Where History Comes Alive

It’s Spring Break so I will be visiting Teothihuacan outside Mexico City when this blog posts, so my apologies, I probably won’t be able to respond to your comments until later in the day/Monday evening. I’ll be showing my boys these amazing pyramids as they have been studying Mexico’s history in their social studies class. We will also visit the  Anthropology museum in Mexico City as well – when traveling with me no one gets to avoid history!

One of my favorite parts of research is visiting places and immersing myself in a sense of history. Some places are able to evoke the past easily – as if the past remains stored in the stone walls, cobble stones or timbers of the houses. Other places, however, feel more inaccessible. I find Teothihuacan, with its vast avenue and towering pyramids, is a place that evokes awe but is also so alien in many ways that it is hard to picture what life must have been like way back then. It’s more challenging to imagine the past here but nonetheless the echoes are still there, if you listen hard enough. Likewise, I used to find the Australian landscape much harder to ‘read’ – the aboriginal past seeming to be more elusive and the colonial overtones a little too blunt. By comparison, somewhere like London the past really is omnipresent. For me, the voices of the past are all around and it is easy to imagine the sights, smells and sounds of history.

So TKZers where has history come alive for you? What places have you visited (for research or pleasure) that have evoked the greatest sense of history?

0

How to Fill the Gaps in Your Plot

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell
Got the following email the other day:

Dear Mr. Bell,

I recently finished reading your books Super Structure and Write Your Novel From the Middle. They’re awesome, and have taught me a lot about how to better structure a novel. I’ve now sketched out my current novel with the Super Structure beats and feel like I have a solid framework. But the problem I’m running into is filling the spaces between these beats with enough scenes to create a full novel. I’m using Scrivener’s index card feature to write out my scenes, but my poor corkboard looks awfully sparse. 🙂

Do you have any tips or suggestions on how to come up with enough plot to make a whole book? (This is actually a recurring problem for me. I struggle with plotting terribly.)

It’s a great question. Today’s post is my answer.

In Super Structure I describe what I call “signpost scenes.” These are the major structural beats that guarantee a strong foundation for any novel you write.

The idea is that you “drive” from one signpost to another. When you get to a signpost, you can see the next one ahead. How you get to it is up to you. You can plan how, or you can be spontaneous about it.

Or some combination in between!

Now, those who like to map their plots before they begin writing (like my correspondent) can map out all the signposts at the start. But let me give a word to the “pantsers” out there: Don’t be afraid to try some signposting yourself! Because you’ll be doing what pantsers love most–– “spontaneous creativity.” Indeed, signposting before you write will open up even more story fodder for you to play around with. That’s how structure begets story. That’s why story and structure are not at all in conflict. In fact, they are in love.

So let’s discuss those gaps between the signposts. How do you generate material to fill them?

  1. The “white hot” document

I discussed this recently in my post about chasing down ideas (under the heading “Development.”) This is a focused, free-association document. You start with one hour of fast writing, not thinking about structure at all. Think only about story and characters, and be wild and creative about it. Let the document sit, then come back to it for highlighting, new notes, and more white-hot material.

A few days of this exercise will give you a ton of story material and fresh ideas (hear that, pantsers?). Then you can decide on what’s best and where to fit it.

  1. The killer scenes exercise

One of my favorite things to do at the beginning of a project is to take a stack of 3 x 5 cards to my local coffee palace and jot down scene ideas as they come to mind. I don’t censor these ideas. I don’t think about where they might go in the overall structure.

When I have 20 or 30 cards, I shuffle them and pull out two at random, and see what this plot development this suggest. Eventually, I take the best scenes and place them between the signposts of Super Structure.

It’s also a breeze to do this in Scrivener, because that program works off an index-card style system. I create a file folder called “Potential Scenes” and put my cards in that file. The added benefit is that I can actually write part of the scene if I want to and it’s all associated with the index card.

  1. The dictionary game

I have a little pocket dictionary I carry around. When I hit a creative wall, I may open the dictionary at random and pick the first noun I see. I let my mind use that word to create whatever it wants to create, with a little nudging from me toward the actual plot.

