When the Obvious is Golden

by Larry Brooks

This morning on the way to the gym I was listening to sports radio in my car.  One of those talk shows where people on both sides of a microphone wax wise about what teams in various sports and leagues should be doing to win more often and more convincingly: who starts, who doesn’t, who to draft, trades they shouldn’t have made and should make, the evil nature of owners, the need to fire the coach, etc.

This morning’s caller wanted to know why his beloved Steelers always get their hat (helmet, in this case) handed to them by the Patriots, especially at the hand of Tom Brady. It was apparent that this was ruining his life.

The on-air sports-guy praised the caller for the question, which struck me as odd. It wasn’t a particularly good question as much as it was the voicing of frustration.  Because the answer was obvious. The Patriots own the Steelers because they are a better team led by a better quarterback. You could analyze what it is, specifically, that they do better, but it all boils down to this:

They execute the game at a higher level.

But this particular armchair quarterback sportscaster offered up this less-than-strategic take on what the real problem is, and how to remedy the situation:

The problem is the Steelers defense can’t stop the Pats, especially defending the pass. Their receivers are better than the Steelers secondary. Also, the Steelers D-line doesn’t put enough pressure on Brady in passing situations, which spreads the line of scrimmage for the running game while rendering the option a sure thing. The Steelers offense needs to be better, too. They need to show up in a bigger way.

In a word: duh.

Maybe it was a good question after all.

It isn’t just play harder. It’s play smarter.

Sorry if you’re not a football fan and the lingo sounds like Greek, but this is really basic stuff. Football 101. Especially those last two lines. He should name his radio show Captain Obvious On Sports.

  This reminds me of what’s going on in the writing world, as well.

Writers are constantly asking – newbies and experienced alike – what they need to do to write a better story. A novel that publishers and readers will buy and enjoy. A screenplay that gets attention in the movie biz. Short stories that win prizes and jump-start careers. The answer – the only answer – is much like that of this morning’s sportscaster. It’s not a secret, not remotely mysterious. It is an answer The answer – the only answer – is much like that of this morning’s sportscaster. It’s not a secret, not remotely mysterious. It is an answer that never

The answer – the only answer – is much like that of this morning’s sportscaster. It’s not a secret, not remotely mysterious. It is an answer that never changes, and is germane to all genres all the time. An answer that is obvious. It goes like this:

Come up with a premise that offers something new. Or at least gives us a fresh twist on the sure things we’ve come to love (like thrillers and detectives and superheroes and vampires and love stories). Give us great characters within a compelling dramatic arc, especially a hero to root for because we relate to the problem and goal being faced, all of it driven by stakes we feel in a deep and emotionally-resonant way. And then, write it well, with a voice that doesn’t try too hard and structure that creates great pacing and compelling exposition, within scenes that are crisp and visual and vicarious.

In other words… know and practice your craft at a higher level. Virtually every answer to this eternal question is some form of, or at least a slice of, the above.

No matter what your process, there are specific skills, forms, functions, and executions that lead to a higher level of efficacy. But writers sometimes need to be more interested in the question than the real, obvious answer.

Too often their questions, and the sometimes strong opinions they get back, focus on process, to the exclusion of a functionally-effective answer.

Executing on those basics should be the 101 of writing stories. Sadly, in reality, writers seek to skip to the 202. They step over the fundamentals to focus on the periphery. Too many writers simply don’t know, or embrace, the obviousness of how to write a better story.

Of if they do, they can’t quite reach that bar. Often because they insist on sticking with that vanilla, seen-and-read-read-it-before promise, or insisting that dramatic tension (plot) doesn’t matter because it’s all about the characters. Which is something they heard from someone who meant well, but didn’t deliver the whole picture.

Indeed, a compelling, memorable story is a high bar. Just ask the Steelers back there in our opening analogy. Just play better. Because once you know those basics, you have to put them into play. And that, at a professional level, is rarer thing.

The ongoing goal of serious and commercially-ambitious authors, then, should be to pursue and practice and refine those fundamental tenets of storytelling. The 101 of writing. Once you do, the frosting on that cake tends to manifest from the evolved instinct that those basics impart not only to the story, but to the author her/himself.

Truth is, not all writers begin with the earnest pursuit of these basics of story.

And yet, the information is out there. The entire realm of writing workshops, conferences, books, blogs and writers groups exists for the express purpose of explaining what this means to writers who truly want to a deeper dive into it all. That and, in the case of blogs, commiserate about the writing journey and give some writers the chance to write about themselves.

There are plenty of resources available on the peripheral issues, as well. Which is good, especially when embraced at the right point along the learning curve. But it can actually part of the challenge, too, because the frosting is worthless if the cake tastes like cardboard.

The “How To Land Your First Agent” workshop fills up quicker than the “Story 101” workshop almost every time.

Writing may be the only profession on earth where we have legitimized starting at the end of the learning curve and leaving the foundations of it all to a seat-of-our-pants chance.

Yes, there certainly are subtleties, nuances, and subsets branching from each of those categorical craft distinctions, as presented in the italics above. Those comprise the 202 level and beyond, building on a solid 101 understanding. Without it, writers may be putting frosting on a cake that didn’t rise in the oven.

As a story coach and writing teacher, blogger and author, people send me their stories all the time for evaluation. The details of their pitch are often vivid and fabulous. But it’s the 101 – the core dramatic premise, the richness of the hero and her/his journey/quest, the stakes, the arc toward resolution – that is often left wanting… well over half the time.

The 101 is hard. The core principles, so easily named, can actually be quite complex. That’s why we need to stay focused there, to build our storytelling muscle based on those core fundamentals.

This began with a sports analogy, so allow me to conclude with one.

