Thursday, July 31, 2014

How “Lost” Got Lost – My TV Do-Over Blog Hop Post

When Caroline asked me to participate in a blog hop about changes you’d make to movies or TV shows, it was a hard decision. Not about whether to participate, of course – that decision was easy. (In case you haven’t figured it out by reading this post, my answer was yes.) How could I possibly choose which movie, TV show or even book to write about when I’ve spent nearly my entire life moaning “no!” at the choices other writers have made in ending their works? Truthfully, my taste is not mainstream – when I read “Gone With the Wind” in the sixth grade, I wanted Scarlett to end up with Ashley (because she wanted him so badly; the protagonist should get what she wants!). This habit of mine persisted during my “I love soaps” phase (I thought Laura should have stayed with Scotty, but her father Rick should dump Lesley for Monica – opinions no other General Hospital fan shared) my vampire-book loving phase (really, Laurell K. Hamilton? Really??) and my vampire-TV loving phase (Team Spike and Team Eric all the way). However, there’s one opinion I hold that I’m pretty sure I share with almost all of cult-TV-watching America, and that is:

The ending of Lost really sucked.

Come back with me, if you will, to the fall of 2004, when Lost premiered to great fanfare and terrific ratings. This wasn’t just a show about a bunch of people plane-wrecked on a deserted island; it was about their mysterious pasts, complicated presents, and, above all, (in the words of Charlie): “Guys … where ARE we?” My son Alex – then a 5th grader – and I made watching the show together one of our weekly traditions, and we’d spend hours talking about how the puzzle pieces fit together and what it all meant. By the time the series ended in 2010, the show had lost about four million viewers, but it still attracted over 10 million viewers per episode, and was still critically acclaimed.

Until that ending. Oh, that ending. It was like the day you found out Santa wasn’t real, or you figured out that time travel wasn’t possible (because travelers from the future would have been here by now), or reality shows aren’t, you know, actually real.

To recap: The series was built around present-day island mysteries and character flashbacks to the past. In season four, the show added flash forwards (and I’m just going to brag here and say when I first saw Jack in that plane wearing a beard, I knew right away we were in the future); the sixth and final season added the flash sideways – snippets of the characters’ lives if the plane crash had never happened.

This, I figured out as well. The flash sideways were lives that the characters could live if their machinations in the past were successful. (Season five had half the cast in the 1970s.) Eventually, near the end of the series, they’d have to choose whether to continue to monkey around in the past and make the better life happen, but risk not knowing each other, or give up and let events transpire as they would.

If only I, as fan, had had such a choice. Instead, the series finale revealed that the flash sideways were, in fact, a form of purgatory where the characters went to wait after their deaths. They were waiting for the other passengers on flight 815 to die, so they could all get together in a church and move forward to the golden light together. Making matters worse, ABC ran the final credits over a shot of the wrecked plane on the beach with no people in sight, making many fans wonder if this was a message that everyone had died in the initial crash and the entire series was a fraud. (The creators blamed ABC for the image and vehemently denied the entire series had been a six-year death.)

After the episode aired, fan outrage was loud and vocal. With mysteries such as the polar bear never resolved, the “purgatory” reveal seemed like a cheap, easy, all-encompassing explanation to a complicated, intricate mystery. Fans deserved more. After a six-year investment, we deserved more.

I still think my ending – a series finale that allowed characters to chose whether they wanted to stay in the present post-crash or return to a past that would not lead to a plane crash – would have been superior to the one that was actually shown. (It would have also allowed Jack and Kate to be together… although I’m assuming most viewers wanted Kate with Sawyer, since I never root for the right couple.) If nothing else, though, the saga of the Lost finale illustrates to me the importance – as both writer and fangirl – of knowing your ending when you’re still at the beginning. Yes, I’m a loud and proud plotter – and I wish Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse had been, too. (Although the producers expressed bewilderment at the fans’ reaction, a few years later Damon apologized, saying his disappointment with the last Harry Potter book being divided into two films made him realize a fan can be a fan and still be angry with the story.)

Beginnings are easy. Endings are hard. Millions of dissatisfied fans can’t be wrong. But hey… there’s always fan fiction.

Hop on over to Zanna Mackenzie's blog tomorrow for her TV Do-Over Blog Hop post.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Happy Birthday Keeping Score!

