Friday, August 17, 2012

Lessons From the Writing Cave: Read. Learn. Write.

It's been a long month. Haven't been social networking much. You noticed, right? Yep. Started the rewrite from hell.


It was about six weeks ago that I realized that my current work in progress (which I initially thought was totally brill') needed a major overhaul. My feedback from readers was pretty good--great from some. While my agent thought it had some positives, he thought it had too many negatives to get excited about. The problem was I had no idea what wasn't working and unfortunately he didn't give me a lot of guidance.

Understand that I'm really new to "authoring." I've only been writing novels in earnest since 2008. I've published 4. Two by a Big Six. Two as an indie. But neither in the suspense/thriller genre. Nothing even close. Comedy is my forte. Not suspense. Fortunately, my career experience has helped me develop a very complex and compelling plot that fits perfectly in the genre. But there's a difference between how something plays in your mind and how that vision conveys on paper. In my mind, I could read the book, see the movie. On paper, didn't quite grip me (or my agent) the same way.

For the first time in my short career, I had a problem and no idea about how to diagnose and fix it. And I felt like I didn't have the help I needed. Perhaps if I were best seller I would've had more help from my editor, but understand that as a mid-lister, you support network is limited. To add to the problem, this is the first time I wrote a book that wasn't accepted on the first draft. Everyone was used to me getting it right the first time...and I didn't this time. Tough pill to swallow. It was humbling. And eye-opening. But spreading my wings into new territory, I should've expected a learning curve. And I'm now growing as a writer because of it.


The first thing I did was begin reading a bunch of books. I needed to learn...something. I didn't know what, but I figured something would ring a bell if I hit the right points. I could've used a seminar. Some human feedback. But I just didn't have the time or financial means to afford the seminar I really NEEDED to take. So, to the bookstore I went. I found several books on craft. And also picked up a couple of best sellers in the genre. Each day I read and read and read. This went on for a couple of weeks, when finally it hit me. The answer. I discovered a solution. One book really helped hone me in on my issues. All of my issues--and trust me, there were many.

Writing a Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.


I would consider this a must-read book for every mid-list novelist. And for unpublished authors.

Don't get me wrong. Mr. Maaas doesn't give you the answers on a silver platter. But if you've have a clear and honest understanding of what your novel is and isn't (not what you THINK it is or isn't) then this will spark the ideas necessary to tighten up your work.  I've blogged about finding the work's voice in another posting. Another key to solving the problems in this novel was understanding that each book has a voice and I had to find the right voice for this particular story. This series really.


So, finally, into the writing cave I went.

That's where I am now. Going through the painstaking process of rewriting this book sentence by sentence. Changing the pace, sentence structure, and the voice. Ugh. And I had A LOT of sentences. 95,000 words worth. I'm over half way done but sometimes I'd like to stick a pencil through my eye. However, difficult the journey, I've reconciled the fact that I'm investing the time now in order to make the rest of the series much easier to write. Now I know the story and plot elements as well as the voice. All I need to do in the next book is write.

So those are my lessons from the writing cave. Sometimes the answers to fixing your novel come faster if you put down your pen...and pick up a book.

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Monday, August 6, 2012

Monday Morning MUGshot Part III

Within my 20 years of serving in the Intelligence Community, my favorite job EVER was serving at the DIA. Not just because of the work, but for the experience of working directly with military policymakers, including the former senior intelligence advisor to General Petraeus and one of the chief architects of the U.S. strategy to end the insurgency in Iraq. According to him (not me), I was one of his most trusted analysts and it was truly an honor to support his efforts during my nearly five year stint at the DIA J2. It was my first time serving as an analyst in an agency where I got called into the offices of 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-star Generals and Admirals who wanted to get the analytical perspective straight from the analysts. Not through senior middle men. It was an amazing experience.

Funny story. So, I started working at the J2 in the Pentagon at the onset of the Iraq War. I'd come from a law enforcement background not military. My first assignment was to prepare and send the "POTUS" brief every morning--a death by PowerPoint presentation. I didn't know what a "POTUS" was. Every day I'm thinking "What the heck is a POTUS???" For two weeks, I prepared the brief, afraid to ask because I didn't want to look like I didn't know what I was doing. Imagine my shock and surprise when I found out the "POTUS" was the President of the United States--at that time it was President Bush. When I think about it now, all I can say is "Ugh!" Thank goodness I'd been doing a good job. If I were you, I wouldn't be surprised if one of the five books in the J.J. McCall Series featured a story centered on scandal at the Pentagon. :)

So your question for the day...what's the J2? And who is the current DIA Director (who happened to serve as the J2 while I was there--super great leader to work with by the way)? If you get either or both of those questions correct, you will get a free advanced copy of The Seven Year Itch: A J.J. McCall Novel. (As always, no time limit on your answers.)