I’ve participated in many spring trainings as a professional baseball player, albeit long ago. Now that I’m old and can barely tie my shoes anymore without ibuprofen, I’ve witnessed hundreds of spring training practices and games while living in Arizona, where 19 teams come together every February for seven weeks of… wait for it… returning to and practicing the core fundamentals of what makes their game effective and powerful. Sure, there are photo shoots and press interviews and uniform fittings, but the core focus of everything, morning to late afternoon, is conditioning and bunting and pitchers covering first base and turning a double play and optimizing one’s swing based on the count and the presence of men on base and getting the perfect angle of spin on a slider that needs to hit the black instead of out over the plate.

The core principles of fiction may be obvious, but they are not inevitable. You’re not born with them, either. They need to be called by name, defined by function, made clear through example and practiced until refined.

Even then… well, the Steelers roster isn’t filled with a bunch of wannabes. The fundamentals of the game are the prerequisite to even getting into a uniform, much less an agent. From there, once you get into a league of professionals – certainly, this is a goal we all share as writers – then, and only then, does the peripheral frosting matter all that much.

Writing is one of the best case studies that prove the old saying to be true: the devil is in the details, because the details may tempt you prematurely, seducing you into believing you are solid at the very core of things.

But the gold… that’s always available in the obvious.

(Image by Gareth Jones; used via Creative Commons license)

2+

How to Talk Tough

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Mickey Spillane

Those of us who write thrillers, noir, and crime fiction know that a huge part of our craft is tough talk—dialogue from the mouths of hardboiled protagonists, street hustlers, cops, thugs, hitmen, femme fatales, homme fatales, and other denizens of the dark side.

It’s not easy to do it artfully, for it is much more than littering the page with the F-bomb and its misbegotten progeny.

I saw a movie the other day, a highly-touted crime thriller. I won’t name it because I don’t like to put down other writers, but I will say the dialogue was pretty lame. What I mean is that there were a lot of F words tossed around without any originality or élan. Characters would just spout “F you” or “F that.” (But that’s how people talk in real life! you might be thinking. Well, you’re not writing real life. You’re writing fiction, which is a stylized rendering of life for an artistic purpose. Just recreating “real life” sounds doesn’t move the needle.)

So how can you talk tough without falling into the lazy lacing of platitudinous profanities? Let me suggest a few:

  1. Be Witty

This is the toughest (!) form of tough talk, but it pays big when you can pull it off. The master of this kind of gab, of course, was Raymond Chandler. His novels featuring PI Philip Marlowe are filled with snappy banter that works because (and this is the key) it is perfectly in Marlowe’s voice. It never seems to be a strain. Like this exchange in The Long Goodbye:

“See you around,” the bodyguard told me coolly. “The name is Chick Agostino. I guess you’ll know me.”

“Like a dirty newspaper,” I said. “Remind me not to step on your face.”

Or this from The Little Sister: 

“That slut. What does she say about me?” she hissed.

“Nothing. Oh, she might have called you a Tijuana hooker in riding pants. Would you mind?”

The silvery giggle went on for a little while. “Always the wisecrack with you. Is it not so? But you see I did not then know you were a detective. That makes a very big difference.”

“Miss Gonzales, you said something about business. What kind of business, if you’re not kidding me.”

“Would you like to make a great deal of money? A very great deal of money?”

“You mean without getting shot?” I asked.

“Sí,” she said thoughtfully. “There is also that to consider. But you are so brave, so big, so—”

“I’ll be at my office at nine in the morning, Miss Gonzales. I’ll be a lot braver then.”

Take your time with exchanges like this. Don’t force the issue. Play with the language. A different word here or there can make all the difference. I like the line from Lawrence Block’s short story “Headaches and Bad Dreams.” A detective is describing a suspect who is not exactly lovely to look at. “God made him as ugly as he could and then hit him in the mouth with a shovel.”

  1. Be Crisp

Tough talk is often clipped. It gives nice white space to the page, too. This was Robert. B. Parker’s preferred method. Here’s a bit from one of his Sunny Randall novels, Melancholy Baby:

“Sarah took a lot of drugs.”

“More than grass?” I said.

“Oh, yes. Hard drugs.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. I don’t use drugs.”

“Good for you,” I said.

“I graduate this June, and next year I want to be in a really good MBA program. I don’t want to do anything to spoil my chances.”

“So her drug use was disruptive?”

“Yes. She’d come in at night, late sometimes, and act crazy.”

“Like?”

“Like she’d be crying and seeing things and …” Polly shook her head. “Did you ever go to college?”

“I did,” I said.

“What did you major in?”

“Art.”

“Really?”

I could tell that Polly found that puzzling.

“How did you do?”

“I was a good artist and a bad student,” I said.

Go over all your dialogue scenes and look for words to cut. Replace some verbal answers with silence or an action beat. You’ll love the results.

  1. Be Over the Top

This is the opposite of #2. It should be done sparingly. But every now and then consider having one of your characters give vent with a paragraph or two of straight tough talk.

Mickey Spillane liked to do this. He of course invented the quintessential hard-boiled PI, Mike Hammer. But he also wrote stand alones. In The Long Wait (1951) the narrator, Johnny McBride, has been dragged in by the cops for questioning. McBride insults the cops (this will get him beaten up later) and tells them to inform him of the charges or let him walk. The lead detective says:

“I don’t know what kind of an angle you think you’re playing, McBride, and I don’t give a damn. The charge is murder. It’s murder five years old and it’s the murder of the best friend a guy ever had. It’s murder you’ll swing for and when you come down through the trap I’m going to be right there in the front row so I can see every twitch you make, and there in the autopsy room when they carve the guts out of you and if nobody claims the body I’ll do it myself and feed you to the pigs at the county farm. That’s what the charge is. Now do you understand it?”

Pick a tense moment of tough talk and put yourself inside one of the characters. Write a 200 word rant. Do not pause to edit. Come back to it later and review. Even if you only end up using one line, it’ll be a good one.

