Turn that Sagging Middle into a nice comfy Hammock!

A Lover Finds His Lady Fair Swinging In A Hammock ThereYou know how easy it is to start a book? There’s that terrific premise you’re dying to get down on the page, plus those fabulous characters you’ve fashioned, to whom you’ll feed just the perfect opening lines. My books usually open right with the action. I hit the group running and it’s off to a rip-roaring start. But sometimes it happens I get to page 150, and my characters are metaphorically gasping for breath, not from where they came from, but in anticipation of where they’ll end up. It’s like their train is barreling toward the station, but I don’t know which track to send them on to get them there. So what should I do? For advice I like to turn to a book that’s helped me numerous times in the past, The Art and Craft of Storytelling by Nancy Lamb ( Writer’s Digest Books, ISBN 978-1-58297-559-7, $14.99). She says to travel the length of your story grab hold of the throughline–the driving force of your book you can set up as soon as the opening line.

According to Nancy Lamb’s Tricks of the Trade: Before the end of the first chapter, make an effort to set up the primary throughline of your book. By creating a natural trajectory for your story’s development, the plot will unfold in a more organic way, and you’ll feel more comfortable in moving forward. This is also insurance against getting sidetracked. You can set up your throughline in an outline, or you can wing it. Either way, make the effort to establish this critical introductory plot point from the beginning.

Did I do that? Well, I know where my characters were in the beginning, and I know how I want them to end up.  Okay, let me adopt this theory to a well-known story: The Wizard of Oz. The only thing Dorothy really wants is to get home. So everything that occurs to her after she lands in Munchkinlad propels her towards Oz which, in theory, will get her home. So what’s my guiding force? And how does that guiding force contribute to the forward motion of the story? If it doesn’t, it should. Because if it doesn’t, then it’s quicksand. And it’ll keep me stranded in the sagging middle.

If you’re stuck, perhaps you’ve lost sight of that. Or perhaps you’ve just been too bogged down by the prose, trying to tweak wordage and phrases, when you should be concentrating on the story. Therein lies the danger of constantly editing: details can always be fixed later, but a main plot thrust should always command your attention. Not that a little re-reading isn’t in order, especially if you’ve lost the main plot point of my story. So in times like these, when we can’t see the forest for the trees, the only thing to do is go back to square one. Maybe it’s time to pay a quick visit to that magical beginning, and remember to drop bits of it like breadcrumbs on the way back and all the way through to the end.

Back to work!

On the agenda…

1930s-Fashion-Sourcebook-daywearIt’s Tax Day, and although I’ve already done mine (phew!), it’s made me think of the summer that’s fast approaching, and how I’ll spend it. Being in academia, that also means I have a month left of classes, and this year, I actually have part of the summer off before I’ll have to return after the Fourth for a sincerely easy summer class.

But before I do, I’ll have some time to write full-time, which is always nice. Up at dawn and nigh until the night I’m at the keyboard, and it really is the most marvelous feeling, the freedom to just have plot on the mind. Maybe one day I’ll hit that New York Times list and be able to do it full-time all year round, but until then, this slice of summer is pure bliss.

For those that follow this writer (I mean me, in case you’re wondering), I’m working on a new series. Don’t really want to say what it’s about yet, as I first want to see if it’ll fly, but I’ll say it’s based in Jersey like my other books, and, well, it’s got a mystery attached to it, and maybe even a bit of the paranormal. It’s not so much new for me as it’s returning to an earlier style. In any case, it’s keeping my interest, so I must be doing something right.

Oh, and as far as the picture above? It’s got nothing to do with anything that I’m writing about. If you’ve read me, than you know I’ve a thing for anything Parisian, though these two look like they’ve been living on Tic Tacs and cigarettes. Someone give them some French Fries–please.

Spring Illin’

popup-3_0Last week I was as sick as a dog. (Tell me: where did that analogy spring from anyway? Because if sick = dog, then my neighborhood should be a pandemic site.) My affliction ran the full gamut of misery: fever, chills, aches, head congestion and general all-over-shittiness, and from so much coughing and sneezing, this week I threw out my back. So it’s another week of not being up to a hundred percent, and now it’s thirty-eight degrees out and raining. Add to this one hell of a winter hangover which seemed to put all progress in reverse, and I’m finding it hard to get out of bed in the morning, let alone work on the book which I recently started. Put it all together and I’m decidedly in a funk, and wondering how to get my motor started when so much of the world is working against me.

(My goodness, I’m depressing. Now write yourself out of that hole, Gwen. Go ahead. I’m waiting.)

It’s very easy not to write when you’re feeling bad, actually too easy. Your brain gets preoccupied with everything that’s messing up your day, and it become almost mandatory to dis your routine for social media or TV, twin junk foods for the distracted mind. Kind of like when you have a bad day at work and you head right for the Doritos, a balm for the belly that actually works against you, especially after you realize you just inhaled 3000 calories, and you don’t even like Doritos. So how do you counter these counter-intuitive measures? How do you write when writer is the last thing you feel like? One thing I’ve found out about myself is I feel worse when I don’t write, that the act of writing itself gives me a feeling of self-worth unlike any other practice I partake in. The only thing that comes close is teaching, perhaps because both involve the dissemination of information uniquely my own. Maybe because as writers, we are innately messengers, and this need to communicate is what puts us in touch with our reality, giving us validation. Really? Is that what we need? Must be true, because why would I feel so bad when I’m not doing it? I mean, seriously, who feels bad when they’re not hitting their thumb with a hammer?

