Go ahead, create a scene. (Encore)

Writers and non-writers have completely different notions about what a scene is. Non-writers rarely think about those that don’t feature someone being outraged over something. I suspect too many who spend time aligning verbs and nouns overlook how significant “our” scenes are.

I hate to use the analogy of building blocks since it sounds a bit trite, but I can’t think of a better one. Stories, especially novels, are built one scene at a time, and the best ones share some specific qualities.

A good scene is a mini-story in itself. It should feature a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should present characters in conflict, which then raises tension. To the extent possible, the conflict should reflect some aspect of the larger story. It sounds more difficult than it is. If you have a scene which offers little or no conflict, ask yourself what it provides that couldn’t be done in a more interesting (i.e., conflict-driven) fashion.

Like the novel itself, a scene should begin as close to the action as possible. Very few scenes require a great deal of backstory leading up to whatever changes the status quo. Good scenes dive into the conflict early and focus on the issues the characters face to overcome or resolve the ensuing problems. You don’t have to begin every scene in the middle of a fight to the death. But each one should challenge the reader’s imagination and make him or her wonder: what’s going on? Why are we here? Where will this lead? Who needs killing?

Think of your story as a road trip. Each scene represents a change of direction, a halt in the forward motion, or something else which effects a steady, straight-line, utterly uncomplicated trip. Think about it. Who wants to read about a steady, straight-line, utterly uncomplicated road trip? Bleah!

Each of those changes in direction will provide consequences for your characters. Be mindful of how they’ll change the overall story as well. These constant shifts are hallmarks of good stories. They provide the back-and-forth that keeps readers engaged.

Scenes need not go on forever. It’s fairly easy to become enthralled with the players or the action of a given scene, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t let a scene go on too long. Know when to quit. Find a critical moment when you can shift the narrative to another point of view character or a different storyline. Leave the reader with an unanswered question. What’s in the box? Will he survive? Is she really out of bullets?

This doesn’t mean every scene should be short or that the story should be advanced in little bursts of frantic activity. If you can devise a way to make your scene do more than one thing, like advance the plot and examine a character flaw, by all means, do it. There’s no rule that says scenes can’t multi-task. In fact, the story will likely be better off if they do.

Think of scenes as chains of cause and effect. Scenes typically follow one storyline or subplot. Something happens to create the first link in the chain and subsequent events generate additional links. These chains also require a satisfactory end. If you can’t think of a way to do that, give serious thought to nuking the entire chain. Why is it there if it has no conclusion? What’s the point, except to annoy the reader?

At the end of the writing day, prepare yourself for the one to come. You’ve likely already thought about what comes next. Jot yourself a note or two about it. Identify anything you know you should include, anything you don’t want to forget. Then relax and enjoy the balance of your non-writing day. Give your internal storyteller a rest. Just be aware that most writers can’t completely turn that rascal off. And that’s okay, too.

When your next writing session begins, take the time to review what you wrote the day before, and be sure to dig out the plot line scenes which immediately precede the one you’re about to write. Refresh yourself with the details you’ll need to continue the thread.

Then write like your life depends upon it!

–Josh

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Gettin’ Unstuck. Part 2 (Encore)

Dollarphotoclub_61604780 smAssuming your plot works, and you have enough subplots to carry the load when your primary storyline begins to buckle, you might still be roadblocked by character issues. You wouldn’t be the first writer to discover your protagonist isn’t everything you thought she was. There’s a good chance you’ve found and fallen in love with one or more shiny new characters who do nifty things, get involved in deep mysteries, have passionate sex, or otherwise wrestle around in the Do Cool Stuff portion of your hindbrain.

It’s time to trot those rascals out and do something with ’em! Turn them into Point Of View players. Very often a different look at the same old problems–especially if skewed by an oddball perspective–will make the old stuff new again. Or at least more palatable.

Dollarphotoclub_61604780 sm2The logical alternative to having your characters do things, is to invent nasty things you can do to them. [Cue: evil laughter] Seriously, readers care more about how characters persevere than they do about how they look, what they say, or where they come from. The more dastardly the tricks you play, the more dear those players become in your reader’s mind.

