Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Revisions Revisited

After my last discussion of revisions, Liz posed a question: How much of my hatred of revisions stems from the time constraints created by my publication deadlines? An interesting suggestion, and it prompted me to remember my attitude toward revisions before I started writing to contract.

In my experience, pre-published writers fall into one of two camps. In the one camp are those writers who dash off their manuscripts very quickly. They send them out, get rejected, toss the inadequate manuscript aside and start writing the next book idea. In the other camp are their opposites, the pre-pubs who take forever to write their first one or two or three manuscripts. They write a book, and then they rewrite it, over and over and over again.

Both tendencies have their plusses and minuses. The non-revisers have lots and lots of ideas churning around in their heads, clamoring to be written. Their ability to come up with saleable ideas matures as they learn what works and what doesn’t. But because they move on too quickly, they never learn to analyze their manuscripts and they never learn how to polish. Yes, they learn to put together better ideas, but they never learn from their WRITING mistakes. I know non-revisers who’ve produced more than a dozen manuscripts without selling one.

The revisers, on the other hand, learn to analyze what works and what doesn’t in their manuscripts; they learn how to rewrite, and how to fix problems. The downside is that their first book ideas are usually flawed at some basic level. They could spend a lifetime rewriting those manuscripts, but they would never be publishable because their basic idea was, well, flawed.

I understand it is really, really hard to walk away from a manuscript you’ve been revising for years. “But I’ve invested all those years in it! I know I can make it work. I understand the process now.” To these writers I say, “Great. Now take what you’ve learned and apply it to a fresh, new idea.”

That can be scary. The trick is not to become too wedded to any one book idea. Keep a “plot idea book” where you jot down conflicts and character sketches for future books. Force yourself to turn your back on your darlings and learn to love again. Tell yourself you can always come back to your first or second or third born in another year and rewrite it again, if you still want to. But move on.

So by now you’re probably wondering, Which category did I fall into before I was published? I was a reviser. I revised my first two books to death. I turned a sweet Regency into a sexy historical. I turned my dashing villain into the hero and made my dull old hero the foil. I wrote a contemporary suspense, then changed the plot line, the characters, the inciting incident; I rewrote the first chapters so many times I barely remember the original beginning. I started a new historical romance, about a convent-bred orphan who inherits a whorehouse in a Colorado mining town, and rewrote it to death, too. I spent eight years rewriting the same damn three books. It was only when I moved on and started the manuscript that became NIGHT IN EDEN that I finally sold a book—and the only thing I had to revise was the ending (I personally liked my originally ending better). I then revised the Colorado whorehouse book (THE BEQUEST) and sold it, too. I have at various times had publishers willing to buy the first two manuscripts, but only with so many changes that I knew it wasn’t worth it—I could write an entirely new, better, book in the same time. I said, No, thanks.

So, given my history, why do I now hate revisions? I think I kept revising when I first started writing for all the usual reasons. My first manuscripts were so precious to me, I couldn’t bear the thought of them not being published. But I suspect I also did it because it seemed easier to rewrite than to come up with an entirely new book idea. Now I have more ideas churning around in my head than I have time to write.

I suspect Liz is right: the time constraint now adds tremendous pressure. Trying to write two books a year, do the kind of self-promotion publishers demand, take care of two daughters and an aged mother, rebuild a hurricane-devastated house, and still keep myself healthy and sane is not easy. Finally making that first sale is nice (okay, it’s HEAVEN); but my writing income is now a critical part of the family budget, which means that a lot rides on every book. And the revision process, coming at the end when the time crunch is on and I’m forced to confront all my manuscript’s weaknesses, is never a good time.

On another front: If you’ve been following my car saga, the slow boat from Germany has finally—allegedly—docked. I could have had a silver or a gray months ago, but I wanted red, with a sunroof. And I should have it on Saturday. Do you know how many months it’s now been since my little Golf drowned? I am deliriously happy. So is everyone who’s been driving me around for the last six months!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I sent the final draft of WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP off to my editor yesterday. I'm so busy at the moment with Dani home for her fall break and pumpkins to carve and this six hour workshop looming on Friday that it was a couple of hours before it hit me: I'm finished!

Until I get the workshop out of they way, I'm not even going to think about my next project, which is the proposal for the fifth Sebastian St. Cyr book. At the moment, all I have is vague swirls--an ancient crypt, William Franklin (Ben's Loyalist son), and a heartbreaking secret from the past. It's my Rule of Three: the best book ideas are really an intersection of THREE ideas.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Why I Hate Revisions

So many bloggers have waxed eloquent about the joys of the revision process that I spent some time last night figuring out why I hate it so much.

