Wednesday, April 30, 2008


I sooo did not expect this! I've just learned that WHY MERMAIDS SING has won the Best Historical Mystery Reviewers Choice Award from Romantic Times.

I've known for several months that MERMAIDS had been nominated. But it was up against such fierce competition from such well-known writers that I was convinced there was no way it would win. I simply counted it as an honor to be nominated, and forgot about it.

When I remember the conditions under which I wrote this book--as a Katrina refugee devoting most of my time to rebuilding my house--it really seems incredible. The most amazing thing to me is that the book ever made it into print.

Learning from Syd Field

The granddaddy of screenwriting instruction is Syd Field. While there has been a movement away from some of his teachings in recent years, he’s had such a profound effect on Hollywood thinking that he’s still a good place to start.

Field harks back to Aristotle’s division of fiction into a beginning, middle, and end. According to Field, the beginning of a film, or Act One, sets up the story, introducing the hero, his problem, and (in the words of the hero’s journey) his “call to action.” Act Two, the middle, is the main body of a screenplay, the scene of action and counteraction, of complications, the chess game of move and countermove. Throughout the middle, the stakes rise until the characters reach a point of no return. It’s here, at the point of no return, that the story flips into Act Three, the climax, the resolution, the end. Anyone who’s ever watched a movie will recognize these three segments. The beginning corresponds to the first 20-30 minutes of a movie, the middle is the largest chunk, the next 60 minutes, while the end or climax fills the last quarter of the film.

So how do we, as novelists, use this? Well, if we apply Field’s division to a 400 page novel, Act One would be the first 80-100 pages, Act Two is roughly page 100 to page 300, and Act Three is the final 100 pages. At this point you’re probably saying, Well, duh. But it’s the next part of Field’s teaching that is so helpful to novel writers.

Field is big on what he calls Plot Points: important, pivotal scenes that take the action and flip it in an entirely different direction. The two most important plot points are the critical scenes at the shift from Act One to Act Two, and from Act Two to Act Three. But Field also identifies three other key plot points: the Midpoint at around page 200 of our book (or half way through a screenplay), and two “Pinch Points” at roughly page 150 and page 250.

What this means is that, as a novelist beginning a new book, I can identify my pivotal scenes—the ah-ha moments in my story, when the action suddenly goes zinging off in a totally unexpected direction, like a pinball zapped by a quick-fingered pinball wizard. I can lay out those pivotal scenes, deciding, ah, yes, this will be my first Plot Point, this will be my second, and so on, spacing them out and making sure the tension and the stakes escalate until I reach my final plot point of no return.

So picture it: before I ever sit down to write, I know that Here, in my first 80 or so pages (I personally favor a shorter Act One), I’ll introduce my hero and his problem. Then, I'll have this pivotal scene that sends me into the middle part of my book. Then 50 pages to the first pinch point, 50 pages to the midpoint, 50 pages to the second pinch point, and 50 pages to the plot point that will send the action spinning into the climax. By breaking a 400-page novel down into these short interlinking segments, plotting suddenly becomes So Much Easier.

Conversely, if I’ve written a book and I have this nasty feeling that something is wrong, I can write a quick description of each of my scenes on a 3x5 card and lay my story out on the dining room table. It’s then very easy for me to look at my story and go, Oops! This is what’s wrong! I don’t have well-spaced pivotal scenes; I don't have a well-defined beginning, middle end; my story is too linear here, too crazy here. I need to even it out.

I’m a big fan of plotting with 3x5 cards. And I’m a really big fan of the pivotal scene concept. If you take nothing else from screenwriting techniques, this is a good one. But like I said, there is a new movement in Hollywood that does this a bit differently. And that’s what I’ll look at next time.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Battle of Jackson Crossroads

Civil War reenactments are popular around here. They offer adults a chance to be kids again--playing dress-ups and good-guys-and-bad-guys--besides spending the weekend camping out in the woods with friends. What more could you ask?

