The Reversal

..is one of Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer novels, and it’s a dandy. Especially for writers.

It’s a departure for me from the general fiction and the mysteries I gravitate toward these days, but I was ready for a change and knew I’d learn something from a master. And I learned plenty.

 

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Genre fiction is replete with categories and sub-categories. Within mysteries, for example, you’ll find cozies, police procedurals, and hard-boiled detective novels, among others. In a legal thriller like this one, you expect courtroom drama — and this has that element in droves.

Without giving anything away, the book follows the preparation Mickey Haller makes to prosecute a case through the case and to a very unexpected and satisfying conclusion. The through-plot is very straightforward: beginning, middle, and conclusion of the legal case at the center of the novel.

So what makes it such a compelling read?

Let’s take the book apart — from a writer’s perspective.

Dramatic Tension

First, Connelly uses the “fish out of water” theme as a driver: Haller is an accomplished defense attorney, but he’s been selected to sit at the prosecution’s table for this case. The District Attorney makes Haller a deal, and Haller takes it. The stakes are high for Haller to succeed, but he’s not in his normal element.

This is one way the dramatic tension is heightened: the reader can’t help but wonder if Haller will succeed, despite the odds.

Second, the overall stakes are high — if the case is lost, a man believed by many to be a child killer will go free. This isn’t the sort of outcome any reader would want.

So the tension is ratcheted up further.

Third, the defense attorney is a formidable foe. He’s good — very good. Can Haller anticipate what he will do well enough to sustain a strong prosecution case? It’s like watching a snowball fight — the defense attorney keeps lobbing snowballs and Haller has to deflect them well enough to throw a few back.

Fourth, Haller elicits the help of his ex-wife, a strong prosecutor. She can help him maneuver the slings and arrows of the prosecution case, but the tension between them always rides just under the surface.

Fifth, their investigator, Detective Harry Bosch, uncovers some very troubling behavior on the part of the defendant, who’s been allowed to roam free during the trial. What is he up to? Will Bosch figure it out in time?

Sixth, Bosch and Haller have daughters — girls who fit the profile of the defendant’s victim.

Ikes! Can it get more intense than all this?

So the layering of dramatic, tension-building elements keeps getting stacked higher and higher. As a reader, I kept wondering if it would all come together — and if so, how. As a writer, I was intrigued by the methods Connelly used to make what could have been a dull trial procedural such a page-turner.

Structure

I saw this question in a forum last year, and now I’ve seen a real-life, successful example of how it can be done, despite my skepticism: can you have multiple points of view in one novel?

Connelly clearly believes you can, and he pulls it off in *The Reversal.* Chapter One is told in first person from Haller’s point of view (POV). Chapter Two is third person limited from Bosch’s POV. This alternating pattern repeats throughout the book.

For a purist like me, it took three or four chapters to get used to this rhythm, but from a writer’s perspective, this was the perfect structure for telling this story because both angles are integral to appreciating the full story. Bosch comes across things he doesn’t want to share with Haller, so having alternative POVs allows Connelly to show the reader what Bosch knows without violating the first person POV of the Lincoln Lawyer series.

POV and Tense

The structure gave Connelly a way to keep the pace moving — Bosch’s storyline adds a level of action and suspense that would have been difficult to pull off from Haller’s exclusive POV.

It could have been confusing, so what does Connelly do to make it effective? Two things.

First, he uses a consistent pattern so the reader can adjust to it. This is especially critical because he isn’t just shifting between Haller to Bosch, he’s also changing from first to third person. I haven’t read his other books, but would guess that he’s maintaining his consistency with the individual series that the Bosch and Haller characters usually star in.

Using chapter divisions to change not only the point of view but (most importantly) the change from first to third person creates the clean separation readers need to make the mental transition from being in one character’s head game to being in the other’s. Nothing is more visually clear in a book (even an e-book) than a chapter break.

The second way Connelly keeps the alternating POV from being confusing is maintaining a consistent tense. All chapters — regardless of POV — are told in past tense. Whether you’re in Haller’s head or sitting alongside Bosch, you’re getting the story in retrospect. Nothing is happening in “real time.”