  1. Be Suggestive

As I said, tough talk does not have to be laced with expletives. You’re a writer. You have a whole palette of possibilities open to you.

Writers of the 40s and 50s often simply wrote things like: He cursed and walked out of the room. You know what? That still works. Readers can fill in the blanks in their own heads.

There are other methods. In Romeo’s Way I have a character, Leeza, who is young and foul-mouthed. Mike Romeo is trying to help her. She doesn’t want any. This character would definitely unleash a curse storm. But I didn’t want to lay that on the reader. So I did it this way:

She jumped back like I was the guy from Friday the 13th.

“I don’t think you’re safe here,” I said.

“What the h—”

“No time to talk. Come with me.”

I put my hand out. She slapped it. “Get away from me.”

“I’m on your side,” I said.

She began a tirade then, peppered with words with a hard K sound. She was a symphony of K. It was so constant and crazy, it hit my brain like woodpecker woodpecker peck peck woodpecker.

“Ease up,” I said. “There’s bad people who want you. Did you forget that?”

Woodpecker woodpecker!

“Your boss, one of your bosses, Kat Hogg, is in a car over there. Come with us.”

Leeza looked across the street. Then she turned and ran.

I said something that sounded like woodpecker myself and gave chase.

Dialogue, as I’ve said many times in workshops and in books, is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. So when it comes to tough talk, don’t be lazy about it. Be crafty.

7+

Summer Assignments

By Mark Alpert

I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks, enjoying the cool weather in northern Michigan, but even when I’m not working on my manuscript, I’m still thinking about writing. For instance, my daughter will take AP English in the fall, and her teacher gave the class a very ambitious summer assignment: reading “The Dead,” the famous James Joyce story that is the climax of Dubliners.

Joyce can be tough going, but Dubliners is his most accessible book, and even high schoolers can tackle it. Ideally, the short stories should be read in order, because Joyce gave a logical structure to the collection. The first three stories are told from the point of view of children — “Sisters,” “An Encounter,” and “Araby.” The next four stories are about the disappointments of young adulthood (“Eveline,” “After the Race,” “Two Gallants,” and “The Boarding House”) and the next seven focus on the even more tragic failures of mature men and women (“A Little Cloud,” “Counterparts,” “Clay,” “A Painful Case,” “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “A Mother,” and “Grace”). “The Dead” wraps up the collection by weaving together all the themes explored in the book: the paralysis of Irish society, the frustrating inability to cast off the English colonizers, the horrible toll of alcoholism on Joyce’s countrymen, and so much more.

But my daughter didn’t like “The Dead” very much after the first reading. She and her classmates couldn’t see the connections between the first part of the story — which describes a holiday party hosted by Kate and Julia Morkan, a pair of Dublin spinsters struggling to run a music school — and the second part, which focuses on their nephew, Gabriel Conroy, and a disturbing revelation about his wife’s past. The connections are there, though, and my daughter began to see them after reading the story a second time. The key to seeing them is the story’s title. The spirits of the dead hover over both parts of the story; the partygoers, for instance, talk about monks who sleep in their coffins (“The coffin is to remind them of their last end”) and long-lost singers whose voices are so fondly remembered simply because they’ll never be heard again. The dead stand guard over Dublin in the form of statues whose shoulders and heads are capped with the snow that is “general all over Ireland,” shutting down and paralyzing the country. And at the end of the story, Gabriel realizes that his wife will never love him as much as she loves the ghost of Michael Furey, the delicate seventeen-year-old who refused to go on living without her.

I loved rereading this story with my daughter, but it also disheartened me. How can I go back to my manuscript now? All my sentences look like trash in comparison.

But hey, I’ll give it a shot.

3+

Dialogue – Ten Ways to Make it Real

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Recently I’ve been writing characters with unique regional accents or characters that I’ve had to invent how they speak, because they are unlike any other character I’ve ever written. When you create a character like this, you have to work doubly hard to “see” them and “hear” them in your mind.

Listen to real conversations. I especially love eavesdropping on teens, but as writers it is fun to be a snoop and hear the way people express themselves and their cadence. People often speak in fragments and laugh at one word asides. They launch into a diatribe and get interrupted by someone else. How do they react? If they come from a large family, I have a pretty good idea how they would react. But if they are an only child, do they retreat until the blustery winds of a blowhard die down?

It’s important to not only hear authenticity, but to also visualize it, without losing the fluid flow, pace, or clear plot points conveyed. Fictional dialogue must have a point, too.

1.) How well do you know your characters?
• Does it take you some writing time to get to know your characters? A good exercise is to write your character in first person to take them for a test drive, to get a feel for who they are and what matters to them.

• Live in their skin for awhile. Imagine what they look like, what they would wear. Create a photo image board from internet searches to flesh them out –in posture, eyes, attitude, swagger, dialect, education, job, sense of humor, etc.

• When you have a good feel for your main character, pair them with other fictional sidekicks or antagonists who will argue with them or cause conflicts and friction.

• Be careful to minimize slang or poorly spelled words or lots of bad grammar. Readers might have a problem with dialogue that is difficult to read throughout a book, but a smattering of regional color can be just the ticket to setting your world stage.

2.) Imagine Playing Your Character on Stage
When I “hear” voices in my head (from my characters, that is), especially if I’ve written them with accents or attitudes, it is fun to act them out. Do this by reading aloud and embellishing with your thoughts on how they sound. Reading aloud helps catch edit issues, but it can also help you create a cadence suitable for your character and give you insight into who they are.

Whenever I do readings at book signings (which I LOVE to do), I really get into the reading and become the character. I sometimes have my attendees close their eyes to focus on the story and trigger their imaginations, forgetting that they are in a bookstore. Often you can hear a pin drop when I finish and you get the real reaction from those listening when they open their eyes and return to the present from where they’ve been. Who knows? Acting out your character can help you “see” them in your mind – how they move or do hand gestures.