When it comes to the Battle of Jackson Crossroads, there’s no doubt who the bad guys are. In the original battle (actually, there were two), marauding Union soldiers from the nearby siege on Port Hudson descended on Jackson looking for supplies. The local militia rode out and whipped their thievin’ Yankee asses (twice). Since our lake house lies between Jackson and Clinton not too far from the battle site, I felt like I should be out there givin' a rebel yell with the best of them.

In the reenactment, of course, both sides are, by necessity, played by good Southern boys from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Down here, if reenactment groups didn’t crossdress, they’d never have anyone to fight.

This was my first Civil War reenactment (as a spectator only; I used to go to medieval ones in England), but we had so much fun we’re already planning to go to the Battle of Port Hudson reenactment next year.

As for my own Civil War antecedents, my Tennessee great-grandmother’s four half-brothers all fought in the War Between the States, but they, ahem, fought for the Yanks. Just don’t tell anyone.

And I promise my next post will be on adapting screenplay structure to novels.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Power of the Premise

Early in my writing career, I went out to lunch with a friend. She knew I was working on a novel, so she said, “What’s your book about?” And then, because she’d obviously had some experience with aspiring novelists, she quickly added, “I don’t want you to spend the next half hour telling me the story; just give me an idea what it’s about in two or three sentences.” All I could do was stare at her in stunned silence. Reduce four hundred pages of tangled events and characters to two or three sentences? Impossible!

What she was looking for, of course, was my story’s premise: setting, characters, goals, conflict, all wrapped up in a neat coherent package. Any writer out there who doesn’t know their story’s premise had better sit down and figure it out, because they’re going to need it when pitching their story to agents and editors—and when answering the questions of inquisitive friends. But the best time to nail your premise is before you start. Why? Because changing two sentences around until you come up with the most powerful story is easy. Changing four hundred pages is HARD.

So, let’s take a look at some premises:

Convinced his life has been a failure, a banker and family man decides to commit suicide; but can he succeed when he has his own personal guardian angel determined to talk him out of it? (It’s a Wonderful Life)

A crusty Green Beret and his by-the-book replacement must cooperate to win back the allegiance of a village by transporting an elephant through miles of enemy-infested jungle. (Operation Dumbo Drop)

A misogynistic out-of-work actor pretends to be a woman to get a job; but can he succeed when he falls in love with his leading lady? (Tootsie)

And here, for the record, is the premise of THE DEADLIGHT CONNECTION: Remote viewer Tobie Guinness and cynical CIA agent Jax Alexander must work together to track a missing Nazi U-boat before its deadly cargo can be used to launch a catastrophic terrorist attack on America.

As you can see, the conflict is so inherent in some stories that it often doesn’t need to be spelled out. The conflict in Operation Dumbo Drop comes, obviously, from the North Vietnamese soldiers in the jungles trying to stop our Green Berets (as well as from the inevitable conflict between the crusty and the by-the-book heroes). In The Deadlight Connection, the conflict comes from the organization determined to keep their terrorist plot from being foiled. But the conflict needs to be there, so that anyone reading or hearing your premise can to “get it” right away. Because it is the conflict—internal, external—that makes your story interesting.

Once we’ve nailed our premise, every writer then needs to then sit back and ask himself or herself one important question: is this story strong enough to interest a lot of people? Does it have commercial appeal? Yes, you need to write first and foremost for yourself, but if you write ONLY for yourself, you won’t sell many books. I have zillions of ideas spinning around in my head; I will never, ever have the time to write them all. So it makes sense to devote the months or years a book requires to those ideas with the best chance of selling well.

But terrorist attacks are so ho-hum, you might say; what makes you think DEADLIGHT will sell? Because it has two X-factors: the remote viewing angle, and the Nazi sub. People love Nazis. What’s the X-factor in It’s a Wonderful Life? Religion, and the belief that we all have someone watching out for us. In Operation Dumbo Drop, it’s the elephant. In Tootsie, it’s the comic appeal of a man who despises women having to dress and act like a woman.

