Ya gotta have heart

Though clichéd, it’s true that the building blocks of a good novel are the scenes. I imagine if one looked hard enough it would be possible to find a novel with neither scene nor chapter breaks, but it would definitely be an oddity. Most readers like having a convenient dreamstime_m_17293986-crpdplace to pause, should nature call, for instance. But, if you approach your job as a novelist with the right frame of mind, you’ll be able to force that reader to haul your book along with them when they trot off to take care of business.

Therein lies the power of the scene, and the real reason for its primacy. Scenes offer a grand opportunity for storytellers to leave audiences hanging. In the oral tradition, because of time constraints and other issues not directly tied to the story, tales are typically single point-of-view affairs. They’re generally told in a linear fashion, too. Novelists, on the other hand, have an unlimited number of scenes at their disposal along with a potential horde of characters to supply a point of view. The opportunities for leaving a reader drooling to find out what happens next are endless. That’s power!

Does every scene need to be an old-time cliffhanger? No, of course not, but an occasional threat to life and limb rarely hurts. At least, not in the realms of fiction. At the most basic level, a scene should offer a bit of information that’s relevant to the plot or a sub-plot. Keeping that in mind will help a writer focus on moving the story forward. Scenes that don’t advance the plot, don’t belong. Go ahead and cut them now before you get too attached. This is more than just killing your darlings, which is pretty good advice. This is more like killing your darlings and their families.

I’ve written wonderful scenes which I felt sure would drive my story, only to realize they only added length, not depth. They contained nothing new, plot-wise, and the story worked just as well without them. But these were really, really good scenes! So, rather than consign them to the digital dustbin, I squirreled them away for later use. Two, in particular, drove short stories I wrote much later, adding the very depth they couldn’t provide when initially written. (Full disclosure: I had to change names and settings in both. In one case, I even changed the genre. Point is, they weren’t wasted.)

One particular element can make a scene truly worthwhile: suspense.

And how does one do that? Simply by asking a question that isn’t answered. Hopefully, you’ll be able to avoid the temptation to have the narrator (that’s you, Bubba, no matter what you choose to call yourself) ask the question in some blatantly meat-axed, melodramatic fashion: “Will the gigantic boulder break loose and crush the girl scouts camped below?”

Instead, you want the reader to pose the question. Your job is to set the scene: happy little campers frolic in the shadow of “Ol’ Man Mose,” an enormous be-prepared-compositeboulder so named because of its peculiar head-like shape. The rain has stopped, and the kiddies are preparing to spend the night, unrolling their sleeping bags amidst giggles and laughter, blissfully unaware of the danger they’re in. Meanwhile, a steady drip of runoff from countless storms has eroded one too many pebbles from beneath the hoary, moon-sized rock they pressed into service for shelter. It shifts a fraction of an inch, a movement which goes completely unnoticed.

At this point, the smart writer will end the scene and move on to some other character or characters in some other situation. The reader, much like the boulder, is left hanging. Will it shift some more? Will the girls be crushed? Can’t they see the danger they’re in?

There’s only one way to find out, and thus the page-turner is born.

So, should you infer from this example that the primary story is about girl scouts and camping? Hell no! It’s about a park ranger, or the scout leader, or a politician in Washington, DC, some 2,000 miles away. Or, more likely, it’s about all three. Is the scene necessary? Yes, provided it gives the reader a tidbit of information which advances the story. Maybe the scout leader has always camped near Ol’ Mose, despite repeated warnings that the rock is unstable. Perhaps the ranger has a history of chasing campers away from that spot, or [cue evil laughter] luring them to it. Perhaps the politician has blocked the funding that would have allowed the DNR to secure the big, bad boulder. Any or all of these things could be in play. Maybe there’s something hidden under the rock. Maybe….

Knowing when to end a scene is critical. Fortunately, the more scenes you write, the easier finding that sweet spot becomes. Eventually, you’ll be able to feel it. For now, just work toward it, secure in the knowledge that all you need to do is paint enough of the picture to leave the reader wondering. And if possible, worried.

There’s obviously more to writing a novel than this, and we’ll examine another major aspect of the craft next time. So stay tuned!

