Don’t begin at the beginning. How to write a novel–part 18

Dollarphotoclub_67370554cabinI blame biographies. And “education.” As schoolkids in America, we aren’t allowed to read about Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, unless we first read through umpteen tedious chapters recounting in excruciating detail his upbringing in a log cabin in Illinois, or Kentucky, or somewhere in Indianastan.

If you grew up in the UK, you probably learned all about Winston Churchill’s connection to the House of Marlborough before you read anything about him extracting Britain’s collective chestnuts from the blitz-fed bonfires of World War Two.

Why is that? Because there’s damned little fiction in school! “Educators” have no time for it, and because they learned everything they know in linear fashion, then by Gawd so will every little Bobby, Sue and Malik who wanders into the building. Thus we come to equate studying by candlelight with emancipating slaves–at least as far as storytelling goes.Stoopid

Which, for fiction writers, is just plain dumb!

The “beginning” doesn’t refer to the happy collision of sperm and egg which led to the hero’s conception. The “beginning” happens at the exact moment where bad shit overcomes everything else; where status quo becomes status crunch; where the rubber meets the rabbit on the road, or where the hero loses his horse, his house, and his grip on reality.

mean dog

A beginning: Fido has your homework.

Technically, it’s called in media res, which is fancy schmancy Latin for “Holy crap!” (Or, for you scholars out there, “in the middle of things,” which may be more accurate, but is way less fun.)

What puzzles me, is why so many beginning writers don’t get it. ‘Cause the great hulking majority of readers have no trouble with it at all. They’ve already learned all they want to know about Abe’s humble origins. They weren’t wild about it in school, and they sure as hell don’t care about it now. They want to see the Ol’ Rail Splitter being chased by the vampire he intended to skewer with a two-foot long wooden kabob. In-Media-Freakin’-Res, baby!kaboomIt wasn’t always this way. There was a time, somewhere in the 19th century probably, when we didn’t think of everything in terms of sound bites, MTV, and/or elevator pitches. These things, among others, have bludgeoned us into demanding double shots of espresso laden action from the get go. It ain’t fair, and it ain’t normal, but it’s the way it is. If you want to write popular fiction, you’ve gotta follow the popfic “rules” or whatever it is that passes for ‘em.

Once you’ve proven your mastery of the form, and built an audience willing to forgive you, and deposited your first gazillion bucks in royalties, you can start your stories anyway you please. Or, if you’re too impatient for that, you can just self-publish. All those big name 19th century writers did it. You can, too.

For now, however, you’ve got to snag the reader’s attention, and you’d best do it in the first paragraph. The first sentence of the first paragraph would be nice, but we haven’t gone that far off into the deep end, yet. What you don’t want to do is haul in a dump truck load of backstory and deposit it at ground zero.

It may seem logical to explain little Filbert’s fascination with small breed wild dogs before he wanders off into the woods with a pack of pygmy werewolves, but experience has shown–over and over again–that readers prefer to skip the history and jump into the action. They don’t have to know why it’s logical just now. If you make it real, and make Filbert sympathetic, readers will be perfectly happy.

Next time: Go ahead, sweat the little stuff.


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It’s really *not* about you. How to write a novel–part 17.

Hands raised in the airQuick! Raise your hand if you’ve ever modeled a character in a story on yourself. C’mon, be honest.


Maybe I should have asked for a show of hands from those who haven’t done it.  Yet. But either way, it points out how common the practice is. And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with it. After all, who knows you better than you? Other than your Mom, your spouse, your analyst, and about a dozen others you haven’t thought of in years.

(Psst! Send me $10 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope, and I’ll respond with your personalized list by return mail. Hurry! Supplies are limited.)

Quite a few of my writing students put themselves in their stories. It’s not something I either encourage or discourage, and usually it’s harmless. I put a power tool repairman in one of my novels. (Resurrection Blues. Awesome story. Buy your copy here.) It felt quite comfy. But I never mistook the character in the book for myself, even though I spent a thoroughly regrettable portion of my life resuscitating dead construction equipment. For one thing, the fictional repair guy was thinner than me and a whole lot better looking.