If Connelly hadn’t used a consistent tense, the book would have been a mess. If we were reading Haller’s part in present tense (“I look across the courtroom to see Bosch come through the double doors…”) then Bosch’s in past tense (“Bosch pushed his way through the double doors into the courtroom, a note pressed into his palm for Haller.”) readers would have been kept off-kilter for no good reason. What was happening? Which happened first? Why am I getting some of this book as if it’s occurring now and another as if it happened a long time ago?

Instead, Connelly sticks to the past tense, telling the story as if in retrospect, as if looking back on events regardless of which character’s POV we’re reading at the moment. With the other challenges Connelly has given the reader — to accept alternating main characters and POVs — he had to be consistent with the tense. To do otherwise would have created confusion without anything to gain from it.
And you never want to confuse your readers. Readers who are confused become aware they’re reading a book — not what you want. You want your readers to be sucked in, absorbed to the point they’ve forgotten where they’re sitting, what’s around them. Readers want to be in that state. Don’t do something that keeps them from falling into that dreamlike state and staying there until they’re ready to come out of it.

Michael Connelly has figured out how to do that, even with a plot that on the surface seems destined to be dull, dull, dull. He’s not only given us a great read, he’s given us a great lesson in how to construct a great read.

Read and learn.

 

At Last!

Those of you who’ve been following along know I recently released my newest novel only to pull it soon after — I could tell as soon as I peeked between the covers it needed more polishing.

My supportive and very loving husband (like my MC, I believe I’m the luckiest woman in the world) asked if I’d read it to him. I was nervous but when I finished the other night, he applauded and I nearly cried. He’s a great critic and offered one suggestion, which I took. The book is much better for it, and absent many more boo-boos and embarrassments. Surely there are mistakes I missed, but I’m proud of this effort.

Full ad is in the sidebar… and more lessons learned from this coming soon.

 

Writers’ Roundup

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the stuff you need to know to be a successful writer (we’ll define successful as making some sales), there’s good reason for that. You not only have to master the craft of writing, you also have to learn about publishing (whether you’re self-published or not), figure out how to run a small business (you’re self-employed, like it or not), and keep up-to-snuff on whatever specialized area you write in (cooking, quilting, electronics…etc.). Throw marketing/promotion into the mix, along with your need to know the tools of the trade (using word processing software and navigating the Web, among others), and — voila! — you’ve got an ingredients list that would rattle any gourmet chef.

Each month or so (depending on wifi access… travel schedule… writing rhythms… and various other factors) ellenbooks delivers a few helpful resources. What’s helped you this past month? What publishing or writing news rattled you the most? Add your thoughts!

Structure

Once upon a time, newspapers and magazines carried “serials,” novels published chapter-by-chapter. That’s where the idea of cliff-hangers at the ends of those chapters started — writers had to keep the readers wondering what was coming next, so they’d be sure to gobble up the next segment. And publishers loved it — a great serial sold more newspapers or magazines, and everybody was happy. Today we see serials all over TV: “Scandal” and “The Good Wife,” are just a couple of examples. Reality shows like “Survivor” thrive on a similar format. With the advent of print-on-demand and ebooks, is serialization of books coming back? “Getting Serious With Serialization” by Ron Callari at the BookWorks blog looks at the possibilities — and drawbacks — of releasing a longer work in shorter pieces. Maybe it’s the perfect option for you.

Promotion

WOM (Word-of-mouth) promotion is the best, most effective way to sell your books, even if you’re the one giving it lip service :) One of the most valuable suggestions my publisher gave me with my first novel was, “Be prepared to describe your novel in a sentence or two.” She was coaching me to do exactly what Kimberley Grabas explains in “Does Your Elevator Pitch Stand Out?” at Your Writer Platform blog. Follow this advice. My pub and Kimberley are both right: you won’t know when someone will ask, “What’s your book about?” but you’d better have a ready answer. Kimberley gives you the five key points of creating your best elevator pitch, so you won’t have to fumble through it on the spot.

