June 25, 2015

Carolyn J. Rose Interviews Elizabeth Lyon

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 9:05 am

Crafting Titles

I will move mountains and earth–or at least share a post in the last few days before I leave on book tour–to have Elizabeth Lyon on my blog. Elizabeth’s book, The Sell Your Novel Toolkit, was instrumental in my learning how to write a query, a synopsis, and land an agent lo those many years ago. I recommend it at every workshop I give. Elizabeth has a way of drilling down to the core of what a writer needs to do and elucidating things, and she does the same in her latest release, which will help writers come up with a title for their books. Why are titles important? Well, they may compel an agent to take a second look at a query, an editor at a submission, or a reader a book on a shelf. But Elizabeth can tell you better than I! Here she is interviewed by indie mystery writer and friend, Carolyn Rose.

Elizabeth Lyon

Mystery writer Carolyn J. Rose took a writing course from Elizabeth 25 years ago and they’ve been friends ever since. Carolyn recently interviewed Elizabeth about her second booklet, Crafting Titles.

What made you decide to write Crafting Titles?

My editing clients, friends, and even published novelists I know often choose ineffective titles and they don’t know how to find good ones.

Besides just putting in the research and seat time, what was the biggest challenge in writing the booklet?

I had to take into account all types of stories across all genres, and explain why a writer should choose a character name, a place, a snippet from the story, an image, or another combination for his or her title. Including all literature, present, past, and future was overwhelming.

Why is finding “the right title” so important?

A great title grabs reader attention. A weak title invites dismissal without a second look. Every novel can have many good titles, but the best ones capture the essence of a novel and give a tip-off to the genre. A title is a beacon drawing its ideal reader.

Can you give us some examples of authors who considered a title that would not have been as powerful as the one they went with and explain why the final choice was the best?

Mistress Mary is a strong character, but The Secret Garden is a place of transformation, discovery, and magic, a place where new life begins. “Secrets” entice readers to find out what they are. The Dead Undead is confusing; Dracula is singular force, the prime mover of the story, and a unique name that makes the tongue curl.

What are some classic titles that stand out for you as really doing the job? And what are some you feel fell short of the mark?

This is a trick question, right? We’ve practiced the titles of classics so many times, no other title sounds right. War and Peace is blah, a placeholder lacking imagination. Yet Tolstoy’s working title, The Year 1805, is worse. Perhaps for the same reason, I don’t like Cormac McCarthy’s title The Road. But then, it is as bland as the novel is bleak. You’d think that I’d like Gone with the Wind. I understand the symbolism, but if Mitchell wrote her novel in 2015, I think the better title would be Scarlett.

Writing Subtext

Classic titles that do the job? Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper for the theme of social class conflict and the pleasant alliteration. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes for a poetic line from Macbeth that totally describes the evil that invades a little town. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers reaches inside me and makes my heart ache. Heller’s Catch-22 because it transcended the novel to enter our language as a problem with no good solution, a damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

How might genre or the audience you’re aiming at affect your choice of a title?

Most titles have keywords that are Morse code to the reader, and often signal an emotion common to the genre. For instance, Sweet Kisses is going to be a romance, possibly Y/A, with no sex. Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry is a thriller. The Autumn of Sweet Kisses is likely mainstream or historical women’s fiction. Changing the title channel, The Last Mortician is not a book I would read at bedtime, nor is Bad Blood Brother.

If you had to choose between two titles, how would you do it?

Assuming I’ve gone through the process of elimination in Crafting Titles and narrowed my list of contenders down to two, I’d choose the one that packs the most emotion and creates the most curiosity.

What aspect of novel craft will you tackle for your next booklet?

Before I make a decision, I’d like to hear from writers regarding the aspects of craft they’d like to learn more about and why. Imagery? Plotting? Point of View? Characterization? Something else?

I hope Jenny and those who read her blog will share their views and guide me toward a topic.

Elizabeth Lyon has been a book editor since 1988. She is the author of several best-selling books, including Manuscript Makeover. Last year she launched a booklet series beginning with Writing Subtext.

Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the Subbing isn’t for Sissies series and the Catskill Mountains Mysteries . She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor. Her interests are reading, gardening, swimming, and NOT cooking.