I don’t hate sitting down first thing in the morning with a cup of tea, a pen, and the chapter I typed up the day before. I don’t consider those revisions. At that stage it’s just a matter of smoothing out language, moving things around a bit, taking a first look at the rough product of my previous day’s creation and making it prettier. That can be pleasant.

What I hate are those crucial, end-of-the-book kind of revisions. At that stage, the pressure is on. It’s time to fill in all the blanks I skipped (frequently I literally type BLANK), figure out some way to finish those scenes I left hanging, find just the right words for those expressions of emotions that wouldn’t quite gel before. It’s time to plug those plot holes I didn’t see, provide a motivation I’ve suddenly realized is lacking or at least weak. Everything I’ve put off dealing with either because it required me to invest days of research finding some niggling little fact, or because figuring out how to make it work was just too hard, must now be dealt with. The time for putting off is past. Worse, at this point I’m usually under a gun with my deadline barreling down on me. And with it comes the inevitable fear: What if I can’t pull it off? What if I can’t make this book work? What if I’m just not good enough? It’s a hideously stressful time. I don’t sleep well, and it goes on for weeks.

I really, really wish I enjoyed revisions. But I don’t think I ever will. Now I understand why.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Progress Report

I’ve printed out the penultimate draft of WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP. It’s now resting for a few days, waiting patiently until I can come at it with fresh eyes for one last read through. All the major changes are done; this is just a matter of catching typos and little rough patches that need to be smoothed over.

There was a point not too long ago when I honestly didn’t think I was going to get this sucker done on deadline. I’d even emailed my editor and warned her I might be late (editors appreciate advance notice). So it’s a huge relief to be able to tell her I’ll make it, after all.

I’ve only missed my deadline once. MIDNIGHT CONFESSIONS was due 10 September 2001. I didn’t make it to the post office before 5 on Saturday, so I went down on Monday the 10th and overnighted it. Well… Obviously, my late manuscript was the least of anyone’s worries come Tuesday morning. I figured it was probably some of that paper we could see blowing around Manhattan, but it actually did resurface a couple of weeks later, albeit a little the worse for wear. By that point I’d finally emailed it to my editor.

I’m now pulling together the material for the workshop I’ll be giving 2 November up in Baton Rouge—Six Secrets of Bestselling Genre Fiction. It’s a six-hour marathon (six hours, six secrets; get it?). Charles Gramlich over on Razored Zen is pondering public speaking for writers this week—very timely. His first point? Don’t talk for more than 40 minutes.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A New Look!

Finally, it's up! My new website went live tonight. Madeira James, my designer, is wonderful. See the results of all this hard work at

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Website Changes

My website is currently down as we move the domain hosting to a different server and my new site goes up. Should just be a few more days now. My blog will be getting a new, coordinated look, too. I can hardly wait.

Of course, this is all happening while I'm in the midst of frantically finishing WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP, and getting ready to teach a six hour workshop up in Baton Rouge on November 2nd. Oh, and my younger daughter is coming home for four days for her fall term break, and we've a new half-dead stray cat we've adopted and are coaxing back to health, and we've hired the carpenters who were rebuilding the gallery to also replace the siding on the east and south sides of the house, and I STILL don't have my new car so I can't go anywhere to escape the noise.

When this is all over, I am going to need a serious break.

Friday, October 19, 2007

One Way To Get People To Come To Your Booksigning

An item from yesterday's Pub Lunch, the free email update on the book business put out by Publishers Weekly: Learning Annex president Bill Zanker paid people to line up outside the BN store on Fifth Avenue and 46th Street in New York for a signing by Donald Trump of their joint book THINK BIG AND KICK ASS IN BUSINESS AND LIFE. Zanker dispensed $100 each to the first 100 people in line, $50 each to the next 100, and $10 each to the next 1,000 or so people.

Do the math. That's $25,000! Just to get people to stand in line for your booksigning? I wonder, did they buy the book, or did they just stand in line? And what is the purpose of this? So they could get a picture of that long line stretching around the block?

And if you're a writer, check out Steve Malley's posts this week. The most recent is a brilliant examination of lazy and effective ways of expressing character emotion, while the one below that is on structure. Insightful stuff!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Oops I Did It Again…and Again…and Again

The Friends of the Jefferson Parish Library Book Sale was this past weekend. I keep telling Steve, “We need to quit going to this thing!” But of course we’re always there when they open the doors on the first day.

