Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Another Q from G

If you're wondering what 'Q' is, your first guess was correct:  question.

If you're wondering who 'G' is, you can check out my previous post about it, but the short version is the G is a young writer who emailed me with some questions about the craft. Since the questions were intelligent ones that bear discussion, I offered to answer them in an ongoing series of blog posts.

Today's question: How do you tell a backstory without having a flashback or outwrite [sic] telling it?

(Sorry, I couldn't resist including the original typo from G's email...even though we all know it is a typo, it seems like it somehow ought to be correct, doesn't it?)

Anyway, this one seems like a simple question, and I suppose it has a simple answer, but the execution is everything.

For starters, I think most writers would agree that we know waaaaaaaaay more about each character than the reader ever learns. We know these back stories intimately. And because we know them so well, and because they excite us so much, and because, dammit, we did the work to create (or discover, depending on how your muse prefers to work) these stories, and because they are frickin' amazing...we want to include every little detail.


Back story is like the spice in a meal, not the meal itself. It flavors the meat, but it isn't the meat. The meat is the story you're telling in the here and now, and that's where the focus should be.

Oh, but yes, I know...the back story is crucial to this character's persona, or her motivation, or you name it. And maybe that's so. I'm not saying the back story shouldn't be there. It absolutely should. But like seasoning on the meat, it enhances. And a little can go a long way.

Let's say your character has a hard time with intimacy, and recently endured a hard breakup. How much of that back story do you need to tell? The answer, of course, is that it depends. If the story you're telling is about reconciling with that partner, probably a lot more of the back story needs to be told than if the relationship and subsequent breakup is merely a part (albeit an important part that affects her immensely and drives her motivation) of the character's history but won't be revisited in this story. Because remember, this story is the one you're telling.

In The Backlist, my novel with Eric Beetner, one of the main characters, Bricks, has recently suffered exactly what I just described:  a tough break up. And the breakup reinforces the fact that she has intimacy issues. But the story is about something else entirely, so how much to devote to the loss of her recent love?

Well, in a book of about sixty thousand words, I spent less than two hundred giving that part of her back story.

Of course, there was more to her back story, especially with her mother and her father, but these also came about organically. Probably fifty percent of the back story centering on her Pops comes out in dialogue with other people, and most of the rest in scattered references she makes throughout the book.

Back story can be the most effective when it is told (or better yet, shown) in revealing snippets of conversation (whether dialogue or internal monologue), and not all at once. Creating a little mystery about the backstory isn't a bad thing at all. In fact, it can be intriguing.

Ultimately, unless the key to the story you're telling now is about resolving these past events in the character's life (and maybe not even then), what the reader needs to know is the flavor of those events and a couple of salient facts. Too much emphasis on the backstory might be an indicator that you're telling the wrong story now.

So go easy on back story. Reveal enough to meet the needs of characterization and/or plot points, but don't be afraid to let it dribble out in intriguing bits through dialogue. Oblique references and hints are fair game here. After all, the reader doesn't have to know everything...and certainly not right away.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Happy Accident and a Little Obsession

As you will know if you follow this blog, some of my projects are collaborations. For example, I just finished a third Bricks and Cam Job with Eric Beetner earlier this month, and am also working on one called FALLEN CITY with my The Last Collar partner, Lawrence Kelter.

The chapters in both of these collaborations flew back and forth pretty quickly. Eric and I got off to a slow start, mostly because of me, but once we got rolling, we rolled like a freight train. Larry and I were a little sporadic at first, too, but experienced the same phenomenon once things were established -- we flew. In the last couple of weeks, that freight train has positively morphed into a high speed bullet train.

So it was no surprise to me when I got back a pivotal chapter from Larry late last night (even later for him on the East Coast). Although I was seriously considering going to bed when the file arrived in my mailbox, I decided to at least read it. So I did, and it rocked, and as always got me even more excited about the story. That led to doing the revision piece that we always do on incoming chapters. Nothing big, just catching typos and doing some minor polishing. When that was done, I felt like I was in the groove, so I started my new chapter. It was to have two scenes, and I burned through the first scene, creating some conflict and feeling maliciously good about it. I was about a third of the way, maybe even halfway, through the second scene, when something weird happened.

It's still kind of a mystery to me. I must have inadvertently had a key depressed or something while I moved the mouse up to the task ribbon to switch it back to the HOME setting. I wanted to be able to italicize with the click of the button (yes, I know I can CTRL-I, but sometimes I like to click the italics button instead, okay?). Anyway, I used the mouse wheel to try to change it and my tired, clumsy fingers may have even depressed the left mouse button.

Can you see the disaster coming?

All of the sudden, Word closes and I'm staring at my desktop. My first thought was probably the same one you had -- immediately after uttering a favorite curse word, of course.

"When did I save last?"

I opened the file up again, scrolled down and...time for that favorite curse word again. No partial second scene. No completed first scene. No revisions.


At that point, I just went to bed. I told Kristi what happened (she painfully endured the "And then I used the mouse wheel" description that she said was taking forever...and in truth, it kinda did) to vent a little, and we hit the sack. Being the great wife that she is, though, she said, "Why don't you go rewrite it while it is still fresh in your mind?"

But I refused. Stupid Word document wasn't going to me to jump through hoops.

After pouting for about five minutes, I realized she was right. Also, there was no way I was falling asleep, even though it was after eleven. So I kissed my wife and got back up. I grabbed some water and for consolation's sake, a few 'Nilla Wafer Minis. And by a few, I mean two gargantuan handfuls. But I stopped at two. Because that was all that was left in the box.

