Untimed – The Second Cover

Just finished up a new “working cover” for my second novel, Untimed. Thanks a million to my friend and long time business partner Jason Rubin for concocting the excellent logo. He is a true Photoshop wizard.

If any of you have thoughts on the cover (the book’s a YA time travel adventure), post them in the comments.

Now back to working on the second draft.

I will use powers of superhuman concentration to ignore the fact that I have A Dance with Dragons sitting on my iPad — more or less unstarted.

I will.

Not reading during working hours!

The Maltese Falcon

Title: The Maltese Falcon

Author: Dashiell Hammett

Genre: Detective Noir

Length: 217 pages

Read: May 25-26, 2011

Summary: Pure awesomeness.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

There are so many reasons why this is the archetypal detective novel. It’s pure pleasure from start to finish.

Let’s start with the writing. The prose is lean, but it has a way of sparing with the reader, a delightful economy and turn of phrase. Things are handled in a straightforward sequential manner. Simultaneously spartan and luxurious. There’s actually a surprising amount of description. Nearly every character is detailed on first meet, often with a good full two paragraphs. But they’re worth it (more on that later). Spade‘s actions are spelled out in exquisite and exhaustive detail — there must be at least fifty cigarettes rolled and smoked in this tiny book and countless details of dressing, moving from place to place, etc. Somehow these don’t drag, not at all. Action too, is quick, but handled in a kind of cold clear detail. What there isn’t, is one whit of interior monologue. The closest we get is the occasional, “Sam’s expression contained a hint of smugness” or “her hands twisted in her lap.” And more than anything, the prose is fun to read.

Plotting. The story is byzantine, and involves no one knowing exactly what’s going on, but Sam being a damn good judge of what’s likely to happen. There’s perhaps a bit too much action happening off screen, and a little too many coincidences or startling reverses. And for a book with so many shootings and double crosses, it’s mostly filled with dialogue scenes. But that isn’t a problem because…

The dialogue rules! Oblique, snappy, it crackles back and forth like a gunfight. The rules for writing quality dialogue could have been modled on this novel alone. Characters interrupt, they’re impatient, they lie (and lie again), they argue, they betray. They do a lot of talking. I enjoyed every minute of it.

Characters. Hammett really shines here. The villains are a bit over the top, but I adored them. The sinister (and limp wristed — oh so pre-politically-correct) Cairo, the fatman, the kid. The author uses a combination of amusing descriptive characterization (Gutman’s bulbs of fat — “He waved his palm like a fat pink starfish!” — or Cairo’s effete details — “when slapped he screamed like a woman”) and highly distinctive dialogue. Gutman’s is a real riot. Overblown, threatening and complementary at the same time. Sam himself is an interesting figure. Tough, incredibly competent, but also prideful, belligerent, and self interested.

Atmosphere. This is nailed, nailed cold and hard like a corpse left out in January. It oozes late 20s San Francisco. The dangerous dames, the cartoony gangsters, the police always one step behind. The tension in the way that the backstabbing moxie Brigid uses her feminine wiles eerily foreshadows basic instinct and countless followups.

The book’s been a classic for 80 years, and with good reason.

For more book reviews, click here.

Before I Fall

Title: Before I Fall

Author: Lauren Oliver

Genre: Magical Realism YA

Length: 117,000 words, 470 pages

Read: May 16-17, 2011

Summary: Very very good.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

This is one of the best YA books I’ve read in a long while. Part Groundhog Day, part The Source Code, part Judy Blume, part The Lovely Bones — all itself.

We start with a high school girl, Sam, who dies in a car accident, and is doomed(?) to repeat the last day of her life again and again. Seven times to be exact. Sound like a recipe for repetition? It’s not.

First of all the writing is lovely. Really lovely. I’ve read perhaps 50+ first person girl narratives in the last year alone and this one had the best voice. It’s fairly well tied with Mary E. Pearson in that regard for recent entries (Judy Blume still wins for lifetime achievement). It’s funny clever without the annoying Snark. The voice is so good that it just drags you through the entire book, and it’s a pretty long book for YA. Lauren Oliver really is a lovely writer. The dialogue is good, the narrative description and interior monologue are amazing, and even the flowery interstitial description that glues together connected days is short but evocative. The Lovely Bones also had great voice, and a tremendous first half, before it fell apart into an abysmal mess of moral apathy. Before I fall is better.

