Readers as conspirators. How to write a novel — part 10.

Wait. What? Readers are supposed to conspire with writers? What kinda rubbish is that?

BwahahahaThe clever kind. The sneaky kind. The think-ahead kind. It’s a strategy any writer can use to enlist the reader’s aid in creating settings that resonate in the only place that really counts–deep within the reader’s brain.

We are all products of our own experience. If someone mentions a “rustic cabin” but adds no additional description, we’re left to conjure an image based on our own familiarity (or lack thereof) with log dwellings. I’ve seen a variety of such places, from the sumptuous to the squalid. Readers need more than that, obviously, but good writers will resist the temptation to rely on visual imagery alone. We have to give them more, and the best way to do that is to tap into what they already know.

1024px-Brabson-ferry-cabin-sevier 800px-Southland_log_home_by_lake_at_dusk

The problem is, we don’t all have the exact same experience. We do, however, have roughly the same sensory powers. So, after specifying the general size and condition of our hypothetical cabin, we can switch to other forms of sensory input to complete the picture.

One of the quickest pathways to the brain is through the nose. It’s a short distance after all, and the effects of smell–whether encountered or recalled–can be dramatic. All we need to do is push the Replay button in our reader’s memory. The neat thing is, readers are eager to help us. Words like “musty,” “sour,” “rank,” or “aromatic” evoke memories that can be applied to other settings. But the power of recall can be greatly enhanced by specifics.Foot Odour Who doesn’t remember the odor of a kid’s clothing left to marinade under a bed or in a corner? How about the sudden, sharp essence of hot sauce, the drool-inducing fragrance of freshly baked cookies, or the vile stink of a backed up toilet?

Has the wallpaper sprouted mold or fungus? Have rodents left their mark on the sofa? Did something die in the chimney?

Couple any such smells with your cabin, and the reader will fill in the details. The window dressing, the furniture, the fireplace–all of it will become crystal clear in the reader’s head without you having to do anything else. You just set the stage and add enough sensory detail to enable the reader to finish the picture. Best of all, they won’t hold you responsible for discrepancies; they’ll assume the blame!

The other senses offer powerful inducements to this collaboration as well. Touch, especially, works well. Ask anyone who has experienced the feel of a cat’s tongue, or who has been outside in shirtsleeves on a winter night in snow country. Sounds, too, can do amazing work. Countless movies have used such ploys. Consider:

Little Maizie is feeling her way down the basement stairs in the dark. She reaches out, her hand lightly touching the wall in search of the switch. She finds it, and flicks the tiny lever, but nothing happens. eyeballsThe resulting click echos in the dark. Still, she must keep going. The danger behind her is worse than that ahead, or so she thinks. Each step brings the soft shuffle of slippers on bare wood.

Until a new sound grabs her. It’s a low sound, guttural and coarse. She strains to see something–anything–in the gloom. And then she hears it again.

Closer. And louder.

And all she can think of are the tales of the blue-skinned boojums her daddy used to tell. How they lived in the dark. How they ate little girls. How they growled, soft and low, just before they attacked.

Sensory words. Put ‘em to work!

Next up: Writing in chunks.




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Declare war on “was.” How to write a novel — part 9

Was shotLet’s be clear from the start; I don’t like the word “was.” It’s evil.

That said, I use it. Lord, do I ever. In fact, I probably use it too much. And the really sad thing is: I know better. I understand the power that one specific, stupid, little word has. Sadly, most writers don’t understand it, and I include a wide range of accomplishment when I say “most” writers. Somewhere during our education, whether public, private, or in-home, we should each have been warned about the consequences of using this word in prose, if nowhere else. But I’ll wager only a tiny fraction of the English speakers on Earth were lucky enough to get that lesson.

Why is it such a big deal? Simple. Think of the verb “was” as a type of cancer. It creeps into our writing quietly and unobtrusively. It nestles into sentences without the least bit of disturbance, and it occupies the space that ought to be dedicated to a real verb. When we look at it, or read it out loud, we just slide right over it as if it weren’t there.

The problem is: it is there! And in 9 out of 10 cases, the sentence could have been written better. Tossing “was” into a sentence relieves the writer of working at making the sentence more interesting. Let me show you what I mean with a few examples.

DPC_35339854_plus1- Mary was a beautiful girl who lived in the house next door. An okay sentence, I suppose, but quite ho-hum.

2- Mary, a beautiful girl, lived in the house next door. Marginally better, and we nuked “was,” but the sentence is still bland and doesn’t accomplish much.