I did some Google research, asking if there was any way to recover an unsaved Word document. The first answer I found was in one of those help forums like Answer.com or something. Some idiot didn't save his document and wanted to know if it could be recovered. Some smug asshole replied that if he didn't save it, then there was nothing to recover. No help at all.

Luckily, there were about forty million other hits, and a couple of them had actual suggestions worth trying. I explored a couple of dead ends and finally landed on one that said if I had the autosave feature turned on, then I could find the auto-recover document at a particular location in my file directory. I crossed my fingers and went there. Lo and behold, an auto-recover document with a time stamp on it that seemed hopeful. I clicked on it, opening it with Word when prompted (why did I have to select Word? What else would I open it with? Excel, just for fun? Excel is never fun).

The first thing I noticed was that it opened with the Track Changes margin visible to the right. That meant some of my changes were intact, because I always made it a point to accept (or rarely reject) the changes Larry made on my previous chapter before going into his new chapter. So that was good news.

I scrolled down and saw that all of my revisions were there, and the beginning of my first scene. True, my protagonist was cut off right before he says something nice to his wife (who is piii-iiissed at him, oh!), but I probably only lost ten minutes of work, or less. Just spitballing, but I felt like that was a good estimate, since I noticed the setting on the Auto-Recover option was to save every ten minutes.

Still, that was a lot of lost material, because I had been rolling. I closed my eyes to envision the rest of the scene at the apartment, and the beginning of the second scene, which occurs at a crime scene. Then I started tapping the keys.

I finished the first scene, and drove right into the second. I got to the point where I'd left off and just kept rolling.When it came time to send it back to Larry, I did what we usually do for each other, inserting a page break and typing in the next chapter number. Then I sat there, staring at the screen, because I knew that his next scene, which I was looking forward to, didn't have any ripples into the final segment I was to write next. And my final segment was the end of the book, a time any writer knows is exciting.

So after a little deliberation (very little), I added another page break, was nice enough to type in the chapter heading for myself, and I started tapping the keys again. I wrote what I thought would be the final scene of the book, wrapping up some loose ends and putting a ribbon on things from the perspective of the main protagonist. It went well, I thought. Of course, it was late and I was both tired and mildly biased. But there was some irony, some mild self-awareness, and some love, both of the married and fraternal kind. I also happily tied it back to the very first scene in which the reader meets the protagonist.

When I was done (and had hit SAVE), I sat there a little longer. There was one nagging little loose thread dangling, and it was bothering me. It involved a character that could easily be categorized as the second only to the main protagonist in terms of screen time. And while Larry and I wanted to leave his fate a little bit shrouded (who knows if this will be a one-off or a series, at this point?), there was a part of his story-line involving his family that I didn't want to leave unresolved.

Besides, like I said, I was rolling. I felt like Bruce Springsteen, getting ready to introduce the band near the end of the show right in the middle of the song "Light of Day." Just chanting, "100 miles, 200 miles, 300 miles, train keeps on rollin', goin' 400 miles, 500 miles..."

So I kept writing. Since we had a prologue, I decided to go beyond our original plan and write an epilogue. Nature and art like symmetry, right? I took the approach of keeping the narrator's identity unstated, though it will be obvious to the reader who it is. The epilogue ended up only 366 words, but it did exactly what I needed it to do.

Then, finally, I was done. The bottom right corner of my monitor told me it was after two in the morning, which didn't used to seem so late, but seems positively rebellious now. I did a quick read-through, tweaking and polishing and correcting along the way, which took another ten minutes or more. Then I hit SAVE repeatedly, gave my monitor a sturdy middle finger, and exited the document.

And immediately opened it again to make sure it was all still there. If I was really crazy, I would have muttered an apology for the finger part, but just because I'm a writer doesn't mean I'm full out whacked.  So I only thought the apology.

Still there. All good.

I closed the file and went to bed. I fell asleep fast, and hard.

Now who know what will happen...I haven't heard back from Larry as of this writing, but it is well within his normal window for reply. He may read my two in the morning ravings and hate them. Or he may not agree to an epilogue. It is the ending, after all, and endings are important. But I think he's going to dig it. Because sometimes bad luck can turn to good luck, and a happy accident can end up putting you in a good place, if you're willing to contribute a little of your own obsession.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

In with the New, Free with the Old

Starting with the new...

While Larry Kelter and I pound away at our WIP called FALLEN CITY (and we're nearing the end of our first draft!), our first collaboration, The Last Collar, has been released by Down & Out Books.

What's it about?  Welll...

The demons that drive John “Mocha” Moccia to obsess, to put absolutely everyone under a microscope, and scratch away at every last clue, make him the best hard-nosed detective in Brooklyn homicide. But these same demons may very well write the final chapter in his career.

He isn’t the kind of detective to take no for an answer, but in his most recent case answers are damn hard to come by. Partnered with the conscientious Detective Matt Winslow, Mocha endeavors to solve the murder of the wealthy and beautiful Jessica Shannon, a woman who had every reason to live.

As Mocha and Winslow strive to push forward the hands of time and solve the murder, their imposing lieutenant breathes down their necks, suspects are scarce, and all of the evidence seems to be a dead end.

With the last precious grains of sand falling through the hourglass, Mocha pushes ever forward, determined to make an arrest, even if it means this collar will be his last.

The first review I came across is a positive one, saying, "Not all police procedurals are created equal. Some reach beyond the standard cliches. The Last Collar delivers what we expect and much more … a seamless, enjoyable read."

A good start!

As I mention in my blog series on crime novel collaboration, I was a little nervous that both of us writing a single first person narrative would result in a choppy voice at best, a schizophrenic one at worst, but at the end of our revisions, I was glad to see that my concerns were not realized. Quite the contrary, actually, as it was difficult by the end of the journey to be one hundred percent sure which passages I wrote as opposed to those I only revised and edited. That's a good thing, and probably why the reviewer used the term 'seamless.'