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Remakes are fine for Hollyweed

makin-copiesDo you really and truly want to write something that’s not only been done before, but done to death? Ick. And suddenly, an imagined protest from one of my students pops into my head: “Gimme a break! I’m no genius. How d’ya expect me to come up with something totally new and different? It’s all been done already!”

Though tempted, I won’t merely lean on the alleged quote from Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office in 1899 to then President McKinley, urging that his department be closed down since “…everything that can be invented, has been invented.” (The quote is almost certainly apocryphal, by the way. Sorry, Chuck. Sucks to have been you.)

Instead, I’ll quote the inestimable Martin Varsavsky: “What we need is not just intelligence, it’s mutant intelligence, mutant thinking, mutant thoughts. We need to combine the ability to reason with the ability to ‘morph’ a thought into a whole new 17249743_ml-txtproposal.” And lo, the words were spoken, and they bore the imprimatur of truth. I should have set the word mutant in italics. Mutant. (I feel better now.)

If we hope to create something new, we must attempt a bit of mutant thinking, perhaps even use some mutant logic. When a stereotypical option rears its ugly head, we need to divert our thinking onto a different path, one that’s so less traveled as to be pristine — new. So, how the hell does one do that?

Simple. One fractures the paradigm.

Instead of “boy meets girl,” “boy meets boy,” or even “human meets non-human,” we need to stretch still further. How ’bout “boy meets god?” (Note lower case “G.”) What form(s) might god take in such an instance? What if god lived in the boy’s sock drawer? (“Can ya hear me, God? It’s me, Doober.”)

What if god were another kind of animal? What if god was a parrot? Or an insect of some kind? (Watch where you step!) Before we wander too far into Kafka-land, let’s stop and consider the concept of mutant thinking. Go somewhere unexpected; do something unplanned; experience something that shouldn’t happen. This is how you morph the commonplace into the creative, how to re-make something obvious and overdone into something original.

31075440 - woman cyborg of steel and white plastic

Like… I dunno. Robot sex!

Okay, I admit, that’s creepy. And I’m not sure where one would go with it. But then, what might someone do with it? If there are robotic consorts, why couldn’t two of them meet and, who knows, fall in love? Imagine the conversations they might have, comparing notes on all the wretched humans with whom they’ve had to deal. What if someone recorded their conversations? What if…

And there it is: “What if?” The fiction writer’s raison d’etre. What if the hero is really a schmuck? Nah; everyone owns that t-shirt. Maybe the hero’s girl isn’t true blue? Again, nah. The problem here is that Hollywood has been digging in this dirt for so long, that all the easy role reversals have already been reversed. Think “Star Wars.”

So where does one go from there? Options abound, believe me. Leave the good guy/bad guy roles in their traditional forms and find your mayhem elsewhere. How ’bout the stock market? Consider an IPO (initial public offering) for shares in a company that grants wishes, or overturns dictators, or resurrects extinct species? Hm. I think I hear the theme music from “Jurassic Park.”

Here are a few What Ifs off the top of my head:

  • How ’bout a history book that allows readers to actually see into the past as if they’re watching events in real time?
  • 40898049 - cartoon rat looking through binoculars vector illustrationHow ’bout a highly trained rodent that can conduct espionage?
  • How ’bout an athlete (actor, politician, teacher, cop) who’s really an alien from the seventh planet? (No Clinton/Trump jokes, please.)
  • How ’bout a pair of shoes that’ll take you anywhere you want to go, instantly?
  • How ’bout a pair of earmuffs that allows the wearer to eavesdrop on any conversation anywhere?

The point is, you don’t have to rely on old tropes and tired themes. You just have to dig around a bit to find some turf that hasn’t already been plowed a gazillion times. And, if you can’t think of something, there’s still hope. Tell the old story better than it’s been done before. Hollywood’s been doing it for years.

 Now, go thou, and be fruitful. Or write. That’d be even better.

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And so it begins…

In my last post I touched on the essentials of a good opening for genre fiction novels: character, conflict and setting. I prefer the more memorable, alliterative rendition: a person, in a place, with a problem. (A while back I offered a simple method for generating story ideas using this approach. It’s right here in case you missed it.)