3- I often caught sight of Mary, the beautiful girl next door. Still better, and we get a hint about the observer. But it needs a little more work to be “good.”

4- I saw my beautiful neighbor, Mary, seventeen times yesterday. Now we’re on the trail of an actual story!

Let’s try a couple more.

revolverA- The murder weapon was a .38 special, a cop’s gun–the same as Joe’s. He carried one for years. [Yawn] This is okay as far as it goes.

B- The murder weapon? A .38 special. Like Joe’s. His hand fit it like a glove. Better, but the glove cliche’ is… I dunno… meh.

C- The murder weapon? A .38 special. Joe instinctively wrapped his hand around his own. Not only did we lose the “was,” we added action.

So, how important is this “was” business? It’s as important as you wish to make it. Consider scanning something you’ve written, and highlight every instance of “was.” Then, go back and see if you can “write around” the word. Revise the sentence until it doesn’t need the damn thing. I’m willing to bet a week’s pay that the sentence without “was” is better. And 9 times out of 10, I’ll be right. Imagine having odds like that in Vegas!

What about the rest of the stative verbs (is, were–any form of “to be”)? It’s the same issue, just on a different scale. If you only tackle “was” you’ll solve 90% of the problem. Do the anti-was revisions often enough, and they’ll become automatic. For now, however, try using the word as a warning flare: Look Here, dammit! Here’s your chance to write something interesting. Someone once said a good writer can figure out how to put a surprise on every page. Why not start with the Was Warning Flares?

Pay attention to those them, then do something about ‘em, and your writing will improve. I absolutely guarantee it!

Next up: Readers as conspirators.



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Death to weasel words. How to write a novel — part 8

WeaselWhat the hell is a weasel word? And how could there be more than one? Sadly, there are almost too many to count, and like their cuddly little namesakes, weasel words appear soft, sweet and quite unremarkable. The problem is what lurks beneath their bland exterior: boredom!

Weasel words are like watermarks for timid writers. Using them indicates that a writer lacks confidence. Who’s going to argue with you for saying a girl is “rather” pretty, or that a guy is “sort of” handsome, you know, in a wimpy kind of maybe he is and maybe he ain’t way. Oy. Spare me! Spare your poor readers, too.

Readers don’t want to deal with approximations. If your bad guy has all the clinical appeal of a junk yard toilet, say so! If your heroine is thin and pale and in need of a transfusion, don’t tell us she’s “a bit” underweight, “perhaps” in need of a tan, and “probably” anemic. Bleah! Cut to the freakin’ chase already.

cut to the chaseThe biggest problem with using weasel words is that they’re comforting. They don’t say things so much as they “suggest” them. In other words, by using them, we surrender the strength and shock value of saying what we really mean. Consider these two descriptions:

1) Glenard is a goddam vampire, but instead of sucking out your lifeblood, he extracts all your energy and leaves you not only emotionally drained but faint, frazzled and woozy.

2) Glenard is the kind of guy who leans on the strengths of other people. He’s a bit needy, and he seems to approach his friends like some kind of supplicant, begging their attention, and when he gets it, tends to absorb it.

Are we even talking about the same guy? Understand, after reading selection 1, I seriously dislike Glenard, and I’ve never even met him. After reading selection 2, I’m getting pissed at the author. Is he really so shallow he can’t see Glenard for the bottom feeder he obviously is? DPC_19365074_plusWhich character would you prefer to encounter in a book–someone who might be a slime (#2), or someone you know has deep-seated issues and will probably screw up everyone and everything around him? (#1)

If you’re not sure, shame on you! Go back and read my rant on the need for “good” bad guys. It’s here.

Now, working from the vampire analogy suggested above, do you see how weasel words suck the life out of prose? They’re wishy-washy. They waste your time and, way more importantly, the reader’s. Why? Because they muddy the water. They shroud what should be clear in needless noise. Don’t believe me? Go back and read example 2 again. Then, compare it with this sanitized version:

Howard is the kind of guy who leans on the strengths of other people. He’s a bit needy, and he seems to approaches his friends like some kind of a supplicant, begging their attention, and when he gets it, tends to absorbs it.

If you use weasel words enough, you’ll wear your readers out, and they’ll dispose of your book (or your report, or your short story, or your obit) like an overloaded diaper. That’s because weasel words are shitty. They’re useless, boring, empty, time-wasting, energy-sucking, moronic, fatuous, blobs of anti-helpful ink–or pixels, or whatever represents the currently in vogue digital equivalent of a skid mark in ones literary BVDs.