Now, onto the old...

On the free front, my magnus collection of all of my short stories, Tales of River City, is free from January 20-24 (which means that the day this post goes live is the last day you can get it for free, so move-ah your butt-ah!). Tales of River City contains Dead Even, No Good Deed, The Cleaner and a clatch of additional stories that aren't collected together anywhere else, for a grand total of 61 stories. If short stories are your thing, especially crime stories for the most part, and if you dig River City, the this collection is for you. And. It. Is.


All in all, not a half-bad day to be a Frank Zafiro fan, no?

[This is where I would insert an emoji of some kind if I weren't a good enough writer to have already conveyed the literary mixture of serious promotion with mild self-deprecation].

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Good Moment For Us Both

I got an email from a reader the other day who shared his thoughts on both The Backlist and The Short List, books I wrote with Eric Beetner, published by Down & Out Books. He told me his favorite scene in The Backlist was chapter 23.

SPOILER ALERT! I'm about to give away plot points to this novel!
Okay, if you're still here, I assume you're okay with spoilers.

In chapter 23 of The Backlist, Bricks is on the third of the three names she has been given to assassinate. This one turns out to be an old man who she finds herself fond of, both in her distant memory as a little girl and in the moment at hand. The man, Zooker, is almost certainly autistic, but from an era and of an age that only recognizes that he's different. He knows why Bricks is there, and lets her know he's dying of cancer. She accompanies him back to his apartment, where he draws a bath and kills himself by cutting his own wrists while she waits in the other room.

Most readers will see the homage to The Godfather Part II's Frank Pentangali, and I really made no effort to hide it. In fact, on the drive to the apartment, Zooker and Bricks engage in a debate over the merits of Part I versus Part II, as we learn a little bit more about the sad, lonely life of this old man.

Here's the point:  when I wrote the scene, I saw it so clearly in my head. I heard his voice resonating from behind the closed bathroom door as he sang an old song. I heard the slosh of the bathwater, the wetness in his voice after he splashed his face. The quiet grunts of pain when he made the cut. The trailing off of his song while Bricks, just as lonely as he was, sat her vigil on the hard chair at his kitchen table. I felt the power of the emotion as I wrote it, and it is one of my favorite scenes of the book, too.

So to hear that a reader out there felt the same way about that scene, had the same emotions evoked from what happened to both characters...well, isn't that why we all write, really? To feel it ourselves, first of all, and then to make that connection with another soul who feels something as well.

That is, to my mind, a good moment for the both of us.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Question from G

A little over a week ago, I got a nice email from a young writer (let's call her 'G', since that is her first initial, and the nickname of the captain of my favorite hockey team) who hails from my hometown. She had what she thought were a couple of small writing-related questions. Since Deer Park, Washington is populated by less than four thousand souls, connections are pretty bountiful. It turned out that this writer's father and uncle both went to high school at the same time as I did, and we were moderately acquainted. As a result, they knew about my books, and suggested that G ask her questions of me.

So she did.

As an author, I'm in that range of popularity in which I get emails from readers but not so many that I can't (or don't) answer each of them individually. I remember writing to my favorite authors (who got a ton more fan mail than I do) and how thrilled I was to hear back from them. So I figure that if someone takes the time to not only buy and read my book but to share their thoughts with me, the least I can do is reply.

But G's email represented a bit of a quandary. Her small questions were anything but small. Some were actually pretty large. So, after a couple of exchanges, she was gracious enough to agree to letting me answer her questions here, in case other people were wondering some of the same things she was.

This will be the first of several posts to accomplish exactly that.

Today's question was her first:  How do you write a multitude of subplots without getting off track?

It is a good question, really. In a way, I touched on it when I wrote about self-editing on the Down & Out Books blog. But clearly, there's more to it than just worrying about what to keep and what to cut...isn't there?


I remember the lesson Colin Conway and I learned with Some Degree of Murder. The original draft was finished in 2005 and ran about 111,000 words. We tried to find a home for it, but while there were several nibbles, no one took the hook. Time passed, and the marketplace changed, especially in the realm of independent (formerly self) publishing. We decided to go that route, pulled out the old manuscript and started revising.

Both of us were merciless during the revision process. We cut out entire scenes, including entire subplots, and stayed focused on the main story. The metaphor we used was that this book should be like a car driving on the freeway, headed fast for a destination. Anything that resembled an off-ramp was trimmed or eliminated. Yeah, you gotta stop for gas and to use the bathroom occasionally, but those are necessary things to keep you on the freeway, not a side trip.

"Stay on the freeway" was the mantra, and we stuck to it. We ended up with a much leaner novel of 73K words, and a book that remains among my best-selling titles.

So how does that lesson apply to G's question? Well, I think that if a subplot advances the main plot, or the character in a way that is indispensable to the main plot, you've got a subplot that must stay. If it doesn't, than you may be looking at something that needs a different home -- its own short story, another book, or heaven forbid, the trash heap.

Another element that I'd recommend is to remember that a subplot is exactly that: subordinate to the main plot. It needs to be as genuine as any other element of the book, but it doesn't need the depth. Or better stated, its depth doesn't need to be explored as completely (it still needs to be there, or it won't be very genuine, now will it?).

A key to making those subplots successful is being more succinct in that exploration. Bring those short story skills into the fray and say just as much or more in fewer words.

So there's my answer, G....first decided if the subplot needs to be there or not, then tell the story of those that remain as succinctly as possible.

Any other thoughts out there for G (who will be back on other occasions)?

