Monday, July 25, 2011

Sample (Starting with a Question)

I've talked before about how some stories/books start with a question. What if this happened or what if that happened? Well right before I got pregnant with my daughter I had this what if that wouldn't leave me alone. It was a what if a school shooting wasn't what it seemed on the surface? What if armed gunmen took over a school and something no one could possibly see coming happened? I know that's vague but bear with me. I wrote 30,000 words of this book and stalled. I do hope to get it off the ground one day once I figure out definitively where it wants to go but for fun, I thought I'd post the first chapter. Please remember this is totally unedited (except for spelling). This is a first draft.


Armed gunmen. They were words you heard on television--on CNN or in one of the many police drama shows that inundated prime time programming. They were words you read in the newspapers after the fact. Armed gunmen. They were abstract beings, characters in movies and books. Flat, one-dimensional. Faceless. They almost didn't matter because you knew that at the end of the show or the end of the story they would be dead. It wouldn't matter who they had been or why they had become "armed gunmen" because they'd be gone.

The good guys would prevail.

Maybe one or two unfortunate souls would have been killed by the armed gunmen but they too would remain faceless because violence that necessitated armed gunmen never happened in your city. It never happened in your world or your reality and it certainly never happened to your children.

"Doc? You there?" Russo Barbieri's voice came from far away, as if he were speaking to Steven Young through a tin can with a string attached to it instead of the telephone on Steven's desk.

"Jesus, Mary, Mother of God," Barbieri said. The fear in the man’s voice disconcerted Steven even more. "Doc? Doc? Are you there? Did you hear me?"

Steven cleared his throat and gave a husky, "Yeah, I'm here."

He looked around his office which was on the fourth floor of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Sunlight streamed through the windows. The air in the room seemed to vibrate, pulsating like a mirage in desert heat.

Was this his office?

Barbieri's voice was taut and high-pitched. "Did you hear me? Paul and Dane are still in the school. They’re still IN THERE." He said the words "in there" in a tone that implied a secret code. As if "in there" should mean something special to Steven. Barbieri said "in there" like he was talking about a gas chamber at Auschwitz.

"They didn't make it out. They're still in there, man."

Steven's cell phone beeped, indicating an incoming text message. A moment later it vibrated briefly, dancing a little jig on the surface of his mahogany desk.

"How many gunmen?" Steven asked because he didn't know what else to ask. Because there was really only one question worth asking and there was a fifty-fifty chance he wouldn't want to hear the answer.

Barbieri balked. "What?"

"How many gunmen?" Steven repeated more slowly, surprised at how calm and detached he sounded. The other man's breathing was heavy, loud in Steven's ear. "Uh, I don't know. I counted three on the news. I got one of my boys trying to find out more. It won't be easy though. Place is crawling with cops."

On a normal day, Steven would have responded with a biting, "Oh, what? No police officers on your payroll?" But on a normal day Barbieri would never call Dr. Steven Young. Because Steven had made it abundantly clear years earlier that even though their sons were close friends--an arrangement which had never pleased Steven--a mafia don had no business being social with HUP’s Chief of Neurosurgery. They were not friends. They were never to speak unless absolutely necessary. They would not even exchange pleasantries over each other's sons. They would never eat together, never have a couple of beers together or even acknowledge each other in a public place.

Barbieri, like any self-respecting mob boss, would never tolerate that kind of overt disrespect or condescension from anyone, no matter how accomplished or prominent but he owed Steven Young.

"How many hostages?" Steven asked.

Barbieri exhaled in a loud huff. Steven pictured the large man wiping his brow with a hanky. "What? I don't know. Who cares? Our fucking kids are in there. As far as I'm concerned there are only two hostages--Paul and Dane."

"Yeah, you would think of it that way," Steven said disdainfully.

"Hey--fuck you, doc. I don't got time for this. You don't like me. I don't like you. But we got kids being held hostage right now by armed gunmen and that's a real fuckin' problem."

Steven's cell phone vibrated again briefly, reminding him he had an unread text message.

"You're right," Steven conceded. "I'm sorry."

For a long moment there was only the sound of Barbieri's loud breathing and the muffled swipe of a hanky.

A small commotion outside Steven's office door drew his attention. Then the door banged open and Dr. Thatcher Frey filled the doorway. His hands were pressed into either side of the door jamb, supporting the weight of his six foot four frame. He was out of breath and his face was a disturbing shade of gray. Steven had only seen Thatcher's face that color one other time in the near thirty years they had known each other.

"I just heard--saw on the news," Thatcher spluttered. "Is he? Is Dane? Did he get out?"

Steven shook his head which seemed to take all the life out of Thatcher. Steven's friend stumbled to one of the chairs opposite Steven's desk.

"Doc? You there?" Barbieri said.

Steven pulled the receiver away from his ear and stared at it as if it had appeared in his hand that instant. Was Russo Barbieri weeping?

Steven pressed the receiver into his ear and answered, "Yeah. Still here."

"What do we do?" Barbieri asked.

The desperation in Barbieri's voice broke through the cool, clinical barrier that Steven used day after day, year after year in the operating room. The barrier that allowed him to open another human being's skull and cut into his or her brain. It was the same calm that allowed him to look at the worst brain injuries possible and know that he could fix them. It was a protective bubble that had seen him through many professional and personal crises, including the death of his wife four years earlier.

