About a month ago, I finished the first draft of my novel, Diary of Bedlam. It was definitely a milestone–I have about 65k words, a beginning, a middle, and an end, and most importantly, I know "whodunnit."

But although I refer to this draft as a "book," does it really qualify? No. There's too many disconnects, too many errors, and too much bad writing for me to justify calling it a book.

For me the answer to the question "when does a book become a book?" will probably be around the time I'm ready to start querying agents, or slightly before. It will then be a complete story with most of the kinks worked out, and it will be ready for the "general public" to read, at least in my estimation.

When do you think a book becomes a book?

Last week I put out a request to friends and family to read the first two chapters of my novel and supply feedback. The response was great, but the feedback they sent me back was even better.

By better, I'm not saying all their comments were positive. What was great, and oh so appreciated, was the fact they took time to read the chapters and give their honest opinions.

I asked two questions when I sent out the chapters:

1) Does the beginning hook you?
2) Is there anything unclear or confusing?

The overwhelming response was that yes, readers were hooked and wanted to read more (yay!). The second most common response was that there was some confusion in chapter two with all of the information I tried to impart.

Other comments included problems with pacing and needing more character development earlier. There were also some inconsistencies in the text that I didn't catch. All easily fixable.

I don't know why I'm surprised at how valuable this feedback is in going forward. It's given me confidence, but it was also a much needed reality check. Thanks to all who have read the manuscript so far and sent me your thoughts!

Next month, I'll be doing something I haven't done in a very long time: travel to a business conference. Specifically, the California Crime Writers Conference in Pasadena, June 13-14.

CCWC%20Logo

I'll be honest. It feels weird to call this a business trip. Writing is a hobby, not a business, right?

Nope. Writing is my business and almost since the beginning I've tried to treat it that way. Rather than take the "art" out of writing, this mentality keeps me on track and reminds me to take it seriously. Frankly, it's been an integral part of getting me this far.

How far is "this far?" Over the weekend I finished the first draft of the novel. Now I'm doing my first pass, which basically means I'm re-reading it and polishing it up so I can send it off to readers for a critique. That should give you an idea of how rough the first draft is–I won't let it out of my sight until I get it shaped up, at least a little.

With two weeks to go, I'm in the process of defining my goals for the conference. The main goal is to listen and learn. With this schedule of topics, there will be plenty to choose from. I'll probably be concentrating the most on the "Learning the Craft" and "Getting Published" tracks, but I might sneak into the NRA gun demonstration or "Confessions of a Mafia Insider."

My second goal is to meet people and make contacts. This will be a challenge for me since I am very shy with strangers. But challenges are good, aren't they? (Whimper whimper–not looking forward to the "I'm all by myself in the big city" aspect of this conference).

I also need to come up with a rock solid elevator pitch. My bio has an unofficial version of the pitch, but I need something snappier. Here's what I have now:

"Diary of Bedlam is a mystery based on the real-life unsolved murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey.  Set in 1678 London, it faithfully describes one of the darkest periods of political turmoil to occur during the reign of Charles II:  the popish plot."

Any ideas? One thing that's missing is a reference to my heroine, Isabel Wilde.

My final goal is to polish enough of my first draft to take advantage of a paid 5-page manuscript critique. Although now I see it's limited to the first 30 registrants, so I might not be able to do that. Oh well, I still need to be polishing!

So that's the state of writing affairs. Finished first draft? I almost can't believe it myself.

I often find it impossible to pick my favorites "of all time" in any category. And with books? Forget about it. There's too many to choose from that should be on the list.

And yet, when Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, asked me (in the book) to pick my top three novels, I took some time to think about it.

These are the three books I came up with:

Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk

Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

Three Without Fear by Robert C. Du Soe

I've read all three of these books so many times I've lost count. Indeed, I have whole passages practically memorized. And Marjorie Morningstar sits at the top of the list because no matter how many times I read it, I always cry at the end.

Having picked the top three, the next question Maass asks is "What do they have in common?"

I'll start with what all three have in common: A fantastic sense of location. In Marjorie Morningstar, Wouk creates a Manhattan so compelling that as a teenager (when I first read it) I couldn't wait to visit the city. Winsor does the same for 17th century London in Forever Amber. And finally, Du Soe creates not a city, but a region–Baja California, and the adventures that lay in wait for three children travelling to San Diego on their own. Each of these books evokes a time and place that are magical, and utterly takes readers out of their own worlds and thrusts them into new and exciting places.