In my classes, there’s often great consternation when I discuss this approach to story building. “It’s too formulaic, too pat, too restrictive, too… whatever.” Nonsense. It’s merely a plausable framework for creating interest in virtually any sort of fiction. A more cogent question is: how profound should the opening problem be?

person-place-problemIf one takes the position that good stories feature characters who evolve as a result of the challenges they face, then the story-opening problem should not be the climactic issue. A good example is captured in this photo which recently went viral. If, for instance, we’re writing a story about a gutsy rescue worker, this might be an episode we’d want to use later, indeed much later, as something we could work toward. Opening the story with our hero dangling from a chopper while a great white shark attacks him doesn’t leave us much room for growth. After all, the best genre novels require a continuum of ever-increasing drama (often called “try/fails”) which ultimately lead to a single climactic event. The chopper and the chompers shown here seem like a perfect fit for the climax.

But wait! We could be missing some opportunities here. What if the story isn’t about the poor schlub on the rope ladder? What if it’s about the chopper pilot? Let’s call her Wanda, and maybe the dangling daredevil is Calvin, her fiancé. That could make for an interesting tale. Did they have an argument before starting their air rescue shift? Could Wanda be looking for a way out of her wedding? Maybe she’s just trying to get even with Calvin for something he did, innocently or not. On the other hand, she could be daydreaming about their upcoming nuptials, blissfully unaware of the gigantic eating machine about to turn poor Cal into an hors d’oeuvre.

chompOur intrepid adventure addict, on the other hand, will either survive or not; there isn’t a whole lot we can do with him after this, aside from handing him a change of underwear or posting his obituary.

Other tale-telling options would include making the story about the shark, or the people maintaining the chopper, or whoever photographed the carnage. In any of those situations, one could conceivably begin with the principal subject in the photo. For most writers I suspect the situation is so dramatic, however, it would be nearly impossible not to use it climactically.

Ah, but there’s the challenge. How could you start here and still amp up the drama? That’s what real writers do. Don’t accept the obvious. Don’t take the path readers expect. Don’t limit yourself to any of the first ten things that come to mind. Instead, open yourself up to other opportunities. They’re legion. You just have to look for them.

 I’ll suggest some ideas for doing just that, next time.

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Speed dating and page one

We’ve all heard about the importance of first impressions, and there are warehouses full of data which support the concept. For a novel–especially for a writer’s first novel–nothing is more important. If the opening of your story fails the first impression test with the reader, she’s gone. Forever. She’s not going to look back; she’s not going to give you a second chance, much less a second thought. You’re done.

It’s possible the next reader (hopefully, the next “book buyer”) will completely connect with your opening. Shazaam! They’ll be in love. It’s possible, sure, but very unlikely. The goal of an opening should be to appeal to a mass audience, and if the first reader turns up her nose, chances are the second one will, too. And the third, etc.

In speed dating, the first few seconds of eye-to-eye contact are the most critical. Likewise, when a reader first meets your book, your opening words face a similar prospect. You must demonstrate, in a handful of sentences, a few paragraphs at most, that the story you want to share is worth reading. The opening must be so good the person holding your book will be moved to pay for the privledge of reading it.

Reader courtship is a challenge, but it’s one all novelists must meet if they desire to be successful. The speed dating analogy offers several parallels. Originally created by Rabbi Yaacov Deyo to help Jewish singles make new acquaintences, the practice has expanded to assist a wide variety of people to meet others of similar circumstances. The opening of your book should seek to do the same.

If you’ve written something that falls entirely within a single genre–a western, a romance, a space opera, or a spy story for instance–that ought to be reflected in your opening. The most important elements in the opening, however, are character, conflict, and setting. In other words: a person, in a place, with a problem.

In the speed dating universe, many participants make a decision about whether they want to see more of a person in the first thirty seconds. Talk about pressure to perform! It’s not all that different when it comes to your opening. In traditional writer parlance, this process is called setting a hook, but I think that term denigrates the reader. I’m not looking to reel in a trout; I want to engage the curiosity and imagination of a human being who will not only enjoy my work, but who will tell their fellow readers about it.

Doing that means engaging my readers–making them care about my characters and/or their issues. At the very least it means I have to pique my reader’s curiosity. And do so quickly. On page one, if possible.

Maybe it’s better to think of that first encounter as a blind date rather than a speed date. In either case you’d want to do everything in your power to look and act like someone who’s company is worth keeping. It’s the same for your book. You just can’t afford to make a bad first impression.

