Bad Beginnings

Monday, September 29, 2014

As I prepared to pitch a novel at a conference last week, I thought about how many ways I had started it before finding one that works. And the biggest lesson I learned? Genre matters.
In order to get the most from this post, you need a framework. Mirage is contemporary women’s fiction written for a Christian audience. It tells the story of an ambitious young lawyer who idolizes her father. When he is arrested for running a Ponzi scheme, she is initially convinced of his innocence. But as evidence of his guilt mounts and her own career is threatened, she struggles with God’s command to forgive. Will she lose everything, or will she discover God’s true plan for her life?
My first attempt at an opening chapter was filled with heart-wrenching sequences. It started with a television news report about a silver Jaguar involved in a fatal accident. (I know that isn’t a Jaguar in the picture, but it was the only thing I could find to go with this blog post.) Although the victim is unidentified, Sarah is terrified that it was her father, and every mile is filled with anguished memories as she rushes to her parents’ home.
I thought it was a great opening. After all, it was a dramatic scene to grab readers’ attention. Then my writers’ critique group told me they didn’t know enough about Sarah yet to care.
We don’t know anything about Indiana Jones at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, either, and it works anyway. So why was mine different? Maybe if I had added more heart-stopping situations it would have been okay as the opening for a thriller or an action adventure. Those genres attract readers who wait for the next heart attack. But readers of women’s fiction are looking for human emotions, not heart-stopping scenes.
My second attempt took a metaphorical approach. Sarah admired the façade of her parents’ home without realizing that façades are sometimes deceptive. But that one just fell flat. Maybe I could have made it work for literary fiction, but that’s not what I was writing.
On to number three. I lopped off the first couple of chapters and started with a favorite one where Sarah goes sailing with her new boyfriend. Then I submitted it for a critique at a writers’ conference I attended last year. The comments were very helpful—for a romance. Shame on me for misleading the reader as to the genre.
My fourth attempt was another try for a drama. Sarah was tutoring a first grader, and the chapter opened with Sarah learning that the girl’s brother had just died. The problem? It lead my critique partner to expect the girl to have a greater role in the story than is the case.
I stuck with my fifth attempt. It doesn’t start with a bang, but all it has to do is grab the reader’s attention. The opening chapter now begins this way:
            “When was the last time you visited someone in prison?”
            Sarah Bartholomew never had. She didn’t even know any criminals. But she leaned forward in her pew as the sermon continued.
            “Our church sends volunteers into the jail once a week to tutor inmates who dropped out of high school. Prisoners who earn their diplomas are less likely to return to a life of crime when they get out.”
            That sounded interesting, but the firm would never let her do it. The partners already begrudged the time she spent tutoring at the Boys & Girls Club.
            The minister pointed toward the congregation. “The hours are seven to nine in the evening one day a week. Anyone here can surely give that much.”
            Not if they worked for Mason, Adams, and Marshall. Still, the long nights and short weekends she put in would be worth it when she made partner.
            Besides, there was a reason she hadn’t gone into criminal law. Defending the innocent would be too stressful. What if she failed to get them off?
            And she had no sympathy for the guilty.
In the rest of the chapter, Sarah drives to her parents’ house for their regular Sunday afternoon dinner, and they talk about the time they spend volunteering.
I think this new opening chapter foreshadows the main plot in the book, in which Sarah discovers that her father has been running a Ponzi scheme; introduces the three main characters (Sarah and her parents); and makes Sarah a sympathetic figure because of the time she spends volunteering.
In any event, it works better for women’s fiction than the earlier attempts did.
By the way, just because a chapter doesn’t work as an opening doesn’t mean it won’t work elsewhere. I salvaged all of the attempts except the second and used them elsewhere in the manuscript.
What are your thoughts?

Getting a Sense of Place

Monday, September 22, 2014

Earlier this month I took a research trip for my middle-grade historical novel. The story takes place during World War II, and my protagonist lives in Berkeley, California when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. She has a Japanese father and a Caucasian mother, but even 1/16th Japanese blood would have been enough to send her to Tanforan Assembly Center (a converted racetrack) and Topaz War Relocation Center. 