In too many of my student’s stories, however, the writers struggle to separate their personal history from their make believe. “But that’s what I — oops, sorry. I mean, what she — really wore!” or “really did” or “really said” or really whatever. Please, just stop!

Listen up. No one cares. And no one else will ever know, unless the writer tells them, and then they’ll care even less. Honest! I’m not kidding.

Two sexy girls holding a power drill

Typical customers in need of power tool repairs. I did what I could for them, but for some reason, it was never enough. Go figure.

Back in the day, when I was more concerned with armatures and power supplies than armed assassins and power struggles, I dealt with customers on a daily basis. Some of them were really great people, and I’m reasonably certain some weren’t actually human, but none of them was worthy of inclusion in a work of fiction. And neither was I. Which is the whole point. If you need to cast yourself in a story, do so for a reason–because you have some sort of real world expertise, for example. But then get the hell out of the way. Remove yourself, because no one’s going to believe you if you don’t.

Here’s the thing, the real deal, the secret handshake, the magic words, the phrase that pays, the almighty toilet plunger of truth: fiction readers want a rollicking good yarn, that’s all. If adding your hard-won life experience will make that yarn better, then do it. If not, don’t. Pick a more interesting protagonist, even if it’s not a power tool repairman. Spend a little time finding out what kind of cool stuff such a player knows, and work with that. Maybe it’s a seamstress, a middle school teacher, or a grocery bagger. It doesn’t have to be a mad scientist, a four-star general, or a cover model for True Romance. (I know that guy, by the way, and he’s so weird you wouldn’t want to spend two minutes with him, whether he flexes those massive pectoral muscles or not. Trust me on this.)

Go write something interesting. Something that’s not boring. No one can ask for more than that.


Next up: Don’t begin at the beginning.

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Deadlines: tyrants or liberators? How to write a novel–part 16

When I see the word “deadline,” I can’t help but think about folks who procrastinate. We all know them. They’re everywhere. There’s one living in my house; he’s married to my wife. I’m also reminded of the old joke (probably from Rodney Dangerfield): “I said I’d fix it, and I will. You don’t have to remind me every six months!”

RIP Hoppy

“I tried to warn yer old man, kid. But he just wouldn’t listen.”

I’m a natural born procrastinator, so you might reasonably expect me to react badly to deadlines. And you’d be partially right. It’s not simply a rebroadcast of the “Ant and the Grasshopper.” For me, it’s the sequel: “The Ant and the Son of the Grasshopper.”

The difference is that in the sequel, the grasshopper’s offspring knows what happened to his daddy–let’s call him “Hoppy”–and it was downright ugly. The poor shlub froze to death, homeless and hungry. That’s a serious object lesson! Deadlines for me are like winter for grasshoppers. I respect them, ’cause I don’t wanna die just yet. I’ve got way too much stuff to do.

As an independent writer/publisher, I have the option of wasting as much time as I like, which, generally speaking, is a good thing. But I also know that unless I give myself a deadline, I’ll never finish anything.

Deadlines have consequences for others, too. Especially if you consider yourself a pro. Case in point: J.K. Rowling, author of the incredibly successful Harry Potter books, missed her deadline from Scholastic Books for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth title in the series. And she missed it by several months. Granted, she had very understandable reasons–like getting married and giving birth.

The problem is that Scholastic needed the profit from the sales of Rowling’s book to stay in business. They based their annual budgets on it. By the time they learned the manuscript would be severely delayed (which had not been the case with any previous Rowling work), it was too late to cancel the press time they’d already contracted. Without Rowling’s book, they had very little material to run through all the presses they’d lined up to produce the millions of copies they needed to meet demand. Though idle, the workers still had to be paid, and Scholastic had to take delivery of enough paper to gift-wrap the planet. They nearly went bankrupt.

So, there are sound reasons for having deadlines, whether we like ‘em or not. We can treat them as tyrannical entities meant only to forestall the arrival of our personal muse, or we can make allies of them. Further, if we don’t have deadlines, it probably makes sense to create them. If you’re anything like me (and if so, please accept my condolences), setting reasonable deadlines might just provide the motivation you need to finish whatever it is you’re working on.

dead hoppyFinal thought on this topic: The operative element of a deadline is the word “reasonable.” Set yourself up for success. Don’t sign up for any deadlines you know you can’t make. Build in a little padding. And if you’re negotiating a deadline with someone else, go ahead and assume something will crop up to delay things. If it doesn’t, you’re ahead of the game since there’s nothing wrong with beating a deadline. It just gives you more time to work on something else. Or maybe just goof off for a while.

