#5 Limitations of the Internet

I’ve made no secret of crediting the Internet for Righteous Judgment – invaluable guidance from Beth Hill’s The Editor’s Blog, information on any subject, from fact-checking to whole-cloth tutorials, and help with the publishing process. All available to me the instant I get stuck. Shame on all the writers (and moviemakers) who still pretend a gun with a silencer wouldn’t draw attention from neighboring houses, much less adjoining apartments (even one of my favorite authors, Tess Gerritsen, was guilty of this – but before the Internet became what it is)!

Despite this all-knowing, always-available, free (generally) source of answers, I am very much looking forward to attending the Liberty States Fiction Writers Conference on March 30 & 31, and am sure I will learn plenty to improve my writing … plenty that the Internet wouldn’t teach me.

One reason is me, myself. I don’t always know the questions to ask: considering it “case closed” when I find a grammar rule, without digging deeply enough to find the exceptions … accepting conventional wisdom on a topic when subject-matter experts are more precise (any poison would be toxic, but many would not be toxins, so make sure only the lay characters in your novel would believe the opposite) … when to make your friends (and enemies) believe you aren’t writing about them, and how to pull that off … the hallmarks of a staged 9-1-1 call.

Another stems from the open nature of the internet. Not every commentator knows what they’re talking about. Heck, I haven’t sold a thousand books (yet?), and I’m blogging about writing. Though I strive to stay within my level of competence, shying away from offering “Everything You Need to Know About Writing,” there’s nothing forcing me to. In fact, it’s sometimes in my self-interest to stretch. And on the Internet, people do. And worse. But the opposite has been true of the panels I’ve attended at writers’ conferences. You get knowledgeable, vetted experts, sharing what they know … usually, what they love.

And, of course, there’s a corollary to the general concern that Internet overuse isolates people: there’s no substitute for immediate, interactive feedback. Comics testing jokes in front of an audience, songwriters hearing the notes played, and authors testing an opening sentence, an agent pitch, or cover art. It just isn’t the same through your screen.

#4 “Yes” can be boring

There’s a dialogue technique that first made a conscious impression on me through television (of course, fellow novelists, “the book is always better”—but I can’t change history): indicating agreement or disagreement without using a common “yes” or “no”. Recollection #1 (credit American Horror Story): Accusation: “You’ve been drugging my coffee every morning!” Reply: “Prove it.” Recollection #2 (credit Lena Dunham): Suggestion: “We should swap shirts!” Reply: “You’re a mind reader.”

It would have been easy to write replies of “yes,” “no,” or “OK” —easy and so forgettable.  But we learn so much more about the responding character with just a few extra words, what kind of person they are, what they’ve been thinking, what they think about the other character.

The synonyms readily available on the internet certainly serve their purpose, as do the occasional “No.” then “No!” then “Never!”, and even the well-placed “Please.” And oftentimes the simple reply is best. But overlooked are the opportunities to go further, restructure the dialogue to pack more into the affirmations and rejections. Below I’ve isolated some techniques from Righteous Judgment:

Name calling/confrontation: Not “We’re safe” … “No we’re not, that could’ve tipped him off.” Instead “We’re safe” … “Idiot! That could’ve tipped him off.”

Explanation/justification: Not “Can’t I go alone?” … “No.” Instead “Can’t I go alone?” … “Too much at stake.”

Repetition: Not “Shred and burn those when you’re done” … “OK.” Instead “Shred and burn those when you’re done” … “Shred and burn.”

Generalize: “Release a hostage and we’ll keep the lights on” … “I don’t make concessions for lights”

Ignore: “Release a hostage and we’ll keep the lights on” … “Now you have only twenty-nine minutes to meet my demands.”

#3 Author’s joy

I had the recent good fortune to spend a day with old friends. Most I hadn’t seen for five years. Both nature and the man-made world seemed to conspire against me (traffic, bad phone service, and rain, sleet, and hail throughout the football game). But it was joyful to reconnect.

And, yes, it felt encouraging to get support for my book, even from people who hadn’t (yet) read it. I don’t usually consider myself irrational (probably no surprise to Righteous Judgment readers), but there you go … emotions run their own course.

