Bang starts! How to write a novel–part 27

You’re sitting in front of your computer, drumming your fingers on the keys as your coffee cools, and the remaining minutes of your hastily grabbed writing time are dissolving like an ice cube under a sun lamp. You grow more agitated with every passing second. You can hear your precious time dripping down the drain. And yet, you don’t have a clue where to begin.

What you don’t realize is that you’re at the perfect starting point! You can begin any kind of story you want. And best of all, you have the opportunity to start it with a Bang. Here’s the secret: merge something commonplace with something unexpected.

rodneydangerfieldYou’re familiar with the technique; it’s the fundamental element of almost every joke ever told. Consider the old stand-up line: “I met a guy in the soup line the other day. He said he hadn’t had a bite all day. So I bit him.” [Cymbal crash]

That’s the idea, and with a little effort, a story will evolve from that humble bit of wit. Here are some examples of ten different ways to get a story rolling:

 Try using a quotation:

“Don’t take yourself so seriously,” she said. So I laughed as I killed her.

After hearing, “It’s not you; it’s me. I’m the problem,” at least ten times, Juanita began to wonder if maybe the problem was something else.

Advice could be good. What’s the best you (or your character) ever received?

“‘Clean your gun every day,’ the old cowboy said, but he never practiced what he preached. He’s buried right over there, beside the dead rustler.”

Never juggle when you’re riding a bicycle. Trust me on this.

DPC_70896696 crpdSimiles and metaphor can be effective.

I married a vampire.

My job is like an open wound.

Pose an intriguing question:

Why do they always put the biggest butthead in charge?

If beauty is skin deep, how thick is ugly?

 Think about the future.

Five years from now I expect to take my father’s place as the CEO of Banister Technology. Of course, there’s always the chance he won’t live that long. Arsenic is funny that way.

Define something, or someone:

I’m friendly and caring. My step-sister, though, was the poster child for lunacy in motion.

Paint a scene.

I always hated market day in Bridgeport. The sewage ran ankle deep in some places, and we could never afford to set up shop on high ground.

Use a comparison to someone famous (or infamous).Healthywealthy

Jeb Dooley was every bit as clever as the Three Stooges or Wile E. Coyote.

Dorna had the looks of an angel and the personality of a Doberman pinscher.

Dilemmas offer great opportunities.

So little time, so many banks to rob.

One should never arrive late when summoned by a mob boss, or his girlfriend.

Make up an anecdote.

It’s been twenty years, and the memory is still fresh — the rock music, the odor of suntan lotion, the heft of a gallon of margaritas. Who wouldn’t remember a funeral like that?

Try it! What have you got to lose?

Next up: A different take on outlines.


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How much is enough? How to write a novel–part 26

The robotWriters can be very competitive folk, especially when it comes to the topic of production. Like people in any other profession, some writers exaggerate while others are painfully honest.

Dean Wesley Smith for instance, really does crank out a prodigious volume of work. His goal is two million words a year. That’s 1000 words per hour, eight hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year. I don’t write *quite* that much. [cough]

I also know a couple writers who claim to churn out amazing quantities of prose, yet they publish very little. They can’t all be completely full of crap, can they?

Yes and no. Some writers refuse to publish independently. Therefore, they’re locked into what used to be called the “traditional” publishing route–tradition in this case means sending your work to agents or editors with no thought of self-publishing. That’s not the way it’s always been done, despite what the Big Six would have you believe. (Oops, my mistake. I missed another merger. The Big Six is now down to the Big Five.)

Big FiveThere’s certainly nothing wrong with having your book picked up by Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins or any other publisher of note. I’ll gladly stand and applaud anyone who can traverse the obstacle course that leads to publication in the “traditional” manner. A few people who publish this way will achieve wealth and fame. Their books will be picked up by celebrities and other influential folk, and overnight the writer’s names will become the subject of late-night talk shows and book clubs. There will be a bidding war for the movie rights, and editors will complain that they never got the chance to look at any of the manuscripts before somebody else jumped on them.

For most people, however, the real world provides a different scenario. Getting a book into an editor’s hands is a difficult and time-consuming process, and even if successful it often results in the publication of a couple thousand paperbacks which will stay on bookstore shelves for a few weeks. They will receive no fanfare or publicity beyond what the author provides, and after a couple months they’ll be taken off the shelf; the covers will be stripped off and returned to the publishers for credit, and what’s left of the books will go into a dumpster. The book will never earn out the author’s advance; the rights to the book will forever remain with the publisher, and the author won’t be able to sell another book to that same imprint without changing his or her name, because the accounting department will never forget that the first book wasn’t a hit. (Thank you, Harvard MBA program.)

