Everything Books
Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

July 2, 2012

Titles and Book Covers

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , — jennifer @ 9:07 am

Titles change and so do book covers. For a long time, I’d been calling Velva Jean’s third adventure Velva Jean Learns to Spy. But that book (to be released September 25) is now Becoming Clementine. These decisions aren’t always left up to the author, though we do weigh in. There are many, many, many people (editor, publicists, marketing department, sales department) involved in choosing the title, just as there are many, many, many people (art department, editor, publicists, marketing department, sales department, book sellers) involved in creating and weighing in on the cover.

Speaking of covers, here’s the final cover for the new book, with just a few small changes (can you spot them?). It’s funny how many versions of a cover you can go through. Velva Jean Learns to Drive went through five completely different covers before we found The One.

People always ask me which, of my covers and books, is my favorite book cover and my favorite book. But that’s like asking a person to choose his favorite child or cat. I love them all equally but in different ways, and I have my own distinctive relationships with each one. (But I have to say I’m pretty wild about the cover for Becoming Clementine!)

(You can pre-order your copy of Becoming Clementine here!)

February 7, 2012

Behind the Book — Writing Advice from My Uncle Bill

My mother, Penelope Niven, and I are both writers, and because of this my family often participates in our author events, traveling with us on tour (when possible) and purchasing multiple copies of our books to give to everyone they know. When my grandmother Eleanor was alive, she would call up bookstores in the greater Charlotte, North Carolina, area and ask if they carried the latest books by Mom or me. If they didn’t, she would say, “Well you should!” and hang up.

While most of my family members, wonderful as they are, don’t understand the actual day-to-day process of writing a book, they are our greatest and most enthusiastic fans.

My mom’s brother, Bill, however, seems to get it. Bill isn’t a writer, but he is creative. He is brilliant, possessing a wonderful kind of downhome, folksy wisdom. He’s tall and rambling—and, at 65, is the same big-hearted country boy who, at least once a week, used to “find” stray animals in the bushes outside the house where he and my mother and their two sisters grew up. He has a North Carolina accent a mile wide.

Historically, Mom writes very long books. Her biography of Carl Sandburg, the definitive work on his life, is 843 pages and her biography of Edward Steichen, the definitive work on his life, runs 808. Her upcoming, hugely anticipated biography of Thornton Wilder, due out in October from HarperCollins, is 836 pages. (Voices and Silences, the book she wrote with James Earl Jones, is a mere 394 pages.)

As I am in the thick of edits/copy edits of my upcoming novel, Becoming Clementine (from Plume this fall!), and as I prepare to return to the researching and outlining of the novel that will follow it (title still to be determined), I keep Uncle Bill’s Advice on Writing nearby, along with a picture of his daddy, my granddaddy, who also had wise things to say about the writing process, namely: deadlines are really lifelines and, when editing, you can almost always lose the last sentence of every paragraph.

While most of Bill’s comments originated with my mother’s work, they are certainly relatable to my own, especially as I am faced with editing and cutting and trimming down the length of Becoming Clementine, and trying to think of alternate ways to say “like,” “said,” and “just,” all of which I tend to overuse.

Uncle Bill’s Advice on Writing

1. A book should not be so long and big and thick that it has to be hauled around in a wheelbarrow.

(Case in point, each first draft of each Velva Jean book has been cut down drastically, and my first draft for The Ice Master was 813 pages long. In the end, I cut 300 of those pages before it ever went to print.)

2. You have to remember that there were parts of Carl Sandburg’s life that were boring even to Carl Sandburg.

(Or Velva Jean’s life, or Ada Blackjack’s life, or ice master Robert Bartlett’s life, or my own life, goodness knows, as told in my high school memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries. In other words, you don’t need to relay everything that ever happened to your character/subject. Pick and choose the moments to write about.)

3. If you are bored writing something, people will most likely be bored reading it.

(I remember this every time I conduct research or write a new scene and find my attention wandering off in the middle of it, or, most recently, when I reread Becoming Clementine and feel the slightest bit restless.)