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Pick Wisely Your Partner (the Art of Collaboration, Part III)

In Part I of this series, I gave some background on my collaboration experiences with other crime writers (10 books counting WIPs with 5 different authors).

In Part II, I listed the pros and cons of writing a crime novel together.

Now, in Part III, I'm going to dispense with some tips and observations based upon my experiences in collaborating with another writer to produce a crime fiction novel, just in case some of you are thinking about doing it. Or I suppose, if you've done it and have some additional tips to add, please chime in!

All set? Okay.

The first tip is the hardest one - know thyself. You've got to ask yourself if writing a collaborative novel is in your wheelhouse. If you have a huge ego, if you are pretty sure no one else has a better idea or a better edit than you, it's probably not going to work. Part of the greatness of collaboration is you get to draw on the best both of you has to offer. A big ego hampers that process.

If you simply have to be in control of everything, collaboration is going to be tough. There's nothing at all wrong with the need for control in one's work, but to collaborate successfully, you have to be able to relinquish some of that control. By that, I mean control over what characters say and do, which way the plot goes, the ending, the title...pretty much all of it. If you can't bring yourself to do that, it's no big deal -- but I'd think twice before collaborating.

Will you be a good partner? Pull your own weight at every stage -- first draft, revision, publishing, marketing?

Ultimately, though, the biggest question comes down to this -- are you amenable to compromise, to respecting the artistic talent and knowledge of craft your partner brings to the table? Because inevitably, she will make an edit or a correction that might irritate you, or lobby for a plot thread that will frustrate you, or not like your idea for the ending, and if you aren't the kind of person who can work through those reactions and work out those differences, maybe collaboration isn't for you.

That doesn't mean you can't have a partnership of another kind. One of the most common partnerships I've had with other writers is as critique partners. And that can be an absolutely invaluable asset to your work, but also one in which you don't relinquish control.

Secondly, you gotta know thy partner. Ask all of the questions you asked about yourself again, only this time, ask them about your prospective partner. Every one applies, in the same way.

Additionally, you've got to be a little bit mercenary here. Yeah, it is important for all the same reasons as above that your partner is a good collaborator (why do I think WWII or Cylons every time I type that word?). But an even more basic question needs to be asked: can he write? Do you want your name to share a book cover with her? Because regardless of how brilliant you are, half a book that's good and half a book that sucks...is a book that sucks. With your name on the cover. So think hard before linking up with someone. Make sure you're comfortable that the caliber of writing that you'll be sharing pages with is top notch.

And skill isn't the only consideration. Sometimes there is just the concept of "fit" that has to be explored. Does your style mesh well with his? Whether you're writing separate characters, separate chapters, or one narrative, it matters! Does her writing method match up with yours? Are either of you stepping out of your genre, and not likely to bring readers along because the genres are so different?

I've been fortunate on this count. My co-authors were all writers in the same skill range as I was, so the result wasn't at all uneven. I was able to grow and learn as a writer from working with each of them, and I hope the reverse was also true. In each case, our styles were close enough so that the transitions weren't jarring (or the single narrative, choppy) but different enough to give the reader separate voices.

As I said, fortunate. Because, honestly my friends, you have to Be realistic about what can happen when you collaborate. It isn't difficult to imagine all of the places where things can go wrong, where you and your partner can disagree. Pretty much everything is susceptible to that very real danger. You could end up spending a lot of time on the project and have it not go anywhere. I had this occur on a non-fiction book that another author invited me to work on with him. The project stalled mostly due to his overwhelming schedule, so I didn't have any hard feelings, but the disappointment was still there. The unused work product was still there.

So you could end up with a dead project. Or, worst case, a collaboration with legal entanglements. Actually, scratch that. Among lost work and legal troubles, I'd say the potential of a lost friendship ranks even higher. And this can happen even when a project is successfully concluded. I was part of a pair of boxed sets with a bunch of other authors. The first one did well, but the second set stalled. Some of it may have been the changes in the marketplace, or the timing, but some of it was most definitely due to lackluster marketing on the part of some of the participating authors.  Me included. I did a poor job of supporting that set, and though I had reasons then [they seem more like excuses to me now], it did nothing to assuage the righteous frustration and anger of those authors who were busting their asses. I still owe them more than just the apology I made, but who knows if I can ever repay that karmic debt?

So the point is, things can go wrong. Don't walk in believing otherwise. But you can take certain steps to mitigate that...

For one, Check your ego at the door. Or the keyboard. Or the email. Hell, I can't make the metaphor work, but you get the idea. As I mentioned above, you have to be able to accept less control, respect the other person's talent and craft, and be able to compromise. If your ego gets in the way, something negative will almost surely happen.

Set  expectations and boundaries . If you know what's expected of you in all phases of the project, and what to expect, there are less likely to be bad surprises. Who will write what? Talk about publishing plans, marketing, all of it.

Boundaries are important, too. For instance, in some of my co-authored novels, each of us wrote one of the two protagonists. There was an agreement that while each of us was expected to treat the whole book as his/her own in terms of editing, revision, plotting, all of it, each writer retained some amount of veto power concerning his/her own character.

Part of this is practical -- you know your own character best. Part of it is about not relinquishing all control. And part of it is showing respect for the fact that the book is a joint effort.

Agree on an approach. Are you going to plot rigorously? Loosely? Barely at all? What point of view will you use? Obviously, you've got to agree on this early on, or things are going to go sideways pretty fast.

Have a good idea where things are going. Many writers, myself included, only outline loosely. Maybe your co-author is the same. That works great for a solo author, and it can work for collaboration, too. However, there has to be just a little structure. Both authors have to know where things are headed. Maybe early in the book, it's just a compass direction, then a particular city in that direction, and as you hit the three quarter mark, it's probably going to be narrowed to a city block, or a specific house. By the time you hit the end of the book, you'll both find your way to the room of the house in which you type THE END. Maybe these plans change a lot along the way, but as you go, you both gotta know those directions. To ensure this, you also must...