1st rounderI apologize if my admittedly jaded view of the “traditional” method puts a dent in anyone’s enthusiasm. I’m merely being realistic. The odds of an anonymous writer making it big on their first novel are about the same as the average college football player’s chances of being drafted by the NFL in the first round. It’s on a par with the chances of any kid who moves to New York or Hollywood in hopes of becoming a star by standing in line at open casting calls.

The truth is, there are way more gifted people available than the system needs. It applies to publishing, movies, recording, professional sports–just about any field based solely on talent. And the really crazy thing, the thing that makes so many of us scratch our heads or swear or groan, is that so many of the people who “make it” really aren’t very good. Many of them just, simply, suck.

But, back to the main point: production. How much do you need to write? How many words should you aim to churn out in a day, a week, or a month? What’s the norm? What’s reasonable?

If there were a magic number, I’d gladly share it with you. How much one writes depends on the individual and the demands on that person’s time.

I think two pages a day is a very reasonable target. Others will disagree. If I’m on a roll, I’ll crank out a whole lot more than that. If I’m doing my taxes, or taking care of my grandkids, or pulling the ivy out of the trees in my yard, I’m not going to write much of anything.

glassOddly, my bourbon consumption will remain fairly steady whether I’m writing, painting the house, building a deck or taking my grandkids to the zoo. If I approached writing the way I approach Kentucky’s finest, I’d get a helluva lot more written.

How much should you expect of yourself? As much as you can do. Try to write every day. If you can do two pages, that’s awesome. More is better. Less is okay provided you try to make up the difference later. Two pages is about 500 words. The average novel is about 90,000 words. So, at 500 words a day, you should be able to write two novels a year and still have nearly a whole week to just goof off.

So, get busy!


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The Last Word on Dialog. How to write a novel–part 25

A wonderful writer (my Dad, actually) once told me, “Good reading makes hard writing.” And it’s true. In order for the words to flow smoothly, a writer has to concentrate on moving from one idea to the next, in a logical sequence, and with proper pacing while at the same time finding new and clever ways to express fairly common ideas and situations. It’s not easy. But when it all comes together, it’s oh, so rewarding.

Don't Come CloserWriting good dialog is just as hard. If you want it to be good, you have to work at it. Fortunately, there are a number of things writers can use to spot areas for improvement. There are three which plague dialog, and writers who wish to be published need to be aware of them. Treat them like warning flags: dig here!


I doubt more than one English class in a thousand ever covered said-bookisms. That’s too bad, otherwise a few bazillion people who now use them might have learned to avoid them instead. [sigh]

A said-bookism is simply a speech tag other than “said” or “asked.” (Some purists even disdain the use of “asked.” Not me!) The so-called alternatives include an array of words that attempt to describe how someone said something. They include but aren’t limited to: demanded, declared, murmured, shouted, shrieked, exclaimed, inquired, queried, replied, implied, and whispered. Among the most famous said-bookisms, absolutely guaranteed to give an editor hives, are: hissed, huffed, barked, frowned, laughed, sneered, and — my personal favorite — smirked.

SaidbookismsThe second grouping is characterized by impossibilities. Try, for example, to bark some critical bit of information. Or frown it. Or smirk it. One might concede that it’s possible to laugh something, but it likely wouldn’t be funny.

There’s nothing wrong with “said.” In fact, it becomes invisible to most readers (which is good).  Said-bookisms, on the other hand, tend to slow down the pace and, if used liberally, can ruin an otherwise good scene. They can easily become intrusive and annoying. Use them sparingly.

They are best employed when the dialog’s intent might be unclear. For instance: “Isn’t that just dandy,” he groused, or “Great! Just what I needed,” she groaned. 

Don’t just use an adverb instead!

Some writers take the easy way out. They’ll substitute an adverb <shudder> for the said-bookism. To wit:

–Said Bookism: “You think you’re so smart!” Mona hissed.
–Adverbial Tag: “You think you’re so smart!” Mona said angrily.

The solution? Write around the problem; show what’s going on: Mona shoved the display so hard it hurtled off the table and smashed against the wall. “You think you’re so smart!”

Tom Swifties — funny if intentional, disastrous if not.

