A Serendipity Story

Can you see April Henry's name?

I like the idea of synchronicity. As in when you work toward a goal, and life treats you to a serendipitous surprise as a reward. Kind of like creating your own luck. This is the way I’ve experienced serendipity anyhow. Not that I’ve been on that roll for awhile…sadly…BUT, at novelist April Henry’s reading earlier this week, I bouyed myself up with her grandly serendipitous publishing adventure. It can happen!

Sidenote: April Henry taught a thriller-writing class last fall. I was one of her students, eager to learn more about plotting. She’s an excellent teacher and knows her stuff for sure. 

Back in the day, April worked hard at her fiction (and still does, obviously). In fact, she mentioned five unpublished novels in different genres, including historical and chick-lit. Then, she hit her stride with Circles of Confusion, which sold in three days.

So, now April was a mystery writer with a series. She also wrote YA novels. As I understand it, there came a point when the adult novels weren’t doing as well, and the series petered out. She kept writing around her 9-to-5 job and plugging away. Here’s where I see serendipity: Because she’d been out there and working hard, she knew people, people knew of her, and the way I see it, up pops an opportunity that she’d never have imagined possible: “helping” (my quotes, not April’s) Lis Wiehl, legal analyst and television personality, write thrillers.

Another sidenote: It’s the James Patterson thing. The brand name with the true author mentioned in little print. Once again, my words, not April’s. (I repeat, my words, not April’s.)

You might be thinking…Well, that sounds oookay, but not like an optimal publishing experience for a talented novelist. But, here’s the thing. The first book in their series landed on the New York Times bestseller list, and they’ve signed a second multi-book deal. Meanwhile, April has continued her YA publishing track, and because of her new success with Lis Wiehl, her YA publisher is promoting the heck out of her upcoming YA novel.

On the purely practical side: April got a quit her day-job. She now writes fiction (lucratively) full-time! Isn’t that what we all want?

I felt happy for April as I walked out of the bookstore. To me, that’s a great story.

Channeling Novelist Diana Abu-Jaber

Current mood: prickly
Current mood: prickly

I’m highly frustrated right now. I’m supposed to be having fun, experimenting, if you will, with a thriller-ish kind of story so I can improve my plotting and pacing skills. Well this you-know-what’s hard!

I feel like I don’t know anything anymore. Maybe I haven’t mastered as much writing craft as I thought, and I’m telling you, I’m about to throw this lousy thing out, give up, go back to wallowing in all my bad writing habits because at least I was having fun.

It’s interesting because by concentrating on plot/pacing, character automatically takes a backseat. I’m a character gal. I get all inside their heads, so looking at story from a different perspective is whacking out my brain. And I know I might receive comments that both character and plot are important. But of course — but, you see, I’m focusing on plot right now.

I’m reminded of novelist Diana Abu-Jaber. She’s one of those gorgeous, plotless writers. Her prose is full of every kind of sensory description, especially when it comes to food. Crescent is one of my favorite novels simply for its loveliness.

A few years back I heard her speak at a literary festival. She’d recently come out with a — GASP! — mystery. Yee gads. This fascinated me. I read the novel beforehand, and the gorgeous writing was still there (so it was a literary mystery), but so was the suspense. That is to say: the plot.

Here’s what she had to say about her genre switch:

“If you want to learn plot, write a thriller or a mystery.”

“I really needed to get me one to those things — a plot.”

She said she started out with a snobbish attitude, like it would be so easy — it’s just a mystery, right? She tried everything, and her editor kept sending back the manuscript with notes like, “Make it better.” She had to learn how to plant clues, build suspense, and create a great villain. She said that at one point her editor reminded her that we’re not supposed to know who the villain is until the end of the story. She said it was HARD and that now she has the utmost respect for thriller/mystery writers.

From a craft perspective, she started over. But she did it. And if she can do it, so can I. So now I’m channeling Diana Abu-Jaber in hopes that some of her patience will rub off on me. Because I am losing patience. With myself, with the process, with the story itself…sigh…

Nasty Little Beast

Last week I pondered novelist Chelsea Cain because:

1. She’s a local. Portland’s latest “it” novelist who made it to the New York Times bestseller list after sealing a mega-three-book deal. In other words, she wrote a commercial blockbuster.

2. She’s got quite the online presence, which of course interested me as a fledgling novelist blogger. Check her out: website, uTube videos, a Facebook page, a MySpace page. More power to her.

3. I was ready to not like her when I went to last week’s Willamette Writers meeting to hear her talk about the 10 surefire tips for writing a thriller. It didn’t help that I had to pay a ten-buck nonmember fee.Heartsick Cover

Points one and two are self-evident. Point three, not so much. It goes like this: Ms. Cain interested me in part because of my reaction to her success — that nasty little beast called professional envy. “PE” for short. My reaction was silly enough that I had to check her out even though I don’t write thrillers.

I know a woman who is acquainted with Ms. Cain. She’d told me about Ms. Cain’s novel, Heartsick, with something akin to bemused skepticism in her voice. Come to find out that Ms. Cain had always been a literary rather than commercial type of writer. Ooh, I couldn’t help thinking at the time, she purposely plotted herself a big paycheck. The so-called “selling out.”

I went to the Willamette Writers meeting still carrying that nasty-little-beast of a thought in my head. Only, Ms. Cain appeared on stage, and I liked the looks of her with her sculpted features and pleasantly eclectic wardrobe sense. She called her novel a “gory thriller” and a “cheesy thriller.” She admitted that at first she felt sheepish writing such a novel. She said she cried for two days when her previous book publisher, a literary house, rejected its option to buy the new novel. She was down-to-earth, funny, and had a disarming way of tilting her head back at a cockeyed angle while widening her eyes.

Most of all, she used the word “f*cking” three times and as casually as I might say “that damned cat.” AWEsome. I decided she wasn’t so bad, after all, even if she did win the publishing jackpot. Like I wrote above: More power to her.

And besides, why envy? Isn’t there enough to go around? Silly me.