Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What we're writing: Rhys writes THE END, but is it?

On Sunday I wrote those two most magic words to any writer THE END.
I had finished the first draft of next year's Royal Spyness book, called Malice at the Palace. I can't give you a cover picture because there isn't one yet. But it takes place mainly at Kensington Palace. Not nearly as well known as its sister Buckingham, it is older and has housed many generations of royals. It was the home of George I. It was where Queen Victoria was born and at the time I write about it was known as the Aunt Heap--because various daughters and granddaughters of Queen Victoria lived in apartments there. More recently it achieved fame as the home of Charles and Diana. It was where William and Harry grew up. It was outside the gold tipped gates that the incredible tribute of flowers was left for Diana. And now it is where William and Kate are raising their family. (second one on the way, in case you haven't heard).

Oh, and it also houses more than its share of family ghosts, some of whom make cameo appearances in my book. I realize I'm sailing a little close to the wind with this story--a real royal scandal of the time. But it is well substantiated in the newspapers so I feel I will not be treading on too many toes.

And of course those words THE END now means that the hard work starts. Going through the whole thing again, examining every sentence for clumsy phrasing. Reading a lot out loud. Making sure that the plot makes sense and doesn't give too much away. And when my polishing is complete to goes to my husband John, who will pull it apart yet again and we'll argue a lot and then I'll rewrite one more time before it goes off to my agent and my editor.

But if you'd like a little preview now here is the scene when Georgie arrives at the palace.

The rain came down harder and the wind buffeted me as I finally came to what I hoped was the right door. I rang the door bell. Nobody came immediately so I tried the door knob and the door swung open. I stepped into a foyer and looked around with surprise. I had expected something like Buckingham Palace—walls lined with royal portraits, antiques and statues everywhere. But this was more like an ordinary home, slightly outmoded and with a lingering smell of furniture polish and damp.  I gave a sigh of disappointment, mingled with a small sigh of relief. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about knocking over priceless objects every time I turned around, the way I did at Buckingham Palace.  It was also rather cold in that foyer, with a draft swirling about my legs.. Not too welcoming a first impression for a visiting princess, I thought. But perhaps they were not planning to turn on any form of heat until she arrived.
            I wasn’t quite sure what to do next. I wondered if the queen would have supplied servants of if Princess Marina was bringing her own and they weren’t here yet.  I realized that I should have asked to be taken to Major Beauchamp-Chough, not have gone straight to the apartment. Protocol probably demanded that he escort me to my quarters. But it was a long, wet walk back to the front of the building.  There was an archway at the end of the entry hall leading to a passageway beyond. As I looked in that direction I saw a woman walk across it.
“Hello,” I called. “Wait a minute, please.”
When she didn’t stop I ran after her, and found myself standing in a long dark corridor that was completely empty. Where had she gone? There were no side corridors and she would not have had time to open and close a door. That’s when I realized she was wearing a long white dress and her hair had been piled upon her head in curls. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. At that moment I heard the brisk tap of feet on the marble tiled floor and a woman came across the foyer toward me.  This one was all too solid. She was probably in her thirties, well fed, in a wool dress that was a little too tight for her, pale faced and with pale hair piled in an old fashioned bun. She spotted me and bore down upon me, wagging a finger.
            “Ah, there you are, you naughty girl,” she said in strongly accented English. “Where have you been? I have been waiting for you.”
            “I didn’t realize there was a specific time for my arrival,” I said, taking aback by her ferocious approach.
            “That is no way to address your betters,” she said, giving me a haughty stare.
            “My betters?” Indignation now overtook surprise. “I’m sorry. I don’t know who you are, but I rather think we must be equals, unless you are Queen Victoria reincarnated.”
            I saw uncertainty cross her face. “Are you not the girl who was sent to bring me pickled herring from Harrods?”
            I tried not to grin. “I am Lady Georgiana, cousin to His Majesty,” I said. “May one ask your name?.”
            “Oh, thousand pardons,” the woman stammered, thoroughly flustered now. “I did not expect… we were not informed that His Majesty’s cousin would be visiting.  And I did not expect a royal person to arrive alone in such a manner.” And she looked at my sodden mack and the puddle accumulating around my feet.
‘Yes, I’m sorry. I realize I don’t look very royal,” I said. “But it’s raining cats and dogs out there and I don’t have a motor car.”
She went and peered out of the window. “I do not see any cats and dogs,” she said.
“Just an expression.”
“Ah,” she said solemnly. “An English idiom. I must learn these things. Cats and dogs.”

