Dick Francis, master of mysterious beginnings

First published on PenWarrions.comTwice Shy by Dick Francis

I told the boys to stay quiet while I went to fetch my gun. (Twice Shy)

When I read those first words of Twice Shy by  Dick Francis, my immediate thought was, “Now there’s a powerful opening hook!”  Then I put the thought aside and kept on reading, because first and foremost I love a good story. Time enough to analyze how Francis hooked me and try (hope) to bring that power to my own writing after I’d read the story. 

So began my study of beginnings. The opening hooks I loved most were the ones that not only promised, but also delivered an amazing read. Many of them were written by Dick Francis.

E. C. Sheedy introduced me to the idea of searching for the power words in writing that impresses me. Gun is definitely a powerful word, associated with violence and death. Paired with boys, which implies youth, it becomes even more dangerous and powerful. The command to stay quiet implies a threat, increasing the dangerous stakes.

In seventeen words, Dick Francis completely hooked me. When the next paragraph reveales that the first person narrator is a Physics teacher in a boys school, using the gun as a prop for a lesson on ballistics, I’m even more intrigued. I know the gun is going to be important – after all, this is a mystery. The narrator will be the detective character, and I’ll be staying up late to read this book.

Dick Francis didn’t disappoint me.

I intensely disliked my father’s fifth wife, but not to the point of murder. (Hot Money )

Hot Money begins with the above statement by jockey Ian Pembroke, whose mother was his father’s second wife. I love the way the author blends powerful words  like intensely, disliked and murder with details that skillfully reveal the murdered wife was preceded by four others, one of whom will be Ian’s mother. I anticipate family discord, and I expect Ian to be the innocent prime suspect.

Hot Money delivers on the promise of its opening sentence with a delightfully complex family arranged in factions around three ex-wives, an intriguing mystery, and the delight of discovering Ian’s complex relationship with the father who, when his own life is threatened, turns for help to his estranged son – the one person everyone else suspects of the murder.

Here are a few more great openings from Dick Francis novels:

Dying slowly of bone cancer, the old man, shrivelled now, sat as ever in his great armchair, tears of lonely pain sliding down crepuscular cheeks. (Wild Horses)

I had told the drivers never on any account to pick up a hitchhiker but of course one day they did, and by the time they reached my house he was dead. (Driving Force)

I don’t think my stepfather much minded dying. That he almost took me with him wasn’t really his fault. (To the Hilt)

StraightAnd then there’s Straight, which I believe is Dick Francis’ most brilliantly crafted novel:

I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me. ( Straight)

The violence implied by killed is preceded by a tantalizing blend of what seem to be small details (his desk, his gadgets) and the threat implied in inheriting his enemies and his mistress.

What elevates this book beyond the status of a truly great mystery is the way every one of those inherited items became meaningful: not only in solving a murder, but also in painting the evocative portrait of the uncompromisingly Straight man whose death preceded the story’s beginning.

Dick Francis was a master who continues to fascinate me. Every time I re-read one of his novels I hope to soak up some of the magic of his storytelling.

Dick Francis died on February 24, 2010, survived by two sons and a legacy of best-selling mysteries. The fascinating story of his life and its real-life mystery is revealed in family friend Graham Lord’s biography Dick Francis: A Racing Life, which I discovered (and bought) while writing this blog.

Workshop: Character Driven Plotting, Pacing to Maintain Tension

Writing RomanceThis Saturday I’ll be giving a day-long workshop for the Romance Writers of America’s Vancouver Island Chapter. If you’re in the Nanaimo area, come along and join us in an exploration of character-driven plotting, and pacing your novel to maintain story tension.

Workshop Details

When: November 2, 2013, 9:00 to 4:00 (registration from 9:00 to 9:30)
Where: Vancouver Island University, 900 Fifth Street, Building 255, Room 170, Nanaimo (Campus Parking Map)
Cost: $40.00 if registering after October 19th or at the door. Lunch, coffee, and tea is included.

Session 1—Character-Driven Plotting
In this workshop, Vanessa explores character-driven plotting, and the technique of using the hero and heroine’s personal territory to build a bridge between character and conflict. We all want the magic formula to work: characters + conflict = a great story. Sometimes, we need a little help, and adding a territorial imperative to the mix could be exactly what your story needs.