3.) In action scenes or tension packed scenes, make the dialogue sound real.
As an author would shorten narrative prose to give the reader the feeling of tension, suspense, and danger, it’s best to use short, concise sentences to enhance pace. Each line is like a punch in the gut to give the reader a visceral reaction to the change in pace.

Some passages may have longer lines of explanation or technical plot essentials, but keep those to a minimum if you want pace to lead the way. An expert in a dangerous situation would not suddenly turn into Mr Wizard to explain everything. They might get impatient and find a quick example or way of speaking to get their point across, while showing their frustration. How do they react under stress will show in their dialogue.

A long back and forth with punchy short sentences can let the reader sense the mounting tension, but if it goes on too long, it can get old, fast.

Excerpt: The Darkness Within Him (Amazon Kindle Worlds)
When a startling vision triggered a memory Bram Cross thought he’d buried, an icy shard carved through his body The macabre and haunting face of his mother lurched from the pitch-black of his mind—her eyes, what she did.

No, I can’t do this. Don’t make me. He fought hard to stifle his childish, irrational refusal, but he had to say something.

“You’re an asshole. We shouldn’t be here,” Bram said. “Someone’s watching us. I can feel it.”

“Shut up. You’re paranoid,” Josh spat. “You said you’d come with me. Quit your whining.”

“Something’s not right.”

Josh stopped, dead still, at the mouth of the infamous tunnel. He stood on the spot where the mutilated, half-eaten bodies of dead rabbits had been found in 1904—killed by ‘Bunny Man,’ an insane prison escapee named Douglas Grifon. The bad omen made Bram step back, but too late. By sheer stupidity and bad luck, Josh had jinxed them both.

Josh glared at Bram as he reached into a pocket of his jacket.

“I brought insurance, courtesy of dear old dad. We’ve got nothing to worry about.” He pulled out a gun and grinned as if he had all the answers.

“Are you insane? Put that away.” Bram fumed. “I’m out of here. I didn’t sign up for this.”

Bram turned to go, heading back toward the car that Josh had parked at the trailhead, but his friend grabbed his arm.

“You’re not going anywhere. I’ve got the car keys. Man up, shit for brains.”

4.) Dialogue should intrigue and draw reader in. Don’t use it to explain or the lines fall flat.
Dialogue should enhance the action and add to the emotion and pace. If you take the time to explain an action, the dialogue will sound contrived. If you explain what the characters should already know, why are you doing it? Savvy readers know when the dialogue is meant for them and when it doesn’t add to the story, but detracts from it and slows the pace.

Think of endings where the villain goes through lengthy explanations to “tell” the reader what the book has been about. Old mystery formats are like this where Sherlock Holmes expounds on how clever he is by detailing “who done it.” If a certain amount of this is necessary, make it about a mind game between the hero and villain where they have a reason to “one up” the other with reveals, but keep it to a minimum and not at the expense of good dialogue.

5.) Interruptions can be good in dialogue.
Interruptions can focus a character, keep up the pace, or show a realistic way to direct the reader where you want them to do. Have your characters ask questions of each other to liven things up.

Excerpt – The Darkness Within Him
Ryker Townsend – FBI Profiler
After the kid undid the latch and the deadbolts, he opened the door enough for me to see the injuries he’d sustained in his fight with Mr. Whitcomb. Josh stared at me for a split second before he shoved the door closed, but I jammed my foot in the opening.

“Police. We just want to talk.” I pushed through the breach and he winced. “Are you Josh Atwood?”

He didn’t answer and backed into a small living room. Reggie and Jax walked in behind me.

“Hey, aren’t you supposed to show ID?”

I eyed Reggie and the detective indulged him with a show of his badge.

“But I didn’t invite you in.”

“That only works with vampires. Consider this a welfare check, Bueller.”

6.) Add tension in Dialogue by making your characters hesitate or stall.
Is one of your characters in charge or forceful? How does that manifest in the other character in the scene? Often dialogue is like a chess game where one person tries to outwit the other or get the upper hand.

When one character stalls or shuts down, and the conflict grows, that can read as very authentic. We all have little voices in our heads, especially when we are dealing with arguments or confrontation. Effective dialogue must have nuances like a dance choreography that flows naturally and reads as effortless. When the scene starts out, one character can suddenly change course. How would you reflect that? Conflict is always interesting.

7.) Cut out the unnecessary and keep your dialogue vital. No chit chat.
I often write dialogue first, like in a script, to flesh out the framework of a scene. Later I fill in the body language, action, internal monologue, but dialogue is vital to make the scene hold up. It’s what the reader’s eye will follow on the page. When I edit, I will tighten dialogue lines, especially in action scenes, to keep the lines flowing naturally.

8.) Punch up the dialogue with action or character movement in the scene.
Give the reader something visual to imagine as they read your scene. All dialogue scenes, where two characters sit at a table, can be mind numbing and boring. Make the scene come alive by giving them something to do, especially if it puts them at odds with each other. Make that action unexpected, like adding sexual tension in the scene below (excerpt from Elmore Leonard).

Even if you MUST put them at a table, give them something to do. I especially like body language where it’s obvious the characters are hiding something and have let the reader in on that fact. Or punch up a funny line with a physical habit to accentuate humor or give distinction to a character.

9.) Minimize tag lines and give characters unique dialogue so tags aren’t as necessary.
One of my edit reviews is looking at tag lines to eliminate ‘saids.’ I often replace a said with an action that attributes which character delivered the line.

Also keep in mind, if you have a number of characters in a scene, a well-placed ‘said’ can orient the reader and ID the character in a scene where it’s easy to get lost. Gender oriented lines can help distinguish characters, or the regional dialect, or even if one character has a certain type of humor. ‘Said’ is the kind of word that disappears in a reader’s mind, but if you string too many together, it’s like sending up a flare “NOTICE ME!”