Man, writers are strange. But that’s why you love us so much, right?

Writing the Dread Query

hammond

If you fancy yourself a novelist ( as I, on occasion, have been wont to do), and you’d like to see yourself represented, sooner or later you’re going to have to attempt that necessary evil, the Dread Agent Query Letter. Truly, I know people who’d rather stick pencils in their eyes than apply that pencil to the task, but sweeties, it doesn’t have to be that painful if you know the assembly method. So here, in four easy paragraphs, I’ll try to show you how to compose the Perfect Agent Query. Now pay attention…

First, some preliminaries… First and foremost, a query is a business letter. Since most (if not all) agents accept queries only through email, and since that email entails one finger firmly adhered to the delete button, you want your query to be as concise and professional as possible, contained in the body of the email and NOT by attachment. Since attachments can carry viruses, agents are loath to open them unless they know you, so send attachments by invitation only. Most definitely use honorifics (Mr., Ms. etc.) in your Salutation as you should never assume familiarity. If you had previously met with the agent at a conference, workshop, cocktail party, etc, and were invited to query, most definitely write REQUESTED in the subject line as well as the first line of the email. These will get opened first. As a best practice, check the agent’s website or blog for query/submission guidelines. If you don’t have a particular agent in mind, try Jeff Herman’s guide, the library for The Literary Marketplace, or www.agentquery.com, just to name a few resources. Another one is troll the library or bookstore stack of the books of your genre, and see who the author thanks in her acknowledgements. Now, on to the actual construction…

Para One – Howdy! With Benefits – This is your query knock-on-the-door, your literary calling card designed to get the agent’s attention. Introduce yourself, remind her if you’ve previously met and where (we chatted during lunch at the XXXX Writers’ Conference), if you’ve been invited to query/submit, the name of your novel, the genre and word count. You might what to toss in a quick teaser like, A cross between Stephen King and Carl Hiaasen, My Bloody Margarita is a 80,000 word…, to illustrate what your writing is like. But on the whole, keep this para to a five-six line minimum, with just the facts, ma’am, inviting her to the next para to learn more.

Para Two – In which we employ The Hard Sell – this is where you get ONE paragraph to car-crush your entire 80,000 word novel into one easily digestible capsule.  Twelve to fifteen lines in all, introduce your main characters, basic plot line, conflict, lessons learned, the conclusion. Remember, although you want the agent to be intrigued, you don’t want to raise her ire. So if you say …but if you want to know how the story turns out, you’ll just have to request the rest of it… you’re just asking for a delete.  Be creative, not cagey.

Para Three – It’s all about YOU! – This is where you get your close-up, Mr. DeMille; it’s all about you, you, you. Cite your published works, awards, training, blogs, websites, education (if pertinent), professional associations, jobs or skills that give you credibility for/authority on what you’re writing about. Again, because this is a business letter, remain professional. Don’t take this personally, but no one really cares if you like to raise bunnies and take long walks lakeside, unless, of course, you’re writing about The Killer Hare of Lake Superior. Again, no more than twelve to fifteen lines. A link to your blog or website is also advisable, as most industry people now assume you have a web or social media prescience, and if you don’t, you have to ask yourself why.

Para Four – Wrap it up – This is your shortest paragraph of all. I’ll even toss in examples free of charge: I can send a proposal or the complete novel at your request. Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. OR  According to your submission guidelines, what follows is the first ten pages (or synopsis or first three chapters, or any combination thereof stated in their guidelines) of <Name Work> Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. THAT SHOULD BE IT. No more, no less, just a salute as you head out the door.

All finished? PROOFREAD AND SPELL-CHECK, then add your email address and your phone number. All in all, a succinct query should never contain more than 400-450 words, and NEVER more than one page. And never query unless you have a completed, fully-polished, proofread and spell-checked novel ready to go. I know of agents who get 200 queries a week, and some substantially more. That’s a heck of a queue, and if you’re not ready to submit at a moment’s notice, rest assured there are hundreds of others who are.

One more thing — good luck!

 

How I spent my Spring vacation ~ a Pictorial

Sylvia DayI’m one of those poor academics who has to work most of the year except Agents Panelfor a few weeks between semesters and in that venerable time called Spring Break, which for me was last week. The hind end of it was spent at the Liberty State Fiction Writers annual conference, where the Keynote speaker was bestselling author, Sylvia Day. (She actually was much closer than this when I snapped the picture at left. It sure didn’t look this far away!)This year it expanded into a two-day conference, and I got to attend some great workshops and talks, as well as hook up with several writer friends, my agent, who also sat on the Agents Panel at right, and a bunch of other publishing professionals. But mostly–and here’s the really important part–I got to spent a goodly amount of time imbibing in all things theoretically Bad For Me, the absolute BEST part of any conference.

