Thursday, November 27, 2008

First Lines

Publishers and editors tell us all the time that the first sentence of your novel is the most important sentence in the book. It sets the tone for what the entire story is about. I decided to compare my first sentences to those in some of the best selling and classic books and found that some of mine are pretty good.

Here’s a chance to compare your beginnings with those who have made an impression on many of us with their writings.

See if you can match the first sentence to the book it came from and as a bonus, name the author. Now don’t cheat. I promise you I didn’t sneak one of mine in, though I thought about it.

1. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

2. All happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.

3. I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbines's father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.

4. I've been called Bone all my life, but my name's Ruth Anne.

5. I was a child murderer.

6. Maggie and Ira Moran had to go to a funeral in Deer Lick, Pennsylvania.

7. Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not on the subconscious level where savage things grow.

8. You better not never tell nobody but God.

9. There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I'd been treated by at least six of them.

10. Should I have taken the false teeth?

11. This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.

12. All this happened, more or less.

The Answers: l. 1984 by George Orwell 2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy 3. The Bean Tree by Barbara Kingsolver 4. Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison 5. Expensive People by Joyce Carol Oats 6. Breathing Lessons by Ann Tyler 7. Carrie by Stephen King 8. The Color Purple by Alice Walker 9. Fear of Flying by Erica Jong 10. The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies 11. The Princess Bride by William Goldman 12. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Happy turkey day

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Warm Welcome

Joyce and I had a warm welcome from the fine folks at the Hampton B. Allen library in Wadesboro. Phoebe Medlin is the library diector there (she's standing with Joyce and me in the picture). They have a very active library with a 20-year-old writing group, writing conferences, and authors coming and going through the lunch program like we did. They fed us well, listened to us talk about our books and bought most of those books. All in all, a great experience!

And now we're getting ready for Thanksgiving and looking forward to the Locust Christmas parade on Saturday. We all (the whole family) ride in the Weekly Post float and throw out candy. Then the kids talk to Santa and stroll around drinking hot apple cider and carolling.

I's a wonderful time of the year! I hope all of you enjoy the holiday too!

Jim Lavene

Monday, November 24, 2008

Being Thankful

  It should be harder to be thankful this year.  After all, the news has been pretty bad lately for everyone.  Somehow, though, it's been unusually easy for me. When things are already haywire, I'm suddenly thankful for the things I do have: health, family, a warm home, a full tummy, the excitement of writing and the fact it brings in a little income (emphasis on 'little'). 

This year I'm actually open to hearing Christmas music before Thanksgiving.  This is a huge departure for me.  I'm very traditional and usually prefer Christmas music in December.  Or at least after Thanksgiving.  This year it seems more comforting, familiar, and reassuring than stridently commercial.  My seven year old's enthusiasm for starting the season is catching, too. 

The amazing thing is that focusing on the positive has centered me a little bit.  This is odd because nothing has slowed down at all; in fact, this is the busiest fall I can remember.  The children's activities, my writing, the housework, events on the calendar....I've been buried.  And yet, my mind isn't whirling nearly as much as usual.  Oh, I still wake up in the middle of the night and gasp because I've dreamed I've forgotten something important (are there other people who do this, or am I crazy?), but I feel a lot more grounded than usual. 

Things I've read this week online:

Well, I have read downbeat articles about pensions being frozen at Random House and Barnes and Noble's poor third quarter results.  It's not good to stick our heads in the sand, even if we are thankful and positive!  But we don't have to dwell too much on that.  Moving on to:

The Classic Mysteries site, which I'm enjoying.  I love classic detective stories. 

A post on Mysterious Matters about this mystery editor's cardinal sins for mystery manuscripts.

An post on the Urban Muse blog about blogging and creating/sending newsletters (the comments are useful, too.)

A post on Nathan Bransford's blog on twenty-one things an author can Twitter (although I still don't plan on Twittering.  Just don't have the time....)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A new career?

The last two nights, I worked for my son at his pizza restaurant, Pizza and Beyond. I answered the phone, took orders and even figured out how much money was due (not always successfully). I wore my pizza t-shirt and smiled at the customers. Sometimes they smiled back.

It was a strange experience reminiscent of my younger days when I worked at Burger King for a summer an ice cream shop for a fall and several different restaurants. I never stayed any longer than I had to but I always enjoyed the work. It was so much better than working at a retail shop selling shoes or pantyhose.

My son always says food makes people happy, especially pizza, and that's why he loves it so much. He may be right. The people I saw were very happy to get their pizza. They thanked us and took their prize home or had it delivered. It was fun.

