The Point of View Tapestry

by John Gilstrap

Two weeks ago, in my previous post here on TKZ, I used the example of a chess board to demonstrate the difference between omniscient POV and the close third-person.  Essentially, I pointed out that in any given game of chess, the perspectives of the individual pawns, knights and royalty are entirely different than that of the chess master who’s sending them into battle.

This week, I want to expand on the theme of close third-person with a tip on how to make the 3P voice sing.  First, there’s the Gilstrapian view of what makes a story good: A good story is about compelling characters doing interesting things in interesting ways, all of which is presented in an engaging voice.  Those elements–character, action and voice–are not, however individual elements.  Rather, they form what I call a POV tapestry, where the various threads influence every element of the finished product.

POV drives everything from dialogue to setting to action.  As an illustration, consider that your POV character, Bob, finds himself in a desert, and you, as the writer, need to set the scene for your readers.  Consider these two options:

Bob pushed the car door open and climbed out into the brilliant sunshine.  Shielding his eyes, he scanned the horizon.  The beauty of the place took his breath away.  Rock formations glistened in shades of copper, gold and bronze.  The vegetation, while sparse, seemed to vibrate with shades of red and blue and yellow.  He was stranded in an artist’s paradise.

In this version, while we’re being introduced to the setting, we’re also learning something about Bob.  Perhaps he’s a romantic.  He’s certainly observant.

Now, consider this:

Opening the car door was like opening a blast furnace.  Super heated air hit Bob with what felt like a physical blow.  It took his breath away. The desiccated ground cracked under his feet as he stood, and as he scanned the scrub growth and rocky horizon, he understood that he no longer rested at the top of the food chain. Now he understood why we tested nukes in places like this.  

The setting in these two examples is the same.  The action is the same.  Both examples advance the story–whatever that may be–exactly the same distance.  But the voices–the critical element in pulling off 3P POV–are different.  Notice that there’s no need to say that Bob #1 is a fan of the desert, or that Bob #2 is not.  That’s because the descriptions are all filtered for the reader through the character’s point of view.

In an effective story, every word of every sentence and every sentence of every paragraph should advance not just plot or character or setting, but all of these at the same time.

In my seminars I ask students to take five or six minutes to describe the place of the class–room, building, campus, town, whatever they choose–and through the description alone, convey the character of the narrator.  It’s a worthwhile exercise.

Do You Write In the Nude?

Supposed photo of JD Salinger but debunked. It’s really nudist writer Jason Loam.

Writing is a socially acceptable form of getting naked in public. — Paulo Coelho

By PJ Parrish

So there I was, sitting on the sofa in my old sweat pants and my Bob Seger Get Out of Denver tour t-shirt and things were going south fast.  Actually, they weren’t going south. They were going nowhere.  I was mired mid-scene in a chapter about halfway through the WIP.  Getting no traction. Feeling hopeless. Ready to give up and go watch Shark Tank.

Then I had an idea.  All I needed was a change of habit.  It had worked before. Back when I lived in Fort Lauderdale, I would pack up the lap top, hitch a ride on the water taxi and go to my favorite coffee bar or bar, depending on the lateness of the hour and the depth of my desperation.

But I live up in northern Michigan now. And we were in the middle of a chilly-for-August two-day rainstorm. I had to improvise.  So I combed my hair, slipped into a leopard print lounging robe and locked myself in the bedroom, without the dogs or the TV remote.

It didn’t work.  But the bad patch did get me to thinking about writing rituals, and the weird things we writers do to prime the pump.

Like writing naked.

Lots of writers have resorted to going buff when blocked. Hemingway, it is said, wrote naked standing up at his typewriter, which I can somehow see (but unfortunately can’t un-see). James Whitcomb Riley had his friends lock him up naked in a hotel room with only pen and paper, so he wouldn’t be tempted to go down to the bar.  Victor Hugo, when facing a killer four-month deadline, had his servant take away all his clothes. He bought one bottle of ink and huge gray shawl, so he couldn’t go outside.

I’ve tried other things to get the juices going.  Usually, I go for a long run. Clears the brain and you can write dialogue while you pound around. I’ve relocated to places without internet. Once, when my sister Kelly and I were struggling with an early book in the series, we rented a tiny cottage near Hot Springs, Ark. Faced with nothing but each other’s voices and the whine of mosquitoes, we got a lot done. I would do this all the time if I could afford it, though not in rural Arkansas again.

