Death, Doom, and Destruction

I am often suspicious of action movies. They’re not bad, as a genre. Far from it. I’ve seen some wonderful action films, and I would gladly watch them over again. But for me, that list is pretty short. I’m content to watch most movies once. It’s the same with books.

I know this will sound strange, but some action movies just simply have too much action. Hollyweird, or a goodly percentage of it, seems to think all one needs to make a great film is a story line that promotes non-stop action. All the more recent James Bond movies, for instance, have lengthy action sequences featuring one death-defying feat after another just to get the viewer to the title screen.

By the time the moving knothole featuring the intrepid “double-oh” agent rolls across the screen, most viewers are panting. They’re desperate for a break. And they always get one. In the Bond films, the action isn’t non-stop. Viewers get frequent breaks, usually for something funny and/or sexy. Or funny and sexy. Or just… n’mind.

If you’re writing a novel, or even something shorter,  you have a similar option. You can run your characters ragged, plunge them from one life-threatening scenario into another, and never let them — or your reader — catch a break. Or, you can build in something less hectic to tie those scenes together. I’d avoid filling these gaps with backstory (click HERE to find out why). Instead, I’d focus on something to make the character(s) in question more sympathetic. If that doesn’t work, there’s always humor. Or humorous sex. Or just plain old… n’mind.

Take a look at the tension timeline chart. Notice how the line marking the advance of tension is NOT a straight line. It rises and falls, then rises and falls again. It keeps doing that until the story’s climax, the pinnacle of tension. All those dips along the way represent rest stops for both the reader and the characters. They also provide handy introductions to the next bit of anxiety into which you may freely plunge your players. Sink or swim, y’all!

If, on the other hand, you try to push the action lever into full throttle mode, and never let up, as is done in any number of action films, the reader, like the movie viewer, will become numb to it all. Dropping the F-bomb into every sentence, as if no other adjectives or verbs exist has a similar effect. Whatever shock value it might have had quickly dissipates. Eyes glaze over, literally and figuratively, and the audience is lost.

Readers must have some reason to care. Characters who always win, never get hurt, and/or never have an emotional reaction to what’s going on won’t win any hearts. If they die, who cares? Why should they?

Characters can make bad choices now and then; audiences don’t mind that. And when the consequences of such choices prove funny, so much the better. But a character who never makes the right choice will quickly earn a reader’s scorn. The humor which attends the first or second such episode won’t extend to a third.

The same holds true for unrelenting doom and gloom. Your tale may focus on the moral, physical, or psychological decline of a character, and that’s fine. But if it doesn’t offer some relief along the way, readers are likely to abandon it well before the end. There has to be some way to bring a smile or a laugh to the table every once in a while. It may not be easy, but then, writing isn’t supposed to be easy.

Dark humor can be your friend.

–Josh

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Weed Out Weaklings

Imagine sitting at your computer or (for the Luddites among us) at your typewriter. Your newest sparkling prose sits comfortably in view, and yet no matter how much you love every carefully crafted syllable, you still have an inkling that there might, just possibly, be room for improvement.

Thus forewarned, you poise one trembling digit over the keyboard. Is it worth it? Can you do it? Will pulling the trigger on it now cause angst and regret later?

No, of course not! Now is not the time to be timid. You hold your breath, make a determined face in case anyone’s looking, and initiate the keystroke.

<Click!>

You instantly launch the literary equivalent of a Nuclear Weed Whacker. Its mission: hunt down weak words and march them to the gym where they’ll become buff and spiffy — shiny stars amidst the magnificentness of your other verbiage.

[Sigh] If only it were that easy.

It’s not. There are no easy cures for poor writing. Weak writing, on the other hand, can be improved without a great deal of stress. It will require some effort, and a willingness to use some imagination, but that’s what writers are supposed to do. It shouldn’t require a cadre of toughs to make you do it.

So, let’s assume you’re willing to make the effort. What, exactly, should you be fixing? What is it that causes writing to be weak? My best guess is it’s the use of passive voice, in which no one actually does anything to anyone else — things just happen to people. The all-time best example of this is: A good time was had by all. Whoa! Really? What could possibly be more clear and to the point, short of a suction needle in ones cerebellum? A better question: can you read that without yawning? I can’t. My gag-reflex kicks in too fast.