I’ve learned to head straight to the history tables. History is still my first love and I’ve noticed that section clears out fast. It’s always filled with all sorts of wonderful books being purged from the libraries because no one has checked them out in two years. I filled two boxes in half an hour. That’s what happens when you are passionately interested in everything from ancient Greece and the Middle Ages to Regency England and World War II. Are there any history books left in the public libraries?

After that I move on to the literature table. Here I browse for nice hardcover copies of paperback classics I’d like to replace with something more durable—and more attractive. This year I found a lovely blue and gold three volume set of War and Peace, nice copies of Caesar’s War With the Gauls, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and Pride and Prejudice, among others. I then look at the poetry, but pickings there are usually pretty slim. This year I found only one nice copy of Renaissance poetry, volume one of a three volume set. I spent forever scrambling around under the table looking for the other volumes in the boxes of books they hadn’t put out yet, but without success (I had to do the same thing—with more success—to get all three War and Peace).

Next comes hardcover fiction. These tables are Steve’s first objective, so he’s already been at work. Here I’m looking for hardcover copies of authors whose books I’ve enjoyed and would like to keep. Sometimes I snag a Pat Conroy or a James Lee Burke, but it’s rare. This year I did find a hardcover copy of Martin Cruz Smith’s ROSE. It was the only one of his books I didn’t have in hardcover, so that made me happy.

After that I’ll cruise the hardcover mysteries, looking mainly for Elizabeth Peters and Ellis Peters. The latter are always purged library copies, and this year there were none. Does no one read Ellis Peters any more? Then it’s on to the health table—this year I got a great yoga book—and the travel table, where I got a couple of neat travelogues on China and Russia (always useful if I decide to set a book in either).

The one table I only glance at, at the end, is what they call Choice Fiction, “choice” meaning—with a few exceptions—bestselling crap. (Hey, it’s my blog and I can be blunt if I want to!) Some of these authors—and I use the term lightly—have a stable of writers that turn out virtually a book a week. The tables are overflowing with what often seems like dozens of copies of the same book. Because these books are “choice” they’re more expensive than the others--$5-6 dollars as opposed to $2-3. And they still sell like crazy. Just not to me.

This is just our first day’s take. We went back again on Saturday, and then dropped in again briefly on Sunday afternoon when everything is half price (this is when I go to the Choice Fiction table and buy Anne Rivers Siddon—I’ll never understand why she’s there because no one else buys her). The question now is, Where in God’s name do we put all these books? There really is going to come a point when we will have surpassed our house's ability to absorb any more books. Looking at all these new boxes, I'm wondering if we're there already. At least this year we didn’t have Danielle with us since she’s down in Florida (and she was very, very unhappy about it, although I did find some things I knew she’d like—a biography of Mark Twain and a lovely boxed copy of Twenty Years After, among others).

It’s an interesting experience, spending all those hours looking at books and watching the book lovers who’ve come to pour over them. But that’s another blog.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Too Much of a Good Thing?

I don't have my new car yet, but my computer is back...

It's indescribably wonderful not having to squint at a tiny screen, and having everything be exactly where I expect it to be. My washing machine is also working again...

Yes, I know I said it was fixed before. But we've had ANOTHER visit from the washingmachine repair man, and this time, I think, we're good to go. You might say I'm on a repairing roll. Except...

Yup. I snapped this pic through my office's French doors. You remember the carpenters who were supposed to come rebuild our gallery back in July? Well, they finally showed up. They say they should be finished in two weeks.

My book is due in two weeks.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Five Writing Strengths

Shauna Roberts at For Love of Words tagged me for this deadly meme: identify five of your writing strengths. I could have come up with five of my writing weaknesses in a heartbeat. But strengths? It’s taken me a couple of days, but here it is:

