Monday, October 17, 2011

Thank you, Elizabeth Lyon. (I think.)


For ten years, until the end of 2010, I was an associate editor for Elizabeth Lyon’s Editing International.Under her guidance, I worked on 10-12 projects a year, learning to identify strengths of manuscripts as well as weaknesses and/or missing elements. I learned how to model ways to convert “information dumps” into bits of backstory woven into the tale and how to link that backstory and description to character development. I learned to demonstrate how to turn narrative into dialogue and how to inject conflict and subtext. I learned how to link description to action and point of view, and how to enhance character voice and author style . . .
During those ten years I edited for writers who disputed every word of my evaluations and for those who wrote to thank me for my suggestions and kept me updated on their progress toward publication. I edited for writers who probably still have my photo up on their dart boards, and for one or two who became friends.
By the end of that decade, I was pretty good at editing. And I was so tired of it I couldn’t wait to retire.
I came to think of it as having the job of carving the Thanksgiving turkey for a hungry group already gathered at the table. There was no time to admire the bird. I had to slice it apart and get it on the platter.
Other days I thought of editing as looking through a window at an awesome view for a moment, then focusing on the smudges and streaks on the glass, the cracks and chips, the fact that it was only a single pane and not insulated.
Editing changed the way I responded not just to the manuscripts that came across my desk, but to every book I opened.
So, thank you Elizabeth Lyon, for making me aware of what makes characters feel real, what makes dialogue sound like conversation overheard, what makes a story satisfying, layered, rich, memorable.
Thank you for insisting that I demonstrate and model as I evaluated. Because of that, I internalized elements of novelcraft that previously I’d struggled to learn.
And—sigh—thank you for making me aware of all the reasons that a book might fall short. My search for missing elements and weak spots made me better able to see the flaws in my own projects.
Thanks to you, Elizabeth Lyon, I’m a better writer than I was when you first asked me to “take a look” at the mystery written by a client.
But, thanks to you, Elizabeth Lyon, I’ve grown impatient. If a book doesn’t hook me in the first few pages, I put it down. If an author writes away from a critical scene, summarizes a fight in narrative, gives me talking heads in a generic setting, or intrudes to explain something, then I close that book.
Thanks to you, Elizabeth Lyon, I’m so aware of the skeleton beneath the skin, of the muscle and meat and tendon, that it’s difficult for me to see the whole Thanksgiving turkey, to simply enjoy the experience.
Thanks, Elizabeth Lyon. You made me the reader I am today—picky, picky, picky, picky.

Monday, October 3, 2011

My fantasy life becomes a book

There has been all kinds of speculation about why people write stories. But most would agree that it's a way for them to work through unresolved personal issues, gain perspective on the events of their lives and, in some cases, wreak revenge on people who have wronged them by using fictional characters as catharsis. I co-wrote The Hermit of Humbug Mountain because of a night of terror (all created by the overactive imagination of the precocious 9-year old me) spent wandering around lost on an Oregon Coastal headland. 

Shotgun Start, my hard-boiled detective novel set on the high desert of New Mexico, is, in part, the fulfillment of a life-long fantasy--to be skilled enough at a sport to compete at the highest levels. I have to confess, I have recurring dreams about soaring above the rim and over the hands of the athletic giants of the NBA. Mike Nettleton, the greatest six-foot tall, white, non-jumping power forward in the history of the game, that's me. At 62, I still fantasize about throwing a curve-ball that fools even the most accomplished hitters in major league baseball. A-Rod. Whiff. Ichiro?--sit down bud !!! And golf? I'm totally delusional. 

I've played the game since I was twelve years old, taken lessons from a dozen pros, all of whom, after taking a look at my swing would shake their heads and ask me if I'd considered taking up bowling. "At least you don't have to go look for the ball," one of them told me. As hard as I've worked at it and as much as I practice, I'm only a slightly-above average golfer. Depending, of course on your definition of average.

Creating the character of Neal Egan for Shotgun Start let me live vicariously, as the disgraced former cop hustles rich suckers on the tightly manicured fairways of the country clubs and resort courses of central New Mexico. Neal's talent is offset by the disaster that is his personal life and the danger he faces when his ex-wife's lover is shotgunned to death and the police believe he might be an accomplice. His inability to stay out of the investigation leads him into a world of murderous bikers, the methamphetamine trade, internet pornography and the Mexican Mafia. 

Here's a question for you. What is your longest held secret fantasy? What would you have liked to have done, that you never had the chance (or ability) to do? Would love to hear about it.