I can give you three closely related things to look for. Keep in mind, like all my advice, the Spice Rule applies here. (Spice rule? Whut? Look here.) Oh, and don’t mind the bugs. They’re merely meant to underscore my feelings about the words in question.

Long-time readers of this blog, and/or folks who’ve suffered through one or more of my classes, already know I’m not a big fan of so-called “stative” verbs. These are the simple verbs we use to indicate the “state” of something. He is fat, f’rinstance, or she was tired. It includes the plural versions as well, such as they were frustrated. I urge you to search your text for these, especially “was” since they make it easy to rob your prose of active verbs — words that actually contribute to the whole by being descriptive. Rather than slide by with the statement, “Booger is fat,” use something that paints a picture. To wit: Booger’s spare tire droops over his belt for a full 360 degrees, or Booger’s fat hangs off him like a fleshy life preserver. Whatever. Paint a picture.

Next up are adverbs. The easy way to sniff these rascals out is to look for words that end in “ly.” When I’m searching, I look for the two letters followed by a space. Adverbs usually signal there’s a weak verb hanging around, a word you were too lazy to find and replace. For shame! Why in the world would you take the easy way out when finding and fixing such words isn’t that difficult?

You want examples? Okay. Imagine this line in your prose: Delores wore an extremely pretty dress. No kidding? What, exactly, are the extremes of pretty? Why not spare a sentence or two that actually describes the slinky, off-shoulder shift that hugged Delores’ elegant curves like a satiny second skin? Get the idea?

Here’s one more, in case you’re still head-scratching. Look for words that end in “ing.” As with the “ly” example, you’ll have better luck if you search for the three letters followed by a space. There’s no sense looking for words with “ing” smack in the middle. More often than not, “ing” words are paired with a stative verb, assuming you haven’t already nixed as many of those as you could find.

Again, the problem with such words is that they invite the writer to abandon their creativity. Little Portnoy was running across the palace lawn. [Eye roll] C’mon! Gimme something memorable, fer cryin’ out loud. How ’bout: Little Portnoy loped (skipped, meandered, schlepped, wiggled, twirled, danced, whatever) across the palace lawn, leaving a trail of sticky cuteness behind.

That’s enough for now. I’m not trying to make your life difficult; I’m trying to make your prose more interesting. Some day you’ll thank me. In fact, you can do that right now! Show your love by buying one of my books. Here’s a handy link: Click me, baby!

Just for giggles, send me some examples of how you’d fix the wretched sample sentences above. Post ’em in a remark.

–Josh

 

 

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Plot vs. Character?

For as long as I can remember, people in the writing community have debated the issue of plot versus character — which should drive a story? One side of the argument claims a complex plot will generate enough conflict to keep all the characters busy, and therefore interesting. The other side points out that if a character isn’t developed well enough, readers won’t care what happens to them, and the complexity of the plot becomes moot.

My own feelings fall somewhere in the middle. When writing a story, be it a novel of epic proportions, a short story, or a bit of flash fiction, there’s no reason why it can’t offer both good characters and an interesting plot. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be.

The nice thing about plot is its adaptability.  One can start with a basic action plan and use it in almost any genre. Here’s an example from one of my writing classes. It’s about as basic as it gets:

  1. The point of view character (POVC) has run afoul of the primary authority figure where they live.
  2. They must leave or suffer consequences.
  3. They have three opportunities to make their exit.
  4. The first two exit opportunities don’t work for them.
  5. They choose the third exit opportunity, but it turns out not to be as advertised.
  6. Something unexpected happens.
  7. The story ends.

In terms of 7-point plotting, the first two items on the list provide the opening: a Person, in a Place, with a Problem. Items 3-5 provide the Try/Fail elements. Item 6 is the Climax, and item 7 is the Denouement (“…the marryin’ and the buryin'” according to Twain).

