Don’t need no stinkin’ genre! How to write a novel — part 3

What ifWe left off last time with a “what if” after sketching a quick look at a couple primary characters in a contemporary, non-fantasy setting. (Okay, the lingerie model issue may have been a bit of fantasy.) Point is, one of the MANY things I didn’t discuss is genre. What if you don’t care to write a contemporary action adventure story? Maybe your preferred field is science fiction, or romance, or mystery, or high fantasy, or any of the umpty dozen other varieties of fiction (except minimalist {cringe} we don’t talk about that kinda writing around here).

Could Al and Zenobia be manipulated enough to fit some of those other molds? Probably. And without a great deal of difficulty. Let’s try it:

SF — Start by making one of the primary characters an alien. I’m including the dog in that group. (Robert Heinlein, one of my favorite authors, did a great YA novel about a kid who adopted an alien critter as a pet.)genres

Western — The dog is tied up outside a neighboring trailer among wranglers on a rodeo circuit, or a neighboring wagon on the Oregon Trail, or a double-wide outside Tumbleweed, Texas.

Romance — Wait. Al’s already fallen for Zenobia. Now we just have to make them pine for each other despite muddied motives and encounters with false loves. Or is that Historical fiction? Sometimes I get confused.

Mystery — Someone poisoned the dog. But who did it and why? What other crime might they be covering up?

High fantasy — Zenobia’s agent is an evil wizard, and Al is a down-on-his-luck knight who still can’t sleep.

Military/Spy/Thriller — The dog belongs to the ambassador of a European ally, and he’s wearing an explosive collar.

My point is that no matter where you intend to peddle your masterpiece, building it requires that you start somewhere. You can tailor the details as needed to fit a genre with which you’re comfortable. For me, contemporary action adventure is where it’s at, but our discussion should apply equally well to any form of popular fiction.Conflict

What we’re talking about boils down to two closely related essentials: Conflict and Complication. Good novels have it, bad novels don’t.

[Full disclosure: I'm a genre fiction snob; I admit it. Reading about teen angst, probing the unconscious for signs of self-worth, contemplating the power of introspection or fostering a deep seated need to feel guilty are pursuits--God willing--you'll never find in my work.]

If there’s no conflict, there’s no story; adding complication is the easiest way to provide conflict.

So, it’s not enough for Al to simply be in love, nor is it enough for Zenobia to be in jeopardy. Those two things might serve nicely to get the ball rolling, but once it’s moving, you’ve got to provide some bumps in the road, or maybe a massive sinkhole or a washed out bridge, or– Get the idea? Make trouble for your players. It doesn’t matter if the problems are big or small, but keep ‘em coming.

If you choose to tell Al’s story from Al’s point of view, and Zenobia’s story from Zenobia’s point of view, you can switch back and forth whenever things become perilous.fawn Al races to the auto show, but the road is slick from a recent rain, and his brakes aren’t all that great anyway, so when a fawn trundles out of the woods in front of him he tries to stop but only manages to spin wildly in the road. Suddenly, a gigantic oak tree appears from nowhere.

[Blink -- Time to get into Zenobia's head]


mobstaZenobia’s agent, Slim Bagadirt, introduces her to a high-ranking partner in a local waste management business who has a proposition for her. He pats his knee, a la Santa Claus, and offers her a seat. After all, he looks sorta like her uncle Bert. She settles in and listens. All she has to do is–

[Blink -- Back to Al]

blue-truck-accidentThe car hits the tree instead of Bambi. Fortunately, the collision takes out the back half of the vehicle rather than either half of Al. He stumbles away from the wreck, shaken but alive. Still woozy, he steps into the road hoping to thumb a ride when he hears the unmistakeable blare of an 18-wheeler’s air horn. He turns and–

[Blink -- Zenobia]

slapOutraged by the mobster’s proposal, Zenobia leaps up from his lap, slaps him in the face, and bolts toward the exit. There she encounters a man roughly the size of a California redwood who grabs her and escorts her to a waiting van. She protests, but–

[Blink -- Etc.]

I like to have several point of view characters available. This allows me more leeway in thinking up nasty problems for my characters. I’ve found it very helpful to maintain a simple spreadsheet listing the scenes in order by point of view character. In addition I include a line of text to describe the action. It’s also a handy place to make notes about character names, personal details, and anything else I’m likely to forget.