And an interesting little thing happened to me when I started writing this book. A friend was moving from a big house to a retirement home. "I thought you might like this old print," she said. It was framed and very old. I thanked her then I looked at the caption at the bottom. Kensington Palace, 1789. I took it as a good omen. 

So I'm interested to know, dear Reds and Readers--how do you feel about real people as characters in fiction? I try to keep mine as close to their true lives as possible but what do you think of books that take liberties with them--Queen Elizabeth as a sleuth? Hitler as a sleuth?

Malice at the Palace will be published by Berkley Prime Crime August 2015.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Hank realizes: It All Depends On How YOU Look At It

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:   It's "What We’re Writing" week! And I am coming around the writing corner (crossing fingers), to figuring out the end of WHAT YOU SEE.   Since I don’t use an outline, I won't know what happens until it happens. I mean, until I write it. Scary! And exciting.
And I have come to a revelation about endings.
Were you--like me--one of those people in high school who loved taking standardized tests? Oh, I actually looked forward to it. And I did really well on one called the Miller Analogies test.  Remember?  It was to see if you could understand how one thing related to another.  Word One is to Word Two as Word Three is to Word Four.
By analyzing the relationship of word three to word four, you have to figure out which of the multiple choice words was had the same relationship to the first word.
Puppy is to _____ as Kitten is to Cat.
a.    Wolf
b.   Dog
c.    Mary
d.   Husband
(I will pause, now, while you think about this. But you probably don’t need the multiple choice answers to figure it out. And yeah, you know the answer they want.)
But!  A writer--even if you choose the "correct" answer-- might think of other things. And my theory is—that’s what makes writers (and readers!) different. And special. And able to make stuff up.
For instance. What if Cat is a person? You could then think of a person who had a little dog, and it would be correct to say:  Puppy is to Mary as Kitten is to Cat.
 What if Puppy is a nickname? And that’s what you call your husband? And you also call your grownup cat “Kitten?” So, Husband could also be right.
And what if they meant—a big wild cat, like a lion? A wolf is kind of a big wild dog. So if you look at it that way, Wolf is right.
You could think about syllables, and number of letters, and well, what else?
An ARC of TBT to one lucky commenter!
And that’s what gave me goose bumps when I figured out the ending of TRUTH BE TOLD. I sat at my computer, staring at the screen, thinking: What would someone really do here? What would happen next?
And most important: Why.
And that is when an author has to start thinking about relationships. What one person means to the other, what one person thinks about the other—and how you could make those puzzle pieces of motivation go together in ingenious and surprising ways.
How does one thing relate to the other in an unexpected way? Not the first answer on the Miller Analogies test, but the most interesting one?
(Sidebar: Oh. I just remembered this.  Donald Maass told me once that given the analogies test, children matched Monkey with “Banana,” while adults matched monkey with “chimpanzee.” Adults chose what the subject was. Kids chose what the subject wanted. That, he said, proves kids are storytellers!)
Anyway. When I figured out the end of TRUTH BE TOLD (I will not tell you here, of course), I will confess I was by myself in my study, and I stood up, and applauded.
And I am hoping that happens with WHAT YOU SEE. And you know, um, soon.
Here’s a truly funny thing. When I was looking up examples of the Miller Analogies, here’s (hilariously) one of the first ones Google provided.
A. patent 

B. royalty

C. wage

D. interest
 Of course, now we know, the answer is (say it with me) ALL OF THE ABOVE. Because it all depends on our imagination.
And finally, good news about endings:
TRUTH BE TOLD just got a starred review from Library Journal—and part of the rave says:  “Packs a powerful punch...drop everything and binge-read until the mind-boggling conclusion.”
Reds, were you good at tests? Did you like them? And what’s your answer to the puppy question? An arc of TRUTH BE TOLD to one lucky test-taker! 
*******Oh, and PS! YOU ARE INVITED to the TRUTH BE TOLD launch party! October 7 at Brookline (MA) Booksmith. I will mail you an invitation if you ask in the comments!)  

