Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dakota Banks Visits During Blog Tour! Yahoo! She's Bearing A Prize for One Lucky Individual Who Joins Discussion!

The giveaway is a Mortal Path Swag Bag, consisting of a tote bag, 3 signed books, pens, bookmarks, magnets, and a calculator. I mail internationally. As a bonus, there is a $25 Amazon gift certificate that goes with the swag.  The Lucky Winner will be someone who "participates" in the discussion via comments section! Maliha will choose that winner - although she's not saying how and I hope it doesn't involve a knife... Please include a contact email address...! Thanks so much to Dakota for providing this coooooooollllll Giveaway! (BRH)

I’m pleased to visit the wonderful Book Reader’s Heaven! Thanks, Glenda, for this opportunity.

The first thing that readers encounter in any book is the opening lead. The lead has a heavy task—it must pull readers into the story and make them want to continue reading. Authors spend much effort, pulling out whatever hairs they have left, making sure the lead reflects the authors style and sets the stage for events to come.

It isn’t easy.

The lead can go through multiple revisions, more than twenty in my case, until I find one I’m satisfied with. Scratch that. I’m never satisfied with the lead, even by the time it appears in print. I always think that if I’d just revised it one more time, it would take on the magical quality that’s actually in my mind. I never get there; I just approach as closely as I can to some literary ideal that skitters away beneath my fingers on the keyboard.

I’d like to share some of that revision process today. I’m going to show the final lead, the one in print for Deliverance, the third book of the Mortal Path, first. But before that, I’m going to (eek!) show you what was never intended to be read by eyes other than mine: two previous versions of the lead, and what was wrong with them. It’s tough showing your unpolished work because the natural inclination is to bury it. Let’s get on with it before I change my mind!

Early Lead #1

Maliha ran at the brick wall, used her momentum to climb it in two big steps, and grasped the top with her fingertips. Pulling up, she cat-balanced on all fours across the narrow top, searching for her next quick move. With her short sword strapped securely to her back and wearing a t-shirt, loose shorts, and athletic shoes, she was chasing an expert at parkour(freerunning) across the slums and roofs of New York, and she’d fallen behind. It was a moonlit night, but she didn’t need light to follow him—she was tracking him by the throbbing, hateful red glow of his aura.

The man was Xietai, the grown son of her close friend Yanmeng. As a teenager, Xietai betrayed his parents to the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. Maliha rescued Yanmeng and his wife from the prison just before they were to be executed. Now, Xietai had surfaced as a man of nearly sixty, running a Chinese gang that specialized in human trafficking. This was the second time Xietai eluded her grasp when she broke up his operations. Maliha wasn’t sure if he was Ageless, but he moved like a man less than half his age and he’d had more practice with this form of urban rapid mobility than she had.

            She spotted him a couple of roofs ahead of her, and he wasn’t moving.

It’s some sort of trap, or he’s decided to stand his ground and fight.

Maliha approached cautiously. The fight began and raged across the rooftops. Xietai was not Ageless, but he was a martial arts master, using moves Maliha hadn’t encountered before. Even when she tried a burst of near-Ageless speed on him, he seemed to sense where she was. Soon her bare legs and arms ran with blood. He fought with a sword in one hand and a knife in the other.

Finally Maliha jabbed upwards from a kneeling position for a fatal blow. Simultaneously, Xietai brought his knife down, aiming to slip it between the vertebrae of her neck. If his knife hit its target, her spinal cord would be severed and she would die along with him. She felt the knife painfully ripping across the back of her neck and shoulder.

This lead is barely a sketch of the final action scene. It contains no sensory description, and although New York is mentioned, there is no clear sense of place. There is too much background information, and worst of all, the scene smacks of telling, not showing. A prime example is “The fight began and raged across the rooftops.” The fight is clearly going to be a centerpiece of the action here, but much action is expressed in a single sentence, spoon-feeding an entire portion of the scene to the reader until “Finally Maliha ...” Good thing this lead was thrown out!