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The Seven Year Itch - Kindle ($2.99)
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Friday, August 3, 2012

Writing Epiphany #2,987: Finding My Story's Voice

I'm stepping away from my FBI related blogs just to chat for a moment about craft. I had a major epiphany this week that not only will help me in turning a so-so book to a must read story. But it will also ease the process of writing the future books in the series. I can almost feel the stories coming now.

I've been going through quite a bit of turmoil over this story--this J.J. McCall story. And I couldn't put my finger on the cause, but something just wasn't clicking with me. I LOVE the character. I LOVE the plot. The writing was...well...decent. I mean, it wasn't bad. But if I'm honest with myself, it wasn't clicking. 

All my life people have been telling me I have great a writing "voice." I don't take any credit for it. It's truly God-given talent. And I've really relied on my instincts or this so-called natural ability to guide me through my stories. I'm a Pantser--through and through. I've always relied on my humor and sympathetic characters to pull the readers through and it's worked for me so far.

But this is a very different kind of story from my usual romantic fare. This is romantic suspense. And while I was entertained, I was not suspended. When I hit on all cylinders, sometimes it's hard for me to put my own book down. And I wrote it, so I know how it's gonna end. And my publisher snapped those books up pretty quickly.

I wasn't getting that same feeling about this story. And I think I've figured out the MAJOR problem.

I didn't realize (and this is the novice in me) that there were many ways to tell the same story. I know you're thinking DUH. But I didn't know that I could write in different voices. You hear buzz words like "brand" and you think about what readers will expect when they read a book and you write it that way. But this really isn't the way it should be. At least not for me. I realized, after spinning my wheels for too many months, that you have to find the right voice for each and every story. Yes, you may have a writing style that has worked in one genre but that doesn't mean every book you write needs to be told the same way. And it really has taken me months to figure this out. I mean MONTHS.

It's hard when you're new to the writing game and you have to diagnose the problem in your own manuscript. It's kind of like a doctor, a week into medical school, having to diagnose his own cancer. It's probably not going to go very well for him. Didn't go so well for my book.

So how did I finally figure out the issue? Rewrites. Lots and lots of rewrites. The pace was too slow for such an intense plot. And it just hit me one day that my sentences were just too long. Might've been just after my novel put me to sleep. But now I've got the formula which is resulting in a complete rewrite. I mean, the biggest rewrite I've ever had to do on a novel. But it will pay off for the reader and that's all that matters to me.

One more month. And this story will be TRULY finished.

So, what's my point here? If your novel isn't hitting on all cylinders for you, and you truly love the plot and the characters, then you might need to check the voice. You don't have to write in the same voice for every story because you have a brand. Be true to the story. And find the voice that will give your reader the best experience. 
In the meantime, here is the new and improved blurb.

When turncoats betray America’s human sources, there is no greater failure than the loss of life—and no one knows that better than FBI Special Agent J.J. McCall. She and her co-case Agent Tony Donato have lost two in as many years, and they may lose another in just a few short days if they don’t catch the ICE PHANTOM—the code name for a near-dead investigation to identify a rumored insider spy more insidious and elusive than Ames and Hanssen combined. They might be chasing Intelligence Community ghosts—or he might be burrowed deep in FBI counterintelligence.

A born lie detector who drops vodka shots to cope with the mounting pressure at work, J.J. has crafted a web of deceit and falsified case files to protect her last remaining and most valuable source and deny her own ugly truth. But her strategy boomerangs when the FBI Director orders a new internal investigation slated to identify ICE PHANTOM and it threatens to point the blame for the unthinkable directly at J.J. and Tony. Her ability to detect lies can’t help them pass the polygraph exam they are doomed to fail. And if they’re arrested, Supermax—the high security prison—will be nothing compared to death penalty charges.

Drawn into a secret hunt, they have a week to catch ICE PHANTOM, save their source’s life—and avoid the polygraph exam that could end their own. And while J.J.’s lie detecting ability helps them narrow down the list of suspects, her ultimate lie, the one she’s been telling herself for too many years, may be the very one that helps the ICE PHANTOM get away--with murder!

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 Check out my new release: The Seven Year Itch (A J.J. McCall Novel).

  The Seven Year Itch - Kindle ($2.99)