I dropped Facebook long ago, so of course I’d like to believe I’m wayyyy ahead of a coming trend (!). My reasons are multitude, but boil down to my suspicion over their policies and procedures. Yes, I read the Terms of Agreement/Terms of Use fine print… call me paranoid if you like, but agree to anything without knowing what you’re consenting to and you’re on your own, you know. Anyway, at one point (and perhaps still do) stated they can use anything you post in their advertisements, without any benefit to you. You retained ownership of your content, but they could use it if they wished. WHAT?!?!? Anyway, I dropped them. Haven’t agreed with much they’ve done since, and am happy to watch from the sidelines. What does that have to do with anything? Well, the Jumping From Cliffs blog has a great take on the latest revision Facebook has made to its algorithm — and how their tweak will mean plummeting exposure for most writers using it. Yep. Read “Un-Friending Facebook” for a more balanced view than you’re getting from me, including suggestions on whether to stick with Facebook or drop it.

So if I dropped Facebook and don’t use Twitter (long explanation I’ll save us time from giving), how in the world am I able to sell so many copies of the books I have out there? E-mail marketing. Yep. It works. In the case of my nonfiction book, I had many, many contacts from my professional life, all people who might need the book — or are connected to people who might. I created (and frequently updated) an e-mail list and sent out intermittent notes to the list. Now I’m in new territory and need to build new e-mail lists. Where to start? How should I create an opt-in sign-up? Ah! Answers are here, in Kimberley Grabas’ “The Writer’s Guide to Building an Email List” over at Your Writer Platform (yes, TWO mentions of this site in one roundup! You go, girl!).

Writing and Bestsellers

I happened upon the next two resources and read them back-to-back, quite coincidentally, but doing that made me scratch my head. See what you think!

First comes a wake-up call about word choices we make without much “thought” from Chuck Palahniuk at the LitReactor blog. In his “Nuts and Bolts: ‘Thought’ Verbs” post (yep this goes back to August… don’t you love how the Web ignores the old-fashioned timeline?), Chuck says, “Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.” Spot on, Chuck! (Okay… there’s another round of revisions he’s added to my plate.) Best of all, he includes several excellent examples so you can see what he means. He had me.

Then I read, “Scientists find secret to writing a best-selling novel,” by Matthew Sparkes at The Telegraph. Computer scientists, using an algorithm, examined 800 books and found they could discern “trends”: “Less successful work tended to include more verbs and adverbs and relied on words that explicitly describe actions and emotions such as ‘wanted’, ‘took’, or ‘promised’, while more successful books favoured verbs that describe through processes such as ‘recognised’ or ‘remembered.’” So… less action and more thought?!? Hmmm…. But perhaps their sampling was drawn from those more classic novels that spent much more time in the heads of characters than current novels. You decide :)
Creativity

It’s a messy process, isn’t it? So how wonderful when someone endeavors to define that messiness, give it borders and labels and steps. Many thanks to Maria Popova at Brain Pickings for her “The 10 Stages of the Creative Process,” a summary of filmmaker Tiffany Shlain’s philosophy on what we go through when we create. Especially familiar? Step 5 — Confusion. And the step I would never have named this, but she did and it’s perfect? Step 8 — The Premature Breakthroughlation.

March Madness

Being inspired by those college athletes battling it out under the hoops? Me too. And here are a few things I’ve gleaned:

1. Don’t believe the rankings. Upsets in the first bracket (like #14-ranked Mercer taking out #3-ranked — and highly favored — Duke) are a reminder that the people who think they can pick winners aren’t always right. So ignore all the stuff you’ve heard about what helps books sell and what doesn’t — exceptions (like bracket-busting upsets in basketball) are everywhere in publishing. Just ask JK Rowling, who was told that no kid in her target readership would wade through a long tome.

