Avoiding the Tar Pits of Fiction


Nothing slows down a novel quite like large mounds of exposition and backstory. Expositionis material the author puts on the page to explain context. Backstory is story material that happened in the past but for some authorial reason is dropped in the present. When this kind of material appears in the middle of a scene it can slow the pace, sort of like a Mastodon trying to escape a hungry caveman by way of the tar pits. 
Now, let me be clear that not all exposition and backstory is bad. In fact, properly handled, it’s tremendously helpful for bonding reader with character. But if it’s plopped down in large doses, and without a strategy in mind, it becomes a pool of hot goo where the story gets pitifully stuck.
Here is how to handle exposition and backstory, especially at the beginning.
First, ask yourself is it necessary at all? Quite often the writer has all this story info in his head and thinks the reader has to know most of it to understand what’s going on. Not so! Readers get into story by way of characters facing challenge, conflict, change or trouble. If you give them that, they will wait a LONG TIME before wanting to know more whys and wherefores.
You can do yourself a favor by highlighting the exposition and backstory in your opening chapters and then cutting all of it. Make a copy of the material. Look it over. Then dribble in only what is necessary. And I do mean necessary. Be ruthless in deciding what a reader has to know, as opposed to what you think they have to know.
Second, put a lot of this material in dialogue. Dialogue is your best friend. Make sure there is some form of tension or conflict in the dialogue, even if it is simply one character feeling fearful or nervous. Arguments are especially good for exposition and backstory. Recently I watched the Woody Allen film Blue Jasmine, and nodded approvingly at an early scene between Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) and his ex-wife, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). They’re arguing about Ginger’s sister, who calls herself Jasmine. A lot of background is revealed in this exchange:
“What’s the rush, Ginger? You got a date?”

“It’s none of your business. It happens to be Jeanette, so…”
“What’s she doing in town?”
“She’s living with me till she gets back on her feet. She’s had a bad time.”
“When she had money she wanted nothing to do with you. Now that she’s broke, she’s moving in.”
“She’s not just broke, she’s screwed up. And it’s none of your damn business. She’s family.”
“She stole our money.”
“Understand? We coulda been set. That was our whole chance in life.”
“For the last time, Augie, he was the crook, not her, okay? What the hell did she know about finance?”
“Don’t stand there and tell me that. She’s married to a guy for years, up to his ass in phony real estate and bank fraud. She knew nothing about it? Believe me, she knew, Ginger.”
Third: Act first, explain later. Stamp this axiom on your writer’s brain. Or put it on a note and tape it where you can see it. This advice never fails.
Let’s have a look at the opening of one of Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone novels, Stranger in Paradise:
Molly Crane stuck her head in the doorway to Jesse’s office.
“Man here to see you,” she said. “Says his name’s Wilson Cromartie.”
Jesse looked up. His eyes met Molly’s. Neither of them said anything. Then Jesse stood. His gun was in its holster on the file cabinet behind him. He took the gun from the holster and sat back down and put the gun in the top right-hand drawer of his desk and left the drawer open.
“Show him in,” Jesse said.
As we will find out, Jesse Stone knows this Cromartie very well. He’s called “Crow,” and he’s a Native American hit man. There is lots of backstory between Jesse and Crow. But Parker doesn’t reveal any of yet.
What he does instead is show Jesse getting his gun ready. That’s intriguing. He knows something about this man after all, and it requires his gun being ready. Act first, explain later. The scene continues:
Molly went and in a moment returned with the man.
Jesse nodded his head.
“Crow,” he said.
“Jesse Stone,” Crow said.
Jesse pointed to a chair. Crow sat. He looked at the file cabinet.
“Empty holster,” he said.
“Gun’s in my desk drawer,” Jesse said.
“And the drawer’s open,” Crow said.
We now know that this Crow is someone who notices things, especially when it comes to guns. What kind of person is that? We don’t know and Parker isn’t telling us. We only know this guy is probably dangerous. This is not friendly small talk. The air is crackling with potential trouble.
Half a page later, we get this:
“Last time I saw you was in a speedboat dashing off with a lot of money,” Jesse said.
“Long time back,” Crow said. “Longer than the statute of limitations.”
“I’d have to check,” Jesse said.
“I did,” Crow said. “Ten years.”
“Not for murder,” Jesse said.
“You got no evidence I had anything to do with murder.”
Boom. Now we get backstory information, but notice where it is. In dialogue! And that, indeed, is how Parker delivers almost all the essential information in this novel.
Of course, Parker is writing in a particular, stripped-down style. But the principles he uses will serve you as well.
It may be your choice to render some backstory in narrative form. If you do, let me give you a rule of thumb (not the same as an unbreakable rule!) that I’ve given to many students with good results: in your first ten pages you can have three sentences of backstory, used all at once or spread out. In your second ten pages you can have three paragraphs of backstory, used all at once or spread out. But if you put backstory or exposition into dialogue, then you’re free to use your own discretion. Just be sure the dialogue is truly what the characters would say and doesn’t come of as a none-too-clever info dump (I explain more about this in my book, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue.)
We place a lot of emphasis here at TKZ on sharp, intriguing openings. For good reason. That’s what editors, agents and browsing readers look at first. We don’t want to leave them in the tar pits—we want them to keep on reading!