10.) Reading authors who write excellent dialogue is important.
Real pros at dialogue make it look effortless. Get schooled. If an author makes dialogue work, try to understand why it works and how you can infuse that in your own style and voice. Here are a couple of examples:

 

Elmore Leonard Excerpt – From Out of Sight (U S Marshal Raylan Givens) – I can imagine this very visual scene with the sexual tension.

‘You sure have a lot of shit in here. What’s all this stuff? Handcuffs, chains…What’s this can?’

‘For your breath,’ Karen said. ‘You could use it. Squirt some in your mouth.’

‘You devil, it’s Mace, huh? What’ve you got here, a billy? Use it on poor unfortunate offenders…Where’s your gun, your pistol?’

‘In my bag, in the car.’ She felt his hand slip from her arm to her hip and rest there and she said, ‘You know you don’t have a chance of making it. Guards are out here already, they’ll stop the car.’

‘They’re off in the cane by now chasing Cubans.’

His tone quiet, unhurried, and it surprised her.

‘I timed it to slip between the cracks, you might say. I was even gonna blow the whistle myself if I had to, send out the amber alert, get them running around in confusion for when I came out of the hole. Boy, it stunk in there.’

‘I believe it,’ Karen said. ‘You’ve ruined a thirty-five-hundred-dollar suit my dad gave me.’

She felt his hand move down her thigh, fingertips brushing her pantyhose, the way her skirt was pushed up.

‘I bet you look great in it, too. Tell me why in the world you ever became a federal marshal, Jesus. My experience with marshals, they’re all beefy guys, like your big-city dicks.’

‘The idea of going after guys like you,’ Karen said, ‘appealed to me.’

 

John Steinbeck – Of Mice & Men

‘Tried and tried,’ said Lennie, ‘but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.’

‘The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?’

Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’

‘The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?’

‘Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.’ His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, ‘George…I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.’ He looked down at the ground in despair.

‘You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?’

Lennie grinned with relief.

For Discussion:

1.) What dialogue craft skills work for you? Any tips to share?

2.) What authors do you like to read for dialogue?

Vigilante Justice – $0.99 Ebook – Published by Amazon Kindle Worlds

 

6+

A Sea of Squares

by John Gilstrap

In the last few weeks, I’ve had the honor of teaching two of my six-hour classes entitled, “Adrenaline Rush: Writing Suspense Fiction.”  The first was at the always-wonderful Midwest Writers Workshop which is held every July on the campus of Ball State University, and more recently at the Smithsonian’s marvelous S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, DC.  It’s a fun, interactive course that includes four writing exercises that are designed to help students understand the issues of voice and characterization.

A large part of that discussion by necessity deals with point of view (POV).  I find that students inherently understand the relative strengths and weakness of first-person story telling, but when they shift gears into the third person, they have difficulty creating as intense a relationship between reader and character as they can with the first person.  I tell them that it’s largely a case of writing the same sentence and changing the pronoun (“His heart slammed in his chest as he opened the door” vs. “My heart slammed in my chest as I opened the door”), and while they get it intellectually, they have difficulty pulling it off on the page.  They tend to slip into that omniscient, reportorial space.

While teaching at MWW, I hit upon an analogy that I liked, and the students seemed to bond with.  I urged them to pretend that we were writing about a very intense chess game, along the lines of that scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where the chess pieces are living things.  I explained how the point of view of the chess master–the guy with the strategy–is entirely different from that of the pawn.  In the case of the latter, the poor guy just stands there, oblivious, staring out at a sea of squares until some unseen thing grabs his face and moves him forward.  After a few iterations, he finds himself kitty-corner from a guy who looks just like him, but in a different color, and now he’s supposed to kill him.  Hell, he never even met the guy!

That’s the close third-person, I told them.  Now, if you add the point of view of the knight who can’t move, but is exposed to certain death at the hands of the bishop on the other side of the sea, all because the pawn stepped out of the way, you’ve got a thriller told in shifting 3rd-person POV.  And it’s potentially much more interesting than the story that would be told through the omniscient view of the chess master.

What should I add in the next class to illustrate POV choices?

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On Breaking the Writing Rules,
Bad Advice and Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee in his library of 2500 books.

Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own. – Bruce Lee.

By PJ Parrish

A couple years ago, I decided I needed to get back in shape. I had gotten lazy, a little flabby and sort of depressed about it. So I decided to go to a personal trainer. John was just what I needed — a kick-butt no-nonsense guy’s guy who knew a lot about how the human body worked. He also knew a lot about how the human mind worked.

Or in my case, didn’t work.

It hit me somewhere around the second month of training that my brain was out of shape. I had lost discipline, fallen into bad habits, and was locked into an inertia of inaction.

You probably know where this is going. I am talking also about my writing life.

My writing routine had gotten slack. My output had declined. I was making excuses to not write. I was getting down about the whole thing.

John was big into martial arts, and his hero was Bruce Lee. He talked often about Lee’s discipline and his approach to his “art.” I pretended to listen as I did my curls and crunches. But stuff started to sink in and I did some research on Bruce Lee. Pretty amazing life, that guy. He was famous for developing his own brand of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do. He took techniques from a wide variety of other disciplines and discarded many of the “rules” of traditional martial arts.

But here’s something that really resonated with the writer in me: Before he got to this point, he spent years training in all the traditional styles like karate, aikido, judo. To find his own unique style, he did all the “basic training” and took no short cuts. He was a little like Picasso, who painted this

Before he painted this

Both Lee and Picasso learned the rules and then broke them.