Next up: The trouble with was is….


 Second weasel photo credit: <a href=””>Eric Kilby</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;
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But that’s NOT how it happened! How to Write a Novel — part 7

We’ve all heard the admonition that we should write what we know. And, sadly, some folks still think that’s good advice. Trust me when I say it ain’t. If it were, there wouldn’t be any science fiction, unless it’s okay to write about stuff you know isn’t possible–at least, not yet. The same goes for fantasy of all shades. What do we really know about dragons, elves, fairies and magic? Hogwarts would be considered hogwash, and that would be a terrible shame.

perfectly okay

That’s the reason folks call it FICTION.

So, forget that nonsense about “writing what you know.” Otherwise you’re bound to commit the worst possible writing crime: producing something boring.

In what amounts to a corollary to all this, some writers “fictionalize” events they’ve been closely associated with. Maybe it involves a relative, friend, business associate, former lover, whomever. The point is, many of these writers can’t divorce themselves from what actually happened. For them, the girl can’t just walk away, because her real life counterpart hung around, refusing to believe her abusive boyfriend wasn’t a saint. Or, maybe Aunt Bulimia didn’t die from an overdose of chocolate; maybe what did her in was the strychnine that good old Uncle Lester added to her panda poop tea. Whatever. The point is–and I absolutely refuse to sugar coat this–no one gives a damn. Truth has to make senseIf the fictional version reads better than “the truth,” then screw the truth and go with what you’ve made up. After all, it’s supposed to be fiction, right?

Let’s take a look at the flip side of this coin. When folks say “truth is stranger than fiction,” they’re basing the conclusion on reality. Just because something really happened, doesn’t mean anyone would believe a fictionalized version of it. Writers must use common sense, even if it means forcing themselves to do so. (Yes, I know. It’s awful what we must do for our art.) But, consider the sidebar item below, reprinted from the March 22, 2007, Houston Chronicle. Can you imagine anyone buying into this criminally stupid criminal if they read it in your book?

Marco PoloComplicating this issue a bit more, let’s consider the role of history in fiction. I’ve always felt it critically important to present a factual version of historical events, unless my goal is to generate an expressly stated alternative. Getting historical details wrong is a gigantic no-no, except when your whole story depends on it.

For instance, if the core element of your Civil War fantasy is a claim that Union General Ulysses S. Grant actually arranged the assassination of President Lincoln, you can get away with it, and no one will suspect you of an unauthorized release from a psych ward. BUT, if you toss such an absurdity into an otherwise historically accurate portrayal of events, you’ll be lucky to retain even those readers to whom you’re related. (But they’ll forever after look at you funny.)

It’s all about judgment. The “rules,” such as they are, tend to be rubbery. They bend and stretch like a politician’s rendition of “the facts,” which we can almost always count on to be as dead-on accurate as a prediction in a fortune cookie.

Good stories may stretch credibility provided they’re told skillfully enough. The aim of this series of posts is to help you figure out how to do that. Using good judgment is a skill like any other; the more you practice it, the easier and better it becomes.

Next up: Declare war on weasel words.



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Why you need “good” bad guys. How to write a novel — part 6

VillainsIf you don’t take your bad guys seriously, how can you expect your readers to feel any differently? We’re talking about villains here, and for most adult fiction, twhanniballectero dimensional bad guys likSnidelye Snidely Whiplash rate no better than what they are: cartoons. Real villains ought to be capable of inducing nightmares.

In comedic films, a bungling bad guy might be worth a laugh or two. The film “Home Alone” demonstrated how two complete idiots could provide slapstick humor for about 60 seconds of a 90-minute feature. Try that in an adult novel, and your readers will dispose of your work like bad sushi. Worse, they’ll remember your name, and when it shows up again, they’ll treat you like a hitchhiker with a chainsaw. How’s that for irony? What you took all too lightly, they’ll take quite seriously.

captain_hookSo, no paper tigers. If you’re going to put a villain in your book, make sure he’s worthy of the designation. Allow him to do despicable things. You have to be mindful of your target audience, obviously. Darth Vader didn’t run around cutting the heads of puppies, but no one ever doubted he’d be capable of it. For the most part, the bad things he did were visited upon his subordinates. Sure, he loped off Luke Skywalker’s hand, but he cauterized the wound, and Luke was fitted with a prosthesis anyone would be proud to have. Contrast that with what Peter Pan did to Captain Hook. Who’s the bad guy now?