Monday, September 15, 2014

Hallie walks the short story tightrope

HALLIE EPHRON: It's that time again! What We're Writing Week and I'm first up.

My new book, Night Night, Sleep Tight, comes out in March. It's

done, "in the can" as it were. Only galleys remain to be edited.

I'm so happy with the cover. You're seeing it first. Glamorous, yes? I may have to buy myself a strand of fat pink pearls to celebrate the launch. (Almost as much fun as the green-glass swan I scored off eBay to celebrate the publication of Never Tell a Lie.)

Now I'm wrestling with a short story that will come out just before. And can I just say, writing a short story -- any short story -- is excruciating. I mean, it's so short! So little time to futz around. No cover for flabby plotting.

And this one is doubly hard because it's also a lead-in to my novel. It tells some of the back story from the viewpoint of a Joelen (pronounced Joe-Ellen) Nichols, the daughter of glamorous movie star Elenor "Bunny" Nichols.

So, here's the setup. It's 1963 and two fifteen-year-old girls -- a movie star's daughter and her daughter's best friend -- get all dressed up and hang out at a glamorous Hollywood party, only to get caught up in its tragic aftermath. Anyone who reads the short story will be privy to insights that people who only read the novel won't. Tricky: to intrigue and tease without giving anything away that will spoil the novel, and at the same time to create a satisfying standalone reading experience.

I'm still struggling with the ending, so I'll just give you a taste of the beginning:

   Throwing a party was a production for Joelen Nichol's mother, actress Elenor Nichols, and getting dressed was its first act. Joelen and her best friend, Deirdre Unger, sat on the plush white carpet watching Bunny (Elenor liked everyone including her daughter and legions of fans, to call her that) eye her own reflection in the full-length mirrors mounted on the sliding closet doors in her dressing room.
    The wall behind Bunny was mirrored, too, so she was presented with an infinitely repeating version of herself, silky black hair skinned back and the porcelain skin on her famous face shiny with skin cream, flanked by a receding chorus line of sparkling crystal, wall-mounted sconces.
    With a grand gesture, Bunny swept her arm out and slid open one of the closet doors. Then she stood for a few moments, tapping a lacquered nail against her chin, assessing the row of gowns. She performed even when her audience was just a pair of fifteen-year-olds.
    "What to wear, what to wear? Not too glitzy. It's just a party." She smiled--just the mouth, no eye crinkle."Even if it is one of my famously fabulous parties." From downstairs came the clink of plates, or maybe silverware, as caterers prepared for the onslaught.
   In the mirror, Joelen saw Deirdre had her hand over her mouth as if she were trying not to crack up. Joelen caught Deirdre's eye and gave her a warning head shake. Bunny never did comedy.
    "What about this old thing?" Bunny reached into the closet and pulled out a blue chiffon dress. The skirt swirled and Chanel No. 5 wafted from it as she whipped around to face Joelen and Deirdre. "Too demure? Or -- "
    Bunny broke off, startled at what sounded like something small and solid smacking into a a pane of glass. Bunny's gaze traveled toward the partly open door to the adjoining bedroom where the sound came from. Her smile broadened, this time reaching her eyes, and her pale cheeks flushed.
    She turned her attention back to the dress."Or maybe a bit clichéd? Right?" She nodded, agreeing with herself. "We are not Princess Grace."
    Chaste and regal Bunny was not. Most often, she was compared to Ava Gardner--not surprising since Bunny had shot from chorus girl to rising star after she captured the attention of Gardner's ex, Howard Hughes, who liked his women dark, sultry, and shapely.
So am I the only one who finds short stories a challenge? We have so much less rope to hang ourselves with than in a novel.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Your Sunday Moment of Zen….