Jonathan Franzen wrote The Corrections in a rented office, stripped of all distractions. He used an old Dell laptop  that had no wireless card and a blocked ethernet port. I prefer how Maya Angelou does it. When writing, she checks into a hotel room every day, taking legal pads, a bottle of sherry, playing cards, a Bible and Roget’s Thesaurus. She writes twelve pages before leaving in the afternoon, then edits the pages that night.

The weirdest ritual might have belonged to Franz Kafka. Every time he got ready to write, he would first do ten minutes of what was called the “Müller technique” — a series of swings, stretches, and body-weight exercises. After he was finished writing, he did another ten minutes. Did I mention that he did this naked?

Water is supposed to enhance creativity, they say.  And lots of famous folks wrote in bathtubs, including Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, Edmond Rostand, and Ben Franklin, who also liked to take what he called “air baths,” where he’d sit around naked in a cold room for an hour or so while he wrote.

Woody Allen, on the other hand, is strictly a shower guy, telling interviewer Eric Lax:

This sounds so silly, but I’ll be working dressed as I am and I’ll want to get into the shower for a creative stint. So I’ll take off some of my clothes and make myself an English muffin or something and try to give myself a little chill so I want to get in the shower. I’ll stand there with steaming hot water coming down for thirty minutes, forty-five minutes, just thinking out ideas and working on plot. Then I get out and dry myself and dress and then flop down on the bed and think there.

I am writing this post today lying in bed. Lots of famous writers wrote in bed — James Joyce, Proust, Twain, and one of my favorites, Truman Capote. “I am a completely horizontal author,” Truman Capote told The Paris Review. “I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched out on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy.”

William Styron was a real piker. He would sleep until noon, then read and think in bed for another hour or so before lunch with his wife at 1:30. He finally got around to begin writing about four.  I can relate.

But let me get back to my own problems with that recalcitrant chapter. How did I finally get going again? What was the magic ritual that unlocked my creativity? There wasn’t one. After four frustrating days of typing, deleting, typing, deleting, I finally printed out the chapter and took it to my favorite watering hole here in Traverse City, Sleder’s Travern.  I ordered one glass of wine and sat there and just read.

It took maybe half a glass for me to realize what was wrong. It wasn’t my ritual. It was my unwillingness to be naked. I was at a crucial point in the story when my character was facing what our own James Scott Bell called the Man in the Mirror moment, and I was pulling my punches. I was holding back emotionally in what should have been a really emotional point in my story.  Maybe it was a fear of being sentimental. Maybe it was because I didn’t truly understand what had brought my character to this point. But for some strange reason I was holding back.  And as Anne Rice once said, to write you have to risk making a fool of yourself.

It took me another week  to get that scene right. But it’s there and it’s what it needs to be now. Sometimes, you gotta get naked.

Oh, I should finish telling you about what happened to Victor Hugo.  He completed his book weeks before his deadline.  He used up the entire bottle of ink. He thought about calling his book What Came Out of a Bottle of Ink, but eventually came up with a better title — The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 


To Genre or Not?

As a follow up to my last blog post, I wanted to point out this week’s ‘By the Book’ in the NYT in which the mystery writer, Louise Penny is interviewed (you can read the link here). It serves as a lovely contrast to the interview given by Philippa Gregory which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago. Louise Penny provides, I believe, the poised and professional tone a writer should convey in these kind of interviews. She also gives an interesting response to the question ‘Which genres do you avoid?’ stating that, while the concept of ‘genre’ can be an effective marketing tool, she doesn’t buy into the notion of genres and considers ‘good storytelling is good storytelling’.

In general I agree with this sentiment, although I do think that certain genres (particularly romance and mystery) provide more than just a marketing tool – they offer a ready-made frame of reference and conventions which an author can use to structure his or her story. These ‘genres’ also provide an eager and accessible audience/fan base. There are few mystery or romance writers who wouldn’t acknowledge the value and support provided by  their genre based writing and fan communities, bookstores and conferences.

