Monday, August 13, 2018

Book Openings, and a "Cool" Book Review

Every now and then, you read a novel and it reminds you of why you fell in love with literature, and why you still think that reading and writing can save us, unite us, heal us. Such a novel is My Last Continent by Midge Raymond. It's about a strong woman who already loves two things very deeply, and then falls in love for the first time with a person.
          Much has been written about this justly-acclaimed book—about how Raymond brings to life the loveable endangered penguins and the starkly beautiful threatened continent itself—that I’ll simply say that I feel like I lived through this adventure and barely escaped the shipwreck myself. I read far into the wee hours of the morning (fair warning to future readers) and even in the record-breaking heat of this August in So Cal, I read the final chapters with a shiver or two, and more than one tear.
          Raymond opens the book with the word “Afterwards” and the first lines put us right into Antarctica today; our narrator notices that the tourists waddling up from the shore to the penguin colonies are swaddled so that “these visitors—stuffed into oversize puffy red parkas—walk like the penguins themselves.” Moments later we learn about the shipwreck of the Australis, and we are hooked.




Having lived aboard a boat for most of my last thirty years, I can attest to how well the author captured being at sea for long periods, what it's like to be in a small inflatable dinghy in the dark/cold, and how difficult small boats are to control in choppy water. Luckily I've never been in (or on) such a cold ocean—reading about it was chilling enough...
       
Openings are notoriously difficult, and only a few writers are able to make page one look easy. Every book has its own, perfect beginning—it is the author’s responsibility (and sometimes the editor’s job) to find it.
          You all know I love reading memoirs, and that traveling on land and sea in Baja California was a defining part of my life. Here are the opening paragraphs to two excellent, and very different, Baja memoirs:
         
From Almost An Island by Bruce Berger: “Looking back on a three-decade obsession with Baja California, I see that I have been caught by a cul-de-sac. Longer than Florida, longer than Italy, Baja California is an eight hundred-mile deadend. To the west, the Pacific Ocean stretches a third of the globe's circumference before striking another continent. To the east lies the Gulf of California—more romantically known, particularly to the travel industry, as the Sea of Cortez. A finger of the Pacific, the Gulf is a peninsula of water to complement the one of land.”
         
From Miraculous Air by C.M. Mayo: “The first airplane arrived at San José del Cabo in 1931. The people couldn't believe it, that this thing could stay up above the earth, swoop over them without falling. The pilot's surname was Flores, but no one remembers his first name.
       It is the town historian, Don Fernando Cota, who is telling me this story. It is late October, more than sixty years later. Most of the people who were there that day are dead.”

          One excerpt is a bit shorter than the other, but that is the least of their differences. Each establishes a clear tone and a unique voice, but both make me want to read more. I bet you all have one or more favorite opening line(s) to a book—please share them with us below.

Hasta pronto!

Sunday, June 10, 2018

How Editing Works—And, Yes, it Does Work!

This post was written with my friend/client and guest blogger Jeanine Kitchel, author of the new “narco lit” crime novel, Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival (May 2018). I’ll let Jeanine go first:
                                   
     “For me, writing fiction did not come easy. With a background in journalism, my early attempts to create fiction contained lengthy back stories and copious blocks of information. That style may have worked several decades ago when Michener was king, but didn’t cut it now.
     Early on I fell into my old habit of researching, my comfortable companion. My initial efforts burgeoned into a whopper of a book, well over 93,000 words. It had taken me years to write and re-write my beginning chapters. I knew something wasn’t quite right but couldn’t put my finger on it, nor could my writing group or my Beta readers.
    Enter Jennifer Silva Redmond. Before I turned over the manuscript, she explained that her first edit, called a content edit, was when the editor basically checks out the bones of a writer’s work. When she got back to me, I was devastated by her initial advice—make huge cuts, especially at the beginning. I’d wanted someone to come in with a magic wand and divine where the structure of the story lay, and Jennifer did that. Little did I know that the cutting would be done by hatchet!
    For two days, I sulked. After a sleepless night or two, I digested Jennifer’s suggestions—then went to work. I xeroxed her six pages of comments and that became my Bible. I started to cut, paste, and scrap text. It took me three weeks.
     Jennifer suggested a second content edit. I happily complied. She came  back to me with more suggested cuts, now using a scalpel. By this time I was getting the hang of it. Her edits helped me to streamline the book—made it punchier, edgier, a faster-moving story.
    The final thrust came with the line edit, where Jennifer worked pockets of words into a cleaner, more readable prose. I felt good—really good—about the finished product. It was down to under 73,000 words. We’d cut over 20,000 words. And I didn’t miss those words at all.” 