Next up: a little bit about character.


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Putting meat on the bones. How to write a novel — part 2

penguinMotive, action, consequence. Is that all there is? Well, actually, no. But it’s a start.

Watch carefully now. And see? There’s nothing up my sleeves….

Okay, let’s say you’ve got a character in mind. Let’s call him Al. Fair ’nuff? This is just for practice, so you can change name, sex, race, religion, hair color, number of teeth–whatever–later.

So, what drives old Al? What’s his passion in life? What is it that keeps him awake nights? Just for the hell of it, let’s say his goal in life is to sleep well at night. Seems reasonable. (Make a note to come back to that at the very end of whatever tale we manage to create.)

Now, what’s standing in the way? A neighbor’s dog? A nearby airport? World hunger? We need to pick something and roll with it. For now, just play along with me, okay? Let’s say it’s the neighbor’s dog, because, well, why not? Besides, I love dogs.

Okay, Al can’t sleep because of the neighbor’s mutt. Not very sexy, is it? Let’s spice it up a tad. We’ll make Al’s real name Algonquin. He hates it, of course, and the only thing keeping him from making a legal name change is a shortage of cash. He’d rather spend what little he earns–from his job as a junk sorter in a recycling plant–on life’s essentials, plus a lottery ticket or two. Nah, make that three. Apparently, Al is also short on self-discipline.

And his neighbor, Zenobia, a part-time lingerie model and occassional car show hostess, mean dogcan’t seem to remember to feed her 105-lb. Rotweiler, “Precious.” Either that, or she’s off working, and there’s no one left at home to take care of it.

Al considers various remedies for getting the dog to shut up. These might include shooting, drugging, kidnapping, or possibly just taping the critter’s jaws together. They do it to alligators on TV all the time, so why not?

Think for a moment, however. Each of those four options provides an opportunity for action–Al can try to do something to solve his problem. In a bad story, the first thing he attempts will work. But we don’t want to write a bad story. I don’t, anyway! And, since I’m driving this thing, I’m going to insist on Al attempting, or at least seriously considering, three of these four options.

Wile E Coyote 2Further, for each attempt, good ol’ Al must fall short of his goal. Maybe he can’t find a gun, or if he does, he lives in an area where discharging a firearm without due cause is against the law, and the guy living on the other side of Zenobia’s house is a cop or a district attorney (who must be hard of hearing).

Drugging seems an easy task, but stealing pills from someone who needs them is beneath Al, and he doesn’t have a prescription for anything suitable. He could scrounge around on the seedy side of town, hoping to score something, but he’s clearly not “cool” enough to get away with it. Any self-respecting drug dealer would find him suspicious in the extreme. So, nope, that won’t work either.

Kidnapping? A 105-pound Rotweiler? That barks–a lot? Right. Forget kidnapping dear Precious. And if kidnapping is out of the question, taping the monster’s jaws together isn’t much of an option either, assuming Al would prefer to keep his appendages intact.

Well, just damn! What’ll we do now?

We’ll just make Al walk next door to confront Zenobia. When he does, however, he falls under her spell–those amazingly amber, soul-eating eyes of hers put him completely off his game. man-in-love1He stutters and coughs and dissembles and never quite gets around to asking her to keep her dadgum dog in the house at night. Instead, he falls in love.

Which is when Zenobia’s phone rings. From the half of the conversation he can hear, Al deduces that his heartthrob’s agent is on the line, and he wants her to report for work at an underworld car show, only instead of wearing her usual car show costume–a short skirt and tight top–he wants her in what she wears for her modeling gigs: racy underwear.

embarrassed-womans-legsZenobia says she’s not that kinda gal, and she has no desire to associate with the mob types who will be attending the show. Her agent gives her an ultimatum and hangs up.

And suddenly, we have a story in the making. Will it become a novel? Could be. That all depends on where we decide to take it.

But wait! What if we’ve got this all wrong, not only about the pooch, but about the sweet young thing next door, too?

What if–  Spoing!  [Sound of Josh hitting self-declared word limit.]

More, soon; I promise.