Russo Barbieri had managed to puncture it with three small words. Fear rattled Steven's voice. "I don't know," he said.

There was no mistaking Barbieri's sob this time and suddenly Steven had a flash of Paul play fighting with his father in the driveway of the Barbieri home. It was one of the few times Steven had forced himself to go there and be cordial to the man.

Dane and Paul had planned a camping trip last summer. The boys had planned to leave from Paul's house, taking the SUV Russo and his wife had bought Paul for his sixteenth birthday. Steven had driven Dane there and as the four men stood around saying their goodbyes with Russo and Steven handing out non-sequiter bits of advice and cautions, Paul had started joking with his father.

"Okay Pop. If I see a bear I'll just pop him in the mouth. I'll be like this and then I'll throw a hook to the body like this . . . " Laughing, Paul had thrown light punches at Russo's middle until Russo pulled him into a bear hug which ended in a noogie.

Steven had looked at Russo's face and been shocked to see the look of unguarded fear, bordering on panic. It shocked Steven because it was a look that mirrored feelings he had long ago learned to conceal with respect to his own son. Steven was chagrined at the time to find he had something genuine in common with Russo. In Steven's mind a man responsible for the kind of crimes Russo oversaw on a daily basis could not possibly be capable of feelings as pure as the love of one's child.

Steven had felt the same fear he had seen on Barbieri's face many times during the course of his own life. Dane's first day of kindergarten, middle and then high school. The first time Dane had slept over a friend's house. Watching from the stands at Dane's first soccer match. The first time Dane had driven off in Steven's car alone after getting his driver's license and every trip he'd ever taken with friends.

Steven, unable to bear the sound of Russo's weeping, said, "I'll meet you there in twenty minutes."

He hung up the phone and looked at Thatcher Frey. He tried to put the barrier back in place, his mind moving through a slow play of flashcards, each one depicting a different but complicated brain malady. He remembered his last surgery which had lasted fourteen hours, each hour like each cut, infusing him with the kind of adrenaline that made everything around him seem sharper and more immediate.

Thatcher watched and waited. The cell phone buzzed again and Steven put his hand over it.

"You going down there?" Thatcher asked.

"Yeah," Steven said.

Thatcher's head hung. "Who takes a bunch of school kids hostage?"

Steven sighed. "When we were interns there were bank robberies, plane hijackings, the occasional bomb. Now we have school shootings."

"It makes no sense."

Thatcher paused. He gripped the armrests of the chair as if to get up, sensing it was time to give his friend a few minutes alone. "Steve, I'm sorry. If there's anything . . . " he didn't finish. Steven nodded and watched in silence as Thatcher closed the door behind him.

Steven had saved thousands of lives during his career as a neurosurgeon. He'd drilled through and cut open thousands of skulls, each one distinctly different from the one before and the one that followed. He'd performed surgeries that had changed the face of his field and advanced neuromedicine by leaps and bounds. He'd looked into the wet, tremulous eyes of patients and their family members and told them with a confidence that bordered on arrogance that he would heal the sick. He'd even delivered a few babies during his residency.

But outside the operating room, without his scalpel, with no human brain unmasked before him he was completely powerless and today he felt it more acutely than he ever had in his life. Because none of that could save his son.

The cell phone beneath Steven's hand beeped again, indicating he had received another text message. Slowly he picked it up—as if it might explode in his hand—and flipped it open.

There were two messages, both from Dane. A deep shudder ran the length of Steven's body followed by the unfamiliar sting of tears behind his eyes. He pulled up the first one which read: Dad? U there? He pulled up the second one which read: shooting school did not get out.

Steven's fingers trembled the way they had the day Dane was born—only the second time in his adult life—as he punched in a reply.

I'm here. U ok?

He waited. Only five minutes passed but to Steven it felt like a day. An involuntary cry escaped him when the cell phone beeped again in his hand.

I'm ok. It's bad. Some dead. Some wounded.

Steven was punching in the question are you wounded when the phone beeped again.

Dad. I can stop this.

"Oh God."

It took Steven a moment to realize the words had come from his own throat. Thatcher's face appeared through a crack in the door but Steven waved him off, punching the cell phone key furiously.

No. Don't. Please.

This time the reply came more quickly.

U know I can do it. No one else will b hurt. I can end it now.

Steven tried to distract his son. Is Paul with u? Ok?

Yes. Banged up. Ok.

Steven punched in: Son and stopped. There were one million things going through his head. Things he wanted to say to his son before it was too late. Words that echoed conversations the two of them had had over the years about the line between integrity and intercession but there was no time.

It would take hours to type all of Steven's thoughts into the small screen of the cell phone. Neither he nor Dane had hours. They may not even have minutes. There was really only one thing Steven could say to his son in that moment. One thing that might stop Dane from interceding and stopping the shooters but Steven could not do it.

They'll take you away from me.

The phone beeped again before Steven could send any message. Dane wrote: Dad. Very bad here. If I can stop it I have 2.

