Book Launch, a Bookversary, and NaNoWriMo

Hidden Agendas

Today, Hidden Agendas, the sequel to Who Watches the Watchmen?, launched. Yeah, it’s rather lost in the hoopla over National Novel Writing Month, but I wanted it out before the first anniversary of last year’s election.

These two novelettes aren’t exactly historical fiction but more current events or… How about “current political thrillers”? That works.

Both novelettes were certainly cathartic for me to write, and I hope they are for the readers, too.

If you’d like to take a look, go to my Amazon Author Page, and you’ll find them there.

Celebrating The Yellow Scarf

The Yellow Scarf was one of my first novellas, and Facebook just reminded me it came out two years ago.

This novella started out as a 5,000 – 6,000 word short story, which I workshopped at Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. My fellow writers in the workshop and its instructor, Edgar-Nominated Laura Benedict, suggested that it needed more backstory, that perhaps it was too much of a story for a short story.

Armed with their suggestions, I added the backstory, beefed up a character, inserted the imagery of a yellow scarf throughout, and extended the story over the period of a year. The result? A novella based on real events in the Balkan Civil Wars. It’s a story I’m particularly proud of and am glad it’s out in the world.

To celebrate its second birthday, The Yellow Scarf will be on sale for 99 cents Friday only. Again, go to my Amazon Author page (link above) to have a look and buy a copy if you like.

It’s NaNoWriMo Time!

It’s the mad month of November where several hundred thousand people around the world write a 50,000-word novel rough draft in 30 days. Crazy, right? But we’re writers, so it’s expected.

I guess you could say the novelettes, Who Watches the Watchmen? and Hidden Agendas are prequels to this year’s project, A Squalid Procession of Vain Fools. Again, this will be a current events political thriller with some family angst mixed in, just to make it interesting.

This will be my 10th NaNoWriMo, and this year I’m a co-municipal liaison for the Shenandoah Valley region. My municipal liaison and I have lots of online and in-person events planned, and if you’re local to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, come join us. Check out our Facebook page, Shenandoah Valley Wrimos, for times and places.

I kicked us off last night right at midnight with an online write-in, and, boy, I was up way past my bed time! But it’s great fun with great writers.

I’ll also be occasionally posting about my project here, including some (unedited) excerpts, but if you follow me on Instagram (@paduncan1), you’ll see some NaNoWriMo-related graphics along with my other posts.

If you’ve never tried NaNoWriMo, give it a go. No pressure. Well, there is pressure: 50,000 words in 30 days, but for a type A personality like me, bring it on!

Evolution of a Novella – The Yellow Scarf

When you decide to write a novella, you sit down and write until you have between 7,500 and 40,000 words, depending on genre. However, since thriller/suspense isn’t listed among the genres where the length of novellas is specifically spelled out, I’ve opted to go with the length suggested for literary and romance fiction, 20,000 to 40,000 words.

TYS Print Cover CSFor my most recent novella, The Yellow Scarf, which debuts today, the history isn’t quite that simple. I never intended for it to be a novella at all.

The second part of the novella started out as a chapter in book one of a draft series called A Perfect Hatred, which is about domestic terrorism in the U.S. I intended that chapter to illustrate how my two covert operatives not only had to switch between missions but also had to deal with a mission interfering with the upcoming holidays.

In a subsequent edit/rewrite of the novel, that chapter got cut, and for some reason I didn’t ditch it completely. A couple of years later, I was searching for some short story material, and I opened the file, changed the ending, and ended up with a short story, originally titled “Justice for Ludmilla.” The story was around 5,000 words, and I was pretty pleased with it.

The short story was a snapshot of a couple of hours in Sarajevo in late fall 1993, at the height of the sniper activity in that city. The Serb Army was entrenched on the ridges surrounding the city, which had hosted the 1984 winter Olympics. Not only did they bombard the city with artillery, but snipers wreaked havoc. A battle of snipers ensued, with Bosnian Muslim civilian snipers and Serb Army snipers hunting each other amid the destruction. Even though both sides sniped at civilians, a preponderance of the sniper killings were Serb Army on civilians. Sarajevo’s main avenue became known as Sniper Alley. My story told of an investigation into a civilian’s death and the investigator’s desire to find the identity of the sniper.

I was so pleased with the story that I work-shopped it at my 2015 Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop genre fiction writing class. The consensus was that everyone liked the story, but they wanted to know more: why was the investigator there, why were there vague hints about something happening the year before, etc. In our one-on-one, the workshop instructor, Laura Benedict, said, “I think this is too powerful for a short story. Why don’t you turn it into a novella?”

In general, workshop instructors are much like agents or editors. They tell you trim, cut, be more concise. Rarely do they ever suggest that you add words or, heaven forbid, expand a short story into a novella. I was stunned by that, but I went home determined to see if I could do it. After all, the back-story to that short story was in my head, i.e., I knew who and what and why but hadn’t wanted to clutter the short story with it. A novella offered definite possibilities.

