“It’s a fine read…”

Got my first “official” review of Miss Illusions, from M-U-M Magazine:

“A great deal of fun, well-written, and the author has a knack for a clever turn of phrase. Pick up a copy of Miss Illusions. You won’t regret it. It’s a fine read and a perfect way to while away the time.”

M-U-M is one of the world’s top magic magazines, and the official publication of the Society of American Magicians. The review isn’t online, but the reviewer is clearly a man of noble bearing, impeccable taste, and obvious credibility.

Driving me Crais-y

I’ve made a wonderful discovery: suspense writer Robert Crais. (I hope I’m pronouncing his name right; otherwise my title is just stupid.)

Since my love affair with Dean Koontz (er, his books, I mean) ended some time ago—around the release of his mammoth, 700+ page False Memory, which I now use as a step-stool—I’ve been searching for gritty, fast-paced mystery or suspense novels. I love Ann Charles‘s work, but she writes funny, light romantic mysteries in a style much like I write myself. I tried a few Clive Cusslers, whom I hadn’t read in a very long time. Good, fast-paced adventure stories, but every time Dirk Pitt would arrive on scene, hanging by his teeth from a cable suspended from a passing satellite and firing M-16s with both hands and one foot, I’d start giggling and the ol’ suspension of disbelief would die faster than Dirk’s villains.

I tried a newer James Patterson novel. I’d read Along Comes a Spider and, if my ageing memory synapses can be believed, rather liked it. So I tried Four Blind Mice, an Alex Cross novel. I’ve already mentioned this book in an earlier post, and how the chapters run an average of some 47 words in length. Ultimately though, I fed the book to the recycling bin not because of the microscopic chapters, but because of the story structure.

The book started well, a first-person story with Alex being brought in to help save a heroic Army sergeant from being executed for a crime he didn’t commit. I thought I was reading a cool mystery, never mind that the last military execution happened over a half-century ago, or that the death penalty legal process takes a tad longer than the three weeks allowed in the novel.

But then Patterson introduced the villains in a third-person scene. (I don’t really like books that jump from first to third person: it’s often strikes me as lazy. If Patterson absolutely needed third-person scenes, then maybe it shouldn’t have been an Alex Cross novel.) Okay, so it’s not a mystery; it’s suspense. After all, we have that three-week ticking clock, and the heroic, falsely accused man I want to see saved. But the three weeks passed in a blinding flash of a few dozen pages (about 62 chapters), and the sergeant got executed.

What the hell?

So it’s not a suspense novel. Well, what is it? Maybe some kind of vengeance story. Fine, but then the next 20 pages or so (~35 chapters) described Cross’s reunion with his lover and how bubbly and school-girlishly happy he was.

End of story, for me.

I then picked up a Jonathan Kellerman book. I’d never read Kellerman, so I read it with my fingers crossed, which would have been much easier if I’d had it on my Kindle. The book was Billy Straight, about a smart but homeless 12-year-old boy who witnesses a brutal murder. Well, surely any decent author can make an empathetic character out of that!

Apparently not, at least for me.

Like Patterson, Kellerman jumped from first (Billy) to third person (everyone else). Also, he decided to leap from present to past tense, which compounded the crime. Every other chapter was about Billy’s journey from one hidey-hole to another, but since no one knew Billy had witnessed the crime, no one was searching for him. Therefore, all of these chapters were Billy reminiscing on the cruel Fates that brought him to this place. In other words, backstory.

I also have problems (I have a lot of problems, as my friends will attest) with too much backstory. By definition, backstory freezes the progress of your tale! It may be necessary to establish setting, or character, or motivation, but I prefer it in small doses, maybe a teaspoon a day, not having a funnel forced into my mouth and it poured down my throat.

After a while, the book started moving faster, but then I realized it was because I was skipping every other chapter.

After 400 pages, I left on vacation. I decided not to take the novel with me, since I had only 40 pages left. When I got home, I never got around to finishing it. Frankly, I didn’t care which of the two major suspects did it, since they were essentially the same character, but one owned nicer cars. I didn’t care if the detective solved the crime. I didn’t even much care if Billy survived because—and this is important—he was a fictional character! I never really believed in him.

Plus the story had no pace. It meandered sedately along, even when several different bad guys found out about Billy and went hunting for him. I felt like I was riding a roller coaster without hills.

Now, after that lengthy introduction, to Robert Crais.