I may not be ready for a career change but I wouldn't mind going back again to help out. My son is opening a dining room, maybe next month. I might go back and sling some ravioli and count my tips.

I'm sure it will all end up in a book somewhere!

Joyce Lavene

Friday, November 14, 2008

I Forgot

I could try to think up something to use as a good excuse such as the cat messed up my computer or my computer crashed or …. Shoot! It’s not working.

Okay, I know I have no good excuse unless you consider the fact that I spent part of the week visiting my sister. It was like having a holiday in the middle of the week. You actually forget what day it is because the next day feels like Monday to you.

Well, I went to her house on Tuesday because it was her birthday, and our brother came and took us to dinner. I spent the night with her and came home the next day (Wednesday), but it really did feel like Monday. Therefore, my week was already mixed up. It was okay though, as I said, it was her birthday and we had a ball.

But Thursday arrived, though it felt like Tuesday to me and that is when I forgot. I know I am supposed to write my blog every other Thursday and here it is Friday and I’m slinking in to say a few words – very few because I have a doctor’s appointment and then have to get ready for a party tonight. (More Excuses.)

So, please forgive me this time and I promise I’ll do better. At least this was the first time. Maybe it won’t happen again. I don’t know though. Those senior moments seem to be coming more frequently lately.

Time in the Creativity Room

Since taking a job, my writing schedule has changed. I now get up earlier and give myself at least an hour to write before leaving for work each day. I tried writing in the evenings after I got home, but nothing happened. I mean, the first day I got a few hundred words. After that, writing just didn’t happen. I sat completely drained, failing to get anything coherent down. Then I fell asleep.

Morning writing is going much better and then there are the weekends with those big blocks of writing time that I love. Sounds easy. Less time to write, doesn’t mean no time. Simply take a minute here and a minute there. It seems, though, that I forgot one thing—alone time with my book. I mean, it does no good to sit down at my allotted writing time if I don’t know what’s supposed to happen next. I’ve been told by authors of various writing books that I’m supposed to have a detailed synopsis and outline and possibly a shoebox full of neatly filled in 3 by 5 note cards. Plus, it wouldn’t hurt to have scene cards, pages of biographical information for each character, and maybe even software and flowcharts to guide me from beginning to end. The problem is, I don’t write that way.

I start with characters and, since I’m writing a series, I already know most of my people from my last book and I know the setting. Next I have an idea of the main event—the murder. I know who gets killed and where and how the body is found. I have glimmerings of subplots and vague pictures of new characters. But I don’t know yet who the killer is or why he or she committed the crime. I would not like to be locked into a scenario when I’m only one third of the way into the book. Plotting as I go, letting the book happen and backtracking when I need to, is what works for me.

But what I never really gave all that much thought to is that I need time to create, to explore in my mind any number of twists and turns. I’ve budgeted writing time for myself, but gave no thought to my alone time with the book. I can’t “write” while I’m on my way to and from work. This would lead to such things as me arriving with no memory of getting there. I could think about the book while I worked if I could get my coworkers to hush up and stop telling funny stories. They don’t know yet that they are going to end up in one of my books.

The conclusion I reached this weekend was that some of my valuable time at the keyboard will have to be swapped for valuable time in the thinking and plotting room. That’s okay. Writing is done internally as well as externally. As long as I give attention to each step of the process, my word count will grow until I have a book.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mail List rules!

It used to be simple sending out email newsletters to a few readers. Then the list kept going and before you knew it, I was ending out emails to a thousand then 1500 readers. It kept growing.

Even then when it got big, it wasn't so bad. But that was before TIME WARNER decided to make it a problem to send out more than a few hundred emails at a time. It's been taking me days to send out to everyone. A week to get email newsletters out is like a week without sunshine.

But those days are gone as Mail List King is offering a new product that will help me send out newsletters to everyone at one time! They will even verify my emails before they go out to make sure they're right. How much better can it get than that?

If it makes my life easier, I'm all for it. There are some things, like revisions and cold, rainy days that you just can't do anything about. But here is something I can change. The rush of power never felt so good!

Jim Lavene

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mystery Readers

I've noticed two distinct types of people when I mention mysteries in a conversation.  One type absolutely adores mysteries and can't get enough.  These folks frequently provide ideas for titles to read, myself.  The other type (usually politely) says that they never read mysteries but have family members who do.

Really?  They don't read mysteries at all?  This never ceases to befuddle me.  Not a Stuart Woods/James Patterson thriller?  Not an Elizabeth George police procedural?  Nothing?

