Should Fiction Writers Tell the Truth?

david-mamet1I read a quote this week from David Mamet (left), the noted playwright and essayist:

When you sit down to write, tell the truth from one moment to the next and see where it takes you.

Over the years I’ve heard this same sentiment expressed in various forms. Novelist Wendell Berry once wrote, “The first obligation of a writer is to tell the truth–or to come as near to telling it as is humanly possible.”

Sounds noble and good, but something about this bromide has always bothered me. Maybe because it is, as judges sometimes say about statutes, “void for vagueness.”

So I decided to devote this space to figuring out what the heck it’s supposed to mean, and whether it’s at all helpful to writers.

My first question is, what’s the definition of truth? What do these folks mean by it? Do they mean objective truth (that which is true no matter what anyone thinks about it)? Or subjective truth (that which comes out of the deepest part of ourselves)?

And if they mean the latter, is that really truth? I’m not down with the whole “that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me” vibe. In that case, Mein Kampf would be a classic of world literature.

No, I think what Mamet and Berry other writers mean by “tell the truth” is that the writer must, first and foremost, be honest with himself. Not be afraid to go wherever his inner heart and life are leading. Tell that story, from the gut.

I partially agree. Exploring deep––and sometimes dark––corners to render honest fiction is one aspect of this game. But there’s another, equally important part, and it’s this: you, the writer, are in charge of what is ultimately shown in your stories.

Which means you don’t have to spew everything onto the page in the name of some vague notion of truth. You’re not a slave to your material; you’re the shaper and molder of it.

Now, I’ll grant that a novel can seem less truthful and honest if certain punches are pulled. Readers sense that. But as the author you get to decide how you want to land those punches. You should land them artfully, with purpose. You think through the strategy for your novel. The truth-at-any-cost school doesn’t always produce better writing. In fact, it may make it worse.

Case in point, the obligatory sex scene (in other genres than erotica, where they are expected). There’s no rule that says graphic descriptions of body parts, and profligate use of synonyms for pulsate, make such a rendering necessary. Personally, I prefer the closed door, leaving the rest to the imagination. That’s the way they used to do it, and it’s actually more sensual. (Read the carriage ride scene in Madame Bovary sometime.)

Which brings me to Game of Thrones.

Game_of_thronesAt the outset, let me make clear that I’ve not read the books nor gotten hooked on the series. I know both have rabid followings. So what I’m about to discuss is simply a reaction to something I recently happened across.

It seems the author, George R. R. Martin, has come under considerable criticism for gratuitous depictions of rape. One blogger puts it bluntly: “Martin is content to use rape to develop male characters, to titillate the reader, and to paint rape victims seeking justice as villains. No other raped women have a voice. This calls into question his empathy as a human being and his imagination as a writer.”

In answer to this, Martin says:

I wanted my books to be strongly grounded in history and to show what medieval society was like, and I was also reacting to a lot of fantasy fiction. Most stories depict what I call the “Disneyland Middle Ages”––there are princes and princesses and knights in shining armor, but they didn’t want to show what those societies meant and how they functioned … [If] you don’t portray (sexual violence), then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that. Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today. It’s not a strong testament to the human race, but I don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t exist.

A few points. George R. R. Martin is free to write what he wants to write. And I’ve heard his writing and world building are amazing. So what I’m about to say isn’t coming from a political or social agenda. It’s as a fellow writer who would simply ask Mr. Martin, “Is all this really necessary? How much of this material is carrying you, rather than the other way around? I get that you want to soak us in medieval darkness, but what about the equal value of artistic restraint? That’s not denying that something exists, but it’s also not letting it run rampant.”

Maybe for Martin that’s not a consideration or desire. And, again, he as the right to do it his way. But “telling the truth” isn’t the only fiction strategy.

I think the best writers make a case. Great fiction depicts a clash of values in which the writer will, ultimately, take a side. Yes, the side that prevails has to do so in a way that does not feel manipulative. That’s where craft comes in. The author’s job is to make the case through the characters behaving in surprising, clever, and ultimately justifiable ways.

That’s actually harder to do than just letting it all hang out.

I think this is what the novelist and writing teacher John Gardner was getting at when he said this to The Paris Review:

As I tried to make plain in On Moral Fiction, I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life … that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss.

So by all means, tap into your heart and soul when you write. But include your head, too.

As I like to counsel new writers: Write like you’re in love. Edit like you’re in charge.

So what about you? Do you think “just tell the truth”––all by itself––is helpful writing advice? Is it possible to make an argument for artistic self-restraint anymore?

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Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Light BulbAuthors who’ve been around awhile, and have more than a few books out there, are often asked two questions.

The first is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I like how Harlan Ellison used to answer that: “There’s a swell idea service in Schenectady. Every week I send them twenty-five bucks, and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas.”