June 24, 2015

Made It Moment: Patricia Skalka

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 12:21 pm

Death At Gills Rock

Patricia Skalka’s Made It Moment is interesting on many levels. First is the peek at her hero, whom you’ll get to know. And next are some conclusions to be drawn from what Patricia says. Are series so popular because readers cleave to their heroes or anti-heroes, and is this information important for emerging authors who are deciding what kind of book to start with? Does it matter if your protagonist has deep flaws? Patricia offers rich information all mystery writers and readers might do well to consider.

Patricia Skalka

My Made it Moment came a full year after publication of Death Stalks Door County, the first book in my Dave Cubiak Door County mystery series. I was at Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago, one of hundreds of authors lining a two-block stretch of Dearborn in the Loop and hoping to attract readers to my work. It was the first weekend in June and the publisher had rushed early copies of Death at Gills Rock, the second book in the series, for the event. The day was perfect: a cool breeze, a sun-drenched sky and streets packed with people. In the midst of this happy literary turmoil, a women hurried over to my modest display. “Is he okay? Is Dave alright?” she said.The Dave to whom she referred is Dave Cubiak, the angst-driven hero of the series. Readers first meet him as an angry, brooding man burdened with grief and guilt over the deaths of his wife and daughter. Dave drinks himself out of his job as a Chicago homicide detective and is barely hanging on to his new post as a park ranger in beautiful Door County when a rash of mysterious deaths strikes the picturesque peninsula. Comes his moment of truth and Dave starts on a rocky road to redemption even as he tracks a relentless killer.

Dave is the kind of tragic hero I like. The kind I want to read about. But would my readers relate? Would they empathize with this sullen, bitter man?

The woman at the booth bought the second book. “Is he getting better?” she said. Yes, I assured her. Death at Gills Rock is set two years later in fictional time and Dave is getting better. “Oh, I’m so glad to hear that. I really like Dave. He’s such a good man.”

With that, she could have knocked me over with a feather.

This woman, a stranger then and now, is not the only one to appreciate my fictional hero. Men tell me they like Dave because he’s a “regular guy.” Women fuss and worry about him. My readers’ embrace of Dave exceeds anything I could have imagined; it’s as if he has his own fan club!

More than anything —the thrill of opening that first box of books, the amazement of seeing my mystery novels displayed on bookstore shelves, even the honor of being asked to sign one of my books — my Made It Moment erupted from the realization that readers have such a strong emotional connection with my troubled protagonist. Knowing that what I write matters to others leaves me humbled, grateful and inspired to write on.

Following on the heels of a successful career as a nonfiction writer, Patricia Skalka made the leap into fiction with her 2014 debut mystery Death Stalks Door County, which was followed this year by the sequel Death At Gills Rock. The books have been praised by Publishers Weekly, The Library Journal and Booklist. “A first-rate series” says Kirkus. A Chicago writer, Skalka is currently working on book three of the six-book series.

June 18, 2015

Made It Moment: Sherry Knowlton

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 7:14 am

Dead of Summer

Sherry Knowlton is an International Thriller Writers author, which already makes us bound by a connection deeper than blood. Well, OK, that may be a bit of a thriller-y exaggeration, but still, we ITW folk stick close! Come look us up. But when I read this Moment, I realized that we are bound by something else as well. Those times when we were children and got in trouble for reading late at night. The feeling of connecting to a book’s characters as if they were in some ways more real than the real people in our lives. And that experience as a writer when a reader believes in our stories. That’s making it.

Sherry Knowlton

Many of my steps along the road to becoming a published writer have been rewarding. That day when Sunbury Press told me that they wanted to publish my book. Getting to work with them on the best cover design. Actually holding Dead of Autumn in my hands with my name right there on the cover. All of these steps had me jumping for joy, but still the whole suspense author thing didn’t seem quite real. Knowing that I’ve “made it” took something more.

Since I was a small child, I’ve been an avid reader of books (many, many, many books). So, perhaps it’s not surprising that the reaction of readers to my debut novel has been what finally brought home the realization that I’m now an author. When reader after reader told me “I couldn’t put the book down” or “I stayed up until two in the morning to finish it,” that struck a chord. How often did my parents catch me reading a book in bed by flashlight? How many books have I finished in the wee hours of the morning, even when I had to work the next morning?

I’ve met with several book clubs that read Dead of Autumn. Most in those groups embraced my story and took my characters to heart. They exclaimed things like, “Why did Alexa go to Perry County again?” and “I would have been terrified at night in the woods.” At one of the book club sessions, the whole group begged me – with great animation – not to kill off the mastiff in a future novel. “Anyone but Scout,” they pleaded.

