Practicing Your Magic

My father once took me to a show in Hollywood called IT’S MAGIC.

There were about twenty magicians on the bill, one after another showing us their biggest and best tricks, sawing women in half, floating balls in the air and, yes, pulling rabbits out of hats.

I loved the show, and after it was over, my father took me to Bert Wheeler’s Magic Shop, where I picked up a trick called multiplying billiard balls.

I practiced that trick for months. And, if I do say so myself, I got pretty good at it. I still have a picture of me—at twelve years old—decked out in the homemade tux my mother made, showing off my sleight of hand dexterity with those Bert Wheeler multiplying balls.

Thing is, the mechanics of the trick weren’t very tough. I’m not going to spoil it for you by telling you how it was done, but let’s say that just about anyone could do the trick with a few minutes practice.

But I have a feeling it wouldn’t look much like magic. It would probably look like some guy ham-handedly struggling to multiply those billiard balls, and the gimmick behind the trick would be obvious to all but the dimmest of spectators.

Real magicians, you see, practice day in and out to make their sleight of hand smooth and undetectable, so that it looks like real magic. So that people watch and say, “Wow! Do that again!”

And that’s what writers try to do as well. We work very hard behind the scenes, manipulating words and phrases and characters and plot lines—while trying our best to make it all look seamless—in hopes that our readers will say, “Wow! Do that again!”

A lot of people think that all they need to know is how the trick is done and they, too, can be a magician. They’re unwilling to put in the real practice necessary, and the moment they learn the move, they’re ready to perform.

Writing, like magic, takes years of practice, and a willingness to fail again and again until we get it right, until what we do seems not like simple trickery, but real magic to those who read our work. Until our words draw them in and transport them to another time and place, a time and place filled with characters who are alive and breathing and the suspension of disbelief is so deep that we, as writers, can get away with almost anything. Can make them believe that a woman can be cut in half, that rabbits can materialize from nowhere, that those billiard balls can multiply between our fingers…

The great writers, like the great magicians, elevate craft to an art. And as we read their work, we can’t help but think, “How did he do that?”

But knowing the “how” is only a small part of the trick. It’s knowing what to do with that “how” that really counts.

Making the readers believe that what we do is magic.

4+

Against the Wind

Imagine this scene from a story:

It’s 1983. A woman sits behind a typewriter, finishing up a page. When she’s done, she types THE END, pulls the page out and adds it to a large stack next to her on the desk.

She smiles, then goes to a liquor cabinet, pulls out a bottle, and pours a drink to toast a job well done.

All is good in her world.

Now imagine this one instead:

It’s 1983. A woman sits behind a typewriter, crying her eyes out as she finishes up a page and types THE END. She pulls the page out, adds it to the stack on her desk, but she’s crying so hard that she has to blow her nose. She reaches for a tissue, but the box is empty. So she gets up, still sobbing, and goes to the bathroom, looking for some toilet paper. The roll is empty.

Moving about the house, she steps into the kitchen and grabs a post-it note off the refrigerator—one that says BUY TOILET PAPER—and uses it to blow her nose.

Then, moving back into her living room, she opens a cabinet, pulls out a tiny bottle of “airplane” liquor, intending to use it for a toast to celebrate finishing her book, but when she tries to get the cap off, it won’t budge. It takes all of her strength to get the cap loose and she finally makes her toast.

And despite this celebration, it’s quite obvious that this woman is a complete and utter mess.

Okay.

Now, tell me, which of these scenes would you rather watch?

Me, I’ll go with the second one. In fact I have, in a wonderful movie from the eighties called Romancing the Stone. And I think most people would be much less inclined to fall asleep during version two than they would if subjected to version one.

Version one just sits there. Lays there, in fact.

Why?

Because it has no conflict.

Conflict is the cornerstone of good storytelling. Conflict is what grabs our interest, makes us want to continue reading. And this isn’t just limited to movies and novels.

How many of us would watch the news if all we saw were happy, feel-good stories? People thrive on conflict, and anyone who thinks a story doesn’t need it, is completely out of touch with what good, solid storytelling is all about.

Your basic plot line—no matter what kind of book you’re writing—always centers around characters in conflict. There’s usually both an internal conflict and an external one. And the external conflict should challenge or contribute to the character’s internal conflict (and probably vice versa).