I wanted to do on-site visits, but I had a significant problem. Tanforan is now a two-level shopping mall, and Topaz is open desert. That means I had to (and did) get most of my knowledge about both from reading memoirs. Even so, visiting added a sense of place that I couldn’t get from books. 

The books told me that Topaz was isolated and desolate. Being there made it real. It took hours of driving through mountains and deserts to get to Delta, Utah, which was the closest town, and then it took another half hour from there. The isolation suffocated me. The residents of Topaz spent two nights and a day on a train to reach it, with each mile taking them farther away from their beloved San Francisco. After transferring to a bus at Delta, they finally arrived at their destination to find nothing but rows and rows of tar-papered barracks in the middle of nowhere. Think how the isolation must have affected people who were born and raised in a major metropolitan area.  

Then there was the size. I already knew that the residential area was a mile square, but that was just a number until I walked and drove it. Now I can’t imagine how they managed to cram 8,000 people, two elementary schools, a high school, a hospital, and a number of offices in such a small space. More suffocation. 

Topaz was disassembled after the war, and there is very little left at the site. However, part of the original barbed-wire fence still stands, and it confirmed the impression I got from my reading. As you can see from the picture, there was plenty of space to crawl through, and the residents often did. Not to escape, though. The War Relocation Authority used the surrounding land to grow crops and raise animals to feed the people in the camp, and many of the residents worked outside the fence in the agricultural areas. Although the administration discouraged it and the Topaz Times contained frequent pleas not to climb through the fence, many residents used that route as a shortcut to their jobs. (And no, the fence was not electrified.) 

Dust storms were a frequent experience for the Japanese Americans who lived in Topaz and other desert camps. Crazy as it may seem, I wanted to experience one while I was there. Unfortunately, it had rained the night before so the dust stayed put. Driving through Utah and Nevada the next day, however, we did see a number of dust clouds in the distance. 

At Tanforan, the inhabitants would have felt a different kind of isolation. They were in the middle of a bustling metropolitan area that was closed to them. Still, during the five months they lived there in horse stalls or barracks with gaping holes in the walls, at least they were still in their home state of California. And they were close enough that their Caucasian friends could visit them occasionally. 

The building in the middle of this picture is the current BART station. Imagine that it is the grandstand roof and you are sitting there 72 years ago, as many of the residents did. They could see civilization all around them. 

From our hotel near Berkeley, it took a hotel shuttle, a bus, and the BART (with one transfer) to get to San Pedro, where Tanforan is. It also took about 2 ½ hours. On the way back, every connection came right away, and even the hotel shuttle came just as we were getting ready to call for it, so the return trip took only 1½ hours. The Japanese Americans made the trip by bus and with no stops or connections, but they also had to contend with traffic. So I’m assuming that it took them at least two hours, and probably much longer. Hours filled with apprehension and uncertainty.
We did the trip backwards for practical reasons, but at least we did it.
Writers can’t always visit their locales, but they should if they can.
I’m glad I did.

Copyright Bullies

Monday, September 15, 2014

I just returned from a research trip and haven’t had time to write a new blog post, so I am reprinting one I wrote for the Indiana Writers’ Consortium blog on April 24, 1913.* I made a couple of minor edits to reflect the current status of my book, but otherwise the post is unchanged.

Copyright Bullies

These days we hear a lot about children and teens who bully their classmates. We also hear about the copyright police—the ones who remind bloggers and middle school music pirates to honor copyrights. But we rarely hear about the copyright bullies.

Copyright bullies are those publishers who try to scare us out of using their materials for any purpose whatsoever (with the sometimes exception of book reviews). The law reserves certain rights to the public, but these copyright bullies and their lawyers don’t want us to know that. 

Many books have this warning in the front: “No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, except for brief quotations in printed reviews, without permission in writing from the publisher.” 

Wrong. There are a number of what the law calls “fair uses,” and brief quotations in printed reviews is only one of them. To make a general and far too simplistic statement, a fair use is one that takes a short excerpt and uses it in a way that transforms or complements the copyrighted material rather than replacing it. You can find a detailed discussion of fair use in my book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), which is available from Amazon and other retailers. 