When I completed my first novel, I had no idea it would be marketed as a historical mystery so initially at least, it really didn’t conform to ‘rules’  of the mystery genre. It was my agent who first suggested making changes that would place it more squarely in the ‘mystery’ genre. Now I certainly didn’t have to take her advice, but most of the changes made sense and certainly helped make my protagonist more proactive and interesting (rather than being a sleuth in the first version of the novel, she was more swept along by events and the mystery as it unfolded). Making my novel more of a ‘mystery’ rather than simply historical fiction helped bring greater focus to both my characterization and plot and (I think) made the novel stronger as a result. Throughout it all, however, I wasn’t really hung up about the concept of ‘genre’ as I was writing.

After blogging about Philippa Gregory’s evident disdain for the concept of ‘genre’ fiction, I started thinking about whether writers nowadays even consider themselves ‘genre’ writers or whether the terminology/concept is outmoded. Good storytelling is, after all, good storytelling, now matter how a book may be classified on the shelves. So I thought I’d check in with you, fellow TKZers, to see what you thought about the concept of ‘genre’. Do you classify yourself as a ‘genre’ writer? Do you think about the conventions of your ‘genre’ while writing? When you pitch your work or publicize it do you even mention genre? Does ‘genre’ even matter these days?

A Prologue Primer

by James Scott Bell

Today we look at a first page from another anonymous author. Here we go:


“Where is my Aunt,” Daniel Dubov hissed at the stranger. It was midnight and he was standing on the roof top of the Angebilt Hotel waiting to rendezvous with Esther Fiedler, the owner.

“She’s still in the nightclub, enjoying Wini Rose’s trombone solo,” said the shadowy figure. “Somehow Mrs. Fiedler didn’t get the note telling her to meet you here, but I have a message for you.”  Without warning, Daniel was grabbed and held tight while the Nazi slit his throat and dragged him behind some potted palms. The Nazi gloated that it had been so easy to finish this night’s mission and slipped through the darkness to the nightclub one story below.


Ludwig Lash, aka Flash, the leader and piano player of our swing band, handed me a bouquet of flowers to the cheers and claps from my colleagues and friends.
“Way to go, Wini,” my friend Mac shouted and gave a loud two fingered whistle.

I threw him a grin then looked around at the other four band members, and nodded my thanks to their encouraging smiles, well, all but one was smiling. Steve Beckett, the clarinetist, was scowling as usual. He definitely had a jealous streak and didn’t like all the attention I was getting. It wasn’t my fault that I finally graduated from college and Mrs. Fiedler, the owner of the hotel where our band played, decided to throw me a surprise party to celebrate. It was a surprise all right. Too bad I hate surprises. I smiled and waved to the audience and told Flash out of the side of my mouth, “Cover for me, please?  I needed some fresh air.”

After a five minute stop to powder my nose, I climbed a flight of stairs to the rooftop of the Angebilt Hotel. I shivered a little in the cool breeze. It was in sharp contrast to the smoked filled stuffy room of the Top o The Town Nightclub. I took a deep breath and could feel myself relaxing, enjoying the twinkling lights of Orlando, eleven stories below.

As I was leaving to go back to the nightclub and do some mingling, I saw what looked like a shoe behind a potted plant. Going in for a closer look I noticed the shoe was attached to a body and the body sure looked dead to me. Any ordinary girl might scream but I was cultivating a tough cookie persona and tough cookies don’t scream or at least not very often. There was a scrap of paper next to the body. I bent over to grab it and that is the last thing I remember before coming to.


JSB: When is a prologue not a prologue? And should prologues be used at all?

Some time in the last fifteen years or so, one of those critique-group memes mushroomed, ready to chew up young writers, like that plant in Little Shop of Horrors. This meme is Never use a prologue! Editors hate them.  

How did such a meme arise? Perhaps from the editors on conference panels who said, “Never use a prologue! I hate them.”

Just a guess.

Anyway, what are we to make of this? Prologues have a long and honorable history and are still being used by A-list novelists today. Okay, so you’re not A-list. Yet (and when you are, you can do whatever you dang well please).

What then, classically, is the role of a prologue? Here are three:

  1. To hook the reader from the get-go with a gripping scene.
  2. To lay out some mystery to be resolved later.
  3. Sometimes, to give us the POV of the villain engaged in an act of villainy.

All fine reasons. Here are some not so fine reasons:

  1. To give us backstory information only.
  2. To give us a scene that does not have an integral relationship with the plot.
  3. To tease.