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How to write a novel — part 1

Since I’ve finished ten novels, I have a pretty clear idea how it’s done. And, with the exception of my first effort, which now resides in a landfill somewhere, I fully believe the books I’ve written are worth reading.boring Those with an historical element might even be instructive, though that’s never been my raison d’être.

My primary goal has always been to entertain.

If what I write doesn’t hold a reader’s interest, what’s the point? “Watch me pile up facts” is no way to win hearts and influence minds. And I’ve gotta do both. I want every reader to tell someone else how much they like my work. This will generate more readers, more endorsements, and at some point, better living conditions. (Full disclosure: I want a cozy little retirement castle on a white sand beach that I can pay for with royalties.)chateau-mandelieuOkay, I’m not that big an optimist, but it’d be nice to have a place that won’t wash away when the tide comes in. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

So, how does one write something entertaining? If you’re a human being with a modest understanding of logic and a fundamental grasp of the language, you have the skills to do it. (You’ll also need the ability to keep working until it’s done, but that’s a subject for another post.) cant-keep-a-SecretHere’s the secret:

Step 1:  Create a character with a strong motive; make them do something about it, and then hit them with the consequences of their action.

Step 2: Create a second character with a conflicting motive; make them do something about it, and then hit them with the consequences of their action.

On examination, these two items are nearly identical. The biggest difference is the word “conflicting” in step two. That difference is crucial, as are the requirements for motive, action, and consequences.

spy-vs-spy1Think about your favorite stories. In most cases there’s a character you like, and another one you don’t. Peter Pan and Captain Hook. Ahab and the whale. The Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys. Whatever. They have goals which they try to achieve despite facing someone with a different outcome in mind to which they are fully committed.

It’s a model that has worked–and will continue to work–forever. Cave-dwelling storytellers wove tales of heroes and villains, monsters and men, good gods and bad gods. And they didn’t even have a written language, so you’re already WAY ahead of them!

revengeOnce you know who you’re writing about, get started. Remember: you don’t have to write the whole book in one sitting. Nobody does that. You only have to work on one small part of the story: a scene. Just one. Could be big or small. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it must focus on one of the elements mentioned above (motive, action, consequence). Then: don’t start scene two until you’ve finished scene one.

I know writers who don’t write their scenes in order. They might do the first action scene, then the climax, then a love scene, then God only knows what. When they’re all done, they “assemble” the scenes in a finished order. I can’t imagine doing that. At least, not without a highly detailed outline. Assuming you’re working on your first book, I suggest you try a less gymnastic approach: write ‘em in order. Revise and rearrange as needed. Add new stuff later.

For me, sequential order works best. I write the motivational scene for character one, then the same for character two. After that I write the action for character one, and the same for character two. Ditto for consequences. At this point, the two players may have already beaten each other into pulpy little piles. So I write a scene in which one or both of them heal, and in the process stumble onto yet another motive. Et voilà!  The cycle repeats.

Okay, that’s a vastly simplified approach, but it’s the heart of the process. Neil Gaiman is quoted as saying, “This is how you do it; you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”

I’ve given ya more than that! More soon.


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Between the comfort zone and “There be Madness”

Because my wonderful bride took the time to be with her sister while the latter recovered from elective surgery, I had the house and dogs to myself for over a week. I also had a deadline for my work-in-progress. Dog tiredFailure to finish the first draft before I begin teaching this fall, meant I either wouldn’t have the book ready in time for Christmas, or I wouldn’t get any sleep in October and November.

But, see, I like sleep. A lot.

So, I wrote. A lot. Something like 35,000 words in eight days. I finished the initial draft, and now I’m doing one last edit before I share it with First Readers. Now, as hard as this will be to believe, I’m not bragging. Yes, I’m damned proud of writing so much, so fast, and I’m pleased with the outcome. tightropeBut what matters to me more is that I trusted myself enough to do it without a safety net. In other words: no outline. [I can hear the sharp intake of breath. Stop laughing, dammit!]

A Primitive in Paradise (my working title), has more story lines than a teenager caught in the act–any act. And, when I began, I had no idea how I would tie them all together at the end. Ya see, I like neat, tidy bows on stories, and I take Twain’s definition of denouement seriously (it’s the point in a story where “the marryin’ and buryin'” take place). So, not having an inkling about where it was all headed had me more than just concerned. It scared me shitless!