I put butt in chair and wrote. About 18,000 words later I had a draft novella. I did my usual thing and set it aside for a couple of weeks. When I did a revision I ended up adding a couple thousand words to get it to the 20,000 mark. I shipped it off to a couple of beta readers, who coincidentally had been in the workshop with me, and they gave me great feedback, which I incorporated.

I continued to polish and refine it until I thought I had a good draft, ready for publication. Still, I hired a professional editor to make a final review, and she, too, made some excellent suggestions. More polishing and refining, and today we have the debut of The Yellow Scarf!

If you’re not already intrigued, and I’m sure you are, here’s an excerpt from the back cover copy to intrigue you even more:

A year after being medevacked from the disintegrating Yugoslavia, U.N. spy Mai Fisher is back for a new mission: investigating sniper activity in Sarajevo. On a cold autumn morning she finds herself at the spot in Sniper Alley where, the day before, someone shot a young mother on her way to buy milk for her children. Pushing the limits of safety Mai searches for the sniper’s nest, hoping for a clue to the shooter’s identity. She feels the pull of justice, not just for this mother but also for what Mai lost the year before. Mai’s partner–and husband–Alexei Bukharin ponders whether the Balkans have given his wife a death wish. When Mai’s focus on her mission costs a life, her desire for justice is strengthened, but Alexei understands here in the Balkans sometimes vengeance is the only option.

The Yellow Scarf is available from Amazon as an ebook for your Kindle or Kindle app ($4.99 or free in Kindle Unlimited) or as a paperback ($6.99). If you buy the paperback, you can get the Kindle version for the Matchbook price of $1.99. What a deal! And just in time for your holiday shopping.

 

Tinker Mountain 2015 – My Writing Tribe

The countdown calendar to the right of this post indicates that, as of today, I have seven days to go before the 2015 Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. I find it amazing this is my fourth one! Three years ago about this time, I was having big second thoughts. For one, I’d never had my work critiqued by strangers, much less a well-respected, actual writer who was my workshop instructor. To say I was a nervous Nellie would freshen that cliché.

But 2012 was all positive with the incredible Pinckney Benedict; 2013 was amazing with the insightful Fred Leebron; and 2014 was an eye-opening experience with a master of genre writing, Laura Benedict. So much so, I’m re-taking her workshop this year, and I hope what I’ve submitted embodies everything I learned from her last year.

As critical as the workshop is now to my writing, the making of writer friends is, in some ways, more important. I have a circle of extremely talented writers who’ll beta-read what I’ve done and point out exactly what I need to do to make it better. More importantly, because we have that shared workshop experience, I respect their opinions. There is no sense of competition; just genuine, meaningful critique. What more could you ask for in a writing workshop?

So, today, I’m positively giddy. I can’t wait for Sunday to get here to head the loaded car south to Roanoke, set foot on the absolutely gorgeous campus of Hollins University (an inspiration in and of itself), and see my writing tribe.

Oh, and, I might get a writing themed tattoo while I’m there. Gasp!

More Craft Lectures – TMWW Pt. 2

The Tuesday craft lecture for this year’s Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop was geared for the poets among us, so we prose writers–at least from my workshop–decided to spend the extra time reading workshop submissions and doing our assigned homework from that morning. Since it involved writing down our dreams, a nap seemed like a good idea, all in the interest of the workshop, of course.

Wednesday’s lecture was probably one of the most anticipated of the week. Barbara Jones, executive editor at Henry Holt, had chosen the topic, “Writing a Book for Publication: Approaches to Authenticity and Timing.” The description of the lecture called it “A dual narrative–the writer’s ongoing work on the book and, meanwhile, what’s simultaneously going on in the publishing world…. how do you prepare your organism to thrive in that agar?” Exactly what a writer seeking publication would be interested in, right?

And, indeed, Ms. Jones gave us a vivid glimpse into a publisher’s conference room where editors have to sell a project to her, the marketing staff, the sales staff, the publicity staff, and ultimately the publisher him- or herself. Her opinions were honest if not a harsh reality–if your first book doesn’t meet the sales department’s goals you don’t get a contract for a second one., for example. She did, however, talk about making your writing “stand out” to attract an editor’s attention, so he or she will push hard for your book at that conference table.

She then described her editing process, i.e., “eliminating words to free the story.” Frankly, she seemed to be describing an ideal book, in her opinion, as page after page of “subject-verb-object” over and over. However, she did emphasize she edits literary fiction. This was a great insider’s view of the part of the publishing world we writers are–or were–happily ignorant of, and Ms. Jones may have inadvertently discouraged more people from submitting their work to Holt or anywhere else than she encouraged.