Let’s reflect a moment on what makes a plot twist diabolical. In a perfect world, you’ll be introducing a threat which operates on two or more levels. Physical threats are the easiest: “Give up the secret, or we’ll cut your leg off.” Physical threats with an emotional component are a little harder, but just as effective: “Give up the secret, or we’ll cut your kid’s leg off.” Figuring out how to work in a philosophical threat is likely the hardest of all, but it, too, can be devastating: “Give up the secret, or we’ll cut your kid’s leg off and make everyone think you did it.”

There are a host of fairly common ways to launch your character(s) in different directions. None of these is particularly fresh and new, but they’ve all been well received by readers, so you’ll be on fairly safe ground to use them:

  • Introduce someone with a dark and dreadful secret.
  • Arrange for an unexpected sexual tryst between two (three?) main players.
  • Bring in a new character so strange he/she upsets everyone and everything.
  • Kill off a character unexpectedly. Use a level of gruesomeness to fit your story.
  • Have someone betray your protagonist.

640px-Blue-footed_Booby_w textAs an alternative, you can always do the “What If” dance. This involves asking a dozen “what if” questions about your plot(s). Record the answers. Write ’em all down. Don’t cheat! This is a great time to get crazy. No idea is too weird or too funky. No character is off-limits; no mayhem is too great, no sin too unthinkable.

This is bold, blue sky stuff–free range, get naked, don’t even think about staying inside the box kinda material. Kill, maim, coerce, rape, strangle, lie, molest, badger, blackmail, bonesaw and/or banish any player who hasn’t been toting their own weight. Be cruel, quick, and decisive. Then step back and see what yumminess you’ve wrought. At this point you’re free to change anything and everything, right? If not, you wouldn’t have gotten stuck in the first place! Put it all on the table–everything–every last bit of whatever you’ve got.

Because the alternative means giving up, throwing yet another story into the trunk and never looking at it again.

And if none of that works, take a meat cleaver to the last 5 or 10 thousand words you’ve written. Obviously, they’ve led you astray. They’re not working; so nuke ’em, and good riddance. (Yes, of course I know it’ll hurt like hell, but you’ll be better off without ’em. And besides, we both know you’re going to copy them to another file just in case you want to get ’em back. I can almost guarantee you won’t want them later on, but that’s another discussion.)

Finally, we come to the ultimate approach, the last resort, the final directive. Oddly, this works for an astonishing number of writers, especially those who’ve examined all the foregoing alternatives and found them totally unacceptable. Maybe it’s time to just grit your teeth and keep on keepin’ on. Write your way outta the fog. There’s a perfectly palatable answer in there somewhere. You’ve just got to dig it out.

If that doesn’t work, open your wallet, make sure it contains lots and lots of spendable cash, and pay me to figure it out for you. I’ll be more than happy to take a look. My rates are semi-negotiable (“semi'” meaning somewhere between expensive and exorbitant), but I guarantee results. I won’t guarantee you’ll like ’em. I will promise, however, to point out a way to the finish line. You’ll still have to make the journey.

–Josh

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You’re stuck? Too bad. Some remedies, Part 1 (Encore)

Roll_a_boulder smWhere did it all go wrong? Your story was cooking along nicely right up until– Hm. Somehow, somewhere along the way, something happened–either to the plot or your enthusiasm. Maybe both. Or maybe it was something else, some wrong turn, loose end, or forgotten clue. Now it’s sitting forlorn and half-finished, give or take a few thousand words, with a formerly proud parent in hand-wringing mode trying to decide how best to achieve some kind of consolation. [Hint: bourbon works, but it’s only temporary, and it won’t do anything to get the story back on track.]

Just knowing you aren’t the first to slide into this sad state doesn’t help much. Nor does the knowledge that the universe is awash in unfinished/trunked/junked or klunked manuscripts. Back burners from Beantown to Bora Bora are crowded with stories that started out great then turned into whimpering piles of literary slag, or snot, or worse. But, before you work your way through all the supposed stages of grief–probably somewhere between depression and acceptance (but after denial, anger and bargaining)–understand that there might be hope.