Thanks, Jeanine!
And, just so you readers know that all that work was worth it, the first of her book's glowing reviews mentioned the “immediately hooked reader” and said that Wheels Up has “enough adventure packed into its fast-moving pages to satisfy the most ravenous armchair thrill-seeker. The book begins with a drug-loaded airplane crash into the jungle and never relinquishes its momentum after that.” The review closes with: “Ms. Kitchel gives the avid reader no further chance to breathe as she narrows her exciting plot down to its final, deadly confrontation.”
    Another recent review called Wheels Up “a fast and fun read, reminiscent of sunny South Florida crime novels…It’s not a lightweight story by any means, but there’s a breeziness mixed with intrigue that makes a perfect summer beach read. All in all, Wheels Up is an expertly crafted work of crime fiction—fast-paced when it needs to be, with gripping detail about the Mexican drug trade, and well-drawn characters to match.”
    I don’t think those comments about timing and pace would have been quite so complimentary if Jeanine hadn’t gone through the editing process, been able to hear my criticism (and praise) clearly, and been willing do the hard work to cut the book, in order to reveal the exciting story at its core.
    So, editing is really worth the time and money—because it works.
    hasta pronto!

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Bringing Your Life Story to Life: Writing Memoir

This post originally appeared on OCWriters.Network, a network of published and aspiring authors. Find them here.  Also, I will be leading an intensive two-day memoir track at the Sunriver Writers’ Summit in Bend, Oregon the last weekend in May, May 26th/27th. FYI, the $75 discount is still good until May 1, so it's only $250 for the weekend workshop. Here is the link to my memoir track.

I recently read an article in the Spectator called “Biography is a Thoroughly Reprehensible Genre." The writer commented on the amount of pointless detail in most biography, and I see that often with my clients who are writing memoir—I always say that the trick with memoir is not what you put in but what you leave out.

But, the author of the article said something else that was key, “the chief problem with biography is that the fundamental precepts are wrong…the idea always seems to be that by gathering and establishing facts, cataloging testimonies and anecdotes, each life can be made a perfect whole — that the objective biographer will see to it that there has been a plan or pattern, and dignity is conferred.”

It’s exactly the same with memoir. Writing a memoir by simply assembling all the facts about your life in the months or years you’ve chosen to write about is a bit like doing a complicated jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box. You could keep adding detail—writing descriptions and adding information—but all along, you’d be wondering what it would all turn out to be.

That means, unfortunately, that if you’re writing a memoir about your battle with cancer, you will not have written a memoir because you kept a meticulous journal of every day in the two years from diagnosis to remission. There would be things in your daily journal that would be repetitive, or that simply don’t belong in your story, and details that would bore readers to death.

So, let’s assume you already have a great pile of notes, notebooks full of journaling, or other writing about the period in your life you’ve chosen to write about. How do you bring it to life, or bring it back to life? How do you know what belongs in the manuscript and what doesn’t?

I’m glad you asked.

You begin by figuring out what your story is about. That’s the essence of “pitching” any book concept, not just memoir. And that “pitch” (or “log-line” for you Hollywood types) is not just what happens in the book, like, for instance, “I’m autistic and in 2009, I climbed Mt Everest.” The pitch needs to include what you want people to get from what happened to you—what you learned along the way to that made you want to write the book. More like “I’m autistic, and, while climbing Mt. Everest, I learned that I can do anything I set my mind to.” Or, to go back to our first memoir concept: “I beat cancer by learning to listen very carefully to what my own body was telling me.”

Once you have clarified that specific goal, and know what you want to say in the book, the rest is easy…Well, actually it isn’t. But it is easier!

Hopefully, you can figure out this first step before you start writing, but it doesn’t always work that way. Perhaps you have a completed first draft of the memoir already and want to get it looked at by an editor, but you aren’t quite sure it is ready.

One sign will be if you finish your first draft and it’s over 120,000 words long. Not that a tight, well-crafted memoir can’t be that long, but most manuscripts that long will need cutting. Another sign is a memoir of only 40,000 words. The manuscript may have great bones (a strong idea and structural outline), but not enough meat on the skeleton; it probably needs to be fleshed out more to become the excellent book it can be.

My short-form nonfiction and memoir has been published in national magazines and anthologies, and oftentimes the challenge of figuring out where and how to start writing was solved once I came up with a title for my essay. After all, writing an essay is basically defending an argument. So, my essay’s title (or a story “pitch”), gives me a constant goal to aim for, which is sticking to that point—that argument, if you will—and keeping that message clear throughout the book.

So, you can look at every one of the hundreds of notes you have amassed (or any questionable segment in the manuscript you’ve written) and say to yourself “Does this help me to further clarify or prove this book’s point?” If not, out it goes.