If you give me a story about two people sailing through life without a care in the world, then I might as well watch paint dry. I need something in that story to grab me by the heart or the throat. To give rise to my emotions. To make me laugh and cry and root for the hero. And if all the hero is doing is contemplating his or her navel, then, please, get me the hell out of there.

Your characters must have a goal—no matter how trivial it might seem—and they must have strong opposition to that goal.

Even the simple act of searching for a way to blow her nose makes the second scenario above the more compelling one.

I can’t say this enough. Conflict is one of the most essential elements of telling a good story. And sharing that moment when a character overcomes conflict is what lifts us. What thrills us. What sends us soaring.

As Hamilton Mabie once said, “A kite rises against, not with, the wind.”

5+

Le ving O t the P rts Pe ple Sk p

Elmore Leonard, one of our best American writers, famously said that he tried to “leave out the parts people skip” when he was writing. Anyone who has read a Leonard novel knows that they are lean, move quickly, and certainly don’t require any skimming.

But what exactly does that mean?

People start skimming when they lose interest. When they want you to get on with things. When they’re not as engaged by the story as they should be.

So how do you keep them engaged?

What follows are a few ideas.

KEEP YOUR PROSE STYLE
SIMPLE, ECONOMIC, AND CLEAR

You can certainly be clever and artistic, but never sacrifice economy and clarity for the sake of “art.” Much of that art, in fact, is writing sentences and paragraphs and pages that flow from one to the next, giving the reader no choice but to hang onto every word.

And clarity is always important. If a reader is confused about what is going on, she may well give up on you.

Don’t bog your story down with too much description.

Descriptive passages can be quite beautiful, but your job is to weigh whether or not they’re necessary. Poetic writing is often wonderful, but those who can pull it off are rare.

Gregory MacDonald, the author of the Fletch books, among others, once said that because we live in a “post-television” world, it is no longer necessary to use the amount of description needed in the past. We all know what the Statue of Liberty looks like because we’ve seen it on TV. We’ve seen just about everything on TV, and probably even more on the Internet.

So, I think it’s best to limit your descriptions to only what is absolutely necessary to make the story work. Meaning: enough to set the scene, set up a character, or to clarify an action.

Let’s face it. Saying something as simple as, The place was a dump. Several used syringes lay on the floor next to a ratty mattress with half its stuffing gone is often more than enough to get the message across.

If you can, describe a setting through the eyes of whatever character controls the scene (meaning point of view). If you include the description as part of that character’s thought process, colored by his or her mood or personality, the description then becomes much more dynamic and also reveals a lot about that character.

One man’s dump, after all, may be another man’s paradise. And showing how a character reacts to a place is much more interesting than a static description.

TEASE YOUR READERS

One of the biggest mistakes I see aspiring writers make is that they try to reveal too much about character motivation and story too soon. Your job—as crass as it might sound—is to manipulate your reader. To keep her reading. Turning those pages.

Imagine meeting someone for the first time and they tell you everything there is to know about them. Where they were born, where they went to school, how many affairs they’ve had, how many brothers and sisters, their favorite color, their favorite food—you get the point.

What makes people interesting to us is that all of these things are revealed over a long period of time. We get to know them gradually, rather than all at once. They are a mystery that we have to unravel.

The same holds true with storytelling. You manipulate your readers by constantly creating questions in their minds. Why is she doing that? Where is she going? What happened to her in the past that makes her afraid of confronting him?

If we know it all up front, we’ll lose interest fast.

Actor and comedian Keegan Michael Key recently described improvisation as walking backwards. I think the same applies to writing fiction. You start with a character and as you walk the reader backwards, more and more gets revealed. The chair he’s sitting in, part of the room surrounding him—there’s a bed over there, a sofa to his right—then you keep walking backwards and you discover that one of the walls has crumbled and you begin to hear the sounds of traffic and you realize the man is sitting in a chair in a house with only two walls and no roof that has been partially destroyed by a tornado ,and he’s more or less sitting outside…

You start close and pull back and reveal, reveal, reveal.