4. It must be easier to write short than to write long.

(Even as I’m stripping out words or lines or paragraphs or whole chapters of Clementine, I’m thinking to myself: Why didn’t I just leave these things out the first time around? The answer, for me at least, is that even when I remove sections of a manuscript, I know the material was once there. I think writing long to end up writing short helps the book seem deeper and more layered, even if you’re the only one who knows what’s missing.)

5. A lot of people seem to think that just because they can write the alphabet they can write books. From what I’ve seen of your work, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

(It is, truly, but it’s surprising how many people don’t realize it and how astute—I would even say profound—this observation is. I work all the time. ALL the time. Yet one of the things I hear most often from well meaning people is: “I’ve always thought I would be a writer if only I had the spare time,” as if we are talking about Canasta or kite flying or crossword puzzles. My mother hears this frequently too, and once, at a party, she heard it from a prominent brain surgeon. When he said, “I’ve always thought I would write a book if only I had the time,” she replied, “That is so funny. I’ve always thought I would practice brain surgery if only I had the time!”)

6. I remember the little girl who looked at one of your mom’s books and said, “Wow! I didn’t know anybody knew that many words.” And your mom said, “It’s not so many. I used a lot of them more than once.” Still it must be hard to keep track of them so you don’t repeat words too often and get on your reader’s nerves.

(It is hard to keep track of them, particularly when you write two nonfiction books about Arctic expeditions and have to describe ice again and again. This is one reason Mom and I love to read the dictionary because even when you use a lot of words, there are still so many to learn.)

January 30, 2012

Behind the Book — The Copy Edits

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 11:53 am

It never fails. As soon as I start building up momentum (the research, the story, the outlining) on the new book– Velva Jean #4– I’m summoned back to Velva Jean #3– Becoming Clementine. Friday afternoon I received the copy edited manuscript of Clementine, which is due back to my editor February 6.

Just to recap what’s happened so far in the process:

In September of last year, I handed in the manuscript for Clementine (then titled Velva Jean Learns to Spy and, alternately, Velva Jean Goes to War).

While it was in my editor’s hands I began gathering research materials and resources for Velva Jean #4, her Hollywood adventure, which is due to my editor in September of this year.

In December of last year, my editor gave me her notes on Clementine, which I had a week to implement before returning the edited manuscript to her before Christmas.

Since the holidays, I’ve been researching and brainstorming Velva Jean #4.

My editor has since gone over Clementine again, adding more notes, making more cuts, and in the meantime it has also been in the hands of the copy editor. This past Friday, that version was sent to me, which means I have set Velva Jean #4 aside again as I work on Clementine.

The manuscript will go back to Penguin next Monday, and I will go back to 1940’s Hollywood.

I will see Becoming Clementine again before it’s published– after this, we will go through what’s called the First Pass and then the Second Pass. These rounds are primarily to check for typos in the printing and any last little changes. Any larger changes need to be made now, on the copy edited script.

Which means this is it, folks. One of the most important moments in a book’s life.

So I am hunkering down at my desk. I have bid farewell to my friends and my Hollywood notes and research, promising I will see them all next week after I’m through this, because it is pretty much a round-the-clock job. Not, mind you, because the book is in such dire shape right now– I actually think it’s in really good shape– but because I have to read and edit very carefully, knowing that this is the last time for the big stuff and one of the most important moments in a book’s life.

As writer Paul Theroux once said, “Writing is pretty crummy on the nerves.” I would like to second that. But, as nerve-inducing as this particular moment in the process is, it’s also exciting. After all, it’s just one step closer to publication…

January 19, 2012

Behind the Book — What it (Sometimes) Looks Like to Write a Book

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 3:10 pm

To be honest, if I’m going for pure historical accuracy, most days I’m working like twelve dogs pulling the Iditarod, racing against the clock to get everything done. But, even so, there are those other days– the darker ones– when the ideas don’t seem to come no matter how long you sit at your desk. Let’s just say that some writing days are better than others…

What it (Sometimes) Looks Like to Write a Book from Jennifer Niven on Vimeo.