Steven clutched the phone. He closed his eyes and mentally shored himself up—not in preparation for what Dane was about to do but for what would come after—the end of life as they knew it.

Finally Steven opened his eyes and typed into the cell phone. B careful.

He flipped it closed. He fished inside his scrub jacket pocket for the keys to the locked drawer in his desk. Once he had the drawer open he picked up the files inside in one bundle and dropped them onto the floor. Using his letter opener he popped out the base of the drawer, revealing the false bottom below.

He spread the concealer belt out on his desk. In it he tucked the contents of the secret compartment—two passports bearing his and Dane's photos under the names Kenneth Warren and Logan Smith with matching driver's licenses, Steven's issued from the state of Kentucky and Dane's from the state of Oregon. There was $5,000.00 in cash and a credit card in the name of Steven's alias with a limit of $2,000.00. Finally, two tracphones each with five hundred pre-paid minutes ready to be activated.

Steven lifted his scrub shirt, using his chin against his chest to hold it up while he fitted the concealer belt around his body. He checked himself in his office mirror. Satisfied no one would notice his extra bulk, Steven plucked his cell phone from the desk and left the office. Thatcher still waited outside the door.

"At least let me drive you," the other doctor said. "You'll never get near it this time of day."

Relieved, Steven followed Thatcher Frey down the hall to the elevators without looking back.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Believability

Someone who read Finding Claire Fletcher once told me that it was simply not believable that my protagonist would not leave her abductor given the first opportunity, even after years of abuse and failed escape attempts resulting in some pretty hefty consequences. Never mind that it is widely reported that real-life abduction victims like Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard did not escape in spite of multiple opportunities to do so. I'm not going to get into the psychology behind that--if you can't understand the kind of fear underlying their decisions not to make a break for it, then you must be having a really nice life. Why do soldiers have a difficult time adjusting to civilian life after spending a year in a war zone? Hmmm . . . Why do battered women keep going back? Hmmm . . . There's a lot going on there and I don't think it's fair to victims of violent crimes--especially when those victims are children--to say "Oh she should have done this or that." At any rate, I tried to explore answers to the question "why don't they just leave?" in my novel. Did I pull it off? Well I guess we'll find out if it ever gets published. But the issue of leaving v. not leaving a bad situation is one for another day. Today what I really want to talk about is believability. Writers, agents, editors, readers all clamor about how things in novels MUST be believable. Okay, sure, but try putting something in your book that actually happens in real life and you'll be told it's not believable!

Although in my experience, truth is often stranger than fiction as the saying goes. I've seen and experienced things that I wouldn't find believable if I had read about them in a novel. Several years back my family and I found ourselves mired in some bizarre and tragic circumstances. I'll never forget one day my uncle said to me, "If I wasn't living it, I wouldn't believe it." That summed things up perfectly. Going back to Jaycee Dugard, is it really believable that parole officers visited her abductor's home over 60 times and never discovered her? That one of these parole officers actually spoke to her, saw her small children and didn't ask any questions? Well it sure as hell doesn't sound believable but it happened. Although it is fact, if you tried putting that into a novel, I don't think it would go over well with readers. I doubt it would ever get past agents or editors.

Still, people love to read fiction. For me, when I pick up a novel, I expect there to be some degree of unbelievability. I mean really. Why else would I want to read it? I want to be entertained. I expect that the author will take liberties and test the limits of believability just a little to make the novel entertaining. I read things all the time that I don't really find believable but it doesn't bother me because I'm reading a novel, not a memoir. When I purchase a novel, after reading the product description and possibly some reviews, I make an agreement with the author that basically says "I am going to go on this journey with you, through this story that came from your imagination and I'm going to trust you to guide me through it. I'm not going to give you a hard time. I'm going to sit back, relax and let you do most of the work. I understand you may tweak certain elements for the sake of moving the story forward and I'm okay with that."

So where is the line between believable and not believable? I mean we are writing fiction, after all. What happened to that whole thing about "the willing suspension of disbelief"?What do you think--as a reader and as a writer?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Writing on The Go

Last week I had to run an errand for my boss, after which I could go home. I completed the errand and realized that I had 34 minutes before I had to pick up my daughter. That meant 34 minutes of time to do whatever I wanted. If you have kids you know what a big deal this is--34 minutes alone is the equivalent of a long weekend by yourself. At least for me. So I sat in my car trying to decide what to do with my surprise 34 minutes. The answer is obvious--I should write. I briefly considered driving to a nearby coffee shop of some sort but decided instead to just stay in the car. Why waste 10 of those precious minutes going somewhere when I finally have a vehicle with air conditioning? So I parked in the shade but not too close to any trees just in case one might crush my car as trees around here are wont to do. I whipped out my notebook and . . . I couldn't do it. Thirty-four minutes of complete, uninterrupted private time and I couldn't write. I tried not to let that stop me but after struggling through a paragraph I just gave up and went to pick my daughter up early. Heavy sigh.

If you have read any of my past posts you know I have almost zero time to myself and that I write in small 10-30 minute increments where and whenever I can get them. I carry small notebooks with me in my purse for just this reason. When I'm at home, I have the notebook sitting nearby me. As you can see, if I leave my notebook unattended, my resident three year old will claim it for her very own and leave me a treat amongst its pages which I usually just write around. She said that this one is a germ.