These tips will keep you out of the goo.              

Adding Machines and Libraries

I am old enough to remember when one could make a living selling something called an “adding machine.” It was fairly large but fit nicely on a desk and had numerical keys on its face (as one might expect). A roll of white paper sat on the top of it, the better to show the process by which one added, subtracted, multiplied and divided their way to the bottom line. Accountants, insurance agents, automobile salesmen, and other incredibly interesting people would punch numbers which would then with great noisy and crunchy fanfare be printed on a page to show how the potential victim on the other side of the desk how one arrived at this or that figure for this or that good or service. The father of a friend of mine, a quiet, somewhat bookish fellow (the father, not the friend) was employed by Honeywell or some such company and went around his region selling such items and supported his family by doing so until something called a “calculator” took over the world.  You can still buy adding machine paper rolls, and for a bit more than the price of the rolls, something called a “printing calculator” with a digital face and a fairly quiet printing process but nobody is making a living by selling the things. In prosperous times, actually, banks give them away to new customers. I felt badly for my friend’s father; it seemed to me — then and now — that he deserved better.

I remembered my friend, his dad, and adding machines (as well as telephone booths, hat stores in every major city, and a blacksmith or two in every town) when I came upon an article about a new library that doesn’t have books. The library is on the campus of Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, Florida. There are comfy chairs and nice lighting, and the like, and a resource desk with helpful…librarians?…but no books. I didn’t read about this in The Onion, unfortunately; it’s apparently a legitimate article from Yahoo! about a real place and you can read about it here. I probably should not have been surprised; my younger daughter went through her entire high school career without cracking open a textbook, since all of her study materials were online. That a college should take things a reverse step further, or backward, is not surprising, though interestingly enough the individual courses offered at the university in question generally require textbooks.

I get it, kind of. Research and reference books these days are of temporary value at best. The more we learn the less we know. Today’s conventional wisdom is all too often obsolete tomorrow. It makes no sense to replace a reference book every year or three (the Physician’s Desk Reference comes to mind) when it is available as a phone app that is updated more or less constantly. But. But. If we’re at the stage where a library doesn’t need books, why do we need a resource desk? Why do we need a librarian, when we can just pull our phones out and ask Siri?
This may be the first step in a trend, and there are advantages to it, but it doesn’t mean that it is good. I made one of my earliest contacts with an adult to whom I was not related) at a library. Mrs. Helen McBride, a librarian at the Lane Avenue Shopping Center branch of the Upper Arlington, Ohio Public Library, was one of the first grownups I can remember who was a friend to me in my somewhat lonely, very bookish early childhood. She actually took me seriously (which may or may not have been a good thing) and listened to me no matter how busy she was. I learned about an entire universe of books the day that she took me by the hand and led me in between some bookshelves and showed me row upon row upon row of mystery novels. My six year old self resolved to read every book on every shelf. I’m still working on it, even as I’ve contributed, here and there, to adding to the volumes on those shelves. Is that over, or close to being over now for kids and adults alike? I would hope not. I’d like to think that there is still a place in the world for the Helen McBrides who would take the time to open up new worlds to a bespeckled fat kid wandering into the library by accident or design. Alas, it may not be long before there is no “in” to wander into any more. It will reside in the same place that adding machine does.

Please read the article that was the saddle for my high horse (if you missed the link above, you can find it here) and tell me: do you think that this is where we are headed? Is this a good thing? Or not? Why? 

Thursday’s First Page Critique

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’m filling in for Jordan today and we have another first page critique. This one’s entitled ‘Discovering Aberration’ – my comments follow.


I stood before the lectern in the Grand Literature Hall clutching my mangled copy of Draganvich’s The Lament of the Beggar. Though I had the intention of reading a selection aloud, I found myself fixated on a note in the margin which caught my eye and caused me to pause. “I’m always homesick for the journey,” I had once written in ink speckled script, adding almost as an afterthought, “…no matter what it might hold.”

“No matter what it might hold,” I whispered absorbed in remembering.