But miss a deadline? Ugh. Makes me dream of a frozen grasshopper carcass. RIP Hoppy, ol’ pal.

Next up: It’s really not about you!



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Writing for the nose. How to write a novel–part 15

Portrait of a pigSeriously? Write for the nose?

Yep. It may not be the fastest route to the brain, but it’s pretty damned quick. Smells are triggers that can set off a variety of responses. Don’t believe me? Try giving two seconds worth of thought to something called “that new car smell.”

I can hear the synapses in your brain firing now. Or maybe it’s just the clatter of my fingers on the keyboard. Who knows? And while we’re asking esoteric questions, what does all this have to do with writing?


Most of us get our information visually, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As writers we sometimes toss in sounds, too. Also good. We know what explosions look and sound like. But if we really want to bring an image to life, we need to add an aroma. For things that go BOOM, the smell of cordite (which fell out of favor around the end of WWII) is often cited. That gets translated somewhere between tip of nose and temporal lobe as the smell of burnt gunpowder. And miraculously, the explosion you’ve been describing takes on an added dimension–and it’s all in The (Other) Promised Land: your reader’s head.

For years, realtors sponsoring open houses would make sure someone baked bread or cookies on the premisis, often several times a day. Why? Because everyone knew that the smell of such things meant “home.” [Cue The Waltons' theme] Sadly, few people actually do any bread or cookie baking at home these days, and the practice has largely been abandoned (with no apparent effect on our collective waistlines).

Frangrances are important, and for writers who want to pen memorable settings, the sense of smell mustn’t be ignored. It’s not difficult, but it does require some thinking, and if all else fails, you could actually visit the kind of place you’re trying to describe for an aromatic ‘fresher. Relax. Inhale. Take notes.

Consider the following list of smells. Anyone who dares to wear the “Writer” label should be able to conjure a way to work all of these into appropriate settings. And when they do, those descriptive places will have a much better chance of coming alive for readers:Dollarphotoclub_57079531

  • Puppy breath
  • Gasoline
  • A baby’s head
  • Smoke on clothing
  • Chocolate
  • Chocolate sprinkled with sea salt
  • Bacon
  • Freshly brewed coffee
  • Pizza
  • Vanilla
  • Burnt microwave popcorn
  • Christmas trees
  • Cigarette butts
  • Bus exhaust
  • Grandma
  • Raw sewerage
  • Cinnamon buns

Obviously, the list isn’t meant to be inspiring. For most folks, however, each of these smells is wired to one or more memories, and just reading them will send a tiny surge of electricity ripping through the reader’s cognitive connecting tissue to revive dormant thoughts of past experiences. Pupils will contract, fists will tighten, throats will go dry, breathing will change–and the sensory bits of those remembered moments will merge with your scene. As if by magic, your reader will not simply translate your words into an image, they’ll experience it. Eat your heart out, Gandolf!

Aw g’wan! Try it. What have you got to lose?

Next up: Deadlines: tyrants or liberators?


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While we’re on the topic of sex scenes… How to write a novel–part 14

If you’re anything like me–human, mostly–and you’ve spent any time at the beach, you’re probably already aware that the ratio of truly beautiful people to the rest of us is, well, pretty damned small. And I mean “beautiful” in the most rudimentary sense: exterior beauty. I’m referring to perfect hair, a perfect smile, a perfect body–the works.

Ilustracion con una pareja de jovenesSo why in the world do we insist on writing about fantastically gorgeous people? Who are we kidding? Not every hero needs to be six foot four, weigh 200 pounds and have a 30-inch waist. Seriously. I could count the number of guys I know who are built like that on one hand. Prob’ly one finger.

Ditto for the ladies. I’m pretty sure I married the last perfect gal of my generation, and thank God she still tolerates my presence. But on our last beach trip, I had my worst fears confirmed. Hang on to your hats, people, I have really bad news: Most of us just ain’t all that hot.