More than likely, the problem lies in one of three areas: there’s a plot problem–be it primary or secondary; there’s a major lack of conflict; or your characters aren’t pulling their weight. Naturally, each of these groupings has a variety of constituent issues. I’ll tackle the first area here, then move on to the others in my next post.

Without reading what you’ve done so far it’s impossible to diagnose specific plot problems. What I can discuss are issues commonly associated with plot problems. The first of these is boredom. Your plot simply doesn’t hold your attention. It probably did when you started, but now? Meh. Not so much.

Why? And more importantly, what to do?

portrait of man thinking1) You could start by dreaming up a subplot. Find something that’ll shake up your characters and give one or more of them something to worry about. Even if your subplot unwinds quickly, it’ll shift attention away from your sagging primary plot. If it’s more involved, it could amplify the main storyline.

Subplots needn’t be complex. They can start with something as simple as an odd turn, an unexpected shift in attitude, or a mystery–something that just doesn’t seem to make sense. Nor are you limited in the number of subplots you concoct. As long as you have a decent stable of characters to link them to, you can dream up as many subplots as you can keep track of.

2) There’s a good chance you have no bloody idea where your story is going. (Listen up, pantsers!) You’ve got at least three options:

A- Find the plot holes now, and fix ’em. You probably know where they are, or at the very least, you’ve got suspicions about where they are. Take the time now to identify them and figure out how you’re going to plug those holes.

B- Outline your opus, even if you had an outline to begin with, because obviously, it ain’t working. Go back and outline it again–start to finish–based on what you’ve written, not on what you intended to write before you got sidetracked, your car died, or your dear aunt Sue married the abominable snowman/used car salesman. Use whatever outline format works for you, from the most detailed to the least. Just do it!

C- If the thought of outlining is more than you can bear, do at least one thing: figure out how your story ends. Nail it down–who lives, who doesn’t, everything. Write it down, too. Don’t mess around with this, it’s critical.

Next up: a couple other ways to rescue your tome from the toilet.

–Josh

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Arty rules are rubbery (Encore)

It’s not that I hate saying it; I hate having to say it. Arty rules are rubbery.

When writing, whether for a fiction market or in a memoir, the rules aren’t immutable. They weren’t etched in granite via lightning strike nor by vengeful gremlins nor even by well-meaning bureaucrats with no concept of unintended consequences (as if there were any other kind). You can break the rules anytime you need to. The operative word here is “need.” I’m convinced that the “arty” rule set evolved as the result of countless writers making the same bad choices so often, that some editor somewhere screamed “There oughta be a law!” so loudly and with such anguish, that other editors also took up the call. However, since few had the power to enact legislation, thereby shifting the duty for enforcement to the state, they had to settle for mere rules.

rulesAlas, the landscape is riddled with rules, everywhere for everything, and they’re often wildly different. The rules for golf, for instance, bear no resemblance to the rules for football, or bowling, or fly fishing (or to much of anything else, come to think of it). Try comparing the rules of etiquette with the rules for mud wrestling. And in most cases, there are exceptions to every rule. (To be ruthlessly honest, I’m not sure there are any rules for mud wrestling. Thinking about it did provide the opportunity for me to search for representative images, which I thoroughly enjoyed even though I failed to find any suitable for a <cough> family-friendly blog like this one.)

In writing, more so than elsewhere, the exceptions are so common that calling the rules “Rules” is pretty silly. Calling ’em suggestions would be more accurate, but who heeds suggestions?

Seemingly endless lists of Dos and Don’ts exist for writers. Don’t start your novel with a dream scene; don’t over-do dialect; kill all your darlings; don’t let your children grow up to be cowboys, etc. One can’t be expected to remember them all. Knowing and understanding most of them, however, is essential. We’re all going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. It’s a learning process after all. No one is expected to ski flawlessly the first time out on the slopes. They are, however, expected to ride the lift chair the same way as everyone else. Obviously there are downsides to ignoring the rules. On the ski slope it could mean breaking a limb. In writing, it could result in having readers laugh at you or your work.