On face value, the plot isn’t intriguing. In fact, it’s cut and dried. But notice how easily it can be bent to fit almost any genre, and there are no restrictions on the POVC. If this were to be a fairy tale type fantasy, the lead character could be an elf, a unicorn, a dragon, a princess, or virtually any sort of creature which might inhabit that domain. Or it could be a western in which a crooked politician, a wealthy rancher, or the owner of the town’s only saloon calls all the shots. The POVC could be a cowboy, an Indian, a barmaid, a schoolmarm or whatever.

The same framework could easily support a space opera, a romance, a detective story, or a tale of the macabre. When I present the framework in my classes, I ask the students to choose any genre that appeals to them and use it.

I also ask them to select a premise for their story — just a simple sentence to guide the direction of the tale. There are a gazillion possibilities, most of which come neatly packaged in cliches. F’rinstance:

  • Honesty is the best policy
  • Never look a gift horse in the mouth
  • Love conquers all
  • There’s honor among theives
  • Befriend everyone; trust no one
  • Better lucky than smart
  • Etc.

A premise can be a remarkably handy device. And, like the simple plot framework, it’s flexible. Take any of the examples above for instance, and reverse the sentiment:

  • Honesty is NOT the best policy
  • ALWAYS look a gift horse in the mouth
  • Love conquers NOTHING
  • Honor among thieves? Are you kidding?
  • Befriend no one; trust everyone
  • Better smart than lucky

I suspect you’ll find it much easier to write the story with these three things already in hand: Plot framework, Genre, and Premise.

From there just pick a POVC you find interesting, plug him (or her, or it) into the opening scenario, and you’re cleared for take-off. The premise will make it fairly easy to determine why and how the first two exit options aren’t suitable and why the third one is.

I usually stretch the writing assignment for this exercise over two or three weeks. I only ask for the opening — a couple hundred words, give or take — to be shared with the class when it next meets.

I’d love to see what some of my readers might do with this. Give it a try, and if you like what you come up with, let me know, and I’ll tell you how to forward it to me. If there’s enough response, I’ll feature some of the openings in a future post.

Now, get busy!

–Josh

 

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Platform? What’s a platform?

There’s a hard truth awaiting some who write in hopes of publishing. Far too many don’t discover this truth until they’ve finished a book and put it on the market. So let me give it to you up front: for the great majority of writers, books are hard to sell. Really, seriously, hard to sell.

If you’re a professional athlete, a well-known politician, or a celebrity ax murderer, you will have already established an audience. All the publishers know this, and because of it, they know they’ll reach a fairly decent level of sales automatically. The publicity you’ve already received guarantees it. The rest of us, however, must build our readership, or as it’s called these days, our “platform.”

The first thing to do is secure your name as a web address. If your name is Joe Doe, you need to grab the rights to the domain name: JoeDoe.com. If you’re name is Harry Beefsteak, go get HarryBeefsteak.com. If you intend to write under a pen name, get the domain name that captures it. Just search the web for “domain names.” You’ll find a ton of places which can do the job for you at very little cost. It’s easy, but it’s important. If you can’t get your own name, work out a variation of it, and try for that. More on this later.

Whether you intend to produce your book independently or via a traditional publisher, you will need to establish a base readership, folks you can count on to either buy your work or tell people they know about it, preferably both. Where and how does one do that?

Start by building an email list of the folks you know–people who can be counted on to support your efforts. Friends, family, and close associates will fill that list, of course. Then what? Assuming you have a thousand or so names listed, you’ve got a great start. But even then, you still need more. So review all the social connections you have: church membership, civic clubs, professional associations, etc. Track down those addresses, too. You’ll need ’em all.

Sadly, it still won’t be enough. Where to next? Social media, whether you’re already active or not. It’s time to reconnect with old school chums, former neighbors, anyone and everyone you can find from your past who might be a potential reader. At this stage your main concern is volume. The more connections you can make, the better. Not everyone on your list will buy your book, obviously, but because they know you, they might. Or they might mention it to someone else.