On Thursday, my workshop instructor, Laura Benedict, did her lecture on “Bringing the Sizzle: Five Ways to Add Genre Appeal to Your Writing (Without all the Heavy Breathing.)” Benedict opened the lecture with the question, “Is popular fiction inferior to literary fiction?” She didn’t wait for a reply and responded with, “No, of course not!” She explained that she is not a traditionally trained writer–she started out in marketing and public relations for Anhauser Busch–but when she came to writing she wrote stories she wanted to tell. She made a conscious decision to write genre fiction with supernatural elements because she wanted her work to be entertaining.

The key to genre writing is simple, “Something has to happen in every chapter.” Genre writers, she says, should strive to produce “upmarket” work, i.e., a compelling story with attractive language.” Good genre fiction, Benedict says, “is for a literate reader who loves a story but who doesn’t want to read crap. Bad writing, whether genre or literary, makes me angry.”

Benedict provided her personal definition of the differences between popular (genre) and literary fiction. Literary fiction, she says, “is character-driven. Style and language are more important than plot. Popular fiction is driven by the plot, but popular fiction can be as good as literary fiction when a writer successfully merges good characters and writing with a superb plot.”

Her “Five Ways” are as follows:

  1. If you want people to read your book and enjoy it, raise the stakes–don’t be quiet, go for the awesome factor, not the quotidian epiphany. Make sure people care about your characters but put them at risk, i.e., in situations where they might lose something or where bad things can happen.
  2. Mind your setting for all its worth. It’s okay to use tropes because that means you can concentrate on story.
  3. Keep the story moving; don’t dwell so long on an image you lose the reader. Start by having a clear sense of what your story is about. Use the 3 X 3 exercise: Describe your current work in three sentences of three words each. This is the start of–or is–your elevator pitch.
  4. Create characters with emotional and moral intensity and definable value systems, whether the value system is good or bad. This is especially true for your antagonist or villain; make him or her as three-dimensional as the protagonist.
  5. Enjoy yourself in your work. Genre writers love their jobs because they’re writing what they love.

Great words of advice from one established genre writer to a hopeful one.

Part 3 – Fred Leebron’s take on creative writers using post-modernism.

Weapon As Character – TMWW Part 1

I was just like a kid anticipating going to Disney World in the few weeks before Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. I was positively giddy, so excited was I to see old and new writer friends, to workshop my genre MS, to meet the instructors, to conduct the student readings–everything. (Well, everything except perhaps the beds in the freshman dorm at Hollins University where the TMWW attendees are housed.) I mean, my suitcases were in the car two days before I left.

Dinner on Sunday was a big reunion for thirteen of us who were TMWW “alums.” That meant thirty-seven of the attendees were new to the workshop, some new to the concept of workshopping entirely. After dinner, we met with our instructors to go over the schedule for the week; then, we made our way to the student activity center for faculty readings. Emilia Phillips read her poetry, and Laura Benedict, who was my instructor for “Enhancing Your Genre Writing,” read from her new release, Bliss House.

This year, the craft seminars and the workshops exchanged places, meaning we had workshop from 0900 to 1200 in the morning, and the craft lectures from 1300 to 1400 in the afternoon. Now, the good news was three unencumbered hours in the afternoon to read, write, do workshop exercises, or have your post-critique conference. However, because we backed up against lunch in the morning workshop sessions, they felt rushed to me, and we were constantly aware of the clock. In past years, when the craft lecture was from 0900 to 1000, we had two hours of free time before lunch. Afternoon workshops went from 1300 to 1600 (the same number of hours), but if you went a little long, you still had time before dinner to work in a conference or even some free time. At the end of the week, there was an informal poll about having workshop in the morning, and it was overwhelmingly in favor of that. Oh, well.

The first craft seminar on Monday was “The Weapon as Character,” given by Pinckney Benedict, my instructor from my first time at TMWW. It was pure Pinckney. He opened the seminar with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition,” followed by an excerpt from “The Walking Dead,” a popular television show about the zombie apocalypse. He used Mussorgsky to illustrate the concept of “ekphrasis,” or using one form of art to describe/define another. Mussorgsky wrote “Pictures at an Exhibition” to be a virtual stroll through an exhibition of paintings by an artist who was a close friend and who had died prematurely, Viktor Hartmann. The ten movements each focus on a specific painting by Hartmann, e.g., Baba Yaga’s hut or the Great Gates of Kiev (my personal favorite). This, according to Pinckney, is the epitome of ekphrasis–a musician describing paintings, paintings which were subsequently lost in a fire so that the music is the only depiction of many of them.