KEEPING SCORE will be celebrating its first book birthday this upcoming Sunday, July 27th. I’d love to write a blog post about everything I’ve learned in the past year about marketing a self-published book, but that would be a rather short post. Get some reviews up on Amazon before officially publishing it, try to do a blog tour/giveaways to generate some excitement, and when you’ve got a good number of positive reviews, schedule some 99 cent sales and try to get into BookBub, EReader News Today and other reader newsletters.

I was hoping to have another book out by this time, but since I’m working on two projects at once, that didn’t happen. But I’m determined that one of them is going to be out by the end of the year… unless I end up working with a publisher.

In the meantime, I have KEEPING SCORE on my brain. I’ll be putting it on sale for 99 cents at the end of the week and hoping to generate some excitement through that. The sale will be advertised on EReader News Today, Booktastik and the Fussy Librarian.

KEEPING SCORE went through several drafts, and the last one was the most painful. That’s because I’d hired a freelance outside editor, and he told me to kill my babies, and cited names and pages. He said I had a tendency to include “I Love Lucy” – type scenes; scenes with madcap hijinks that didn’t add to the plot.

But I love “I Love Lucy…”

So I ended up cutting out a minor subplot about Shannon’s ex-husband David needing a hernia operation and completely overreacting. But due to the wonder that is writing on a computer, those scenes will live on forever as long as Mozy continues to back up my work and Word is still a functioning program. And today, to celebrate the book birthday, is one of my favorite KEEPING SCORE scenes to end up on the cutting room floor:

By the time I fought with traffic (there's no such thing as a reverse commute when you're driving in the city), found a parking space, managed to parallel park, and walked three blocks to David's house, it was already after eight.

"Dad said to just walk in," Sam told me as we approached the front door, so I turned the knob and entered.

My jaw nearly dropped onto the floor. Behind me, I heard Sam giggle nervously. Neither one of us could believe it.

Right in the middle of what had been the dining room, David had installed a state-of-the-art hospital bed. And it was on that bed where he lay, panting, as Chloe ran a washcloth over his forehead.

"All this for a hernia?" I snapped.

Chloe dropped the washcloth on David's face. She ran over and hugged me while David whimpered.

"I'm so glad you came!" she exclaimed.

"Oh my god," David whined. "I'm going to be sick. Chloe!"

Chloe ran back to David's side and shoved a garbage bag at him. He retched in it for a few minutes, making a huge deal out of every hack.

Sam looked like he was about to toss his cookies himself. I put a hand on his shoulder.

"We're so glad to be here, too," I said, as Chloe wiped vomit traces off of David's mouth.

"Come here, son," David whispered, his voice as raspy as Marlon Brando's in the Godfather. "I need to hold my boy."

Sam's eyes went wide. He turned and looked at me in horror. I gave him a little shove toward the bed. It was his fault we were here to begin with. He cringed as David ran his hands over Sam's head like a dying blind man.

When Chloe came back over to me, I whispered, "I thought a hernia was a routine operation."

I saw the first signs of strain around Chloe's mouth. "The operation was routine. The recovery… not so much."


She sighed. "He's a complicated man."

I opened my mouth to warn her that she didn't know the half of it. But then I shut it abruptly without saying anything. An ally in David's house could be a valuable thing. I needed to keep her here as long as possible.

"I really don't see how he's going to be back to work tomorrow," Chloe continued.

"Tomorrow! Tomorrow you're going to be out buying a catheter because he's not going to be able to make it to the bathroom," I told her. "Are you kidding?"

Chloe shook his head. "Believe it or not, he's out of sick and vacation days, so every day he misses is coming out of his paycheck. He's already in the hole three days."

Her eyes shifted over to him, as if she were afraid he was listening to us. No worries. David had Sam's head firmly clasped in his hands, and he was speaking urgently to our son. No doubt conveying life instructions that you give your child when you're on your death bed.

"And with the furlough…" she whispered.

"Wait -- what furlough?"

"He didn't want me to tell you," Chloe admitted, "but if I were you, I'd want to know. He had to take a pay cut. Everyone did. And now that he's got to give even more money back… Shannon, he's afraid he's not going to be able to pay much toward Sam's check next month."

The giant rock inside my stomach just turned into a boulder. My face must have given me away, because Chloe put her hand on my shoulder and said, "I have some small savings… it's not much, but I could…"

She trailed off, and as hard as it was, I shook my head. "This isn't your problem. David shouldn't even have told you what was going on."

Chloe shrugged. "Everyone needs someone to talk to," and I felt even worse. And then she hugged me, which just compounded the guilt. "I have to run to the store for more soup," she whispered. "Maybe I should look into Depends while I'm there."