A friend recommended Suspect, which turned out to be the first mystery in some time that pulled me to the end, the story of a cop and a K-9 dog, both recovering from severe trauma and who need each other to rebuild their lives. I’m not a dog person; I mean, I like them okay, except for the pooping in my yard, peeing in my yard, digging in my yard, chasing my kids (and back in my running days, me), barking all night, drooling over the furniture, and of course their uncontrolled nuclear flatulence. But I still loved the story because these were real people. I would check the pages for dog drool. I knew the protagonist, Scott James, like a friend and desperately wanted him to survive and overcome. Sergeant Leland, the head of the K-9 training center, scared me with his glare and made my ears ring with his shouting. The bad guy was someone I think I once worked for.

And, unlike Kellerman, the story had pace. As the mystery’s pieces came together, I found myself reading for longer stretches, the pages snapping like a metronome as I plowed to the very satisfying finish.

I’ve since picked up two other Crais books, and now that I have a Kindle Paperwhite, I can read with my fingers crossed.

But with Robert Crais, I don’t think I need to.

Gimme a Break (but not that many!)

I recently picked up James Patterson’s 2002 novel, Four Blind Mice. I must confess I have some structural issues with it, but I won’t go into those here. What I do want to discuss is why a 383 page book has 115 chapters!

Here’s my theory: When publishers pick up a new author, they prefer a fairly short novel, say 70-80 thousand words. Why spend extra money on paper, printing, shipping, etc. if the new guy might not sell? If the author does take off, the publisher then wants a book with a spine so large the author’s name is visible from outer space.

So how is a successful writer to give his publisher these massive spines, hogging the bookshelf space like an invasive weed and dominating the readers’ awareness?

One way is to write longer. Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie, appeared in 1973 at a svelt 304 pages. His first book under the pseudonym Richard Bachmann, Rage, was published in 1977, a scant 204 pages in length.

The Stand, re-issued in 1990, lumbered in at 1,472 bulging pages. I think reading it caused my bilateral hernias.

James Patterson has evidently taken a different approach. Why spend all that extra time working: just break the novel into new chapters every couple of paragraphs. Let me illustrate with an excerpt from Four Blind Mice:

I was on the front porch of a brick-and-clapboard house, talking to a woman in her late thirties or early forties, when I saw Sampson come jogging our way. Something was up.

“Alex, come with me!” he called out. “C’mon. I need you right now.”

I caught up with him. “What’s up? What did you find out?”

“Something weird. Maybe a break.”

Now let me ask you: Did that scene warrant a chapter break somewhere? (If you’re wondering, it’s before the sentence “I caught up….”) And not only does Mice have 115 chapters, it’s also broken into six “parts”: Prologue, Parts 1 through 4, and Epilogue.

So, let’s do the math. Each chapter starts halfway down the page and ends (on average) halfway down the page. That means the book has 115 pages of blank space for the breaks. Add another 12 for the different Parts, and we find that the text itself comprises only about 256 pages. This is a mass-market paperback, not the larger trade paperback, and each page has 32 lines. Each line, about 10 words (assuming it’s a full line; Patterson has a lot of dialog). A typical page has about 12 paragraphs, each losing roughly a half line, maybe more. So, a representative page is about 260 words.

That puts this novel at about 67,000 words, total.

Add 12 extra pages at the beginning (reviews, title page, dedication, quotes, etc.), and another 21 pages at the end (excerpts from an upcoming book, About the Author, etc.), and I own a book of 67,000 words that is some 420 pages in length.

Or, more importantly, a full inch in thickness.

Think about that: a novel with 256 pages of text broken into 115 chapters. Fans say it’s for pacing: short, quick-hitting chapters pull you through the book faster. That’s true, if the scenes themselves are fast-paced. But when it’s the entire novel—while the protagonist is wandering through a neighborhood, or just sitting around chatting with his new girlfriend—I find it only irritating.

(By the way: Patterson’s first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, had no chapter breaks at all!)

Still, I gotta admit: the guy can write, and he has a career most of us can scarcely imagine. And if this does happen to be his way of satisfying his publisher’s desire for shelf dominance, I’ll take it over an author who pads his novel with extraneous wordage.

Canon fodder

I recently got an offer to write a non-fiction article for a major publisher. They sent me a contract which I dutifully reviewed, signed, and prepared to mail back. Then began the nightmare. Not the contract (it was fine).

I mean mailing it.