It had been two years since my extended journey to the orient. Two years spent writing and searching for employment, poor as Job’s turkey. And then, six months ago everything simply seemed to happen on its own accord. The Oriental Adventure, the book I had written and published under the name Franklin P. Fitzgerald became a rousing success. I was honored by the Tetraelly Academy with a grant and a residency on condition that I teach. And then as suddenly as it all began I found myself, for lack of a better phrase, fantastically bored. Not weary, nor depressed, nor any other such nonsense. Bored, standing in front of a crowd of affluent students (any one of whom had inherited more than I had earned in my entire life), fumbling though the teaching process, and now lost in thought, remembering.

“Professor Fitzgerald?” came a voice from the young lady in the front row. “Professor, are you not feeling well?”

“Hm,” the sound carried almost unnaturally clear through the vast auditorium and over the sea of students. Even those in the back sitting elbow to elbow could hear the slightest of whispers, such were the acoustics. I looked at the book in my hands to the fog of young and wealthy sons and daughters, most wearing ridiculous collections of posed taxidermy. As was the growing fashion among the young and wealthy, they wore the corpses of beasts of the air upon their hats or beasts of the land slung over their shoulders, but never both. Strange, to have all these eyes on me, the eyes of the students and the threaded eyes of the animals.

It still holds true, thought I. Homesick for the journey once more, eh old boy. I fumbled to find myself again, seeking out my originally intended selection. “Yes,” I replied to the girl sitting directly before me. “I’m quite alright.”


I have grouped my comments by heading, to make things a little clearer.

Setting? Genre?
Overall I had the sense from this first page that I was getting a lot of information I didn’t really need, and not enough of the information I did need. From the outset it felt like we were entering the fantasy realm (the Grand Literature Hall, Draganvich’s The Lament of the Beggar, Tetraelly Academy) and yet the reference to the orient and Job pulled me out of this and I was left wondering about what world and what time period I was supposed to be in. Was the main character a religious man? It sure sounded like he was about to give a theology lecture and his use of the expression ‘Job’s turkey’ made it sound 19th century – so I was a little confused from the outset as to whether this was fantasy or history (or both).

Nothing in this first page gave me much of a grounding for the world I was entering and, without this, I found it hard to get excited about the story. To be honest this first page left me wondering why I should care about Professor Fitzgerald, or his memories of his trip to the orient. I did like the idea of him being up on the lectern, suddenly gripped by memories of the past, and unable to present his intended lecture – but I needed a higher level of tension to become fully engaged and invested in the story from the outset.

I couldn’t really visualize Professor Fitzgerald. At first he sounded elderly, mulling over the past. Then it sounded like he was slightly younger and bored. Then he went back to sounding old again (particular when he thinks ‘eh old boy’). As a character he was too amorphous for me. I needed less details about the audience and more about him. I also don’t think a character who is merely bored (even if it is ‘fantastically’) generates a lot of narrative drive. I would prefer him to be haunted by his experiences in the orient and so when the memories return, they overwhelm him.

So what makes it hard to critique this first page is that the details we do get don’t really seem drive the story forward. We get some background regarding Professor Fitzgerald’s journey to the orient but all we know is that he went poor, wrote a book that was a ‘rousing success’ and them ended up teaching. (As a side note why was the book ‘published under the name Franklin P. Fitzgerald’ – which makes it sound like this was an alias – when it appears that it is actually his name?) This information didn’t really compel me to care about Professor Fitzgerald.

Instead of piquing the reader’s interest with details of his journey to the orient, the author provides more details instead about the students. So we know they are affluent (this is repeated – we get told twice more that they are wealthy which is unnecessary repetition in the first page) and that they make strange taxidermic fashion statements. But even this makes it hard for me as a reader to visualize the world we’re in. Is it a historical setting in an alternative world? Or is it in our real world? Again, I’m left without any real sense of where the story is set in terms of time or place. I also found it strangely redundant to know that the students wear ‘corpses of the beasts of the air upon their heads or beasts of the land slung over their shoulders but never both’ – and are these beasts ones we would know or are they fantastical?  I think the fashion provides plenty of scope to be intriguing but instead it seems stilted and too generalized. In a first page a reader wants to have the world evoked in a dramatic and sensory way.

So the author’s voice in this piece seems old fashioned and a little stifled at times, as if designed to evoke the past. This can work if used to good effect but at the moment the first page isn’t grounded enough in a vivid world/time period for this to be all that effective. Instead, this voice creates distance between the reader and the story.

Punctuation/POV issues
There is some lack of punctuation but, as it didn’t detract from the story, I’m not going to focus on this – except to point out that the internal monologue ‘eh old boy’ needed a question mark. When the professor is supposedly lost in his memories, staring at his book, it was also hard to understand how he knew that the voice was coming from the young lady in the front row.  