Writers talk a lot about rules.  We here at TKZ talk a lot about rules. Maybe it’s because what we do is not easy to learn, even if you are a “natural.” We go to workshops and conferences, read how-to books, underline passages in Stephen King’s On Writing, looking for tips and techniques to help our writing. We want to get better, always, at what we do. We want to know the rules, because if you learn the rules, maybe you can get in the game.

Don’t use adverbs!

Don’t use passive voice!

Keep backstory under control!

Write every day or you die!

It’s a wonder we get anything down on the page. Except maybe our own blood.

Writer’s rules aren’t anything new. A guy named S.S. Van Dine’s set down his Twenty Rules For Writing Detective Stories in 1928. (“There must be a corpse, and the deader the corpse the better.”) Many other famous writers have been compelled to weigh in with their own lists. Here are a few tidbits I culled:

 

  • Margaret Atwood: Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  • George Orwell: Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Jonathon Frazen: It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
  • PD James: Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
  • Joyce Carol Oates: Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and “obscure” – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
  • Ian Rankin: Have a story worth telling.
  • Zadie Smith: Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  • Hilary Mantel: Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.
  • Henry Miller: Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  • Mark Twain: Write without pay until somebody offers pay.
  • Richard Ford: Don’t have children.

I can agree with most of that. But then again, I have dogs. There are some rules, however, I found that I can’t endorse:

  • Mario Puzo: Never write in the first person.
  • Robert Heinlein: You must refrain from rewriting except by editorial order.
  • Jack Kerouac: Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind.

If someone can explain that last one to me, I’d be grateful.

It used to be that you had to read a book to get advice from the famous on writing. When I first read Annie Dilliard’s The Writing Life, I didn’t learn how to write but I was relieved to learn I wasn’t alone in my self-doubts. But now, thousands of writing tips are available to us at the tap of a finger, and anyone can hang out a how-to shingle. So how do you sift the wisdom from the chaff? I remember when I was first starting out in the romance field, I read dozens of Silhouettes, went to the RWA convention in New York, and searched for the secret formula that would make me rich and famous. I had to learn to write sex scenes, which I hated doing, and back in the 80s, there wasn’t much help on the internet. I could have really used blogger Steve Almond back then.  He calls himself “an internationally famous author celebrated for my graphic portrayals of amour.” He wrote a blog  detailing his rules for writing sex scenes. Here’s one of his rules:

Never compare a woman’s nipples to:
a) Cherries
b) Cherry pits
c) Pencil erasers
d) Frankenstein’s bolts
Nipples are tricky. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and shades. They do not, as a rule, look like much of anything, aside from nipples. So resist making dumb comparisons.

If you want to read his other tips, click here. But be warned, they aren’t all PG-rated.

Rules can be confusing, arbitrary, and deeply frustrating. I guess the only good advice I can offer is what Bruce Lee suggests in the quote at the beginning of this post. Adapt what you find useful, reject what is useless, and find your own path. I’ve been writing novels professionally for about thirty years, and whenever I see someone — famous or not — laying down rules, my hairs go up.  Still, I have discovered a few “rules” along the way that I have found deeply useful:

Kurt Vonnegut: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.  This taught me to dig deep for motivation for every character I put on the page, especially the villains.  Later, I heard Les Standiford preach the same principle when he said that until you understand what your character wants, not just on the surface but at his deepest levels, you can’t write a good story.

Linus Pauling: The way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. This taught me that not every story idea will work.  Some are good maybe for a short story. Some are ugly babies that might need a few years to blossom into beauties — ie, you might not be ready to tackle that story at that point in your life or technique. And many ideas  are just dumb or dull and you have to let them go. Sometimes you have to drown them.

David Morrell: Know your motivation. I’ve heard David speak at conferences about this and he has lots to teach writers. But this one always stuck with me. Here’s more from him: “Before I start any novel, I write a lengthy answer to the following question: Why is this project worth a year of my life? If I’m going to spend hundreds of days alone in a room, I’d better have a good reason for writing a particular book.” I urge you to click here and read the full post. It’s instructive and poignant.

Ernest Hemingway, who didn’t put his rules on paper, but did confide this to his friend Fitzgerald: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of sh*t. I try to put the sh*t in the wastebasket.”

So yes, study the rules. Learn the rules. Many even write a few unpublished stories that adhere to rules and old formulas so you can see the departure point. But then have the courage to break the rules. I don’t read much sci-fi and I don’t read any YA. But this blog was inspired by a story I heard about recently about a debut author named Marissa Meyer. She wanted to write a Cinderella story. Pity the girl…not even published yet and she was breaking a big rule:  Don’t rely on stale old plots! Agents and editors want something fresh!

Meyer’s book is called Cinder. Yes, it’s based on the old fairy tale — Cinder is an outcast with nasty stepsisters. She’s also an Asian cyborg. The book became a New York Times bestseller. Why did I like this? Because one of my “rules” is to say something unique or say it uniquely. This is what Meyer did – took something old and made it new and her own. She broke the rule. And somebody came up with a slamming cover.

One last rule. It comes from one of my favorite new-to-me authors:

Neil Gaiman: The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

What are some “rules” that you’ve found that work for you? What are the ones that you’ve rejected? And how did the rules help you find your own way?

 

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How not to do an Interview!

As a regular reader of the NYT Book Review I usually look forward to their weekly column ‘By the Book’ but this week’s contribution raised my eyebrows. Unfortunately, to me at least, it was a classic example of what not to do in an author interview. The author this week was Philippa Gregory (a link to column can be found here) and in some ways my post today is a follow up to the one I did about Hilary Mantel (who appeared to look down on female historical writers such as Gregory!). Gregory’s interview is full of such gems as:

  • “What I don’t read is historical fiction in the period I am writing. Firstly, the characters as described by anyone else drive me mad…”
  • “Why does anyone write sloppy genre novels? The typing alone is so exhausting – surely if you’re going to undertake 150,000 words, you might as well have something interesting to say?”
  • “Why do people write crime novels with blindingly obvious murderers?”
  • “Choosing to write a genre novel is like fencing the universe because your are afraid of space.”