Every now and then someone would ask him for the address of the service, and Harlan would do to that person what Harlan always used to do all such folks, i.e., not suffer them.

The other question we’re asked is, “Which book is your favorite?”

The answer is complicated. There are books we love because we worked so hard on them. Others because they were so much fun to write. And still others because they helped pay the mortgage.

But when I am asked about a series, I pause a moment, then name my legal thrillers featuring Ty Buchanan. They originally came out in beautiful hardcover editions, then trade paper.

As Seinfeld would say, yadda yadda yadda, I am pleased to report that I’m now releasing all three books in new digital editions. And to celebrate, I’m pricing each one at $2.99 for this kickoff period.

series

Allow me to tell you how I got the idea for the series, and indeed for each book. It started with my regularly scheduled “creativity time.”

Back when newspapers existed, I would read either the L.A. Times or the L.A. Daily News, and one legal newspaper, the L.A. Daily Journal. I’d scan for interesting stories or legal issues, and clip them and throw them into a box. Every now and then I’d go through that box, seeing if the ideas still interested me.

One item kept vying for my attention. It was a tragic story about an L.A. man who shot his young wife to death, then drove to a freeway overpass, got out, shot himself, and fell 100 feet to the freeway below. He crushed a Toyota, killing the driver. How bizarre is that?

So one day I wrote this up as an opening scene. When I got to the part about the woman being killed, I made up a character: Jacqueline Dwyer, a twenty-seven-year old elementary school teacher.

And then I paused, switched to a First Person POV voice, and wrote:

This would have been simply another dark and strange coincidence, the sort of thing that shows up for a two-minute report on the local news—with live remote from the scene—and maybe gets a follow-up the next day. Eventually the story would go away, fading from the city’s collective memory.

But the story did not go away. Not for me. Because Jacqueline Dwyer was the woman I was going to marry.

Who was narrating? That’s how Tyler Buchanan was born. I made him an up-and-coming, hotshot lawyer with everything going his way, until this. And especially after a shady guy finds him and tells him Jacqueline was still alive after the crash … and someone murdered her.

That book became Try Dying.

Book #2, Try Darkness, was based on a story I clipped from the legal paper. It was about illegal evictions from downtown transient hotels. There was a trick landlords were using to get around the law, so I made one of fhs evicted a mother with a six-year-old daughter, who comes to Ty for help. And then she turns up dead, and the plot, as they say, thickens.

The last book in the trilogy is Try Fear. Again, this came out of a real story I clipped. One Christmas season the LAPD stopped a very large man on suspicion of driving under the influence. He was about 6’5”, 280 pounds. He was also wearing nothing but a Santa hat and a G-string.

I found myself thinking, This has to be Ty’s next client. So that’s how Try Fear begins.

The reviews were kind. Please allow me to toot two small horns:

“Engaging whodunit series … Readers will enjoy Bell’s talent for description and character development.” –– Publishers Weekly

“The tale equally balances action and drama, motion and emotion. Readers who pride themselves on figuring out the answers before an author reveals them are in for a surprise, too. Bell is very good at keeping secrets. Fans of thrillers with lawyers as their central characters—John Lescroart and Phillip Margolin, especially—will welcome this new addition to their must-read lists.” — Booklist

I’ve been asked many times if I might add another book to this series. I’ve considered it, but I also think the series ends in exactly the right spot, with exactly the right scene, and indeed, even the right line. I am hesitant to mess with that. But if you do decide to read all three books, I would love to hear what you think I should do!

The books are on Kindle and Nook, and soon will be on Kobo and in print. If you want to know when, you can subscribe to my email alerts and I’ll be sure to let you know.

KINDLE:

Try Dying – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #1

Try Darkness – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #2

Try Fear – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #3

NOOK:

Try Dying – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #1

Try Darkness – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #2

Try Fear – Ty Buchanan Legal Thriller #3

Now we turn to you, TKZers. What is your favorite way to get ideas? And have you ever been to Schenectady?

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Is It Plagiarism to Steal a Plot?

A creative exercise I suggest in Plot & Structure and in my workshops is “stealing” old plots and re-imagining them. Of course I use the word stealingtongue-in-cheek. Still, I have occasionally heard an objection to this exercise, that it might in some way be unethical or even the dreaded P-word: Plagiarism!
           
It’s neither. If it were so, the greatest literary felon of all time would be a hack named William Shakespeare. Most of his plays were lifted from other sources.
           