I would recommend refocusing this first page on getting the reader intrigued about Professor Fitzgerald and what happened on his journey to the orient. I would ensure enough detail is given so the reader is well grounded in the world that he inhabits. I’d also do away with redundant details about the acoustics of the auditorium or the wealth of the students. The author needs to make it clear from the outset what kind of disturbance or event is going to provide the narrative drive to this story. Even the title ‘Discovering Aberration’ is ambiguous and I’d like to get some sense of where this story is headed…is it about species aberration? Does the plot turn darker and more ‘thriller-esque’ or is it going to be more of an alternate history or fantasy novel? It’s really hard to tell at the moment.  

Finally, readers need a reason to turn the page and at the moment there isn’t enough happening to do this. Everything seems to hinge on the main character’s ‘ruminations’ which isn’t really enough (especially when they offer little in terms of drama). 

So TKZers what feedback do you have?

Character Archetypes

Nancy J. Cohen

Archetypes are recurrent themes found in works of literature and film. Recently I attended a talk by a nautical archaeologist (http://nancyjcohen.wordpress.com/2014/08/14/nautical-archaeology-for-writers/). While this professional is concerned with preserving underwater shipwrecks and their associated artifacts, treasure hunters seek to plunder these watery grave sites. Now pit two of these opposing people together as hero and heroine, and you have instant conflict.

Or take the Star Lord and the green-skinned girl in Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s a cocky womanizer. She’s a feminist warrior. Don’t you love the sparks that fly between them until they realize how much they care for each other? Here’s a list of other familiar archetypes.


AMNESIA: Is he/she married, a parent, a missing bride/groom, presumed dead? Did he kill someone? Did someone try to kill him? Is she a witness to a violent crime? Is he an undercover agent who got hurt by the bad guys? American Dreamer, The Bourne Identity

BRIDES: Marriage of convenience, fake fiancés, mail order bride, runaway bride/groom, green‑card, royal, shot-gun wedding, jilted, terms of the will, Vegas spur-of-the-moment wedding. Runaway Bride, Father of the Bride, Wedding Crashers, Sleepless in Seattle, What Happens in Vegas

CHILDREN: Abandoned, lost, adopted, biological, inherited, stolen, secret baby, true identity unknown, switched‑at‑birth, kids playing matchmaker for single parents. Home Alone

DISGUISE: Hidden or unknown identity, switching places: True Lies, The Prince and the Pauper, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Freaky Friday, The Princess Diaries, Arrow

FISH OUT OF WATER: Enchanted, City Slickers, Kate and Leopold, Outlander

MAKEOVER: The Princess Diaries, My Fair Lady

MISMATCHED COUPLES: Bad boy/Good girl, Cowboy/Lady, Pirate/Princess, Real Estate Developer/Preservationist, Wanderer/Homemaker, May/December, Womanizer/Feminist, Duke/Governess, Mentor/Protegé, Boss/Employee. Romeo & Juliet, Beauty and the Beast, Six Days Seven Nights, Guardians of the Galaxy

RAGS TO RICHES: Cinderella, Pretty Woman, Ever After

REUNION: Former lovers, estranged spouses, lost love, thwarted romance, divorced but still in love. Sweet Home Alabama

SECRET POWER: Harry Potter series, Superheroes like Superman and Spiderman

 harry potter

SINGLE PARENTS: Struggling unwed mothers, clueless divorced dads, inexperienced surrogate. Three Men and a Baby, Baby Boom

TWINS: Switched identities, mistaken identities, trading places to fool people and having the tables turned on them instead. Parent Trap, New York Minute

Now wouldn’t it be interesting to pick one of these for your suspense/thriller novel? That’s what I did for Warrior Lord, my latest action-packed romance with scifi/fantasy elements. Drift Lord warrior Magnor of the Tsuran must recover the fabled Book of Odin. Hidden in its text is information on a weapon to defeat his enemy. Magnor has received a tip that a clue to the whereabouts of this book can be found at the Viking Vegas Resort.

As soon as he steps inside the casino, he’s drawn to a woman playing blackjack. When he hears her mutter how she can use the cash from a contest for engaged couples as announced over the loudspeaker, he suggests they enter the competition even though they’ve just met. Before you can blink, they win and are married on live TV. Marriage of Convenience meets Lord of the Rings plus Star Wars. It was fun tossing this trope into my paranormal universe.


Think about the books on your shelves at home. Do you repeatedly buy the same types of stories? Does this tell you something about the plot devices that appeal to you? What other movies can you fit into the categories above?