2. Make every free throw you’re handed. I’m still surprised when players toe the line, aim, and miss. The height to the basket never changes. The distance from the free throw line to the basket is always the same. It should be the easiest thing to consistently get right: memorizing body language and practice, practice, practice, so you’ll be ready when the other guy fouls you and you have to toe the line. When I read many self-published first novels, I see a similar phenomenon: writers who haven’t spent enough time practicing. They miss the free throws of writing: grammar, sentence structure, dramatic arcs. These won’t change over time (at least not much). You should be so good at these basics that they come naturally. You can see that in an experienced roundball player when he or she steps up to the free throw line, and you can spot it in any book you pick up. Grill yourself on the basics of your writing craft and you’ll have a better shot at winning, too.
3. Remember that every game is different but some things never change. In basketball, the rules are the same (at least within the same season). The number of players on the other team — and their positions — won’t vary. In writing, a mystery is a mystery, and the conventions don’t change — something happens that the main character must figure out; they have to follow clues to solve a case. Within that category lies a world of options for you, just as every basketball game requires different tactics for winning. You’re the coach for your writing: it’s up to you to understand the game, its rules, and the best way to use your team so you’ll be snipping down the net at the end of the championship game rather than your opponent.

4. Don’t give up. Some games go down to the last second. A ten-point lead with a couple of minutes left in a basketball game isn’t a sure win — unless the team that’s behind loses heart. Every basketball fan has their favorite come-from-behind story, that five-tenths of a second on the clock jump shot from half-court to win by one point sort of story. Even playing hard doesn’t guarantee a win — but giving up will guarantee a loss. Stay with your writing. Keep learning. Keep reading. Keep practicing. Keep going out on the court to meet the opponents. You won’t win if you don’t try; you’ll never win if you give up.

5. Size doesn’t matter. The shorter team wins all the time in basketball. They just figure out how to beat the larger, lunkier opponent: they focus on their speed or agility or energy or more inventive ways of getting that same ball in the basket. With hundreds of thousands of books published each year in the US (!), it’s easy to feel small. One tiny dot in the writing universe. But that dot can shine if you find your strength and capitalize on it. What do you do well? Where can your spark be seen apart from others? What can you do with your writing that makes your work stand out? You don’t have to be capable of creating intrigue plots — create memorable characters and draw the settings so realistically the scenes seem real to your readers. Keep working at it until you’ve found what you do well — and make it work for you, despite being the little guy.

Are you hearing me? Learn the basics. Practice. Know the rules, but understand when the experts might just have it wrong — because you know your readers better than they do. Don’t quit, and don’t be intimidated.

As I write this, #11 Dayton is scheduled to play #1 Florida in their regional semi-finals. They know the basics, have practiced, know their strengths and their opponents’ weaknesses. Most of all, they aren’t intimidated and they won’t give up. That doesn’t mean they’ll win, but they should give us a pretty good game, and that’s all we can ever ask of a team.

What about you? Are you giving your readers a Final-Four caliber book?

Lulu of a Publisher

Inexperienced writers beware. If you’re looking for a publisher and words like “vanity press” don’t mean anything to you, prepare to be as stung as you would if you stuck an unprotected arm into a beehive. Maybe worse.

It’s not as though you won’t find information on the Web about publishing — reputable houses versus scams, ways to sniff out a scam, things like that. It’s that — admit it! — you’re in too much of a hurry to get the book out there. Start promoting it to your meager but hopefully soon-to-grow too big for its britches fan base. Right?

And no, I’m not going into that lesson here.

What I am going to tell you is that while some business are scams, and some are doing exactly what they promised. The fact is that some people just expected more, and when they didn’t get it, they were upset. So know what you’re looking for in a publisher, and know which companies will provide those services. Period.

All that said, I have to admit that Lulu [www.lulu.com], which I’ve used for two of my books (and will for the next one, coming soon), isn’t perfect, and has made some business decisions I haven’t agreed with, but it suits my needs.

Here’s why.