Communicate...and be honest! You have to talk with your co-author. A lot. The topics you'll discuss are wide-ranging, including the just-mentioned plotting decisions. But you'll need to discuss every aspect of the book -- characters, tone, theme (I'm in favor of telling the story and seeing what theme emerges from that, but your mileage may vary. It doesn't matter, as long as your co-author is on the same page or willing to be...or you're willing to compromise on the issue), the title, the ending, publishing plans, marketing venues...you have to talk it over.

Talking does no good, though, unless you're honest. Be truthful about your own wishes, and be honest in your critique of the project, whether it is your work or your partner's. For example, as I write this post, I'm currently working on two collaborative novels (plus my own solo book -- it's a juggling act, to be sure). With FALLEN CITY, the Lawrence Kelter collaboration, the first thing I do when I get chapters back from him is read through the edits he did on my previous chapters. We use the Track Changes feature in MS WORD, so the revisions are obvious. I usually accept ninety-plus percent of them, and comment back the reason why on those I don't. Then I read his new chapters, proofread them, and make any small revisions that jump out at me. Some of these are typos, but others are fixes, additions, refinements, or just comments. Then I dive into writing my chapters, starting the process again.

This works for us, especially since we're both writing the entire narrative and not a specific, exclusive character. It's a good form of ongoing revision/editing, and for me, it gets me into the zone for when I start typing a new chapter.  But this communication about what we like, what we don't, what we think should be changed, is constant and ongoing, and it isn't vague or ambiguous. It's honest. Kind, but honest. As a result, we have a good relationship (and in the end, a tighter first draft). [Also, this is a good time to point out a call back here to the ego issue discussed earlier, by the way].

The other book I'm working on is THE WILD, WILD LIST with Eric Beetner. It is our third book together, and another Cam and Bricks Job. This one has a dual first person narrative, so you won't be surprised to hear that when I get a chapter from Beets, I read it and kindly correct any typos but otherwise leave his work alone. He does the same for mine. Occasionally, to make our coordination work, one of us will make a small edit to the other person's chapter. Even more rarely, one of us will edit some dialogue the other put into the mouth of our character. But for the most part, we manage our own plot of land.

The thing is, Eric isn't picky about his work being edited any more than I am or Larry is. But the nature of the books themselves lend toward two different back and forth approaches.

One place where the two approaches are similar, though, is in the communication. I talk a lot with both writers about all the stuff I mentioned above. You have to. In fact, as in any relationship, it is probably the most important thing...or perhaps the second most. The most important thing is to...

Enjoy the ride. You're getting to work with another cool author, making art, and having fun along the way. You're writing a book and getting to read one at the same time. Enjoy it! Enjoy the banter, the flush of creation, the surprises, and the sense of accomplishment. In some ways, it is similar to when you write your own book, but there's a feeling of community to it when you do it with a fellow author.

So enjoy the ride. When it works, it...is...a...blast.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Pros and Cons of Dos (the Art of Collaboration, Part II)

In Part I of this series, I gave some background of my own experiences in collaborating with other authors in writing crime novels. I recommend reading it first, because I will be making references to the people and books mentioned in that post as I discuss the Pros and Cons of having dos writers on one novel.

By way of summary (or review), I've written eight different novels (two more are currently in the works) with five different authors. Demographically, they are four men and one woman. Geographically, two lived near me and two lived on the opposite coasts of the country, and one smack tab in the central (well, sorta -- Texas). Two I have had face to face meetings with (the local ones), the other three I've communicated with largely via email (though with two of them I've had some phone calls, too).

The primary format I've used with four out of five authors and seven of eight books (8 of 10, if you count WIPs) is a dual first person narrative. In this format, each writer handles one character, writing him/her in the first person. The book is presented in alternating chapters, first one character, then the other.

That FORMAT is an important component in how these books have been successful, at least in terms of the writing. What is the benefit (and difficulty) of a format in which you get two alternating first person narratives?

Pro:  The benefit to the reader is that the first person is an intimate way to convey a story. The reader gets to be in the head of the character, seeing and feeling all she sees and feels. The limitation of that form of narration is that the reader is limited to that character and that character alone in terms of information being conveyed. If "I" don't know a fact, neither does the reader. A first person narration can fall prey to an unreliable perspective, in terms of what is seen, and how it is seen.

That's where the dual narrative softens the blow. The reader gets another viewpoint, another set of facts, from the second character. In many cases, the reader will know something the character doesn't, or get to see something in a different light. All the while, the narration is still that intimate first person style.

Con:  The reader may not like first person, or may get confused as the story jumps back and forth between the characters. Okay, this con is cheating a little. I've very rarely had a reader say this is the case. More frequently, people dig the style.

Pro: The back and forth. This is a pro for the reader, in that it can build tension and create natural cliffhangers. It has always been satisfying to hear a reader say, "I just finished a Bricks chapter, and I want to skip ahead and see what happens next, but then I start the Cam chapter, and by the end of that, I want to skip ahead, but then its back to Bricks, and I'm excited all over again..." Okay, that's a paraphrase, but actually a fairly common one when it comes to reader reaction to the format.

It's also a pro for the writer. It is exciting to get back your partner's chapter and see what happened. Yeah, you may know generally, but the details are fun, and can be surprising. One liners that make you laugh, beautiful use of language, the kind of things that you enjoy as a reader, you get to do while writing a book. Plus there's motivation to get to work on your own chapter, and to keep the bar high. You don't want to let your partner down, unlike your seventeenth workout partner.