Early Lead #2

            Maliha Crayne cat-crawled long the crest of a clay-tiled roof, sending crumbled shards down into the street four stories below. It was a moonless night, but she wasn’t tracking her target in the visible spectrum anyway. Relying on aura vision, she was following the footprints of a man who’d eluded her once before. His name was Xietai.

            Xietai’s aura reflected a lifetime of doing evil. His deep black aura would have made him difficult to follow at street level if it wasn’t for the wisps of angry red. He didn’t like being put through his paces to avoid being caught. Tendrils of red rose wherever his bare feet contacted a surface: roof or wall, staircase or pavement. In other circumstances, with a different meaning, she would appreciate the beauty of the scene playing out on the rooftops and streets. All she noticed now was that the tendrils were fading and she was losing ground on her opponent. 

            At the end of the crest of the roof, she swung lightly, hung briefly by one hand, and dropped down to an adjacent flat roof. Landing with a forward roll to break the momentum of the fall, she put out a hand to avoid sliding too near a large utility box.


            She’d scraped the side of her hand raw. The man ahead of her was a highly skilled practitioner of parkour, a method of crossing obstacles in the most efficient way and the shortest time.

            Maliha wasn’t. She also wasn’t fully prepared for this type of pursuit, but when Xietai crossed her path, she had to try it.

            Maliha jumped a gap to a building a dozen feet away and headed for the fire escape.

            Is he Ageless?

            Her bare feet landed on the fire escape’s stairs, and at each landing, she launched herself over the railing to the next run of stairs. She dropped the last ten feet to the ground. Thin red wisps spiraled eerily up from a puddle he’d passed through. She cleared the puddle in a small hop, then continued moving on the balls of her feet to save the time of heel strikes. It gave her an odd gait, like tiptoe running, but no one was grading her performance. Ahead a wall loomed. He’d taken her down a dead-end alley. Using the momentum of her run, she climbed up the wall to a balcony, jumped higher from the railing, and was able to pull herself up on the roof.

            No good. Blind corner…

            Anticipating a trap, Maliha threw one of her knives, then ducked and rolled. She lashed out with her second knife and was rewarded with a grunt.
            Xietai took off into the night. She considered leaving her thrown knife where it had landed, but decided that the advantage of being able to fight with both hands was worth the time lost from the chase. She was gratified to see a blood trail in the pale cone of light from a street lamp.

            He couldn’t be Ageless. He wouldn’t still be bleeding from my knife scratch.

A small group of men gathered near the street lamp, and she checked them to make sure her target hadn’t blended in with them. No, they were college kids doing risky things in a risky neighborhood. In other circumstances, she would have stopped and scared them off, back to their dorms and their big screen TVs. She reached into her belly bag and whirled a throwing star toward them, embedding it in the metal of the lamppost. The metallic clang! followed her out of the light. It was the most she could do for them in terms of a warning. She caught a glimpse of them scattering, but at the cost of one of her throwing stars.

Then she spotted Xietai on the roof of a run-down theater, standing next to the marquee with its hundreds of broken bulbs.

            He’s waiting for me. This is it.

Suddenly Maliha felt a touch on her shoulder, like someone had brushed her lightly with a feather duster. It was Xia Yanmeng, a remote viewer, contacting her to let her know he was present.

There was something personal about this chase to Yanmeng, too. Xietai was his son. Maliha had rescued Yanmeng and his wife Eliu from prison during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It was the lying testimony of their teenage son Xietai that had put them there, awaiting death.

She didn’t think it would be a good idea to have Yanmeng viewing when she caught up with his son. One of them was going to die, and since Xietai wasn’t Ageless, Maliha had a good chance against him.

This is an improvement in that there is more detail and less spoon-feeding. There are still problems here, though. Still no sensory description and no sense of place. The backstory about Yanmeng and his son, Cultural Revolution, etc. is awkwardly placed. Maliha said, “This is it,” implying action about to occur, and then the lead strayed off into backstory about Yanmeng. The mini-story about the college men gathered in the street is nothing but a distraction to the main action, since nothing comes of it. I’m starting to get the hang of writing the quick action of parkour, but haven’t gotten it down yet. The language to describe it should be a spare as the movements.