Sorry. (Writerly technical term. I’ll try to do better.)

When working on my previous books, I generally had some kind of outline, however minimal, to work from. At the very least, I had a vague idea of what the ending would entail. Not this time.

told yaI can see my writer pals now–all the “pantsers” anyway*–nodding sagely as if to acknowledge that I just discovered the blindingly obvious. But what they’re probably acknowledging is their familiarity with laying awake nights trying to figure out how to get Character N from Point Alpha to Point Zed, preferably alive. And where did he/she pick up the key to unlock the unholy portal that allowed the dragon with flammable halitosis to barbecue Kennebunkport and parts of downtown Dooberville?

Now, imagine seven or eight additional scenarios involving players on various parts of the planet who each encounter life and death struggles. Add a dash of conflicting time lines, a pinch of phobia about technical accuracy, and an addiction to bizarre humor. Tie all that shit stuff together in shiny paper and silky ribbon? No problem! RubeGoldberg

[See Josh talking to the clerk at the Writer's Magic Market: "Lessee now, I need a bag of original one-liners, a squeeze bottle of literary libido sauce, and a hero generator. Oh, and a perpetual motion machine, too. Just toss it all in with the bourbon and the sweet vermouth."]

The point is, sometimes risk-taking is a good thing. Sometimes it pays off. The trick is to recognize when you’ve made it to a place that’s outside your comfort zone but still a safe distance away from that place where madness reigns.

More later.


* “Pantsers” are folks who write from the seat of their pants. (And no. I haven’t completely joined that club, yet.)

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Geez, I’ve been writing my head off…

Vintage_Headless_Man…and now I find out, I’m not the first!

I’ve generated something like 17,878 actual, useable, readable words over the past few days. I’ve made precisely zero friends in the process, but I’m edging ever closer to the end of the work-in-progress. In my jaded youth I might’ve been tempted to say I worked another part of my anatomy off, but frankly, that’s way too complicated to illustrate. And besides, it makes me queasy. So, n’mind.headless3

Lest anyone be concerned that I’m really headless (as opposed to merely having my head stuck somewhere else, like, well, out of sight), you can relax. It’s simply a figure of speech. Still, it intrigued me enough to look for headless people who may or may not have done any writing.

nohead Needless to say, the internet provides an astonishing array of possibilities. But these vintage pix were the only ones that captured what’s left of my imagination.

Unfortunately, I have no idea if any of the folks pictured here were even literate, let alone writerly. But they did provide me with a topic, of sorts, and now I can get back to some important work–namely hammering out the conclusion to A Primitive in Paradise.

If I can keep writing my head off, I should be able to finish it by [drum roll, please] the end of the month.

Or not.

It’s damned hard to say. My good guys are all in trouble, and my bad guys are all looking pretty smarmy. The words are certainly piling up, but the idea mill is running on fumes. Can you hear the wheezing?

Josh stocks ECUMaybe I just need to clear my head, and since it’s already off, the job should be fairly simple.

More, soon.


[Ed Note: These pix weren't digitally diddled; they were produced long before PhotoShop. It's my understanding they were the result of some skillful 19th century darkroom work.]

[Random thought: Maybe I should whip up a character named Ed Note....]

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64,382 words into the new book, and suddenly

I have this great urge to start killing off characters. It’s probably not even their fault. Although, come to think of it, the way some of them have been acting lately, it’s like they’re asking for it.smite key One player in particular has taken an unexpected turn toward the dark side. Normally, I get a pleasant rush when someone dependable does something unpredictable. I suspect my readers enjoy it, too. Normally, this is the province of bad guys figuring out new ways to be nasty. But it’s way weird when a good guy–or at least someone who isn’t always a bad guy–does something despicable.

It makes me worry. What have I done? Where is this going? Who mucked about with my coffee?

giant typewriterWriting is a lonely business. I can see you yawn, and I agree that the statement likely qualifies for cliche’ of the millennium. But it’s the truth, damn it, despite what the photo might suggest. (Besides, that ain’t me. And I have no idea who the hottie is, even though by now she’s likely approaching her 100th birthday.)

When one of your characters escapes from their carefully crafted box and does something bizarre, the writer is the only one around who can react. Some of us spill our coffee. Others lean back and giggle. I know a writer who will look around the room, like a dog disgusted by his own flatulence, to see if he can find the culprit who actually committed the deed. Weirdness, cubed.