Don’t scream—of course, there will be pieces that seem tangential but turn out to reveal something that is important, or that take us readers somewhere we need to go, and those will stay in. But you do have to be a ruthless, even before you start working with an editor. Be honest with yourself—is this tangent only staying in the book because you liked writing about it? Or because you think you wrote it really well? Remember the line about “killing your darlings”? You have to, even in memoir.

With your book’s overarching point firmly established in your mind, you (and eventually your editor) can find ways to eliminate false starts and dead-ends that could doom your memoir, and find a clear path to resurrect your story and share it with the world.

Hasta pronto!

I will be leading an intensive two-day memoir track at the Sunriver Writers’ Summit in Bend, Oregon the last weekend in May, May 26th/27th. FYI, the $75 discount is still good until May 1, so it's only $250 for the weekend workshop. Here is the info.

Monday, March 5, 2018

You're So Cute When You're Mad!" #BOAW2018

This post is part of The Beauty of a Woman BlogFest VII! To read more entries, and potentially win a fun prize, visit the fest page (link this to http://www.augustmclaughlin.com/beauty-woman-blogfest-vii/) on August’s McLaughlin’s site between today and 11pm PST March 9th. 


All of us women have been there, right? You're really pissed off, totally steaming mad at a guy—maybe it isn't always a guy, but in my life, it was always a guy—and he says with a smile "You're so cute when you're mad!"
      Well, let me tell you something, "ladies," we may well be cute when we're mad, but that doesn't take anything away from our personal and collective power. And I think that a lot of the men out there that thought "how cute is that?" when we got ticked off one at a time, are beginning to look around at the world (and the media) and see a lot of extremely angry women, which might make them wonder why they ever thought it was cute!
      Personally, I think justifiably angry women are beautiful, because I think real emotion and personal power are both beautiful, and sometimes angry is precisely what is happening. There are a lot of women out there who have put up and shut up for years, and right now they are all saying "time's up!" No longer will I accept being treated as a sexual object without feelings and emotions and a mind. No longer will I sit back at work and watch other people get ahead of me undeservedly. No longer will I tolerate being treated as a worker-robot, an interchangeable automaton without a brain.    
  Time is up for all of that!
  I was recently at the second annual Women's March here in San Diego, and it was there, surrounded by women (and men) of all ages, races, shapes, and sizes that I realized how beautiful the emotion was that had brought us there. And, make no mistake, as happy as we were to be there together that day, we'd all been brought there by one basic emotion—we were mad as hell and we were not going to take it anymore!
   
     I was there with my niece (proud to call herself a "Nasty Woman"), her mom, and about 30,000 other inspired, dedicated, hard-working women. Some of us were dressed in pink and many were holding signs that spelled out just how fed up we were—done with misogyny, racism, sexism, and every other kind of intolerance. (Sure, some of that anger was directed at a particular man who currently holds a powerful office, but we all know that he's not the real problem, he's just a very ugly symptom of the systemic problem).
     We marched and we chanted. We were united, we were one, we were energized, and we were all beautifully determined to keep up the fight.
     To that end we will keep marching, keep speaking out (#metoo #timesup), and work to instigate change by running for office, by volunteering to help put worthy people into government, and by taking to the polls by the millions come November.
     And that is something I find incredibly beautiful.
     hasta pronto!

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Getting Ready for SCWC...It's Almost Time!

Yes, it's February and less than a week until the Southern California Writers Conference here in San Diego.  I lalways ook forward to President's Day weekend with great expectations, knowing I'll learn a lot, even as I get to teach a lot!
I know I've said all this before, but bear with me as I remind you of a few reason to attend SCWC:
1. To find your "tribe"! The most important reason of all—we all need people in our life that "get" us and "get" our writing...You can find them at SCWC!
2. To meet industry professionals, and not just see them at a panel. Where else can you chat with agents and editors and successful authors in an informal setting like coffee or drinks? (Too many conferences are "cattle calls" where the pros all hang out together and you never actually meet anyone except other first-timers.)
3. To get professional eyes on your work. Amateur authors often submit their manuscript when they finish their first draft, because they're tired of working on it...but the book isn't ready to be published. Whether you take some pages to read and critique meetings or  to late night "rogues," you'll learn what is working—and what isn't.


4. To learn more about craft and story, and to learn what's happening in the industry. From workshops on publishing, marketing, & promotion for your published book, to great speakers who have all "been there, done that." One of those speakers this year is Eric Peterson, my client and friend, and author of "The Dining Car." (SHAMELESS PLUG: Now available as an Audiobook!)
5. Because it's so flippin' fun! We all need to get out from behind our desks and meet other writers and socialize once in a while. And who doesn't want to hang out with a talented, inspiring, upbeat group of creative souls?
See you there—hasta pronto!