  1. The novel journal

I got this idea from Sue Grafton, who is someday going to break out, I’m sure. She keeps a journal for each novel.

Before she starts writing in the morning, she jots a few personal thoughts in the journal––how she’s feeling that day, what’s going on around her. Then she begins talking to herself about the plot of her book. She works things out on paper (or screen).

This is a great way to talk to your writer’s mind and figure things out. Ask yourself questions about plot gaps that need to be filled or strengthened. Make lists of possibilities.

When I wrote my drafts in Word I used to create a separate document for my novel journal. Now that I draft in Scrivener, I make use of one of its nifty features: project notes.

You can float a notes panel over your Scrivener window that is dedicated to your project. Here is what that looks like (click to enlarge):

Try these techniques (you too, pantser) and you’ll be pleased at how the material piles up. Then it won’t be a matter of wondering what to write, but what to leave out!

8+

What We Can Learn From Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry left us a week ago at the age of 90. He didn’t begin his music career intending to be a rock ‘n’ roll…star? Icon? Immortal? No. Berry wanted to be a blues singer initially, and that genre would sneak onto his albums here and there (including, I understand, Chuck, an album of new material to be released in June). Rock ‘n’ roll, however, was what paid the bills, and that’s what he did, arguably better than anyone else before or since.

Berry’s lyrics were amazing. He could put years and years of story into a three minute song, with three verses, chorus, and guitar solo. Badda bing bang boom. Go to Spotify (or better yet, your own music collection) and listen to what might be his most widely heard song (if not his most famous one), “You Never Can Tell,” which was prominently featured in the film Pulp Fiction. It’s about a teenage girl and boy who get married — probably too early — but with some hard work acquire an apartment with a “coolerator” full of tv dinners and ginger ale (described in a throwaway line that might be the best single pop song lyric ever written), a stereo with all sorts of 45s, and a flash car. They make a go of it against all odds, and Berry tells you everything you need to know about the whole shootin’ match in two minutes and forty-five seconds through a tune driven by Johnnie Johnson’s piano in the background. A somewhat tragic side note to the song is that Berry wrote the song while in prison. Berry also wrote and recorded his autobiography in three songs that you can listen to in just over seven minutes: “Johnny B. Goode,” the lesser known and bittersweet “Bye Bye Johnny” (which tells the story of his acquired stardom and fledgling motion picture career through the eyes of his mother, who drew out all her money from the bank to buy her son a guitar and put him on that Greyhound bus), and “Promised Land,” the mortar between the bricks of the two other songs. I don’t hang around bus stations (…) but I challenge you to go to one in any city and not hear “Promised Land” playing in your head.

What we can learn from this? Keep in mind that Berry’s art had baked-in limitations. For one, songs had to be relatively short if the artist and record label expected to get them played on the radio. For another, the lyrics had to rhyme. A third was that the clock was ticking. You had to keep putting product out back then to keep your place in radio rotation because some young, hungry upstart was breathing down your neck, hoping to take your place. Berry just painted a picture and kept it simple, particularly in songs like “Carol,” where the singer begs the object of his affection not to go off with someone else, and assures her that he’ll learn to dance if he has to practice all night and day. Berry communicates need and desire in two lines. You and I can do this too. If you have an idea for a story or novel, try to write it from beginning to end in one page (single spaced, 12 font size), from beginning to end. Don’t include every character, car crash, or explosion that you conceptualize. Describe each of your main characters in a medium length sentence, set forth what they are chasing, or after, or trying to achieve — the MacGuffin of the work — and what they are going to do to reach their goal. When you wrap up, provide the ending in terms of emotion or result: happy, sad, death, life, win, lose, or draw. There’s your first step, your blueprint, your demo, what they refer to in Nashville as a “guitar/vocal.” You’re not going to be showing this to anyone so if you feel the need to drift off a bit go ahead and have at it but you’ll at least have something down. Think of Chuck Berry while you do it, and remember that all of those great tunes he recorded were the end result of hours and hours or writing, rehearsal and recording, some of it very frustrating. I’m hoping that at some point a boxed set of alternate takes of Berry’s best known songs is released so that we can get a look at some of the entire process. You’re starting in reverse of what Berry did — you’re going to take something short and make it longer — but the principle of keeping it simple is the same for both.