I've been "writing around" things ever since I started writing. Writing around my daughter's lovely drawings, writing around my job, around my relationships, writing around my life basically. I've never bought into the whole starving artist thing. I like having a roof over my head thank you very much. I also like to eat. Now that I'm responsible for someone else, it is imperative that I provide these things, not to mention health benefits. So any dreams I may have had of staying home all day long and writing to my heart's content--ain't gonna happen. I think it's to the point now where when I do have quiet time, my pen stalls. I'm in the habit of writing while I'm being distracted by ten or twelve other things. I could probably have banged out a good 500-600 words waiting 34 minutes in line at the post office than in the silence of my air conditioned car. Go figure.

There was a time during the early drafts of Finding Claire Fletcher where it was as if I was writing full time. I worked as a Certified Nurse Assistant in nursing homes. I'd work 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. whenever I could (as opposed to doubles--3 p.m. to 7 a.m.) and I'd get home around 8 a.m. I'd spend a half hour unwinding (taking a shower). Then I'd pop open a bottle of wine, sit down at my desk and write until 5 or 6 at night. I would stop to sleep because I had to in order to function at work at 11 p.m that night. So it continued for many months. In retrospect I think I was in danger of becoming a lush. I was so engrossed in writing that book though it wasn't hard at all to spend all those quiet hours alone in front of my computer or in my chair with a notepad. But that's where I started writing on the fly. A lot of my time as a nurse assistant was spent waiting outside the bathroom door while residents did their business. I'd put scrap paper in my scrub pockets and while I was waiting five, ten, fifteen minutes for them to ring for me, I'd write. I also wrote on my breaks or after I was done with my charts. At home I would type up whatever I had on my scrap paper and be off to the races.

I'm not saying I wouldn't want to write full-time. Like any writer, that is my dream! But right now circumstances in my life are not really conducive to that so I do what I can. What are your writing habits? What kinds of distractions do you have to deal with? If someone came along and said, "You have 34 minutes to write the next scene in your work-in-progress. GO!" could you do it?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Crises of Confidence

I think that one thing that is universally experienced by writers is the crisis of confidence. In other words, doubt or the ever-present voice of your inner critic. (For my post on the inner critic, you can go to Sh*t My Inner Critic Says.) Anyway, I've been having a small crisis of confidence lately and this time it's quite different than periods of doubt in the past. Regardless what stage you're at, crises of confidence are usually characterized by sweaty palms, dry mouth, insomnia, overeating or loss of appetite, racing thoughts, gnawing doubt in your ability to form sentences, persistent ideas that your story or book sucks the big one and a strong inclination to give up writing completely.

Right now I'm here: I've been on submissions for going on 10 months now (for my first book; we just started trying to sell my second book about 3 months ago). While I've had a lot of requests for fulls and while I would consider many of my rejections to be good ones in that they say something positive about my work, I can't shake the fear that it's not going to happen. It doesn't help that none of the deals reported in Publishers Marketplace lately are comparable to what I've written. All I see lately are deals for cozies and no offense to cozy writers but whenever I think of cozies I feel like--at least on the surface--the genre is trying to make murder somehow cutesy and quaint. Having been personally acquainted with a killer, I can tell you in no uncertain terms there is nothing cute or quaint about murder. I resent that any class of books would attempt to make it so and invite cozy lovers and writers to please explain this genre to me. Anyway, lately more often than not I wake up feeling frustrated and thinking what the heck is the point of working on my new novel? Why should I believe that my writing will have improved from my last book and the one before that and the one before that? Why should I think that this time things will be different? Why am I doing this at all? I've heard of writers getting book deals in 2 months. Here I am going on 10. I'm not feeling good about myself or this glacially slow process.

I used to be here:

Literary Agent Purgatory: It took me four years to get an agent. FOUR YEARS. That's a Bachelor's degree. Almost half a decade. I can't tell you how many times I almost threw in the towel. There was always the doubt over whether or not my query was good enough. Is 4 requests out of 50 queries really good or am I crazy? That can't be good. Or can it? What percentage does that work out to? Crap. Math was never my strong suit. But what about Agent Z who said that the project sounded intriguing but wasn't for her? Does that mean my query is good? If it's good then how come more agents aren't asking for my book? Maybe I should revise it. Maybe I should revise my book. Agent X said she was halfway through it and loved it. Surely that means it's good. Then how come she didn't call me again for two years? Is it good or not? Agent Y said he loved it too. That has to mean it's good. But how come he didn't offer me representation either? Three revisions later surely the book is better. Surely these agents will sign me now. Or do I just suck? How can I tell? I can't tell but geez it's been a long time. If I haven't scored an agent now I must really be bad. Sure my mom says it's just my timing and this new revision will really knock agents' socks off but she's my mom. She HAS to say that. This isn't going to happen. I can't believe I ever thought I was good enough to get an agent. Who I am kidding? I must be mentally ill. What kind of person would do this for years and not give up?