There are some things worth noting. The characterization and the high school realism is top notch. I was reminded a bit of a modern Freaks and Geeks in that there was that kind of insightful tragio-comic realism. These girls felt pretty darn real. Even the minor characters had some depth. It’s this more than anything else that echoed the master of all YA: Judy Blume. Blume uses dialogue more liberally, as it’s her main method of characterization. Oliver prefers interior monologue and narrative description. The net result is similar. There’s a lot of detail here too, but the voice manages to make it interesting. Sam and her friends are popular girls, and more than a little bitchy, but they don’t extend into characterture. They are a little bad, but not too bad — realistically so. This is no melodramatic Gossip Girl. There is plenty of drinking, rudeness, etc. The sexuality is muted. Handled well enough, but perhaps a bit tamer than it could have been.

Now as to structure. Oliver does a really first notch job repeating the same day seven times without ever being dull. Sam makes different choices, and on some days this plays out very differently. One time she doesn’t even go to school. Still, even when the same scenes are repeated, and they are, different angles are shown, revealing and painting from different directions. This is hard to do, and must have taken considerable planning and rewriting. I’m actually facing a bit of this myself in my second novel, which is a time travel book and involves overlap and revisiting.

I’m going to stop for a second to pontificate on writing this kind of fiction. One of the things that makes this work in Before I Fall is the loose structure of the high school day. Sam’s day includes: getting up, driving with her friends to school, various classes, lunch, ditching, hanging out after school, and the party. These events flow from one to the next because of the inherent structure. If she skips lunch, or English class, she can pick back up on the schedule, because it’s immutable and set at a level greater than herself. This it has in common with Back to the Future I and II. There the structure of the dance forms a background on which Marty can play. In my own story, I have been trying to revisit a complex action scene multiple times. The whole scene — even the first time — folds out from the actions of the protagonist without any background structure, which makes altering that flow… complex.

In any case, in Before I Fall there is a also a very strongly structured arc, like, Groundhog Day, the protagonist has to learn a series of lessons from the failures of the first and subsequent trials. Much like a video game level, she gets to play it over and over again until she gets it right. This is very satisfying to read. Too bad real life doesn’t work like that.

The seven day structure also helps avoid the dreaded “reveal” problem. There is no giant structural reveal, the premise is setup in the first couple pages, and so the book does not suffer from the first half being better than the second. It races right on to the end. But there is an end, and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. Given the options, Oliver chose a pretty good one, and it does leave one with a deep sense of catharsis. So it was probably the right choice. Still the looming shadow over the entire affair left me with a deep sense of sadness not unlike that caused by reading The Time Traveler’s Wife (the excellent book, not the mediocre film).

For a review of Oliver’s second novel, Delirium, click here.

Untimed – Two Novels, Check!

Today I reached a milestone and finished the first draft of my second novel, tentatively titled Untimed. Now this doesn’t really mean it’s done, revision is usually more work than the first draft. Still, it’s a book. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Untimed is the first book in YA time travel series. I haven’t written a log line yet, but it’s currently 70,000 words, and is a lean-mean-fast-paced first person present story about a boy whose name no one remembers — not even his mother.

Oh, and it features Ben Franklin, Napoleon, a male gang leader that wears red high heels, and the Tick-Tocks, creepy clockwork time traveling machines from the future.

I started it Feb 9, 2011 and finished the first draft May 20, 2011. I took about three weeks “off” to work on revisions of The Darkening Dream. So that’s roughly three months. My output was actually slower (as measured in words) than with TDD, because a don’t overwrite now. If anything Untimed is underwritten and certainly needs a lot of character work in revision, which might make it grow slightly.

I learned a lot of things from problems with TDD (mostly fixed in my many many revisions). I learned to find a place to start your story that really hooks BEFORE starting to write. I learned not to write any scenes that involved merely going from place to place. I learned not to flash back. I learned to stick with the plot, not the sub plots. And a whole lot more.

And I tried to outline the entire story before I wrote it, failed miserably, and concluded that I’m really a pantser (a seat of the pants writer).

For info on my first (and completed) novel, click here.

ps. If you’re one of my many dedicated beta readers, and want to offer early high level feed back, send me a note.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Title: The Postman Always Rings Twice

Author: James M. Cain

Genre: Crime Noir

Length: 116 pages

Read: May 15-16, 2011

Summary: Taut.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

For my second novel I’ve been trying to adopt a sort of hardboiled style, even though it isn’t a crime or a noir. So I figured I go back to the beginning and read some of the classics.

This 1934 novella just breezes on by. The first half (act I) is like watching a train wreck unfold. I greedily devoured the setup. Seedy drifter, sexy unhappy wife, and loser older husband. Plus it’s a crime novel. You know things aren’t going to end up good. The style here is lean and mean. It feels fully modern, dated perhaps only by certain phrases and actually it’s utter bare bones quality, devoid of really deliberate voice. My only complaint here was that it’s so sparse on dialogue tags that I often got confused as to who said what and had to back up and count. That’s too few tags.