GIVE YOUR CHARACTERS
A SERIES OF GOALS

Most stories will involve a central character who wants something. In a thriller, for instance, that may be something very big. The hero wants to stop the bad guy from, say, blowing up the federal building.

But if that’s all the story is about, then I’m yawning already.

If you give the hero a series of goals, smaller points he or she must reach—both internally and externally—before finally reaching that ultimate goal, then your reader will never lose interest.

A great example is the third Die Hard movie, Die Hard with a Vengeance.

The bad guy has something nefarious up his sleeve. But in order to distract the police from that ultimate goal, he sends them on a series of wild goose chases involving high explosives. And because our heroes are moving from one goal to the next, we’re never bored. In fact, we spend much of our time on the edge of our seat.

In the meantime, the main hero suspects that something is up, and as he tries to puzzle it out, we’re right there with him. We have only as much information as he has, so we’re not about to abandon ship until he (and we) knows the truth.

But more importantly, we also have a dynamic relationship playing out on screen between two characters played by Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. These two men must work together reluctantly, and because we find them engaging, our stake in the outcome of the story is even higher.

Which brings me to my final point:

CREATE COMPELLING CHARACTERS

If you don’t create characters who are interesting in themselves, who have internal struggles we can relate to, who have fears we understand, who have a goal that makes sense to us on a personal level, then it doesn’t matter how cleverly you plot your novel. We won’t care.

Hopefully all of the above will help you “leave out the parts people skip.” And if you want to find out how the master himself does it, go pick up an Elmore Leonard novel today.

But be warned. He does it so well, it’s seamless. So you’ll have to pay close attention…

14+

Old Dog, New… Whatever

This post isn’t about writing books, but it is about writing—a couple different kinds of writing, in fact.

That said, it has less to do with writing than it does with our willingness to adapt and change and never being afraid to chase our dreams.

When I was thirteen, I read my first “adult” book, which was serialized in a magazine, called SOMEBODY OWES ME MONEY by Donald Westlake. Reading that book, a comedy murder mystery about a cab driver named Chet who simply wants to collect his nine hundred dollar bet, only to find his bookie stabbed to death, was a revelation to me. And I can say with certainty that it is the reason I became a novelist.

But I wasn’t always a novelist. In fact, I didn’t even start writing my real first novel until I was in my late forties (a considerable distance from thirteen), although I had written and published a handful of short stories. Before that, I was a screenwriter, and not a particularly successful one at that. I won the Nicholl award with my first script and turned around and sold it to Showtime shortly thereafter, but it was the first and last movie script I sold and I wound up writing for animated shows like Spider-Man Unlimited.

All of that started when I was well into adulthood, at the age of thirty-five. Before that I had been struggling to make it as a musician, first as a performer—I suffered too much from stage fright to make that happen—and then as a songwriter. I came very close to selling a few songs, was often praised for my music, but never was able to quite get over the hump. And then I felt I was too old to make it in the biz, so I fell back on my second love, writing, and wrote that first script I mentioned above.

I’m now approaching sixy-one, and can happily say that I’ve become a semi-successful novelist who has made some decent money and even seen one of his books make it to the small screen. I’ve talked about that before, I’m sure, so I won’t bore you with it now.

But at nearly sixty-one, despite my “success,” I’ve found myself feeling unfulfilled by only writing novels, and the lifelong musician (and screenwriter) in me has been yearning to do something different. Something I’ve never done before, but have been thinking about for many, many years.

So for the past several months I’ve chased an old dream. What, you might ask is that?

I’ve written a musical.

Yes, that’s right. It’s an “intimate” musical called Cradle Song, centering around a fractured family that desperately needs to heal.

And I went crazy and not only wrote the “book” (play script), but also the music and lyrics for the thing.

I’m told that this isn’t often done by one person, but, hey, I’m always up for a challenge. So I did it and it’s done and I can go to my grave knowing that I have fulfilled at least part of a dream. The other part, of course, would be seeing the play get produced. But that’s pretty much out of my hands.

So why am I telling you this, you ask?

All of this rambling is merely my way of saying that no matter how old you are, you should never deny yourself of the chance to fulfill a dream. To turn in a different direction and fly.