But that’s a subject for some future blog. Enough about premises. Next time I’d like to look at adapting Hollywood structure techniques to the novel.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Tricks from the Screenwriting Trade: Understanding and Using the Concept of the Premise, Part One

Like all successful screenplays, successful commercial fiction is based around a powerful premise. So, what’s a premise?

A premise is, essentially, the kind sound bite you read in a TV guide or Pub Lunch’s weekly list of hot deals (all you prospective writers out there are signed up for this free email from Publishers Weekly, aren’t you?). A premise immediately and provocatively answers several important questions: Who is the hero or heroine of this story? What does he want? What is standing in his way? The catchier your premise—the sharper its hook—the more successful your book will be at snagging both editors and readers.

Of course, a book can have a wonderful premise without the writer ever having heard of a premise. It’s one of those things many writers do instinctively. But if your book is floundering, it’s a good idea to take a look at your premise and make sure it’s solid. In fact, Alex Sokoloff thinks a writer should BEGIN with her premise, and work from there. Listening to her, I thought, What a concept!

There is a formula I’ve seen so many different places I can’t say who originally came up with it. It works because it forces the writer to reduce his story to its most basic components: protagonist, goal, motivation, conflict (and no, the originator wasn’t Deb Dixon, because I was using this handy little formula long before her book came out). Any and every piece of successful commercial fiction can be plugged into it. So what’s the formula?

This is a story about a __________________ who wants __________________ because ____________. But can he succeed when ____________________?

The first blank, obviously, is for your protagonist—your hero or heroine. The best way to describe your protagonist is with an adjective-noun combination. Why? Because you want to make sure you’ve developed a profoundly intriguing character. If you say, “This is a story about a girl….” you’ve already got people yawing. But if you say, “This is a story about a psychic orphan…” or “a wounded Iraq vet…” you’ve already intrigued a lot of people who will go, “Oooh, I’d like to read about that kind of person.” (You’ll also turn off a lot of people who’ll go, “Eeew, I don’t want to read about that.” Accept it.)

Since this is supposed to be a post about Premise, I’m not going to go into the whole goal, need/want, conflict thing. We all know our hero needs to want something, right? We know he needs to want it for a powerful reason, and we know there needs to be something or someone (i.e., the villain) standing in his way. When you formulate your premise, you lay it all out there in black and white. If your setting is intriguing, work that in. If the stakes are high, that’s part of your “because” and belongs in there, too. When you’re all done, look at your premise—really look at it—and think, is this as strong as it can be? What would make it bigger? What is the hook, the X-factor that makes this story different?

When my agent ran the premise for THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT in the Pub Lunch, she had over a dozen production companies call her in one week—that’s the power of a good premise. That’s what you want: a high concept so intriguing it has both editors and readers instantly wanting to know how it turns out.

Next time I’ll take a look at some examples of premises, and what we can learn from them.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Tricks from the Trade

What trade am I talking about? Screenwriting.

I discovered the applicability of screenwriters’ techniques to novels early in my career. I would never, ever want to be a screenwriter (which is a good thing, since Hollywood isn’t interested in screenwriters over 30, and—Juno notwithstanding—it’s still a very misogynistic industry). But novelists can learn much from the master screenwriting instructors. Yes, there are other, valid ways to tell a story. But decades of watching movies and TV have conditioned most people to react best to stories written to the Hollywood formula. Ergo, the closer a novelist cleaves to that formula, the more successful he or she is likely to be (and the more likely they are to see their books optioned for film, because a book that is written cinematically obviously adapts easier).

For years I structured my books into the Three Hollywood Acts, crafting character arcs, carefully timing plot points and pinch points before I ever sat down to write Chapter One. But for some reason, I didn’t do that with THE DEADLIGHT PROJECT. Maybe because I was so pressed for time. Or maybe it was just arrogance—I mean, I’ve been doing this for so long, surely by now it’s instinctive, right? Wrong.