January 17, 2012

Behind the Book — Tangents

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 7:37 pm

I have always wanted to be a private detective, ever since the days I collected Charlie’s Angels cards and pretended to be Kelly Garrett on the playground of Westview Elementary School. Once, a few years ago, I even looked into some part-time detecting work, in an attempt to realize that long-ago dream.

In my work as a writer, I do a lot of research. Actually, I get to do a lot of research. This is one of the things I most love about writing. It’s like being Kelly Garrett under cover on a case– on numerous cases– every single day. Set me down in front of the internet or in a library or archive surrounded by books and other materials, and I will lose myself for hours or, depending on the subject I’m dealing with, days.

The only problem is that I will almost always wander off on tangents. This is one of the amazing things about research. There’s so much to learn! Not just about the thing you’re specifically researching but about everything!

Today was a research day. Unlike yesterday, which was creatively frustrating, today was one of those days when I completely lost track of time and all sense of place and just disappeared into my story. For a while I stayed admirably on point and then, inevitably, I diverged. It’s much like going on a road trip and stopping at all the interesting and unexpected places along the route (which, incidentally, is the way I like to go road tripping).

The tangents always start the same way: “I’ll just check on this one thing, and then I’ll go right back to what I was doing…” And that one thing leads to another thing, which leads to another and another, until, before I know it, I’m about fifty or sixty miles (or more) off course.

Some of these tangents can lead to dead ends– they’re just ways to satisfy my curiosity on a random subject I’ve stumbled across. While others actually lead me to information I didn’t expect and didn’t know, but which I end up weaving into my books. These kinds of discoveries can influence and shape the plot and the story, but I just have to know when to get back on the road, back on track, and keep going.

Today I went on a small tangent which led to a a big discovery– an exciting plot addition! A huge plot addition! I always know when I’ve struck gold (as opposed to reaching that dead end) when I don’t want to stop reading about whatever it is or watching some sort of video footage of it or digging deeper and deeper till I uncover every last thing there is to know about it. When I’m this into an idea, it’s amazing how much I can learn about it in such a short time.

I’m dying to share my finds, but that would only spoil the story for you, so instead I’ll share a handful of great resources for the Charlie’s Angel in every writer:

National Geographic Map Machine
The Library of Congress
FBI Records
Info Please
Life Magazine
Real Military Videos
The Margaret Herrick Library
The Crime Library

January 11, 2012

Behind the Book — Creating a Character

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , — jennifer @ 8:31 pm

I spent yesterday at the Central Library downtown, gathering the most enormous armful of books you’ve ever seen on everything from Darryl Zanuck to Louella Parsons to a history of Los Angeles itself. I spent today at my desk, constructing a timeline for the book– listing every interesting event or incident that happened in L.A. during the late 1940s. It’s my map of the time period and the place. Once I have all the info down, I can start weaving Velva Jean’s story into it.

The other thing I did was start to sculpt a new character. Not just any character, but one who will figure prominently into Velva Jean’s Hollywood story. So far, he’s stumped me. And because he’s going to be pretty pivotal to the plot, I need him figured out before I can go much further.

One of the ways I get inspiration is to read real stories. I scour books and internet sites and newspaper articles from the time. I make note after note and play with idea after idea. He could be this, he could be that. Maybe he’s an actor. Maybe he’s a famous actor! Maybe he’s a director. Maybe he’s a singer or a big band conductor. Maybe he has nothing to do with movies or music at all. While I’m scouring, I’m trying out every version and possibility I can think of. Time after time, for the past few weeks, I’ve been hitting the proverbial brick wall.

Last night I opened one of those library books– one I picked up almost by accident– and there on the pages was my character. I knew him on sight. He was the one I’d been looking for.