No punsIt can get worse. There’s a breed of adverbial modifiers that almost make said-bookisms seem desirable. These are known as Tom Swifties, named after a popular series of YA books produced continuously since 1910, in which a phrase was linked via pun to the manner in which it was delivered. (Puns, we refined folk believe, are the lowest form of humor. The worst puns can drive some people over the edge. It’s true. I’ve seen it!)

Here are some examples culled from a 2009 New York Times competition:

“The Babe has been fired!” said Tom ruthlessly.
“I dream about a less shapely proportion,” said Lola figuratively.
“Oh, I dropped my toothpaste behind the sink,” he said, crestfallen.
“The unemployment rate has increased again,” Tom said laboriously.
“Angelina Jolie isn’t pregnant,” said Tom unexpectantly.
“I adore hamburgers,” he said with relish.
“I’m never on time,” Tom said belatedly.

The point? You don’t want readers to start laughing in the middle of your prose (or memoir) because of an ill-considered phrase.

Lastly, avoid the King Kong of wretched said-bookisms, the 500-pound gorilla squatting in the parlor: “But Mona, darling, I love you!” he ejaculated.

Next up: How much is enough?


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Idea mining. How to write a novel–part 24

The process of creating character motivations, actions, and consequences naturally demands ideas, and this is where weak, uninspired and/or derivative plots evolve. I rarely trust the first idea I have for anything. I urge all writers, and most especially beginning writers, to adopt this it a good idea

Idea mining generally means digging deep to get at the “good stuff.” Ideas found in the topsoil are those that anybody is likely to have. They’re rarely original, and readers will easily recognize where they lead. Digging down below the topsoil gets you into richer territory. Ideas found here will likely work for most readers. Alas, they’re very likely to be old hat for editors, agents and manuscript buyers. These folks have seen a lot of second layer stuff, and chances are, anything you find there won’t be original to them.

That means if you want to find something unique, you have to dig way down, through the subsoil, and into bedrock. And when you get there you’ll likely have to chip away at it until the gem you need gets knocked loose. It’s work–a helluva lot of work–but it’s worth it. This is the zone that generates plot twists that no one sees coming. It’s where motivations don’t just feel right on the surface; they resonate all the way through a character, and the actions the character takes as a result will both intrigue and engage readers.

For example, let’s assume I’ve decided to write a romance, and I’m determined to use the time-tested meme of “boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back.”

You and I wHappy Dancers with Rose in Mouthill probably never extract the same gems from the bedrock of the idea mine, and just because I find something doesn’t mean it’s the best or the only gem available. Hopefully, you’ll find something much better.

First, I need to tackle the boy meets girl part. I could opt for easy–they were sweethearts in school–or I could go the opposite route–she’s a nun, and he’s a gang-banger from the worst slum on Earth; they meet in the emergency room of a charity hospital where he’s being treated for a gunshot wound sustained in a drive-by shooting. Or maybe I’ll find something in-between: she’s an exotic dancer hired to entertain at a bachelor party he attends. Obviously, there are a gazillion variations available, but readers have seen almost all of them, so I’ll have to dig deep to find something original. Maybe they meet at a special school for deaf mutes. (How’s that for a challenge!)

Obviously, how they meet will impact the how and why of their mandatory separation. Again, finding the unconventional will require effort. In scenario one, my first impulse would be to have one of them move away. Yawn. [Insert your fave clichè about trite plot points.] Better to have one of them kidnapped by terrorists, a crazed school board member, or aliens from the seventh planet.

Man Harrassing a TransvestiteIn the nun/gangbanger scenario, a rival gang could abduct her; a crusading district attorney could target her, or the person in charge of her Order could ship her off to tend Ebola patients somewhere in Africa. Or something could happen to him–like prison, or paralysis, or conversion to Islam. Again, choices abound, even though the basic plot hasn’t changed since the earliest cave dwellers gathered around a fire to tell lies, impress cave babes, and entertain each other.

How in the world will these star-crossed lovers be reunited, thus fulfilling the third leg of the plot stool? [Ew–he said “stool.”] I don’t have a clue. But I can guarantee I’d grind a heap of bedrock before I worked it out.

Here’s a thought: why don’t you take a shot at coming up with a “boy regains girl” ending for one of the scenarios above? Let’s see how creative you can be. Post your thoughts in a reply below. If I get enough responses in the next few days, I’ll choose a couple and and test drive ‘em here.