The point of this rant is not that you should ignore the “guidelines,” or whatever the writing world chooses to call them, simply because you can. The idea is to learn the rules so well that when the time comes, you can sidestep them without doing your opus any cheater catharm. And yes, I know it may sound trite. The reality is anything but.

Sometimes my writing students adopt the attitude that the rules are holy writ. They definitely aren’t. But they aren’t arbitrary or capricious, either. In most of the countries of the world, folks drive on the right. That doesn’t mean they can’t swerve left to avoid colliding with something. You have my permission to do the same thing when writing. Just understand what you’re doing when you do it.

There. I feel better now. Don’t you?

–Josh

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Where Do Stories Come From?

Students often ask me this question, and I usually respond with a flippant answer. “It’s the bourbon,” I’ll say or something equally dumb. But it’s much more likely that I’ll get my ideas from daily life unless I’m just building a new tale for a continuing series.

But stories from daily life? Especially my daily life? How can they not be boring?

It’s all about using one’s creativity. Start with something commonplace and imagine ways in which it becomes fantastic. The technique is called “What If?”

My bride and I visited the magnificent Gibbs Gardens (see note at end) on her birthday. While wandering the trails through acre after acre of woodland hills flooded with daffodils, we came upon the sculpture garden. (I later learned these delightful art pieces were designed to honor each of Gibbs’s grandchildren.)

But why couldn’t these fanciful statues be the genesis of new stories? One could look at any of them and ask, “What if?”

For instance, what if this little charmer actually had the power to summon butterflies at will? Or have them do her bidding? What if she needed them to keep watch over someone or something? How would they communicate, and what would she do with the knowledge gained?

Not all such questions need answering, but asking them frees up the options and offers potential direction. Could this smiling little girl be anything but innocent? One might argue it either way and produce a story well worth reading.

Or one might use another of these wonderful sculptures and produce an entirely different story. Where, for instance, might one go with two children riding on a huge tortoise? They’re clearly having the time of their lives, but how did they get there? From whence came their sturdy mount, and more importantly, where is it going? Who’s behind it? How did it happen?

All of this is grist for the mental mill; one needs only to tap into it.

And, while we’re still on the grounds, though a short hike from the bulk of the sculptures, there are other potential stories. What if this fellow is lurking in the background of all the other tales?

While these story-stimulating questions may have the essence of something from the pens of the Grimm brothers, there’s nothing wrong with that! Stories can evolve from anywhere and anything. The only limits are those a writer chooses to impose.

So, the next time you wonder what in the world you’re going to write about, just ask yourself, “What if?”

–Josh

(Note: Gibbs Gardens is located in Ball Ground, Georgia, roughly an hour north of Atlanta. This 300-acre property includes a stunning, European-style manor house and two hundred acres of manicured gardens, paths, and woodland. Prepare yourself for a delightful day outdoors!)

Posted in short fiction, Writing | 4 Comments

A Little Voice Exercise (Encore)

In writer’s circles, “voice” is often discussed as if it’s some mystical element that seeps out from the heavens–or maybe the depths of an adult beverage–to infuse one’s writing with the essence of truth, gravitas, or some other damn thing.

It’s not. Really.

Voice is a reflection of everything a writer brings to a work, typically manifested in the way a narrator puts things, but it can be broader than that. It can include the dialect of one or more characters; it can express an attitude or a distinct point of view. Your voice should be different from that of everyone else on Earth, and it will be unless you’re deliberately trying to sound like some other writer.

Here’s an experiment you can try with this voice thing. The intent is to make you focus on content, and let your personal style–your voice–flow in whatever way feels natural to YOU. Working quickly, write at least one paragraph based on each of the following scenarios (use 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person, past or present tense–whatever feels right):

1)  It’s your first day on the job as a remedial reading teacher in the maximum-security wing of a federal penitentiary. Your class begins in two minutes, and you’ve just learned that one of your inmate students is a serial killer who targeted people “just like you.”

2)  You sell used cars, but you’re not very successful. You see a car on the lot you know has already been sold several times. It looks great and runs like a Swiss watch, but never stays gone for long. Someone you know–but don’t really like–wants it desperately. The commission is substantial. That’s when you learn the last three owners died within days of buying it.