1. Characterization. This is something I do purely by instinct. I sit down to write and strange, wonderful, distinct, well-rounded people simple come to me out of the ether, surprising me. I could never give a presentation on characterization because I don’t know how to do it. I just do it.
2. Plotting. This is something I do not do by instinct. Back in my prepub days, I asked a published author I respected what she thought was my greatest weakness as a writer. She said, “Plotting.” Stung, I read everything I could on plotting. I analyzed well-plotted books and badly plotted books. I thought long and hard about plotting. It’s now one of my strengths. I could talk your ear off, telling you about plotting.
3. Hard work. See #2 above. I am willing to work very, very hard to make a go of this writing thing. I research my books to death. I study writing and writers. I constantly analyze the market and why people read what they read. I preplan and rewrite. If I have to change—whether it requires changing genres, or even changing the way I write—I will. I write two books a year, which is really, really hard for someone who’s not naturally prolific. There are lots of other things I’d like to do in my life—paint, learn to play the guitar again, read more, travel more, sleep more. I take care of my family, and I work.
4. Versatility. I’ve written and sold romances, contemporary thrillers, and mysteries. They are all very different, requiring different skills and calling on different parts of my personality. It has helped me grow tremendously as a writer.
5. My background. As a historian, I bring to my stories a strong, in-depth understanding of various historical periods and trends. I’ve lived in and traveled to lots of different places, so I can draw on that, too. And I’ve done many different things in my life—ridden camels, fired flintlocks, fenced, survived volcanic explosions, hurricanes, riots and revolutions, spent years training in tae kwan do, worked on archaeological digs all over the world—and a few other things I’d rather not mention!—that I can call on when I need them to enrich my stories.

Any one else willing to do this? Steve? Charles? I warn you, it’s hard!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Press Cat

Since I blogged about him yesterday, I thought I'd post this photo of Press Cat peeking out from behind the breakfast room table and chairs. Like Press, the table and chairs went through Katrina--they're just some of the 36 pieces of furniture I've restored over the last two years.

Now, back to writing!

Monday, October 08, 2007

As the Thunder Rumbles

I'm having a hard time settling down to write on this dreary, rainy New Orleans Monday morning. Part of it is the distractions of the past few days--painting my mother's bedroom last Thursday and Friday, then going up to the lake over the weekend to work on that house (what kind of masochists try to renovate three houses at the same time?). But I suspect most of the blame lies with the thunder rumbling in the distance, the heavy gray cloud cover pressing down on me, the echoes of horror and despair that continue to whisper in my memory no matter how much I try to ignore them. The worst of our hurricane season is, thankfully, past. I know this is just a little squall. But I can't help it. I once loved the power of storms. Now, I hate storms.

Press hates them, too. Press is our half-feral foundling cat. He'll lay at my feet for hours, purring. But reach for him and he's gone. Which is why Press was left in our house--with lots of food and water--when we evacuated with the other cats for Katrina. We battled our way down to rescue him exactly one week after the hurricane hit. He was scared, but okay; we have a two-story house and we "only" got one foot of water. But to this day, at the first clap of thunder, Press leaps up off the floor onto the nearest sofa or chair. Which sort of answers our question about where exactly in the house he was when the water came sluicing in!

Friday, October 05, 2007

This and That

As well as frantically trying to finish WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP, I've also been busy with my web designer, finalizing my new website. It should go up next week, and it's shaping up to be stunning.

On another front, they fixed my washing machine today! And this time it actually works. You wouldn't believe how giddy I am. I still don't have my computer back yet, nor has my new car arrived, but maybe I'm on a roll here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Pantsers, Planners, and the Box Myth

Sphinx Ink has an interesting response to my question, How Do Pantsers Write a Book Proposal? It seems that after she mused on the subject, author Tim Hallinan—a pantser--contacted her by email.

According to Hallinan, he writes the first 10,000 words of his manuscript, brain storms possible developments and plot points both by himself and with friends, writes it all up into a short synopsis and sends it off.

You know what? That’s actually not all that different from my approach. I suspect the main difference is that I take the time to think those developments and plot points through a bit more carefully, write it all down, and then use those brainstorming sessions as a guide when I sit down to finish my novel. Hallinan basically ignores his synopsis and sets off on a journey of exploration. Some of those ideas he uses, some he doesn’t.

There seems to be this myth that pantsers write character-driven books while those who preplan their books create plot-driven stories that become—to use Tim Hallinan’s unflattering description—“a box to squeeze characters into.” No, no, no, no!!!

When I sit down to preplan my books, I don’t build a plot and then stick my characters into it. I ask, What would X do next? How would Y react to that? What is he thinking and feeling at this point? What’s the worse thing that could happen to X? (“Put your hero up a tree and throw rocks at him.”) My plots are very complicated with lots of twists and I like being able to shift things around at the planning stage rather than after I’ve invested months writing scenes that then need to be changed. It’s why the more books I’ve written, the more I’ve tended to preplan. I’m a basically lazy person. I don’t like wasting time and effort, and I don’t like tying myself in knots with rewrites. I also have this thing about control.