Session 2—Pacing to Maintain Tension
Pacing a book involves finding the balance between showing and telling, between emotional intensity and distance, between slow and fast. Vanessa makes this complex technical subject clear with graphic examples. Topics include time and the writer: story time, reader time, and writer time; the simple rule that covers it all; and how pacing relates to viewpoint and narrative style.

I’m looking forward to a great day with this group of enthusiastic writers!

Vanessa

Workshop Handout

Thinking About Love

Today is a special day for me. Think About Love is now available as a Kindle book on Amazon!

This one is special for a couple of reasons.

Think About Love was the first of my books to be reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly. My editor at Kensington sent me the review before I saw a copy of the printed book. I was thrilled that to be mentioned in Publisher’s Weekly, and pleased that I got a pretty decent review. I hoped to see good sales for this title, but unfortunately, hardly anyone got to see the book because the publisher discontinued the Zebra Bouquet line, and Think About Love was published in one of the final months. The publisher printed so few copies in the line’s final month, that I didn’t even get the copies I’d ordered directly from the publisher for friends and family. I generally refer to this book as, “the one they printed 10 copies of,” although I admit that’s a (slight) exaggeration :)

Now, thanks to the marvels of Indie publishing, Think About Love is available in my own Indie edition. And, because independent authors get to choose their own cover artists, I’m lucky enough to have the perfect cover, designed by my daughter, Angela Oltmann of AngieOCreations.com.

And this is a marker day for another reason – I’ve now published all of my backlist (with the exception of Pacific Disturbance, my very first book. That one needs a lot of work, and I may never get to it. Just reading the first page, it’s obvious to me that this was a writer learning her craft.)

My next project is a new book, the story of a counselor named Kate, who makes a decision that throws her into a counselor’s worst nightmare and sets her on a collision path with disaster. I’m in final revisions for Kate’s book, and one of my challenges is finding a title. I love it when titles come to me while I’m writing the first few chapters of a new story.  These early titles provide a focal point for my writing, and I escape the nagging frustration of trying to find the perfect title. I know almost everything about Kate, except the name of her story.  Somewhere around chapter 6, I came up with the title Lifelines, but it feels too tame for the storm Kate finds herself sailing into. 

In any case, I hope to release Kate (AKA ????) before Christmas this year.

Have a great day

Vanessa Grant

Think About Love – available at
Amazon.com
* Amazon UK * Amazon DE

 

New on All Romance eBooks

I’ve been busy this week getting some of my titles up on All Romance Ebooks, and I’ll be putting more up over the next few weeks. Visit All Romance eBooks and search for Vanessa Grant.

For great romances, and people who own – or have owned – more than one format of ereader, All Romance eBooks offers a wide selection of quality romances in a variety of formats – Mobipocket, ePub, Palm, iSolo, and Rocket.

My books on All Romance eBooks are all DRMfree. Whenever I have the option, I prefer to sell my books through channels that make it possible to offer them without DRM (digital rights management). I’ve had several eReaders over the last two decades, and I always look for books that are DRM free when I buy, because then I know that – thanks to Calibre – I’ll have no trouble converting my purchase to another format if I need to.

Have a great week!

Vanessa Grant


If You Loved Me

She needed his help to find her son – no matter what the cost!

Surgeon Emma Garrett had made sacrifices to follow her dream of becoming a doctor – and yet none was as painful as turning down Gray McKenzie. But not even the threat of losing her greatest love could stop Emma from fulfilling her dream of repairing the bodies of damaged children.

Now widowed with a thriving Seattle practice and an eighteen-year-old son, Emma is suddenly plunged into the wilderness when her son and his friend disappear on a kayaking trip. She desperately needs the help of an expert who knows the territory – and nobody knows the Pacific Ocean’s north coast wilderness like Gray McKenzie.

But when Emma arrives on Gray’s remote doorstep unannounced and determined that Gray will rescue her son, she soon realizes that reawakening her past may cost far more than she’d imagined.

Available from Amazon USA and Amazon UK

I’m thrilled to be able to announce that If You Loved Me is now available. The story of children’s surgeon Emma  and wilderness photographer Gray McKenzie is one of my favourite, and the first of four books I wrote for Kensington Books a few years ago.

 If You Loved Me is now available in Kindle edition. A sample chapter is also available at  Amazon USA and Amazon UK
The new print edition will be out in February.
Have a great day!
Vanessa

Writing + an effortless life = attainable goal??