Current Lead

I cleaned up the language a bit. The idea here is to introduce the main character, Maliha, in action, with minimal background information, just enough to intrigue. Description that appeals to all senses draws the reader into the scene. The parkour language is more authentic. More use is made of Maliha’s thoughts, since there is no conversation in this scene. Backstory has been pared to a minimum and placed where it doesn’t stop the action.

Maliha Crayne placed her feet carefully on the old clay-tiled roof. Freezing rain made the passage treacherous. Xietai, the man she was chasing, seemed as sure-footed as a gazelle. She had already sent a tile sliding to the street three stories below.

It was three in the morning, and although New York never sleeps, the residents of this neighborhood did. Most of them, anyway. As another tile clattered to the sidewalk, a window was flung open and a woman’s head appeared, her neck twisted to look up at the roof.

“What’s goin’ on up there? Think yer Santa Claus or somethin’? Get off my roof!”

            With flat roofs all around, he has to choose one with tiles. Should have gone around and picked up his trail on the other side. Maliha 0, Xietai 1.

Xietai had been in her sights twice before, and he’d eluded her. He ran a human trafficking ring, bringing Asian girls to America, and then sending American girls to Asia. Round-trip profits. Complicating matters was that Xietai was the son of one of Maliha’s dearest friends, Xia Yanmeng. Maliha planned to bring Xietai to justice but with his record of confrontation, it was possible she’d have to kill him.

Kill Yanmeng’s son. Not sure how he’d feel about that, even though the two of them are estranged. If my daughter Constanta had survived her birth and grown up evil, would I be hunting her?

Maliha came to the end of the tiled roof and paused briefly. Xietai’s footprints led her on into the moonless night. Using her ability to view auras, she could see the outline of his footsteps and the tendrils of red and black twining together, rising from them. Normally she used her aura vision for a few seconds at a time, a quick check to see if someone was lying or to make sure she faced a truly evil person before plunging her sword into him. Constant viewing, as she was doing now to track Xietai, was draining. His aura footprints were clear, but her surroundings were a little out of focus. As long as Xietai kept out of her normal sight, he had an advantage.

Maliha felt a touch on her shoulder, as soft as if she’d been brushed by a bird’s wing. Yanmeng was a remote viewer, and he was signaling her that he was viewing her now. He’d been trying to increase his remote presence to the point that he could move objects. He’d made some progress but it was erratic. She could extend her arm and make an L-shape with her fingers, the sign they’d agreed upon for him to withdraw, and he would immediately stop remote viewing her. At least, she trusted that he would.

She didn’t make the withdrawal sign.

It’s his son. Yanmeng’s not going to like this, but it’s not right to hide it from him.

She swung over the edge of the roof, hung briefly by one hand, and dropped down to an adjacent flat roof. Landing with a forward roll to break the momentum of the fall, she put out a hand to avoid sliding on the patchy ice. She scraped the side of her hand raw on the rough roofing material. She wasn’t an accomplished traceuse—tracer—so her hands weren’t calloused. The man ahead of her was a highly skilled practitioner of parkour, a method of crossing obstacles in the most efficient way and the shortest time.

She ran barefoot, with loose black shorts, a black t-shirt, a belly bag with a few throwing stars secured inside so they couldn’t shift and hurt her, knives strapped to her thighs, with her thick black hair flowing behind her. It was late November, and an icy rain pelted her face and other exposed skin. Maliha wasn’t prepared for this pursuit, but when Xietai crossed her path, she had to try it.

Maliha jumped to a building a dozen feet away. She rolled, then ran and dropped to the fire escape.

Could he be Ageless?

Her bare feet landed lightly on the fire escape’s icy stairs, and at each landing, she vaulted the railing to the next run of stairs. She dropped the last ten feet to the ground. Thin red wisps spiraled eerily up from slushy puddle he’d passed through. She cleared the puddle in a small hop. Ahead a wall loomed. He’d taken her down a dead-end alley. Using the momentum of her run, she stepped up the brick wall to a balcony, used a spring from the rail to power another couple of steps, and then muscled up to the roof.