I'll read nearly every genre of book out there, although I'll admit mysteries are my favorite.  I've explored literary fiction, the classics, sci-fi, chick lit,  all types of mysteries, inspirational, romance, children's literature, YA, even westerns.  If I hear something is good, I'll check it out.  I'm the same way with music.  Because.....well, doesn't it get boring after a while if you don't change it up? 

What I'm reading:

Still Life by Louise Penny.  Good stuff!  The setting (a rural village south of Montreal) is practically a character in itself.  Ms. Penny is doing a wonderful job luring me deeper and deeper into the book with the central mystery and a variety of smaller intrigues.

What I've read online this week:

A Herald Tribune article about condensing Agatha Christie's books for English as a second language students (and to help explore new markets for her work in China and India)

An interesting article on the Writer's Edge blog about books and advertising. 

A blog on chapters: their length, number of chapters in a book, chapters as a suspense device, etc. on the Mysterious Matters blog .

A very interesting blog entry over on Editorial Ass on "the crux of the problem" for book publishing--she discusses returns, shipping costs, etc.  And the article offers this editor's antidote to the problem (go buy a book.)

An excellent article on Writer's Digest's site on the "Anatomy of a Writer's Website."  I also enjoyed an article on the Urban Muse that had links to well-designed author websites: I tend to learn more visually. 

A worrysome story from Galley Cat about Borders bookstore's troubles.   And a more uplifting story on Lit Soup on why recessions are good for aspiring writers.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Back to the Day Job

I got a job today.

Unfortunately it wasn't a writing job. I haven't been offered a contract (lucrative or otherwise) to sit down and arrange words on a page to form ideas or a story.


I got a call late in the day for a job at the Census Bureau.

And you know what? I'm grateful.

I really am.

It's not a job I'm dying to have; certainly not something I aspired to in my younger days.

BUT ... the wolf has been at the door of my family's home for awhile now.

And this job will remove the wolf.

And in so doing, it may help free up some of those synapses I've been using to wonder how I'm going to pay the bills (I'm never more creative, heaven help me, than when I'm figuring out how to pay the bills).

Wonder what my mind would conjure up ... if I had less concern about those blasted bills?

If those bills were -- gasp! -- removed?

How many stories, how many characters, how many situations that now do not flow through my fingers -- perhaps because of more immediately pressing matters -- would spring to life if I had some of the pressure lifted off me?

And in the process, I found out that I MYSELF could be the one to take the pressure off?

Well ... that would be nice.

And it would make me proud to know that I did it myself.


Tomorrow I'm working ... as a poll manager at our local precinct(s) here in Mount Pleasant. In fact, I'm running 3 precincts -- getting up at 5 a.m. and probably not back home until 10. And I earn a small check for doing it, and I'm proud that I'll be helping my family AND doing my civic duty.

And in the process, bringing in enough to provide a few Christmas presents.

My writing hasn't been doing too much of that for me lately. A book I labored over for literally years brings in, four times a year, a check that's just about large enough to pay for one lunch.

So for now, even though I'm -- yes! -- in the middle of Nanowrimo (with a pitiful 1000 words to my credit after 3 full days), I'm looking forward to training for my new job next week. To being out of my house for 10 hours every day -- maybe more, with commuting time. To meeting new people. To doing something I probably wouldn't have chosen to do.

And I am truly grateful. From such mundane beginnings can great stories grow.
Looking for a fresh idea?

Most writers get asked that question more than 'how did you learn to be a writer?'. It's usually followed by, 'do I have a story for you!'

What non-writers don't seem to understand is that most writers don't suffer from a lack of ideas. In fact, it's just the opposite. At any given time, I'm entertaining four or five good ideas that might make great books. The problem is finding an idea you can write well, that is marketable, and will carry through to a whole book. Just because an idea seems exciting, doesn't mean you can write a 90,000 word book about it.

Most ideas that are offered by non-writers are about their life experiences. Everyone thinks what they've done is exciting and different. Some probably are. But I think my life has been exciting and different too. That doesn't mean it would make good reading. I certainly wouldn't try to base fiction on it.

I think many non-writers think that's what writer's block is all about, a lack of ideas. But no. Writer's block is all about NOT BEING ABLE TO WRITE those ideas. It's staring at the white screen until your eyes burn out and you have to go to sleep. Every writer goes through this at one time or another, despite the big ideas.

I know people will always be this way. There will always be some gem of an idea that they'll offer for free if the writer will just write it. That's okay. It's part of the price we pay for being writers in the first place, I guess.

Note to all non-writers: There isn't enough money in this to help you quit your day job even if I share the royalties from your big idea. Thanks anyway.

Joyce Lavene