Can you relate to your antagonist?

This past week, I’ve been deep in the bowels of rewrites – and just printed the draft yesterday! I’ll be going through it this weekend, making changes and edits next week, and hoping to get it to my betas soon. ūüôā

But let’s be honest – that’s not all I’ve been doing. ūüôā

There were a couple of things this week that provoked some deep thoughts. (Besides Trump thinking it’s okay to murder an endangered species.) Both had to do with how we think about our antagonists, and how we can humanize them.

Writing books, conferences, tutorials – they’ll all tell you the same thing:¬† you can’t have an antagonist/villain who’s completely bad. Sometimes, that comes across (and I’m as guilty as anyone of thinking this) as your antagonist has to do something great like rescuing kittens, or donating 30% of his ill-gotten gains to charities and orphanages, so the reader, you know, has to sort of root for him.

But it’s not really like that. What all these tutors and books really mean is this:¬† you need to make your antagonist relate-able.¬†And here’s a couple of examples of making your antagonist¬†human,¬†without necessarily making them¬†heroic.¬†

The first came with my 134th watching of¬†Ever After.¬†If you’ve never seen this movie, do go watch it, please. It’s a historic retelling of the Cinderella story, and fairly historically accurate as well (to those who say that Leonardo da Vinci was never in France – well, he was!). Drew Barrymore plays the title heroine, Danielle du Barbarac, who will catch the eye – and heart – of Prince Henri. Now, in the original fairy tale, the wicked stepmother is just that. Wicked. She hates Cinderella for reasons we don’t really understand, dotes on her horrible daughters, and makes Cinderella’s life a living hell. She’s a villain.

9302f59bf71b5164267079b635e71deaBut. In¬†Ever After,¬†the stepmother, Rodmilla de Ghent (played masterfully by the incomparable Anjelica Huston), is a woman widowed and having to do whatever it takes to raise three daughters – well, two daughters and one stepdaughter¬† – alone. There is one revealing scene in the movie in which Danielle is brushing her stepmother’s hair, and Rodmilla allows her – for a brief moment – to ask about her father. “You look so much like your father,” she says . . . and when Danielle asks if she loved him, she replies, “I barely knew him.” Yet it’s clear that his death shook her to the core; she could have married again, and in fact it would have been much easier if she had. But she didn’t. Now, this could be because no man in his right mind would take on a total witch who’s already been through two husbands, sure. But it might also be that, having been married twice, she has chosen a different path. At any rate, though it’s a small – very small – scene, it gives the ‘wicked stepmother’ a hint of humanity. We can identify, in a way, with her. And when she finally gets her come-uppance, we almost feel a little sorry for her. (Almost.)

Then, last Sunday, I was listening to The Moth Radio Hour (which, if you’ve never listened, you HAVE to!). One story in particular had me spellbound. A young musician, living in LA and working as a super in an apartment complex, was called by the FBI and asked to identify a couple of photos. The woman, he said, didn’t look all that familiar. But the guy, sure. That was Charlie. He lived upstairs with his wife.

Only Charlie was really – Whitey Bulger. Yeah. THAT Whitey Bulger.

Here’s a link to the episode:¬†¬†https://themoth.org/stories/call-me-charlie But as you listen, you’ll understand why this one made me think. The musician, Josh, didn’t know Charlie as the FBI’s Most Wanted. He didn’t know him as a ruthless mob boss who has since been convicted of money laundering, extortion, and nineteen murders. Josh knew Charlie as the guy who came downstairs one day, listened to him play his guitar, and then gave him a Stetson. He knew Charlie as the guy who gave him Christmas presents, and then – when he forgot to write a thank-you note – gave him a box of stationary. He knew Charlie as – Charlie. Not a murderer. And when the FBI wanted Josh to participate in taking Charlie down, that’s how Josh thought about it –¬† not that he was helping arrest a wanted criminal, but that he was helping arrest someone he considered a normal, quiet tenant who might even be thought of as a friend.

In this case, it’s all about perception. Could a notorious mob boss be – a nice guy? To someone who had no idea who he was, maybe. Take author Ann Rule. In the early 70s, she famously worked a late-night shift on a suicide hotline with none other than Ted Bundy. They became friends – and even after he was arrested and charged with the murders of thirty women, she remained friends with him because he was charming and – well, to those he liked, he was¬†nice.¬†In a jailhouse interview, he apparently once told her, “I liked you. I would never have hurt you.” (Here’s a story from the Washington¬†Post¬†about her relationship with Bundy:¬† https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/07/28/crime-writer-ann-rule-and-killer-ted-bundy-were-friends-before-they-were-famous/?utm_term=.b8ed8134155a¬†)

So maybe this is all there is to it, then. Make your antagonist someone your reader is able to relate to. That makes it harder for your readers to know what they want to have happen. And it makes it harder for your protagonist, maybe, to do what they have to do. Ann Rule is the one who tipped off police about Bundy. Imagine the doubts and second doubts she had to go through before she placed that call. What if your antagonist is someone that, under other circumstances, your protagonist could actually like? How much inner tension could that add?