Next up? That depends on you. I love talking about ideas, but I can always go back and discuss dialog. Plenty of unfinished bidness there.



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Don’t tell it too soon. How to write a novel–part 23

The lion speaksOkay, I know I’m supposed to yammer on about dialog, but it can wait. This is more important, especially if you’re still in the early stages of learning to write fiction, and more specifically, commercial fiction. It’s a bit of advice I first heard from my father–a damned fine screen writer and director, by the way. He told me to keep my stories to myself, at least until I’d finished the first draft.

I couldn’t imagine anything more stupid than that, probably because I was in college at the time and already knew everything worth knowing. Since then reality has given me scores of well-deserved beatings, and I now fully appreciate and endorse the wisdom of his remark and recognize the enormity of the gaps in my education. Sparing the rod did me no good whatsoever.

IdeaSo, let’s say you’ve got a splendid idea for a story. It’s something that’s completely your own–a brilliant new concept, a clever approach, an amazing new character, a plot twist so devious no one would ever see it coming. You’re in high mental cotton at this point. Your synapses are firing like roman candles, and it feels so good you can hardly think about anything else. Your first inclination is to tell someone about it. It’s too good not to share. You’re convinced that anyone you tell will instantly burst with envy for failing to think of it themselves. You’re ready to feed off that feeling of utter superiority, and you’ll want to tell more people so that they, too, will recognize how insanely clever you are. Right?

Uh… No.

It almost never works that way, for a few really good reasons. But rather than shoot down that perfect bubble or put sand in your creative gas tank, let’s assume that this idea of yours actually merits all the superlatives I’ve been hurling about. Glühbirne defektAfter you’ve blabbed about it to your buds–those who’re sober enough to pay attention–and you’ve cornered your spouse, your accountant, the hairdresser, and all your neighbors, and you’ve regaled them about your idea, it won’t seem quite as neato-keeno as it was before you opened your mouth to talk about it. You begin to shorten the delivery as details which you originally thought essential get sloughed off like bonus dog hair. After awhile you’ll be down to bare bones, and the awesome idea you had–about which you were so elated before–you’ll now think of in terms of yesterday’s news. It’ll be ho-hum, yawn, put-yer-ass-to-sleep, tepid. It’s not just a store-bought cookie, it’s a dull, tasteless, stale store-bought cookie which you happily consign to splooshthe literary septic tank.

Why is that? What happened to that brilliant bit of creativity, that shooting star of sensation, that riveting rush of realism, that fantastical flash of fable? Short answer: you talked it to death. All the excitement and enthusiasm of discovery dribbled out, a bit at a time, until there wasn’t enough left to interest you in writing it down.

The solution? Keep it bottled up inside. Let it fester, smoulder, percolate, or whatever else your shit does when it’s in mental development. When the time’s right, get it all down in actual words and sentences. Write it as fast as you can. Don’t worry about pretty. Don’t worry about grammar, or spelling, or mechanics. Get that magnificent, raw creative cookie dough down.

Of course, when you do the first read-through of the first draft–which we all know should be done OUT LOUD–you’ll find no end of stuff wrong with it. But that’s okay! It’ll still be interesting. You’ll massage it and revise it and poke at it and pull on it until it becomes something almost worth someone else’s time to read it.

And then, before you show it to any-freakin’-body, put it away. Let it cool off. Work on something else. Go pay bills, wash the dog, mow the lawn, muck out the barn, shovel snow. Do whatever you have to do to cleanse your mind of what you just wrote.

THEN, and only then, you can go back over it one more time, OUT-bloody-LOUD, and fix the stuff you missed before. Realize that you’re not finished with it yet; there will be many more changes ahead, but at least when you finish this pass, you’ll have something read-worthy.

At that point you may share it. But be sure to mention that it’s still a work in progress, because unless you’re an extraordinarily wonderful writer–which, I promise, you aren’t–it’s going to need still more work before it’s ready to print.

Next up: Assuming I don’t go back and finish ranting about dialog, we’ll talk about a pecking order for ideas.



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It’s Thanksgiving. I think we all deserve a break.

So, I’Alabama Crimson Tide v Auburn Tigersm going to let my self-imposed deadline slide this time and concentrate on really important things like family, and turkey, and football. I may even consume an adult beverage or two.

Or three. Whatever.

My Auburn Tigers will be taking on the red elephants in Tuscaloosa. I have high hopes for the Tigers, mainly because I always have high hopes for them. I’m a fan. I’m just not a betting fan.