No good. Blind corner...

Anticipating a trap, Maliha threw one of her knives, then ducked and rolled as a sword swung powerfully where her neck should have been. She lashed out with her second knife, scored a deep gash in Xietai’s calf, and felt the splash of hot blood on her hand.

That should slow him down a little.

Xietai took off into the night, running away before she’d come fully out of her roll. She retrieved her thrown knife from where it had landed. Her opponent took them down to street level. She was gratified to see a blood trail in the pale cone of light from a street lamp.

He bleeds too much to be Ageless.

Then she spotted Xietai on the roof of a run-down theater, standing next to the marquee with its hundreds of broken bulbs. His aura was blacker than the night sky washed by city lights, and the spidery electric red web of his anger had intensified since she’d wounded him.

The scene continues into the physical confrontation that is obviously building in a real-time, “showing” manner between Maliha and Xietai. Considering that this book is urban fantasy, it’s a good way to begin.

Leads are supposed to encourage you to continue on into the book. Have you ever encountered one that turned you off and affected your feelings about a book right from the start?

 Dakota, I'm always happy to welcome you here (anytime!) and to start the discussion, I want to first answer your own question for myself...

When I read for pleasure, it is almost always action, adventure, mystery or suspense...and frankly if the opening didn't hook me, I hesitated to read further if I don't already know the author. But then as I began to review and was reading many different genres as well as nonfiction, I realized that I had to adjust my personal preferences. It is still difficult for me to read more than one of two pages, if nothing pulls me into the story. But I do it now and have found that it has allowed me to broaden my reading interests...

On the other hand, I still expect it for action...so, in answer to your question...if Maliha doesn't hook me immediately, I'm disappointed!

I enjoyed this article and find that I have questions:

1. Your 3 leads shared - did YOU do the analysis of each or did you get feedback from others, such as your editor?

The two early leads were subject to my own analysis. No one saw them, until now, except me. The final lead had gone through the editorial process but I don’t think anything was changed in it. The way my editor, Emily Krump, works is that when I am satisfied with the manuscript, I send it to her, and the real fun begins! She reads it first for the story value and then carefully with an editor’s eyes, and sends me extensive notes, several pages’ worth, with her comments. These range from broad concepts to line edits about missing words. An example of a broad observation from her letter on Deliverance: “Maliha's thoughts throughout tend to be a little wordy and use too many pronouns.  Her inner monologue needs to be as believable as the dialogue between characters.” Another: “The interaction with Jill isn't working, yet, because she doesn't move the story forward.” Emily doesn’t tell me how to correct these things—that’s my job as the writer—but she has a great eye for spotting weaknesses in my supposedly “finished” manuscript. This is when it pays to have a great working relationship with your editor, because Emily makes me a better writer.

2.  Is your first lead more of a draft, to get your thoughts out, or do you write for "final" even though you may later revise?

My first lead was intended to be the final version when I wrote it, because I don’t create a quick first draft of the entire book first as many writers do. Instead, at the beginning of each writing session, I go back over what was written the day before, editing as I go along. This works very well for me, so that by the time I type “The End,” I have very little left to do before sending the manuscript to my editor. There are only two exceptions to this. The lead will get revised a number of times, at least ten. The other exception happens when something comes up during the book that I have to go back and set up a little bit at an earlier time in the story.

3. I notice you seem to refer to some set of rules against which you measure your work. Do you have one or more reference books for writers that you routinely use?

I used to have a whole shelf of reference books that I dipped into when I was having trouble with pacing, characterization, plotting, all the elements of writing a book. I finally found that books often had conflicting or vague advice, and the clearest guidance for me was studying both books I enjoyed and books I hated, and figuring out why. What made me feel bonded with this character and not with another? Why did this book keep me turning the pages and I fell asleep (literally) while reading what was supposed to be a suspenseful scene in another? Note that it wouldn’t be sufficient to read only books I liked—there has to be an analytical comparison. Do this enough and you begin to internalize the rules so that you don’t need a reference book. I still treasure my well-worn copy of Stephen King’s On Writing because so much of it deals with writing as a personal experience.  