Ten Things I Wish I Knew Then That I Know Now

“It is easy to be wise after the event.”
— Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes

By PJ Parrish
I realized the other day I am celebrating a landmark anniversary this month. It was thirteen years ago that I signed my first contract for my first Louis Kincaid novel. Also, I am now working on the thirteenth Louis book. I don’t know whether this is an occasion for superstition, pride or terror.
But it got me thinking that it’s a good time to look backwards. Because over these many years — working with two New York publishers, at least ten editors and two agents; getting dropped by a publisher, starting over by switching from romance to crime; publishing original books and backlist titles on Amazon; chairing writers conferences, being on Bouchercon panels and being ignored at signings; giving keynote speeches, mentoring newbies and cracking bestseller lists — after all this, I might have a few words of semi-wisdom to toss out there.
So here are the Ten Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Getting Started in the Writing Business. Oh, and I’ve includes some contributions from some author friends. 
1. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Way back when, I thought success was going to come fast and easy. Now, you have to understand that my naivete arose from the era — I got my start back in the early ’80s when an editor at Ballantine plucked my first romance manuscript from the slush pile. You can’t get a toe in the door that way these days. But it came so easy I thought everything after that would. I didn’t understand until I got knocked around for four hard years that publishing is a very tough business and that you have to have stamina, faith, a gold-plated work ethic and the hide of a rhino to succeed. 
2. No one wants a one-trick pony. I didn’t educate myself going in on how agents and editors worked (we didn’t have The Google then) so I didn’t understand that agents and editors want writers who are looking to build careers. Let’s say you catch an agent’s eye with your manuscript. You know what the first question out of the agent’s mouth will be?: “So what else do you have?” The second question: “Could you make this a series?” And the third: “Can you get it to me in four months?”
3. You have no control over what your publisher will do for your book and they probably won’t do much at all. Boy, this was a toughie. It was true thirteen years ago and it’s even truer now. I didn’t know squat about the business side of publishing when I started out. I found out, through some embarrassing moments, that: Where your book is shelved at B&N has nothing to do with its quality; that your publisher pays to put your paperback in the No. 7 Bestseller spot at the drugstore; that the New York Times bestseller list is not based on actual sales…etc. etc. I’m still coming to grips with the fact that you have to be a business person and take charge of your “products.”  
4. You have to handle yourself well in public. This goes hand-in-hand with no. 3. Even though the days of big tours and promotion are over, you will still have to occasionally leave the Writer Cave and go out and mingle with the public. You will do signings, give speeches, be on panels, chat up other writers, meet agents and editors at conferences. If you are shy, you are doomed. Sorry, but it’s the hard cold truth. Most writers are natural introverts so I know how hard this is. A good friend of mine would literally start to shake whenever she had to be on a panel. Over the years, however, she has worked hard on public speaking and now she delivers confident one-woman workshops on self-publishing. My sister Kelly has also worked hard to overcome this and now she’s a terrific teacher. Even if you do nothing but bookstore signings, you still have to go for it. I learned this lesson early from a kind manager at a Barnes and Noble who saw me sitting pitifully behind my stack of books and advised me to stand out, hold out my book, and actively engage people as they passed by the table.

 5. Keep good notes, chronologies, timelines, dossiers. This is crucial if you are writing a series but you need to do it for any novel. If you don’t write things down, you will lose valuable time looking up stuff about your characters or plot. I have an old-fashioned loose-leaf binder in which I record vital stats for every character in every book. (And don’t think that cameo might not come back in a future book!) Here’s my friend SJ Rozan on the subject:

I wish I’d kept better notes.  I have an eleven-book series that I keep leaving and coming back to, two standalones, and, as Sam Cabot, two paranormals in a new series.  That’s a total of fifteen books.  Plus about three dozen short stories.  That means I’ve written about a million and a half words.  It didn’t occur to me twenty years ago when I wrote the first book that I might lose track of, say, the names of Lydia Chin’s brothers’ wives.  In fact I think I might have felt it was overweening, for me to think anything I did was important enough to keep notes on.  Now I find myself rooting through my own work like a squirrel looking for nuts.

6. Don’t try to go it alone. You must network. You must find support. And not just from family but from like-minded writer souls. You need to share with others your problems about writers block, your despair over rejection, your happiness when something good happens. You need to know that your problems are not unique and that they can be overcome. I didn’t learn this until oh, about book three, when I finally started going to writers conferences. I could have learned so much from other writers! Here’s my friend Sharon Potts talking:

I had assumed when I started my first novel that writing was a solitary process and I spent my first year locked away in my garret drinking cheap wine and smoking Gauloises. Just kidding–the wine was expensive and I didn’t smoke. Then I discovered Mystery Writers of America and it was a real eye-opener. It was like dropping into a cabal where I was offered the secrets to getting published. But even better than that, by attending workshops and conferences, I learned how to improve my own writing and made friends who were instrumental in my success.  I don’t regret the wine, but I sure wish I’d joined MWA sooner.