And if you want to be a writer (or a singer or a painter or a fill-in-the-blank) at eighty-seven but have never gotten around to doing it, don’t for godsakes let your age stop you. Don’t let anything stop you.

The world is full of people who love to tell us no. “You can’t do that. You’re too old. Too young. Too white. Too black. Too fat. Too thin. Too female. Too…” whatever.

Don’t listen to them. If you have a passion, follow it. And don’t worry about the naysayers and the rules. Just do it, as they say in the TV commercial.

Nothing and no one can stop you if you let your passion be your guide.

If anyone is interested in what I’ve been doing to fulfill my passion for the last few months, check out http://cradlesongmusical.com. And, of course, if any of you are play producers, feel free to use the contact page… 😉

Question: what dream would you like to fulfill that you haven’t yet chased after?

9+

HOW TO WRITE A BESTSELLING NOVEL!

I’ll say this right up front:

The title of this post is complete nonsense

I could have used similar words on the cover of my book on craft to attract those who believe there’s some secret ingredient to bestselling fiction, but I didn’t.

Why?

Because, first, I like to think I have a little integrity. And second, the truth is, nobody can tell you how to write a bestseller.

Nobody.

I don’t care if they’ve sold a gazillion books themselves, there is no person on this planet who can tell you how to write something that will rocket to the bestseller lists.

Not even the big New York publishers know how to get their books on the bestseller lists. If they did, every book they published would be there.

I decided to write this post because I was searching the Internet one day and stumbled across a writer’s website that had an article with a title very similar to the one above. So I took a look at the post and, yes, the author had included some good advice, but none of it really had anything to do with writing a bestseller. He had simply used that word to get your eyes on the page.

So I used the same trick here to make a point.

And I’ll bet your adrenalin rose just a little when you saw it, right?

But here’s the thing…

EVERYONE WANTS TO WRITE A BESTSELLER,
BUT MOST AUTHORS NEVER WILL

Because it’s completely out of your control.

If you sit down to write a “bestseller,” you are taking a wrong-headed approach to writing. Writing great fiction has nothing to do with writing bestsellers. Bestsellers are, by and large, flukes. Right place, right time. And not all bestsellers are created equal.

I can name a dozen of my friends who do everything right and should be on the bestseller lists, and authors who are and don’t belong there.

When I wrote Trial Junkies, I just wanted to write a great book. I had no idea it would go on to be an indie bestseller. Sure, it was something I hoped for, but I certainly wasn’t rubbing my hands together in anticipation of mega-sales. I just wrote the book I wanted to read and decided to let fate take care of the rest.

So don’t put all your energy into trying to write a bestseller. You should simply write the best book you can possibly write. A book you’re so excited about that you don’t care if you ever make a dime off of it.

I spent many years writing stuff that I knew would never sell. In fact, I didn’t even try to sell it, because I knew it wasn’t good enough. But I kept at it for several years. I wrote story fragments and screenplays and teleplays and partial novels and while I knew what I was producing was not quite there yet, I also knew, with great certainty, that it would be one day.

Sure, I had dreams of being Stephen King or Dean Koontz. We all do. But the reality is that most writers never make it to the lists, yet they still manage to have wonderful careers.
Should you forget about your dreams?

No. Sometimes they’re all you have.

But any thoughts of bestsellerdom should be relegated to the back part of the brain. You have a story to write. And that’s all you should be thinking about.

If you publish it and it manages to reach one of the bestseller lists, that’s just gravy.

So there is no How to write a bestseller.

And don’t ever be fooled by anyone who claims to know the secret. That particular brand of fairy dust just doesn’t exist.

13+

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

I have a confession to make. Since about 2009, I’ve been leading a secret life.

As a woman.

Yes, it’s true. Several years back I was working a day job and writing my novels for St. Martins at night and was so exhausted all the time I could barely form a response to anyone who asked me what time it was. And if I managed, it was usually “Bedtime.”

Life as a midlist author for one of the Big Five is not all champagne and roses. My advances were decent, but not fantastic. And spread out over a couple of years, the royalties they were doling out were not enough to sustain my hedonistic lifestyle. I mean, Ferraris are expensive to maintain.

So I knew I had to do something to make the leap from day job zombie caffeine addict to full-time writer zombie caffeine addict and the only way to do that would be a) drink more coffee; and b) find more writing work.