But you sure couldn’t tell that by what we write. According to all the fiction I’ve seen lately, women are universally slender, often petite, with flowing locks and azure eyes–usually limpid ones, whatever in hell that means. The guys all seem to have lantern jaws and slab upon slab of lean muscle. And when one of those guys climbs into bed with one of those gals… content  Well, let’s just say miracles happen.

Yes, yes, I know we’re writing fiction, and a desirable element of fiction is fantasy. And certainly, the sex I’ve been reading about is nothing short of fantastic. Who knew that tab A could be inserted into slot B with such spectacular results? Every time. No matter what–or where. Flawless execution, perfect timing, mutual satisfaction, no remorse, and almost never any procreation.

I’d say “fantasy” pretty much covers all that.

Please don’t get the impression I’m some sorta sex scene Scrooge. I’ve written my share of randy romps that logic dictates are utter nonsense. And I’ve been told folks generally liked ‘em. Which is nice.

cialissilhouettes2But once in a while I’d like to read a bedroom scene that contains something a little more “real.” Let’s face it, human bodies weren’t designed to operate in complete silence, and I’m not talking about someone screaming (moaning, gasping, grunting, or otherwise fulminating) the classic, “Oh God, oh God, oh God!” line.

Sometimes people actually laugh. I’m not kidding. Really–they do! And why not? They’re supposed to be having a good time. Heavy breathing is fine, but why couldn’t someone burst out in song? Okay, maybe not the Hallelujah Chorus or Row Row Row Your Boat, but something melodic in between might be nice.

Or maybe, just once in a while, the fireworks don’t happen. I’m guessing that outcome is a lot more common than folks think. And if I’m wrong, who’s paying for all those Viagra and Cialis commercials?

In my classes I often use the word verisimilitude. It means the appearance of being true or real. Very handy word, despite being a mouthful and hard to spell, even when sober. But it’s of critical importance when writing fiction. One must focus on creating the “appearance” of reality. How does that apply to sex scenes?

I suspect the answer lies somewhere between the perfection we all wish we had and whatever it is we actually have. A little of this, a little of that, and before you know it, you’ve got… a casserole! And you know what, casseroles can be pretty darned good. Especially the spicy ones.

Next up: Writing for the nose.


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Hie thee to the discomfort zone! How to write a novel — Part 13

It seems like everyone at one time or another must face the prospect of doing something they’re not good at. Most recently for me, that moment came when I was tasked with making an announcement about an upcoming event at the school where I teach. I quickly realized that I needed to do something a little extra–something completely out of the ordinary–or my announcement would likely fall on ears tuned to something else.zoot 1 I’d seen it happen all too often before.

So, instead of timidly approaching the podium to blurble through yet another public service announcement [yawn], I dressed up in what I thought would make me look like the absolute King of Swagger. I even gave myself a pseudonym, Slide N. Golightly, which I thought had just the right stylish sort of ring to it. Check out the handsome, zoot-suited devil in the accompanying photo. I’m quite sure nothing short of Jarvis Q. Dork would fit better.

Then, rather than grab a microphone and natter away, I entered the hall from the opposite end and sashayed through the place carrying on at a volume that would have been heard reasonably well in an NFL stadium.

My audience consisted entirely of folks over 50, and they were busy eating lunch with their friends, so getting their attention was no easy matter. It helped that I was willing to make a complete fool of myself. (And yes–before you ask–I’ve had lots of practice.)

Anyway, it worked. The conversation level dropped to zilch, and I managed to ad lib my way to the podium. Fortunately, I had a good-natured accomplice who was also willing to provide the sort of repartee that gets a laugh or two. We got several. (Thanks, Quentin!)

Now, what could this possibly have to do with writing a novel? Here’s the thing: it’s all about taking chances. I didn’t have to dress like a fool, and I didn’t have to act like someone named Slide N. Golightly. No one would have said a word if I’d remained my usual, self-effacing, unassuming, gentle mole-like self. But then, I wouldn’t have gotten much of a reaction from the audience either.