7. You must read. Not just for pleasure (although that is fine!) but with a cold analytical eye toward how other writers spin their magic. Read widely in your genre, but also outside it because that can make you braver.  Read some bad books, too. You can learn from them and it can boost your confidence. But it’s better to read really great stuff that makes you want to stretch your own writer wings. Here’s my critique group buddy Neil Plakcy on this subject:

One of the most valuable things I learned in graduate school was to read like a writer — to be analytical about things like chapter length, pacing, cliffhangers, the balance between narrative and action, and so on. That when I see something I admire in another writer, I should analyze it to see how the effect was accomplished. I wish I’d learned that back in college, when I first studied creative writing.

8. Your publisher is not your friend. This sounds bitter but I don’t mean it to be. But I didn’t understand this at first. And even though writers today are smarter, I think many are a little naive, believing that once they sign a contract they will be “taking care of.”  The fact is, publishers want to make money. If you can help them do that, you will have a fine and fruitful relationship. But if circumstances are such that your book does not sell sufficiently, you can be dropped. It has nothing to do with you personally. It may not have anything to do with the quality of your book. Publishing is a business. A business that is now challenged by market forces and going through a wild state of flux. Yes, you can have a good relationship with an editor. But if you want a friend, get a dog.

9. Your worst character traits will be amplified. It’s been said that when you get old, you become yourself but even more so. This is true of writers as well. Something happens to otherwise normal folks when they enter the creative fugue state of novel-writing. Maybe it’s because, unlike other jobs, we have no easy ways to gauge our success — no weekly paychecks, no performance reviews, no boss breathing down our necks. Writing is faith-based and lonely. So it tends to magnify whatever is strong — or weak — within us. Are you a procrastinator? Ha! Wait until you paint yourself into that plot corner. Are you a conflict-avoider? Well, being at the mercy of a publishing house is going to drive you nuts. Are you a tangled yarn-ball of self-doubt? That first bad Amazon review is going to have you in tears. Are you full of yourself? You will get a quick rep for being a panel-hog at writers conferences and no one will sit next to you at the bar.  Learn where your fault lines are and work with them. Or get a good shrink.

10. You won’t get rich. This is a true story: Back in 1982, I read an article in Money magazine about housewives who were making tons of money writing Harlequin romances. (I swear I am not making this up but I think Money magazine was).  I told my husband I was going to write a romance so I could quit my job and we could get rich. I wrote a novel called The Dancer and it got published out of the slush pile (see no. 1). My advance was $2500. I never made any royalties. I didn’t get to quit my day job. We didn’t get rich. But it did launch my career and though my original motive was shallow and stupid, I did come to realize I wanted to actually be a serious writer. I can’t say I still didn’t think about getting rich but I found out money wasn’t what motivated me. I discovered that writing was the one thing I really wanted to do, and that I had to give it my heart and soul. And after thirteen years, I can look back now and say that wasn’t such a bad lesson.

Hey, the mail just came, and guess what? I got a royalty check from Japan! It’s for $15.66. That’s a decent bottle of Pinot. In honor of my windfall, I will let my old friend Rod Stewart have the last word . Take it, Rodney!

I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger.
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger.

POV 101: Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There (for most of your story)

 by Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

This is the first of a three-part series on point of view (POV) in fiction.

I’ve been editing fiction for years, and the most difficult concept for many of my aspiring author clients who write in third-person point of view (the most common POV in novels) is to portray their story world through the viewpoint / eyes / head of one character at a time, rather than hovering above them (omniscient POV) or ping-ponging back and forth between different characters’ viewpoints (head-hopping).

Except for omniscient POV (the author talking directly to the readers), point of view or POV simply refers to the character through whose perspective the story events are told. Most of today’s novels are written in third-person POV, with the main character referred to as “he” or
“she,” even though we’re seeing their world through their eyes. First-person POV, where the main character is telling their own story, using “I” and “me” seems to be gaining popularity, and is very common in YA (young adult) fiction.

This post is about using close third person or deep point of view to bring your main character to life for the readers. Ideally, we should only see, hear, smell, feel, and experience events as that character would – with no additional information provided “from above” by the author. This closeness helps your readers get to know your viewpoint character intimately, which makes them start worrying about him or her – and that keeps them turning the pages!