This last one is what we have here. A prologue needs to be an actual scene—at least enough of a scene to get us bonded to a character. Even if that character dies.

If it’s not a scene, and we don’t click with a character—and especially if it’s as short as this—we have a teaser. But a teaser is not a function of storytelling. It’s a function of advertising. Like a movie trailer.

So … either cut this prologue or make it a full scene, from Daniel’s POV. As it stands now, we bounce out of Daniel’s POV and into the Nazi’s. And yet I’m not sure that there aren’t three POVs here. It’s not clear that the shadowy figure and the Nazi are the same. Physically, it appears they aren’t, because Daniel is grabbed and his throat is cut—an action that usually takes place from behind.

I’d say cut this, because a true prologue is separated in time from Chapter One. This teaser is merely some action happening just before the opening scene.

There is white space, and then the next scene. This is rendered in First Person POV, so I am assuming it’s Chapter One. If so, it should be so labeled. And this is where I would begin. If not, it’s still a distraction.

One more word about prologues. Being aware that the label Prologue might hit some editor or agent the wrong way, outfox them: Don’t label it Prologue!

Label it either Chapter One, or don’t label it at all. Begin with white space or a date stamp. Make sure it’s gripping and relevant and ends with a page-turning punch. Then you can label the next scene Chapter One and no one will be the wiser….heh heh.

As for the rest of the piece, there is nice potential. I like that she’s a female trombonist. That’s fresh. She goes up on the roof, discovers a body, and gets conked on the noggin. Nice disturbance to her ordinary world, I’d say!

I also like the voice. I threw him a grin … I noticed the shoe was attached to a body and the body sure looked dead to me. This has a nice, snappy, noir feel to it. And some attitude. That’s always a key for me to enjoy First Person POV.

I suggest a few tweaks:

smoked filled stuffy room should be smoke-filled room. (Stuffy is redundant)

but I was cultivating a tough cookie persona and tough cookies don’t scream or at least not very often. This is already a long sentence, and the last few words are superfluous. Don’t soften a good strike. The line is snappier this way: but I was cultivating a tough cookie persona and tough cookies don’t scream.

Similarly, clip the last line: I bent over to grab it and that is the last thing I remember. 

Now I really would want to read on!

In general, for this type of writing, keep long sentences to a minimum. I’d look over all of it and see about dividing some of them into two or three. You can even make paragraphs out of them. Here’s just one example:

I threw him a grin looked around at the other four band members. I nodded my thanks to their encouraging smiles.

Well, all but one was smiling.

All in all, though, this is promising. Well done, author. Keep at it.

TKZers, what have you to say?

Don’t Let It Get Away

Photo courtesy Marko Blazevic on

I was driving very early on Friday morning down some slightly foggy, all but deserted streets of a section of my hometown known as the Short North. I was doing someone a favor, picking them up at the ungodly hour of 0-dark-forty to transport them to the city Greyhound Bus Depot so that they could catch a 5:00AM ride that would eventually drop them to New York. As usual, I was obnoxiously early, arriving a quarter hour before the agreed time; knowing that my prospective rider would be  late by about fifteen minutes I drove around a bit in the general area around their residence so that I wouldn’t be sitting idling in front of their apartment building in a no stopping zone.

I spent as a wee lad a number of Saturdays in a building on the outskirts of that neighborhood, long before the well-gridded streets which were then called “slums” became gentrified. My father managed the local branch office of a truck leasing company and for some reason believed that a regular Saturday trip to his office would encourage me to follow his example, instead of stirring up my inner brat resentment caused by my preference for Saturday morning television.. The office in the 1950s was full of cigar smoke — one of the company’s salesmen had a penchant for stogies — and absent of television, books, comics, or magazines. There wasn’t much to do. I was too young to do a credible brake job on an eighteen wheeler (and remain so to this day!) and as a result I spent most of my time hanging out in the garage listening to the mechanics tell jokes, some of which I understood but most of which I didn’t.  While most of the commercial buildings in that area have been torn down or rehabbed into tony apartment complexes or flavor of the month taverns that change owners, names, and identities every eighteen months, the structure which housed my father’s old office building still sits there and is still used for its original purpose by a different company. I like to drive by there when I am in the area. Sometimes I can almost imagine that I see my six year old self staring wistfully out of one of the office windows onto the street, yearning for escape. The primary attraction in my adult life, however, is the reminder that I don’t have to stop there and can go wherever I want whenever I want, rather than spending five hours in the building on a Saturday trying to figure out ways not to get into trouble. I guess my inner brat still resides within me. Age is also a factor. I was told by an elderly friend, shortly before he passed, that aging is like living in reverse: people start treating you like a child, taking away privileges and objects (like car keys and credit cards) and restricting your activities. Sometimes I need a reminder of what I have now, and what may be lurking ahead. Driving past that old office building helps.