Building your platform further will require extra effort, and this is where your domain name comes into play. You’re going to need a website where people can go to find out more about you and your book(s). And, you’ll have to opportunity to sell your books there, simply by linking your titles to the on-line retailers who carry them. You can even become an Amazon Associate, and earn a commission on any sales which result from someone clicking on the link you provide.

If you’re really serious, you may want to start a blog. If you have or can present some expertise on a subject, make that your focus. Otherwise pick something you can write about for a long, long time. My own blog, which focuses on writing, has grown steadily since I started it a few years ago.

Writing and maintaining a blog is a huge commitment. I update mine every week, but I know others who post every other day. Posting less than once a week is unlikely to result in much of a following. You’re building readership, right? To do that you must provide something to read. If possible, you’ll want to establish  two-way communication with your readers.

Soliciting feedback is a great way to do that. Sponsoring contests and encouraging use of the remarks feature will give your readers the means to do it. It’ll also give them a sense of ownership, and they’ll be more receptive when your next book comes out. You’re not just building an audience; you’ll be building relationships.

This doesn’t mean you should hammer your readers with one sales pitch after another. In fact, the opposite is more effective. Save your announcements for when they’ll be most effective, post them, and then go back to business as usual.

And if you STILL don’t have enough names (hint: you’ll never have a list big enough), it’s time to go back to the salt mine.

Here’s another way to build your platform: public speaking. By the time you start thinking of this alternative, you probably will be an expert, so why not take advantage of it? There must be a million clubs and organizations who are looking for dynamic speakers to liven up their meetings. That could be you! It is the proverbial double-edged sword, however. If you’re just simply a horrible, boring speaker, you run the risk of chasing folks away. So, be charming, clever, and above all, humorous. And don’t forget to make your books available for sale afterwards. That’s a perfect time to collect still more names and email addresses.

If you find you actually enjoy standing in front of people and sharing your wisdom, consider teaching a class at one of the senior centers in your area. Most cites have at least one college with a continuing education department. See what you might be able to do there. Good teachers are hard to find. Play that to your advantage. And don’t forget to keep collecting those names and addresses!

Once you’ve got that starter list–and there are plenty more ways to expand it further–you’ll have the nucleus of a platform. Use it to announce new books, public appearances, contests, book signings or other opportunities for shoulder rubbing, hand-shaking, and book selling.

That’s it in a nutshell. There’s a lot more to the topic of marketing: book launches, signings, publication parties, etc. But this is enough for now.

 

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Have All The Stories Been Told?

When looking at recent movie titles, it’s easy to wonder if all the really good stories have already been told. They haven’t, of course, but one still wonders. Not every new film is a remake, but it seems like quite a few of them are. So, is it the same with novels? Are the same stories simply being told over and over again?

For some writers, that’s true, especially for books which feature the same cast in volume after volume. Some of those stories definitely suffer from sameness. But then one only has to consider popular TV shows which also feature an ensemble cast dealing with a terrible new crisis every week (or one especially ugly crisis which is dragged out all season). The difference is that a variety of writers are generating stories for the small screen while most novelists are working alone (James Patterson’s fiction factory notwithstanding.)

And then there’s Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s likely the record holder for movie remakes. Obviously, there’s something endearing about young love, family enmity, leaping to conclusions, and tragedy, right? No, wait. Maybe it’s the poetic dialog, because don’t we all just love to ruminate in Elizabethan English? (Try poking a “wherefore art thou” into a contemporary novel and watch readers flee.)

So, what is it? Where’s the magic? Why do certain stories get lost in the crowd while others become all-time favorites? That list includes such worthies as Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” and Edgar Rice Burrough’s “Tarzan.” And everything in between! So what makes these stories stand out? What makes them the ones people never forget?

I believe it’s a variety of things which all combine to form a rollicking good yarn. For openers, there must be originality. Love stories will always be popular, but “boy meets girl” by itself isn’t enough. There were stories set in the tropical wilderness long before Tarzan slid from the pen of a Sears Roebuck employee in 1912, not the least of which was Kipling’s Jungle Book. Tarzan turned out to be an English Lord, but Mowgli? What did become of him? Here’s a thought: what if someone wrote a story about a boy who went into the jungle to raise wolves? Hm….