Marjorie Morningstar and Forever Amber are very similar in their themes, if not in their times and locations. Both novels feature beautiful young females with strong senses of themselves and no real concept of defeat or failure. It's not that they don't experience setbacks, it's that they confront every situation with a degree of confidence that makes their failures bittersweet and their triumphs all the more satisfying. I first read both of these novels when I was around 13 or 14, a time in my life when self confidence was a commodity I had little of. I wanted to be these women, it didn't matter if they made mistakes–I wanted to take life by the horns and experience it. Hard to do in the little California town I grew up in.

The final question Maass asks is (I'm paraphrasing) "What do you bring into your own novel from your top three favorites?"

One of the things I'm bringing to my own novel is obvious–it's set in 17th century London, just like my beloved Forever Amber. Mine is set about 15 years later though, which does make a major difference in some ways (think about a more modern story set in 1980 versus 2005).

The second thing I'm taking is a female lead with a strong sense of self. My heroine is the 17th century version of an amateur sleuth and she's about 12 years older, but she shares some of the same characteristics of Amber St. Clare (Forever Amber) and Marjorie Morgenstern (Marjorie Morningstar) that I found so compelling.

So I leave you with this question:
What are your top three novels of all time?

This is my first attempt at doing a “how to write” video:

I know. The first step is fairly obvious. But it’s the only way you’ll ever become a writer.

Also, please forgive the lapses in grammar and the awkward cuts. I am so busy writing these days, I didn’t have time for much in the way of fancy transitions.

Lastly, please remember that the camera adds 75 pounds.

Today's best links:

S.E. Hinton, a.k.a. Your Majesty from the L.A. Times

“When I was young, all the books were about a Mary Jane and the football player and the prom and ending up with the quiet guy and making your mom happy,” she said.  “Well, I’d been to a few proms, and it was about who got killed in the parking lot and who's got the booze inside.”

Comparing Fingerprints: What's the Point? from Lee Lofland's "The Graveyard Shift"

"It is the duty of fingerprint examiners to compare certain characteristics of a suspect’s fingerprint, known as points of identity, or minutiae, to points on fingerprints found at the scene of a crime. This comparison can prove that the suspect had, at some point in time, been at that particular scene. A fingerprint match alone does not, however, prove the suspect committed the crime."

Those Ignorant Atheists from Salon.com

"Atheists of the Ditchkins [referring to Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins] persuasion have raised valid points about the sordid social and political history of religion, with which Eagleton largely agrees. Yet their arguments are fatally undermined by their own unacknowledged dogmas and doctrines, he goes on to say, and they completely fail to understand Christian faith (or any other kind) except in its stupidest and most literal-minded form."

Getting the Call from Rachel Gardner, Literary Agent

"It's the moment every writer dreams of: the day an agent emails or calls to say, 'I'd like to discuss representation.'"

 

Here are a few of the best book-related links I've found today:

Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson
Lyndsay Faye's debut novel comes out today and it looks like it's just my cup of tea. Also, she's my sister's friend.

Conversation with Joe Finder from Jonathan Maberry's Big Scary Blog.

Q & A with Agent Jessica Faust from Editor Unleashed

Creating Characters that Jump Off the Page from Casting the Bones

Procrastinating on the Novel? Write a Blovel Instead from JungleG.com

I have given myself a self-imposed deadline of May 31 to complete the first draft of my novel. It will be a challenge, but I am tired of feeling like this is open-ended. I'm far enough along to make a concrete commitment to finishing and May 31 it is.

That means I'll probably be slowing down on the blog posts a little. I do have a lot of content I need to post but it will only happen if I have time (and energy) after fulfilling the day's writing goals.

What Next?
I wish I could say that after the first draft is finished I'll be ready to start looking for a publisher. Not so! My first draft is kind of like a big rough diamond–I know it has some gem-quality writing in it but it will take a lot of cutting and polishing to get to the flawless stone.

I'm a jewelry maker, of course I have to use a gemstone analogy!