This is part of the revisions that I’ve been making. My antagonist was – well, to be honest, he was sort of what we call a ‘mwa-ha-ha’ villain. Motivated by greed, he was callus and dismissive of Erin’s concerns, and clearly didn’t care about the ghosts he hunted. I also never liked him and never felt comfortable with having him in my story. It didn’t seem like that’s really who he should be.

So – I hit the rest button. What would add more tension? For Erin, going up against a jackass is just par for the course – that would never keep her up at night! But what if he¬†wasn’t¬†an ass? What if he was actually a halfway decent guy who just truly didn’t understand that the things he was doing were actually harming the ghosts he was after? A bit bumbling, a bit stubborn, and a bit clueless. We all know someone like that. That’s easy to relate to. We can’t hate this guy, because he’s not really a bad guy. We can be aghast at the things he¬†does.¬†But even Erin, as much as she wants to, can’t really¬†dislike¬†him. That puts her in a bind. That adds a little tension.

I encourage you to at least listen to the Moth segment. ūüôā But also, to think about these things if you’re in the middle of your own rewrites, or if something seems slightly off-kilter about your antagonist. Sure, we like to hate villains. No one minds hating Jafar, or Jeffrey Dahmer, or Trump. They’re evil. We get it. But in fiction . . . sometimes, just¬†evil¬†doesn’t quite get the job done.

Sometimes, being able to relate to your antagonist is what you need.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Endings are Hard, part 2

Endings are hard. 

True dat!

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the struggles I’m having with the ending to my work in progress, and hinted at a few of the reasons why I think it’s not working. Since then, I’ve made some progress, but it’s basically like having a pipe full of frozen molasses – you can grab a knife or screwdriver and pick away at it, you can thaw it a bit at a time, or you can just . . . walk away.

Yeah, well, I’ve come too far to walk away.

The ending to my second book is good. I mean, really good. So good, in fact, that it’s hard for me to remember that it took me about two years and 40 drafts to get it that good. Not only did it change location,¬†but the roster of characters also changed. So did the motivations (which, yes, meant rewrites to the rest of the novel – which were what¬†allowed the ending to be written).¬†I keep thinking I have to get this one right, right out the gate. 100% there. No problems, no issues, no rewrites.

HAH! To paraphrase Shakespeare, what fools these writers be. It’s up to me to give myself the freedom to screw up. And I have, and I will again.

Endings need to accomplish certain things, like I said before. The basics of a good ending are that they:

1.) Answer all the questions – or the main ones, anyway. If you’re writing a series, then you may have plot lines that continue across several books, not being resolved until the end of the series, or at least, in a later book. To do this, you have to think about why you started this novel. What were the things your characters, especially your MC, were struggling with? This usually includes both their external and internal conflicts. If they’re afraid of snakes, put them in a pit of snakes before they can save the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis. ūüôā

2.) Wrap up all the loose ends. Raymond Chandler once famously forgot about a character – the chauffeur who gets killed and stuffed in a trunk in¬†The Big Sleep.¬†Don’t do that. Readers are still griping about that chauffeur. They’ll gripe about your loose ends, too. I promise.

3.) Are a result of the actions of your characters, especially your MC. Every choice they’ve made, every action they’ve taken – including the mistakes! – have to lead to this moment. This goes for both your antagonist and protagonist.¬†Remember, your protagonist and antagonist are in opposition to each other. One of them wants to blow up the White House? Then you’d better have the other one risking everything to stop that.

One other thing bothers me about the ending I’m trying to write, as I realized late last night:¬† My MC, Erin, isn’t able to do much in the ending.¬† And that frustrates the hell out of her and me both! It’s something we’re both going to have to think about, because the ending really belongs to another character, Rebecca. She wants revenge, and she’ll have it – and Erin can’t stop her. Truthfully, Erin isn’t even sure she¬†wants¬†to stop her. Erin’s job – her goal – is to bring the truth of Rebecca’s death to light, and then let Rebecca cross over. (Erin sees ghosts. She hates that I’m telling you that, by the way.) But Rebecca’s goal is revenge. Once Erin tells her how she died, and why, Rebecca has no intention of crossing over peacefully while her murderers are still out and about.