Which is why my conversations with Alex Sokoloff at the Jubilee Jumbalaya sparked off such a string of epiphanies. I sat there thinking, I used to DO this. I should have KNOWN this. How could I be so DUMB?

So I thought I’d embark on an exploration of those techniques, here, starting next week with Premise...

On a side note, I’ll be on a panel this Saturday at the April meeting of SOLA, the local chapter of RWA, at 10:00 am at the Jefferson Parish main library on Clearview, in Metairie. We’ll be talking about Working with Editors, an interesting topic that’s prompted me to ponder my experiences with my three different editors, and to realize how lucky I am to have worked with such wonderful women who’ve done much to hone my ability to tell a story. If you’re in the area, do come. Visitors are welcome.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Revisions, Revisions

If you’ve ever thought only beginning writers revise their books to death, think again. I’m STILL stuck in the revisions inspired by the complete rethinking of my WIP inspired in part by last weekend’s Jubilee Jumbalaya Conference.

I’m not sure why I keep having so much trouble with this book. I had a serious One Hundred Page Hiccup. Now I’m having a near-lethal Two Hundred Page Hiccup. There are structural problems, problems with motivation and information flow, problems with character introduction, development and portrayal (specifically of the bad guys). Actually, there is little that was right with this book.

So far I’ve redone the first 75 pages, and although it still needs some smoothing, I THINK it’s working this time. Now, on to the next segment. I’ve spent more time revising this book than some people spend writing books. I’ve always been a slow writer, although not usually such an inept one.

Hopefully, once I get this all under control the last half of the book will go smoothly and quickly. I am already so far behind on my self-imposed deadline it’s not even funny. But more about that in another post. Now, off to revise…

Thursday, April 10, 2008

One Great Conference

The Jubilee Jumbalaya Writers Conference and Book Fair in Houma may be small, but it is without a doubt the most fun of any conference I’ve ever attended (and at $25 a head, it’s also a steal). Because it’s so much fun, and because Molly Bolden—co-owner of Bent Pages Bookstore and one of the sponsors—is such a hoot, they never have trouble attracting scores of great writers.

Steve and I kicked off the weekend with dinner Friday night at a restaurant in a big old house overlooking the Intercoastal Waterway. The writing life doesn’t get much better than this: great food, a warm salt-laden breeze, and hours and hours spent talking and laughing with F. Paul Wilson, the incomparable, irrepressible Molly, Heather Graham and her ever-entertaining husband, Dennis, Hollywood screenwriter and novelist Alexandra Sokoloff, and more. If only I’d thought to bring my camera…

The conference itself was close to perfect. I did a session on the differences between thrillers and mysteries, and Steve and I did a joint session on writing with a partner. We spent most of the rest of the day listening to Alex talk about screenwriting, and I had so many lightbulb moments it was like a paparazzi attack on Britney Spears. I’ve spent this week going over the first half of DEADLIGHT, and hopefully now I’ve figured out what’s been bothering me about this book, and how to fix it. No matter how long you’ve been in this business, you can always get something out of a conference, especially one as wonderful and laid back as this one.

The booksigning went great, too; I don’t think I’ve ever sold so many books at a signing! Lots of people bought my entire Sebastian St. Cyr series. Here’s New Orleans writer Farrah Rochon, making another friend…

If you’re in the area next year, do plan to attend. I’ve already snapped up an invitation to come back.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Jubilee Jumbalaya

The Fifth Annual Jubilee Jumbalaya Writers Conference is this weekend, Saturday, April 5th, from 8am to 6pm. Held by Nicholls State University in Houma, Louisiana, the Jubilee has a reputation for being both fun and informative, and for serving a great lunch!

This year, I'll be giving two presentations. The first, from 10:30 to 11:20, is "Writing with a Partner," which I'll be presenting with my C.S. Graham writing partner, Steve Harris. Then, from 3:00 to 3:50, I'll be exploring the differences between "Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers."

There are many other speakers lined up, including Heather Graham, Laura Joh Rowland, Bobbi Smith, and a host of others. So if you're in the area, hope to see you there!