As I reviewed the contract, I happened to have Word open to my new novel manuscript. Well, Word has an envelope printing function, so I decided to use it, the downside being you have to type in the addresses each time (since I wasn’t using my default return address). But it should take only one try, right?

After assuring I had the envelope properly oriented in the rear feed tray of my Canon printer, I typed in the name/address of my publisher, added my own to the Return Address field, and clicked Print.

Easy-squeazy. Except the envelope came out smeared. Hmm. Well, that’s not very professional looking.

No biggie. I got another envelope, moved it to the front tray, thinking maybe it wouldn’t smear, re-typed the addresses (it should only take two tries, right?), and hit Print again.

Oops, I forgot to change the feed switch to the front tray, so it printed the addresses on a blank sheet of paper.

Fine.

I changed the feed tray switch, typed in the addresses again (ever the optimist, I figured it can’t take more than three tries), and hit Print yet again.

It fed the sheet that was under the envelope, leaving the envelope itself atop the stack of paper in the tray, it’s flap now fluttering laughter at me.

I took out the paper below it, typed in the addresses again (copying and pasting this time—screw optimism: God knows how many more times this is going to take), and hit Print.

The envelope jammed.

Actually it didn’t jam, despite the printer’s claim. It just didn’t feed. It just lay there, still laughing hysterically at me in its Size 10 way. (Or maybe I was the one laughing hysterically; it’s a bit unclear.)

So I hit the printer’s OK button to reset it and waited.

And waited.

And waited some more. Finally, I left to change the transmission in my car or something, came back and found the printer still “Waiting.” So I unplugged the damned thing and rebooted it.

Five minutes later, after it had finished “Preparing” itself, I pasted in the publisher’s address (which by now is committed to long-term memory), typed in my own return address (again), and it finally printed the envelope.

On the wrong side.

As Dirty Harry Callahan once said, “A good man knows his limitations.” I addressed the damned thing by hand.

Storyboarding

No, it’s not a form of enhanced interrogation, wherein the captors tie up a victim and read excerpts from editors’ slush piles. That practice was banned by the U.N.’s Commission on Human Rights in 2006, after Twilight was published.

I’m talking about that pre-planning phase of novel writing wherein we decide the how of our next novel, rather than the what. 

Now that Miss Illusions is almost through the production phase—see Asymptote, below—it’s time to begin serious work on my next novel. Normally, I’m something of an “organic” (read “lazy”) writer in that I start with a fairly complete character chart, a vague concept of setting, and a rough (“nearly non-existent”) outline and go from there.

However, my next novel is a much more ambitious project: a big-scale aviation thriller in the John Nance or Tom Clancy sense. I decided “winging it” (yeah, pun intended) wouldn’t cut it for this project, so I started looking into software to help me scope out the thing.

I pretty much severed the Microsoft umbilical some years ago, and now I use the Linux operating system. I don’t have as many programs at my disposal, but at least I don’t have to reinstall my entire system if a program crashes. The downside is fewer options for things like writing software.

After checking out a few options (yWriter, Scrivener, etc.), I decided on Storybook. It’s cross-platform, so I can run it under Linux and Windows, and seems to do most of the key things I need. (Note: This isn’t really a review of the program, just a description of how and why to use it. Time, and future posts, will tell how well it works out.)

The central components of Storybook are “objects” such as Locations, Characters, Objects, and Scenes. Below is the Characters object, where you build those fascinating individuals that will be populating your novel. (Click to expand.)

Characters

As you can see, everything about my characters—name, age, occupation, physical description, etc.—is neatly stored in one, sortable location, so no more will my characters change from blue-eyed young Scandinavian men into Japanese sumo wrestlers between scenes, unless I mean for them to. You can add your own characteristics into the drop-down lists, so if you’re an author who likes to describe your hero’s earlobes and eyebrows (in other words, a Romance writer), you can add those to the list. You can also add Notes for anything additional, for example, why your character voted for Perot in ’96.

The Scenes object lets you build your scenes from the ground up, or sky down in my case. Checkboxes let you easily select in which Location it occurs, characters present, time and date, POV, etc. Also, you can add such notations as scene goals, conflicts, sounds, smells, and that fascinating location tidbit you found on Wikipedia but haven’t gotten around to verifying.

Scenes

The Scene Manager lets you, well, manage your scenes: drag and drop them for ordering, putting them in the appropriate chapters, etc, although it doesn’t appear to let me number the scenes, except as they occur in the chapter. No more having characters leave a location before they arrive! (Unless you’re writing relativistic science-fiction or something. And if so, you have more problems than scene management.)