For example, Will used an obscure narrative poem entitled The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet as the basis for his play. He didn’t even change the names of the titular characters! What cheek! Which reminds me: Wasn’t there someone who had the bright idea of “stealing” the plot of Romeo and Juliet and turning it into a Broadway musical set in New York? But I digress.
I once read a thriller about a small town where people were being transformed into animal-like creatures who feasted on human flesh. One of the characters in the town, a child, was convinced her parents were not really her parents anymore.
As I read that I thought of one of my favorite movies, Invasion of the Body Snatchers(the 1956 version). At the beginning of the movie a little boy is running away from his mother because he doesn’t believe she’s his mother anymore.
And I’m thinking, this novelist is blatantly purloining the movie!
Then a bit later in the novel, it’s revealed that the animal-people are the result of biological experiments by a mad genius.
And now I’m thinking, the author has absconded with H.G. Welles’s plot for The Island of Dr. Moreau!
The clever scribe had walked off with not just one plot, but two!
Ah, but the writer was ahead of me. Further into the book he has a character think that the events are just like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Later on, another character refers to The Island of Dr. Moreau.
The author was winking at readers like me who knew exactly what he was doing!
His name is Dean Koontz. The book is Midnight. And this combining of familiar plots, with updating and his own personal stamp, makes it legit.

In contrast, plagiarism in fiction is the serial lifting of actual passages and passing them off as one’s own. 
So go ahead and look to old plots for ideas, while keeping these general guidelines in mind:

1. Don’t Lift Words
In 2011 Little, Brown pulled a book from distribution when it was discovered that the author had copied actual sentences from James Bond novels and other sources. In an ironic twist, the book’s ranking on Amazon shot up as readers snapped up the remaining copies. This is not a marketing move I would recommend!
Another infamous case involved a young Harvard student who scored a major book deal for her debut novel. Little, Brown (again!) was setting her up to be the next big thing.
Then the Harvard Crimson broke a story showing that the author had lifted several passages out of the books of another author. You can read about that kerfuffle here. The book was pulled off the shelves, the deal scotched.
These cases involved copying the words of another author. Don’t do that. What willhappen from time to time is that an author will write a sentence that sounds like another author’s voice. That can be explained by osmosis, because we do retain things we read. No problem there. The problem is when it’s intentional.

2. Make the Plot Your Own
I would not recommend that you write a novel about a spoiled, antebellum girl on the cusp of the Civil War, who wants to marry a handsome Southerner pledged to another, at the same time she is courted by a dashing rogue. But this love triangle from Gone With the Wind could work nicely in, say, a future world where intergalactic war is about to break out.
Another favorite movie of mine is High Noon (1952) starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. Writer/Director Peter Hyams took that plot and re-envisioned it in outer space. Outland (1981) starred Sean Connery and is a darn good movie.
You see the point? The “stealing” of a plot idea is only meant to open up a window to new possibilities. You still need to create your own characters and setting, and most important of all, tap into a personal passion for the plot you are developing.
3. Use Plot Elements as Sparkers
You don’t need to follow a plot pattern wholesale to find this exercise of value. You can use plot elements, characters and scenes and riff off them. We do that anyway, unconsciously. When you see a film or read a book and are moved by something, it gets sent down to the basement where your writer’s unconscious mind is eating a sandwich. Later on, your sub-mind looks it over and either files it away or sends up a message recommending you do something with it. Sometime you may not even remember the source as a fresh idea takes hold. This is all natural and acceptable.
So why not be intentional about it? Keep notes on elements that work for you, and why they work. File those away and look them over occasionally. See what bubbles up.
Being creative and productive do not happen by accident. Get your gears churning. Find creative exercises to do on a regular basis. Borrowing or combining old plots might be a good one to try.
What if we took Liz Curtis Higgs’s award-winning historical novel, Thorn in My Heart,and combined it with one of those Left Behind thrillers written by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye? Why, we’d have the story of a plucky Scottish girl eating haggis and fighting off demons during the Great Tribulation.