So my summer will be filled with revisions and re-writing. At the beginning of August, I'll be going to London with my husband to explore all of the locations in the novel. I'll take pictures and write descriptions, and I hope to include a feature on my blog called "Isabel Wilde's London." Many of the locations I'm using I'm already familiar with, but I need to go to each one to ensure they make sense historically. Most of this I can do from home, but I think visiting each location will bring the story to life for me in an important way.

So When Can I Read it?
That's probably a long way off. I will begin looking for an agent as soon as I feel I have a polished manuscript worthy of publishing, which will hopefully be in the fall. After that, there is a degree of luck involved and in addition to querying agents, I will begin writing the second book. One thing I didn't realize when I started this–the process never ends! But that's a good thing, because I love living in this world I've created.

Thankfully, my case of writer's block seems to have cleared up.  Today's writing task was to introduce a new and important character into the story.  This character is to be handsome and charming, and a possible love interest for my heroine.  It seemed, then, that writing his physical description was important.  This is what I wrote:

"Up close I could see that XXX was indeed a handsome man.  He had brown eyes and a thin brown mustache.  His hair, which fell to his shoulders in loose brown waves, appeared to be his own and not a periwig.  When he smiled, the left side of his mouth raised slightly higher than the right, revealing straight white teeth.  His manner of dress was fashionable but not foppish."

Is it just me, or does this guy sound a little like Rhett Butler?

It's moments like this that I am reminded that I am new to fiction writing and that I've got a lot to learn.  To that end, today did some reading of On Writing by Stephen King. 

I still struggle with descriptions, particularly, how much description to give.  Coincidentally, that is exactly the topic I happened upon in On Writing.  King confirms what I already suspected was true–belaboring a description is as tedious for the writer as it is for the reader.

My job here is to convey a not only a sense of what he looks like, but also to convey my heroine's interest.  How do do this effectively remains the question.  One thing is clear–I'm going to have to find a few other handsome-male-rogue-archetypes besides Rhett Butler (I say this because this is not the only male character in the story who somehow bears a striking resemblence to Mr. Butler).  Any suggestions?

I only include this writing sample because I know it won't appear like this in the finished manuscript.  To find out what XXX ends up looking like and how I describe him, you'll have to wait for publication.

Thank You
First of all, I'd like to start by saying thank you for all of the kind comments you wrote regarding my last post about losing Kramer.  That was a tough post to write and I really appreciate all of you who disregarded my warning about it being sad and read it anyway.

Writer's Block
I've had a wicked case of writer's block these last few days.  I've experienced it before, and the good news is that the further I get into the writing of this novel, the less I get it and the less severe it is when it does come.

That's not making me feel any better at the moment, however.

My general method of conquering writer's block is to try to push through it.  That means that even if every bone in my body wants to flop on the couch and watch Rock of Love, I ignore them and force myself to write.  If I don't have a particular scene in mind or I've finished all of my current chapters, I review my chapter outline and see if it sparks anything.  Lately, nada.

Get Your Facts Straight — Then Toss Them Aside
Without a doubt, the biggest reason for my writer's block is not having a clear idea of where my story is going.  To a large extent, I'm not writing off the top of my head.  This is fiction, sure, but many of the events and characters existed in real-life.  One thing I've had trouble grasping is that even though this story is based upon historical events, I don't have to adhere to them exactly.  It is, in fact, impossible to tell this story based solely on the facts of the case (or at least a book anyone would want to read).  I'm not writing nonfiction for a reason–I want to play.

For example, there is a key person in the real-life story who doesn't enter the action until a couple of months into the investigation.  If I was writing a nonfiction account of the events, this wouldn't matter, I would record the story as it unfolded.  In a novel, especially a mystery, this character should appear much earlier in the story.  For a long time, my outline stuck to the true events fairly strictly and I planned on introducing this character later in the book.  Today, however, I decided I need to get him into it by the beginning of the second act–at the very latest.  There are a couple of logical places I can do this and I will revise some of my current scenes to reflect this decision.

What will this do?  Well, it frees up the story in a lot of ways.  Because this person was so central to the true life events, he can now become a key character in my novel, and an interesting one at that.  I can use him in multiple ways to create conflict throughout the book, but if I wait until later to introduce him, he will have minimal impact.

But what this really means is that tomorrow I have a fresh burst of inspiration to work with and hopefully, it's adios writer's block.