitchcock fans, was evident from the first, and therefore boring. (2) My villain was not villainous enough. (3) My climactic scene was unbelievable and unexciting. You know how sometimes you need someone to point something out before you can clearly see what you have been seeing all along? As they pointed these things out, my mind was flooded with thoughts of "They're right! They're right!" My next thoughts were "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" I raced home with these concrete guidelines for making the book much better.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Using "Find"

I was many chapters into "Nice Girls Don't Bite," thinking I was doing just swell, when I came upon that writing advice about amateurish verbs and word choices. I reviewed my writing. Yeeks! I wasn't doing well at all. I was up to my literary armpits in amateurishness. Thanks goodness for the "Find" function in my word processing software. Every new chapter, I have it search for "is, have, can, just, ly, ing, and" and "ould." That's not a typo. "Ould" gives me "could, would, should." When I have searched them out, I put them all in red, and then go back to the beginning and get rid of the red by re-writing better.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Alternate Writers Groups

05-10-10 Alternate Writers Groups
There are two other writers groups in my area that I am aware of. "The Library Group" meets once a month, varies from 9-12 attending, and is open to all. Writers preferably send their work to each other ahead of time. It is the style of the group for Member B to comment on Member A's work in its entirety. Then Member C comments on Member A's work in its entirety. Then Member D comments on Member A's work in its entirety. And so on. Member A may be writing a historical romance, Member B poetry, Member C narrative nonfiction about the discovery of rubber, Member D children's picture books, but all observations are welcomed. This format works for many as the group continues to grow in membership and enthusiasm. I faded away because my output needed review more than once a month and I desired to hear only from people writing mysteries. Bear went into a bar syndrome.

The other group, sometimes called "Open Mic," sometimes "3-Minute Mic," meets in a town half an hour away. Once a month, between 10 and 25 writers gather. It is the style of the group for the first approximate hour to be a presentation by an area writer of some note, and after that, writers get up and read from their work for about 3 minutes. In the meetings I attended, I discovered no one observed the suggested time limit and no comments were made of the readings. I most certainly could see the value of reading aloud, however. I practiced my sections aloud to the cats many times beforehand to make sure I could read them smoothly and that they conformed to the 3-minute limit. The cats offered no comments, but my own ear did hear, and I corrected, several awkward spots.