And we could call it: Thorn in My Left Behind.
+1

Use Your Noggin To Get Lots of Ideas

@jamesscottbell


Herein is another entry from the unpublished journal of legendary pulp writer William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster. For the previous entry, see hereabout his initial meeting with the young writer, Benny Wannabe.
The kid came in all freshly scrubbed and smelling of Brylcreem. He had a big stupid smile on his face, like he’d just kissed a cheerleader.
“Well, I’m here, Mr. Armbrewster,” he said.
“Don’t state the obvious,” I said. “You want to be a writer, don’t state the obvious. Let the reader figure out things for himself.”
I was typing at my usual table at Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard. This was the first “official” meeting between Benny Wannabe, kid writer, and yours truly, William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster, professional scribe.
“Go get me a usual, and a Coke for yourself,” I said, handing Benny a fin. I took that time to type out a line for my tough guy, Cliff Hanlon, to say to an embezzling bank president.  “Money may not grow on trees, but it certainly sprouts on your girlfriend’s ring finger.”
When Benny got back with the liquid, I said, “Where’s your notebook?”
“Notebook?”
“You know, that thing? With pages? To take notes?”
“I don’t have one.”
I slapped my forehead. “You want to be a writer, don’t you?”
“More than anything.”
“Then you have to write things down. You’ve got to observe, and record what you see. Look around the room. Tell me what you observe.”
He turned his head like Charlie McCarthy and gave Musso’s a quick gander. “People eating,” he said.
“Wrong,” I said.
He frowned.
“You’ve got to see more than you see, see?”
He shook his head.
I sighed. “Look over there. See that couple?”
He looked.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“Why, I don’t know. I never met them.”
“I’ll tell you who they are. She’s a cigarette girl from the Trocadero. He’s a bigshot lawyer from downtown. He’s also married. And not to the cigarette girl.”
“You know them?” Benny said.
“Never saw ’em before in my life, but that’s what I see. And in an hour I can type a story that’ll sell to Dime Detective.”
“But how?”
I tapped my noggin. “Up here, boy. You’ve got a muscle between those big pink ears of yours. A brain, with an imagination already included. But you’ve got to work your imagination, like it was training for a distance race. You’ve got to run it around the track, every day. Do that, and it’ll get stronger.”
“Gee.”
“Now look at the corner over there. What do you see?”
He looked at the big man with a napkin stuffed in his shirt, giving the business to a steak.
“A big man eating a steak,” Benny said.
“Try again.”
“But—”
“Try, Benny, try. Look at him. What do you see?”
Little furrows appeared on Benny’s forehead. He kept looking. That gave me time to give the business to my Martini.
Finally, he said, “Maybe he’s a policeman.”
“Good, Benny, good! Keep going.”
“Going?”
“What kind of cop?”
“A…big one?”
“Think! Why is here?”
“Because he’s hungry?”
“I’m going to need another drink.”
“Wait…let me see…he’s off duty.”
“That would explain the suit. But why here, at Musso’s?”
“He likes the food?”
“Come on, kid, don’t make me despair of life! What’s strange about a cop, on a cop’s salary, eating a steak at Musso & Frank?”
“It’s expensive!”
“Ah ha! And what kind of cop can afford an expensive steak?”
“A cop who…”
“Come on, you can do it.”
“A cop who is…”
“Yes?”
“Getting money on the side?”
I slapped the table. “That’s it! Benny, my lad, you’ve done it! Now keep that imagination whirling. Where would side money come from?”
“Why, from…bribes.”
“Yes! What else?”
“Um…gambling?”
“Benny, I think I’m gonna cry. You see what you’re doing? You’re starting from absolute scratch, and you’re thinking up a character and several possible story situations. You know what that’s called?”
“What?”
“Making stuff up! And that’s all this writing game is, boy. We make stuff up, and we jot down the ideas, and then we pick the best ideas and make a story out of ’em. And we do that over and over and over again, until we die.”
“Really?”
“In fact, I take half an hour every week just to let my imagination run free. I make up opening lines without knowing anything else. I write down as many ways as I can think of for people to get murdered. I can look at the front page of a newspaper and come up with five or ten great plot ideas on the spot.”
“Wow.”
“I write ’em all down, without judging any or them. Only later do I look at the ideas and pick out the most promising ones. I put these in a file for further development. In short, my lad, I am never without something to write.”
“Man!”
“Benny, you’ve become positively monosyllabic. So here’s what you do. Run over to Newberry’s and get a notebook and some pencils. I want you to spend half an hour every day writing down ideas. I want you to go down to Pershing Square and watch people. Make up situations on a dozen people you see there. Go to Echo Park and the Santa Monica Pier. Look at the people in your rooming house. Each one of ’em is a story waiting to be told. You fill up that notebook and come back here in a week.”
“Okay, Mr. Arbrewster!” He stood up. “What are you going to do?”
“Me?” I took the page I was working on out of the typer and set it aside. Then I rolled in a fresh sheet. “I’m going to write about a crooked cop tailing a shyster lawyer who’s making time with a cigarette girl.”
Benny just stood there, smiling.
“Who deep sixes a kid without a notebook. Now get going!”

Are you intentional about getting ideas? Do you have a regular creativity time? Do you have a file for all your ideas, and another file where you develop the best ones?
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Five Key Ingredients to Nurture a Story

JordanDane
@JordanDane
 





I’ve read and heard various posts/discussions on where story ideas come, but for me it starts with one foundational notion—maintaining a fertile active mind. An author’s mind should be a rich soil cultivated for the seed of a story. Many elements can inspire and pique the interest of the author, but it takes a keen sense of storytelling for the seed to germinate into a story the writer wishes to tell. The author must be willing to commit to the project because it will take blood, sweat, and tears to complete the harvest and finish the book.
 