That reader involvement with characters on the written page resonates with me. I still mourn that there will be no more Travis McGee books. I am dying to know what fate awaits Tyrion and Arya in the final volumes of Game of Thrones. And, Robert Jordan’s certain death in For Whom the Bell Tolls, which I first read in high school, still brings a tear to my eye.

Some of the feedback about Dead of Autumn has come from people I know or who have spoken to me at book signings and author events. Much more has come through reviews written by readers I’ve never met. One thing is clear about them all. These are kindred spirits; people like me who love books.

So, this feedback from readers has been a wonderful affirmation. It has confirmed that I have made it. I’m walking that road. I am an author.

Sherry Knowlton is the author of Dead of Autumn. Her second novel in the Alexa Williams series, Dead of Summer, will be released in June 2015. When not working on her health care consulting business or traveling around the world, Knowlton lives in the mountains of South Central Pennsylvania.

June 16, 2015

Made It Moment: Steve P. Vincent

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 7:39 am

State Of Emergency

I wish the Moments were audio so Steve Vincent could talk to us right now. Seriously…read on, and you’ll see why I say so. You’ll also see what happens when a writer follows almost the exact opposite road I did. It took me 11 years and 7 manuscripts before my eighth novel was published. With each rejection, I went back to the drawing board, learning all that I was doing wrong and something about how the business worked. While Steve as he  describes it “fell into” success in this biz. Already published, he now gets to pursue the hard work of learning the ropes of this industry…and finding all the Moments there are to mine within it.

Steve Vincent

Being asked to describe how I ‘made it’ is a funny thing, because I don’t think I’m quite where I want to be just yet! But because Jenny is awesome and I love reading these little tidbits, I’ll do my best

I came to writing fiction relatively late. While I’m pretty good at writing, rely on it for my other work as a government policy advisor and have a huge appetite as a reader, I never really linked those things in my head and considered I could write novels. I tinkered, a bit, but I was focused on my career and never seriously sat down to put a large number of words to paper.

In reality, I came to be published after a few accidental steps down a path: a conversation with a friend about writing, a decision we both made to enroll in a creative writing course, the AWESOME teacher who taught that course, and her very strong prodding for me to submit to a publisher. I did, not really expecting, but out the other end spat a three book digital deal with Pan Macmillan Australia’s digital imprint, Momentum.

While it has been a fun ride, I also feel like I have a lot more to learn. My second book is better than my first, and I hope the third will be better than both of those too! I’m learning on the job and am lucky to have a great publisher and support team around me. At some point I’ll probably try to get an agent, too, because although flying blind is exciting it’s also tiring!

I feel satisfied and really lucky, but more than anything, I’m excited about the moments to come! I released my second book last week. I’ve nearly finished the third (and last) book I’m contracted for. I’m straight into writing another book in another series. I’m going to Thrillerfest, where I’ll speak in the Grand Hyatt in front of an army of thriller fans. I’m enjoying the moments as they come and glad that readers are enjoying my labour of love.

Steve P. Vincent is a thriller writer from Melbourne, Australia. His debut novel, The Foundation, was published by Pan Macmillan / Momentum in September 2014. The sequel and his second novel, State of Emergency, was published in June 2015. He has a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Political Science and History and his honors thesis was on the topic of global terrorism. He has traveled extensively through Europe, the US, and Asia.

June 15, 2015

Made It Moment: E.A. Aymar

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 7:08 am

You're As Good As Dead

OK, you may not realize this after reading this heartfelt, poignant moment–don’t we all want to roll with the big guys/gals?–but Ed Aymar is also one of the funniest writers I’ve encountered. Read his Washington Independent column monthly. You’ll not only learn a little something, you’ll also laugh, and maybe wince a little in sympathy. (With a third novel about to release, I’ve had a couple of wince-worthy moments.) And then go and check out Ed’s  first and second Dead books. They’re really good. They are, I dare say, fit to roll with the big guys.

E.A. Aymar

Similar sentiments have been expressed in this space before, but I haven’t made it yet. I’ve definitely had good times since I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was published, times I’ve treasured, especially since it took a decade and three books to receive that long-sought acceptance letter. You wait that long, and you pass through periods of time when you think you’ll never get published.