Then there are doubts about your abilities:

Every word that comes out feels painful and awkward, like peeling off a scab. You're one sentence into the scene you're writing and already you're editing yourself, worrying over every word. "There was a tense moment . . . no that sounds stupid. It was tense in the car. No that sounds even worse. Tension filled the car. That's a little better. Now where was I? Oh crap. What's the point? I can't write. This is stupid. I can't put one sentence together. Forget about writing a whole story. The idea for this book is stupid anyway. Been done a million times. Mine will just go down in history as the worst version of this premise ever. What in the name of all that is holy made me think I could write?"

Then there is the inability to finish anything:

In my early 20s (and I've talked about this before) I started about 7 novels and I didn't finish a single one. In some cases I would start out with no idea where I was going, writing from an image or a character or a question and burning out when the plot stalled or when I realized the book didn't have a plot. Other times I would know the plot from start to finish and yet, I still couldn't finish. Sometimes the temptation of a shiny, new, exciting project was too great and I would abandon the fully plotted book for what author Heather Sellers calls "Sexy Next Book"--the idea for your next book. The one that is so fresh it's not going to be hard work to start writing it. It will be exciting and fresh and the words will flow like a waterfall from your pen. It's the equivalent of the novelty period in your dating life. You meet someone new. For a few weeks or months you're floating around on a cloud of happiness. Your feet don't touch the ground. You're so enthralled that you can't eat or sleep but you've never felt better in your life. Then, just like your writing project, it becomes work. That happened to me a lot with writing projects. Finally there were the books that I was too intimidated to write. I would write a few chapters, do an outline of the rest of the plot and then become paralyzed with thoughts that the book was far too ambitious for me. While it sounded great, I would never be able to pull it off. Lots of unfinished books . . .

No matter what stage you're at it's easy to become paralyzed by doubt, fear, frustration, even disgust. What kinds of crises of confidence have you had as a writer?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Jaycee Lee Dugard

So unless you've been living under a rock for the last 2 years, you know the name Jaycee Lee Dugard. (Incidentally, I'm always shocked by how many people have NOT heard of her considering what a huge news story this was in 2009 and through the present.) Anyway, on June 10, 1991 eleven-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard left her house in Lake Tahoe, California to walk to the bus stop. She didn't get very far before a car pulled up with a man and a woman in it. The couple, Philip and Nancy Garrido, tasered her and abducted her. They took her to their home in Antioch, California where Philip Garrido kept her as a sex slave for eighteen years. She had two of Garrido's children while in captivity. Garrido was a convicted, registered sex offender on parole. Parole officers visited his home 60 (that's right, sixty. S-I-X-T-Y, 6-0) times while Dugard was being held by Garrido and none of them thought to look in the backyard where they would have found Dugard and her children living in a gathering of shacks and tents. Dugard has said that she even spoke with one of these parole officers but apparently a young girl living in the home of a registered sex offender who had no children didn't set off any alarm bells. In 2006, a neighbor called 911 to report children living in the backyard. A sheriff's deputy came to the home, spoke with Garrido at his front door and left. In 2009 Garrido took his two daughters, then 15 and 11 to the UC Berkley Campus to get permission to hold a religious event on campus and two female campus police officers thought there was something not quite right about him. They did a little digging, found out he was a paroled sex offender and contacted the parole board. His parole officer asked Garrido to come to the office which Garrido did. Garrido brought his whole "family" with him--wife, Nancy, Jaycee and their two young daughters. It was there and then that it finally came out that Garrido had abducted Jaycee from Lake Tahoe eighteen years earlier.

Last night, Diane Sawyer's interview with Jaycee Dugard aired on ABC. My fiance and I watched the entire thing. By the end my eyes were red from weeping, my insides were all twisted up and I really wanted to do horrible things to both the Garridos and all the law enforcement people who failed this woman. My fiance had a more manly response. His hands shook with rage. At times he had to walk away. We have a daughter and since she was born, stories like Dugard's are far more difficult to watch than they might have been before we had a child of our own. You better believe we covered our child with kisses this morning before we left the house--to the point where she was pushing us away with heavy sighs and saying "Mommy!" or "Daddy!" in an exasperated tone. What we also felt was amazement at this incredible, courageous woman who endured the unimaginable and not just for a little while but for the better part of her life. Not to mention her mother whose own grief and outrage brought on a fresh wave of tears for me every time she spoke to Sawyer. Jaycee Dugard's memoir comes out tomorrow and it will be auto-delivered to my Kindle. It seems a strange thing to say that I can't wait to read it but it's true. Why? Because I am absolutely enthralled by someone who could endure what she has and be able to get out of bed in the morning, be able to function on the most basic level, let alone smile and send the world a positive message of hope. To me, she is nothing short of miraculous. I am in awe of her.

Sawyer mentions that Dugard has gone into great detail in her memoir and in the ABC interview she asks Dugard about why she decided to do that and Dugard's response was: "Why not look at it? You know, stare it down till it can't scare you anymore."

Wow.