4. Regarding the reference to the gang... In deleting it, you indicate that it doesn't lead anywhere. Would you say that this is a good sample of the writing phrase, "Delete anything that doesn't more your story further"?

Exactly. I thought it made a nice visual when I wrote it and helped to characterize the neighborhood. But it didn’t go anywhere. Maliha didn’t even have time to stop and break up the gathering—she was chasing someone. While the throwing star clanging into the metal light post sounded nice, it had no purpose unless there was time to develop it further and have some ramifications. This goes along with William Faulkner’s quote: “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” That means you can’t be so attached to a scene, a character, a description, a turn of phrase, that you’re unwilling to axe it from your manuscript if its only function is to please your writer’s ego.

5. I like your statement, "I’m starting to get the hang of writing the quick action of parkour, but haven’t gotten it down yet. The language to describe it should be a spare as the movements." If I understand it correctly, I totally agree... But, just to be sure, could you share a little more, defining parkour and talk about how you create that "spareness..."?

Parkour is a style of movement that focuses on the most efficient way to move through an environment, getting over or around obstacles, developed by a Frenchman, David Bell. It’s also called free running or urban running, because it is usually done in an urban environment where there are more obstacles to cross than in an open field. It is elegant and exciting to watch and requires great physical ability from its practitioners. The runners use vaults, rolls, jumps, rolls, and climbs to make their way around. The moves are defined and have charming French names like passement (to vault over using one hand), but it is up to the traceur, the runner, to select and combine moves to match the environment—and do it quickly, because everything happens at a full run. For many Americans, their first exposure to parkour was the brilliant sample near the opening of the movie Casino Royale, where Daniel Craig as James Bond is chasing a bomb maker through a jungle and a construction site. It took my breath away. There are no wasted movements, and the challenge to getting such a scene down on paper is immense. You have to picture the chase vividly in your mind and then find almost breathless language that conveys speed, grace, and economy of motion. A good example of that in the final lead is this: Using the momentum of her run, she stepped up the brick wall to a balcony, used a spring from the rail to power another couple of steps, and then muscled up to the roof. (The terminology is correct.) There are four moves here done in rapid succession, during which Maliha covered a lot of ground—from the street to the top of a building. Leaving out any of the words in this sentence breaks the continuity, and the beauty, of the motion.

6. I recently refused to read a book that, within 20 pages, was written in what I will call, hillbilly language...using a lot of bad language, as well as poor grammar...things like crick for creek... when I wrote to the publisher I explained that I was not willing to support such writing and that my understanding was that colloquial languages were generally only in dialogue, while the narrative should be proper English... Do you think I was right or wrong in refusing to read more than 20 pages and would you ever extend your writing so that much more of Maliha's story was based upon that in the various countries where she travels?

I wouldn’t have lasted 20 pages. My opinion is that good writing carries the reader along with minimal effort, so the reader can concentrate on the story and not on the way it’s written. Good writing disappears into the background of the reader’s mind, and writing that is colloquial for extended periods can’t do that. The reader is jarred from the events of the story to focus on the way it’s written and to deal with the unfamiliar words. In dialogue, colloquial writing might add to the personality definition of the speaker. Even then, I’d use it sparingly. There are other ways to do characterization, ways that make more of an impact on the reader. Characters can speak in different styles—abrupt, understanding, emotional, stressed—that can convey more meaning than just the fact of using local vocabulary. Even though Maliha is a word traveler and foreign locations are often used in the books, I don’t try for colloquial language even in dialogue. “Zee plane! Zee plane! Zee plane has arreev-ed, Mees Cray!” Nope. What does this add? That said, there is an instance in Deliverance where children are greeting Maliha and they come up with different versions of her name. I think that’s fun. It’s also brief, thank goodness.

Please join in via the comments!