Thursday, February 10, 2011

When The Universe Conspires Against You

As you may know, CWC has not been able to meet since the beginning of December.  An unexpected death and various snow storms have caused delays that turned into outright cancellations.  We finally agreed on this Saturday, with a forecast for highs in the mid-50s and sunny skies.  And then one of our group got news of another friend's death.  It just seems like the Universe is trying to tell us something. 

Ali received a much more positive message the other day.  I've been getting some mixed signals myself.

This time we're sending a message back to the Universe:  We're meeting.  One of our number will be attending a funeral, and we'll have to figure out times to exchange submissions, critiques, etc. with her.  And while our thoughts with be with Mary, her family and their friends, we're going to go ahead and do this thing.

Maybe the Universe is just nudging us (and with something that big, a nudge can feel like an earthquake) to see if we're really serious about this CWC thing.  Because maybe if we're not, then we might not be serious about the writer thing.  What the Universe needs to know, however, is just how bloody serious we are.  So we're going to prove it.

Ever get the feeling that the Universe/events/gods/life was trying to tell you something?  What did you do with the message?

Monday, February 7, 2011

What I Learned About Writing From

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

I know that it’s almost required for writers to disparage Dan Brown.  Just some of the complaints about his writing are awkward sentence structure, telling instead of showing, playing fast and loose with history, physics, etc.  Yeah, maybe.  But we all know that many well-respected authors break the rules.  So what is it that bugs so many of us so much about Dan Brown?

Could it be his overwhelming success?  Probably not for everyone but, if we’re honest, for a lot of us.  Here we are slogging along, playing by all the rules and this guy sells a gazillion flawed books.

But a wise former agent, Nathan Bransford, said it best in one of his blog posts.  Writers who don’t take the opportunity to learn from financially successful books—even those they dislike—are doing themselves a disservice.  What follows is what I’ve learned about writing from The Da Vinci Code.

1)       Find a cool occupation for your protagonist
Robert Landon is a symbologist.  That was a new one on me.  But intriguing.  And an occupation I wish I’d known about before I registered for college.  To make a living out of studying and interpreting symbols?  How cool would that be?

Sometimes it seems that writers only find a handful of occupations worth writing about.  Medical and legal professionals are everywhere (try watching television for one evening without running into one, the other or both).  Teachers show up a lot, as do cops and private investigators (who could fall into the Legal category).  Then there are the stories about people in the entertainment industry—agents, artists, actors, writers etc.  Lots of stories about writers. 

While Langdon turns out to be employed as a college professor (teacher) and acts as a hyper-educated detective, it is the way he interprets symbols, both common and arcane, that propels the story forward.

I will be more likely to think twice before going with one of the overused professions for my protagonists in the future.  Does she have to be a medical doctor or could she be sociologist or a telemarketer? 

2)      Make the protagonist’s goal interesting

What could be more interesting than a search for the Holy Grail?  Langdon has to figure out not only where the Grail is hidden, but what exactly it is.  Is it a cup?  Was it used by Christ at the last supper or did it collect his blood at the crucifixion, or both?  Is it a person?  Could it be a descendant of Christ?  If it is, what would that mean for Christianity? 

One of my issues with my writing has been creating a well-defined tangible goal for my protagonist.  I won’t have anyone searching for the Holy Grail, but she needs to be after something that is every bit as important, if only to her.

3)      Keep the action moving forward

One of the reasons this book was on the best seller lists for so long is that it’s a page turner.  The reader wants to know what happens next.  Even when Landon and Sophie stop to analyze the clues or get information from another character, there is action in the background.  We know that Bezu Fache and Silas are hot on their heels.  Will our heroes figure it out in time?  Or will the bad guys catch up?  And when they do catch up, how will Langdon get away? 

Brown makes the figuring out interesting too.  This is where a lot of the “telling” comes in as Langdon explains what the symbols mean and why he’s interpreting them in the way he is.  But it’s interesting telling.  Do we really need a flashback to the 13th Century so he can show us?  Nah. 

