Writers’ League of Texas Conference: Postscript

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Last weekend’s Writers’ League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference was busy, lively, and a lot of fun. The Writers’ League “serves to educate and uplift Texas writers, whatever stage they may be at in their writing careers,” and provides communities across the state with free programming in libraries and local schools. It’s an excellent organization.

Friday afternoon, bookseller Scott Montgomery and I led a meeting for conference attendees interested in writing mysteries and thrillers. We answered a lot of questions: about research (most law enforcement agencies have Public Relations departments that can provide information to writers), about definitions (Scott: a cozy mystery is a book “where there’s a murder, but nobody gets hurt”) and about sex scenes in thrillers (how hot is too hot? It depends on the book). It was great to see so many new writers who want to write mysteries — that means more great novels for me to enjoy once they’re published.

Saturday I gave the keynote luncheon speech. The word “luncheon” told me this was a classy shindig, so I dressed up. This meant that once I climbed the stairs to the stage wearing a dress and heels without tripping and doing a faceplant, I already considered the talk a success. I spoke about “A Storyteller’s Journey: Forging a Path with Craft, Passion, and Persistence.” My essential points were contained in that title. There is no such thing as the writer’s journey. There are many, and every one of us has to create our own path to writing professionally. Having passion, learning the intricate layers of the craft of writing, and persisting as we create new work — these things will sustain us on our never-ending journey.

I also talked about my hilariously awful first attempts at writing a novel, and read readers’ complaint letters. It was great.

And because this was a luncheon speech, I took the stage before dessert. When I finished, the tables had, sadly, been cleared. The Writers’ League’s executive director, Becka Oliver, heard me give a little whimper. And an hour later, when I was sitting downstairs in the conference hotel lobby, she dashed up carrying a warm plate of cherry crumble. My reward!

I told you, these are excellent people.

How can you create visual imagery on the page?

In the comments on my post about visualizing stories in our minds, pujagokarn161289 asks:

How did your writing evolve from ‘a friend read an early piece of my fiction and said that many pages had no visual imagery at all’ to ‘More than once, readers have told me that my novels are “cinematic.”’?

What did you do to develop that skill? What steps did you take to make your writing more visual, not just to you, but to your readers too?

I paid attention, and deliberately began to include visual imagery on every page of my work.

Basically, my friend Ann Aubrey Hanson said that my writing contained only bare-bones physical descriptions, and almost no mention of color. Once she pointed this out, I understood that while I saw scenes vividly in my own mind, I was failing to translate that to the page. As a consequence, my fiction had plenty of action, dialogue, and attitude, but seemed strangely colorless.

Here’s an example. The excerpt below is from a very early draft of China Lake. In the scene, heroine Evan Delaney discusses the frightening religious sect called The Remnant with a friend who’s a priest. He asks her:

“Did they have music at their service the other night?”

“It sounded like a stamping machine at a locomotive factory.”

“It was march music,” he said.

I thought back to the heavy beat, the one-two-three-four of every hymn. “Yeah. What’s the significance?”

“Peter Wyoming believes that only march music is godly. This isn’t out of line with very conservative orthodox Christians—”

“‘The devil has all the best tunes.’ Burn all your Beatles albums.”

“—Right. But Wyoming emphasizes that everything that has a different beat has been created by Satan specifically to draw people away from God.”

“The beat itself is satanic?”

“Yes. Rock, Country, Gospel; any other music will lead you to hell and in fact may hasten the end of the world.”

I shook my head; this sounded patently preposterous. “You mean if I play a Garth Brooks song, or hum a Spiritual—”

“The white lines down the middle of this street will eventually crack open to reveal a streak of brimstone.”

I wanted to laugh but couldn’t. “Does it matter if I play it real slow, or backwards? How about if I change keys and play it twice as fast? Will that hasten the end of the world?”

What do you notice? They sound like disembodied voices. The only physical, visual mention in the excerpt is I shook my head.

It wasn’t much. It wasn’t enough. I cut this entire discussion. I ended up cutting the priest from the story. In the final version, Evan instead discusses The Remnant with her best friend, Nikki. Here’s how that version opens:

I said, “How about taking a walk on the beach?”

At Arroyo Burro we walked barefoot on the wet sand, below a tall cliff. The waves ran cold across our ankles. A lone surfer sculpted turns on a glittering curl of water. The day looked polished, pure blue, and for a long while we were silent.

At that point, Evan and Nikki launch their discussion of apocalyptic religion. Notice the difference? There’s color, reflected light, physical space, physical sensation, and a sense of movement — which also helps create a “cinematic” feel.

Write using all five senses. And make sure sight is number one.

Can you picture stories in your mind?

More than once, readers have told me that my novels are “cinematic.” They mean that my books create mental images so vivid that scenes scroll by in their minds as if on a movie screen. I take this as a major compliment. I work hard to turn words into that mental imagery. It’s a skill I learned after a friend read an early piece of my fiction and said that many pages had no visual imagery at all. Oops.

Whenever I read a terrific book — fiction or nonfiction — the story comes to life visually in my mind. And until recently, I assumed that this is the way it works for everybody. Not so.

Recently I spoke to a man about fiction. He said — like many, many men have said to me — “I’m not into novels. My wife’s the reader.” This always saddens me, but no longer surprises. What he said next, however, did. “She says when she reads a novel, she sees the story in her mind. Can you believe that?”

I said, “You don’t?”

“Never. I’m taking a college English class, and I get good grades because I can memorize the text and answer questions about it. But I never see anything except the ink on the page.”