Sorry. ‘Nuther cartoon reference. But at least Hook isn’t two-dimensional. He’s a “real” bad guy. Seriously, if a villain makes little kids walk the plank, how can he not automatically qualify as nasty? C’mon! Geez.

Assuming you’re working on a novel rather than a cartoon, you’re probably going to need to spend some time figuring out why your bad guy is so rotten. Was he born that way? It’s possible, but unlikely. Without getting into the whole environment vs evolution issue, writers will do themselves–and their readers–a valuable service by investing enough time in their characters to understand the driving forces behind them. This absolutely includes bad guys.

some-victims-deserve-itNowadays, looking at the news, we can’t help but laugh at the idiots who rob stores while wearing uniforms with name tags. “Hi! I’m Jerry, and I’m here to steal your stuff.” Siren. Blue lights. Click of handcuffs. Clang of cell door. Crack of gavel. “See ya in ten years, Jerry baby.” If you put that crap in your novel–as anything other than a humorous aside–you’re begging your readers to quit reading. They don’t have to invest time or money to hear about idiots. The world provides a never-ending parade of morons who can’t think through a crime any further than “Gimme the cash!”

Then they run off down the street with the blinky lights on their Wal-Mart sneakers marking their passage. “Yo! Follow me to my secret hide out!”

I dunno, officer. Distinguishing marks? Like... where? On his face?

I dunno, officer. Distinguishing marks? Like… where? On his face?


Please, don’t let your bad guys be stupid. They don’t have to be evil geniuses, but they ought to have enough smarts to intrigue a reader. Let them figure out how to avoid the easy mistakes, at least.

And give them something to make them different. Stereotypical bad guys are as tedious as it gets. We’ve all seen ‘em: the doughnut-munching cop who takes payoffs, pimps (who, no matter what, are all the same), spoiled rich kids (male or female, doesn’t matter), dirty politicians, etc. We expect certain behaviors from these characters, and any significant deviation makes us instantly suspicious. Why not use that suspicion to our advantage? Maybe the stereotype is merely a cover for something that’s worse?

chicks and chainsaws‘Course, then there are the stereotypical differences: terrorist, serial killer, demonic possession. There are many others, so picking the one thing that differentiates your bad guy from all the rest won’t be easy, but it’ll be worth it. You’ll have to devote some serious thought to how your beauty pageant winner turned to chainsaw mayhem or how your Sunday School Teacher of the Year somehow turned into a kidnapper and a cannibal. But just think how much fun writing those stories will be!

Next up: Hey–that’s not what really happened.


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Help! My characters suck. How to write a novel — part 5

empty headIt happens sometimes. A character you think has potential turns out to be a white bread bore. And as we all know, boring is bad. You might be able to write flawless prose; your descriptions might be crisp and insightful; your plot might be completely unique, but if the characters driving it are ho hum, their sleep-inducing presence will contaminate all the lovely bits and turn your masterpiece into a litter box. One that desperately needs changing.

So, how does one turn bland into dandy? Start by recognizing the most basic truth: doing something is always more interesting than doing nothing. If your characters are boring, it’s probably due to a lack of action. This harkenSONY DSCs back to Part One wherein we explained that characters must have a motive; they must do something because of it, and no matter what they do, there will be consequences.

Motives aren’t that hard to create. Ohio State Professor Steven Reiss has proposed a theory that nearly all human behavior is guided by 16 basic desires. If interested, you can read more about it here. For novel writers, we can get by on more general terms: All characters have needs, wants and desires. If they don’t, they’re department store dummies — manikins.

ObsessionThe trick is to make those needs, wants and desires interesting. One method is to push tepid motivations to extremes. Instead of being hungry, poor Dolly is starved. Instead of being sad and lonely, Fred is isolated and bitter. Instead of being disappointed, Penelope is outraged. Almost anything can be made extreme, and extremes lead inevitably to action. Characters may be obsessed without being insane.

alfalfaJoe sees Molly. She’s everything he ever imagined in a girl. Is he content to daydream about her, or does he try to develop a relationship? If Joe finds the courage to approach her, how does she react? Does she laugh at him? Ignore him? Go all goofy? How does Joe handle it? Does he become a wall flower or does he morph into a mouth-breathing stalker complete with a Molly memorabilia shrine? Hey, you’re the writer. Figure it out.

But wait! What if Molly isn’t really special? What if her self esteem is so low, she can’t tell that she’s attractive? How might that drive her? yoga poseDoes she curl up on the sofa and eat gallon after gallon of Rocky Road ice cream while bemoaning her situation, or does she join the gym, get a makeover, and work out until she can be a model for yoga pants? What if her desire to look good becomes an obsession? How does she fund it? How does she explain it? Where does it take her?