For me, as a reader, a mother and a member of society, I need to hear Dugard's story. She deserves that after so many societal failures helped keep her in captivity for almost two decades. Her story is a lesson to all of us--you get to pick which lesson most resonates with you: is it courage? Hope? Caution? Reform in our prison system? In our parole system? New investigative requirements when a child goes missing (i.e. check out sex offenders within a 200 mile radius?) Make more time for your kids? I think there is so much you can take away from hearing about Dugard's life. A lot of those things resonate with me. Also, reading a memoir that will likely give me nightmares and make me not want to let my child out of my house until she's 30 will be me staring down my own worst fears as a parent and as a person. More than that, I think Dugard teaches us to keep things in perspective. Because after watching that interview, you better believe that my own worries about the economy, my transportation needs and where to go on vacation--if at all--this summer seem ridiculous in contrast to the types of things this woman went through.

So what does this have to do with writing? Because normally this is a writing blog. Well for one thing, I think Dugard is remarkable enough to warrant her own blog post. Just because. But for me, her story held special meaning in terms of writing. You see, since I was a little girl, I've been obsessed with missing children. Very strange, I know. But when I was eleven years old, Jacob Wetterling went missing in Minnesota--in a small, safe community in Minnesota. Wetterling was my age. I remember well the news coverage devoted to his disappearance. How eerie, creepy and disturbing it was--when you're eleven you're still quite impressionable. Wetterling was riding his bike home from a movie rental store with his brother and a friend one evening when a masked gunman forced them to the side of the road and off their bikes. He told the other two boys to run and he abducted Jacob. There has been no sign of Jacob since. That was 1989. Jacob's mother, Patty has never given up hope that Jacob might be recovered. She started the Jacob Wetterling Foundation to help educate communities on how to keep their kids safe. The story goes that the Wetterling family never moved or changed their home phone number in case Jacob were to return.

This story has haunted me for years, not to mention the stories of Steven Stayner and more recently Shawn Hornbeck and Elizabeth Smart. But for me, the Wetterling case is like my own personal "who really killed JFK?" If I could ask the Great Unknowable Universe or God a few questions one day, one of them would be what happened to Jacob? The Wetterling story was the one that made me wonder year after year, "What HAPPENS to these kids?" and "What if you accidentally ran into one of them and you had no idea?" and thus the premise for my "first" book was born. That's exactly what Finding Claire Fletcher is about--a guy running into a woman who turns out to have been missing for ten years. Finding Claire Fletcher is my fictional exploration of what happens to a girl who is abducted and what happens to the unsuspecting schlub who runs into her seemingly by chance. Of course I've taken liberties with the story. The unsuspecting schlub is really a police detective. Also the book is meant to be a suspenseful read--so that people might enjoy reading it, especially with such dark content. But back to my original question: what does this have to do with writing? Sometimes our stories start out with questions. No outlines, no elaborate plot, not even characters necessarily but just questions. What if scenarios. Sometimes they make the best books.

So what do you think of Dugard? What are your what-if obsessions? Has any of your work grown out of questions?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

To Talk or Not to Talk?

Originally posted on my website: www.lisalregan.com
Some of you have seen this one already!

Nathan Bransford had a guest blog post (by Teralyn Rose Pilgrim) awhile back which posed the question "Do you tell people that you write?" I was thinking about that question as well as the question "Do you talk about your work in progress?"

When I was younger, I told people that I wrote all the time. The only question people have ever asked me in response to the revelation that I am writing or have written a book is: "Oh, what's it about?" I used to go into great detail until their eyes glazed over and they stopped paying attention. Had I had any clue at all I would have realized they were only asking to be polite. They didn't want a Clarissa-length version of the book, they only wanted a brief summation. Less is more. I remained clueless. That wasn't the reason I stopped talking about my writing. I stopped talking about it because the more talking I did, the less writing I did. So in my mid-twenties, somewhere between The Space Between and Finding Claire Fletcher, I shut the f#%k up.

I mostly stopped telling people that I wrote novels. Occasionally, if someone asked me what I did I would say, "I'm a karate instructor/grad student/certified nurse assistant and I write novels in my spare time." I could have just said--and often did--that I was a karate instructor/grad student/certified nurse assistant. But it seemed like such an unfair representation to leave out the fact that I was a writer when I spent 90% of my time NOT at school or work on my book(s). So I'd mention it in that context and invariably the person would say, "Oh, what's your book about?" and then I would say, "It's a suspense novel". You would be shocked--truly appalled--at how many people just left it at that. That was when I realized people didn't really give a crap what my book was about. At all. They were just being polite. Then I thought of all the ears I had talked off in my teenage years and early 20s, droning on and on about whatever I was working on (almost none of which I finished by the way) and I thought, oh those poor souls! So I thought that was a good way to go. Short, simple. "It's a suspense novel." I can count on one hand the number of people who chuckled in response to that and said, "Yes, but what is it ABOUT?" and at that point I would be as brief as practically possible. "It's about a police detective" or "It's about a missing girl." One or two of those five people actually wanted to know more and when pressed, I would reluctantly give them a brief recap of the actual plot.