So, what goes into an engaging opening? Does it have to be short and snappy, or can it take a little time to develop? Thank goodness it doesn’t have to be written in 30 seconds. I’m quite certain some of the best openings, as short as they are, took a long time to craft. How you might go about that is something we’ll tackle in the next installment. Stay tuned.

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Writing a novel is like…

63447767_ml-txt…eating an elephant. You have to do it one bite at a time. No one seems to care how the elephant feels about this. The point, obviously, is that writing a novel is a big job, and you won’t finish it overnight.

Many would-be novelists give up when they think about how big a project it is. The good news is, you don’t have to be one of ’em. All you need to do is adopt the elephant-eating mindset. Just take it one bite at a time. You’ll have the whole critter digested before you know it.

Not convinced? Okay, here’s another way to look at it. Think about the last time you went shopping at a mall. Easy enough, right? All you had to do was hop in your car and go. Easy-peasy. No big deal. But consider for a moment all the steps you had to accomplish in order to do that:

  • You got dressed and ready to go.
  • You climbed into your car, adjusted the seat and mirrors, maybe turned on the radio.
  • You opened the garage door and carefully backed down the drive.
  • You navigated several miles of road and more than a few traffic lights.
  • You may have had to change your route because of traffic or road repair.
  • You finally got to yolur destination and spent some time looking for a parking spot.
  • At long last, you bebopped into the mall and decided where you wanted to shop first.

bongAre you beginning to get the idea? Even something as simple as buying a hair ribbon at Hermione’s Haberdashery (& Head Shoppe) requires quite a number of distinct steps. And with just a little imagination, each of those steps could involve some sort of conflict or complication. (All stories require conflict or complication of some kind, be it large or small. No conflict? No story. Trust me on this for now; we’ll cover it in detail very soon.) Herewith, some potential complications:

  • While getting dressed, your hair refuses to cooperate, or you find a rip in your favorite blouse. Maybe you can’t find your car keys.
  • When you get in your car, it won’t start, or you discover someone spilled something on the seat (beer, milkshake, fertilizer, who knows what).
  • You get the garage door open and realize a garbage truck has broken down at the end of your driveway, or the neighbor’s house is on fire, or a child has had a bike accident and you’re the only adult in sight.

Any or all of these things might have happened, and you haven’t even left home yet! This set of compilations may not make for a compelling read, but it should demonstrate how one might break down a complicated process into more easily addressable chunks. Just remember to add some spice–conflict or complication, remember? For today, you don’t have to write an entire chapter; you only have to work on the scene where your protagonist discovers the hole in her blouse.

Are there clues to suggest how it might have happened? Is there someone in her household who hates that garment? Did she somehow forget the wild night on the town when she met bikersthat “bad boy”-type at the bar who talked her into going for a ride on his motorcycle, and she ended up spending the night at his place? [Note: Yeah, it’s easy for me to get crazy with ideas like this, because I’m not working from a premise. If I had one, say something like: illicit drugs lead to immorality, this scenario would be perfectly fine. On the other hand, if the premise were something like: strong will leads to success, the scene above would be much harder to squeeze in. See previous discussion on the P-word.]

So, kiddies, today’s lesson is simply this: don’t be overwhelmed by the enormity of writing an entire novel. Rome wasn’t built in a day, or a weekend, although, according to Mental Floss, John Boyne claims to have written The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in two and a half days. That makes my head hurt. The best I’ve done is a modest 70,000-word novel in six weeks (a mere 1,667 words per day).

This definitely isn’t a race, but if it were, it’d be a marathon, not a sprint. Worry about your book, and write it, one scene at a time. Getting it done is far more important than getting it done fast.

 

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How much is enough?

ImageWriters 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. I know several 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, though as we’ve seen, the tradition of sending your work to agents or editors with no thought of self-publishing is not the way it’s always been done, despite what the Big Five would have you believe.

Not that there’s anything wrong with having your book picked up by Simon and 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 removed from the shelf; the covers will be stripped off; the books will go into a dumpster, and the covers will be mailed back to the publisher for credit. 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 imprint without changing his or her name (because the accounting department will never forget that their first book wasn’t a hit).1st-rounder

I 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 Pee-wee 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 many of the people who do make it really aren’t that good. Some 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 you write depends on you and the demands on your time. Writing a novel is a tough job; it can take a very long time. On the other hand, it’s possible to crank out a damned good story in a very short time. I wrote and edited my first solo novel, Resurrection Blues, in six weeks. (That’s a record for me, one I’m unlikely to duplicate.)