The upshot of Gregory’s tone is that she is far above those mere mortals who write ‘genre’ novels. What bothers me the most about her town is the unprofessionalism that seems to be on display. When giving an interview, I think that all writers (and especially those who enjoy popular acclaim) should be mindful of the image they present. There is no need to denigrate ‘genre’ writers (or any other writers for that matter) and there is certainly no need to show disdain for their craft. By the Book is normally a column that displays the quirks of an author and their book tastes, it doesn’t usually involve book snobbery or an attitude that, quite frankly, turns me off reading an author’s work….but this one did.

My takeaway from this? A few pointers on how to do a professional interview…

  • Don’t use the interview to denigrate other writers, genres, or work. You can most certainly reveal your preferences, but negativity isn’t needed.
  • Don’t make statements such as ‘why does anyone write sloppy genre novels?’. No writer I’ve ever met has sat down to write 150,000 words of absolute crap. We all sit down to write the best book we can, and who is Gregory to judge the merits of that in such wide ranging terms? Genre novels are not by their very nature ‘sloppy’ – and many so-called literary books can be excruciating to read:)
  • Be aware of the tone you are conveying and avoid anything that smacks of pretentiousness or snobbery.
  • Publishing doesn’t need to be shark-infested waters where, to succeed, you have to lunge and bite other writers in order to succeed. Most writers I’ve met are nothing but supportive and humbled by the own success. This interview suggests that Gregory feels herself far superior to other mere mortals writing historical or genre fiction (was that really the image she wanted to convey?)

So TKZers what is your take on the interview? If you were invited by the NYT to be interviewed for ‘By the Book’, how would you want to appear?

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The Ingredients of a Great Series Character

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet

Many pulp writers of old made good bank with a hit series character.

Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan.

Erle Stanley Gardner gave us Perry Mason.

Dashiell Hammett penned the Continental Op.

The ladies were represented as well. An obvious pen name “Lars Anderson” wrote a series featuring college-educated Ellen Patrick, who fought corruption in 1930s Los Angeles as “the Domino Lady.” The pulp magazine she appeared in was Saucy Romantic Adventures, and wouldn’t you like to have a few original copies of that?

Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous example of the hit series character. So popular was Holmes that his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, couldn’t get out from under him. At one point Doyle killed off his detective, but the public demanded he be brought back. His resurrection was by way of the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. When it was first published in The Strand magazine, the circulation of that periodical went up by about thirty thousand.

In other words, Doyle, though feeling a bit trapped, took that feeling all the way to the bank.

What Makes a Great Series Character?

I see five qualities in the best series characters. If you can pack these in from the start, your task is half done. Here they are:

  1. A point of uniqueness, a quirk or style that sets them apart from everybody else

What is unique about Sherlock Holmes? He’s moody and excitable. Among the very staid English, that was different.

Jack Reacher? Come on. The guy doesn’t own a phone or clothes. He travels around with only a toothbrush. Funny how every place he goes he runs into massive trouble and very bad people.

  1. A skill at which they are really, really good

Katniss Everdeen is killer with the bow and arrow.

Harry Potter is one of the great wizards (though he has a lot to learn).

  1. A bit of the rebel

The series hero should rub up against authority, even if it’s in a quiet way, like Miss Marple muttering “Oh, dear” at the local constabulary. Hercule Poirot is a needle in the side of Inspector Japp.

  1. A vulnerable spot or character flaw

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian has a vicious temper that sometimes gets the better of him.

Sherlock Holmes has a drug habit.

Stephanie Plum keeps bouncing between two lovers, who complicate her life.

  1. A likable quality

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe has some of the greatest quips in the history of crime fiction. We like them because Marlowe is also vulnerable—to getting beat up, drugged, or otherwise manhandled by forces larger than himself (like Moose Malloy).

Wit is one of the great likability factors.

Another is caring for others besides oneself. Stephanie Plum has a crazy family to care for, not to mention her sometime partner Lula.

Will the Character Grow?

One decision you should make early on is how much character growth there will be. While you’ll hear a lot about the necessity for character arcs, they aren’t always necessary.

For example, Jack Reacher doesn’t change. I once heard Lee Child talking about this on a panel, and he said, “Arcs? We don’t need no stinkin’ arcs.”

Ahem.

Michael Connelly, on the other hand, has brought tremendous change to his series character, Harry Bosch. He decided, too, that he would age Bosch right along with the books, a decision he has come to ruefully regret. Bosch is getting up there!

At the very least, your character ought to grow stronger with each adventure. Why? Because without that there is no tension or conflict in the story. Each new tale must challenge the character in some way that threatens him with death (physical, professional, or psychological).

Test Marketing

Self-publishing today provides the writer with a way to “test drive” a potential series character. You can do that in a number of ways.

You can write a story and send it to several beta readers. These are people you know and trust to give you honest feedback.

You can publish in a free venue, like Wattpad, and collect the feedback that way.

There’s always the option of going to Kindle Direct Publishing, and using Kindle Select exclusivity so you can promote the story for free. Promote the heck out of it. Read the reviews.

The pulp writers of old weren’t shy about testing a character and then moving on if that character didn’t create enough buzz. Their big problem was the lag time between sending in a story and waiting months for it to appear.

Today, you don’t have to wait.

Who are some of your favorite series characters? What do you think is the key to their popularity?