It was in one of those periods–after my second novel came close but failed to find a home–that I ended up in grad school. I got a Masters in Literature, got hungry, and started work on a new novel. I really liked this one. It moved well. It was honest. I knew it was good.

The small press movement was flourishing at that time, and my book found a home within those ranks. Getting published was great, but I learned that life with a small publisher isn’t easy, particularly if it’s not with one of the older, established presses. Don’t get me wrong – Black Opal has been a terrific home for my Dead trilogy. But it’s tough to get respect when you’re not rolling with the big guys. Some bookstores close their doors to you. Book festivals are reluctant to feature you. You don’t have the budget to advertise extensively (well, I don’t), or the pull to get your novel into newspapers.

It’s a fight, and a blind one. Some of my marketing and advertising efforts paid off, but I hated the idea that I needed to spend nearly as much time marketing as I did writing. So I just wrote as much as I could: short stories, guest blogs, interviews, anything. My only condition was that I wrote what I wanted, and only what I wanted. I loved it.

One of my pieces was a guest column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, a publication I’d long admired and frequently read, and the managing editor for the site really liked it. We traded e-mails, met at a conference, and she asked if I’d be interested in becoming one of their regular columnists.

Honestly, that was one of my dreams (it’s exactly the kind of nerdy dream a writer has).

I love writing for the Independent. I’m not a prolific writer; both of my novels have taken over a year to write, practically glacial by today’s standards. But I’ve found that an 800-word column each month is doable, and fun, and I’m sharing space with writers I admire, some of the tops in their respective genres. There’s a bustling readership and energy with the Independent that I enjoy and contribute to. I know I haven’t made it yet, and I’ll likely never feel that I have, but I found the right path. That’s enough.

E.A. Aymar’s debut thriller, I’LL SLEEP WHEN YOU’RE DEAD, was published by Black Opal Books in 2013 and the sequel, YOU’RE AS GOOD AS DEAD, is available now from the same publisher. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America, SinC and the International Thriller Writers. His column, Decisions and Revisions, runs monthly in the Washington Independent Review of Books. He lives with his family just outside of Washington, D.C.

June 12, 2015

Made It Moment: Graham Stull

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 9:39 am

The Hydra

I’m not going to provide a lot of intro text here, even though I sometimes do. Graham Stull’s Made It Moments gave me shivers and made me cry. That’s all I’m going to say, because that’s all this Moment needs. Its author did the rest.

And if an author can do that in 300 words, surely his novel is worth checking out? OK. That’s it. That’s really all I’m gonna say. G’day!

Graham Stull

The pub was crowded, as was usual for pub quiz night in our local Brussels boozer, an Irish pub by the name of ‘Michael Collins’. The quiz had reached that point where the organisers pause to tabulate the scores from the first four question rounds. Our team members all looked up from our scrawled notes and makeshift maps of African countries bordering the Congo, and began the ritual small talk. The latest movies and sports results, holiday plans, good places to eat.

“So,” Charlotte said, turning to me, “what is it you do?” Charlotte was new to our quiz team, and was still doing the introductory rounds.

“I’m an economist,” was my automatic response. I wanted to add, “but I’m really a writer. I’ve been writing all my life. The first draft of my novel is ready, waiting for me. It’s willing me to muster up the courage to nurture it fully to life.”

Instead I forced a self-deprecating smile and added, “Economics is boring stuff. You know, mostly just adjusting numbers in spreadsheets.”

That comment earned nothing more than a polite smile from Charlotte. Microsoft Excel might have pretty good mathematical functionality, but it’s a real conversation killer.

In my head, though, the conversation went on. As the quizmaster read out questions for rounds five through nine, and the team busily debated where the 1976 Olympics were hosted (Was it Munich?), and which country exported the most bananas (Costa Rica or Ecuador?) I found myself wondering why it was I was so shy about defining myself as a writer. By the time the final scores came in, and our team finished a lowly sixth place, I had come to a decision. If I was going to be a writer, I had to think of myself as a writer. And that would mean changing my priorities. The next day I told my boss I would be applying for a five month leave of absence.

Two weeks later I had packed my tent and sleeping bag, got on my bicycle and pedalled my way out of Brussels, out of Belgium, and right through the sausage-and-beer bloated midsection of Germany, until the Danube River bore me to Vienna. 1,400 km of cycling was enough to rid my mind of any recollection of the dreaded spreadsheets. I took a room in Vienna’s trendy Seventh District and spent the next four weeks pouring over the text of my novel.

