Author-ly Advice

Last month, Tori Eldridge rounded up ten Thrillfest 2014 authors in a powerful hour on Empowered Living Radio. I was fortunate to be asked to take part in the discussion with a group of strong authors. Listen to the whole show or skip ahead (time stamp 1:00:16) to hear me offer concise and effective strategies on staying positive.

Same Beach – Different Book

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And different role!  Those that follow the blog, know I have developed an eccentric pattern in my writing routine. It’s a rather odd thing, but I like to edit my manuscripts on the beach in Puerto Rico. You’ve heard of “beach reads”, I call this a “beach-edit.”  Each of my four novels have gone through this sun, sand and red pen ritual.  It kinda’ goes like this:

Read, turn page, read, ooops, red pen, read, Bikini,

read, turn page, read, Bikini, ooops, red pen, Bikini,

read, read, turn page, Bikini

You get the rhythm and the two-piece picture.

Last week however, I sat on the beach in beautiful Isla Verde and edited a manuscript “not of my own making!”  I did a beach-edit on my cousin George Cannastraro’s brilliant new book, Constantine’s Dagger.  This was my first experience in “story editing” or “content editing” a book.  My cousin allowed me to make him the guinea pig in my editorial experiment. 

Followers know I am not a master of grammar and sentence structure.  I couldn’t last 2 seconds in a Spelling F not to mention a Spelling B! But I, and anybody else who has done this for a while, can spot story opportunities, contradictions and potential character and plot enhancements when doing a fresh, critical read of work – not of your own brain.

No two writers write the same, even when they are cousins, but if you really put on the Editor’s cap and go with the flow of the author, it’s a pretty happy outcome. In our case, and I guess in all cases when you get down to it, story editing is about choices, conscious or otherwise, made in the telling of the tale. Sometimes when we write we have a single trajectory, one way in and one way out of a scene or subplot.  But when it ain’t yours, you are free to see the “story-scape” from a different perspective and make recommendations to give more involvement, drama, comedy, risk and reward to the reader. 

We had some wonderful moments opening up the story with added beats, which increased the tension, drama, and comedy or emphasize a character’s trait. This was easy because the action and dialogue were written so well and with a flair for word-craft. We took the opportunity to increase the texture, widen the scope and to more clearly focus the reader into the story through experiencing emotions, rather than reading about them. We had fun “cutting in” to use film terms, “close ups,” and reaction shots or just playing with rhythms like leaving the next shoe to fall, not now… but, …wait for it, …wait for it, … Now!

That part became more like conducting an orchestra than editing. But only because George wrote great characters, and musically wove them together. 

I am about to mangle an old Native American saying, but it went something like, “You can’t paddle your friend’s canoe across the river, without you, yourself, getting across.”

My first shot at editing, has gotten me across a divide I have experienced in my own writing. Now, I see more globally at the same time I am writing locally within my story.  I am quicker to recognize patterns and old stand by’s in my own work. In fact, right now, I am in the first pass of my 5th novel, Give Us This Day, I am more attuned to pacing and making conscious choices. Like whether to play the note a little longer, or make it a quick flourish in order to make an impact.

I recommend story editing to anyone who wants to get across the river that we sometimes encounter when we are traveling along the path to our own novel.

Spy Games – For Real

SONY DSCWhen I wrote PWNED in 2011, I imagined something pretty outlandish for a premise: That the National Security Agency (or NSA) could spy on a private American citizen and in so doing uncover something that would bury that citizen in bureaucratic red tape until Kingdom come.

Why is that outlandish? Because that’s illegal. Well, it should be, anyway. Put succinctly, the idea of the NSA spying on an American citizen who then ends up in trouble should have been elaborate, well-imagined poppycock.

Enter Edward Snowden, and the whole PRISM debacle, and suddenly my self-published novel about a professional Starcraft 2 gamer doesn’t seem quite so crazy. It almost sounds eerily prescient, though I do wish it weren’t so.

The premise of my book is that Sean, a pro gamer who’s poised to dominate the biggest Starcraft 2 tournament in the world, is a serious threat to Norman, who needs to win the tournament to keep his team, his house, and his dream of quitting his job and gaming full time. Norman writes search string logarithms for the NSA, and uses his position to point the nation’s most powerful snoops right at poor Sean. Sean is a murder mystery author and, as such, has a browser history full of precisely the kind of gory, homicidal research material that makes federal agents twitchy and nervous.

Just when Sean looks to spend the next few years either in jail or in court, he flees the country with the help of a hot gamer girl and gives Norman a heart attack when he shows up in South Korea anyway despite Norman’s best efforts.

As tickled as I am to be on this site, where authors who saw the shape of things to come can brag about how they saw it coming, I really do wish my version of an NSA that abuses its power and oversteps its bounds could have remained fiction. Especially since I’m a thriller writer and have done plenty of searches that would certainly raise eyebrows if the NSA decided to start paying close attention to me. Here’s hoping for a future where all this is an unpleasant memory and the NSA leaves curious thriller writers well enough alone.

Remember this if you want to sound impressive at your next dinner party: The NSA was founded in 1952 for the express purpose of collecting and monitoring foreign counterintelligence. All those satellites and baffles and extra-large microphones are supposed to be pointed away from American citizens, ostensibly because it’s the FBI’s job to spy on us. Executive Order 12333 states that the NSA is to collect, “foreign intelligence or counterintelligence” while not “acquiring information concerning the domestic activities of United States persons.” The agency’s activities are supposed to be restricted by the Fourth Amendment (you know that one, it’s the unreasonable searches and seizures one).

Guest Blogger Erika Mitchell

-9Erika Mitchell showed early promise as a writer, winning the Beverly Cleary writing contest in 1995. The winning stories were printed into a book. Erika’s mother is the only person alive with a copy of that book.

She wrote her first novel (a really horrible chick-lit thing) that she promptly relegated to the back of her hard drive. A couple years later she tried again, this time writing a thriller novel. She had way too much fun writing it, and a couple months later wrote another one.

Erika self-published her first novel, Pwned, in June 2011, and her second novel, Blood Money, was published by Champagne Books in February 2013.

Erika lives in Seattle with her wonderfully geeky husband and their two children.  When she isn’t reading and writing she’s been known to indulge in an eclectic range of interests.