For example, here’s my glamorous agent, Marisa Corvisiero and I10676170_10153157517647298_4678831760680549663_n lunching on the de rigueur plate of institutional chicken atop a mish-mash of rice and what I believe were vegetables scraped from the previous day’s soup pot. That’s Marisa laughing at another of my uproarious bon mots. It was probably something like, “You gonna eat that?” (Yes, I’m that funny.) The iced tea was incredible, at least.

Conferences are also prime places for getting embarrassingly shitty cell phone pix taken of you. Consider the Edvard Munch study below. Don’t ask me what the impetus was for that. I have no idea.

Munch ImpressionComposition in Light and Dark

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Juxtapose that against what I call “A Composition in Light and Dark” at the right. There’s me looking all shady and ironic (and beat-up; it’d been a rough night) against the beatific figure in the background beaming like a Botticelli. Truth be told, I never knew I possessed such a talent for artistic expression. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but I swear, these are absolutely improv-ed. I’m also that talented.

Ultimately, the conference comes down to hanging out with good friends, drinking some good wine (or at least priced accordingly), and demolishing a honkin’ big dish of Brownie Sundae. Between all of this I got to make some really good plans for the future, some of which you will be privy to shortly. If the best business is done in the off-hours, then I’ll take this office space any time. It truly is where the best people are.

LSFW Dinner(left-right: Linda J. Parisi, Gwen Jones, Gretchen Weerheim, Marisa Corvisiero, Samantha Bremekamp.)

Pot hellions

Crater RoadSome watch for robins, some for crocuses, some even say marshmallow peeps, but for me the real harbinger of spring are potholes, I’m telling you, those pervasive little asphalt assailants never fail to creep up on us, around every bend and over every hillock, disguised like shimmering little macadam birdbaths until you hit one and bam! there goes the hub cap, spinning away like a frisbee.

I live fifteen miles from work, and on my way home last week I counted no less than 25 of the replicating little suckers. And that didn’t include the ever-widening fissures in the middle of the road, and the winter erosion of the softer shoulders, due to the dig and drag of the snow plows. And then there’s those inevitable frost heaves that pitch up and crack the roads, always on whatever side of the road I’m driving. Which, of course, quickly becomes your side when you swerve into my lane to avoid them.

But if all this isn’t bad enough, the cure isn’t much better. How many of you have driven smack into a fresh pancake of cold patch, that municipal quick-fix of asphalt the town boys tamp down with shovels and their own boots, to shut up the one irate taxpayer that doesn’t quit calling until it’s fixed. Ahh…the lovely ping-ping-ping of loose tar as it plies itself to the undercarriage of your car. You’ll be scrubbing that off until nigh on August. Soon those road patch patties will be as ubiquitous as dandelions, and just as hard to get rid of. Because if you’re betting on highway dollars on high to get them gone, you can just forget it. The bank is broke in New Jersey come June 30, and staying that way for a while.

For the meantime, take your comfort where you can get it. After the winter we’ve had here in Jersey, just seeing the road means it’s only a matter of time until we’re burning our bare feet crossing it. And that, my dears, could only mean a day at the beach.

Counting the days.

Break me, please!

4cfcbb62c5976427f498bd97f33ed5a022764103I’ve been in academia for fifteen years now and teaching college for five, and one thing the profession has never been is boring. I’ve met my share of interesting people, from Candace Bushnell to Maya Angelou to Robert Kennedy, Jr., to Francine Prose, and just today, in my Media Writing class, I met a former police beat reporter for the Asbury Park Press, Margaret F. Bonafide. She talked to my class of budding journalists about life as a beat reporter, and how one of your stories could even catch the eye of a film maker and turn into a documentary. It was all very fascinating and inspiring, and although my students were rapt as they listened, asking intelligent questions and offering her a rousing applause when she was through, she barely left the podium before they were out of there like a shot. Why, you may ask?

Next week is Spring Break baby! And it’s not even next week yet! You see, it’s the wise student that gets a jump on.

Today is Wednesday, and I still have two more days of classes, but already, my attendance roster is falling short. Just the other day I had a student in one of my English classes tell me he would be in Cancun over the break, so could he have extra time for this week’s assignment? “Might I suggest you do it before you go?” I may have well asked him to hand over his spleen. Hey, you only have to write that three-page essay. I have to grade over thirty of them. And that’s just for one class. I’m wisely staggering them for the others. They’re not the only ones on Spring Break, you know.

So what will I be doing? Funny you should ask. I do have a book I’ve just started, so I’ll get in some extra writing time. Get my taxes done. Sleep. (Ah, yes, I fit it somewhere in before my 7:30 class.) Not shovel snow (It was a blissful 60 degrees here today in Jersey.) AND go to a writers conference next weekend! (See last week’s post.) That in itself constitutes my own Spring Break, a break from the ordinary, a chance to reinvigorate, reconnect, and renew. With chips and dip, of course, And wine. Lots and lots of wine, yessir.

In vino veritas, ah yes.