This afternoon I followed an EC Sheedy tweet to Leo Babauta’s blog about an effortless life. I’m sceptical of effortless, but I could handle easier,  and when EC posts words of wisdom I generally check it out because she’s – well, wise.

I was entranced by Babauta’s blog, and impressed by the power of synchronicity. Last week I posted a blog entitled Necessary Lies, Steven Covey, and this writer here and on PenWarriors.com, discussing my recent productivity struggles, which mirrored a pattern described in Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. As I mentioned in the blog, I felt an immediate change in energy and productivity when I tried applying Covey’s  Habit 3: “First Things First”

After a productive week applying First-Things-First I’m looking around for wisdom on how to keep my new #1 task free of other members of the numbers tribe (2, 3, 4, 5 … to 3,458 of my should-do’s)

Enter EC Sheedy –> Leo Babauta

Babauta’s post announces that he’s about to publish a new book, The Effortless Life, but while I’m waiting for the book, he has a few tips.

The first tip is beautiful in its simplicity – Babauta describes it as counterintuitive: Do Less

Less = More? Maybe this is the new math that I missed being punished with – I was too early and my kids too late for that educational debacle.

Babauta explains: “I … believe in doing the important things. Do less, and you’ll force yourself to choose between what’s just busywork, and what really matters. Life then becomes effortless, as you accomplish big things while being less busy.”

My writer’s logic likes this a lot. I know that when I have a word limit on a story and I’m forced to write shorter, I usually feel the result is more powerful than the longer version. I get where Babauta is coming from. I don’t know if I’m going to act on his tip #1, but I’m certainly going to think about it.

If my mental (or, lately, written) to-do list has half a dozen urgent things on it – what if I cut that down to 2 and forbid myself from doing the others?

I get twitchy just thinking about it, but maybe “getting twitchy” is a signal that I should think about it. Or maybe, as Star Treck’s Bones once said about Spock, “(S)He’s not firing on all thrusters.”

Babauta’s seven tips are definitely worth reading. the author says his book should be out soon and I’ll be watching for it. I want to read more about Babauta’s Zen-ish take on productivity through simplicity.

I don’t have much practice with simplicity. When a new idea or project wanders across my path, I tend to behave like one of my miniature Australian Shepherds, sniffing after the shiny new thing and failing to resist the urge to herd it!

Necessary Lies, Steven Covey, and this writer…

This blog first appeared at PenWarriors.com

The novel I’m now working on – Truth to Tell (TTT) – has surpassed all my other books by having the longest gestation period on record. I conceived of the idea over two years ago when I wrote a couple of scenes, then stalled and put it aside to work on other priorities. Months later I picked the project up again and realized that I had a good character, but the story needed work.

I brainstormed TTT at a Red Door retreat with with the PenWarriors, and came up with a story that seemed fine–but I didn’t touch it again for months. When I did finally return to TTT, I realized my heroine needed a completely different story – and finally the story caught fire for me.

OK, now we’re cooking!

Part of the problem has been that in my other life as a university faculty member, I’d become involved in a long-term project that took most of my writing energy. A continuing stream of time-sensitive tasks had exhausted my creative energy.

On August 1st I started a 1-year research and program development sabbatical, which should mean that I have time for both R&D AND writing. My husband and I decided to take this chance to tour some parts of North America we’ve wanted to see, complete with my books and computer but away from my telephone so that I can focus on both the R&D and my writing.

It worked pretty well during August. I finished and published a new short story, The Broken Gate, and formulated a plan for the last few chapters of TTT. September I devoted to R&D tasks and getting started on our trip. October–

Hmm. October wasn’t looking so good last Friday when I tried to set some goals for the next week. They looked something like this:

  1. Read and critique a story for a writer friend
  2. Write four modules for the course under development
  3. Write this blog
  4. Get back to TTT

Once again, I realized, my writing had fallen to the back of the queue. When would I get time to finish TTT?

The horrifying thing was that back in mid-August when I was working on the book, I came up with a new title that was a much better fit – and I’d forgotten what it was!

I feared TTT would never get the attention it needed, but items 1, 2, and 3 were time-sensitive commitments that mattered. There was ALWAYS something urgent to get in the way.

