August 2006


I blogged over at Killer Year this morning — where I put up the essay which had been included in the Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? book which was put together last year after the hurricane. It has some of the raw memories of the aftermath of Katrina.

If you want to see the original blog entries on Katrina, including photos, start here on my old blog and work forward.

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Have you seen that new Cingular ad where the mother and daughter look like they’re fighting, even sound like they’re fighting, but then you pay attention to the dialog, and they’re actually saying wonderfully nice things to each other? It’s surprising and funny and it catches your attention because of the unexpected dichotomy. That, my friends, is a good ad. But more important to me: it’s a good writing lesson.

When you’re reading a book, you want both the familiar (ah, I like books with humor, or I like scary thrillers), but you also crave the innovative, the surprise, otherwise, it feels like the same story being told, about characters you won’t remember ten minutes after putting down the book. Finding that unexpected, however, is the hard part, and so often, I think writers get caught up in the mechanics of what it takes to write the novel that they forget to step back and ask, “Is this unique? is it innovative? Am I going somewhere with this which will surprise the reader?”

That surprise is the key to holding the reader’s attention.  There are obstacles to achieving surprise in a lot of genres. In romance, you pretty much know the couple are going to end up together. In mysteries, the problem will very likely be solved, the answer discovered, by the end of the book. In many thrillers, the bad guys will be beaten by the good guys (but usually not before the bad guys do a significant amount of damage / torment)… and so on. So if you can’t end the story by completely flouting conventions, you have to make sure that the journey to the end contains the unexpected.

Notice I didn’t say, “twists and turns.”  Most writers put in twists and turns, most of us attempt to weave a story of choices made by the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) — each of which forces the other side to regroup, rethink, and form a new plan to overcome the obstacle in order to achieve the goal. The problem is, a lot of twists can be predicted, so the real challenge is to find a way — through character, through unique setting — to present the character with a set of choices they’d never have thought likely, and then from there, have results they hadn’t really predicted.

It comes down to character, ultimately. If a writer sets up a unique character and throws an impossible obstacle at them, deprives them of any easy answer and then looks for ways to have that character follow through, trying to resolve the issue based on their own personality and quirks, then the choices are going to (generally) be more interesting and unexpected. I think one of the methods of doing this is when making a story choice, the author probably ought to discard the first, second, and maybe even the third choices on how to do whatever they’ve set out to do. Those choices are usually the generic, the one everyone would think of, and probably not unique to that character and setting and obstacle. Finding the fourth or fifth choice tends to start probing the area of the unexpected — and yet — organic solution.

What have you read lately that had something unexpected happen which, even now, stands out in your memory as a good story?

Yesterday was my in-house launch of the book over at the publisher’s, and it went really really well. I’ve heard from my editor comments from various people who now have the book, who’d either just finished it or were about half-way through, and their comments were so great, I felt like I was going to float the rest of the day. This company totally rocks. I’m exceptionally thrilled with their plan for the book and how they’re going to bring it out, how enthusiastic they are about it. I don’t think a writer could ask for better.

I’m also intensely satisfied with my book video. We got it edited (barely) in time to send to the publisher for the launch to show around; my editor loved it and there’s talk of putting it up on the publisher’s site as well as my own when we get closer to publication time. I am itching to put it up here, or put snippets up, but that would defeat the purpose of generating attention to the book at the time when it could be purchased, so I’ll try to be patient. (And if I manage to be patient, the world is probably going to end in a big fireball.)

The last couple of months have been insanely busy here — family-wise (my dad had surgery, my son was sick) and work wise (we have more construction work than we want to do and my husband is actively ignoring requests for bids because we just do not have the time or the manpower to do the jobs) and writing wise (working on book 2). However, since the family seems to be on their way back to good health and the workload will taper down in a week or so, I feel like I’m finally getting back to normal and will start posting more over here on writing and publishing issues. I think I’m also going to start listing books I’ve read and enjoyed. I doubt I do a full-fledged review, but rather just tell why I enjoyed it. My tastes are very eclectic, but lately I’ve been reading way more crime fiction and comedic fiction than anything else, and a little S/F thrown in for good measure. There’s no telling what’s going to pop up here, so stay tuned.