My questions for you: if you have a favorite Chuck Berry song, what is it? Mine is the live version of “Johnny B. Goode” found on The London Chuck Berry Sessions. Berry starts off playing a ferocious version of “Bye Bye Johnny,” savagely spitting the first verse out, but the crowd, either because of their unfamiliarity with the song or confused by its similarity to “Johnny B. Goode,” starts singing the chorus to “Johnny B. Goode” in unison, startling Berry (“Look at ‘em! Look at ‘em! Sing! Sing, children!”) and causing him to switch to the lyrics of “Johnny B. Goode” for the second verse. Listen all the way to the end, when the M.C. pleads with the crowd to vacate the hall because they’re over time and — Oh, The Humanity! — Pink Floyd fans are waiting outside. Meanwhile, the crowd chants “WE WANT CHUCK! WE WANT CHUCK!”

If you don’t have a favorite Chuck Berry song, what is your favorite song otherwise?

 

8+

Users who have LIKED this post:

  • avatar

Monopoly Tokens For Writers?

As you all have probably heard by now, a popular vote has given the world three new tokens for Hasbro’s game of Monopoly: a T-Rex, a Penguin, and a Rubber Ducky are In. The Thimble, Iron, and Wheelbarrow are Out. (Can’t say we’re sorry to see the Thimble go). The closest unsuccessful candidate was a tortoise. Of course, the announcement of the new designs  was accompanied by an inevitable bit of controversy about how the new tokens undermined the spirit of the original game. But so far, no dark conspiracy theories have emerged about Rubber Ducky fans rigging the system to give the Boot, the boot, thankfully.

It’s too late to vote, but wouldn’t it have been fun to see a writing oriented token in the mix? Perhaps a computer, a paper-filled trash can, or book token?

Are you happy with the winners and losers in the token popular vote? Are you sorry to see any of the old ones go?

 

 

2+

Do You Journal?

 

Look at all the lovely notebooks.

From the top:

Emerald Leuchtturm-Current Bullet Journal, containing calendar events, daily schedule, car maintenance, random notes taken when the appropriate journal wasn’t available.

White Paper-Masako Kubo–Stapled, not bound.  Last summer’s dream journal, reference.

Red HC Moleskine–Long term ideas for novels and stories since 2011

Light Blue Leuchtturm–Mid-End of 2016 Bullet Journal. I didn’t get into Bullet Journaling until late last year. Now using for blog thoughts and ideas

Teal Flexible Moleskine–Current Morning Pages Journal

Bright Orange Moleskine Notebook–Short story development

Buff Flexible Moleskine--Novel (Formerly The Intruder) WIP notes

Orang/Red Moleskine Notebook–Novel (Untitled cozy–Yeah, gonna give that genre a shot)

Bright Pink Leuchtturm1917 Master Slim–This started out as my 2017 Bullet Journal, but it proved too large for toting around. The 5×8 version (top) fits nicely in any purse or bag. I consider this my Journal of As Yet Unrecognized Possibilities.

For somebody who only owned one non-spiral bound notebook six years ago–the Red HC Moleskine–I’ve certainly made up for lost time. What you don’t see are the notebooks for my last three novels, the Bliss House Trilogy, because I’ve archived them.

As a young writer, I wasn’t much of a journaler. I wanted to write, but I was too embarrassed to write down things that might look silly to other people and carried around my ideas in my head. Of course, journals are meant to be private. I have no idea who I thought would want to even peek at my journals. The words were hardly titillating, the ideas tentative and unpolished. It’s not like I kept money or passwords between the pages.

But now that I’m a woman of a certain age, journals have become critical tools. Not only do I have more pressing/interesting  ideas, I also have a memory like a sieve. Journals are my full-body, writerly Spanx. They keep everything tucked in and looking, if not good, at least organized.