I accordingly decided to kill some time by doing just that. Nothing much had changed from my last brief visit at the beginning of summer. I drove by slowly, looking for the ghost image of my young reflection, when I saw a quick movement out of the corner of my eye. I faced forward and quickly slammed on the brakes. A large tabby cat had picked that moment to dart in front of my slowly moving car. I didn’t hit it, which was good for the cat, but bad for the reason for its haste: it had a large rat in its mouth. The rodent’s anterior and posterior parts were draped resignedly over Garfield’s right and left jaws, riding up slightly on the kitty’s lower canines. The big hunter obviously wanted to get back to base and enjoy the meal before the adrenaline dissolved. Adrenaline in a prey animal’s bloodstream is like chocolate to a predator; it makes everything better. I watched the big hunter scurry off into the darkness and wished him godspeed.

Longtime Saturday morning visitors to The Kill Zone know that I love metaphors. I’ve been thinking about that cat all day, with the cat as the writer, the rat as the story, and the hunt as the idea. You’re the cat. Chase that idea down. Don’t let it go. If you do it just might scamper away, never to return. It might even be caught and eaten by someone else. Don’t fall into the old “no one will want to read this” trap of giving up on your concept before you’ve even tried to write it. All you will see is a blank expanse of page. All you will hear is the sound of wheels spinning. Unlike six-year old Joey, you can control your destiny. Put both hands on the keyboard and go where you want to go. Oh… if you’re driving, keep your eyes on the road. And when you cross the street, look both ways first, no matter what you are carrying, or how delicious it might be.  

As always, I’m curious…what was your least favorite adult-imposed task that you remember from your childhood? If you are inclined, please tell us what, and why. It might be a good starting place for something bigger. Thank you.



By Debbie Burke

A few days ago, after a brief but welcome rain shower washed the choking wildfire smoke from the Big Skies of Montana, I visited a friend’s cherry orchard on Flathead Lake. Because a glut on the market resulted in low prices, tons of fat glossy sweet cherries remained unharvested on the trees. As I walked among the heavily laden branches bowing to the ground, a cliché popped into my head:  low-hanging fruit.

According to John Bagnell, “Low hanging fruit is often cited as an example of vacuous business-speak, typically used by marketing folk to refer to easy targets or readily-attainable objectives. It’s generally considered to have come into use in the early 1990s, quickly reaching cliché status during the middle of that decade.”

One wonders how many Madison Avenue businesspeople ever stood in an orchard, shoes stained deep red, and gathered fruit by handfuls.  If they inhaled the scent and tasted the juicy burst of sweetness when they bit into a perfect cherry that was so ripe it fell from its stem, would the connotation of the phrase be as cynical and disdainful?

Moving from business to music:

 Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries was written by Ray Henderson and Lew Brown, and performed in the Broadway musical Scandals of 1931. The song became a hit when crooner Rudy Vallee recorded it. During the height of the Great Depression, fortunes evaporated overnight and banks closed with people’s life savings never to be recovered. The philosophy expressed in the cheerful-sounding song was: why bother to work and save when everything can all be gone in an instant.

The expression later morphed into a way of saying life is great, but was often used with the ironic undertone that life is anything but great.

Cherry-pick is an idiom used across diverse professions, trades, and sports. It’s defined by Merriam Webster as an intransitive verb meaning “to select as being the best or most desirable.” It entered the lexicon in approximately 1965.

In law, cherry-picking means: “suppressing evidence, or the fallacy of incomplete evidence is the act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.” (Wikipedia)

In basketball, soccer, and hockey, a cherry-picker is a player who hangs around the opposing team’s goal, waiting for another player to pass the ball or puck so he can make the easy shot. This opportunist capitalizes on other team members’ hard work at defense, snatching credit for the points.