3)  Daryl “Sure Shot” Slade has come to town looking for you, and revenge. Dodge City doesn’t offer many places for someone famous–like you–to hide. Too bad your reputation is based on a lie. And now, here comes Slade, pushing through the double doors of the saloon, itching for a fight.

4) “Anything,” is what you promised you’d do: “Sure, anything, for a million dollars.” The TV producer who took you up on your offer is filming a reality show, and you’re looking at a two-quart saucepan full of live worms. The producer smiles, calls for action, and says, “Bon appétit.

5)  You’ve been away from home for years. Your CIA job is so sensitive you can’t talk about it, but you never stop working. You’re constantly evaluating threats and assessing situations. That’s when you recognize that the man dating your widowed mother is a spy, and probably an assassin.

When you’re done, review your work, but not for grammar and punctuation. Review it for style and see if the approach you used for the content has a certain flare. That–more than likely–is your voice. You can wash it, comb it, even fluff it up a bit, but that’s your sound; that’s your voice.

If your response to one of these tidbits tickles you; if you think it captures your voice; why not clean it up and post it in the comments section? I’d like to see it. If writing about one or more of these scenarios interests you enough to do a full story, so much the better.

Go. Write. Publish!

–Josh

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Show What, Exactly? (Encore)

If there’s one piece of writing advice that predates all others, I’d guess it’s the “Show, don’t tell” mantra. And there’s plenty of proof that the tired, old adage is dead on the money. If anything, in today’s crash-bang-boom-sound-bite-MTV era, the need for showing over telling is more important than ever.

Consider these two images. Both depict a dog who is, well, dog tired. Which of these two photos is more memorable? Which one actually says something about how tired the dog is? This is a fairly typical example of the Show Don’t Tell concept. It’s: “the dog was tired” versus “the dog dropped to the floor and rolled on his back in exhaustion.” One informs; the other paints a picture.

The concept also applies to what goes on internally. What is a character thinking or feeling that can be demonstrated through their actions? How can we show those things?

One answer, I think, requires a bit of play-acting on the part of the writer. Consider a simple, domestic scene. Your character is a male, and he’s facing a task that deeply troubles him. How do you show that? Try putting yourself in his shoes and think about what you’d do. It’s morning; there’s a box of cereal, a bowl, and a banana waiting for you. You’re in a foul mood to begin with when you notice the cereal box is all but empty. The banana looks more brown than yellow, and a whiff of the milk suggests it’s gone way past “iffy.” How do you react? How hard do you slam the over-ripe fruit into the trash? What about the milk? How gently do you dispose of it? Do you search for another box of cereal? What if the only thing you can find are Quaker’s Indigo Sugar Bombs or Kellog’s Stix and Twigs?

The spoon and bowl suddenly become players. What do you do with them? Do you go ahead and eat something anyway? How viciously do you chew? How angrily do you tear open the cereal box? How nasty is the note you write for whoever does the grocery shopping? Or, do you put everything back the way you found it and hope someone else deals with it? Either way, you’re showing, not telling.

The point is, any or all of these things provide a means of demonstrating a character’s feelings. A good writer doesn’t have to mention anger, frustration, displeasure, or even annoyance. That’s all perfectly clear because it’s been shown.

If using props doesn’t work for you, try focusing on reactions. Your character could be late for a meeting, a lover’s rendezvous, or an assassination attempt. Traffic is terrible, or the train is too crowded, or the weather has created problems for everyone. How does your character react? More importantly, how would YOU react in such a situation? Would you slam doors? Scream at other drivers? Bodyslam your way onto the subway?

If that doesn’t float your showmanship boat, try costuming. Go to a second-hand store and look for garments that might appeal to your characters. How do they feel when wearing them? How do YOU feel? Try something utterly inappropriate. How does that work? Imagine yourself wearing it, not because you want to, but because you have to. How does that flavor your emotions? Simply donning such costumes provides a rich opportunity for expression. Yank the belt tight. Throw the scarf over one shoulder. Button the too-tight jacket. Translate your feelings, your actions, and your emotions to your characters.