Isn’t this what every writer aspires to?  We all want readers to be unable to put our books down, to have to read “just one more chapter” to find out what happens next. 

Even though I don’t write thrillers, I am trying to find ways to keep the reader wanting to see what’s next.  How do I up the stakes, heighten the tension, increase the conflict?

4)       Use interesting settings

The action starts in Paris.  Not just Paris, but the Louvre.   Langdon travels through France, London and Scotland.  We see the Louvre, Westminster Abbey and Roslyn Chapel in detail through Langdon’s eyes—a symbologist’s eyes. 

Would moving my characters around heighten the tension?  Would adding a famous landmark bring something different to the story?  I’m sure this idea wouldn’t work for every story, but it’s worth considering.  Remember, a rainy little town named Forks caught a lot of readers’ attentions without any landmarks at all.

5)       Make the antagonist a worthy opponent to the protagonist

“The Teacher” is every bit as smart as Langdon.  He’s devious, and he’s willing to kill to get what he wants.  That final trait is one that Langdon doesn’t appear to share.  It may make him a more likable good guy, but it puts him at a decided disadvantage.

The henchmen working for/with The Teacher are well drawn, too.  Especially Silas.   He’s an albino monk, strong physically.  He has absolute faith in God and The Teacher.  He also practices corporeal mortification or self-inflicted punishment.  So many things going on with Silas that he almost takes over the story.

I tend to be too nice to my protagonists.  And part of that is not making the antagonist enough of a threat.  By keeping antagonists like The Teacher in mind, I should be able to come up a worthy bad guy.

Whatever your opinion of The Da Vinci Code or Dan Brown, you can’t deny that a lot of people loved the book—and the movie that followed.  It’s hard to argue that all of the 80 million buyers are just stupid.  I know plenty of intelligent folks who enjoyed the book—heck, I couldn’t put the thing down even with the flaws I saw in it. 

The next time you encounter a best-seller that you feel “sucks,” keep reading.  And try to identify what made so many people enjoy it.  You just might be doing yourself a favor.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

And Another Thing I Learned About Writing From

The Pikes Peak Writers Conference

6)  Celebrate Any Request for "Pages"

But don't hang all your hopes on an offer from them.

So you get your manuscript ready, really ready. It’s revised and polished to a high gloss. You get a pitch session with Dream Agent. You practice your pitch for weeks. You sit down with said agent and pitch your little heart out. Then you sit back and wait.

And she says it sounds interesting. Asks a few questions. Then she hands you her card and asks you to send the first three chapters.

You float out of the pitch room, skip down the hall, rush to the bar to tell all your friends the good news. They help you celebrate and plan how you’ll spend your six-figure advance.

When you get home, you give your chapters another going over—or three. And you send them off to Dream Agent. You polish the rest of the manuscript again in anticipation of a request for a full and eventual offer of representation.

The email—or letter—arrives. Heart racing, you open it and read “Thank you for letting us read your work. However, Book Title isn’t a fit for us at this time.”  Despair.  What did you do wrong?

Probably nothing.  Some agents have a hard time saying "no" to a writer who--all eager-like--is sitting across a small table from them.  The pitch may have been good but, possibly, not completely representative of the actual manuscript.  Or the agent got back to the office and realized she had offered representation to another author with a similar story. 

So follow the steps above.  Polish the chapters to a gleam and send them off.  Then polish the rest of the manuscript to the same high gloss.  Then query other agents who represent what you write.  And start on that next book.  It'll keep you occupied while you wait for Dream Agent's reply, and you won't be hanging all your hopes on one response.

Registration is open for this year's conference.  We all know the state of the economy.  But if you can possibly afford it, go.  Attend the workshops, talk to other writers.  Try to sit at a table hosted by an agent, editor or author you admire.  And if your manuscript is ready, sign up for a pitch session.  Oh, and take the pitch practice workshop so you're ready. 

Most important of all--have fun.