“The Walking Dead” sequence was a scene with the character Michonne, who carries a specific type of sword to fight zombies, a katana (aka a samurai sword, so designed and worn the wielder could draw and attack in a single motion). This in and of itself is already defining the character of Michonne, since the traditional way to kill zombies is a head shot with a gun. She chooses an ancient weapon, one specifically designed for close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat. Yes, it would be easier to grab a gun and fire away, but her way, she has to confront her enemy directly; she has to look into their dead eyes as she kills them. Re-kills them?

At first we see her confronting a zombie who looks remarkably like her and that appears to put her off her game. Then, she draws the katana and begins to fight, conquering an overwhelming number of zombies. The character at that point is the katana, which seems to have a mind of its own while dispatching the walking dead. This, per Pinckney, is the perfect example of a weapon becoming a character itself. “Michonne would not be Michonne without her katana,” he explained. I don’t watch the show because, frankly, my dreams would be full of zombies, and that’s just too unpleasant for me; however, I might have to watch some episodes because I’m now intrigued by Michonne and her choice of weapon.

Pinckney acknowledged the potential controversy in having a weapon as a character, and then dismissed the controversy by saying that if you don’t like weapons, don’t write stories that feature them. Amen. I encounter this myself. I write about spies. Spies on occasion use weapons. I’ve had people declare to me they won’t read my work because my characters carry guns. Okay, that’s fine. I respect that, but respect my personal writing choices in return.

After we tossed about some characters who are so closely associated with their weapons that, if they didn’t have the weapon, they would no longer be that character, we discussed the pros and cons of including weapons in our work–beyond the Chekhov adage that if you show a gun in the beginning it has to be fired before the end. Research, research, research, Pinckney emphasized because if you go on what you assume to be true about a weapon and an expert in that weapon reads your work and finds your knowledge lacking, it will color his or her opinion of the whole work. And, Pinckney says, the weapon has to fit the person and the setting and the time period of your work–unless, of course, you write Steampunk. Then, you can be very inventive.

In a recent piece of historical fiction I wrote, I had a soldier from World War II use a bazooka against a German Tiger Tank. That involved researching not only the types of bazookas used in World War II (and selecting the appropriate one), it also meant researching the Tiger Tank’s vulnerabilities (few though they were), all for a brief mention of the bazooka’s range of effectiveness.

You do that, in the world according to Pinckney, to be authentic, and if you’re authentic, he said, people will read your work and want more.

Next installment: Workshopping genre fiction and additional craft seminars.

Getting Ready for Tinker Mountain

TMWW logoI’ve made my to-do list for the next week so come Sunday afternoon, I can hit the road and arrive in Roanoke for this year’s Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop. It’s the tenth anniversary, with a lot of extra workshops and new instructors. As usual I’m nervous, excited, and, well, nervous.

The past two years have been very positive experiences. Last year, for example, led to having an agent review a manuscript. (He turned it down but said lots of positive things.) The first year I attended was the first time any of my MSS had been critiqued by total strangers, and they liked it, they really liked it. This year is the first time a portion of one of my genre MSS is being critiqued by strangers. The workshop I’m attending is “Crafting High Quality Genre Fiction,” and the instructor is Laura Benedict. She also happens to be the spouse of my first Tinker Mountain instructor, Pinckney Benedict.

The forty pages I sent in comes from an MS titled A War of Deception, which is loosely based on the Robert Hansenn spy case from the early 2000s. I say loosely because it started out as a fictionalized version of that event with my U.N. spy characters in the mix. It turned into a study of revenge when what I intended to be a subplot became the main plot. The title comes from a Sun Tzu quote in the Art of War, one of my favorite books: “All warfare is based on deception.”

I’m sure I’ve mentioned my love affair with the Art of War before. I had the audio book on my iPod and listened to it every day on the way to work. It was that kind of workplace at times. Plus, Sun Tzu has a lot to say about spies and espionage which resonates today.

Anyway, the nervousness comes from having my genre fiction workshopped. It’s a first, though the material workshopped in my first Tinker Mountain visit was a speculative fiction piece I submitted because I didn’t have anything else ready. However, I don’t consider myself a speculative fiction writer. A lot of my flash fiction falls into that genre but only because I’m not sure I could sustain a full-length spec fic novel, even that particular manuscript. It seems I inadvertently channelled Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when I wrote it for NaNoWriMo a few years ago. When Pinckney encouraged me to work on that MS, I explained about the striking similarity to Atwood’s dystopian piece–“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he said. Ms. Atwood may not think so, however.

This year’s MS is one of my “historical thrillers,” to borrow a term from Alan Furst, a writer of espionage fiction I hope to emulate. It’s got a mole in the FBI, sex, violence, marital discord, and two mysteries to be solved. I hope I have a third great experience. Even if the rest of the workshop hates it– Ack! Let’s not put that in my head!

So, off to do laundry, water plants, and pack, etc., and be ready for a worthwhile week of workshopping, craft lectures, and writer friends that is Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop.