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The Fifteen Percent Solution or, Why I need you

Perhaps some weeks ago you read my lament, “Sometimes, Being a Writer Sucks.” Honestly, I believe admissions  like that are part of the creative process that others rarely glimpsed before the advent of the blog.young adult reading magic book in library

Lest you think I’m here to repent, I stand by each and every bitchy statement made therein.

HOWEVER. This is the paragraph I’m here to address:

“The first problem is, I’m never as good as I want to be. There’s a paradigm in my head of the story I’m telling, the book I’m writing, and as hard as I try, I seldom achieve it. I am also writing this post at the particular moment in time because we’re inching towards the finish line on the next Eden thriller, and it’s 85 percent there. Which is a depressing number. The lifeblood and brilliance and paths of engagement with the reader are in that last 15 percent, and, as of now, I don’t know how to get there.”

So, when you last saw me, we were stuck at 85%. Yet PLAGUES OF EDEN is now signed off on, copy edited and , last I heard, off to the interior designer. I even did a little dance.

What was the 15% solution?

The simple answer: You. The Reader.

I’m sure every novelist has her or his own secret formula for working with readers and editors to bring their stories to fruition. Let me pull back the veil on my own.

What I’m talking about today is PLAGUES of EDEN, the next in the Eden Thriller series. That’s the one I was bemoaning in my previous post. And, to my mind, it wasn’t exactly surprising.

Eden_Thrillers_Compendium_Covers

The Eden Thrillers (Chasing Eden, Beyond Eden and Treasure of Eden) are by far the most complex books I write. They’re done with co-author B.K. Sherer (about whom you’ve likely read in this very blog, see  “Return to Eden” Jan. ’13). Each book is told from the point of view of multiple characters, has settings in multiple countries, and requires a working knowledge of several world-wide happenings and issues. Putting all of this together is HUGE. And the first draft, always, is a huge glorious MESS.

So how does it go from HGM to Sharon’s Little Dance? (SLD)?

Readers. New pairs of eyes. I include editors in this because editors are really readers with special skills. But ALL our early readers contribute to the final (hopefully) sleek final draft. The different readers come in at different stages. At this point, we have a fairly good idea of who to go to for which stage of reading. Each stage requires different skills.Author at work

CO-AUTHORS.  B.K. and I tag team each other as we go along. We hammer out the plot and characters together. In PLAGUES, there are several returning characters as well as a whole sheath of new ones. The book also takes place in multiple time zones at once; when we had half the first-pass scenes written, I took one insanity-inducing week off to become one with the website 24TimeZones.com and put them all in order-of-actually-occurring, although the action in China would likely happen in a different day than events in Argentina taking place simultaneously. So many story arcs in so many time zones: it wasn’t just getting them put into order, but having the action rise in such a way that they FIT together. It didn’t drive me to drink, but I probably ate a couple of macaroons I shouldn’t have.

At this particular moment in time, B.K. has a few things on her plate with her other job. Often during her deployments, I longed for the day she’d stay Stateside while we wrote. Well, now she’s not only in the same country, she’s in the same TIME ZONE! She’s at USMA at West Point, and I can drive there in 45 minutes! All well and good, but as senior chaplain, she takes her job seriously and she’s very good at it, which often means she works seven day weeks. In other words, she’s busier than she was even on deployments to Iraq. Time working on PLAGUES was slotted and intense for both of us–though we loved it, or we wouldn’t have done it. It also usually involved Mexican food. Writing fiction is not for sissies.

Once a first full draft is done and B.K. and I have discussed it and made any necessary first changes, it’s time to put it into the “magic drawer” and turn it over to readers. Now, here’s the trick: there are different stages at which we need different advice. Knowing which readers to turn to at each stage, and how to decipher their responses, is a necessary art.brando-reading1

ALPHA READERS. There were only two of these for PLAGUES, and they are two people we’ve known for a very long time. It’s an odd thing with which we’re trusting them: something that will change quite profoundly before we’re done. People who don’t know us or our process would likely throw up their hands and say, “WTF? Who ever told them they could WRITE??” (Okay, I’m told neither of them felt that way, but I felt that way.) They have the ability to look at the glorious mess and say, “I got this, didn’t get that…” in some sort of cohesive fashion.

In the case of PLAGUES, they came back with 1) too many characters; 2) characters who came in the end and seemed like they were from a different story;  characters whose motivations they didn’t understand, and several plot holes, information dumps about characters that went on too long. vineyards China

Great! Ready for another draft. 1) we did have too many characters, took out any with only one scene, including Yani’s U.N. supervisor and the little boy (who later became a girl) sickened by a plague. 2) Right again, since those characters were important, they came in at the beginning and had a fuller story line. 3) True again. The first time through  we were lurching to get the plot in order. Some of the characters’ motivations were sketchy. We provided more. 4) Also true.  Trimmed a lot of character stories (it is a thriller, after all) and moved some of the rest of the info.

BETA READERS

Okay. Now we were ready for the first test group that would read something more closely approximating the finished book. We still had some structural and character work to do, but we were ready for the bulk of the editorial readers. We have some tried-and-true standby readers who’d been alerted. Also, some months earlier I had asked for volunteers on my FB page (Facebook.com/SharonLinneaAuthor) and several intrepid souls had volunteered. We had among them some Eden-followers and some Eden-newbies. Both were needed. In this case, we also needed some readers from the autism community who had been on the path with us.  We sent the manuscript without any notes, as we wanted unbiased first responses. We had a list of questions lying in wait for after they had sent their first thoughts.

This is where things get fun and helpful in different ways. You’ve obviously come to these readers for their opinions, and you get them! As it turns out, they also read for vastly different things. (Too much sex! Not enough sex! Too much bad language! Not enough language! Yani would never do that. Yani would do that all the time!) And hearing what those new to Eden got and didn’t get was also invaluable.

Fact checking also becomes interesting at this point. We had readers who pointed out the order in which events had to occur to spark gasoline explosions, and the difference between a “choir loft” and “choir stalls.” One woman said, “My bridal processional was Trumpet Voluntary and I could never have heard someone’s cellphone ring.” “I hadn’t read other Eden books; here’s what I was willing to go along with, here’s what I wished I understood.”Castel_del_Monte__Thronsaal (1)

In general, at this stage, it’s all interesting. If one person says it, pay attention. If two people say it, it’s probably true.  Somewhere along the line, you’re getting to know your new characters better, and your running characters in new ways. You make the changes that need to be made (much of it is fleshing out parts that were really shorthand to you, the author, and now the reader needs the full version). You pay attention to where they became interested and where they said they couldn’t put it down. Then tried to turn the first into the second.

GAMMA READERS.

This is the point at which I’m ready to turn the manuscript in to the professional editor at the publishing company. In the first days of Eden when our editor was Jennifer Enderlin at St. Martin’s, her comments were always great and spot on. They mostly consisted of  “more here, less here, MORE YANI.”

Our current editor, Margaret, who had not read the first Edens, was invaluable. She noted that several characters needed to be more pro-active; the ending in Italy needed to be re-staged; backstory needed to be dispersed further, and (oh, yeah) MORE YANI.Yani

Done and done.

DELTA READERS.

Finally. The readers whose judgement we trusted, but whom we saved to the last. Who could read the ms. like it was a “real book,” and wouldn’t find fault to find fault but would call our attention to things that still needed fixing.

And they did. The good news: so much closer!!! Finally the comments included comments  like, “I don’t think I’ve been this enthralled with a book for a long time. I sat on a folding chair for about 4.5-5 hrs straight, just reading,” and, “I wanted to keep reading.  In fact, I was irritated when my husband needed me to help him with yard work!”

They also noted that one part of the resolution was still abrupt (and it was).  So we jumped in to rework and finish that before it headed off for the copy editor, who is final eyes-on before it goes to the typesetter. She was impressed at how clean it was. Copy editor, meet Alpha through Delta Readers. castel_del_monte

When it came back from the copy editor and we read over it to approve any changes, it was a real sense of having made the long sea voyage. Thanks to the readers at so many stages, the 15% I couldn’t see past originally seemed grappled with, to me. When we finally hit “accept all changes,” and sent it off to Karen in production at Arundel, and therefore, to Mie, the interior designer and type setter, I did do a little dance.

One I couldn’t have known how to get to only  weeks ago. So THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU, readers! The book wouldn’t be the book it is without you. Did we make it up past that 85%, at least into the 90th percentile?

I guess you’re going to have to tell us. Which of course makes you the EPSIOLON READERS.

Go, Epsiolon!

And many thanks. Plagues 7 Hail

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Why I Love Benedict Cumberbatch and Charles Esten

Recently, a woman wrote a humorous blog for Huffington Post about how much fun it was to be a Benedict Cumberbatch fangirl even though she’s middle-aged. I suspect that folks who walk into my office and see my BC calendar might suspect she speaks for me as well.

Not exactly. Or, at least, not entirely. So why do I love Benedict Cumberbatch and Charles Esten?

Benedict_CumberbatchBENEDICT CUMBERBATCH

1) Enormously talented and serious about his work, Mr. Cumberbatch spent decades honing his craft and getting a good footing playing fops and “child-raping chocolate magnates” and doing Ibsen on the stage  before his career and fame skyrocketed.  “The trajectory (of his meteoric rise) was extreme,” according to Martin Freeman, who ought to know.  You’ll notice I said he was getting a good footing–not paying his dues, as if there’s a certain amount you must pay and then you get to join the club. No such thing. But it makes all the difference in the world if you’ve gotten to work at your craft and know who you are before fame overtakes you.

2) His male co-stars go all fanboy on him. Even before the hairstylist for the second iteration of “A Study in Pink” got a hold of him and females world over took notice, seemingly every talented young man with whom he made movies had the best time ever with Ben.  I’m not sure what he and Tom Hiddleston were doing during the shooting of WAR HORSE, but whatever it was, when you see the grins they have when they talked about it, they were obviously having a grand time.  By his own admission,  Jonny Lee Miller, with whom he traded roles in Danny Boyle’s FRANKENSTEIN, used to call him up after each episode of SHERLOCK and “go all fanboy” in discussing his acting choices. But my favorite is Tom Hardy, with whom he made STUART: A LIFE BACKWARDS. There’s a video interview in which Mr. Hardy talks about Ben’s acting: “He has a sensibility and a directness and an oddness and a fantastic sense of humor…in acting, he  makes “next level choices…He’s a very generous, very sensitive, very focused, disciplined actor. ..it allows me to be free to do whatever I need to do.  Not everybody runs in the Olympics–[As an actor] Benny should be running in the Olympics.” OMG. Who freaking cares about the shirtless wonders of People’s Sexiest Man Alive” issue. “Talk talent to me” is way beyond  “talk dirty to me.”

3) He’s a gentleman. And he was long before Colin Firth held forth about it in his TIME Magazine tribute. There’s another video from STUART in which Ben arrives on set and introduces himself to all the day players, shaking hands and making them feel important and included.

4) He can chop onions. There’s a segment of a cooking show to prove it. My husband can chop onions, also. That is one reason I am married. I have little patience for men of no practical use.

5) He was nearly murdered and it changed him. He has spoken on several occasions about the time he and some of his fellow cast members from TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH were carjacked and kidnapped in South Africa and he really thought he was about to be killed. Apparently, this had a profound effect on him; he decided, once he was safe and alive, not to play it safe–that you never know when your life will end and you’d better ring every ounce of living out of it, take risks and chances. It seems he has, and it has paid off. A profound lesson for each of us.

6) He’s a silly dancer, but he doesn’t care. Have you seen him dancing to THRILLER?  He is also in good shape without having 6-pack abs. To my mind, 6-pack abs on actors is like a female actress having a size-0, prepubescent body with breasts. They’re both shapes that do not exist in nature and signify a horrific buy-in to the Hollywood zombie culture. But that’s my prejudice.  Ben is also handsome without being pretty. Much of his handsomeness comes from inside. Others could not wear the same face as well.

7) He is loyal. He is willing to work with his parents on SHERLOCK, which demonstrates an alarming vulnerability to me. He also did his best to stand up for Mark Gatiss Steven Moffat when CBS asked them to write a modern-day NYC version of Sherlock and promised they wouldn’t do one without them and then they did. Ben had a difficult dance because he was also doing his best to also be supportive of his friend Jonny Lee Miller, who was cast as Sherlock; yes, the yin and yang actors at it again. You can’t make this stuff up.

benedict-cumberbatch-perfectly-photobombs-u2-on-oscar-red-carpet8) He is an innately decent human being. He takes his art and craft seriously, but he also sees the bigger picture in the bigger world. He recognizes that, compared with many in the rest of the world, the problems he has (such as being labelled “upper class” in Britain), are “champagne problems” (as Brad Pitt advised).  Yet this guy photobombs U2. What more can I say?

 

 

CharlesEsten1CHARLES ESTEN

1) Enormously talented and serious about his craft, he was spent decades being a guest star as everything from “Secretary 67” on MURPHY BROWN to a doctor on ER. He was a regular on one season of many many shows.

2) He is smart, funny and can carry a tune. Which came in really handy on 196 episodes of WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY?

10-14-12-chip23) He was known for years as Chip. Good ol’ Chip.

 

4) He has a wife and kids. And, God bless him, the same wife and kids.

5) He was into his 40s when he became a dramatic swoon-worthy, record-releasing leading man on the television show NASHVILLE. He now sings at benefits and, yes, at the Grand Ole Opry. Again, got his footing, plied his craft, and became a decent human being before “breaking out.” He also, apparently, sees a bigger world.

6) His young daughter nearly died from leukemia and it rocked his world. He and his wife now do a lot of fundraising and work for other families that have children with cancer.

 

WHY DOES THIS SPEAK TO ME?

1) First, and perhaps most obviously, I am no longer in my twenties, I have been plying my craft and getting a footing for a while now. And yes, half a million people have read the Eden Thrillers so far(!), but I wouldn’t mind a few more million. Could happen, right?

2) I can’t begin to describe the breeding ground for fiction that goes on in my mind. Nor can I describe how well both of these handsome, been-through-it decent human beings with a sense of humor are ripe with character potential.  (Have you read the movie mystery THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS? Written before I heard of either of them, but how could you tell?) They are EXACTLY who you throw into a maelstrom of intrigue and moral quandaries and then just step back and grab your laptop.

3) I don’t know these gentlemen, and likely will never know these gentlemen, but I will tell you these very same qualities are what force me to write. Biographies about Raoul Wallenberg, the young Swedish architect who saved 100,000 Jews in Budapest at the end of World War II. About Princess Kaiulani, heir to the throne of Hawaii who brought healing and aloha to the islands, and died of a broken heart at 23.  Like Jaime Richards, our protagonist in the Eden Thrillers, I am a sucker for nobility of spirit. This is also what attracts me to my closest friends, and made me marry my husband. And while I will tell you that B.K. Sherer, my Eden co-author, who happens to also be an active duty Army chaplain, is NOT the basis for Jaime’s character, I will also tell you that’s because B.K.’s own life and character is waaaay more compelling.

It’s important to me to remember that good guys win every once in a while.

Just look at Chip and Ben.

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