I think two pages a day is a very reasonable target. Others will disagree. If I’m on a roll, I’ll produce a whole lot more than that. If I’m doing my taxes, or taking care of my grandkids, or bathing the dog, I’m not going to write much of anything. (Bathing the dog is exhausting!)

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!

–Josh

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A Note About the P-word

Not that P-word. Sheesh.

Writers are often asked the same questions by readers. These are among the most common:

“Where do you get your ideas?”

“What if your story is too big for one book?”

“Are your characters based on real people?”

 “I’ve got a fabulous idea for a novel. If I tell you about it, will you write it?”

 “Did you know how the story would end before you started writing?”

My answers to such questions, like those of many writers I know, are usually flippant. I’m fairly certain the folks asking such things don’t really care what the answers are and will usually be happy with a humorous response. So, where do I get my ideas? Bourbon.

If a story is too big for one book, I’ll write two, or three. I might make it a series.

All my characters are based on real people, but you’ll never recognize any of them, and the people they’re based on will never recognize them, either.

No, I won’t listen to your idea and write your book for you. You can pay me to edit the book YOU write, however, but you probably can’t afford me.

The P-word is Premise.

I almost always know how my stories will end when I begin writing them, and there’s a very good reason for that. When I’m contemplating a new story, and I’ve given some thought to the ground I want to cover, it helps enormously to settle on the story’s premise. A premise defines what the story is about; it condenses all the action and states its effect on the characters.

You’ve heard these before and others like them: Love conquers all; faith leads to good fortune; loyalty will be rewarded, etc. All of these are happy, positive premises, and most folks can think of many stories which “prove” them. Lassie stories, for instance, always seemed to be based on the loyalty premise. How else would Timmy ever have gotten out of the well? (And Lord knows he fell in often enough.) But Lassie was always there. Always. That’s one of the great benefits of having a premise; if you have one, you’ll instinctively know where your story is going.

But what if you wanted to write a story in which Lassie bails on Timmy? Instead of raising the alarm and leading the rescue party like she normally does, she blows Timmy timmys-an-idiotoff and runs away with the hunky Labrador retriever from next door? You can still do it, but you’ll need to revise the premise. The new one would be: loyalty isn’t rewarded.

Now, to be fair to Lassie, you may need to show in your story just why she would give up on little Timmy. Maybe ignoring him in his ultimate moment of peril is the result of too many incidents where her good deeds went unrewarded. In which case, the premise could be altered just slightly to: loyalty isn’t always rewarded.

The point is, a premise can direct the flow of action to a logical conclusion. There’s no requirement that the outcome be positive, negative, or indifferent; that’s entirely up to you (as a general rule, however, I’d avoid indifference; readers hate that). The premise is a simple statement that boils your story down to the most basic level–the actions of your characters result in a particular outcome.

Consider the animated Disney version of the Cinderella story. The premise for that couldn’t be more simple: goodness leads to happiness. Despite all the terrible things Cinderella’s stepsisters do to her, she remains good and kind. And when the time comes, i-can-make-it-fither foot fits the glass slipper perfectly which results in her marrying the handsome prince and living happily ever after. In older versions of the story, the wicked stepsisters go to bizarre lengths to cram their great, gnarly feet into the crystal footwear. One of them even chops off her toes! There’s a premise for their story, too: meanness leads to misery.

As you’re working on your tale, keep the premise in mind. If one of your characters strays too far from it, take that as a warning signal; you could be wandering off course. As I recall, Cinderella never went hunting, took flying lessons, or practiced spell-casting. None of those things would have been in line with the premise of her story. Nursing an injured forest creature, on the other hand, would fit perfectly.

I opened this discussion with some questions. Here’s another: “I know how my story begins and ends, but I don’t know what happens in the middle. Can you help me?” Sure. Just tell me what your premise is, and the story practically writes itself.

We’ll talk more about this in futures sessions, but for now, give some thought to what the premise of your story might be. Remember that premise can apply to more than one player. If you employ multiple point of view characters, you’d do well to have a premise for each of them.

 

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