The story must not only be original, it must be well-told. The author’s voice must be appealing; the characters must strike a chord with a majority of readers, and the content must be profound enough to survive the advance of technology. That’s a lot to ask of a first time novelist. Yet Harper Lee did it with To Kill A Mockingbird, and Margaret Mitchell did it with Gone With The Wind. Nor were they the only ones.

There’s no shame in setting your sights high. There’s also no shame in managing your expectations. The marketplace is more crowded today than ever before, and it’s only going to get worse. Not long ago all you needed was a louder voice than the competition. That’s no longer true since just about everyone is screaming. That means you need a compelling message and a consistent and persistent delivery.

You’ll also need faith and a great heaping helping of good, old-fashioned luck.

Just for kicks, what books have you read that you’d like to see made into movies?  (I’d nominate several of my own, but that probably violates some sort of ethical standard. <sigh>)

–Josh

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So *Much* Excitement!

The title should actually read: SO Much Excitement! Because it stands to reason that the more emphasis you can squeeze into the typeface, the more excited your readers will be to read it. Right?

Uh, no.

If you’re one of those folks who simply can’t stand not giving your readers stage directions (multiple punctuation marks, boldface, italic fonts, UPPER case letters, or God forbid, all FOUR!?!) then you should probably be keeping a journal. Not because you may want to record insightful thoughts about tender moments in your life, but as a convenient storage place for all the EXCITEMENT IN YOUR WRITING!!! 

When it comes to font follies, I’m firmly in the minimalist camp. At least in my novels and short stories. I will italicize a word or two from time to time, but I try to limit that. As for the rest, no thank you. Why? Because readers hate it. They don’t need to be told what’s funny, or exciting, or puzzling, or ironic. Playing games with the typography won’t improve crappy writing any more than will printing it in a different color or on heavier paper. The only thing you can do to make your story more exciting, or funny, or whatever, is to concentrate on what will best garner those results.

You want mystery? Pose something mysterious. You want excitement? Put your players in peril. You want irony? Design it into your plot or better yet, let one of your characters slam into it at an awkward moment, preferably while being chased by a demon, an ex-spouse, a former employer, or perhaps a debt collector.

I don’t get much pleasure from chatting about the mechanics of writing. For most folks it’s deadly dull. But, when I look at some of my student’s work, I wonder if any of this is still covered in schools. I know many systems have abandoned cursive writing, but have they abandoned writing basics, or did that go out of fashion with chalk and slates?

Maybe it’s the influence of email, the internet, and social media monstrosities like Twitter, wherein the user–from president to pauper–wraps up a complete message in 128 characters or less. But hark! If you’re not tweeting, you aren’t subject to those limits, so you can use <gasp> the entire alphabet. You don’t have to construct tortured words to abreeV8 and save on your letter limits or pile up punctuation like rush hour commuters in order to convey meaning. Instead, you can actually write.

And, as long as I’m on this particular rant, allow me to point out the proper function of ellipses. These are the three little dots that have somehow gained super grammatical power among the Twitter folk and others who never had a terribly firm grasp on the finer points of punctuation. In short, ellipses do one of two things: they either indicate when a voice trails off (making it impossible to “hear” the rest of what’s being said), OR they indicate words a writer has deliberately left out, whether from a quote or some other source. In either case, the dots represent words that aren’t there.

That’s it. If an ellipsis falls at the end of a sentence, it’s proper to add one additional dot, the noble period, which typically occupies the tag end of most sentences.

Please note: the ellipsis, like the typographical nonsense alluded to earlier, is not meant to be used as stage direction. It doesn’t indicate a dramatic pause, shift change at the brewery, a hurried breath, time to signal the third base coach, or anything else. It stands for words that aren’t there.

And, by the way, an ellipsis has three (3) dots. No more, no less. Creating a line of dots longer than that will only annoy readers, especially editors, who more often than not love the language and hate to see it cluttered up. So, clutter not!

The take-away for today: be a writer, not a typesetter.

Please, feel free to argue with me. I’d love to hear some good reasons for using all these typographical tricks. I’m ready, really; so HIT me!?!

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