  • They offer a range of services. Want to do the entire manuscript formatting and cover design yourself? Fine. Upload your files and go, my dear. Prefer to hire someone for that techie stuff? That’s fine, too. Your choice.
  • Their help section is huge and growing — with lots of tutorials, templates, step-by-step instructions, calculators, and other tools to help you get your book in print or released via e-format.
  • You can own your own ISBN or use one of Lulu’s — for free. Yes, Lulu goes down as the publisher of record, and some authors don’t like that, but hey — you get a traditional publisher and the same thing happens, so what’s the big deal?
  • They provide cover designs — easy-sneezy — or you can upload your own design (or one you’ve had designed for you). And there’s a work-around if you want to use their cover-design wizard AND your own design (!) (Let me know if you want this secret revealed and I’ll post about it.)
  • They pay me with an old-fashioned check. Rampant credit card and ID theft have made me wary, so signing up to have Lulu snail mail me an actual check fits my comfort zone. They are the only reputable print-on-demand business that does this (that I know of), and it’s a big reason you won’t find my book at Smashbooks and some other places. Lulu will distribute my books to Amazon, the iBookstore and other places, keep a tiny share as middleman, and include the sales in their check to me. I have one account to keep track of — Lulu.

I do all the interior layout, cover design, and formatting for my e-books, so my financial outlay for creating my books is zero. Nada.  Zip. What I earn back is 100% profit. Yes, Lulu takes a cut, but my share is still larger than it would be with a traditional publisher, and I can do what I want. It’s a great match for the services I want and need, and the price is right.

You won’t hear me belly-aching about having been done wrong by my publisher. I knew what I was going to get going in, and unless Lulu changes its business model in some horrendously stupid way, I’ll probably stick with Lulu for many more books to come.

What about you? What publisher(s) do you use? Why did you pick them? Would you use them again? Have your own scary story to share? Any lessons learned? Come on… tell us!

The Worst Time for a Writer

You’re putting the final touches on the latest manuscript, making sure it’s tuned up and ready for opening night. You’ve read it so many times you can recite your favorite scenes in line at the supermarket if you’re so inclined.

You’ve got your marketing plan underway. All you need is the book. You’re counting down the days — everything is ready.

So what’s the problem?

All those ideas swarming around in your head screaming, “Pick me! Pick me!” Or maybe “Put me in, Coach!”

You’re at the bottom of a high waterfall — ideas pound down on you with such force you struggle to stay upright.

For me, it’s like standing in front of the candy counter at Steve’s Newsstand when I was a kid: all that candy! And just a few coins in my hand. What should I pick? Should I drop the whole wad on one big, juicy chocolate bar? Or divvy it up and get a slew of penny candies? Wonderful and terrifying choices, every one of them.

The worst time for me as a writer? When I’m between projects. When the next plot, setting, characters, start to emerge from the haze of possibilities.

A woman I used to know, too much to drink one night, woke up in her bed, saw the clothes hanging in her closet, and sat straight up, staring at them. “Who are all you people and what do you want with me?” she asked.

That’s how I feel about all these possibilities, even if they are products of my own imagination: what do they want with me? What should I do with them?

Are they meant to be in one book? A main storyline and at least one subplot? Or not?

So I settle in with my blank paper, my colored felt tip pens, and start a little mind map, drawing pictures, sounding out ideas in cartoon format, looking for the trail through the heavy underbrush. One foot at a time along the path, one plot point at a time on the paper.

When doodling through the mind map turns from fun to frustration I turn back to the next chapter in the WIP for more editing. Cycling these tasks them seems to help.

And I remind myself: I’d much rather be deluged with ideas than facing a drought of possibilities. So maybe this isn’t the worst time for a writer. Maybe the worst time is when you want to write — need to get something written — and no ideas visit. No inspiration hits. You look and look — but see nothing.

Now that I think about it, that would be the worst time for a writer.

What about you? Would you rather have too many ideas or too few? Great success with greater demands and little time to write? Or little success and more time to write? Support but too much curiosity from loved ones or general lack of interest but more freedom from prying eyes?

What’s your worst time as a writer?

A View of Self-Publishing from Canadian Author Lin Weich

On our journey to Alaska this past summer, we traveled through much of British Columbia, Canada, and were rewarded with amazing food, great shops, and wonderful people. At a farmer’s market in Quesnel, we paused to peruse the booth set by the local writers’ group. A novel caught my eye, and a conversation began. Lin Weich has had a fascinating life and now writes stories born of her experiences, which she self-publishes.

