My New Look

Saturday, October 31, 2015
Before I talk about NaNoWriMo, I suppose I should comment on my website's new look. A couple of years ago--heck, it might have been three or four years ago--I decided I wanted a more "mysterious" look here. Something darker, edgier, something in line with the kind of mysteries I was writing. In looking through the Blogger templates (yes, this is a Blogger site), I found the one that I'd used up until this week: dark red with light text. At the time, the red "popped" at me compared to all the other sites I'd been looking at.

Recently, I'd been thinking the website needed some clean-up. Over the years, I'd added more widgets, many of the links to blogs I follow pointed to now-dormant sites, and I'm changing the focus of the mysteries I write from edgy Christian fiction to... something else. And, ironically, I've always hated light text on a dark background. It's hard to read and somehow my posts were all in a small font, making reading even more difficult.

I've spent a lot of hours over the past couple of months reviewing my options. Everyone said a self-hosted Wordpress site was the way to go. There are reasons for this, most of which I won't go into. Since my experience with Wordpress was minimal, I looked at tutorials and books and YouTube videos trying to learn what I needed to learn to change over. I posted questions in writers' groups. I mocked up a free Wordpress site and fiddled with changing themes and customizing them until my brain hurt.

Fortunately, I set myself a deadline to finish the redesign of my website. I knew I wanted it done before NaNoWriMo started. Once NaNo starts, my writing day is pretty much filled up. So two days ago, I looked at what hosting would cost me. It's not a ton of money, but it is an additional expense. In my fiddling, I discovered that, while some customization of Wordpress themes is possible, to do a lot of it, including getting the colors to be something I didn't hate, requires paying more money for Premium.

So I came back to Blogger and started looking at theme alternatives. I picked a few that I thought would work and tried them out. I discovered that Blogger offered me more options--for free--to customize the look of a theme. Besides, I already know my way around Blogger quite well. I weighed the supposed advantages of Wordpress--most of which I am not ready to use--against the cost in both time and money to convert my site and decided to stick with Blogger.

I've gotten rid of the dead wood, picked lighter colors and black text on a white background, and updated my fiction page to multiple pages. I hope you like it as much as I do.


James Patterson MasterClass Week 6

Saturday, October 17, 2015
As I said last week, the final week of this class isn’t exactly about writing.

In the lesson titled Marketing the Patterson Way, Patterson talks about branding, which he defines as a relationship between a product and customers. Authors usually aren’t very good at branding themselves. Most get that deer-in-the-headlights look if you ask them about their brand.

One author who has focused on branding is Brandilyn Collins, who even trademarked “Seatbelt Suspense,” her brand. With branding like that, readers know immediately what to expect from one of her books.

Patterson’s brand is “The pages turn themselves.” You’ll notice that, while Collins tells you up front she writes suspense, Patterson doesn’t have as narrow a definition of his brand. This allows him to write in different genres; except I’m pretty sure readers generally expect to find a thriller when they pick up a Patterson book.

I’ve heard other writers talk about movie deals, so the Hollywood lesson didn’t tell me anything new. That might differ for most people taking this class.

Newbie surprise number 1: An option on your book doesn’t mean it will become a movie. In fact, a huge percentage of options expire before getting close to being filmed. Smart writers don’t really mind this, because they can get a second or third or fourth option—all of which pay money to the author.

Newbie surprise number 2: The author of the book usually has absolutely no say in whether the movie bears any resemblance to the book or not.

I went to a couple of Robert B. Parker signings when I lived in Boston (and he was alive), and inevitably he’d be asked about the Spenser: For Hire television series or one of the movies made from his books. People wanted to know what he thought about the (not great) casting or the deviations from the novels. Parker would say when you sign an option, you turn over control to the filmmaker. Then he’d add with a shrug of his shoulders, “I take the check and give it to Joan.” (Joan was his wife.) He had a very practical attitude toward the whole process.

Note: His attitude about the Jesse Stone television movies was different. Tom Selleck was a fan of the books and worked hard to remain faithful to the spirit of them. That should be “works.” There’s a new Jesse Stone movie on Hallmark Channel tomorrow, the first since Parker died.

The next-to-last lesson is titled Personal Story. As you might expect, this about how Patterson grew up poor, spent time in marketing, and became a writer. It’s interesting background on the world’s bestselling author.

Closing is a brief video where Patterson gives a wrap-up. He says he’s doing this course because he likes helping people, and I believe him.

I’ve modified my opinion of this class slightly from last week. Most of that is because of reading the comments on the weekly lesson discussion forums.

I started my writing career a dozen years ago and have spent a lot of that time researching, taking classes, and practicing writing. I’ve belonged to Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of America, and American Christian Fiction Writers. When I lived in Boston, I was fortunate enough to hear many top selling authors speak. I’ve attended the New England CrimeBake and Malice Domestic. In Tucson we have the annual Tucson Festival of Books, which brings in over 100 authors each year, many of whom give presentations, all for free.