The book I’m talking about was actually written by him, and as I was reading I thought: I can’t improve on the real man. I wouldn’t change a thing about him. Here’s the thing though: it’s tricky writing a real person into a piece of fiction if you’re going to use that real person for a major character. You’re not required to change the identity if the person is a public figure– as my mom says, you really have to use your judgment– but in a case like this, I felt it was best.

So I gave him a new name and then I opened up Scrivener (where I like to create my character sketches) (when I create actual character sketches). I wrote down everything about the real character that I liked and found compelling, and as I did so I suddenly could see the story and see him in it. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was leaving the real person behind and the character was taking over. I could hear his voice. I could see his mannerisms. I could imagine him in all different scenarios and scenes, both with and without Velva Jean. I knew where he came from. I knew what he thought about before he went to sleep at night. I knew him on a bad day and a good one.

When an idea takes hold like this, you know it’s a good one– the right one. Because it leads you down the road to more discoveries. It opens the story right up to you and suddenly– just like that, just like the clouds are clearing away– you can see it.

The last thing I did, after the creative burst began to subside (pages and pages later), was to experiment with names. I’m still playing with his name because names are important. They have to sound authentic to the character. They have to ring true. I think I’ve found it, but I want to live with it for a day or two before I commit. The very last thing I did was cast my character. This meant I got to do one of my favorite things– sort through Google images of actors from the 1930s and 1940s. I looked at everyone from Robert Mitchum to Tyrone Power to Clark Gable to William Powell. I had to find just the right pose, just the right expression so that I wouldn’t look at the picture and think of the actor, but I would think of my character instead. In other words, I was using the actor much as I’d used the real-life man: as inspiration to go from.

Finally I found him. And while I’d love to post him here, I can’t reveal him yet because he’s still too fresh, too new, and I need to keep him close.

But I’m newly energized. Even as I turned off my office lights for the day and went on to eat dinner and do dishes and play with the cats, the character is working for me. I keep thinking: Oh! And then he can do this. Oh! And then he can do that. And he and Velva Jean will see each other here, and then here, and then they can do this, and then they’ll do that, and then, and then, and then… And, before I know it, I’m back at my computer, making more notes.

January 9, 2012

Behind the Book — The Author Photo

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 6:41 pm

It’s that time again: my publisher needs a new author photo for the upcoming book. When I was starting out, back in 2000, before my first book, The Ice Master, entered production, my then-publisher Hyperion let me know that a very famous and important photographer specializing in author photos (he’s done half of the portraits that appear on the backs of book covers) was coming to Los Angeles to take my picture. Now, I’m someone who likes having her picture taken. This is due to the fact that, ever since I was a baby, my father– a talented amateur photographer– was always taking pictures of my mom and me. To this day, Mom hates to have her picture taken while I love it.

I was excited to be photographed by someone legendary. This is it, I thought. I’ve arrived! The photographer came to my duplex early one morning, and he was nice and professional. But I hated the pictures he took of me (which you will not see me posting here).

Because my first book was a serious nonfiction book about a tragic Arctic expedition and because I was young, he had me wipe off most of my makeup and change my clothes into something more formal and businesslike. Then he posed me wearing glasses, my hair pulled back, holding a stack of research papers and frowning, as if looking like an unhappy schoolmarm circa Little House on the Prairie would increase my credibility, as if my work on the book and in the book couldn’t just speak for itself.

I sat through that photo shoot unhappily, and when my publisher sent me copies of the pictures, I listened unhappily but politely to their enthusiasm, and then I went on a hunt for a different photographer. I found the terrifically cool Lisa Keating, who lives and works in San Francisco. She let me wear makeup and let me smile and she didn’t once tell me to put on my glasses, which I only need occasionally anyway. I loved my photos so much that I used another one of hers for the paperback version of The Ice Master and still another for my second book, Ada Blackjack.