After awhile I stopped mentioning that I wrote novels at all or only very rarely. After all, I'd been writing my whole life, looking for an agent for a few years and nothing was coming of it. What was the point of telling people I am a writer? It wasn't going anywhere. When I landed my agent, my fiancé bragged about it to everyone we knew and then I heard many, many, many of these: "Oh I didn't know you wrote!" which was followed by: "What's your book about?" to which I replied: "It's a suspense novel." Now I don't know if the fact that I had an agent made people more curious or not but at that point a lot more people wanted to know the actual premise of the book so I started giving a one to two line description: "Detective meets and spends night with woman, later finds out she's been missing for ten years, tries to find her." I haven't seen too many eyes glaze over which is good for me and for them. But still that's about as forthcoming as I am. Besides, now I have a website so I can just direct people there and if they are actually curious and not just making polite conversation they can peruse it at their leisure.

Now, do I talk about my work in progress? Never. I am almost superstitious about it now. I mean I'll talk in broad strokes--I'm working on something, it's another crime/suspense novel, I have X amount of words written, etc. But I never go into detail. Not until I have a second draft that a reasonable human could understand. The only person I trust enough to speak to about it in its early stages is my writing soulmate, Nancy Thompson. Do I want to talk about it to everyone else? Hell, yeah! I want to talk about it every second of the day! I'm thinking about it all day long. I'm writing it, the words are flowing. I'm excited, exhilarated! But when I talk about it, it takes the magic out of writing it so now my policy is to shut the f#%k up. Sometimes it sucks keeping it all inside--all that excitement and happiness--but it will be worth it in the end. Besides, in these early first draft stages there are elements of the plot that are still malleable. There are small items that are still unknown, issues that have yet to arise. Too many things might change between the first and second draft for me to talk about the work in progress intelligently.

DISCLAIMER: I do want to acknowledge the many friends and family members in my life who have stood by me and encouraged my writing dream since I was eleven years old--who are and always have been genuinely interested in my work and my road to publication. But even with close family and friends, I do not discuss what I’m working on other than in very broad strokes, as I’ve said above. I just want to go on record that I deeply appreciate and am very grateful for the many friends and family who have long supported me, read my work once it’s finished, discussed it with me and who check in with me on a regular basis to see what's going on in my writing life. Also when I was an adolescent and teenager I had a few classmates who were force-fed my crappy young adult novels and I’d like to say I’m grateful that they gave my work their attention as well although I’m deeply sorry they had to read that crap!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

That Book On a Flash Drive in My Nightstand

Originally published on my website www.lisalregan.com

Nathan Bransford, author and former agent, had a blog post called “The Case for Putting a Manuscript in the Drawer” which you can read here. Heather Sellers has a chapter in her book Chapter By Chapter about “the book under your bed”. Basically they are both talking about books you write that are not saleable. They are not quite there yet. They don’t belong on the bookshelf of your local bookstore. They belong in a drawer or under your bed. I’ve heard a lot of authors talk about this and like Bransford, the book under their bed or in a drawer is usually their first novel. I once read an interview with Karin Slaughter—one of my favorite writers—where she talked about how she started out writing historical fiction. She had written a historical novel but her agent was unable to sell it and suggested to Slaughter that she should write that thriller she always talked about. The result was Blindsighted which is one of my favorite books of all time.

I have a book under my bed, metaphorically speaking. Actually it’s not really under my bed. It’s on a flash drive in my nightstand. If you read my blog, you know during high school I wrote four novels. Real crap. Then as an adult I started five or six novels that I never finished. Then sometime around 2000 I started my first real adult novel. It was called The Space Between. I bring this up because although I have a book that belongs in a drawer, I don’t believe that as a general rule, writers should put away their first book. I think it depends on the writer and the book.

My experience was a lot like Nathan Bransford’s—I was trying to do way too much with The Space Between. It didn’t really have a plot to speak of until later when I realized that a plot was pretty essential and I started carving one out of what I had already written. All the book really consisted of was me writing about every single thing that ever happened to me or people I knew or people I didn’t know, every single thing that ever concerned me, touched me, moved me, disturbed me or made me question my world. Pretty much every serious thought I had ever had in my life to that point went into that book in some fictional form. I realized pretty quickly after having written it that I hadn’t written it to kickstart a career as a novelist. I’d written it because I needed to write it. It was a catharsis.

I made no attempts to revise it after the third draft. I cut a lot of stuff out. It started somewhere around 179,000 words. Between the first and third draft when I was trying to impose some kind of plot on it, I found that a lot of stuff just didn’t fit so I dropped 49,000 words—not because I realized that 179,000 words was too many, just because those 49,000 words didn’t work well with my new plot!

As I recall, one or two people read it. I know my stepdad read it because I will never forget the conversation we had after he had read it. It was a good one—he had nice things to say. It was sometime after I finished it before I considered querying or trying to get it published. For a long time I just basked in the glow and fuzzy good feeling of having written it. At that point in my life I had gone from writing like a fiend in high school to not being able to finish a damn thing in my early twenties. The most important thing about writing that book at that time was that I proved to myself that I could finish something again.

Eventually I did take a stab at finding an agent although I only sent out nine queries. Here was my query letter:

Dear Agent:

I am seeking representation for my novel The Space Between, complete at 130,000 words. Presently, my work is not being reviewed by any other agency or publisher. While researching the publishing industry, I discovered your website using a search engine for literary agencies specializing in literary fiction, particularly those dealing with the lives of women. My novel is driven primarily by the inner lives of its female characters.