It feels odd to lead this posting with an inward view of happiness. On the rare occasions I’ve gotten philosophical about it, usually among the “Type A’s” from my prior career, I’d preach that happiness grounded solely in self-advancement or wealth couldn’t be the answer, because there were limits to what one could achieve for oneself, and there’d always be more that one hasn’t accumulated; that instead, one must also take joy from helping others, from making others happy, a virtually limitless opportunity.

So perhaps handing out advance copies of Righteous Judgment at my weekly poker game struck both chords with me.  Looking up from the final table (meaning eight players had already been knocked out) in the middle of our restaurant, I saw two friends who had sat down in a booth, across from each other, each absorbed reading the book—my book. I turned toward the front of the restaurant, and the waitress was taking her break, not gossiping in the kitchen, but at another empty table, reading it as well. Gives new meaning to “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” I know the effort of trying to perfect a thousand words (and 90,000), but that image of the first readers sitting there, enjoying my book—I guess we need a new expression, “author’s joy.”

#2 What they expect: preliminaries to becoming a novelist as a second career

I’m writing this before the pre-order phase of Righteous Judgment. I thus have no formal standing to preach how to write a novel, how to market oneself, or how to get agented and published.

Yet I’ve put in the legwork to share with new authors what the industry will be expecting.

About you

Publishers (and thus agents) are not looking for new authors with the single greatest novel—they are looking for authors who will make a career (going forward) of good writing: building a fan base, sticking to a genre, producing book after book. Don’t get confused with nonfiction, where famous people can publish just an autobiography or a general can publish the story of a war.

You’ll be expected to have read a lot in your genre, and to be able to compare your work to other recent successful novels. I think there are two parts to this: reading makes for better writing, both technically, and to understand what’s fresh vs. clichéd; and bookstores/libraries will need to know how to sell your book, meaning publishers (and agents, in turn) will want to have this “shorthand.”

Having limited writing credits substantially raises the bar; successful older first-time novelists aren’t usually first-time authors, but can cite at least magazine or newspaper credits.

Belonging to a writing group is recommended by almost every author, and is sought by agents.

Attending writing conferences, esp. genre-specific ones, are tremendously educational. Conferences with agent-pitching opportunities may be the only way to ensure that you’ll get unbiased feedback on your story. (Yes, unfortunately, this requires a financial outlay)

About your novel

Works of fiction should be complete before you make submissions to agents.

Submissions with grammatical errors will be rejected­—“the editor will fix those” doesn’t work for new authors.

If you haven’t learned at least the material in Stephen King’s On Writing, you must, and I recommend doing so before writing. (If you have a degree/certificate in writing, you’ve probably covered that material.) You don’t have to like his novels to like and learn from that book.

You’ll hear numerous glowing references to Strunk & White (The Elements of Style) when seeking advice.

#1 My first blog post – drafted while waiting in the jury pool

My debut novel, Righteous Judgment, is a cat-and-mouse police procedural. The vigilante’s first victim, targeted “for a greater good,” is law professor Jennifer Bolton. My experience as a cynical ex-lawyer no doubt influenced how I wrote about Jen, along with the other lawyers in the novel. How fitting, then, that my first blog post discusses a legal issue from a layman’s perspective.

First topic: I am unlikely to publish a story that glamorizes a holdout juror.

There are times when one person is right while the remainder of a group is wrong – I’ve been that one person, on occasion, and I’ve also been part of the remainder, sometimes. There has also been a history of such obscene prejudice and misinformation that there would often be only one or two people out of twelve making judgments on the facts rather than from bias. We should all be grateful for the individuals who have taken a stand in such circumstances.

But we’re humans, we’re impressionable, each to a different degree.  Jury deliberations happen, for most of us, once or twice in a lifetime. But we’re exposed to dozens of fictional portrayals of that process, stretched for dramatic effect, and to selective reporting of aberrations: The holdout. Glorified. Overexposed. Lambasted? What proportion of people prefer negative attention to none at all—one out of twelve, perhaps?

The vast majority of jurors serve thoughtfully and competently. But we simply hear too often of holdouts abandoning judgment altogether, no doubt influenced by the written word. Confronted for explanations, approached to seek common ground, propositioned to compromise, we hear of holdouts unable to cite any single factual predicate they disagree with or any reason for their doubt.

We’re humans, just humans. Experience shows there isn’t enough balance in our upbringing to allow romanticizing juror dissent for its own sake.