What are superheroes if not regular folk taken to a ridiculous extreme? And yet, comic book heroes are hugely popular. This is not to suggest that you give your characters super powers, but you should give them something. AlfalfaGive them a focus, a reason for changing the status quo. Most books have an inciting event, some sort of trigger which starts the plot-ball rolling. It doesn’t have to be an earthquake or a sneak attack by aliens from the seventh planet. It could simply be Joe waking up one morning and deciding he’s tired of being a wallflower. Conversely, he could swear off stalking, tear down his Molly shrine, and cart it all to a landfill (where he’s sure to be spotted by someone who knows Molly and can make Joe’s life miserable by ratting him out).

Action begets more action. Complication stimulates creativity. Manikins don’t do much other than look good in a certain light. But they’re always going to be just dummies. Your readers deserve better.

Next up: “dumb ass” characters (and why they should be avoided).



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Who are these people? How to write a novel — part 4

CharactersIt’s not just a question of who they are, it’s also about where they came from. And just who am I talking about? The players in your book. They come in all flavors and sizes, but there’s a general breakdown to which I’m quite partial. I think of ‘em as the Three Vs: Villains, Victims, and Vigilantes. I’ve covered the topic before in some detail. You can start reading here if you like, or just follow along now, and I’ll eventually hit the high points.

For now, let’s concentrate on the basics….

Probably the biggest misconception beginning writers have about characters is that nobody really cares what they look like. Unless one particular physical toon guyattribute toon galexists which makes a given character extraordinary, there’s little to be gained by writing detailed descriptions of hair and eye color, height, build, sleeve length, shoe size or any of the rest. What makes a character good or bad isn’t how they look; what matters is how they act.

This doesn’t mean one can’t have character diversity. I’m in the midst of writing a series of novels about a two-foot tall Indian named Mato. In the current volume, which is approaching a final edit, my very short hero shares page space with a pair of extremely large “normal” folks in addition to the regular ensemble cast. But other than Mato, they’re all people you might bump into at the Piggly Wiggly, or your local hardware store. (Full disclosure: I populate my dark fiction with characters I’ve seen in Wal-Mart.)

mirrorThere’s a reason I rarely offer more than a few words about the way my characters look: readers see themselves in the roles of characters they like.

A good writer will make such self-casting easier by not dictating too many details. If your hero is a ruggedly handsome male, and/or your heroine is an unusually attractive female, you’ve probably provided all the essentials a reader needs to role play. My aim is to help every reader gaze through a pair of rose-colored glasses and “see” themselves acting out the juiciest bits in all their vicarious splendor.

If, however, a writer continually harps on Dudley’s chiseled jaw and massive biceps, or darling Nell’s petite waistline and enormous, cerulean blue blinkers, readers will have a harder time fitting themselves into those roles. And I mean that in the most literal sense.

How then, does one develop good characters? One way is to begin with a character stereotype and then fashion traits and idiosyncrasies that make them unique. clonemaidensWhen you look at your cast, try to vary the mannerisms and voice of each player. They shouldn’t all look, act and sound the same, unless you’re writing about robots. And even then, one of ‘em ought to be different. Otherwise, where’s the story?

The key to making characters interesting is to make them “human.” And while it sounds odd, this dictum applies to aliens and animals, too. In other words, give your characters both admirable qualities and flaws. It’ll take a little time, but it’s worth it.

You want examples? No problem. Make your villain dependent on a particular kind of Girl Scout cookie, or hook your vigilante on a TV game show. cookie thiefLet these predilections impact a scene or two pushing the character to one side or the other of the Try/Fail divide. The nuttier the flaw the better, I think. Because those things are likely to give your character verisimilitude – the touch, taste and feel of reality. Imagine a player who can’t pass up his or her own reflection without stopping to admire it.

Something to consider before launching into a character who is over the top strange: they work best as minor characters, the kind often referred to as “spear carriers” (from the old sand and sandal epics in which a brawny warrior type always accompanies the hero or heroine. These brutes rarely speak or do much except pose and/or die on cue).

unemployedextreme_bodybuilderWait. What’s “over the top?” I’d say any character driven by extremes that defy common sense — like someone who revels in his (or her) body piercings, or muscles, or I dunno — anything! If you need examples, do a quick search on extreme [fill in the blank].

Next up: Help! All my characters suck.



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