I laughed. It felt good. She kissed David and Sam on their heads, then dashed out.

I finally made my way over to the hospital bed, where David lay pale with a fine sheet of sweat over his face.

"That girl's a keeper," I told him.

"Yeah," he admitted. "She'll wake up soon enough, though. She can do so much better than me."

For a second, I actually felt sorry for him. David tried to force a grin, a hint that he was just kidding, but I knew he wasn't. I also knew he was right.

"Sit up," I ordered him. "Sounds like you really need to go back to work tomorrow."

He grimaced. "I told her not to tell you."

"She thought I needed to know. To prepare. I do."

"You going to be okay?" he asked. The question was more like a plea, and I could almost see a hint of the man I married. I really didn't have a choice. I nodded and smiled.

"I'll be fine," I lied. "Everything will be fine."

In the car on the way home, Sam blurted out, "You know what would be great? You and me and Dad and Chloe, if we could all live together!"

It just might come to that, I thought. It just might.

Of course the editor was right. The scene’s just too unrealistic; it changes the tone and the focus of the book. And while changing David into a standard work-obsessed Washingtonian wasn’t necessarily the funniest choice I could have made, it was one that best served the book. Reforming the character allowed me to express my theme of “competition kills relationships” in an additional way.

But I still think hypochondriacs are funny.

Buy KEEPING SCORE on Amazon today! (Or wait till the end of the week when it's on sale.)

Monday, July 7, 2014

What’s Your Voice Saying?

I’ve read well over a hundred unpublished manuscripts and self-published novels in the past two years. Most of them have problems. Some of these problems are big, some are small, some can be solved by deleting a character or expanding on a sequence; others require a page-one rewrite. But almost all of these problems have solutions, except one: Voice.

What is voice, and why is it an unsolvable problem? Simply put, voice is the tone, style and word choice that the writer uses to tell the story. Every writer has her own voice, and the really, really good ones can write in different voices in different books. Voice cannot be divorced from story; it’s the way in which the story is told. Even in novels that are written from the third person point of view, voice is considered a reflection of the protagonist’s thought process.

Compare and contrast the voices in these three paragraphs:

Two new friend requests. I click the icon and accept the first one, a girl I know from the gym. I freeze over the second. No way. I bring the phone closer, staring at the tiny photo icon. My chest constricts. It can’t be. Oh my God. It is.

In one hand she had the hammer from her little box of widow’s tools. As she turned the knob and pushed the bathroom door open, she raised it. The bathroom was empty, of course, but the ring of the toilet seat was down. She never left it that way before going to bed, because she knew if Danny wandered in, only ten percent awake, he was apt to forget to put it up and piss all over it. Also, there was a smell. A bad one. As if a rat had died in the walls.

So here’s how it went in God’s heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at the decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story – how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn’t die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master’s degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life.

Things to look at: Sentence length and variety. Word choice. Point of view. Verb tense. Examine how they all come together to communicate story genre and narrator type. What inference do you make about the genre and age level of these novels, based on these passages?

The first passage is clearly from a romantic comedy. While age here can’t really be determined – it could be adult, new adult or YA – it’s obvious from the sentence structure and word choice – not to mention the actual content of the paragraph – that this is from a funny story. (Love Like the Movies, Victoria Van Tiem).

What images do “piss,” “widow,” “smell” and “rat” prompt in your mind? Clearly, these are unpleasant words, and they set up the reader to know that this story will be unpleasant. The sentence structure is relatively unsophisticated, but there’s a term here that tells the reader that this book is for adults: “apt to.” Young protagonists are not “apt to” use this term in their mental musings. (Doctor Sleep, Stephen King)

Ever since The Catcher in the Rye, readers are prone to expect narrators in literary YA fiction to be cynical, descriptive and just a bit long-winded at times. And some of their word choices scream YA. They exaggerate in numbers, coin slang like “cancertastic,” and use more adjectives and adverbs than adults might. (The Fault in Our Stars, John Green)

Imagine, for a second, that the paragraph from Love Like the Movies wasn’t from a romantic comedy at all, but from a Stephen King-like horror novel. Would those sentences help build tension and fear? Or would they be funny in an unintentional way?

Most writers don’t consciously think about voice. They have an idea; they sit down at the computer and start typing. Eighty thousand words or so later, there’s their book. In most cases, they’ve written the book in the same voice that runs through their heads when they’re ruminating about the world. Their favorite words show up over and over again. They use adverbs if they like adverbs. Some writers like “said;” others will substitute another action.