I have two shelves of writing craft books, a third one with grammar books, dictionaries, thesauri, and books on copywriting. I have another shelf of crime reference books, many of them oriented toward writers. So it’s not surprising that I’ve heard most of what’s discussed in the class many times before.

But in reading the comments, I realize that most of the students in this class are where I was ten or twelve years ago. They don’t have the resources or experience I have now. And we all have to start our journey somewhere. So, if you’re relatively new to writing and you’re looking for an introduction to how this whole writing and publishing gig works, this MasterClass isn’t a bad place to start.

James Patterson MasterClass Week 5

Saturday, October 10, 2015
We have now, for the most part, moved past the lessons on writing. In this week’s lessons, it sounds as if even Patterson has gotten tired of the class. There’s no enthusiasm, which he did have in the beginning lessons. Fortunately, there’s only one more week after this.

The first lesson is Editing, which, for Patterson, appears to consist mostly of cutting words out. Since his genre is thriller and his primary goal is to keep a high level of action and the pages turning quickly, this works for him. I write traditional mysteries, which are more character based than thrillers as a rule. I also tend to write rather spare drafts, perfect to do during NaNoWriMo. For me, editing is both taking words out and putting words in.

Some of my scenes are mostly dialogue in the first draft, with maybe a little bit of emotional reaction or body language. But they could take place in an empty white room. So I have to add in the ambience, the sights, sounds, and smells of the location, so the reader experiences being there with the characters. And, while I know what my characters look like, I have to make sure my readers do, so I’ll add in little details about their clothing or hair or mention they have to put sunscreen on their fair skin before going out.

What most surprised me about this lesson was how many rewrites Patterson does. I think he said something like eight or ten. It’s surprising because, according to the earlier lessons, he spends months on his outlines and rewrites them four or five times. I’d think that after doing all that groundwork, the first draft would be pretty close to final.

The sixteenth lesson is Working With Co-Authors. A lot of this sounded defensive to me, reaction to the criticism that Patterson just puts his name on these books so he can collect more money. He explains how it is actually a joint process, and has a couple of his co-authors talk about it in the video as well.

While I’ve come to understand co-authorship a little better than I used to, my primary reaction to this lesson was that it was a bit premature for a beginning writer. If you haven’t got the skills yourself to write good books, chances are teaming up with another author at the same level isn’t going to help your writing.

Next up is Getting Published. Well, sure, we’ve been watching these videos for five weeks now, so certainly it’s time to think about getting published. Yes, that was sarcasm.

A lot of this lesson is on writing query letters and finding an agent. It’s all about traditional publishing, so at this point, if you haven’t already, you need to start networking, making those connections so your work won’t get lost in the slush pile. Go to conferences, approach successful published authors, etc.

There’s absolutely nothing about self-publishing, not even a reference to it as an option or not to do it at all. If you’re contemplating going that route, this won’t help you.

And the last lesson for this week is Book Titles and Covers. I’m not sure why this is in the class since, as a traditionally published author, you won’t have much—if any—say in either one of these. Yes, you submit your book with a working title, but this is frequently changed by the publisher. As far as covers go, you’ll probably get to see what your cover looks like, but you’ll rarely have any input on how it should look.

This week’s lessons brought home to me how distant from a beginning writer James Patterson is. He reached the point where having co-authors made sense years ago. He had the money right from the start (from his day job) to attend lots of conferences and hang out in the bar. He worked in marketing, so he had the skills to do the kind of networking necessary to leverage into contacts with agents and editors. He gets to pick his titles and approve his covers. When you have sales like he does, you probably will, too.

From the titles of the last week’s lessons, there won’t be much on actual writing in them, so I think I’m ready to offer an overall opinion on this class.

It might have been interesting to me ten years ago, when I knew little about writing and traditional publishing was all there was. Now, not so much.

I figured out that Patterson talks a lot about the “what” and hardly at all about the “how.” Write down your ideas. Create conflict in your plot. Do research. Write an outline. Have a great first line. When you’re starting out, these may be new concepts, so you’ll overlook the fact that the lessons are thin on details.

There’s nothing about the business of writing. He doesn’t cover copyright or contracts or rights reversion or budgeting or legal considerations or anything else in that vein. He comes from the generation where agents took care of all of that. But, in today’s world (and probably even back when Patterson started), it’s imperative you understand the business side.

Was it worth the money? Perhaps. Like I said at the start of this series, I got a discount coupon which reduced the price by a third. I did pick up a few tips and usually that’s enough for me to consider a class worthwhile. If I knew then what I know now, would I have paid full price for it? No.