One evening, after rewriting a particularly satisfying chapter, I decided to break out of my hermit cell and found my way to a local beer garden, where I chanced to meet a Californian guy who had been an engineer and was now running workshops for alternative medicine and yoga.

“So what kind of work do you do?” he asked me.

My glanced drifted momentarily to the string of lights suspended across the trellis at the edge of the garden.

“I’m a writer,” I answered.

And that was my Made It Moment.

Graham Stull was born in 1975 in Dungarvan, Co Waterford. He grew up in suburban Boston, before returning to Ireland to complete his Leaving Certificate and study social sciences at Trinity College Dublin. He has worked variously as a postman in Germany, a real estate agent in America, and a legal search clerk in Dublin. Upon completing his formal training in economics from Trinity, Graham has worked in economics for the Irish parliament and for the European Union. He speaks four languages and travels as much as he can.

June 8, 2015

Made It Moment: Alex Dolan

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 7:29 am

The Euthanist

Some of you already know that I have accepted a Board position for International Thriller Writers–it’s one of the cooler things that’s happened to me since becoming a published author. And one of the cooler parts about that cool thing is getting to meet and support the new authors joining our organization. When you combine that with a Made It Moment, you get, well, a really good feeling. Of things coming together, and also of how this writing life is a circle. So long as we all link hands and support each other, we will stand strong. Come be a part of the circle as you read Alex Dolan’s Moment. He’s a writer who really did everything right…and deserves to be living in the Moment. Plus…his book looks creepy as heck and I can’t wait to pick up a copy on the road.

Alex Dolan

I wish I had a “made it moment” plucked from Kanye West’s diary, something along the lines of: as soon as my frozen cocktail dispenser started humming, I knew I could call myself an author.

The truth is that it’s been a long process.

Before The Euthanist was sold, I’d hit a wall. Over the previous three years, I wrote two novels that were lucky enough to land agency deals, but despite their best efforts, the agencies couldn’t sell either book (for the record, I blame the quality of the writing, and not the quality of my agents). Both of my agents decided to leave the business for different reasons, and that left me without representation, or a viable project. Creatively, I hit a low, with many ideas squirreling around in my head without a clear understanding of what I needed to become a published novelist.

Both my former agent Jessica and novelist friend Renée suspected that my frustration meant I was close to a breakthrough. So I kept scribbling in my ideas notebook for an interesting premise. One of the ones that didn’t make it: “A man dies at a candy factory. Becomes man-dy.”

I’d just experienced seeing a loved one on life support, and I started thinking about the euthanasia movement. As I researched physician-assisted suicide and the right-to-die movement, I thought about who would do this kind of work. And I embellished a lot. My central character ended up being a combination of an outlaw and a caregiver. Once she was sufficiently weird enough for me to find her interesting, the title came to me.

I poked my head out of the bedroom at one in the morning. My wife was reading on the living room sofa.

“The Euthanist. Right?” I asked, providing no context to this statement.

She nodded. “Yep. That’s it.”

That was probably my first “made it moment” for this book, because at that moment, I felt like I had something viable. When I pitched the concept to Jessica and Renée, they both told me to drop everything and focus on this story.

To make sure I did it right, I tried to fix the holes in my own writing, the things that had gotten me agency deals but not publishing deals. I studied various curricula of MFA programs, and pieced together my own reading list to fortify the problem areas in my writing. Two books that have been indispensible for me were Story, by Robert McKee, and The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. I’m happy to share a fuller list with anyone who asks.

I spent a lot more time than usual sketching out all of my characters, getting to know them before ever attempting a first draft. I also bumped up the amount of research I did, which was both fun and helpful. I knew I needed a real mentor in the form of a good editor, and after scouring the web for people who would be a good fit, I found Jennifer Skutelsky, who gave me the professorial feedback that I needed.

So, my second “made it moment” was more a general awareness that, after all this work, I was starting to understand how to put a novel together. For me, it was a systemic approach to improve my sense of story, my characters, and my writing voice. It was finding mentors and the right sort of peers to give me feedback on the work. When it was all done, I had the sense that I’d completed a project that might be taken seriously by publishers.

All that being said, once I have my platinum toilet installed, I’ll write a follow-up post.

Alex Dolan was raised in Boston, lived in New York City, and currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to writing for several publications, he has recorded four music albums. The Euthanist is his first novel.

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