I’ve become very attached lately to the notion of ideas floating from writer to writer, looking for the right one to tell the story. It’s an idea I first read of in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. She talks about starting to write a novel that had been sort of pestering her–but she struggled, and it just wasn’t happening. So she temporarily shelved it. But then she talked to novelist Ann Pachett, who described her own work-in-progress. And the ideas were nearly identical. But Pachett’s book was going very well, and she later finished it and sold it.

By writing ideas down, I hope to tether them at least for a while. Collect them, live with them, let them nurture themselves with the attention I can give them. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone back to the pages of that Red HC Moleskin when I needed a quick idea fix.

Still, it’s a rather intimidating pile of notebooks. They don’t travel easily, and I’ve only recently gotten used to having the Bullet Journal always with me. For a while I tried an app called Wanderlist, but tapping reminders and notes into my phone makes much less of an impression on me than when I write things down. Then I forget to look at the app often enough.

Tell us how you keep track of your ideas and schedule. Do you journal? Or do you go the electronic route?

.

 

11+

Users who have LIKED this post:

  • avatar

What Would You Tell Kids About Writing?

I attended a high school Career Day in South Carolina yesterday, to talk about writing as a possible vocation. I hosted multiple, back-to-back discussions, each one covering different writing-related careers: journalism; fiction writing; and technical writing.

During the sessions about creative writing and being a novelist, I focused on the need to learn the craft of writing, the importance of connecting with the local writers community, and a few other things I wish I’d known when I was in high school. I was impressed by the questions the students asked. We discussed the nature of themes in novels, The use of pen names, and when/how many times to edit a working draft. I think there may have been a future writer or two in that group of bright, inquisitive students.

So, what kinds of things would you like to have known about writing, back when you were in high school?

5+

Users who have LIKED this post:

  • avatar

Who You Are and Who You Ain’t

From Larry Brooks… introducing you to an article by James N. Frey.

Chances are you’ve heard of James N. Frey.  He wrote one of the iconic writing craft books of all time, How to Write a Damn Good Novel (1987), which after three decades remains a consistent seller and presence on the craft shelf of most bookstores and collectors of writing wisdom.

He’s been very generous with me, relative to my own work, blurbing not only my own writing books, but also my fiction. But that’s not the sum total of why I like and respect the guy (which are separate criteria). He tells it like it is – something I’ve tried to emulate –  which in the polite company of the collective writing conversation is both a rare and refreshing clarifier among a plethora of vague and often contradictory and downright confusing advice (“Story Trumps Structure,” anyone?).

So today I’m rerunning an article he contributed to my site, Storyfix.com, some eight years ago, a piece that still comes up at conferences as something writers remember, and credit as a milestone in their own writing journey. I’m the first to line up with that response, because it’s one of the boldest, most cringingly accurate musing on the writing life I’ve ever read.

Who You Are, and Who you Ain’t

By James N. Frey

Did you notice, when you told your mother or father, sister, brother, or friend that you wanted to be a writer, the shocked, hurt, bewildered expression on their faces?  Spouses, upon hearing the news, often get ill or take to the bottle. Some start packing.

There are a lot of great quotes from famous writers on writing that tell of the struggle writers go through.  Supposedly Hemingway said that to be a writer all you have to do is “go into your room, sit in front of your typewriter…and stare at a blank page until blood comes out of your forehead.”

We all know what it feels like to have blood trickling down our forehead.  We all know there are days when the words will not flow from our brain to our fingertips, days when the most used key on the keyboard is the delete key, days when you think your mother was right — you should have taken the Post Office exam.  We all know days when we say, what the hell am I doing bleeding from my forehead when I could be…playing golf…or fishing…or playing frisbee with my dog.

Of course writers don’t play golf or go fishing or play frisbee with the dog.  Few writers even have dogs.  Who the hell has time for dogs?  Writers don’t go out to a lot of movies, or baseball games, or picnics in the park.  Writers don’t do much of anything but write, think about writing, or talk about writing.  We go into our little rooms, turn on our music, and turn on our machines and stare at the screen until blood comes out of our foreheads. That’s the writing life.  Not all that glamorous or glorious, is it?  Taken a day at a time.