Staring at the list I’d written, I could see that I’d fallen into the time management mess Steven Covey talked about in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, where long-term projects of importance get pushed to the back of the queue because they are not as urgent as more short term and often less important tasks.

The trouble was, back when I read 7 Habits, I didn’t have a time management problem, but I certainly do now! I get a lot done, but things that are very important to me get neglected – like TTT, the book whose new name I can’t remember

First things first, says Covey’s 3rd Habit. If I don’t put long-term-core-value things that reflect my purpose and values first, they’ll never get done.

The solution: turn the task upside down. So, last Friday I rewrote the list of this week’s goals:

  1. Every day, first spend half an hour on TTT. Use a timer.
  2. Read and critique the story
  3. Complete one module for the university program each day
  4. Write the blog for Monday

Almost magically, my task list became manageable.

When would I get TTT written? First thing every day.

I’m on day 4 now and I’m amazed – it’s working! I get up early and walk the dogs with my husband, then happily settle in to work on TTT (this is my time!) – which, my Scrivener file tells me, is now tentatively retitled Necessary Lies. I give myself an hour, because 30 minutes felt too rushed. Then I make a cup of coffee and start working on R&D – I’ve completed two modules in four days, slower than my goal, but I should be able to get the targeted 4 done this week.

I read and critiqued the story Friday evening – great story. I enjoyed it. Now here I am Monday doing the blog. I just realized I’m one day late on that, because this is Canadian Thanksgiving weekend and I got Sunday and Monday mixed up.

I’m in touch with my book, I’m getting other tasks done, and afternoons and evenings I still have time for some sightseeing and other odds and ends – like posting character name searches from my 60,000 name database to my Twitter feed. A habit doesn’t get formed in only four days, but I’m committed – and not to a mental institution!

First things first. This week the system works for me.

I’ve got my A-I-C (a-ah-butt in chair) and it’s fun. Necessary Lies is alive for me and I don’t feel guilty about the other stuff. I realize that my time management has been suffering from “first things last” for a long time. This feels like a miracle!

Vanessa

Check out the free sample of my short story, The Broken Gate
 from Amazon.com
This story will also be appearing in the upcoming PenWarriors anthology of short stories, It Happens at Midnight

Lawrence Block: lies, spiders, and more lies (book reviews)

Telling Lies for Fun & Profit: A Manual for Fiction WritersTelling Lies for Fun & Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers by Lawrence Block

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read Telling Lies for Fun and Profit in the early 1980s, a couple of years after I’d decided to put aside my attempts to write a publishable fiction novel for a while.

I knew I wasn’t done with writing and that I would give it another try sometime, but it wasn’t until I picked up Block’s book of essays about writing that I decided it was time to write again. In friendly conversational style, Block gave me glimpses into a writer’s world that seemed accessible and answered many of my questions before I’d even asked them. Can you name real places in a novel? What about using a pseudonym? With practical musings on a host of subjects, Block’s ramble through the territory of writing gave me an inside view that told me it was time to pick up my dream of being a novelist and dust it off. The result was my first published novel, Pacific Disturbance.

Thanks, Lawrence Block, for giving writers a hand!


 

Spider, Spin Me a Web: A Handbook for Fiction WritersSpider, Spin Me a Web: A Handbook for Fiction Writers by Lawrence Block

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A great book for writers and anyone thinking about being a writer! This book continues the collection of gems from Lawrence Block’s 10 years as a columnist for Writer’s Digest.

Block’s style is friendly and casual, often irreverent – and filled with gems for the creator. Definitely a keeper for the writer’s bookshelf, and a great read for anyone who is curious about writers and how they do (or don’t do) it. I read this book years ago, and often return to it.



Check out the last two books in the “Lies” series: “The Liar’s Companion” and “The Liar’s Bible”
View all my reviews

Yippee! … If You Loved Me

Yesterday I received the almost-ready-to-publish-as-an-ebook file of If You Loved Me, a novel of mine originally published by Zebra Bouquet (Kensington Books).  I love this story and I’m so pumped to know it will soon be available once again!