A hundred years ago, novels were often told from a distant authorial point of view, hovering over everything. That omniscient POV is no longer popular today (except for historical sagas), and for good reason: Readers want to experience the events of the story vicariously through the viewpoint character, to immerse themselves in her world, and they can only do that if they’re “inside her skin,” so to speak. They know/feel her inner thoughts, insecurities, hopes, and fears, so they bond with her quickly and are eager to find out what’s going to happen to her next and how she’s going to handle it.

As the late, great Jack M. Bickham said, “You’ll never have problems with the technique of viewpoint again if you simply follow this advice:

“Figure out whose story it is. Get inside that character—and stay there.”

It’s especially important to open your book in your protagonist’s point of view, and stay there for at least the first chapter. This gives the reader a chance to figure out quickly whose story this is, and get to know him fast and start identifying with him and rooting for him.

Years ago I edited a novel in which a 15-year-old girl is riding in a car with her mother, who’s driving, and her 11-year-old brother in the backseat. (I’ve changed the details a bit.) The book starts out in the point of view of the mom, who is worried about uprooting her two kids and moving across the country, away from their friends. So we start empathizing with the mother, thinking it’s her story.

Then suddenly we’re in the head of the teenage girl beside her, who is deeply resentful at her mom for tearing her away from her friends and is agonizing over what lies ahead. Then, all within the first page, we switch to the head of the 11-year-old boy, who’s excited about the new adventure and wishes his sister would lighten up and quit hassling the mom. We’re also in his visual POV – he looks at his sister’s ponytail and considers yanking it. Now we’re confused. Whose story is this, anyway? Who are we supposed to be most identifying with and bonding with? Readers want to know this right away, so they can sit back and relax and enjoy the ride.

It’s essential to start out the story in your protagonist’s POV, but it’s also smart to tell most of your story from your main character’s viewpoint – at least 70 percent of it. That gets the reader deeper and deeper into that person’s psyche, so they get more and more invested in what’s happening to her.

As Bickham explains, “I’m sure you realize why fiction is told from a viewpoint, a character inside the story. It’s because each of us lives our real life from a single viewpoint – our own – and none other, ever.”

Successful fiction writers want their story to be as convincing and lifelike as possible, so they write it like we experience real life: from one viewpoint (at a time) inside the action.

So if you want your lead character to come alive and matter to the reader, and your story to be compelling, it’s best to show most of the action from inside the head and heart of your protagonist. Of course, thrillers often jump to the POV of the villain, to add suspense, worry, intrigue and dimension. But give the bad guy his own scene, and make sure he’s not onstage more than the protagonist is! And many romances have two main protagonists, the hero and heroine, but one usually predominates – most often the heroine, so the largely female readership can identify with her. Just don’t be inside the head of both characters in one scene – too jarring and confusing!

Also, if there’s a scene with your protagonist and a minor character, don’t show the scene from the POV of the minor character, unless there’s a very good reason for it – it’s just too unnatural and jarring.

In POV 102, I discuss “head-hopping,” a sure sign of amateurish writing, with a trick for spotting this in your writing; and in POV 103, I’ll get into more detail on deep point of view, or close third-person POV.

By the way, I presented two writing craft workshops at a conference two weeks ago, “Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View” and “Spark up Your Stories – Adding Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue.” Here’s the HANDOUT for the Deep POV one. The handout for the other one is there, too, as well as a list of writers’ conferences and book festivals through July 2015.

Captivate_full_w_decalJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Even Writers Get the Blues

James Scott Bell


Recently, TKZ’s own Jordan Dane wrote about getting through the “slumps.” I wanted to add to that, because all writers are subject to the writing blues from time to time.