Or, finally, imagine yourself receiving bad news. How do you react? Do you weep and tear at your hair? Wring your hands? Throw things? What if it’s good news? Do you shout? Weep for joy? Call your friends and neighbors? Whatever your reaction, it’s a safe bet your readers will have experienced something similar, and when they read how your character responds, it will trigger their own memories and feelings.

When you can do that, you’ll OWN your audience. They’ll follow you almost anywhere.

–Josh

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The saga continues…

I’m pleased to announce that I’m finally making some headway on a fourth volume in the Little Primitive series. It’s been just a hair over seven years since the first book in the series made its debut, and Mato, the enigmatic, two-foot-tall warrior burst onto the scene after being mauled by a savage feline.

In the new book, the adventures will continue, and while Mato will once again play a major role, a few wicked new characters will join the ensemble cast in what may well round out the full story of Mato’s clan as it faces the prospect of extinction. That’s the plan for now, anyway.

The good news is, you can pick up a digital copy of A Little Primitive, the first book in the series, for FREE starting today, Feb. 21, and running through Thursday, Feb. 25. Here’s the link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AAVLDFK

If you haven’t experienced this high-octane, oddball odyssey, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. And feel free to say something nice in a review!

–Josh

 

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Passion isn’t enough (Encore)

When it comes to writing creatively, passion certainly helps, but I think it’s over-rated. In addition to passion, there are several other P-words that apply. The one most critical to your success probably won’t be the same for me, but every word on the list counts, so it doesn’t matter where we start when listing them. That said, I’ll just dig in.

Finish! No matter what it takes or how long.

We’ll start with perseverance, that quality which drives a writer, or any other artist, to actually finish something. For all the oohs and ahs over the volume of work being published today, whether independently or via traditional means, the volume of work being abandoned is significantly higher. Simply put, most stories are never finished. The number of unfinished novels festering on hard drives, filling up notebooks and nourishing paper mites around the world staggers the imagination, even one as vivid as mine. Finish what you start.

Premise is a word that should top the list for many novelists. A book without a premise is a book that’s going nowhere, because the author hasn’t chosen a destination, much less the route to take. Figure out a way to state the central idea of your story in one sentence. Be sure to include the following: a person, in a place, with a problem. Then, define the primary obstacle and what’s at stake. That’s your premise. Anything that doesn’t advance the premise is a waste of time–yours and your reader’s.

Let’s move on to pacing, the bane of so many nascent novelists. It should come as no surprise that writers love words. We love their sound, their feel, and the way they reflect how incredibly clever and gifted we are. <cough, wheeze> All too often, however, our splendiferous words get in the way of the story. We get wrapped up in the texture of the tale, and we load the poor reader down with so much detail and/or backstory that they forget why they opened the damned book in the first place. Anything that doesn’t move the story along is slowing it down and ought to be heavily edited if not jettisoned altogether.

perfectionPerfection plays a role in novel writing. In one sense it’s crucial; in another it’s suicidal. If you strive to find the perfect words for every situation, the idea of perfection is an ideal worth pursuing. Replacing stative verbs (was, is, were, etc.) with verbs that actually do something is a great place to start your hunt for perfection. But don’t get so caught up in the process that the work is never finished. I’ve published fifteen novels, and there’s not one that I couldn’t improve. At some point, however, you have to pronounce the work done, so you can move on to the next project.

I could add a few more P-words, like pedantic, punditry, and philosophy, but I think I’ve done enough for this round. Maybe I’ll tackle those next time.

–Josh

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Takin’ a break for a special occasion…

Rather than attempt to impart words of wisdom about writing, I’m going to spend that time with the love of my life, Annie. It is, after all, our anniversary–fifty fantastic years!

I could go on at length about what makes her special and how much she supports me in my writing, editing, and teaching efforts, but that’s not why you dropped by. So, instead of carrying on further, I’ll just post a photo of the two of us.

I promise to return to business as usual next week. ‘Til then, stay well and keep writing!

–Josh

 

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