Originally I wrote it for Mills and Boon Harlequin, but my editor there wanted me to

  1. make the heroine younger (she was in her late thirties), and
  2. change the father of her son to someone else
The whole story was based on the premise that Emma’s son had gone kayaking in the wilderness with a friend, and was now missing. Changing Emma’s age would have made her either a child-mother, or a negligent one for letting her pre-adolescent son head into the wilderness without an adult. In addition, it was unlikely she would have achieved prominence as an orthopaedic surgeon at the ripe old age of twenty-something.
My editor was reasonable about Emma’s age because of the negligent mother issue, but wouldn’t budge on the identity of her son’s father. I decided not to change the identity of the father of Emma’s son, because that would change a crucial decision Emma had made in the past – and my plot would make no sense at all. So I withdrew the novel and went on to write several other books for Harlequin.
A few years later I learned that one of the Kensington editors was looking for 70,000 word stories for their new Bouquet imprint. I decided to submit  If You Loved Me. I would need to add an extra 10-15,000 words, but that would be a pleasure as I’d been challenged to fit it into M&B’s 55-60,000 word limit when I first wrote the novel. I sent off an email query and received a phone call from Kensington within a few days.  If You Loved Me became the first of four novels I wrote for Kensington, and I enjoyed the scope the extra length gave me.
I laughed when my new Kensington editor told me that one of the things she loved about the book was the boy’s parentage – the exact thing that had caused me to withdraw the book from M&B. Go figure!
Last year I applied to get the rights back to my four Kensington novels, and when I received the reversion documents I was thrilled because I could have all four novels available as eBooks for Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and iBooks before the end of 2011.
So here I am with the “e” equivalent of galleys, ready to start the final edit. Unlike the world of print books, I have the opportunity to make any changes I like before the book goes out to the world – and I get to work with my own cover artist on a design! Kensington does great cover art and I liked the covers of my four Bouquets, but being in on the creation with a cover designer like Angela is a real joy.
So while my husband and I continue east on our road trip across the North American continent, I’ll be enjoying a final read through If You Loved Me before it goes to e-press on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and iBooks!

A Hero by Any Other Name

(Also posted at PenWarriors.com)

If fictional characters had to pay real dollars for therapy, a few of mine would be bankrupt and suffering from multiple identity disorder.

Even I’m confused about the identity of the hero of my seventh published book. Andrew, Takeover Man‘s hero, stormed into town to reorganize his aging father’s life and ran into Maggie, a female harbormaster with an attitude. Maggie knew who she was from the instant she flashed onto my computer screen, but Andrew wasn’t so lucky. If I’d been writing this book in the days when authors slaved over typewriters and had to retype the manuscript with each draft, Andrew would have managed to hang onto his name—too much work to change it. But when I read through my final draft, I decided that the name Andrew just didn’t evoke the image of a takeover man. So my last act as his creator was a search-and-replace, wiping Andrew out of existence and substituting Michael.

Looking back now, I’m not sure Michael sounds any more take-charge than Andrew. It seemed important to me at the time and, who knows, maybe I was right … or wrong.

One way or another I’ve spent a lot of time naming my characters.

Like many writers I’ve collected a host of baby name books over the years. After years of trying to find the perfect name book, in the late 1990s my husband and I developed a computer names database, and a few years later, my son Cameron enhanced and expanded it into MuseNames. I keep adding new names as I find them and the MuseNames database has now grown to 60,000 names. I know it’s crazy to think I need 60,000 names, but I love exploring the names and their meanings as I create my characters. With all those names at my disposal, I could write forever and never repeat a hero or heroine’s name.

Well, not exactly.

When my twenty-third book was accepted for publication, the editor suggested I change the name of Strangers by Day’s hero from Allan to something more masculine. Perhaps Max, he suggested.

I’ve always been fond of short, simple masculine names. If I couldn’t have Allan, there was no reason Faith couldn’t fall in love with a man named Max—it was exactly the sort of name I might give one of my heroes. I did another search-and-replace and Allan became Max.

Oops! Max was the hero of my very first book, Pacific Disturbance.

Oh, well. The two men will probably never meet. Max #1 (Pacific Disturbance) is a West Coast software developer; Max #2 (Strangers by Day) is a cattle rancher in the interior of British Columbia. I should be safe, unless they both turn up in Vegas on the same weekend and their wives get to comparing heroes.

As for that MuseNames database, check it out! Over the weekend, my son Cameron and I finished putting the database and its search tool up on my website. Feel free to browse those 60,000 names with their origins and meanings here at http://vanessagrant.com/character-names-for-writers/.

Happy writing

Vanessa

Check out my eBoook On Johnny’s Terms – the author’s cut – another name change story.