I understand that for pantsers, preplanning takes out all the fun. For me, it takes out a lot of the frustration and anxiety and severely reduces rewriting. It’s a trade off I’m willing to make, and can make, since I still enjoy the process of fleshing out the scenes I’ve envisioned.

How much do I preplan? That varies. Sometimes I’ll write down snippets of dialogue if they come to me. But mainly I focus on the conflict in a scene, and the outcome. When I was writing my medieval, THE LAST KNIGHT, for instance, I had a segment where the hero is thrown into prison and the heroine is locked up by her uncle. In my outline I had written, “They escape.” When I finally got to that point in the book, I looked at those two words and thought, “Yeah, right! HOW do they escape?” That was not preplanned. That was a fun, rollercoaster exploration that was actually four escapes—the heroine escaped from her room, then freed the hero, then together they escaped from the castle, and then the next morning they escaped from the walled city. Was it plot-driven? Yes, in the sense that I knew they had to escape (or the story would have ended). But it was also character driven, and character revealing. My heroine was the kind of woman who was risking her life to save her brother; of course she wasn’t going to simply sit in her tower room and say, “Pass the embroidery thread.”

There are also times when I’ll reach a scene and realize it’s wrong, that a character wouldn’t do what I’d envisioned. What I don’t do is squeeze my character into my preconceived plan. I change the plan. In MIDNIGHT CONFESSIONS, I was halfway through when I decided I needed to change the murderer. I’m a big girl. I can handle that.

But I also don’t allow my characters or my imagination to lead me astray. I keep a fairly firm hand on the reins, always conscious of where I’m going. That’s a personality thing, though, and has nothing to do with whether I write plot-driven or character-driven. I mean, I used to write historical ROMANCES, remember? No genre is more character driven than that!

Monday, October 01, 2007


No, it’s not a word. It’s a concept developed by our Monday night writers group to describe a certain kind of book’s appeal. Probably the best way to explain it is to talk about the novel I’ve just finished reading.

Since I’m still luxuriating in my recent delayed discovery of Martin Cruz Smith, that book was WOLVES EAT DOGS. In this installment of the trials and tribulations of Moscow investigator Arkady Renko, Arkady ends up in the Ukraine—in Chernobyl, to be exact.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t read or heard much about Chernobyl since the big bang. So one of the (many) aspects of reading the novel that made it so enjoyable was the incredible wealth of information I acquired in the process. Chernobyl today is a strange, frightening place, and it was fascinating reading about it. This background—life in the area around Chernobyl after the accident and all the implications that has for a future many others will doubtless someday face—gave the book “aboutness.” So in addition to experiencing a great novel, I also learned about something that interested me.

This is a tendency surveys have disclosed before: readers like to feel they’re learning something from the fiction they read or the movies they watch. THE GODFATHER helps us to understand the Mafia, SHOGUN teaches us about ancient Japan, Clancy thrillers tell us everything we could want to know about modern weapons technology and techniques, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA gives us an inside peak at the fashion industry.

The trick to “aboutness” is finding something that interests readers/viewers and then making them think you know what you’re talking about even if you don’t. It isn’t enough to take readers someplace they haven’t been before—it has to be someplace they want to go. Americans in the Cold War wanted to learn about life in Moscow, hence the huge (and well-deserved) success of GORKY PARK. Were readers as eager to learn about life on a floating arctic fish factory? Probably not. I personally found POLAR STAR an even better book than GORKY PARK, but PS never touched GP’s sales.

Of course, all too often what we “learn” is wrong. Martin Cruz Smith is fanatical about his research, which is why his books take so long to write. Others are considerably more careless. The infamous DVC, while touted far and wide as an “intelligent” book, made so many mistakes about everything from art to history that I was laughing by about the third chapter. And since I’d already read HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL and JESUS THE MAN, that theory was yesterday’s news and I could see exactly where the story was going. The “aboutness” didn’t work for me. But boy did it work for millions upon millions of other people around the world. Likewise, I quit reading Patricia Cornwell when, in the space of about twenty pages, she called Iranians Arabs and introduced a Navy general. If she made such simple, careless errors, how could I trust anything she said about forensics? After all, it wasn’t even her field. But again, her sales figures tell us that most readers are more trusting.

Where am I going with all this? No place, really. It’s just a useful concept to keep in mind when the stray wisps of a book idea start forming in our minds. If you can take your readers someplace they want to go, teach them something they want to know, give them a glimpse at a way of life that is normally hidden from them—in other words, give your book Aboutness—you will only up its appeal.