Con: I don't see one here, honestly. Hit me up if you do.

Pro: You maintain most of the control over your own character. This is what makes this format an easy first foray into collaboration. You don't agree to share 100% of the book. You get to retain some measure of final say over one very important part -- your narrator.

Con: You give up some control over your own character. Your character is going to appear in scenes written by your partner, so there will be actions and words that he does that you didn't write. See my ego comments below to this point, and pay attention to Part III's tips on how to navigate these waters.

The format isn't the only consideration, though. It's obviously possible to collaboratively write a book in any format. I did a single first person narrative with Lawrence Kelter in The Last Collar, and it worked fine. My biggest concern (lack of a singular voice for the character) turned out to be groundless, and we're working on a second book now. This one uses a limited third POV, with two main characters and several secondary ones getting time on stage.

In fact, the format I described above isn't the norm -- most collaborations don't use it. I tried it first with Colin Conway in Some Degree of Murder, and it worked so well for me that I stuck with it for the majority of my other collaborations. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

There are other considerations when collaborating, focusing on WRITER CONCERNS.

Pro: You only have to write half a book. Cool, huh? You write half a book to finish a whole book. It increases your output.

Con: It's only half yours. This con has never bothered me, at least not in eight outings. Part of the reason why will come in Part III when I dispense with some tips on the collaborative process, based on what I've learned. But a little preview here -- ego plays a role. If you can't check your ego, this con will probably bother you. Also, the ego of your partner plays a similar role, so pick him/her wisely.

Pro: No writer's block. I have to say I've never encountered this dreaded problem (rap on wood), though sometimes writing is harder and other times it is simply a joy. But nothing charges me up like getting back the book from my writing partner. Not only do I get to read some great stuff, but it is energizing in that same way that going to coffee with another writer and talking about projects can be. Only this happens twenty or thirty times over the course of the book.

Con: Oh shit, what if I get writer's block? Obviously, you don't want to let your partner down. So this fear could be scary. For me, I don't fear writer's block, but I do fear writer's shit. In other words, I want to make sure I'm carrying my own weight in terms of quality and quantity of writing.

Pro: Coming up with (and refining) ideas. A lot of writers enjoy sitting down with another writer and brainstorming ideas. Some of us do this with non-writers (my wife, Kristi, is my first reader, and is great about talking through ideas, both in meta and micro terms). Usually this brainstorming happens with our colleague or friend, and then we scuttle off to your writer dungeons and make the ideas come to life.

In collaborations, that discussion process never really ends, and great ideas from you or your partner can build a wonderful synergy.

Con: Not all of your ideas make the cut. Doesn't this happen when you write solo, too, though? Hasn't every writer sat down with a great idea and then see things gravitate in a way that minimizes, changes, or even cuts out that original idea? So no reason to cry over this, I say.

Really, it comes down to the biggest pro/con aspect of collaboration: interaction vs. control. If you want the wonder and the excitement of working with a partner, you have to compromise some control. This simple fact is woven throughout many or even most of these pros and cons, and I'll talk about it some more in Part III.

Pro: Solving plot conundrums. Painted yourself into a corner? Two heads are better than one, especially when both heads have skin in the game.

Con: The plot may not always go the way you want it to. This is part of the compromise. And if you had your heart set on a plot thread that doesn't go down, that sucks for you.

Relax. The direction things went was probably better, anyway. Otherwise, you wouldn't have agreed to it.

Pro: A built in co-editor. Two sets of eyes on the every draft is a very good thing. I routinely catch typos in my partners' chapters and mine regularly come back with typo fixes as well. But it goes deeper than proofreading. Two minds focused on the book have a better chance of sussing out motivation issues, plot holes, and anything else that is often pointed out by an astute editor. As a result, drafts of collaborative novels tend to be tighter, earlier.

Con: You may not agree on an edit. So what, though? Doesn't this happen with a reader, reviewer, or editor, anyway?

The way to solve this is relatively simple. In all of my collaborations, both of us have had a free hand to edit anywhere throughout the book. Why wouldn't you? But we also retained final say on edits involving our own character. This creates some equilibrium in the process.

Pro:  Cross-Pollination. After the book is finished and out there, you have a built in marketing piece. Anyone who finds my work will eventually find Eric Beetner, Lawrence Kelter, Jim Wilsky, Bonnie Paulson, and Colin Conway. And if they find one of those fine authors first? Well, then they find me, too.

Marketing fiction in today's world is different than ten years ago. The problem for most writers then was getting past the gatekeepers (agents, publishers). Now there are many gates, and some are not even guarded, so anyone can scamper inside. So the problem becomes getting noticed in an increasingly crowded room. If every time someone bumps into one of your friends, your name comes up, and vice-versa, you and your friends stand a better chance of getting noticed.

Or to using a fishing metaphor, more lines in the water, with varying bait.

And (for a third metaphor) if any one of you catches fire? Everyone gets a little warmth.

This is just one more way of recognizing that writing and selling fiction is not a zero-sum game. I imagine a number of people have said that over the years, but I first read it on Joe Konrath's blog, and immediately agreed. A reader doesn't have to choose between your book and mine -- she can read both. If not today, later. Your success doesn't come at the expense of my own. So I can, and should, be happy for your success.

Con: The reader hates your co-author. Ah, who cares? The Internet is full of people with self-important opinions. Plus, the only books you ever wrote weren't with that co-author anyway, right?

Pro:  Marketing help from your co-author. As mentioned above, any marketing your co-author does benefits you, and vice versa. Got interviewed, wrote a guest blog post, appeared on Entertainment Tonight? Either author's efforts help the other.

Con:  You're not as good at marketing as your co-author. Or they aren't. Although in my case, this is my Achilles heel, and something I need to improve upon.