Five Key Ingredients to Nurture a Story
 
1.) Cultivate Fertile Ground
An author’s mind must be open to many things, much like a scientist is inquisitive about the world. I’ve found that passing judgment is a barrier to creativity. (What do you think?) Often research nurtures leaps that bound from one topic to the next until something resonates with the writer and the germination of a book idea begins. The “what if” question is a great place to start. Even if an idea or research topic doesn’t seem likely for one story, that research or notion may work for another book. Stay open to possibility. Sometimes it takes several ideas to make a story. Only the author writing the book will know when the combination is “write.”
 
2.) Stay Thirsty, my Friends
Yes, I’m borrowing the words of “the most interesting man in the world” because the notion fits. An author’s mind must be fluid and should be a sponge for ideas and inspiration. A writer’s constant thirst allows a story to take root and grow. The thirst sustains the writer over a career, but it also enhances his or her quality of life by filling the mind with a passion for learning new things. Flexing the mental muscle keeps the author young, don’t you think? Maybe learning new things allows an author’s brain to fend off age like the movie, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
 
3.) Heap on the Fertilizer
Yes, I’m going there. Compost and B.S. It takes a willingness to heap on the bull to push the envelope on what’s being published. Writers can look for trends to write and jump on an already established “band wagon,” but I believe every author has the duty to shove on the edge of the creative envelope. Make projects fun. A writer should be willing to write slightly out of their comfort zone to test their skill. It’s a challenge that can stir greater passion and a sense of accomplishment when the work is done. The story should drive the creativity, even if it takes the book and the author to a new place. If an author writes the type of book they want to read, with a good grasp of author craft, I believe they are the marketplace. Others will want to read the book too.
 
4.) Know When to Harvest
At some point an author will have to finish those interminable revisions and get on with it. Hiding out in revision hell too long stifles creativity. That never-ending book will become more of an albatross. Get your proposals out and do it in stages while you start something new to keep your mind distracted while waiting. Keep writing and finish what you start. Don’t walk away from writing a book because you lost interest or faith in the project. You will learn more from working out the problem than abandoning a book because that problem could turn out to be a chronic and recurring issue in need of a fix.
 
5.) Have Patience in Taking Your Crop to Market
Don’t rush the process. Hone your craft and put the time in to make your manuscript flourish. I see too many people rush to self-publishing. bypassing publishers and agents. (I’m in support of self-publishing, so please don’t read into my intent.) Some authors avoid the marketplace (selling a book to a publisher or seeking an agent) because they either don’t know how to do it or they wish to avoid getting that pesky pile of rejection letters. No one likes rejection, but it does build character and cultivates thick rhino skin, which comes in handy even after you’re published. Understanding the marketplace builds on your knowledge of the industry. Sometimes testing your worth in the market will give you much needed feedback. Avoid flying a charter helicopter over NYC and dropping query letters in a blanket snow fall. Be more selective and test a query letter. If it doesn’t provide a nibble or two, try something else and tweak your proposal until you get that “better” form of rejection or a sale.
 
What say you, TKZers?
1.) What triggers a story in you?

2.) What projects are you cultivating this year and where are you in the process of harvesting your crop?
3.) How do you keep the writing fun?

http://www.jordandane.com/YA/crystal-fire.php The latest release from Jordan Dane – Crystal Fire (Harlequin Teen, Dec 2013) The Hunted series.

While Gabriel Stewart trains his army of teen psychics to stop Alexander Reese–the obsessed leader of the Believers–the fanatical church becomes more bent on the annihilation of all Indigo and Crystal children. A storm is brewing on the streets of LA.