In construction, Raymond Corporation, a material-handling company, defines a cherry picker as “a hydraulic crane with a railed platform at the end for raising and lowering people.” The lift is employed in building, roofing, window washing, utility pole maintenance, and other jobs requiring a worker to be raised high off the ground.

And of course . . . there’s the vulgar frat boy terminology: a cherry picker aspires to seduce virgins.

Who could forget the entreaty from our childhoods — “Pretty please, with a cherry on top!”

Even young children understand the metaphor their parents use to teach good manners: an ice cream sundae, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, nuts, and the final embellishment, a cherry on top. When kids really, really want something, they plead, wheedle, and add the cherry to emphasize their sincerity.

Sugar is sometimes substituted for the cherry, as in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction. “Cleaner” Harvey Keitel orders “hit men” John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson to dispose of a dead body and clean up the evidence. Because Travolta wants to be treated politely and respectfully, he protests Keitel’s brusque rapid-fire orders. The scene ends with Keitel’s immortal quote, “Pretty please with sugar on top, clean the f**king car.”

Many food idioms lost their punch as western culture has moved away from an agrarian society. How many people in today’s urban environment truly understand the inspiration for the following





… like peas in a pod               …red as a beet                 …skinny as a string beans

What about “corny”? How did that expression get started?

According to FUNNYPHILLO: At the beginning of the 20th century, seed companies in America started sending out catalogues to the farmers to advertise their goods. To spice up the catalogues, they would sprinkle jokes and cartoons throughout the pages. The jokes on the pages were of low quality, and the catalogues started to be known as “corn catalogue jokes”, which was then shortened to “corny”, and eventually applied to all humour considered embarrassingly unsophisticated.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a bowl of Flathead cherries in the refrigerator calling to me.

TKZers, what is your favorite food expression and why?  

Debbie Burke can be found munching in her garden while awaiting publication of her thriller Instrument of the Devil by Kindle Press.

School’s In Session: World Lit


–Stock photo by GoDaddy

How much fiction from other parts of the world do you read?

When I attended high school in Kentucky in the late seventies, my English class reading lists were very traditional—as in traditionally Euro/America-centric. They were replete with Shakespeare, Dickens, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. But there were outliers like John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which from my sixteen-year-old point of view was delightfully scandalous. (It was the seventies, right?) Around that time I also picked up a Harold Robbins book or two from my parents’ shelves, though to be fair, that’s also where I first discovered MacBeth.

In school we also read Dostoyevsky and Chekhov (Russian), Ibsen (Norwegian), Kafka (Austrian), Plato (Greek), as well as the epic poems, Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon), and Song of Roland (French). Most everything else was either American or British. You see where I’m going here. There was no such class as World Literature. It was just English 9, 10, 11, and 12. No broader looks at non-Western cultures. It was Western Lit all the way.

College for me was a Bachelor of Science in business degree, and so my fiction reading was purely off-syllabus, featuring Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Michael Crichton, Ken Follett, Stephen King, Peter Straub, and…Tennessee Williams.

You can see that I didn’t have a very deep well to draw from at the beginning of my writerly education. And while there have been many great writers whose own influences were decidedly geographically and culturally limited, anyone can now overcome those limitations easily: Internet lists, free online lectures and podcasts, discussions with other writers either in person or on social media, networked libraries. I lucked out and got to meet and listen to a number of established writers when I worked at my university’s public radio station, and later took writing classes. And I can’t tell you how many of my husband’s publishing and academic colleagues gave me recommendations when I asked. I devoured books by Gariel Garcia Márquez, Isabel Allende, Umberto Eco (okay, he’s Italian, but he counts), Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Haruki Murakami, Henning Mankell, Isak Dinesen, Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe, and others, others, others.

While I’ve never set my work in a country besides this one, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been influenced by those writers from other cultures. That’s one of the things that’s so attractive and important about novels and stories, isn’t it? We can immerse ourselves in the unfamiliar in ways that we can’t by watching a film or staring at photographs. The communication between a writer and a reader is intimate, and builds understanding. Understanding is something every writer needs to have buckets of.

This week I’m putting together a World Literature reading list for my son’s senior year of high school. I’ve been stunned to see that many of the high school World Lit lists online still lean very heavily on Western culture. That’s a very narrow definition of world. I want him to know just how rich in stories the whole world is.

What books would be on your World Literature list?



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 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)