Pro: Building professional and personal friendships. I really like my co-authors. I've met two of them in person. The other three, I've never sat across a restaurant table from, nor hoisted a glass. One, I've never even spoken to outside of emails.

My kids wouldn't think that's weird at all. My parents don't get it on any level. My generation is in that middle position where we accept it but think it is weird. I mean, I've been friends with Jill Maser for something like ten years, and yeah, we've talked on the phone a number of times but 90% of our friendship has been based on emails.

Emails, people!

I have a friend, a retired Australian cop that I e-met a few years ago when he wrote to me because he liked my River City series. We've exchanged emails, and he's coming to the USA in 2017. I don't think I'll get to see him but still...I'm friends with a guy from Australia?! Who I've never met!?

And there are certainly others...many, actually...but you get the idea. So these co-authors aren't the first Internet-based friendships I've made, but they have developed into the most satisfying. Not only do I have some pride in what we've accomplished together, but I genuinely like the people I've met doing that. Would these friendships exist to this degree if we hadn't birthed a book or three together? Maybe, but I kinda doubt it. They'd be...lesser somehow.

Writing is solitary business, and having connections, especially one as direct as co-authoring a book together, is quite frankly, good for the soul.

Con: Are you kidding?

I'm sure I'm missing some pros and cons. Feel free to pipe up if you see any. In the meantime, check out the third and final installment of this series, which will include some tips and thoughts for you to consider if you're going to collaborate with another author on a novel.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Doing a Solo Thing Together (the Art of Collaboration), Part I

Writing is solitary business, for the most part. Sure, writers love to get coffee and talk shop. We also flock to conferences, and hang out at bookstores, and cruise the online writing society. But the overwhelming majority of the time, the writing itself happens when we're alone. Flying solo. It isn't until later that first readers, editors, etc. get a crack at the work.

Collaborative novels aren't necessarily extraordinary, but they are the anomaly. I've published a total of twenty-one novels (if you count The Last Collar, coming January 23rd from Down & Out Books, and I do). Of those, eight of them are collaborations. That's more than a third, so you could safely argue that a significant part of my writing career is based upon collaboration.

Since that is the case, for the next few blog posts, I'm going to discuss my experiences in collaboration, and some things for writers to consider when deciding if a collaborative novel is for you, and things that might help make the project a success.

For Part I, we start a little background.

I didn't plan to have a third of my catalog be collaborative works. Then again, in my law enforcement career, I never planned on taking a leadership path. In both cases, things just sort of happened, and once they did, I resolved to do my best at it.

My first collaborative novel was Some Degree of Murder, with Colin Conway. Colin and I were both cops at the time, and discovered each other as writing simpaticos in 2004. We read each others' work, did critical edits, encouraged each other, did all of the things that writers can do to help each other out. Having a good writing friend really spurred me along, and it was around that time that I pulled out my earlier draft of Under a Raging Moon and started revising it (ultimately published in 2006 by Wolfmont Press).

Colin and I decided to try writing a book together, set in my River City universe, which was really just a thinly disguised Spokane. To distance it from the River City novels, we set it in 2005, ten years after the events in Under a Raging Moon. We kicked around some ideas for a while, ultimately settling on an infrequently used format - the dual first person narrative. He wrote the character of Virgil Kelley, and I wrote the character of Detective John Tower. We wrote both characters in the first person, alternating chapters from Virgil to Tower and back again. I'd never seen this before, so I thought we were being pretty inventive. We weren't necessarily, but the format wasn't commonplace. It worked well (I'll talk about the pros and cons in a later post), and this was a structure that I would eventually use with three other co-authors.

Once we mapped out a general direction for the book, we started writing one chapter at a time. I remember being excited every time I'd get a new Virgil chapter, and then I'd charge into writing another Tower chapter. Even though we both knew the compass direction we were headed, the events the came out as we knocked out the individual chapters was like getting to read a book as I was writing it. Each of us surprised the other on more than one occasion.

Near the end of the novel, we knew there had to be a confrontation chapter, in which both POVs alternated within a single chaper. So we sat at a coffee shop inside Auntie's Bookstore with a laptop, each writing a passage before pushing the computer back across the table to the other guy. We didn't say word, just wrote. It was like a game of crime fiction chess, and the end result was a satisfying, tense chapter.

That's one of the advantages of writing with this structure -- each writer is going to lobby for his or her character. It keeps both of you honest.

Some Degree of Murder was a pretty bloated novel in its first draft, and not publishable. I know this not only because I still have that draft, but because multiple publishers turned it down. A few were interested but wanted it re-written in the style that was trendy at the time -- a first person detective hero, and a third person antagonist. But we saw SDoM as a novel that operated in the gray. It didn't have a protagonist and an antagonist, per se...Virgil and Tower were each that to the other, and changing the format would destroy that dichotomy.

The version we published years later received a significant culling, and is much tighter as a result. That's another advantage to collaboration -- two sets of editing eyes, before you even go outside the author(s).

My experience with Colin made me very open to trying collaboration again, so when Jim Wilsky, a short story master, wanted to make his foray into novels, we decided to give it a go. Using the same dual first person narrative as in SDoM, we cranked out Blood on Blood. By the time we got to the end, we realized that the story wasn't over, even though our two characters were finished with their respective arcs. We used the story thread of a secondary character, Ania Kozak, to take us to Vegas, where two new characters filled the pages of Queen of Diamonds. Ultimately, Ania led us to the west coast in Closing the Circle, with a third pair of characters narrating the end of her story arc.