Why should this be?
First of all writers, like most artists, are prone to highs and lows of the mind. One of the best things I ever wrote is a short story, “I See Things Deeply,” about a crazy uncle who was a poet, and suffered for it. But—But!—in return he saw things most men never see. He experienced life in a way that was richer and more colorful than the poor conformists who trudge through existence in the tight shoes of the ordinary.
This is also the theme of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus. I was lucky enough to see a production starring Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hulce. It’s about a psychiatrist trying to help a disturbed stable boy with a horse fixation. In probing the boy’s demons the doctor is forced to look at his own rather dull life. What has he sacrificed by being so (to put it bluntly) normal?
At one point, he says, “But that boy has known a passion more ferocious than any I have felt in my life. And let me tell you something, I envy it. That’s what his stare has been saying to me all this time: At least I galloped, when did you?”
Yes, but there is a cost to such vision. A multi-published friend of mine recently wrote this in an e-mail [used by permission]–
I do get blue and I do have doubts about being a fake or writing a good book. I get moody. I want to be alone at times. Other times I want to be a social butterfly. It’s a constant battle and sometimes I win. Other times, I just let the blues take over and wait for the fog to lift. Then I go back to my own little world where they at least understand me. 🙂  I’m no Zelda, but … I sure understand her fears.    
There is some science to back up the bluish tendencies of “creatives.” And of course we were all shocked by the suicide of one of the great creative artists of our time, Robin Williams. Shocked but perhaps not surprised. 
Further, we writers have many opportunities to sabotage ourselves. There are myriad things we can get anxious about: Am I any good after all? Why did that reader give me 1 star? How can I get anybody to notice my book? Why can’t I get an agent? Why is so-and-so doing so much better than I am? What’s my Amazon rank today? THAT’S my Amazon rank?
So it seems that the “writing blues” are a necessary adjunct to the artistic enterprise. But there are some things we can do to keep them from running roughshod over us.  
1. Learn to be grateful for what you’ve got
So you’ve self-published a novel and have only five downloads this year. First of all, realize you have been given a gift, the gift of getting your book out there for potential readers, of which you now have five (and yes, we WILL count your brother-in-law). Start by being grateful that you can type, that you can tell stories, that your imagination is on the move. And that you can learn to be a better writer. Which leads to:
2. Set up and follow a rigorous self-study program
The nice thing about writing is that there are abundant resources available for you to get stronger in the craft. Books published by Writer’s Digestand online by some really good people like K. M. Weiland, C. S. Lakin and Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. There are websites like Storyfix and The Plot Whisperer and the one you are reading now.
There is a page dedicated to my own offerings, which books I’ve labored to make easily readable and practical for writers of every stripe.
When you work at something, you’re being proactive. Activity is one sure way to drive the blues away. Do this: Take an objective look at your writing (you may need an outside source, like a freelance editor, for this). Determine the three weakest areas in your writing (Plotting? Style? Characterization? Dialogue?) and then find resources on them and study them out. Practice the techniques you learn.
I guarantee it will make you feel better. I love the craft and still diligently study it, but also remember this:
3. Write wild on your first drafts
Despite persistent internet claims to the contrary, Hemingway never said that writing means you sit down at the typewriter and bleed (it was actually sports writer Red Smith who talked about “opening a vein”). But it’s a proper sentiment for the writer. Give each scene you write the most creative and wild investment that you can. Get into “flow” by “being here now.” When you are in the zone, the blues disappear.
You all know about that “inner editor” that needs to be silenced when you write. Don’t think too much when you’re actually composing. That was Ray Bradbury’s great advice. He would start writing in the morning and “explode.” Then he spent the latter part of the day picking up the pieces.
Write hot. Then edit cool.
4. Know you are not alone
If you haven’t already, sometime soon you’ll get a case of the “review blues.” You are in good company. Even some of the best books of all time have their critics.
All writers (with the possible exception of Lee Child and Stephen King) face the-lack-of-sales blues, the envy-blues, the who-am-I-fooling blues and variations thereon. Which is why many a writer of the past turned to the demon rum for solace. Bad bargain. Instead:
5. Try exercise
It works. Get those endorphins pumping.
Another thing I do between writing stints: lie on the floor with my feet up on a chair. Then deep breathe and relax for about ten minutes. The blood flows to the gray cells and gives them a bath. The boys in the basement get to work. And I feel energized when I get up.
You’re a storyteller and the world needs stories––even if you have to slog through the swamp of melancholy to tell them. In fact, it may be that this very dolefulness is the mark of the true artist.
So stay true. Stay focused. And keep writing.
Do you ever get the “writing blues”? What do you do about them?

Does Hardship Improve Your Writing?

We just got back from a vacation in northern Michigan. We had a great time, but now I’m way behind on my novel. I need to get busy.
I’m too tired to write a long post tonight, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this question: Does hardship make you a better writer? A lot of people think so, but I’m skeptical. A little hardship might be a good thing — it can fill you with grit and determination and perhaps even some righteous zeal. I’m thinking now of Dickens, whose miserable childhood spurred him to write some remarkable novels. But constant misery isn’t good for anyone.
I can think of many desperately unhappy people who produced works of genius — David Foster Wallace, Kurt Cobain, etc. — but it’s easy to confuse correlation with causation. Did Cobain write great music because he was unhappy, or was he a musical genius who also happened to have problems with addiction and depression? When Cobain killed himself in 1994, many people assumed that the pressures of becoming a rock star had contributed to his suicide, but I think music helped him far more than it hurt him. Without it, he would’ve killed himself even sooner.

Wow, this is morbid. I’m going to end this post on a more cheerful note: I’ve discovered a wonderful new thing to eat. It’s the spicy lamb noodle soup from Xi’an Famous Foods on Broadway and 102nd Street. Truly delicious and only eight dollars! The next time you’re in New York you’ve got to try it.