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Today is Sunday and — perhaps — time for a moment of contemplation. 

I don't believe in angels per se, but I like to think of kind words as "angel song," as Frederick William Faber did:

And I'd like to think if I do have a guardian angel he/she/it would look something like the way Outsider artist Jon Stucky sees them:

Happy Sunday, everyone!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Literary Agents — "Everything to Everbody"

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Victoria Skurnick of LGR Literary  (and my own beloved agent) was on Jungle Reds a few months ago, talking about no-nos when approaching literary agents with your book proposal.

But what do literary agents themselves actually do all day? Drape themselves artfully on silk settées and read manuscripts 
while eating bon-bons? (OK, I can hear Victoria laughing now....)

The truth is that literary agents don't have a set job description and every day brings a different challenge. The great literary agents are adaptable, proactive, relentless, positive. They love books and champion their authors.

Read on and learn one agent's perspective of the other side of the desk…..

VICTORIA SKURNICK: You can’t be everything to everybody. That’s what my mother would tell me when she felt I was spreading myself too thin.  Well, turns out, what I get paid for is exactly that: being everything to everybody.

It’s about the only description of what an agent actually does that is at all true.  We get to be greedy nags (at least, that’s how an editor might describe us), editors (God forbid a manuscript not be perfect before we submit it to publishers), mommies cum psychoanalysts to anxious writers [ahem—trying not to take this personally—ed.], accountants to harder-headed clients, literary critics, beggars, wheedlers, gypsys and thieves. 

Okay, forget the gypsy part.  Even when we manage to leave our offices, we’re lugging mountains of papers with us, which makes it hard to move around very far (I wasn’t that fond of the Kindle even before the Big A started acting up).

What we also get to be is busy and fascinated.  A day in the life of an agent might consist of many hours of reading, or it might be running around town trying to work of enthusiasm for a project, or preventing a publisher from going out with thousands of copies of books containing huge mistakes, or arguing with clients about plot points, or reworking proposals.  

On any given day, we might go from feeling like geniuses to considering ourselves horrible, stupid failures.  I know of no agent – not one – who does not spend some hours every month thinking, what if I never sell another book!?!   And that goes, I assure you, for the biggest names in the business.

I became an agent seven years ago, after several different paths, most of them in publishing.  But my last job was as editor-in-chief of what was then a powerful book club.  When you’re the editor-in-chief of a powerful book club, not only do people return your calls, but they actually call you – voluntarily.  

When you’re an agent, you’re the one making the calls, and the one whose emails do not necessarily get answered.  When, after three or four (or eight or ten) months, you’re sending the third or eighth polite email or making the fifth or twentieth call, asking an editor a question like, “Gee, I wondered if you’d had time to read  Book X yet,” and getting no response for the third, fourth, eighth or tenth time, you get to know what it’s like on the other side.  You get to internalize words like abject and powerless. 

But, when you’re at your desk and you pick up a novel that reads beautifully, then it’s all worth it.  The sense of excitement, of discovery, is remarkable. The wonderful knowledge that you are in a position to do everything possible to bring this to the attention of hundreds or thousands or millions of people.  This is the payoff; this is what we live for.

That, and the learning.  I just sold a book on the presidency of Chester Arthur, and the subject turns out to be incredibly interesting.  Who knew?  I’ve learned more about England in World War Two from Susan’s Maggie Hope novels than I ever thought possible.  A friend of mine who’s now a publisher, but who was an editor for decades, describes herself as “a talking book.”  And that pretty much sums it up.  Writers are smart people. 

Publishers are smart people – except when they turn down my clients’ books, that is.  

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Thank you, Victoria! 

Reds and lovely readers, do you think you would make a good literary agent? Why or why not? (I'd be TERRIBLE — too many people…..) 

Does Victoria's perspective give you and sympathy for those on the other side of the desk? 

Please share in the comments!