And then after countless hours of agony writing, rewriting, workshopping, editing, getting critiques, reading books on craft — some of which are damn good — we try to get published and we find that bleeding from the forehead wasn’t all that bad. Now we’re getting banged on the forehead with rejection slips that hurt more than getting hit with a sledgehammer.

Anybody ever tell you your work was not right for their list?  What the hell that does that mean?  They have too many critically acclaimed bestsellers on their list?

How about they tell you it’s beautifully written…they loved your characters…you obviously have a lot of talent and a great future,  but, gee, it’s just not right for our list…we’re not taking on any new clients at this time.  Then why the hell did they say yes to your query letter?

We try to find out what’s wrong, so we go back to book doctors and writers’ workshops and hear that our work is boring or not right for the market, old-fashioned or too avant-garde, doesn’t fit the genre, or is too derivative, and we go back to our room and bleed some rewrite out of our foreheads.

These book doctors charge like hell — there go the kid’s braces — and so we try agents who charge reading fees to finance their trips to the French Riviera.

And then the big day comes and you finally get an agent who seems to really like your stuff. And after it makes the rounds to a couple dozen houses, you hear that the editor loved it, but the pub board said it wasn’t right for their list, that you write beautifully, they loved your characters, but your book, well, is not quite right for their list….

At least, your writer friends tell you, you aren’t still getting printed rejection slips made out to “Dear Author.”

You have by now disabused yourself of the notion that there is an editor waiting in a book-lined office to shepherd your book through the process of getting you critical acclaim and your rightful place on the New York Times bestseller list.

It may happen some day, but in the meantime you’ve found out the first big truth of the writing game — the publishing industry treats writers like shit on their shoes.

The price you pay for being a writer is high.

Read the remainder/entirety of Frey’s article HERE (the entire piece weighs in at well over 3,000 words, too long for this venue. You’ve just read the first 800 of them… the rest are well worth the time, in my opinion.)

Visit James’ website HERE.

8+

Users who have LIKED this post:

  • avatar

Marketing For Writers Who Hate Marketing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A psychology professor was lecturing his class one day, and asked the following question: “How would you diagnose a man who is standing and screaming at the top of his lungs one moment, then drops into a chair and weeps the next?”

A young man raised his hand and said, “A basketball coach.”

Welcome to March Madness everyone. One of my favorite times of the sporting year. Always a great underdog story or two. And some player stepping up his game to become a national star.

But that’s not the point of my introduction. It’s more about stress and a little something we could call Marketing Madness.

I have a number of friends who came up the “traditional” way. After working to hone their craft and going through the typical rejection cycle, they landed contracts with a publisher. They stayed productive, built up a career.

And then, as they say, stuff happened.

Like the Kindle.

Amazon introduced its industry-changing device in November of 2007. Publishers, at first, rubbed their hands in glee, for they could sell books that didn’t require printing or warehousing, but could be priced the same as a hardcover! (O, what a wake-up was awaiting them!)

No one could have foreseen what this was going to mean for writers. It’s a quaint stroll down memory lane to look at blog posts from those early years of the digital revolution. One of the first indie cheerleaders, Joe Konrath, had this to say:

At this date, May 31 2009, agents and publishers are necessary. Any author who wants to make writing their fulltime job can only support themselves by selling print books, and the agents and publishers are a crucial part of this industry.

But how about in 2012? 2015? 2025?

At this same time, however, the economy was in the tank, the long-term results of which would be fewer contracts offered to writers seeking a place inside the Forbidden City. For so-called “midlist” writers, many felt the big squeeze. Some were not offered another contract. Others saw their advances slashed.

Which meant more writers taking a serious look at self-publishing.

By 2013, your humble scrivener was mostly indie, and began to hear from traditional colleagues wondering if they ought to stick their toe in the self-pub waters. I responded, “Come on in! The water’s fine. And there’s room for everybody!”