I’ve been holding this back for a few weeks, but it’s time now. Shortly after I registered for the Patterson class, the guys from the Self Publishing Podcast released a series of podcasts titled Story Shop - Write Better Stories Faster. This series includes most of the same topics as Patterson’s, but each of the videos is at least twice as long as Patterson’s and much more interesting. And, best of all, it’s FREE.

Yes, the podcasts are free because they’re marketing a new app to do story planning. But the series itself is excellent.

You can find it at . Note that this will open up in iTunes, so if you don’t have that app, you’ll have to download iTunes first. But you probably should have that anyway.

James Patterson MasterClass Week 4

Saturday, October 03, 2015
As I was listening to the first lesson for this week—Dialogue—I realized another problem with the way these lessons are presented. I mentioned in my blog on the first week of this class that each lesson was obviously put together from several separate interviews.

Except they’re not interviews. It’s really Patterson chatting informally about writing, a mix of advice, his own process, how he learned something, etc. And it’s presented in a talking-head style. That’s why I said “listening” in the first sentence. I found myself clicking on other tabs in my browser as he spoke because the video wasn’t visually interesting.

So, on to the lesson itself. A character’s dialogue reveals who they are. I have no argument with that. After a few examples, we cut to a different interview where Patterson starts talking about an author (I only know the guy is an author because I Googled the name) and a scene which Patterson believes has great dialogue. But he never states that this is the name of an author or gives us the name of the book it comes from. That part must have been left on the cutting room floor. He then proceeds to quote the dialogue and ends by saying it’s wonderful. He also says it’s comedic, but his delivery was so dry I didn’t laugh once.

A lot of what he says about dialogue you can pick up from any basic writing text. Dialogue isn’t conversation because no one wants all the boring bits that make up most of what people say. Don’t fall into writing “As you know, Bob” dialogue. If Bob knows it, there’s no need to tell him.

As with many of these lessons, it ends abruptly. Again, this is because it’s not one coherent taping session. It would be nice if there were even a brief sentence which said something like, “I hope you’ll be able to take what you’ve learned and apply it to this week’s assignment.”

The second lesson this week is Building A Chapter. He starts with a concept that, in the movies or television, is referred to as the establishing shot. You’d recognize this anywhere. It shows a familiar city skyline, like New York, or the St. Louis arch, or infinite outer space. In other words, let the reader know where they are visually, and with sound and, because you’re writing a novel, you can also include smells and emotions.

I’ve been reading a lot of stuff by beginning writers lately and it’s amazing how many of them forget to include this. Just because you know your characters are talking in a restaurant in Denver doesn’t mean it will be obvious to the reader. The reader, because she lives in Miami, assumes the book takes place in Florida and will be totally pulled out of the story if, several pages in, there aren’t palm trees, but cowboys.

He also discusses point of view here, which is natural because before you can write anything, you have to decide on how to tell it. You have to decide who is telling the story and how intimate the narrative should be.

The section where he describes the first chapter of the first book in The Women’s Murder Club series was another one where I drifted off. This happens, and then this happens, then this other thing happens, etc. just isn’t very interesting. I think it’s supposed to be an example of how to write a chapter, but it’s got none of the “juice” of the actual book. He would have been better off reading the original.

The end of this lesson can be summarized by a quote from Steven James I have hanging on my wall: “Stories are driven by tension, not events.”

Writing Suspense. I’d start salivating here if I hadn’t watched the first twelve lessons, because this is what Patterson does extremely well. But I went into it being very skeptical.

It’s very difficult to talk about Lesson 13 without giving too much away. In some ways, it’s like the others in that there’s a lot of advice I’ve heard before. However, he does say a few things that I think I’m going to find useful. I’ll have to re-watch this video later on and think about it.

And, with two weeks left to go, the next lesson is on Ending the Book. Most of this lesson does not talk about specifics of how to end a book. There’s a lot of generalities about twists (and he gives away not one, but TWO twists in the plots of his own books) and making an ending satisfying. He’s not quite clear on how to do this, summing up with you should analyze the endings of books and movies you like.

And then there’s the very last section, titled The Secret to Great Endings. He opens by saying this is worth the price of admission to the class.

Is it? I’m not sure. The first idea is not new. I learned it from Orson Scott Card years ago. (Hint: It’s called the What If? Game.) The second Patterson just drops on you without any explanation. The video ends. I really would have liked him to give examples here of how he used this technique in a book or two, because it’s hard to know whether his premise makes sense or not without examples or explanation a little deeper than the music ending.

This “Master Class” is starting to remind me of those “in conversation” interviews with authors that have become popular. They give the illusion of a cozy chat with a friend, while not conveying a whole lot of information. I know there are students who are raving about the lessons, both in the forum and the private Facebook group, but I’m not raving. We’ll see if Patterson wins me over next week.
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Elise's bookshelf: currently-reading

A Clash of Kings
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