4.) Satisfy the promise you made in the beginning. In Chapter 1, you made a promise to your readers as to what this book would be about. If it’s a romance, you promised there would be a happily ever after. If it’s a murder mystery, you promised to bring the killer to justice. Renege on that, and your readers will throw your book across the room – and then, onto a bonfire.

5.) Let your MC uses all his skills and knowledge – including any he’s acquired since the book started. In¬†Angels and Demons,¬†Robert Langdon learns, in an early chapter, how to create resistance to air flow. It sees superfluous at the time, but it saves his life when he’s tossed out of an airplane at the end of the novel. (No, I don’t know if it’s accurate, and I don’t really care, either.)

6.) Don’t let the characters act out of character! I think this may be the most important thing, because remember,¬†your ending has to be a natural outgrowth of the rest of the novel.¬†If your meek, quiet, pacifist heroine suddenly pops up with a broadsword, screaming like a banshee, and kills a dozen bystanders, you’re going to get hate mail – unless you’ve somehow foreshadowed this. Is it a spell? Trauma? This rule goes for ALL of your characters – secondary, main, and antagonists.

7.) Allow at least one character – which had better be your MC – to acquire what they wanted. What motivates your MC? Are they after a treasure? Knowledge? Revenge? Love? There are books I absolutely despise and would cheerfully burn every copy of because the MC’s motives change at the end. One of these is a horrendously awful YA book called¬†Sky,¬†about a spoiled teenage girl who wants a horse, finally gets the horse, then sells the horse to the meat truck guy when the horse breaks her leg. The author who wrote this hideous goat shite should be beaten. Repeatedly. I volunteer.

Now, I will say this:¬†¬†sometimes, it’s the antagonist who gets what they want instead.¬†Are you ready for that?!

7.) Satisfy the reader. You can’t satisfy all readers.¬† I get that. No one can. But you need to satisfy¬†most¬†of them, or your novel isn’t going to get that word-of-mouth buzz that can make or break best sellers. How do you satisfy them? See 1-7 above.

So as I review these rules, I remind myself that endings are hard. For me especially. One early story stumped me for nearly a year before one day, in a flash of insight, I realized how it had to end. I had three main characters. One had fallen by the wayside. He chose to make a comeback and take responsibility for his actions, in order to save the other two. It fit perfectly with his sense of honor, and no one acted out of character.

The other thing I have to keep reminding myself is that¬†it’s a draft. Only a draft.¬†The more I get down on paper, the better I can alter the structure later. I may throw away huge entire chunks of it. That’s what rewrites are all about. But I may find little nuggets of dialogue, or insight, that I can keep and build on. My setting’s not there yet. It feels more like dialogue exchanges right now. But it’ll get there. I have to keep reminding myself of that. It’ll get there. That’s what rewrites are for.

In fact, I’m finding that nearly everything with this novel is about rewrites. I don’t know why I think the ending should be any different. I’ve had to revise for character motivation, and focus. Holes I thought I’d patched have sprung leaks again, and new holes have been discovered since I’ve struggled with this ending. Character motives maybe aren’t as clear as I’d once thought.

But I’ll get there. Endings are hard, after all. But they’re worth it.

 

“Endings are impossible.” Can we make them possible?

“Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning, but endings are impossible. You try to tie up every loose end, but you never can. The fans are always gonna bitch. There’s always gonna be holes. And since it’s the ending, it’s all supposed to add up to something. I’m telling you, they’re a raging pain in the ass.

No doubt ‚Äď endings are hard. But then again… nothing ever really ends, does it?”

These are the immortal – yes, I said immortal – words of the prophet Chuck, from¬†Supernatural.¬†“Swan Song” is probably my second-favorite episode of that show, in part because of Chuck’s narration (Chuck is a prophet – well, a bit more than that, really – and chronicles the Winchesters’ lives in a series of tawdry books).

I was reminded of these words tonight as I struggle with the ending of my current work in progress.

Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning, but endings are impossible.¬†You know a writer wrote that! And it’s so true. Beginnings are easy. You’ve got your characters. They’ve got problems. You chronicle the problems. You watch as your characters solve one thing, only to have two more issues pop up. Characters come onstage. Characters die. They get ever-closer to what they want.

But endings are impossible.

Endings should be natural. We hear that so often. They should be the organic outcomes of every decision your characters have made. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, that’s exactly how it goes. You’ve written the novel so well that there can be only one ending, and it flows right out of your keyboard like water from a bottle. Maybe you tweak a word here or there, but then – you’re done. You’ve tied up the loose ends, answered all the questions, given the characters their happy-ever after (or their just desserts, whichever).