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First Page Critique: DESCENDING DARKNESS

Photo courtesy Filip Gielda on unspash.com

Please join me in welcoming Anonymous du jour to the semi-regular revolving feature of The Kill Zone known as First Page Critique! Today we will be looking at the first page of Anon’s Descending Darkness, a work-in-progress tale of a lost love and the potential for revenge:

Descending Darkness  

The man stood on the outskirts of Vista Bay looking down at the town that took his wife. The woods would hide him for now. Anger roiled in his heart as the memories of what the town had done to him and his wife flooded through his mind. If he had a match, he would have burnt the town with a single strike. Or died trying.

He stood there, seething, the wind bringing tears to his eyes. The town below getting blurry. He pulled his coat closer to his chest and inhaled the cold air. Then, from the lake below, a white cloud billowed over the land. Snow, and lots of it.

He was miles from his abandoned car, thinking that he would end it all. Now the town gave him something to think about.

The snow blew harder against him. He had to get out of it. Sure, he wanted to die but he didn’t want to freeze to death—that would be a slow death not worthy his pain.

The snow cleared his mind and the desire to die evaporated. Revenge. He turned back toward his car.

An hour later, his feet numb and his hands feeling like cold stone, he admitted he was lost. It wasn’t fair, the town owed him. He pushed his way through the trees.

Bent forward against the blowing snow, he climbed another hill only to be blinded again by the blowing whiteness as he reached the top. He shielded his eyes and surveyed the expanse of white and trees and prayed. He did not know to whom he was praying but only that he asked for protection until full retribution was made. He lifted his arm to shield his face from the frozen torrent then fell onto the cold snow.

The lowering sun mocked by producing no heat, only bright light threatening to blind him. He was going to die. He squinted into the distance and for the first time, he saw it. Hope. A cave lay ahead. He thanked whoever had answered his prayer and pressed onward.

Anon, you have a potentially interesting story here and do a good job of teasing your audience into it. That said, Descending Darkness needs a bit of work. Please note: what I have looks like a lot, but it really isn’t. It amounts to minor corrections here and there. Accordingly, please don’t be intimidated by the length and number of corrections.

— First, name your protagonist.  For our purposes we are going to call name “William.” We can identify a bit more with William if we call him by a proper name rather than “The man.” Let’s name his wife as well. How does “Mary” sound, just for this exercise?

— Next, I’m a little confused about the visual perspective which you present. You’ve got William looking down — your word — at a town (and let’s name that town, too. How about if we call it “Fairlawn” for our purposes?) as he stands on the outskirts of Vista Bay. Since water seeks it lowest level (ask those poor folks in New Orleans) let’s keep William just outside of the woods which are above the town but put Vista Bay (and any other body of water) next to or (preferably) below Fairlawn.

— Let’s follow up with your description of the weather. I don’t observe Elmore Leonard’s rule of writing that forbids talking about weather at the beginning of your story. You, however, go the other way just a bit too much. You use the word “snow” five times and the term “cold” three times in one page. Mention that it’s cold and that it’s snowing once and focus the attention of the reader on what is going through William’s mind. If you want to sustain the idea of how cold it is you can do that by mentioning that he’s leaving tracks or talk about his car skidding on ice and getting stuck or something (see below for more about that car). Your reader will get the picture. You also use the words “death” twice in one sentence and “die” four times in one page, not to mention in two consecutive sentences.  Try “passing on” or another phrase or euphemism for “die” or death instead. You’re not the only one who uses a word too frequently in too short a space. It’s one of my cardinal sins in my own writing and one I strive mightily to avoid.

— Speaking of cold: in the last paragraph you describe the sun as “producing no heat.”  The sun is always producing heat; it’s just not helping William at this particular time of year. Try this: “The setting sun mocked him. It provided no heat, only bright light threatening to blind him.”

— As far as that car is concerned, I’m wondering why William parked it and then walked for a while if he was going to commit suicide. There are all sorts of reasons for that but tell us one. Did he run out of road? Did he get stuck in the snow? Run out of gas? Get a flat tire? Tell us. I think that you probably want William out of that car and walking so that he can find something in that cave in the middle of that snowstorm, but tell us why he left his car behind so that we’re not wondering about it.

— The next comment may just relate to your style. You seem in a couple of places to separate two complete sentences with commas and set off incomplete sentences with periods, to wit:

If he had a match, he would have burnt the town with a single strike. Or died trying.

Instead of:  “If he had a match, he would have burnt the town with a single strike, or died trying.”

It wasn’t fair, the town owed him.

instead of: “ It wasn’t fair. The town owed him.”

What you’re doing isn’t grammatically correct, but it’s a style that a number of authors utilize. I don’t particularly like it but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it. Reasonable minds may differ.

It doesn’t always work, however:

He stood there, seething, the wind bringing tears to his eyes. The town below getting blurry.

 

Let’s sharpen that up just a bit by making the second sentence a complete one:

“He stood there, seething, the wind bringing tears to his eyes. The town below blurred.”

Then we have:

The snow cleared his mind and the desire to die evaporated. Revenge. He turned back toward his car.

There’s just a bit of a jump between wanting to die and revenge, from a narrative standpoint. How about building a small bridge between them? For instance:

“The snow cleared William’s mind. His desire to die evaporated and was replaced by revenge. He turned back toward his car.”

— I’ve got two more items for you, Anon. Be careful of the placement of the word “only.” To wit:

He did not know to whom he was praying but only that he asked for protection until full retribution was made.

What you are saying is that William only knew that he was asking for protection. I think what you meant was that William was asking only for protection, which would look like this:

“He did not know to whom he was praying but asked only for protection until full retribution was made.”

…and while we’re at it, that second clause is a little awkward. Retribution is achieved, not made. How ’bout we change that to

…until he had achieved retribution.

I will now attempt to stay uncharacteristically quiet (though still present) as I open up the floor to our TKZers. Anon, thank you for contributing and braving the First Page Critique. I look forward to at some point discovering what the town (whatever you should name it) did to deserve the man’s (whatever you should name him) enmity, and what occurs.

 

 

 

 

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