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Write Until You Die

I love writers who never stop, who keep on pounding the keys no matter what decade of life they’re in. Writers like Herman Wouk, one of America’s greatest storytellers, who had a new book come out at the age of 97.
Don’t you love the way he looks in this photo? (Captured by Stephanie Diani for The New York Times. Used by permission.) “I’m not going anywhere,” he seems to be saying. “Not with all the stories I have yet to tell.”
That’s what I want to be like when the deep winter of life rolls around. Still writing. Still dreaming. Still publishing. Thus, I was intrigued by a story with the provocative title Is Creativity Destined To Fade With Age? It begins:
Doris Lessing, the freewheeling Nobel Prize-winning writer on racism, colonialism, feminism and communism who died recently at age 94, was prolific for most of her life. But five years ago, she said the writing had dried up.
“Don’t imagine you’ll have it forever,” she said, according to one obituary. “Use it while you’ve got it because it’ll go; it’s sliding away like water down a plug hole.”
Uh-oh. Does that mean older writers are destined to have a dry well? One researcher cited in the article says No:
“What’s really interesting from the neuroscience point of view is that we are hard-wired for creativity for as long as we stay at it, as long as nothing bad happens to our brain,” Walton said. (Lessing had a stroke in the 1990s, which may have contributed to her outlook.)
Another researcher, however, added a caveat:
But repeating the same sort of creative pursuit over the decades without advancing your art can be like doing no exercise other than sit-ups your whole life, said Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus of neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco and the author of Soft-Wired, a book about optimizing brain health.
One-trick artists “become automatized, they become very habit-borne,” Merzenich said. “They’re not continually challenging themselves to look at life from a new angle.”
This is one reason I love our self-publishing options. We can play. We can go where we want to go without being tied to one brand or type of book. We can write short stories, novelettes, novellas, novels and series. When I’m not working on suspense, I like to challenge myself with a different voice for my boxing stories, my kick-butt nun novelettes, my zombie legal thrillers. I’m currently planning a collection of short stories that will be of the weird Fredric Brown variety. Why? Because I can, and because it keeps my writing chops sharp.
Which appears to be the key to this whole longevity business:
Older artists can also be galvanized by their own sense of mortality. Valerie Trueblood, 69, a Seattle writer who did not publish her novel, Seven Loves, and two short story collections until her 60s, said age can bring greater urgency to the creative process.
“I think for many older people there’s a time of great energy,” Trueblood said. “You see the end of it, you just see the brevity of life more acutely when you’re older, and I think it makes you work harder and be interested in making something exact and completing it.”
People with regular jobs usually can’t wait to retire. A writer should never retire. Fight to be creative as long as you live. Do it this way:
1. Always have at least three projects going
I wrote about this before (“The Asimov“). I think all writers should, at a minimum, have three projects on the burner: their Work-in-Progress; a secondary project that will become the WIP when the first is completed; and one or more projects “in development” (notes, concepts, ideas, character profiles, etc.). This way your mind is not stuck in one place.
2. Take care of your body
The writer’s mind is housed in the body, so do what you have to do to keep the house in shape. Start small if you have to. Eat an apple every day. Drink more water. Walk with a small notebook and pen, ready to jot notes and ideas.
3. Stay positive and productive
Write something every day. Even if it’s just journaling. Know that what you write to completion will see publication, guaranteed. It may be via a contract, like Herman Wouk. Or it may be digitally self-published. Heck, it could be a limited printing of a memoir, just for your family. Writers write with more joy when they know they will be read, and joy is the key to memorable prose.
4. Do not go gentle into that good night
Write, write against the dying of the light! (apologies to Dylan Thomas). Refuse to believe you have diminished powers or have in any way lost the spark that compelled you to write in the first place. If they tell you that you just don’t have it anymore, throw your teeth at them. Who gets to decide if you can write? You do. And your answer is, I’ve still got it, baby, and I’m going to show you with this next story of mine!
So just keep writing and never decompose.
What about you? Are you in this thing to the end?
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10 Ways to Goose the Muse


Calliope, the muse of epic poetry and story, is a fickle goddess. She drops in depending on her mood, tickles the imagination, and then takes off to party with Aphrodite. Homer famously called on the muse at the beginning of The Illiad and The Odyssey, and she deigned to answer the blind poet. But many another author, cold and alone in his garret, has cursed her for not showing up at all.
So what do you do, scribe? Wait around for a visit? Implore Zeus to flex some muscle and order his daughter to your office or Starbucks?

No! You haven’t got time to waste. You’ve got books to write. So I suggest you take the initiative and set about to prod the capricious nymph out of her scornful lethargy. 

How? Play games. Set aside a regular time (at least one half hour per week) just to play. And the most important rule is: do not censor yourself in any way. Leave your editorial mind out of the loop and record the ideas just as they come. Only later, with some distance, do you go back and assess what you have.  
Here are ten of my favorite muse-goosing games:
1. The “What if” Game
This game can be played at any stage of the writing process, but it is especially useful for finding ideas. Train your mind to think in What if terms about everything you read, watch or happen to see on the street. I’m always doing that when waiting at a stop light and looking at people on the corner. What if she is a hit-woman? What if he is the deposed president of Venezuela?
           
Read the news asking “What if” about every article. What if Tim Tebow is a robot? What if that Montana newlywed who shoved her husband off a cliff eight days into their marriage is a serial husband-killer? Or a talk show host?

2. Titles
Make up a cool title then think about a book to go with it. Sound wacky? It isn’t. A title can set your imagination zooming, looking for a story.
           
Titles can come from a variety of sources. Go through a book of quotations, like Bartlett’s, and jot down interesting phrases. Make a list of several words randomly drawn from the dictionary and combine them. 