And since we’re supposed to be talking about writing here, I’ll spare you my opinion on Jamaica Blue Mountain beans and tell you about the finding more work part.

Oh, and the woman part, too. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten about that.

You see, many of my writer friends are women. And many of those woman work in the world of romance, specifically the world of Harlequin romance. Some of them work for a line called Harlequin Intrigue, which is all about romantic suspense, and the emphasis on suspense over romance is completely up to the author.

When I asked my buddy Debra Webb (the Queen of Intrigue) if any men ever write for the line, she told me they did indeed and “Oh, my God, you should write for them! I’ll introduce you to my editor!”

The next thing I knew I was writing an outline and sample chapters and within a month I was working for Intrigue under a female pen name that I will happily reveal to anyone willing to pay me a hundred bucks, so long as you promise not to reveal the secret (hey, I’ve gotta make money SOMEHOW).

Anyway, I was attracted to Intrigue because the books are only about 50,000 words long, fairly linear, and I figured I’d be able to bang them out pretty quickly and earn enough extra money to dump the day job.

And I was right. Thanks to Harlequin and a very nice deal with Penguin, I was able to do just that.

But I had one very small problem…

I’ve never been what you’d call a fast writer. So now I was in a situation where I had to not only write a big 150,000 word apocalyptic novel for Penguin, I also had to do a couple of those 50,000 word romancers.

Had I just shot myself in the foot? Painted myself into a corner? Taken a long walk off a short—you get the point. Choose your own cliché.

Ever since I started writing, I’ve been a pantser. I come up with an idea, kinda sorta figure out who the main character is, then sit down and start writing. I had tried outlining many, many times (just like all the writing books say we should) and I just couldn’t stand to do them. My eyes would glaze over after three paragraphs.

Isn’t writing supposed to be fun?

But for the Harlequin Intrigue audition I had no choice but to write that outline and three sample chapters. It was full proposal or don’t bother auditioning. They weren’t going to hire me simply because they liked my Facebook page. (Or maybe in was MySpace in those days.)

When it came time to actually write the book, however, I discovered something quite wonderful. Because I had worked everything out in that outline, all I really had to do was, as they say, “word it in,” and I managed to bang that thing out in record time.

From there on out, I was a convert. At least when it came to Harlequin romances. I still wrote (and continue to write) my Robert Gregory Browne books by the seat of my pants (except for one exception I won’t get into here), but the Intrigues were all outlined first. Even after my editor said all she needed was a paragraph from me. I would write a ten to twenty page outline for myself, because I had to write those suckers fast.

I think the fastest I ever went from outline to finished book was about two and a half weeks. I’m no John Creasey, but I think 50K words in that amount of time is pretty damn fast.

So if you’re concerned about your snail’s pace as a writer, just know that as much as you might hate them, outlines can certainly be your friend.

Now that I’ve said goodbye to Intrigue, I still loath outlines and avoid them completely.

But that doesn’t mean you have to.

 

10+

Indie vs. Trad (Yes, I’m Going There)

Anyone who reads my Facebook posts knows I have very strong feelings about the way the traditional publishing industry treats authors when it comes to the reversion of rights and the distribution of wealth. But the decision to publish on your own or submit your work through an agent to the Big 5 is an individual one.

If you want to know the good and the bad of either world, there are plenty of resources on the web, but remember, opinions vary based on experience, and no one else’s experience will be the same as yours.

For the record, my time in traditional publishing was great. I liked the people I worked with and they treated me with a lot of respect.

When I sold my first four books, traditional publishing was considered the only legitimate path toward publication. Then the Kindle was invented and Amazon opened its doors to authors, and indie pioneers like Joe Konrath and Amanda Hocking started making money hand over fist. And suddenly the idea of self-publishing had great appeal to many authors. Especially those who had been unceremoniously dumped by their publisher when their sales didn’t meet some corporate number cruncher’s expectations.

When my friend Brett Battles left his publishing house and decided to go indie, I thought he was a little crazy. I was in the middle of finishing up a big, bold, traditionally published “blockbuster” for Dutton that was supposed to set the world on fire.

But then something amazing happened.