What you write–and how you write it–works in much the same way. If you refuse to explore uncomfortable areas, you run the risk of telling the same sort of story over and over. You give readers a sadly reasonable question: Why buy volume two if it’s merely a rehash of volume one?

When my good friend, Barbara Galler-Smith, and I were working on our first collaborative novel (Druids–a great book, by the way, go buy a copy now), we reached a point in the story which called for a sexy scene. Actually, it required way more than that. It demanded a hot, steamy, page-curling sex scene, one which would have a profound impact on the entire series. Naturally, we had a long and involved discussion about which of us should write it.

At the time we were both in our 50s. Barb taught science in a middle school; I worked for an airline as a business analyst. The people she worked with were focused on surviving puberty. My co-workers were flight attendants, some of whom may also have been struggling with puberty (but that’s a whole different story).

Stubborn Granny“My students will read it,” Barb wailed, quite understandably. “And they’ll tell their parents who will think I’m a sex fiend.”

“Screw that,” said I. “My mother will read it, and she’ll know I’m a sex fiend!”

We discussed this impasse at length and finally concluded that my mother, who brought four healthy babies into the world, might possibly have some knowledge of S-E-X. She might even be capable of reading the scene for its [cough] literary value.

Geez. Who the hell knew?

Anyway, I wrote it. Barb edited it. Edge Books published it, and the rest is history. Your mileage, naturally, may vary. The point is, when it’s your time to write a sizzling sex scene, don’t go hide in the laundry. Cowboy up and write the damned thing. Make it as hot and steamy as you can. Ignore that little voice that says “Your kids will think you’re crazy,” or “Your boss will think you’re crazy,” or “Your ____ will think you’re crazy.” Because when it’s all said and done, no one cares. Not even _____, whose negative opinion means so much.

You’ll survive. And by writing that uncomfortable scene, you’ll be a better writer–but only if you give it everything you’ve got.

Don’t do it for you spouse, your editor, your beloved rabbi, your dear aunt Beulah or anyone else. Write it because your career depends on it.

Next up: Part 14, whatever in hell that is.


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Shades and variations. How to write a novel — part 12

It occurred to me as I read through some of the stories submitted by my students, that many of them missed opportunities to enhance their work through shades and variations. Like most writers, they were working with a deadline, so I can appreciate the weight of the monkeys on their backs. Who has time for nuance?

The answer came quickly. Writers must make time for it, else why bother writing? Like artists working in any other medium, writers must command the tools of their trade. They must also develop specific skills, like those required to hunt for nuance–t0 find the exact word that fits a given situation.

Air Guitar at 50Consider the sentence: Bertram walked down the hall in his underwear. How many different ways might ol’ Bert traverse that stretch of floor? He could saunter, stroll, skip, slide, slouch, stampede, sashay, shimmy or stumble, and he’d only have put a dent in the stockpile of S words. Best of all, each alternative offers a different shade of meaning for “walked.” And yet, each has the power to alter the sentence–and possibly the whole story–in significant ways.

seductive woman in sexy lingerieThe range of reaction is wider than you might think. Based on the specifics of the character those words are applied to, readers will react even more differently. Just consider the profoundly different views afforded by the retreating forms of middle-aged, overweight Bertram and that of the reigning Playmate of the Year. All of a sudden sauntering, strolling, skipping, sliding, et al. generate an even wider range of motion. And thank the Lord for that!

The other benefit of taking the time to select the proper words–and by that I mean verbs, words that do the heavy lifting–is the reduced temptation to use some sort of modifier. Nuanced words rarely need adjectives or adverbs. They’re superfluous. The verb shoulders the load. You’re happy; I’m happy. Shoot, Hemingway is likely giggling and laughing, too.

Death to adverbsHere’s what I tell my students: “Avoid words that end in -ly.” Save the shading and variations for words that actually do something, not those that hang around pretending to work, like surplus supervisors on a road crew. Spare me from sentences like: “Bertram walked slowly down the hall in his underwear.” I’d much rather read that he played air guitar and accompanied himself with an oral bass line while maintaining the rhythm with his tap shoes.

Or show me a photo of Miss Hot Pants. Any year will suffice.

Next up: I’m not sure! Call it potpourri.




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