Book club and dialog

Some friends have a book club, and my book, Everybody Lies, was their March selection. Last Wednesday, I was invited to join their discussion.

Overall, they liked it! This group of women ranging from 30 to 70 is a good focus group for my target audience.

Some specifics:

Liked the setting. Liked learning about Alaska, and environmental politics.

Liked the use of Candace’s journals.

Grabbed and held their interest. Thought the ending was satisfying. Didn’t guess who did it too early.

And liked my ability with dialog, something I attribute to being a journalist. I have spent years paying attention to how people talk, and to translating that to the written word. I was reminded of that with a book I’m reading. It’s all right, but it feels pedantic — not a positive thing for a thriller. And I realized that it has a lot to do the dialog. In spite of how we are taught to write, people don’t speak in complete sentences. They use contractions. They hesitate, stumble around, blurt out things. And dialog needs to feel like that, but cleaned up just a bit.

Part of making dialog sound right is seeing punctuation as a communication tool not a set of rules that you have to get correct. By choosing punctuation to pace the flow of words, we make our characters sound right. Hyphens, ellipses, commas and semi colons all indicate pauses. They can help the writer make the flow sound natural. The rules for formal English need not apply.

We also need to make characters sound different. Not every person speaks in the same way, or uses the same vocabulary. In writing Trust No One, I came to realize (with the comments of one beta reader) that people of my generation swear, but people of his generation — and that of the protagonist — tend to use Anglo-Saxon words instead. Where I might say hell, they are more likely to say shit. I think that has a lot to do with my generation’s early years in church followed by rebellion. The younger generation didn’t have the rebellion phase and the words don’t have the same impact for them. So I went back through and edited cuss words, and the dialog improved immediately.

Regional accents are as much about rhythm as word choice. I don’t believe in writing in dialect — I find it demeaning, and often reflects the bias of the writer — but you can make someone sound southern (for instance) by simply adding in the direct object that northerners often leave out. I’m gong to tell you all a story, instead of I’m going to tell a story.

One other mistake I’m seeing in this book is the same mistake beginning reporters make: quoting non-essential information. We don’t need quotes in news stories about what time the meeting is and we don’t need it in dialog either. Choosing what goes in dialog and what doesn’t is also a challenge. But dialog isn’t the place for info dumps. “yes, as you know, Susan, my least favorite sister, is coming to town, tonight.”

I worry that I use too much dialog. The book club didn’t think so. I hope they’re right.

Trust No One is going live tomorrow! More on that later.

Sales

Ok, so sales are exactly what you’d expect — low. In about ten weeks, I’ve sold 23 books. I have two reviews, both positive.

But there are some interesting points:

  • I’ve sold one book in the UK. Who knew?
  • I’ve sold approximately half through Amazon, and half through Smashwords (which includes all other sites).
  • I’ve sold three through Apple. I probably know everyone who has bought the books, but the exceptions are these, and of course the UK one. So browsers are finding me at Apple more than any other site.
  • A lot of discussion lately has been about the value of KDP Select at Amazon. Many swear by it, but it requires exclusivity. Right now, that would cut my sales in half — and eliminate almost all of my sales to browsers. This is statistically an example of the fallacy of small numbers, but it is still interesting.

    Edits are done!

    Just finished editing Trust No One. It’s taken me about a week.

    I’m treating my mysteries as first drafts, even though they might have been polished drafts at one time. I printed it out, did a paper edit. Then, a major rewrite, in the last six months. Let it sit a month, and have another go at it.

    Amazing how much crap I found in it still. So I’ll leave it another week, and read it one last time. A proofing read. When you make a lot of edits, you’re likely to add a few problems along the way. An extra word left in, a word not completely removed, and so on.

    I followed that same process for Everybody Lies and still had to revise it twice after it went live. The miracle of epublishing is the ability to revise a published work. I can’t begin to describe what a miracle that seems — maybe it takes 37 years in journalism to fully appreciate that.

    In the best of all worlds, I’d have a professional copy editor. I tell my students that everyone needs an editor — and then I’d make them edit my stuff. But I’d still do all these steps myself. This book has been read by several people. They catch stuff, and offer good insights, but, I still find things they missed. Maybe it is arrogance, but I’m still the best editor I know. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like another editor. Just means that it is always worth one last look.

    So what do I find?

    Well, first, the technology of reporting was dated. All of that had to be updated, from tape recorders to digital devices, from darkrooms to photoshop. The plight of metro newspapers needed to be inserted into the background. (it will become more prominent in future books.)

    Second, I brought it forward in time. Historical references all had to be updated. While a timeline helped keep the characters’ lives in order and in sync, I still had to worry about current events — especially in regards to wars and military actions. (See previous post.)

    Third, I had made changes in earlier versions, changing the newspaper from the PI (a real newspaper) to the examiner (a fictional one). Two key characters had name changes. There were “goobers” left behind. Partly this is because the book was originally written with each chapter in a separate file. Global searches had to be done 20-40 times. Missed a chapter changing Kristy’s name. And just missed one or two instances with Stan Warren and the PI.

    Fourth, is the actually copy editing. Making sure that characters stay in voice. Eliminating extra words. Tightening here, expanding there. Catching misspelled words that a spellcheck can’t get — proving yet against that humans are smarter than computers. Checking for extra spaces after periods.