Over the course of the next year, Brett started selling a ton of books on Amazon. And as I watched this phenomenon, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.

When my Dutton book failed to fly—even after rave national reviews—I wondered if maybe the trad pubs didn’t know as much about selling books as they thought they did, and indie was the way to go. The book in question (The Paradise Prophecy) was one I would not have chosen to write on my own, but the publisher had come to me, and the advance money had been good, and I’m always a sucker for good advances…

But after its failure to make much of a splash, I wanted to write something for myself. Not for an editor or publisher, but for me. Just me. No restrictions, no dictates from on high, no agent interference, nothing. So I sat down and wrote a book I’d been itching to write for some time. A book that nobody in the industry seemed much interested in. But I wrote it anyway, thinking that I might self-publish it, while still holding onto the idea that maybe I could get a traditional deal instead.

When it was done, however, I looked at all the successful indie authors I knew, saw how well they were doing—and more importantly, how much control over their work they enjoyed—and decided that I definitely needed to give it a shot.

So Trial Junkies was published as an indie in May of 2012, and by the middle of June, I was selling nearly a thousand books a day.

I haven’t looked back since.

In the years that followed, Trial Junkies, has gone on to sell more copies than I ever would have imagined, and the book has received a lot of terrific reviews. It was also picked up by Amazon Crossing for translations to German and French.

So, you see, if you ask me about indie vs. traditional, the answer I’ll give you is obvious.

But, as I said, my experience may not be yours.

My experience may, in fact, be an anomaly.

So I urge you to do your research and figure out what path is best for you and only you.

And I also urge you to tell me I’m crazy in the comments. That’s what blogs like these are for. 🙂

9+

Customer Service

My wife is currently in Hawaii with family and I recently decided to send her some flowers for her birthday. I picked out a beautiful rose and lily bouquet from an online floral delivery service, paid my money and set the date of delivery. On her birthday she called and said they were beautiful flowers and texted me a photo of the arrangement.

One problem. The arrangement didn’t have a rose or a lily in it. In fact, it didn’t even remotely resemble the arrangement I paid for (at no small price). So I emailed customer service and complained and they apologized profusely and promised to send out the proper arrangement the following day at no cost.

My wife never got the re-delivery as promised, so I asked for a refund. Fortunately, they gave it to me. So I’d call it a bit of a wash as far a customer service goes. They failed to correct their mistake, but at least they gave me the refund.

Why do I bring this up?

We’re often told that when we’re writing we should write for ourselves and hope that the readers will follow. I’ve said this myself a number of times and believe it to be true. That if you write a story that you love, their will surely be others out that who love it just as much or even more.

Nothing wrong with that.

But I think, as professional storytellers, we do owe our readers good customer service. And by customer service I mean that we deliver what we promise. If we’re painting pictures with our first few paragraphs—the paragraphs that make readers decide to buy the book—then we had damn well make sure that the rest of the book holds up and takes the reader on an emotional thrill ride.

I’ve personally read far too many books that started out promising, then began to peter out about halfway through as if the writer either lost his or her way or simply lost interest. Then they slapped a pretty cover on their work and threw it up on Amazon, hoping they’d done enough to get some sales.

And that’s poor customer service.

Good customer service starts long before you push that button on KDP. You should never publish (or, if you’re traditionally oriented, send out) a book until you have a solid working knowledge of characterization, dialogue, narrative, voice and, maybe most important, structure.

When we first decide to write a book, many of us sit down and just start writing without understanding any of the above. And that’s fine. The best way to learn these things is to start putting words on paper and use the lessons you’ve learned from reading other authors’ work to guide you.

But just because you’ve managed to finish that first book does not mean it’s ready to be published or sent out to an agent or publishing house. Good customer service demands that you proceed carefully, thinking not just about what makes you happy, but about the reader on the other side who will not be happy if you fail to deliver on the promise that every new book offers them.

Good customer service isn’t easy. It takes time to learn what works and what doesn’t. To learn what your customers want and give it to them. Customer service is necessary in any industry you work in. This is why companies have invested in other ways to help improve their customer service skills and the efficiency of their business. There is always room for any business to improve, especially in the field of retail. Sites like https://toppossystem.com/grocery-store-pos-system/ will get you up to date on how businesses are making their customers their top priority. It requires patience and practice.