I had such a great time with Jim that when Eric Beetner and I struck up an online friendship, it was no surprise that it led to the idea of working together. He was experienced in doing so already, so our work ran even more smoothly than I'd experienced in the past. We had a blast with The Backlist, starring two hitmen -- the caustic Bricks and hapless Cam. Much like with my other partners, waiting for a Cam chapter to come back from Eric was full of anticipation, and the guy made me laugh out loud more than once during the writing of that book.We liked the characters so much, we went at it again in The Short List, and we're currently approaching the finish line on book three, tentatively titled The Wild, Wild List.

The Backlist was the first time I wrote a novel in the first person from the perspective of a female character. I'd done third person POV work in my River City series, writing a lot of scenes featuring Officer Katie MacLeod, but nothing in the first person. I probably would have tried it eventually, but I know only having to pull it off for half a novel and with the support of a fellow writer no doubt hastened my decision. As a result, when Bonnie R. Paulson said she wanted to make her foray into crime fiction in a joint venture, I suggested a twist -- she write a male lead, and I write a female one. Bonnie quickly agreed, and the result was The Trade Off, a gritty story that explores the cost of human trafficking. I wrote the character of "Gus" MacIntyre, an undercover police detective.

As we neared the end of The Trade Off, Bonnie and I had a discussion (it was more like an argument, though without any anger or vitriol) about the very same thing Jim Wilsky and I argued about on more than one occasion during the Ania series....who, if anyone should die. Those are tricky conversations, because as writers, we all get attached to our characters, and although this isn't what people mean when they say you must kill your darlings, it isn't far off the mark. More on this in later posts.

Another type of collaboration I have been involved in is boxed sets, and it was by participating in one of these that I met Lawrence Kelter. Larry proposed we work together, and by this time, the idea was an easy one for me to say yes to. The harder part was that Larry wanted to deviate from the dual first person narrative format that I was so comfortable with. I was a little hesitant, because this was the formula that had worked for me, and it was definitely my comfort zone. As we'll talk about a little later, it had some distinct advantages that I liked. But as we worked out some of the early ideas about character and plot and settled on a single first person narrative, I agreed to give it a shot.

My biggest concern was that writing in the first person is an intimate experience. The narrator is essentially having a one on one with the reader, and voice in the first person is very pronounced. I worried that the chapters I wrote would have one voice, and Larry's chapters another. This had been a good thing in the dual narrative but would be disastrous in a single narrative.

I shouldn't have worried, though. By the time The Last Collar was finished, I was hard pressed to pick out the chapters or passages that I wrote versus Larry's. Some of this is because we didn't go chapter by chapter, but chunk by chunk. And part of it was also because we both had a active hand in editing as we went and after the draft (this, by the way, is another issue we'll need to touch on in the posts to come). In any event, the voice was seamless and my fears groundless.

My experience with Larry was as positive as with all my other co-authors. In fact, we are hard at work on another crime novel together, tentatively titled Fallen City. I'm actually enjoying this one even more than The Last Collar, which is a tough act to follow.

So that's been my experience in collaborating thus far. Eight books (ten, if you count WIPs), five different authors. Four men, one woman. Two local, one New York, one L.A, one Texas. Pretty good range to draw upon for the next post, which will discuss the pros and cons of collaborating...stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Finally, For Sure...!

In 2013, I started this blog because I'd retired from law enforcement to write full time. "Full time" lasted only a few months (one of which I spent in Italy...trip of a lifetime!) as my good friend Dave Mather recruited me to teach leadership in policing.

It was a good gig, teaching for a prestigious non-profit in places all over the US and Canada, staying in nice hotels, getting paid consultant fees, and most importantly of all, having an impact on the profession of law enforcement. It was good for the soul.

I was also teaching Police Report Writing for the local community college and several different criminal justice courses for one of the universities. Again, very rewarding.

But my writing suffered.

Mostly, it suffered in terms of quantity, though I suspect that whenever you're not at your craft, you're probably not getting better at your craft. No matter how you cut it, though, the years 2014 through 2016 were fairly meager in terms of Frank Zafiro publications. Much of my work came in the form of collaborations, all of which I'm proud of (and some of which are ongoing partnerships). That worked well when I was teaching, because my part came in bursts, rather than requiring a steady output.

As 2016 neared its end, I realized that my journey in the teaching and consulting field had reached its end. Some of it was because the work had fulfilled its purpose on a personal level, and I felt ready to move on. And some of it had to do with my desire to ramp up my writing career.

So I put in my notices, said my thank yous and farewells, and by the toll of the New Year, with the exception of a couple of small obligations left to fill, I was completely retired from my brief second career as a teacher/consultant. 2017 looks to be a big year for Frank Zafiro work. It looks to be my year!

Actually, I got a head start on that, as my last week on the road was in early December. I took a little time to catch my breath, and then got after it. As of today, I'm juggling four different works, with the goal of finishing at least three of the four by the end of January.

They are (working titles, all):

WILD, WILD LIST, the third Cam and Bricks Job, with Eric Beetner, in which our heroes flee the ruin of their lives on the East Coast, heading west to Seattle...but they run into trouble along the way.

FALLEN CITY, my second novel with Lawrence Kelter. Set in the late 1980s (scary, but this technically makes the book a period piece!) in New York during the crack cocaine wars, this book follows a ruthless Dominican gang and the task force set up to stop them.

IN THE CUT, a standalone novel set in Spokane against the backdrop of an outlaw motorcycle gang.

UNTITLED SHORT STORY for the Down & Out Books anthology, BLACK CAR BUSINESS, due out next January. I've got this one mapped out in my head, but I'll need some of my dad's mechanical knowledge to complete it.

Of the four, I think the short story has the highest likelihood of not being finished, but who knows? Maybe I'll go four for four.

It's going to my year, after all.