Not that it detracted much. So then mid book, the crime itself happens (not counting the aborted first attempt) and the gears shift a bit into legal territory. This middle section I found had a bit too much “tell.” It breezed along, but it reminded me of the second half of The Magician. Then we get to the third act. This was back more to the mater-a-fact what happens, but it did feel a little fast, perhaps resorting to a bit too much forced plotting.

Still, I enjoyed the book immensely, and it seems best as I can tell the blueprint for countless crime stories where greed/lust/whatever drives everyone to an inevitable bad end. Some great movie entries in this genre would be Body Heat, A Simple Plan, or the very recent The Square.

Another interesting thing about this story is not only could you set it in any era, but the exact text could pretty much serve from 1920 through to present day. The only difference now would be cell phones and better police investigatory techniques.

Call For Feedback

As a writer, feedback can be essential to the process. You don’t necessarily want to spend months writing the whole novel draft to find out the voice sucks, or that your plot is boring. I’m a frantic high energy writer (I work 8+ hours a day and usually churn out 2,000 pretty good words), and one of my biggest problems is getting enough feedback fast enough. I want to find out how a chapter works NOW, or hash out what’s going to happen tomorrow. My plots are intricate and I have two people (one I’m married to) who ALWAYS read chapters in a few hours and are willing to spend an hour brutally arguing about how well they work.

Still, it’s not enough. I also use a number of professionals who provide awesome advice, but not only do the cost money, but they’re busy and often take a few weeks to turn stuff around. I’d give a nut for another conspirator who’s great at plot construction. Relatively few people are willing to say, “No, no, this whole branch of the action is boring, the villain and the hero need to be face to face.” Then actually provide suggestions to mull over or shut down. Most amateur critics nitpick on sentences or little inconsistencies. Those are useful, but the big picture criticisms — and more importantly suggestions for fixes — are harder to come by.

I’m looking for something analogous to a TV writers room where people know the story and characters to every last detail and can really yell and hash out ways to interject more power into the story at the plot and character level. This is the hardest part for me to do alone. I can take any basic sequence of events and turn it into a great scene, but building the perfect twisty-turny plot with engaging characters is hard. There’s a reason why you see this most often in great TV shows where they have a room full of brilliant people.

A good argument over the story fuels my creative fire. I suspect if I had more of it I could write even faster.

And I’m willing to pay for said criticism with highly responsive reciprocal reading and response on how your stuff could be better! 🙂

Seriously. I’m extremely fast and sleep very little. There’s no give it to me and have to check back a couple weeks later. I tend to turn stuff around in hours. I’m willing to talk at odd ball times. I can do everything from plot to line editing.

So if you’re another writer, interested, fast, dedicated, good at plots, like the fantastic (my stories always involve some supernatural/speculative element), and willing to dedicate a couple hours a week, shoot me a note and we’ll see if there’s any synergy.

or blog

Also, peek at my novel in progress: The Darkening Dream

Done Again, Hopefully

My freelance editor, the awesome Renni Browne, has officially declared my novel, The Darkening Dream, done, and ready for agents!

Now bear in mind that “done” is a highly subjective term, and that as soon as anyone gives me an idea worth doing, I’ll probably do it, and that agents and editors are bound to ask for changes. Which as long as I think the ideas make the book better, is a good thing.

The new version is 5.00i, but this is my ninth full major draft. Woah.

I remember reading Sol Stein‘s awesome book on writing, where he mentioned that The Magician took 10-11 drafts (I was then on my second) and thinking: that’s crazy! I guess not. Totally coincidentally, Renni also edited that novel, published in 1971!

So it’s been a busy week, working only on The Darkening Dream (I’ll get back to my new novel shortly). In the last 10 days:

1. We finishing our big line edit

2. I rewrote the ending again.

3. I read the entire book and made minor mods.

4. Renni and Shannon (her additionally awesome co-editor/assistant) reread the beginning and the ending and did another quick line edit.

5. I went over that.

6. I got back a critique on the beginning of the book, and made some changes based on that.

7. This inspired me to write two entirely different beginnings.

8. We eventually decided the original was better, although I moved a few nice tidbits from the new stuff over.

9. I reread the whole first half of the book, and the ending again, and made some more improvements.

10. On Sunday I rested.

So now I return to the agent game (referrals very welcome), and to the agonizing internal debate about the relative merits of self publishing in the modern (and very rapidly changing) market. And back to the first draft of my new novel (about 25% done).

If any of you beta readers want a copy of the new improved 95,000 word The Darkening Dream, drop me a note.