Writing for One in a Million

8 July 2013

Kip Langello wrote 9 novels and sent them out diligently to various agents and publishers. All were rejected. He even received contradictory feedback from industry gatekeepers, one person telling him that his plot was great but his characters were weak, another telling him — about the same story — that his characters were great but his plot was weak.

But then, a breakthrough: his 10th manuscript was accepted and published. Not only that, but he received a six-figure advance, a two-book contract, and a TV movie option. And has published 4 books since.

What made the difference?

“Before writing No. 10,” Langello writes in the September 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest, “I asked myself who was going to read my book. I visualized one person …. The same way I create characters when I write, I created a reader — my ideal reader … And I gave her a name: Peggy.”

“Peggy forced me to use a consistent voice and style, to be consistent and focused and true to a single reader, representative of a larger niche readership. And so my novel read that way — consistent, focused, true.”

In writing The Mystery of the Jade Avenger, my “Peggy” is named Seth. Seth is almost 9 years old and is certifiably Gifted & Talented. And he’s a real person — my nephew — which makes it a lot easier for a beginning novelist like myself to figure out how to write to a young audience, since I can simply ask him questions and be showered with his many thoughts on any subject. By writing for him (and often with him since he is generous about sharing his many ideas!), I can focus on entertaining him, focusing on what interests him, frightens him, and engages him.

I love this technique because it really does help keep the focus on that one person in a million that you are writing for.

My Partner in Crime

8 July 2013

My 9-yr-old nephew Seth and I have talked for hours about the Mystery of the Jade Avenger. He’s provided invaluable insight for me into a young boy’s mind and likes/dislikes but has also sidelined all my main characters in favor of his own! Not sure who will get the last word on that one.

Initially, I wanted to write the Mystery of the Jade Avenger as a surprise for him. But this collaboration is working out much better. He has come up with a ton of ideas. One thing that was a pleasant surprise was that two of his great plot ideas, I’d already thought of! Which was good for the old ego. At least it confirmed what I thought a young boy might like in a novel.

One thing I found interesting and insightful was that he basically pushed all my adult characters out of the way (most of my characters were adults and I hadn’t even realized it) and replaced them with children characters. My two heroes used to be Richard (11) and his sidekick Antonia (7) but Seth basically buried Richard in a gang of boys who are friends and who form the “good guys” and poor Antonia has been totally sidelined. Well, actually, he eventually condescended to give her two other girl friends who are also 7, and whose names all start with an A.

We spent 3 straight hours today discussing plot and characters. When I was talking, he often interrupted with “Can I ask a question?” or “I have an idea!” He is very enthusiastic, has an abundance of ideas, is really great at figuring out plot possibilities and reasons behind people’s actions. I could go on. He’s going to be a very talented writer if ever he decides to get serious about writing a novel. He gave me lots of great ideas, and also invaluable insight into a little boy’s mind.

Last night, he asked me very hesitantly and with great embarrassment if I was going to put in more female characters. He thinks I should. When I guessed that it was so there could be some crushes on the part of the boys and girls, I expressed surprise, saying I didn’t think boys his age liked that kind of thing, he said that they do. And lots of violence!

The Jade Avenger Journal

8 July 2013

The Journey Begins

Over the next two weeks, I have the unique opportunity of being able to focus exclusively on my “fun” writing. Although I’ll still need to do some of the writing/editing that pays the bills, I’ll be able to concentrate on writing for pleasure during the bulk of the day. What a dream come true! My number one focus is the children’s detective fiction story The Mystery of the Jade Avenger.

I’ve pulled out some of my Agatha Christie novels to analyze her writing style. I haven’t wanted to do this much previously because I feared it would spoil the enjoyment I have in simply reading her books for pleasure. But she really is the author I most look up to and whose style I would most love to emulate. I looked up several things about her and her writing style. One website provided detailed information concerning each of her dedications and who they were intended for, which provides great insight into the author’s mind and heart.

There are a couple of books out there that detail Agatha Christie’s writing style. My library doesn’t have them, but I would certainly love to get my hands on them – especially the one that deals with her “secret” journals, the notebooks in which she kept all her plot and character information. What a read that would be!

At this point I’m simply writing down in the manuscript any ideas related to plot, characters, dialogue or setting that come into my mind. It’s like putting a puzzle together really: I do the “edges” first by creating a basic outline, then fill in a little patch here and there as inspiration leads, each part of the puzzle making the overall picture a little clearer.

At some point in the future I’ll have to sort out the scenes and put them in proper order, and choose what to keep and what to delete. I have a lot of plot possibilities and will have to choose which way to go at each crossroads. I’ll have to smooth out dialogue, etc. But I am more optimistic than ever that it will all work itself out and someday I will actually have a finished manuscript!

From Fact to Fiction: The Mystery of the Jade Avenger

6 July 2013

I’m taking a break from “serious writing” to focus on a new project: a children’s detective story called The Mystery of the Jade Avenger. The story takes place at fictitious Keeblewhite College in Oxford, England and revolves around an ancient Chinese sword that goes missing and two young detectives — Richard Reynolds and Antonia “Toni” Giordano — who try to discover who stole the sword and why.

Writing about Oxford is helping to take the edge off my England withdrawals, having spent the last six summers in Oxford as coordinator of a study abroad program. I’m finding that writing about a place that has become familiar to you enables you to see it in a very different light. I’m having so much fun with this!