And, yes, you are your first customer, so it is incumbent upon you not to be easily satisfied with your work. Make sure that before you send it out to the public, they’ll have very little reason to complain.

8+

The Wonderful World of Subplots

Robert Gregory Browne

It was bound to happen. I have been sick for the first time in years, and of course, I completely forgot that I have obligations, one of them being this blog. Those two weeks went fast!

So, because I’m still recovering, I’m going to take the easy way out and post an excerpt from my book, CASTING THE BONES. Next time you’ll get something brand-spanking new. I promise. No, really.

THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF SUBPLOTS

While you can certainly get away with a short story having only one plot, novels will almost always have a number of plots going at once. One of those plots is dominant, of course, but what about those smaller, all important subplots?

In The Godfather, we watch as a violent power play is made against Don Corleone by a rival Mafia family. His young, clean-cut son, Michael Corleone, volunteers to take revenge, and the movie follows Michael’s descent into the dark world of the Mafia and his eventual emergence as the new Godfather.

There are a number of subplots in the movie, but the one that most strikes a chord is Michael’s relationship with two women. The first is Kay, who is not Italian, not part of the “family” and is Michael’s lifeline to the outside world. His connection to “reality.”

But as he’s drawn deeper into the violence, Michael’s ties to her become more and more tenuous, until he finds himself completely cut off from her—and the outside world—as he hides out in Sicily.

In Sicily, Michael meets a young local woman who steals his heart. She’s his soul mate, his true love, whom he marries. Then, in another act of revenge, a car carrying his new bride is blown to bits, plunging Michael into an emotional darkness he’s never known.
He goes back to the U.S. a considerably different man, but rekindles his relationship with Kay and eventually marries her—a marriage that is obviously doomed.

This particular subplot would probably have a tough time standing on its own. Its reliance on the main storyline is obvious enough, but what really makes it great is that it parallels and impacts Michael’s descent. Kay represents Michael’s relationship to the “civilian” world, while his marriage to the Sicilian woman illustrates his rediscovery of his roots.

The tragic twist in this subplot is one of the major causes of Michael’s emotional retreat and his rise to power. He becomes a man so cold and ruthless that he’s able (in Part II) to put a hit out on his own brother…

And that’s what all great movie and novel subplots do. They rise organically from the main storyline, attaching themselves to your hero and impacting his ability to reach his goal. Great subplots are so closely woven into the fabric of the story that we often have a hard time discerning them.

Even so-called “lesser” movies than The Godfather recognize the need for a solid subplot.
A favorite of mine is a dark thriller called Resurrection, which was written by Brad Mirman, the writer of several good thrillers. To some, Resurrection plays like a poor man’s rip-off of Seven, but I much prefer Mirman’s take on the hunt for a serial killer because of its inventiveness.

Resurrection is essentially about a couple of cops hunting for a serial killer who is taking the body parts of his victims and building them into a representation of Christ. Each of the victims is named after an apostle and the killer’s timeline runs him straight toward Easter, the day of resurrection.

The subplot is a minor one, but it certainly deepens the lead character. He’s a cop who, after the tragic death of his son, has discarded his faith in God and is quickly losing his emotional connection to his wife.

During the course of the movie, his wife attempts to repair their marriage and his faith by inviting the local priest over for a pep talk, but our hero soundly rejects the man and any notion of accepting help from him.

Then, while looking for a clue to the killer’s plan that seems deeply rooted in Biblical lore, our hero must finally seek the help of the priest. But as he enters the church, he hesitates, as if the mere act of stepping foot in the place is a betrayal of his son’s memory.

Again, this subplot is powerful because it is so securely attached to the main storyline that it can’t exist on its own. The two plots feed off of each other and both are stronger because of it.

A lot of books today treat subplots as an afterthought. Stories are often built based on a “hot” idea, the characters created to fill out a plot that’s stretched so thin that the slightest jolt could snap it apart.

Subplots are haphazardly tacked on in a weak attempt to keep the whole mess together, and their paint-by-numbers obviousness is one of the greatest contributors to the collective snore rising from the readers.