If this ever happens to you, please let me know which alternate universe you’re living in, so I can come visit. Because this is NOT where I am!

I’m working on rewrites to a novel I drafted a couple of years ago. The rewrites keep going well, but now it’s time to draft the ending. My beta readers had issues with the ending. They believed that it was weak, that it didn’t solve anything or answer any questions. I had to agree. I never liked the ending, to be honest. I didn’t mind that some loose ends weren’t tied up – but it was weak, and I hated it.

So what are the elements of a good ending? Think about an ending to a novel that¬† you’ve never been able to get out of your head. What makes it so strong? J.K. Rowling writes fantastic endings. Take any of the Harry Potter books. Read them through. Mark all the questions you have as you read. Then, ask yourself how many questions are left at the end. She’ll always leave something up in the air – it has to lead into the next novel, after all – but all the Big Ticket Questions are answered.

But more importantly, nothing is left to chance. Rowling lays the clues down one by one, so subtly and thoroughly that you always smack yourself in the head for not seeing the ending coming, even as you’re on the edge of your seat, begging Harry to win. Think about¬†Goblet of Fire.¬†We knew all about Portkeys, and wand duels, and of course, we loved Cedric. (cry!) So when the Goblet turns out to be a Portkey, we’re shocked – but we know what it is and we know what’s about to happen. And where did we first encounter Portkeys? Oh, that’s right – in Chapter 1, where they’re an integral part of the plot, a means to get everyone to the Quidditch World Cup. See how neatly she did that? (I highly suspect this was the result of rewriting, but – you know what? It works.)

Setting your readers up for the ending is a challenge, and one I’m facing right now. I’ve been trying for a week to figure out precisely why the old ending was so weak, and what I have to do with the new one to make it work. The ending has to be a natural outcome of the previous events. Let me say that again:

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The ending has to be a natural outcome of the previous events. 

 

 

Here’s some problems I’ve seen with book endings:

1.) They’re too long and boring.¬†Wuthering Heights¬†comes to mind. Who gives a flying monkey’s butt about Heathcliff and Cathy’s children? I sure didn’t. Although come to think on it, I didn’t care about Heathcliff and Cathy, either.

2.) The promise of the book isn’t delivered.¬†The Lovely Bones.¬†I literally threw this book across the room because of the ending. Susie remained as a ghost to see if her killer would ever be brought to justice, and¬†nothing happened!¬†The killer isn’t even brought to justice by Susie, her family, or anyone else; his death is a random event. Hated this book¬†because¬†of the ending.

3.) Something is tossed in at the last second to save the day. Either the cavalry comes riding in (which denies your hero his moment), or some random knowledge/ gun/sword/superpower is suddenly discovered that gives the hero the edge. You think Harry ever had that? Nope! When he pulled the Gryffindor sword from the Sorting Hat, that was foreshadowed. Whatever your hero needs to defeat the enemy or accomplish his goal, you have to foreshadow it. Otherwise, the reader will be cheated. Not feel cheated –¬†be¬†cheated.

4.) There’s no logic to the ending. Again, the ending is a product of the rest of the book. Every choice your characters make, every scene, every bit of dialogue, are leading to this. Your MC can’t act out of character, either.

5.) The MC or hero isn’t the catalyst for the ending. The ending has to be¬†because¬†of your hero’s decisions. It also need to be affected by your secondary characters, especially your antagonist, but the MC has to be driving it. Again – when Harry calls out Voldemort at the end of Book 7, it’s¬†his choice.¬†He knows there’s like a 99.9% chance he’ll die. But he’s going to do his best to take Voldemort out with him. If your MC has made mistakes, or wrong choices – those have to bring about your ending. In one of my early stories, my MC’s hubris led to the death of someone he was supposed to be protecting – and, in turn, led to his imprisonment. Your characters aren’t perfect. They’ll make mistakes. Use those to create a tension-filled conclusion.

6.) And oh, yeah – there’s no tension. If you’re writing a suspense novel, there’d better be real questions about whether your MC will make it out alive or not. A romance novel better have a real question about whether your happily-ever-after will happen or not. Your characters have to face some kind of risk of death – which can be a lot of things. Death of a career, a dream, a love – or their lives. It’s life and death. Make your readers believe that. How? By emphasizing – in the rest of your novel – how important this is to your MC. Again, the ending has to be the logical, organic outcome of the rest of the book.

And ultimately, I think that’s where my problems lie – although my manuscript is a lot better, it’s not perfect, and I’ve still got a few holes that weren’t apparent until I started trying to draft the ending. That’s when all my characters took a step back, raised an eyebrow, and said, “You want us to do WHAT?!”

I tried! I tried to write it. And the first part is good. It’s everything that comes after that isn’t coming. My characters are acting like puppies put in a collar and leash for the first time – throwing themselves on the ground, growling, whining, jerking backwards. Resisting. Because I didn’t do¬†my¬†job completely, they can’t do¬†theirs.¬†So now, my job is to go back through the manuscript and revise specifically for the ending. It’s a bit odd, I admit – and in the end, I still may not have a workable thing. But I feel, for now, that this is the best way forward for me.

“No doubt – endings are hard.” Yes, Chuck, they are! But maybe I’ve got a bit better handle on mine, now.

 

Here’s some links to articles and stories about endings (and how to write better ones):

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/on-bad-endings

http://www.foremostpress.com/authors/articles/endings.html

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-structure-a-killer-novel-ending

https://www.ravishly.com/2015/01/14/happily-ever-after-romance-novels

 

NaNoWriMo Eve

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Here we are! Halloween! Or, for some of us, NaNoWriMo Eve. ūüôā

Yes, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo (https://nanowrimo.org/), kicks off tomorrow. For some, it’s a frantic thirty days of writing every single day; for others, it’s a slower, steadier pace, in which they will finish their 50,000 word count sometime during Thanksgiving break. For some, it’s about getting the gist of a novel down; for others, about rewriting an existing novel, or writing short stories or poems, or – well, anything, really!

Today, NaNo has the Young Writers’ Program, which works with K-12 schools to get kids writing in the classroom, as well as Come Write In, in which libraries, bookstores, etc. can sponsor write-ins for NaNo. It’s a great way to write with buddies, and stay motivated.

Because let’s face it:¬† writing can be a lonely business!

And that’s actually one of the main goals of NaNo – to ensure that writers around the world have a global – and regional – support group. You can post your word count, connect with writers on the forums, and meet up with local writers for write-ins. The Wichita KS group, for example, has a standing appointment at a local restaurant each week. If you’re in the area, you’re welcome to drop by and write!

It’s good to go into NaNo with a plan, though (besides the 50,000 words, that is). Goals might include things like:

  • Finally taking all that sick leave you’ve been saving up.
  • Starting that novel that’s been in the back of your mind for the past six years.
  • Finishing¬†last year’s project.
  • Avoiding work and family like the plague so you can spend time with your characters instead. After all, they¬†get¬†you.
  • Revising and rewriting an existing manuscript.
  • Having a ready-made excuse for not cooking or cleaning during November.
  • Doing character sketches. Sometimes, we need time to just let them talk to us, after all. Those long, dark November nights are the perfect opportunity.
  • Working on your short story techniques. Or practicing short-short stories! One 1667-word story per day is all you need! Or, if that’s too long, two 850-word stories.

Right now, around the world, there are people who have boxes full of notes and notecards, champing at the bit, as excited as most five-year olds are on Christmas Eve, just¬†dying¬†to get started! They’ve already set up schedules, blocked out hours of time, warned their families, canceled plans with friends. They’ve set their goals. They’re raring to go!

My goals for NaNo are simple rewrites. If time permits, I want to finish the historical romance I worked on last year. But I’m really focused on finishing my urban fantasy, and its sequel. I don’t know if that will take up 50,000 words or not! But that’s my goal.

So if you haven’t checked out NaNoWriMo, you might want to. It’s a great chance to dedicate yourself to writing – and because the focus isn’t necessarily on¬†good¬†writing, or even completing a project, you feel free to do whatever you want. You may find yourself taking risks with your writing, experimenting with a genre, a character, an idea, or a technique you might not otherwise have thought about doing.

And if you win – get your 50,000 words done, that is – you, too, will get a nifty banner for your Facebook page. ūüôā

 

Thoughts on “The Man From the Train”

Sometimes, we miss things.

I don’t mean the things we lose. I mean the things we don’t chase. The things we see, think¬†oh, that’s interesting!¬†in the back of our minds, and then bypass them because we don’t have the time or inclination to do more.

A few years ago, when I was reading about twelve years’ worth of local newspapers to find out all I could about George Kimmel and his case, I kept stumbling across unusual stories. Specific stories. Families murdered. Entire families. By an ax. I remember thinking to myself, after about the fifth or sixth one,¬†what the hell is going on here? A serial killer? Or were people just plain freaking crazy in the early 1900s?¬†I jotted down notes about most of them – they’re still in my notebook, along with dates and page numbers of Kimmel-related stories. But I forgot about them.

Most people did.

51977447However, in his new book The Man From the Train, Bill James (and his daughter Rachel) put those bloody drops into a coherent, and disturbing, pattern. Bill James is a baseball writer and statistician; he sees patterns in things. Like me, he saw a pattern in these grisly murders. And he decided to see if the pattern was for real.

James relies predominately (as far as I could tell) on newspapers as his sources. He admits this is problematic upfront – newspapers in the early 1900s were – well, they needed readers. The more sensational the story, the more papers they could sell. And I’m sure there were reporters and editors who weren’t above manufacturing details to make a story more salacious.

You’re probably familiar with at least one of the murders in this book:¬† the vicious ax murders of the Moore family (and two young neighbor sisters) in Villisca, Iowa in 1912. Made famous by the widespread press it got at the time, the fact that the house is now a museum, and the numerous paranormal groups that have done work there, the Villisca murders are almost legend today. How could someone have broken into a house in a town and murdered¬†eight people, with an ax, and no one heard a thing?¬†

James wondered the same thing. The precision of the murders, the professionalism, led him to believe Villisca was only one of many. Thus, this book was born.

It’s a book I have severely mixed feelings about.

I downloaded it to my Nook last Saturday, and could not put it down for the first 75-100 pages or so. James has a great writing style – it will probably grate on professional historians, and it did grate on me by the end, but he makes little side comments and addresses the reader one-on-one, so it’s almost like you’re having a conversation with him. As you can tell from the title of the book, James believes that a.) there¬†was¬†a serial killer on the loose in America between 1898 and 1912, and b.) he knows who it was.

That’s fabulous. But one of the reasons I have decidedly mixed feelings about this book is that James spends most of his time trying to prove that some – not all, but some – of the murders in the book were committed by the Man From the Train (MFT) by reiterating things we, the readers, already know. Once James laid out the criteria by which we could judge whether a crime was committed by MFT, he seriously needed to trust the reader to remember them. Like any serial killer, MFT had a pattern to his kills. I can recite them off the top of my head:

  • Near the tracks – within a mile, typically, and often at the junction of two tracks.
  • Families with young girls were most often the targets.
  • Houses were usually isolated, or in very small towns.
  • They were killed with the blunt side of an ax, usually with a single blow to the skull. The ax was usually one the family owned, and it was always left at the scene.
  • Lamps were moved, and left without their shades (which I don’t get, and James never explains).
  • Bodies were typically moved after death – into other rooms, into piles in a single room, and other creepy ways.
  • Like most serial killers, he got off on it.

But James insisted on doing this for¬†every single crime he thought was committed by MFT.¬†After a while, I got the point where I wondered if he was trying to convince¬†himself¬†that MFT had done this – or that MFT existed at all. He also noted that up until 1907, the pattern was consistent – and that after 1908, the pattern changed. He thinks it’s due to a change in the man. I wonder, however, if it is even the¬†same¬†man. Serial killers often take on accomplices. Could the original MFT have died between 1907 – 08, and his apprentice or accomplice taken over? James never entertains this idea.

James also spends entirely too much time on things I felt were trivial, like the feud that occurred in Villisca between a local citizen and a detective. I think that took two chapters. None of it, in my opinion, was necessary for the book he was trying to write. He also talks about crimes that¬†sound¬†as if they were committed by MFT – only to reveal, at the end of the chapter, that for X and Y reason, they weren’t.

The Man From the Train¬†is a popular history. I have no problem with that – I’m sure there are hundreds of historians who do, but as a lower-level college instructor, I want to see books that make history interesting. Anything that draws in readers is a good thing. What I NEED to see in a nonfiction work, though, is sources. There is a point to a Works Cited or bibliography – it lets others follow in your footsteps, look at the same sources you did, and see if they come to the same conclusion or not. But in this book, most sources aren’t cited at all (not properly, anyway). Often, we’re left with, “newspapers said that . . .” and leaves us wondering¬†which¬†newspapers, on what day. (I also take issue with his dismissal and rudeness to Beth Klingensmith and her thesis on this very topic. I don’t know Beth, but I can tell you that if she wrote this as a grad student, her paper, at least, is cited!)

It’s also clear he’s no historian – for instance, while discussing murders that took place in Louisiana, he talks about a black woman and says, “Many stories about her claim that she was only one-eighth black, which cannot be true” (p 334). I do not understand this statement at all. It is absolute plausible, especially in the bayou region of Louisiana, for this to be true. Whites were enslaved all the time (for a good treatment of this, read the awesome book¬†The Lost German Slave Girl¬†by John Bailey); white masters raped (and sometimes had consensual sex with) their female slaves, and then enslaved the resulting children. New Orleans was under the control of the French, Spanish, British, and Americans at varying points in time. Women who ‘passed for white’ were prized in the brothels. So yeah, this woman could very easily have been one-eighth black.

Yes, mixed feelings indeed. I wanted to see how James had handled the thing I’d missed. I wanted to like it. I had great hopes for it. I just – at the end, I just¬†didn’t.¬†I think James has a great voice, and I think he definitely found¬†something.¬†Of course, he’s in the same fix I am – more than a hundred years on, it’s hard to fit the puzzle together. And James does deliver on the promise to tell you who he thinks the killer is, and why.

If you like true crime, this one is probably up your alley. I was hoping for a great deal more, myself.

 

“350 Queries to Read . . .” Make yours stand out!

You probably read that title and fainted, right? ūüôā

Sad fact: ¬†it’s totally a true story.¬†

This weekend was the Rose State College Writer’s Conference in Oklahoma City. Along with the OWFI conference in May, it’s one of two that I get to attend every year (if I’m lucky!). I picked up some great tips (and, small brag, the first chapter of my work-in-progress¬†Ghost Hunt¬†took first place in the Fiction category in their contest!).

I attended a lot of great sessions, which I want to talk about in subsequent posts. But one of the best was from author Tamara Grantham on how to write great query letters. Let’s face it: ¬†agents get too many submissions. WAY too many. In fact, from Word One, they are looking for a reason to reject you and move on to the next query.

And to tie back to my title, Tricia Skinner (an agent with Fuse Literary) said she knew for a fact that she had 350 queries waiting for her when she gets back home Monday. Yup. Three Hundred and Fifty. 

That’s the competition. That’s¬†your¬†competition.

Tamara gave us great hints from agent Janet Reid, who runs queryshark.blogspot.com¬†, which has more than 250 query letters, ripped apart for your benefit. She will also rip apart yours, if you’re that brave! Here’s what I learned:

1.) Do NOT talk about ‘theme’ in your query letter. Your job is to entice the agent, not beat them over the head with a freshman Literature class.

2.) Why? Because you’ve got 250 words to get your novel across to the agent. That’s it.

3.) So how do you pull that off? Simple. You basically get 2 paragraphs to pitch your novel. Paragraph 1 should include:

  • Who is the MC?
  • What does your MC want?
  • What’s keeping them from getting what they want?
  • What will they sacrifice to get what they want?

4.) Your second paragraph should be your inciting incident, and where that leaves your MC. That’s it. Leave it there. Don’t tell the agent how the book ends. Don’t give them all the things that will happen in the middle of the book. Make them¬†demand¬†your full manuscript in order to find all that out!

5.) Don’t include backstory. Ever. It will waste your 250 words.

6.) Here’s another way to look at it:¬†

  • Your MC must decide whether to ____ .
  • If your MC decides to do ___, the consequences will be ____.
  • If your MC decides NOT to do ___, the consequences will be ____.

(Hint: ¬†this is a great way to check that you’ve actually got a pitch-able story. If you can’t answer these three questions, it’s time to revisit your story arc.)

7.) Have others read your query letter. Give them specific things to look for:  eliminate redundancy; strong vs. weak words; and most of all, that hook. Do they want more after reading this?

8.) This is not an overnight process! Tamara recommended drafting your query letter, then putting it away for about 4 weeks. Then, before you read it again, write a second query letter. Look at them together. Is one better than the other? Can you combine elements of both to create something even better?

Now, of course, sometimes our minds just don’t work the way we wish they would, and our novels may not fit into this rubric. If not, don’t fret. Remember the basic information you’ve got to get across. Then, shake it up a bit. As long as you get the agent hooked, you’ve done your job.

Practice with this. I’ve been mentally going through novels I know well, making them fit into these molds to see if I can do it for my own manuscripts. Take my favorite novel,¬†Outlander,¬†as an example:

  • The decision: ¬†Claire Randall must decide whether to return to her own time in 1945, and her husband there. ¬†
  • If she does: ¬†she will lose her new husband, Jamie, forever.¬†
  • If she doesn’t: ¬†she will risk her life, and will lose her old husband, Frank, forever.¬†

Or another – let’s say,¬†The Hunger Games:¬†

  • The decision: ¬†Katniss must decide whether to volunteer to take her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games.¬†
  • If she does: ¬†she may die, and her family will starve as a result.¬†
  • If she doesn’t: ¬†her sister will definitely die.¬†

It’s all about the craft. Crafting your query letter is no different than crafting that first page.¬†If you’re like me and nearing the end of rewrites – boy, there’s a scary thought! – then this is a great way to double-check your plot structure.

If you can’t get your novel across in this amount of space, then maybe you don’t know your story as well as you think – or maybe your story needs some tweaking.¬†

If you can – then congratulations! You’re on your way to writing a great query letter.¬†

Again, here’s the link to Janet Reid’s site: ¬†http://queryshark.blogspot.com/

Tamara Grantham’s website: ¬†http://www.tamaragranthambooks.com/

 

Wrong path, wrong focus – what’s your novel really about?

Sometimes, we get stuck. Stuck with flat tires, stuck in muddy ruts, stuck in dead-end jobs we hate, stuck with that last cold slice of sausage and mushroom pizza with the congealed grease on top. Stuck, stuck, stuck.

We get stuck when we write, too. We get stuck on a scene we can’t quite finish, or sometimes even on a¬†sentence¬†we can’t let go of. Sometimes we get stuck because we’re not quite sure where the novel is going – or because we didn’t know, when we started, just what the story would be.

I’m going to make a confession here, one that will make some of you question my sanity, and some of you question my right to talk about writing, and some of you jump up in the air and scream ‘YES, SOMEONE ELSE GETS IT, I’M NOT ALONE!’ and the confession is this:

I’ve been working on the same novel for nine years.¬†

Yeah. I have to let that one soak in, too. But it’s true. About nine years ago, this novel idea came to me, with the characters, and it was in part based on some research I was doing at the time. At first, I thought it was a one-off, a single novel. Unfortunately, secondary characters sort of moved in and demanded rooms of their own. That, I realized, meant that the original idea was expanded and this was likely going to become a series. Then, my MC, Erin, demanded to speak in first person. That called for rewrites. Then, about two years ago, after already submitting to an agent and having my friends DEMAND that I quit and just publish the damn thing already, it occurred to me that there was a scene early in the book that made little sense and really should be its own book.

And so. The entire first quarter of the book got cut. I had to feel my way through the rest of it. This one little scene, that could just as easily have been cut, turned into an 81,000-word standalone work.

That’s¬†the book I’m working on now. Scenes were cut. Rearranged. Rewritten. Added back in. Characters milled around backstage, thumbs in pockets, waiting for their cues. Rebecca – who may or may not have been a 17th-century witch – made an unwilling foray to the foreground, to become the focus of the novel, insisting the entire time that this was¬†not her job¬†and would I¬†please figure that out already?¬†

And about three weeks ago – I did.

I’d struggled with the rewrites all summer. I’d done everything I knew to do – I’d printed a hard copy. gone through it with pens and Post-It Notes, made a to-do list . . . and nothing was turning out the way it should. In short, I was stuck.

Then, blessedly, a revelation hit. As I sat amongst the ruins of my ink-spattered manuscript, wondering how the hell it had all gone so wrong and what I was supposed to do with it all now, a little random thought bubbled up from my subconscious:  Wrong focus. 

Huh? Nope. Right focus. Rebecca. Witch hunter. Got it.

Wrong freaking focus, idiot! 

And suddenly – I glanced down at the first page, and realized that the novel didn’t even start in the right place. We didn’t know Erin or Kai. We had no idea what Erin’s life had been like in the US. I needed a scene that I’d cut, and that¬†scene had to be my opener.¬†I sat down and spent about two hours totally rewriting that scene – and once it was done, I knew what I had to do.

Wrong freaking focus,¬†indeed. I’d been so tightly honed in on Rebecca that I’d forgotten where my¬†true¬†focus was supposed to be – on my main characters, Erin and Kai. Their relationship. Their internal problems.¬†¬†My focus wasn’t Rebecca. Rebecca was a catalyst, a way for Erin and Kai to work together while trying to iron out their own inner demons.

Not that I regret the wrong paths I took. Every single thing I know about Rebecca is necessary, and that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t told her story first.

And since that night, the rewrites have been going smoothly. It’s like my novel finally woke up and said, “Hey! Glad you figured it out, dillweed! Let’s go.” Now that the focus has changed, I see all the other small problems with the novel. Scenes are changing. Tension can be added. Transitions are smoother. Every time I sit down at the keyboard, I know precisely what needs to be done toward that end goal, and I walk away from the keyboard feeling¬†good.¬†I think this time, the novel may actually get done. I may be – for the time being, anyway – unstuck.

So if you’re stuck and aren’t sure why – I know this is a HUGE issue, and one I should have seen earlier, but if you’re stuck, take a look at your focus. Are you focusing on the right characters? Are you engaging readers in the true conflict? Are you telling the¬†real¬†story?

I wasn’t.

But – nine years on – I think I’m finally getting it.