I thought: No wonder novels don’t appeal to you.

I wondered if anybody else sees only the text, nothing behind it. Apparently so — and more.

Picture This? Some Just Can’t

Certain people, researchers have discovered, can’t summon up mental images — it’s as if their mind’s eye is blind. This month in the journal Cortex, the condition received a name: aphantasia, based on the Greek word phantasia, which Aristotle used to describe the power that presents visual imagery to our minds.

How about you all? When you read — or think — can you conjure mental pictures?

First pages: some do’s and don’ts

I read a lot of first pages — the openings of novels or short stories written by friends, by writers’ group members, as contest submissions, or for workshop critiques. Not to mention my own first pages. And I see some common issues.

These include: slow starts, lengthy descriptions, extended internal monologues, flashbacks, and backstory. So what do you do about this? Here are a couple of tips.

1. Don’t start your story in the wrong place. Start in the middle of the action.

Too many stories start too early: with a character waking up, staring thoughtfully out the window, getting up, eating breakfast, sorting through the clothes in the closet, getting dressed, catching the train into the city — a journey that invokes memories of the character’s childhood, and poor relationship with her mother…

STOP IT.

As I wrote a couple of years ago, about submissions for a crime fiction award:

At the end of this particular road lies the following opening scene, which I’ve read more than once in recent contest entries:

An obsessed divorced alcoholic maverick cop is awakened from a gruesome and floridly detailed dream about (a) the case that destroyed him (b) that day his hideous childhood ended with him finding his parents’ dead bodies, or (c) the murder of his beautiful wife and children. He struggles, against the cruel light of morning, to find his ringing phone or answer the pounding on the front door. His boss, or a beautiful young female rookie cop, is summoning him to a gory crime scene.

Many pages are then devoted to the cop’s crushing hangover, the long shower he takes to try to rid himself of it (and of the lingering dream, which is rehashed some more), his fumble around his filthy apartment for yesterday’s dirty shirt and socks and underwear, the coffee he drinks and the gruff monosyllabic non-answers he gives the rookie on their way to the crime scene, during which he flashes back to (a) his wife’s unfaithfulness (b) the last victim’s slit throat, which mocked him, like a smile, or (c) his daughter’s budding sexuality. Finally he arrives at the crime scene, where the medical examiner says, “It’s the third victim this week.” And the cop realizes: They have a serial killer on their hands.

If you’ve written this scene, you’re not the first. Or the ten-thousandth. Cut it. Start over.

Stories should start as close to the end as possible. Instead of opening with the character waking up, open with her walking into a downtown skyscraper to find the office held hostage. Or to find a baby in a basket on her desk, with a note: Hi, Mom!

Figure out what the chase is, and cut to it.

2. Don’t leave your characters alone on the page.

When characters are alone on the page, authors are tempted to let them ruminate. To pontificate. To work out their voice — with long and ultimately self-indulgent passages of internal monologue. These frequently amount to summaries of their lives so far. Solve this problem by putting them in action with other people. Make them relate to other humans, and bring them alive in an immediate scene.

No one says this more clearly or consistently than James Scott Bell.

[W]riters think readers have to know certain information before the story can begin.

They don’t.

Remember: Act first, explain later. Readers connect with characters in motion. They don’t connect with exposition.

If you give readers an actual scene, with a disturbance thrown in, they will wait a long time before you need to explain anything to them.

Not only that, they don’t need all your explanations at once, or in narrative form. I think it was Elmore Leonard who said that all the information a reader needs can be given in dialogue, and he’s not far wrong.

So always start with something happening in the present moment. Later, if you decide you want to be stylish or poetic in the first paragraphs, that’s up to you. Tremble when you do, though, and hear my voice in your head. Act first, explain later.

All this advice boils down to one lesson: Don’t waste your first page.

June 26-27: Writers’ League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference

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Next week I’m taking part in the Writers’ League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference in Austin. The Writers’ League is a great organization and the conference is an equally great event. Here’s my schedule:

Friday, June 26:

Genre Meet-up
Mystery/ Thriller — Meg Gardiner and Scott Montgomery
2:15-3:15pm
Genre meet-ups at the start of the conference give attendees who are writing in the same genre or category a chance “to share ideas, ask questions, talk about the market, and — more than anything — network and make some new writer friends.” The meeting will be facilitated by me and mystery bookseller extraordinaire Scott Montgomery, from Austin’s independent bookstore Book People.

Saturday, June 27:

Keynote Luncheon Speech
A Writer’s Journey: Forging a Path with Passion, Craft, and Persistence
12:15-1:45pm

Panel: “Edge-of-Your-Seat Fiction: Creating Thrillers & Mysteries”
Panelists Meg Gardiner, debut novelist Alexandra Burt, agents Noah Ballard and Will Roberts, moderated by Scott Montgomery.
3:15-4:15pm

If any of you can make it to the conference, fantastic. But, since most of you won’t be in Austin next weekend, I’ll be talking about all of these topics on the blog over the next couple of months.

Phantom Instinct: out in paperback in the USA

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Hey, hey, USA… I almost forgot to tell you: my latest thriller, Phantom Instinct, is now out in paperback.

I think you’ll like it. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Don Winslow says: “It’s fast-paced, sharp, and unforgettable.”

So there you go.

Fun and games at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference

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Last night I spoke to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference about writing murder mysteries. Somehow, when it came time to take a photo with conference head honcho Monte Schulz, the setting looked appropriate for mugshots.

I’m innocent, I tell ya. Innocent!