So some took a tentative step, some dove, a few did cannonballs. And at first it was a giddy delight. But about a year-and-a-half ago I started to hear rumblings from a few of the newly selfed. Things like:

Marketing is taking up too much of my time!

I wish I could just write!

I don’t know what works to get the word out!

I keep trying things, and I’m frustrated!

I can’t possibly do what [the latest indie superstar marketer] does!

Writing isn’t fun anymore …

That’s when I decided write about book marketing––what works, what doesn’t, what needs to be done, what can be largely ignored. The result is Marketing For Writers Who Hate Marketing: The No-Stress Way to Sell Books Without Losing Your Mind.

I wasn’t interested in writing yet another tome listing every marketing idea available to mankind. Rather, this book has two primary concerns:

  1. To relieve writers of the worry that they’re not doing enough.
  1. To show writers how to prioritize the few tasks that do the most good, so they can spend the bulk of their time doing what they love most––writing!

Yes, we all have to do some marketing––be ye indie, traditional, or a mix. Publishers want you out there on social media, but how much is enough? Even more to the point, how much is too much? When does a flurry of marketing activity begin to negatively affect the most important thing of all––your writing?

This book is my answer. The chapters are:

  • What, You Worry?
  • The Single Most Important Marketing Tool
  • The First Impression
  • Cover Copy That Sizzles and Sells
  • The Crucial Opening Pages
  • What Price Is Right?
  • Productivity and Links
  • The Care and Feeding of an Email List
  • Your Website and Amazon Author Page
  • Your Book Launch
  • Short Writing as a Marketing Tool
  • Live Networking
  • Things That Suck Time
  • Things That Cost Money
  • Platform Paranoia
  • Social Media Madness
  • If You Want to Go Further

Here is where you can find the ebook:

AMAZON

AMAZON INTERNATIONAL STORES

NOOK

KOBO

iBOOKS

If you prefer print::

PRINT VERSION

 With the time crunch we all feel, it’s more important than ever to assess our available activities via ROI (Return on Investment). Another was to put it is the venerable Pareto Principle (often called the 80/20 Rule), which counsels focusing on the 20% of actions that make a real difference, and avoid expending too much energy (“the law of diminishing returns”) on the 80% that don’t add enough value.

That observation alone should help you sleep better if marketing your books is causing you too much stress. March Madness, good. Marketing Madness, not.

What are your feelings toward marketing? Does it worry you? Frustrate you? Is it something you bear with quiet patience … or with a primal scream?

7+

Four Ways To Make Your Novels Addictive

By Mark Alpert

Six years ago, after HBO launched the Game of Thrones television series, I decided to read the fantasy novels on which the series was based. I’d loved The Lord of the Rings when I was a teenager, and thirty years later I reread the Tolkien classics with my son, so I was eager to try another author in the fantasy genre. And I wasn’t disappointed — I read all five installments of George R.R. Martin’s series within a few months (and some of those books were lonnnnnggggg). Then, like millions of other fans, I started waiting for Martin to write the sixth book. Out of principle, I refrained from watching any of the HBO episodes, because I didn’t want to spoil my enjoyment of the novels.

Well, a couple of months ago I got tired of waiting. The promised sixth novel, The Winds of Winter, may be published this year — or maybe not. Either way, the hiatus between books was so long that I’d completely lost the thread of the plot. Rather than reread all five of the previous novels, I thought I could refresh my memory more efficiently by watching the television episodes. This was a problematic choice, because the TV adaptation differs from the novels in many significant ways, so there was a chance I’d get more confused rather than less. (The books have a bewildering variety of characters and locales and plot twists.) But I decided to go for it.

And again, I wasn’t disappointed. If anything, I liked the TV series more than I liked the books. The HBO producers streamlined the plot and eliminated inessential characters and added visual and sonic depth to Martin’s imagined world. I watched all six seasons — sixty episodes in all — in about six weeks, which is a little sick when you think about it.