           
3. The List
Early in his career, Ray Bradbury made a list of nouns that flew out of his memory and subconscious. These became fodder for his stories, often drawn from his childhood. 
Start your own list.  Let your mind comb through the mental pictures of your past and quickly write one- or two-word reminders. I did this once and my own list of over 100 items includes:
THE DRAPES (a memory about a pet puppy who tore my Mom’s new drapes, so she gave him away the next day. I climbed a tree in protest and refused to come down).
THE HILL (that I once accidentally set fire to).
THE FIREPLACE (in front of which we had many a family gathering).
Each of these is the germ of a possible story or novel. They are what resonate from my past. I can take one of these items and brainstorm a whole host of possibilities that come straight from the heart.
4. See it
Let your imagination play you a movie.  Close your eyes. Sit back and “watch.” What do you see? If something is interesting, don’t try to control it. Give it a nudge if you want to, but try as much as possible to let the pictures do their own thing. Do this for as long as you want.
             
5. Hear it
Music is a shortcut to the heart. (Calliope has a sister, Euterpe, goddess of music. Put the whole family to work).
           
Listen to music that moves you. Choose different styles–classical, movie scores, rock, jazz, whatever lights your fuse–and as you listen, close your eyes and record what pictures, scenes or characters appear.
           
6. Steal it
If Shakespeare could do it, you can too. Steal your plots. Yes, the Bard of Avon rarely came up with an original story. He took old plots and weaved his own particular magic with them.
So did Dean Koontz. He amusingly winks at us in Midnight about combining Invasion of the Body Snatchers with The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Listen: this is not plagiarism! I once had a well-meaning but misinformed correspondent wax indignant about my tongue-in-cheek use of the word steal. There are only about twenty plots (more or less depending on who you talk to) and they are all public domain. You combine, re-work, re-imagine them. You don’t lift exact characters and setting and phrases. That’s not kosher. Reworking old plots is.
In Hollywood, they do this all the time. Die Hard on a boat becomes Under Siege. Die Hard on a mountain becomes Cliffhanger. 
7. Cross a Genre
All genres have conventions. We expect certain beats and movements in genre stories. Why not combine expectations and turn them into fresh plots?
           
It’s very easy to take a Western tale, for example, and set it in outer space. Star Wars  had many Western themes (remember the bar scene?). The feel of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man  characters transferred into the future in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. The classic TV series The Wild, Wild West  was simply James Bond in the old West. 
When zombies got hot a few years ago, I pitched my agent the idea of a legal thriller series with a zombie as the lawyer-hero. I figured most people think lawyers and zombies are the same anyway. Kensington bought it and it became the Mallory Caine series under my pen name, K. Bennett.
           
8. Research
James Michener began “writing” a book four or five years in advance. When he “felt something coming on” he would start reading, as many as 150 to 200 books on a subject. He browsed, read, checked things. He kept it all in his head and then, finally, he began to write. All the material gave him plenty of ideas to draw upon.
           
Today, the Internet makes research easier than ever. But don’t ignore the classic routes. Books are still here, and you can always find people with specialized knowledge to interview. And if the pocketbook permits, travel to a location and drink it in. Rich veins of material abound.

9. Obsession
By its nature an obsession controls the deepest emotions of a character. It pushes the character, prompts her to action. As such, it is a great springboard for ideas. What sorts of things obsess people?
      ego
      winning
      looks
      love
      lust
      enemies
      career
Create a character. Give her an obsession. Watch where she runs.

10. Opening Lines
Dean Koontz wrote The Voice of the Night  based on an opening line he wrote while just “playing around”–
“You ever killed anything?” Roy asked.
Only after the line was written did Koontz decide Roy would be a boy of fourteen. He then went on to write two pages of dialogue which opened the book. But it all started with one line that reached out and grabbed him by the throat.
           
Joseph Heller was famous for using first lines to suggest novels. In desperation one day, needing to start a novel but having no ideas, these opening lines came to Heller: In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.
These two lines immediately suggested what Heller calls “a whole explosion of possibilities and choices.” The result was his novel, Something Happened.
           
Well, I could go on, but this post is already too long. If

you’re interested, I have 10 more of these games in my book, Plot & Structure (from which this post is adapted).

The main lesson: don’t let the inconstant Calliope rest on her mythic derriere. She’s a muse, after all. This is what she’s supposed to do. 
So what do you do to get creative? 

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Reader Friday: Get Creative

Time to get creative. I’m going to give you two items, one is a character and the other is a thing. When you put them together, what picture pops up in your head? Write it down. Then write a segment of a scene, 150 words or less, from the picture you got. Don’t look at any comments until you do, then post your results! It’ll be a good lesson in how different writers handle the same idea in unique fashion.