AubieSo, that’s it for this time. Go have fun. Be with your family or friends. If you don’t have any of either, then go find someone else in the same fix and buy him or her a sandwich — turkey would be good — and a cup of coffee. Who knows? It could be the start of a long and pleasant relationship. And if not, maybe you can get a story out of it.

Besides, what have you got to lose?Happy Thanksgiving

Until next time,



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Tag! He (or she) is it! How to write a novel–part 22

Blah - Speech Bubble BackgroundAs mentioned before, good dialog isn’t real, it just sounds that way. But for reasons that will probably remain a mystery forever, many still learning the craft of writing insist on loading up their dialog with crap, by which I mean adverbs, adjectives, unneeded identifiers, and an endless array of substitutes for the word “said.”

Let’s get the modifier thing out of the way first, ’cause it’s the worst of the offenses. The only time you need to use an adverb or an adjective in dialog (and pretty much everything else you write) is when you’ve exhausted every possibility for finding an action verb to do the job. Then, it’s probably okay. But as my Mom used to say, “Don’t make it a habit.”

Modifiers tell readers how something is said or done; action verbs show them. It’s that simple. Mary whispered something is way better than Mary said something softly. They get the same idea across, but one paints a picture; the other doesn’t. You want readers to *see* your dialog as if it were being acted out in front of them. Modifiers replace actors with stage directions. Who wants that?

Wur unwantedWuz unwantedSo, what’s an action verb? For me it’s pretty much any verb other than “was,” and “were.” The other forms of “to be” are suspect, but the real offenders are these two. Avoid them when and if you can.

Next, trust your readers to know who’s saying what to whom. If there’s any doubt, then stick in a speech tag. Something like “Joe said” works well. Try to avoid sticking Joe’s name inside a quote, because it’s just lame, and almost nobody talks that way. F’rinstance, the following is bad form; don’t do it:

“You’re kidding, Rupert! I didn’t know that. And get this, Rupert, that liver transplant I had? Well, Rupert ol’ pal, it turns out I didn’t need it after all. You may not believe this, Rupert, but someone just unplugged my brain. Who knew?”

This is even worse:

“You’re kidding,” Joe said to Rupert, blissfully. “And that liver transplant I had?” Joe laughed hysterically. “It turns out I didn’t need it after all.” Joe scratched his head vigorously. “You may not believe it, but someone just unplugged my brain,” Joe said. “Who knew?”

Even if you nuke the three modifiers (blissfully, hysterically, and vigorously) the line still sucks. I’d go with something like:

“You’re kidding,” Joe said. “By the way, you remember that emergency liver transplant I had? Huge mistake. I should’ve gone to a real doctor.”

MoronThe idea of dialog has been around forever. It was old news when the Greeks pumped it into their plays. Socrates employed dialogs to persuade the ancients to see things his way. But the main idea behind dialog is two-way conversation. Yes, you can have a dialog involving more than two speakers, but in most cases, you’ll only have two. If only one character talks, it’s a monologue. Tune into any late night TV show with a host, and you’ll get an example. But, since you’re unlikely to get a job writing monologues for a network comic, let’s focus on character dialog, and let’s practice by using two voices.

There are a host of ways to differentiate those voices. Dialect is a good one, provided it isn’t overdone. Toss in an odd pronunciation, a bit of slang, maybe a foreign word or two, and you’ll lock in the identification without a speech tag or an action tag. [Note: we’re talking seasoning here, not poisoning. Keep it light; all you want is flavor.]

“Yo, Tex! Whut’re you doin’ here in the hood?”
“Had to buy me a new shootin’ iron, podnuh.”

Watch out for pronouns, especially if the speakers are of the same sex. Use both action tags and speech tags, but only when necessary.

“It’s getting late,” Missy said.
Suzie checked her watch and sighed. “You’re right.”
“Of course I am,” she said. “What else is new?”

Break long passages into smaller ones. Use incomplete sentences now and then. Er, uh, and uhm are perfectly natural, as are lines truncated by the response of the other party.

“I was dating Mary back then, and–“
Mary? The one everyone called ‘The Nun?’ That Mary?”
Joe blinked. “The Nun? Who called her that?”
“Well, uhm– It’s, uh– Actually, everyone did.”

If you’re more concerned with the content of the dialog then the format, focus on that first, then go back and make it entertaining.

Hm. It appears I’ve got more ground to cover with this dialog thing. Look for more next time.


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