No, not sick. The better word is addictive. I couldn’t stop myself from reading the books or watching the TV episodes. And the defining feature of all addictions is the desire for intense pleasure. So the key to making your novels addictive is injecting moments of pure pleasure into the pages. Here’s how to do it:

  • Create Addictive Characters. In Games of Thrones, it’s Tyrion Lannister. In Confederacy of Dunces, it’s Ignatius Reilly. In All the King’s Men, it’s Willie Stark. In Catcher in the Rye, it’s Holden Caulfield. In Lolita, it’s Humbert Humbert. These are fascinating, perplexing, infuriating characters. Very often they’re not likable, but they’re always riveting. Sometimes they’re like hilarious drinking buddies — you want to spend all night with them, you just can’t get enough. And sometimes they’re like a horrible car wreck on the side of the highway — you don’t want to look, but you can’t turn away.
  • Imagine Addictive Scenes. Let’s talk about the famous Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords, the third book in George R.R. Martin’s series. (Spoiler alert here, although who hasn’t already heard about this chapter?) The scene is constructed with so much delicious foreboding. The reader suspects that something terrible is coming, and so do the characters. That’s why Catelyn Stark immediately calls for bread and salt as soon as she and her son enter Lord Walder Frey’s castle; Catelyn is counting that the sacred traditions of hospitality will stop Lord Frey from harming the Starks after they’ve shared a meal as his guests. Afterwards, Catelyn is reassured and lowers her guard a bit, and so does the reader, but there are more ominous signs to come. The musicians at the wedding are terrible (because they’re not really musicians!) and many of the guests seem to be bulkily attired (because they’re wearing armor under their fancy clothes!) And when the trap finally springs and the knives come out and the musicians start firing their crossbows at the Starks, it’s both a surprise and an awful confirmation of our worst fears. (By the way, the bulky clothing trick figures in another great scene in contemporary literature, the passage in Mystic River where Jimmy Marcus’s goons get Dave Boyle drunk before Jimmy guts him.)
  • Write Addictive Sentences. How can you stop yourself from reading a book that starts like this: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Or how about this for an opener: “Hans Walther Kleinman, one of the great theoretical physicists of our time, was drowning in his bathtub. A stranger with long, sinewy arms had pinned Hans’s shoulders to the porcelain bottom.” (Okay, I’m bragging here. That’s the first paragraph of my first novel, Final Theory.)
  • Orchestrate Addictive Dialogue. Say what you will about Tom Wolfe, but the man knows how to write funny, realistic talk. Consider this exchange in Bonfire of the Vanities between the anti-hero Sherman McCoy and his unliterary mistress Maria:

“He couldn’t wait to tell me he was a movie producer. He was making a movie based on this play, Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe, or just Marlowe, I think that was all he said, just Marlowe, and I don’t even know why I said anything, but I thought somebody named Marlowe wrote for the movies. Actually, what I think I was thinking about was, there was this movie with a character named Marlowe. Robert Mitchum was in it.”

“That’s right. It was a Raymond Chandler story.”

Maria looked at him with utter blankness. He dropped Raymond Chandler. “So what did you say to him?’

“I said, ‘Oh, Christopher Marlowe. Didn’t he write a movie?’ And you know what this…bastard…says to me? He says, ‘I shouldn’t think so. He died in 1593.’ I shouldn’t think so.”

Her eyes were blazing with the recollection. Sherman waited a moment. “That’s it?”

“That’s it? I wanted to strangle him. It was…humiliating. I shouldn’t think so. I couldn’t believe the…snottiness.”

“What did you say to him?”

“Nothing. I turned red. I couldn’t say a word.”

“And that’s what accounts for this mood of yours?”

“Sherman, tell me the honest truth. If you don’t know who Christopher Marlowe is, does that make you stupid?”

————-

I think every writer knows, at least on some unconscious level, whether his or her manuscript is working or not. If the book is entertaining the author as he or she writes it, then it’ll probably entertain a large number of readers as well. But if the author dreads writing the novel because it’s become a bore, then readers probably won’t like the book either.

8+