Today’s combo: romance writer & red wine
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Cutting the Cord

Do you feel jittery if you’re away from your cell phone or computer more than an hour? Get withdrawal symptoms if you haven’t checked your email recently? Find yourself longing to get back to work when out with friends? If so, you need a vacation.

I approached our recent ten day cruise with trepidation. How would I exist without the computer? Could I go without checking my email for even one day? What would I do with all that leisure time? I’d get bored out of my mind during four days at sea. Oh yes, I had books and newsletters on my iPad and Kindle to bring along, but how long can you sit and read without getting antsy?

If you share these concerns, believe me, they will evaporate once you’re out on the high seas, ski slopes, beach, or wherever you choose to go. Out of sight is out of mind. As soon as we set sail, I powered down my iPhone and locked it in the cabin safe. No more email, until I signed on to the ship’s WiFi for quick checks later during the week. I found enough to do that I didn’t miss my inbox.

I had to make myself go online to use up the minutes I’d purchased. Even reading newsletters became too much like homework. I stuck to the fiction I’d loaded onto my Kindle and vegged out on a lounge chair to read, or otherwise I spent my time chatting with other guests, eating, walking around the decks, eating, climbing stairs to wear off the calories, sipping cocktails, eating, watching a couple of movies, and—wait for it—relaxing.

Is the “R” word not in your vocabulary? Then you definitely need to take a break. Just make sure your vacation is sufficiently long to give you time to unwind, play for a few days, and then prepare to reenter reality. And who knows, inspiration might hit along the way.

I got inspired by one lady on a prior cruise. Based on her elegant appearance, I created the countess in Killer Knots, my cruise ship mystery. This time was no exception. When my husband and I both saw this woman, the word “witch” came to mind. Likely she’ll end up in one of my paranormal romances. But even better, the cruise ship captain was a woman. Change her to a spaceship captain and we’re off and running with another story. So give your brain a rest and take a trip away from home. You’ll come back relaxed, refreshed, and inspired.

If you’re the type who loves to hang out and avoid work entirely, this article isn’t for you. You’re the one who needs a kick in the pants to sit down and write. But that’s another topic.

When you find  yourself (if you do) glued to your electronics, how do you break away?

And since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, let’s be grateful for friends and family and things that enrich our lives that don’t depend upon electricity. Including you, dear readers. Thank YOU for visiting our blog throughout the year!

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Successful Fiction Begins With a Great Concept


Joe’s excellent post on the magic words “What if?” got me thinking about the crucial importance of concept.
I was going through some old files the other day and came across this little scrap of paper from several years ago. I remember it well. I was on a trip to talk with my publisher at the time, Zondervan, and to pitch some projects.
I had an idea that had been chugging around my brain for awhile. It was based on two things. First, an uncomfortable encounter with someone from my past who was insistent on edging back into my life.
The other was the plot of one of my favorite novels, The Executioners by John D. MacDonald (basis of the Cape Fearfilms).
I put those two items together. This is a great method of coming up with plot ideas, by the way. Dean Koontz has been a master at this. For instance, Midnight,one of his best thrillers, is a cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Koontz even references those titles in the book itself, to “wink” at the readers who recognize the plot lines. But the characters and setting are original creations. 
Anyway, I was in the hotel room in Grand Rapids and jotted this:

How far will a man go to protect his family? For lawyer Sam Trask, it’s farther than he ever thought possible. Because when an unwelcome presence from his past comes calling, bent on the destruction of his family, Sam must leave the civilized corners of the law and journey into the heart of darkness.


Not bad for an on-the-spot jot on Holiday Inn note paper. The concept was the basis of my novel No Legal Grounds (2007), which became a bestseller and is still one of my favorite thrillers.
The reason: concept. If you don’t get your concept solid and simple from the start, you’re likely to wander around in soggy bogs and down random rabbit trails.
A writing teacher once told me that the most successful movies and books are simple plots about complex characters. I think he has something there. You should be able to articulate your concept in a few lines.
A self-centered Southern belle is forced to fight for her home during and after the Civil War, even as she fights off the charms of a handsome rogue who looks exactly like Clark Gable.
To get back home, a Kansas farm girl has to kill a wicked witch in a land full of Munchkins and flying monkeys. Aided by a scarecrow, a tin man and a lion with issues, she faces dangers aplenty along a yellow brick road.

A vigilante nun cleans up the streets of L.A. Sinners beware. (Okay, I know, shameless. But it truly defines Force of Habit for me, and will for the entire series).
A simple, strong concept is your anchor, your floodlight in the darkness. It will keep you focused and writing scenes with organic unity.
In real estate, it’s location, location, location.
In fiction, it’s concept, concept, concept.
Make sure you know yours before you start writing.
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I will be taking students from their concept through “sign post scenes” up to indestructible structure at my upcoming 2-day writing seminars. Would love to have you. Details can be found here.
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