Writer's blockWriters are not only lonely, we’re most likely schizophrenic, too, at least to a certain extent. We have conversations. With our characters! We know they aren’t real; we know they aren’t *there.* But we cuss them, and praise them, and talk about ‘em like they’re offspring. Which, of course, they are.

That’s how imagination works, I suppose. I never really believed it came in a bottle, or a pill, or a syringe. Thank heaven. (It comes in a coffee mug, of course.)

Anyway, thanks for allowing me this little excursion into the surreal. I needed it. My characters did, too. They were getting nervous ’cause my right index finger lingered above the delete key too long.

54-heres-johnnyHeh, heh.

Gotta keep the little buggers on their toes.



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Blog from the Beach, Part the Second

Subtitle: How writing has ruined my reading….

bikini beach reader

This is the young lass I searched for in vain. [sigh] The giveaway? My books aren’t available in hard cover. However, several of my readers do like hats. That should count for something!

It didn’t happen overnight. The condition sneaked up on me like a disease, a sort of literary high blood pressure. I had no idea the conversion was under way, but over the course of some amount of time–thirty years, give or take–my ability to read for enjoyment took a monumental hit. Call it readaplegia, which ought to be a real condition if it isn’t already. I’ll even give it a definition: it’s a noun meaning the inability to read for pleasure because the reader is so keen on words and structure that he or she can’t escape the need to either admire or criticize the content.

“Whoa—this is really intense,” I mumble, ignorant of my affliction. “What an astonishing choice of verbs. Damn. I really wish I’d thought of that. I should probably make a note of it so I can steal it later. What’re the chances that ______ [name of actually talented writer] will ever read my stuff?”

fat guy

Here’s a guy who literally devoured my book. Seriously! Cover and all. He washed it down with a six-pack of Corona Light. Cheap sleaze bag couldn’t even pony up for REAL brew.

[Full disclosure: I often employ the word “stuff” when referring to my own work. Some folks don't react well to “shit,” especially mine.]

I can easily remember a time, mostly prior to discovering The Once and Future King as a college student, when I could read for pure pleasure. I gobbled novels the way I imagine Rosanne Barr destroys bonbons. Okay, maybe not quite like that, ’cause it takes a little more effort to zip through a 500-page tome like Watership Down or Zombie Cheerleaders from Mars (another fave which most people think was only a movie. Pflibbbbbt! Illiterati).


Sorry! I couldn’t find the cover for the sequel, so this will have to do.

The disease has progressed slowly, as I mentioned. I didn’t recognize it at all when working on my journalism degree, though I suspect my professors may have suffered from it. God knows they had to wade through a Congressional Library’s worth of monstrously awful “news” items and “features.” Poor bastards.

I have no idea how long ago my affliction began to manifest itself, and even today I can recall a time or two when what I read actually transported me to some fictional time and place. It’s the sort of journey I desperately want to provide for my own readers. But the process requires that I constantly scratch the itch my disease has unleashed. It’s a vicious, bloody circle, and there’s no escape. Kinda like the traffic rings in Boston and parts of civilized Wales—God help you if you get stuck on an inside lane!

One reads; one reacts. The normal reader gets a scene of profound relevance. Something moving has happened; they smile, or frown, or weep. On the other hand, I get that the author has misused a semi-colon, or that the passage drips with adjectives, or that the rhythm sucks, or the whole thing would work better as a series of shorter, punchier clauses with a kind of staccato punctuation, as if T.S. Elliot were doing an action scene. Think: e e cummings in [gasp!] upper and lower case, with punctuation.

HieroglyphicsI hope you can imagine how annoying this is. The temptation to correct spelling and grammar would make a sixth grade language arts instructor shudder. [And who the hell decided that Language Arts was a better way to say “Writing?” I'm guessing it wasn't a writer.]

Anyway, that’s my rant for the week. I love writing. I used to love reading. I’ve done this to myself; I have no one else to blame. And even with all that said, I will still read, because I know there are writers out there, somewhere—geez, there’s gotta be!–who can still transport me to a fictional time and place.

I just hope that once I get there, I’ll ignore the urge to figure out how the hell they did it.


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