When five year old Carl Shelby disappears from a mountain road, the lives of the women of Reneau, New York, are irrevocably altered. Gena Shelby has carefully constructed a quiet life built on small lies and inconsistencies, keeping her hellish past a secret even from her current husband. A woman ill-equipped to deal with the emotional demands of adult life, the potential loss of her son threatens to destroy Gena’s life and her tenuous relationship with her adult daughter, Sera. A successful figure skater, Sera is deemed an ice queen by her own mother for her notorious coolness under pressure. When her brother disappears, Sera’s inner calm cracks and leaves her floundering in a sea of foreign emotions.

In the search for her son, Gena enlists the help of two local women. Joining the search is Brenda Reyes, Carl’s kindergarten teacher. Brenda is deeply affected by Gena’s grief. Carl’s disappearance reminds her of the searing loss of her own child six years earlier. Kadeisha Douglas is an attorney turned stay-at-home mother who stopped practicing law when her husband was murdered. She agrees to help the Shelbys handle the legal concerns that accompany the disappearance of their son.

Haunted by the past, groping their way down the jagged path that loss has cut into their lives, the women find themselves forging new emotional connections with one another at strange crossroads. Each woman struggles to find her place in the dynamic between herself and those closest to her while leaving painful past experiences behind.

In all honesty, I wrote this novel simply because I was compelled to do so. I lost several loved ones while working on the first draft. As I continued, it became important to me to tell a story about the themes of loss, grief, and how past traumas affect current relationships in peoples’ lives. Writing the novel was an act of love for the people still left in this world, managing as best as they can to continue to live in a world that is far less hospitable than it once seemed.

With your permission, I would like to submit the manuscript for your consideration. I have a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master’s degree in Education. I have enclosed a SASE for your convenience. I realize that you are very busy and I appreciate your time and attention. I look forward to hearing from you.

Okay, so there is that next to last paragraph that I would not include if I were querying today. At that point I had done very little research on querying. All that came later, after I had written Finding Claire Fletcher and got serious about being published. And by the way, the book is nowhere near as well-written as the query! And I got nine rejections pretty quickly.

As you can also see, this novel was my attempt at literary fiction. Ultimately, that wasn’t what I wanted to write. I didn’t really find my “niche” until after I had written Finding Claire Fletcher. So you see, writing The Space Between was a transition for me. Although I have long considered taking some elements of the book and using them to write a mystery/thriller, the book as it exists and has existed since 2002 belongs under my bed or in a drawer or on a flash drive in my nightstand. I will always love and cherish it like my own child but it is not meant to be consumed by the general public. I re-read parts of it every year or so just to remind myself that oh yeah, I’m right, it’s not very good. I think there are flashes of brilliance but not enough of them to make up a whole book.

So when I read posts like Nathan’s or comments or blog posts by other authors discussing this very same experience, I can definitely relate. However, I don’t think that every author has or has to have this same experience.

My friend and writing soul mate, Nancy Thompson is the exception to this rule. She is currently querying and while the theory I am about to propound has yet to be proven via publication of her novel, I believe with absolute conviction that I am right.

Nancy and I started out as critique partners. The first time I read her novel, The Mistaken, I was blown away. Although that early draft needed some work in the first few chapters, overall the book was extremely well-written and most of all, tightly constructed. I could not believe this was her first novel! Here was a book with a very tight, suspenseful plot, well-developed characters and very concrete themes. Nancy wasn’t trying to do too much with this book as most first timers do. She was trying to do a few, very precise things and I think she pulled them off wonderfully. It took me years to get to where she is and even as I was reading her book, I STILL wasn’t quite there! Although she sometimes gets discouraged, I do believe her book will find an agent and a home with a publisher. Will she get better with time and with more books under her belt? Absolutely. But I think that right now, at this moment, she has a saleable novel.

Now that’s not to say that she won’t have to write another book before The Mistaken finds a home. I hope that’s not the case but you just never know what will happen. I have two novels on submissions right now. I have no idea which (if either) will appeal more to an editor or publishing house. Or maybe it will be neither one of them—maybe it will be the one I’m working on now or the one after that. As I recall, John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill wasn’t all that popular at first. But later, after one of his subsequent books put him on the map, A Time to Kill became a sensation. That is one of my favorite books as well—I’ve read it more than once.

My point is that every writer is different and every writer’s journey—every writer’s story—is different. I do have a manuscript “in a drawer” so I related to Nathan Bransford’s recent post. I think it’s true that some books belong in a drawer. I remember telling my stepdad that I wasn’t pursuing publication for The Space Between and he made some comment about how fear of rejection was stopping me from pursuing my dreams. I can’t remember exactly what he said but he basically implied that I was a coward. I was quite sensitive back then and I remember being surprised that his comment didn’t even sting. It didn’t bother me because I knew very early on that The Space Between belonged in a drawer. There was some very calm part of me that realized that that book was just a precursor to something better. Writing The Space Between was like batting practice. I knew that whatever came next was going to be the real, live game and I was fine with that.

On the other hand, some authors don’t have a book in a drawer and I think that’s okay. You don’t know what’s going to happen. I wouldn’t count yourself out just because some of us take a more circuitous route to writing a good, saleable novel.