Scene Manager

You can view your masterpiece in several different ways: Book view, Reader view, Chronological view. Below is the Chronological view, which, sadly, is as close as Storybook seems to come to a real timeline (my personal Holy Grail). If you’ve been foresighted enough to tag each of your scenes with a date and time, the Chrono view will show you each scene in order. Sort of. What it actually does is organize the scenes from each characters’ POV for each day. In other words, if the first scene in Zach’s POV occurs at 7:00 a.m. (being the early-rising go-getter he is) it will appear at the top of the list of his scenes for that day, right beside the first scene for Ana, even though the lazy B slept in until noon. So it works (kinda) as a timeline for each character during each day, but fails to show problems like, for example, Zach being saved by Ana before she dragged her lazy ass out of bed.

Chronology

Which brings me to a new tool I’ve just started using: Google Calendar. <pause for collective “Huh??”>

Yeah. I’ve been looking for a decent timeline tool where I can, at a glance, see where my characters are and what they’re doing at any given time. As I was pondering my upcoming tasks on Google Calendar, I thought, “Hey, isn’t this kind of the same thing?” So I decided to give it a try with Day One of my new novel.

So far, it looks like it could be a really useful tool for building a timeline-oriented outline of your novel. (Did I qualify that enough?) You can give each character a different color, include info such as location, conflict, suspense points, whatever, and drag-and-drop the scenes to re-order your timeline. I decided to include both on-page scenes (designated by SCENE) and off-page happenings (–bracketed–).

Timeline

Again, time will tell—or possibly laugh in my optimistic face.

So I’m sticking with Storybook for now, despite the lack of a real timeline feature. I’ve investigated only a few of the features it offers, and there’s a “Pro” (paid) version that offers even more. While I’m not far enough along to truly recommend (or not) the program, I will be. And you’ll be the first to know.

Until then, no NaNoWriMo for my new book. But once I’ve storyboarded it and have my up-front research and outlining in decent shape, maybe I will try to crank out the first draft in another 30 days. Of course, that’s assuming that after a few weeks of storyboarding, I haven’t volunteered to test new enhanced interrogation techniques, figuring it would be a more pleasurable, and productive, use of my time.

Now Available at Barnes & Noble!

Just a quick, self-congratulatory note that Miss Illusions is now available at Barnes & Noble as a Nook book. (“Nook book”: say it several times fast. It’s fun. Nookbook, nookbook, nookbook…)

I don’t know why it took several days and two emails to B&N customer support to get it active. I was about to write a scathing post called “Barnes and igNoble,” but they managed to dodge that deadly bullet.

But it’s up now, so huzzah!

A Typical Day in the World of Self Publishing (in MY world, anyway)

So, I got the latest revision of my cover art. This is approximately rev. number 487 or so. (Just an educated guess; I haven’t really been counting.) I checked, re-checked, re-re-checked, cross-checked and double-cross-checked everything to make abso-damn-lutely sure it was perfect.

And it was.

So I uploaded it to Amazon, let their boffin software do it’s thing and turn it into a print-worthy proof for my trade paperback. It did—and in doing so, somehow managed to move one of the symbols on the page (the star behind the ‘O’ in the title) off to the right relative to everything else. (Or maybe everything else moved to the left. Ask Einstein.)

I approved it anyway, but put in a customer support request.

I then turned my effort to the eBook versions. I uploaded the latest, greatest, final Kindle version (rev. 18—I have been counting). It looked great on the previewer, great on my own device, so I approved it for publishing.

Voila’! There it is, ready for purchase. However, when I open the “Look Inside” feature on the Kindle store, all of my paragraph indents have magically disappeared! 

So I put in a customer support request on that, too.

Now to work on the Nook version. I finally got an ePub file built and uploaded it to Barnes & Noble. (I got tired of waiting for Smashwords to get the damn thing up there. Six weeks, really?) It looked great on B&N’s previewer, the download worked great on my Nook app, so I approved it for sale as well.

And got a screen saying there was a problem and to “Try again later.” Well, Try Again Later is my middle name, so I did—only to discover the book is locked for “Processing.” I waited a day—still “Processing.”

So I put in a customer support request on that, too.

Three submissions. Three problems. Three customer support requests. Three thousand or so more brain cells dead by suicide. (Again, just an estimate.)

Sometimes, it’s hard not to take this stuff personally.