Hyperion eventually liked the pictures too, but it took them a little while to warm up to the first one. They weren’t sure about “all this peeking around the corner of the camera business.” It wasn’t quite like any other author picture they’d published or seen. This, of course, was early in my writing career. I was learning already that when you’re working with publishers, just as when you’re working with anyone, you have to know how and when to choose your battles. I have learned when to concede and I have learned when to fight for something, and I fought for that picture. I wanted something different and interesting. Why would I want to do the same thing as everyone else?

By the time I had finished writing books three and four, I was living in Atlanta. Lisa’s photos were a couple of years old by then and I felt it was time for something new (even though there’s always the thought: My God, I was so young then! Why on earth would I want to take a recent picture when I could use one of me back when I was so, so young– or at least younger?).

I flew all the way out to CA to have Lisa take my picture again. It was a damp and foggy day, and my naturally curly hair just fuzzed and frizzed with abandon, which made my smile look more like a grimace, which ultimately ruined the pictures for me. Back in Atlanta, the day before my author photo was due to Penguin for Velva Jean Learns to Drive, I googled Atlanta photographers and found the hip and talented Stephen Hunton, who agreed to shoot me that afternoon in an Atlanta-area alleyway. I used two different shots from that session– one for Velva Jean Learns to Drive and the other for The Aqua Net Diaries.

Last January, Penguin needed an author photo for Velva Jean Learns to Fly (this gives you an idea of how far ahead publishers have to work to produce a book– Learns to Fly was released eight months later on August 30). You’ve heard me talk about my boyfriend Louis, who bakes bread and works for IBM and takes care of my websites, but he also takes wonderful pictures (though his interest is in documentary and nature photography). At the time Penguin needed the picture, we had just signed a lease on our apartment but hadn’t yet moved anything in, so we had plenty of space and light to work with. The result was my favorite author photo to date.

So now it’s time to take a new one or go back through the others Louis took of me last January and see what there is to choose from (the older I get, the more daunting it is to face a new author photo). Tomorrow I’ll be posting ones from the reject pile– i.e. ones you will never catch me putting on the back of a book. And later in the week I’ll post some options for the next author picture, with the hopes that you can help me choose which one to use.

December 21, 2011

Behind the Book — Letting the Manuscript Go

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , — jennifer @ 11:49 am

Last Monday, I received the last of my editor’s notes on Velva Jean #3 (in which she finds herself spying in World War II), and, at my editor’s request, I have addressed her notes, big and small (cutting 26 pages in the process), and delivered the edited manuscript back to her by this morning. It was, as my mom likes to say, a creative miracle. Or maybe a Christmas miracle, I’m not sure. In either case, it’s off my desk for now and back in the hands of my publisher. The next step in the process will be copy editing which, thankfully, I won’t have to face until January.

When I first handed the book in, back in September, I experienced the same postpartum feelings I’d experienced with every other book: the worry (What if my editor hates it?), the listlessness (What will I do with myself now?), the exhaustion (How many months has it been since I slept?), the anxiety (What if no one wants to read it?), the feeling of loss and being lost and feeling purposeless after living, breathing, and sleeping the book for months and months, even though there was so much work stacked up and waiting.

This time around it’s easier. By this point– especially when you have such a fast turnaround time, as I did this past week– you’re pretty happy to see the manuscript go. You think: Thank God it’s on her desk and not mine! Thank God I don’t have to edit five more seconds right now. Thank God I have a break from it again!

Part of that is due to the fact that, creatively (mentally, emotionally, etc.), I’m ready for the next project. Part of it is due to the frenzied, frantic pace of meeting this deadline. And part of it is because, deep down, I feel it’s a good book. A really good book, and I feel good about sending it out into the world. Or, at least, to my editor again.

So now it’s time to go back to researching and outlining the fourth Velva Jean and, of course, to enjoy the fact that my mom is here from North Carolina and there is much merry-making (and gift wrapping and last-minute shopping and holiday partying) to be done. Bring on the Christmas cocktails!

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