    So it’s pretty clean. Next week it will be really clean, and ready to go.

    Using New Tools

    I took a typing test the other day, and observers were impressed because I was doing 53 words a minute. My mother would have been ashamed of me. (In my defense, I was able to do 70 once I got used to the keyboard. Alas, no one was watching then.)

    My mother taught typing as part of a business skills course, even though she was actually an English teacher. When I was in the eighth grade, she promised me my own typewriter when I could type 50 words a minute. I did it, and I can still remember that it was a teal green color. A light-weight plastic manual typewriter that saw me all the way through college. My mom had an old royal — I loved that one for the sound of its keys. I once saw my mom type 110 words a minute on that thing.

    Today I struggle with too many options, all with limitations. My desktop is a Mac and it is hooked up to my printer/scanner, but not to the Internet. (I live at the end of the road, remember.) I have a laptop, also a Mac, that I do most of my writing on, because I can lounge in bed or sit on the couch. It isn’t on the Internet either, but I can take it to Starbucks in town, and for the price of a cup of tea, I’m connected. The laptop also has all my photo editing and web design software — and if I can figure out how to hook it to the big monitor on my desk, I’ll be a lot happier.

    A year ago, I bought myself a IPad for Christmas. Connectivity at the farm! But, alas, I really don’t like writing on it much. It doesn’t allow for the typing skills my mother drilled into me. I am typing this blog post on it, but that’s the extent of it. Great to have the Internet at my fingertip. : )

    So I’ve developed a strategy of writing on my laptop, with my IPad next to me for research. When I’m ready to print something, I load it on a thumb drive, take it to the desktop Mac and print. Scanning photos for covers, I reverse the process. Thank God for thumb drives.

    Last week, I found the App of my dreams, index cards. It allows me to keep track of my characters, design a timeline and store research. I know that there are several fine software programs that could do this and help me write my books, but that would require me to have one computer that could handle everything. Besides, Index Csrds is simple. Sometimes I don’t want one thing that does lots of things — and none of them well.

    So now it seems to work. I can sit on the couch, laptop in my lap, IPad next to me as my research tool. Details get stored in Index Cards, ready for when I need them.

    Why it is almost as simple as when I wrote term papers on that old manual typewriter with my note cards and research materials spread about on the kitchen table.

    Almost.

    Military men

    A reoccurring theme in my writing seems to be what happens to military men when they come home. This is most obvious in the upcoming Mac Davis series which starts with Trust No One, out later this month. (Trust and betrayal are overarching themes as well.) Mac Davis was in Afghanistan, and most of the male characters served in one war or another. But it shows up in The Alaska books as well.

    There are obvious reasons for this. I was raised by a 20-year Navy man, who had survived Pearl Harbor. (I think he may have found surviving me as a daughter to be more difficult.) My earliest memories are of my much older cousins coming home from Vietnam. One of whom rode into my grandparents’ place on a motorbike wearing a leather jacket making my seven-year-old heart go pitter-patter. That war was still going on when I got to high school, and there are names on the Wall whom I know.

    As a professor, I’ve seen young men come back from Desert Shield, Desert Storm, the Iraqi War, and from Afghanistan. It breaks my heart to see the visible and invisible damage war does to our young men and women. And still we send them out.

    The first draft of Trust No One was done in 1999. Mac was a veteran of Desert Storm and various police actions. After 9/11, I tore it apart and rewrote it, because everything had changed. I wanted an under 30 protagonist for this book, and so I moved him up a war. The Vietnam vets became Desert Storm vets. World War II vets became Vietnam vets. By the time I was finished with it this runaround of edits — the last set, thank you — Mac’s war was just called Afghanistan. We’ve been there a long time.

    I find myself thinking a lot about how easy it was to just keep moving the wars forward. We seem to always be at war these days. Always some war to ship our young men and women off to. Always some war to send our young people back having seen and done things that will haunt them forever.

    We always knew as kids not to wake Dad up. He had nightmares. And sometimes he wasn’t sure where he was if he was awakened abruptly. Mom’s voice was best, but even then … well, it was best to let him wake up by himself.

    The Mac Davis series is dedicated to all the veterans who have come home with their own set of nightmares.

    Mac Davis title

    A quick update — Mac Davis ‘s first book title will be Trust No One. The cover is done. The copy is at the last reader. Should go up on March 15.

    I’m about 11,000 words into Somebody’s Secrets — about 15 percent of the way to a first draft. I had the book mapped out in my head before I started. I knew the opening scene. The ending scene. My goal was to write 1000 words a day for 2 months. Got about 6000 words into it and realized I did not know who the villain was. Oops. So I had to pause and do some character sketches.

    How could that happen? Well, I was focused on the protagonist Paul Kitka and the changes he is forced to make in his thinking about the past and in his ability to relate to other people. And so the bad guys were these nebulous they, because that’s how Kitka thinks of them. But of course they can’t stay these shadowy figures. Hence the pause.

    as for 1000 words a day? Yes, I can do that. But I’m averaging closer to 500 words. Some days I don’t get any done. So that would take 4 months. Still a fine pace. The Talkeetna series is shorter in length about 65000 words and has little gore in them. Mac Davis is longer, more of a thriller, and a bit more violent.