Then there are those works that have been around so long that copyright laws no longer protect them. This is called being in the public domain. People can use public domain materials any way they want, although they should attribute the source. 

I found the most flagrant attempt at copyright bullying in a book that compiles several of Lewis Carroll’s works—all of which entered the public domain decades ago. In that book the warning states: “No part of this publication may be reproduced in any way or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or stored in an information retrieval system of any kind, without the prior permission in writing from [Publisher], except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.” 

Huh? All the material is in the public domain, which is where the publisher got it from in the first place. The reader is free to copy at will without worrying about copyright infringement. 

We should all be careful not to violate copyrights, and some warning is necessary.  

But don’t be intimidated by copyright bullies. 


"It is I"

Monday, September 8, 2014

Everything I know about grammar I learned from my father. He was the original grammar nerd.
If I knocked on Daddy’s study door and he asked, “Who is it?” I knew better than to say, “It’s me.” But if I slipped up, he was sure to raise his voice and respond, “It is I.” It wasn’t the contraction he objected to—it was the pronoun. 
I also learned not to start a request with the words, “Can I . . . .” His response was always, “You can, but may you?”
My mother believed in using correct grammar, too, although she didn’t highlight our errors the way Daddy did. I do, however, remember her displeasure with billboards that proclaimed, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” She didn’t approve of smoking, but the use of “like” instead of “as” seemed to bother her even more.
I must have picked up some knowledge in school, too, so the statement at the top of this post isn’t technically accurate. I should probably say, “Most of what I know about grammar I learned from my parents.”
But I stand by the way I said it.
When I was a child, Daddy and Mama frowned on starting sentences with “but,” too. But language is not static, and beginning a sentence with a conjunction is no longer a major sin.
At least not with most audiences. There are still some contexts—mainly academic—where formality is expected. A good writer knows his or her audience and writes for it.
Even in less formal contexts, writers should understand the rules. Many break them, as I did by starting the last paragraph with a sentence fragment. But there are two ways to break the rules. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—only one of them works.
Some writers break the rules because they don’t know what they are. Since rules exist for a purpose, these writers often come across as uneducated. Even worse, the primary reason for grammar rules is to create clarity, so people who ignore them may lose their readers in the morass.
Others know the rules but break them intentionally in order to achieve a certain effect. That sentence fragment is punchier and more in-your-face than if I had said, “Most audiences no longer consider it a major sin to begin a sentence with a conjunction.” And for fiction writers, sentence fragments can speed up the action, especially in a thriller.
So what’s my point? It’s okay to break the grammar rules to achieve a certain effect. But you need to know them before you break them. Otherwise, your reader may not make it through the story or the essay or even the blog post.
Or you may find my father’s ghost standing before you and declaring, “It is I.”

A New Direction

Monday, September 1, 2014

For the last three and a half years, I’ve enjoyed writing a personal blog that seemed to morph into a history blog. But for professional reasons, I need to take it in a new direction. It’s time to turn this into a writing blog.

I apologize to my relatives and traditional friends who enjoy reading my blog and aren’t writers. I will still be doing some posts about my personal writing journey, however, so you may want to check in now and then. I will also try to make an ocassional Facebook post to keep you informed about the major events in my life, and I may post some vacation pictures after the fact.

The majority of my Facebook friends are writers, however, and I hope they will like where I am going.

Although this is my first writing blog, it is not my first writing blog post. I have been—and will continue to be—a regular contributor to the Indiana Writers’ Consortium blog and to Hoosier Ink, which is sponsored by the Indiana chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers. I have also been a guest blogger for several other writing blogs. Many of those posts will show up on this blog over the next weeks and months.

As I said, some of my posts going forward will be reflections on my personal writing journey. Others will provide lessons I’ve learned about writing, and a few will cover legal issues. Beyond that, we’ll just have to see what develops.

I still intend to post once a week on Mondays. Join me on September 8 as we start this journey together.