Though the process of writing this book has been unexpectedly therapeutic, I am actually writing this book for an audience of one: my 9-year-old nephew Seth. He loves the Hardy Boys and I’m a lifelong Agatha Christie fan, so the book will have elements strongly influenced by both, I’m sure.

As mentioned, the setting is Oxford, England. The story takes place in modern times, though since it is Oxford, where things seem to change more slowly and some things never change, it might as well be the 1940s or 50s. The action takes place primarily on the site of Keeblewhite College, a college founded in the late 18th century. Other settings are the Ashmolean Museum, which is England’s oldest museum, as well as various “flats,” manors and cottages in the Oxfordshire countryside, and the Covered Market, one of my favorite places to go in Oxford because of the hustle and bustle and all the interesting sights and smells.

My goal is to introduce Oxford, one of my favorites city in the world, to a young audience. Oxford has its own vocabulary, quaint rituals, mysterious customs, and lovely old buildings — all of which I am looking forward to exploiting and exploring in my book. Below is the plot synopsis.

The Plot

The Jade Avenger, an ancient Chinese sword, goes missing on the opening night of an exhibition in its honor. The sword was on loan for a year to Oxford’s Keeblewhite College from a famous British museum, in an attempt to bring publicity — and therefore revenue — to the struggling college.

Upon the sword’s disappearance, suspicion immediately falls on the competent but ruthless museum curator, Dame Phillipa Scott, and the stuffy and unpopular college principal, Christopher Cummings-Price. The curator and the principal are the ones who seem to have the most to gain out of the sword’s disappearance: the museum and its curator will benefit from the theft in terms of collecting insurance money, while the principal will gain free publicity for his school — and as the saying goes, all publicity is good publicity.

But amateur detective Richard Reynolds and his sidekick Antonia “Toni” Giordana soon find the case is not as clear-cut as it initially appears. In the course of their adventures, they will track down a notorious gang, encounter a fierce Chinese martial artist intent on getting the sword back to its rightful owners (an ancient line of brave Chinese warriors), experience a kidnapping, endure a series of attempts on their lives, and unscramble a secret code before finally discovering the astonishing truth behind who stole the sword.

Best Opening Lines in Literature

7 April 2013

“You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?”

Though you may be told not to judge a book by its cover, you can certainly learn a lot from its opening line. The line above, uttered by an exasperated Raymond Boynton in Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death, is my favorite opening phrase in literature. Here are other outstanding first lines from classic works — See which ones would inspire you to keep reading.


“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice


“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina


“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

George Orwell, 1984


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”

Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.”

Paul Auster, City of Glass


“Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.”

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote


“All this happened, more or less.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five


“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God


“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader


“The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.”

G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill


“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle


“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley.”

Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca


“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

Genesis 1:1, The Bible (King James Version)

And, of course, that classic line …


“It was a dark and stormy night …” Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

Tackling Crime & Punishment

16 March 2012

Woohoo! I just love the hour or two first thing in the morning when I get to work on PrayerWalk London. It feels like such a luxury to spend time on something that’s so exciting to me and that I’m so passionate about. I could spend the whole day on it but I usually have to transition to other things like the writing and consulting work that actually pays the bills! 🙂

I’m thankful for bills, though. Sometimes they act as a great motivating factor. I’d be a lot less productive were it not for that added incentive!

So, back to prayerwalking. I’ve set aside 52 days – until April 25 – to make the PrayerWalk London manuscript an absolute priority. If I don’t do that, then too many other “important” things take precedent and PWL gets shoved back farther and farther on the agenda, kind of like those thank you notes I’ve been meaning to write since February.

The chapter I’m currently working on is CRIME & PUNISHMENT. It’s the third chapter in the book and follows CHURCH & STATE and CROWN & GLORY. It tackles the “underworld” of London and takes the reader through the parts of the city related to crime, law and justice:

  • The Tower of London that dates back to the 11th century and has been a royal palace, a prison and a place of execution. It’s also where the Crown Jewels are displayed.
  • The Central Criminal Court nicknamed “Old Bailey” where infamous criminals like Jack the Ripper were tried and held.
  • The site of the former Newgate Prison, written about by Charles Dickens and other writers, and another site of public execution.
  • St. Paul’s Cathedral – to throw in an element of God’s justice versus man’s, along with the aspect of forgiveness and redemption.

London's busy business district

Did You Know? London is divided into two “cities”: the City of Westminster and the City of London.

The first two walks in the book take place within the City of Westminster where you’ll find Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, the West End and many other popular places to visit. The City of London is the main financial and business district and can be easily spotted by its glittering skyscrapers and modern buildings. CRIME & PUNISHMENT takes the reader through the heart of the City of London.

The Royal Exchange or "REX"

Take a Break. As you walk from the Tower of London to St. Paul’s Cathedral, take some time to pause at the little park in front of the Royal Exchange, where business has been transacted since the Middle Ages and that they’ve now turned into a commercial establishment selling luxury goods. You’ll see to your left the famous Bank of England, looking like a fortress surrounded by a high windowless wall. Behind you is Mansion House, the residence and office of the Lord Mayor of the City of London.

Okay, so much for the sneak peak. Gotta get back to writing the chapter!

Quote of the Day

31 October 2011

“Writing is my way of slowing time down. How could that be? you might ask. It uses more time. Yes, but no. Writing, it turns out, is the best way I know to capture it.”

— Carol Rizzoli, author