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What compelled you to start writing fiction? Have you always written or made up stories? Was there a particular incident that got the writing momentum going for you? If so, what was it?
On a trip to Prince Rupert [BC] shortly after I retired early from teaching, I passed the sign on the highway that warned girls not to hitchhike on the highway of tears; then while on a mothership kayaking tour I asked the captain of the vessel if he’d ever run across any smuggling…one thing lead to another and I wondered if I could actually write a book. The story just came together (Strength of an Eagle). My second novel Half-Truths, Total Lies was basically started by a dream. My third book (Alone) is one of several running around in my head. Now I can’t stop writing! Previous to this I had no interest in writing.

How has your real life influenced your writing?
Writers write what they know and research and embellish the rest. I live a very outdoor life, have taught for many years, am intrigued by self-sufficient lifestyles, travel both in Canada and abroad. Couple those influences with the belief that everyone you meet has a story hidden inside them just waiting for me to tweak out…

Why did you decide to self-publish your books? Did you seek a traditional publisher or an agent first, or plunge right into self-publishing?
I spent two years trying to “sell” my books to both agents and publishers rarely getting past the gatekeepers. Publishers are not interested in new talent as they simply can’t afford to take a chance on unknown writers. Vanity press (self-publishing) has evolved into a now reputable option and with the advent of e-book publishing I decided to go the self-publishing route via a known company. Some writers might consider print on demand and doing their own e-book formatting but I do not have enough technical knowledge for that route.

How did you choose your printer? Cover designer?
I chose Friesen Press after doing a lot of research. It is more expensive but it is a Canadian company based out of Victoria, BC. Part of the package included cover design. There were also modules on selling your books, deciding your focus and goals etc. I purchased editing services from another company before I chose my publishing company.

Do you take your the cover photos? If not, how do you choose them?
The cover image for Strength of an Eagle is my photo. Half-Truths, Total Lies and Alone use stock photos available from various websites. Initially I wanted to use another of my photos for Strength of an Eagle but the pixels were not sufficient for a good quality cover.

What’s been most challenging for you as writer and publisher?
Waiting for other people to do their jobs, the selling/marketing aspect, although you would have the same problems with traditional publishers because authors must do their own marketing.

What rewards have you reaped by self-publishing?
Moderate success re- selling, people read and like my books, which is the best reward.

Would you consider traditional publishing?
The jury is out on this one…I wouldn’t say no if they came knocking but I like the complete control you have with self-publishing.

How has being a member of a writing group helped?
My writing group affords some opportunities for selling books and perhaps some moral support. I have a very supportive friend who also writes and have beta readers who are quite skillful. I need to reach out to more writers and online groups.

If you could give an aspiring writer advice about whether to self-publish or seek publication via traditional routes, what would you say?
Know yourself and your goals, have a good manuscript ready and edited, consider how much time you have to devote to seeking agents and publishers, do you homework about what traditional publishers want regarding queries etc., do your homework about self-publishing companies…compare the packages…It is very expensive. Know how much control you need to have over your final product, develop an ability to take constructive criticism, know how long you want to try with traditional publishers…it truly is like winning a lottery. Most importantly, if you self-publish, have a good product if you expect to get anywhere. Do not go with a company that is willing to publish anything just to get your money. Self-publishing is coming into its own but only if the novel reflects quality work.

Thanks, Lin!

To learn more about Lin’s work, visit her web site at www.linweich.com; contact Lin directly by accessing her site, then clicking the “Contact Us” link.

Lin Weich, a retired teacher, writes suspense thrillers, enjoys freelance writing and photography. She grew up in West Africa and has lived in various places in both eastern and western Canada. She lives in Quesnel, British Columbia with her husband Brian. Her kayaking adventures, teaching experiences, outdoor activities and travels have influenced the substance and voice of her stories and photography. When she isn’t busy creating stories, she enjoys travelling both in Canada and abroad. Lin has published two novels Strength of an Eagle and Half-Truths, Total Lies. She has also published articles in Our Canada, More of Our Canada, Postscript, Rocky Mountaineer brochure, and Royal Photographic Society (Canada) on-line magazine.