This is why voice is an unsolvable problem. There’s nothing wrong – there’s never anything wrong – with a writer’s voice. It’s natural and in many cases unchangeable. A writer can’t change his natural voice any easier than he can change his dominant hand. But some voices are simply not suited for the age level or genre in which their story takes place. A writer with a natural YA voice just won’t be able to come up with a sophisticated war thriller. A writer with a light, breezy voice probably shouldn’t tackle a heavy story about death. And someone who naturally uses complex, sophisticated sentence structure and ideas probably isn’t the best writer for that romantic comedy idea.

This scenario may seem unusual, but it’s a problem I’ve run across several times in the past few months – enough that it prompted me to write this post. Is it something a writer can self-diagnose? I’m not sure. But it’s not something that can be edited away. Perhaps rewritten – in a page one rewrite that restructures the story around the voice, rather than the other way around. Take a hard look at your own writing, and make sure that the voice is hand-in-hand with the story you’re telling. Does the level of sophistication of your story match the level of sophistication of your voice? If not, there’s some hard thinking in your future.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Trouble with Titles

One of the areas writers struggle in the most is what to call their baby. Because titles are unique, unfortunately there’s no web site that lists “Top Novel Names of 2014.” There are a few title generator web sites out there, but most of them are jokes that play on the fact that many books – especially romances – use the same words and sentence construction over and over again.

My first book is called KEEPING SCORE, and I think title and book fit together very well. “Keeping score” is, of course, a phrase from the baseball world, but it’s also a saying about tit-for-tat relationships. My book takes place is the baseball world, and it’s about two mothers at war with each other. The title perfectly captures both aspects. It’s also a well-known phrase, and it’s slightly funny.

It’s important that the title of a book convey its genre. A thriller title should sound slightly scary, like “Cold Death” or “Echoes of a Scream.” A romance should be … romantic. (“Gossamer Wings.”) And the title for a comedy should be funny (“School Daze”). The reader should be able to tell by the title alone what genre the book falls into. Think of the titles of the most well-known novels in their genres. “It.” “While My Pretty One Sleeps.” “Wuthering Heights.” The titles nearly shout scary… thrilling… romantic. Strangely enough, this is an area that many new writers struggle with. I’ve seen many proposed and self-published titles that sound completely divorced from the story’s genre. Don’t make this mistake.

Like I did with KEEPING SCORE, an easy way to hook a reader is by using a phrase that’s well known in the world your book takes place in. “Buy Low, Sell High” would obviously be set on Wall Street. “Code Blue” takes place in the medical world. And “Bottom of the Ninth” is probably a sports story, but it’s such a well-known phrase, it’s come to mean “last chance” for anything.

Taking a phrase and twisting it a little isn’t just a popular Twitter meme, it can also help you come up with your title. The book I’m currently marketing is a vampire tale called “The Ties that Bleed.” It’s an obvious play on the saying “The Ties that Bind,” and it’s about vampires and their relationships. So it’s an accurate title, using a well-known saying, and it has the bonus of alliteration with the word it replaced. Now if I can only find an agent for it….

The danger is that some phrases are so firmly in the vernacular, they’ve become clich├ęs. Stay away from sayings such as “For love or money” or “Love makes the world go round,” or “Laughter is the best medicine.” They’re overused, tired tropes.

Of course, there’s no obligation to use a phrase that’s already out there. In fact, most writers like to come up with something completely original. When doing this, ask yourself whether you want to use rhyme or alliteration. They can make titles sound clever, but they can also leave the impression that a book is humorous when it’s not. Pay attention to the way certain sounds flow together. And make sure that the title is a reflection of the most intriguing part of your plot.

Many writers find the best titles come to them all at once, after having thought of elements for weeks. They’re mulling over their plot and thinking about words and then suddenly, in the middle of the night, “Certain Summer Sundays” just jumps out of their brains. Sleep with a notebook or your phone next to you, so if this happens, you can capture it.

There’s no easy formula or web site generator to come up with the best title for your book. There’s only you. Do some brainstorming; go for a walk; listen to the radio. (Music lyrics are a treasure trove of title possibilities.) Don’t rush it. Don’t settle for a mediocre title. Take your time and let the right title come to you.

Good titles draw in and challenge readers. They ask questions and establish the writer’s talent. They’re your book’s first introduction to the world. Don’t have it be the last.

Struggling with a title for your latest project? Describe it in the comments section, and maybe I can help.