Many storytellers today have it backwards. Yes, start with a great idea, but rather than try to force characters and subplot into that story, try creating the characters first, then let the story and subplot grow from them.

Characters are story. And any great plot or subplot is driven by the characters’ wants and desires.

Remember this as you sit down to write and, with time and patience, you too can give us writing the caliber of The Godfather and Resurrection.

Not a bad place to be.

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Is Writer’s Block Real?

As you read this, I am on the road to Left Coast Crime. I’m tagging along with my buddy Brett Battles and am not officially attending, so you’ll find me wandering around the hotel bar or lobby, probably looking a bit lost. If you’re attending and you see me, please either hand me a dollar or buy me a donut. I may even have time to chat.

So, with that said, I won’t be around to respond to today’s post, but I invite you to fill the comments with some lively conversation in my absence.

Today’s topic is writer’s block, which I’m sure has been discussed many times here at the Kill Zone. But a couple weeks ago, I offered my take on the subject on everybody’s favorite time-suck, Facebook, and this is what I said:

If you haven’t noticed, I’m extremely opinionated. Some might call it a fault. I think it simply means I have convictions. But I’m perfectly willing to change my opinion if someone can present me with compelling evidence to the contrary.

So sometimes my opinions piss people off. Today I expressed this opinion and it ruffled some feathers:

There’s no such thing as writer’s block. It’s an invention. It’s not a reason, it’s an excuse.

When challenged, I responded thusly:

“So do we have lawyer’s block or doctor’s block or mechanic’s block or accountant’s block? People in all of these professions experience bad days, they all get burned out, they all get stuck at times, but do they take the unprofessional route and stop what they’re doing? No. Unless they’ve had a complete breakdown (which is something else entirely), they keep doing their jobs.

There’s nothing special about being a writer. It’s a job. One I, and many of my friends, have been doing for more than a couple dozen years. None of us can AFFORD to get “blocked.” We write every day, seven days a week, no matter what.

Writer’s block is not a mental condition.

Stress, anxiety, etc.—real conditions that cause real problems—are good reasons for a writer, or any of the above professions, to stop working. But that’s not writer’s block, so let’s not pretend it is.

Nor is getting stuck.

Getting stuck is a natural part of the process, not a “block.” We get stuck simply because we haven’t thought our story—or our characters—through. Once we do, we get unstuck. It happens with nearly every story.

Sorry if I’m unsympathetic. But to my mind, you either do the job or you quit.

As for inspiration, if you need to wait for it in order to work, you might as well give it up.”

Now, you can imagine the response I got. Some positive, but one from a writer friend, who also happens to be a doctor, said I didn’t know what I was talking about. That writer’s block is a very real condition.

I respect this man’s opinion and value him as a friend, so I didn’t want to get too far into it with him. But my response to him was that there are certainly conditions that people suffer from—depression, anxiety, etc.—that can lead to writer’s block, but the block itself is merely a symptom of underlying problems. Unless you’re suffering from a mentally or physically debilitating disease, if you’re a writer, you should be writing. No excuses. So maybe the problem is defining what “writer’s block” is. How ever you define your writer’s block, if you truly do suffer from a lack of creative ideas and your “normal flow” seems to be ebbing you could have a look into consuming CBD products from sites such as cbdoilsuk.com as CBD in some users has been reported to increase their creativity and could help you get that “flow” back.

Since I don’t believe in it, however, I have a hard time defining it, but I can tell you what it isn’t.

If you are having problems with a story, if you’re stalled, if you’re staring at a blank page and nothing is coming that day, that’s not being blocked. That’s merely a setback. We all have them. We hit walls, we write ourselves into corners, we figure out solutions, and if we’re professionals, we press on.

And that’s true of anyone in any profession. If you want to get paid, you get to work.

Hell, I’m working right now and I’m NOT getting paid for it. And I had absolutely no idea what I’d be writing about today, but I sat down and did it anyway. As I’ve said, I can’t afford to be “blocked.”

Anyway, those are my rather inelegant and somewhat gruff—and yes, insensitive—views on the subject. Now, please, discuss amongst yourselves.

It’s quite possible it’s true what they say about me and I am crazy.

Now, does anyone have a donut?

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