Don’t Ever Mail It In

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Jessica Strawser, editorial director of Writer’s Digest magazine, and soon-to-be debut novelist, tweeted this from the recent WD conference in New York.

I agree. The dread mistake is called “mailing it in.” It’s when you think you’ve reached a certain point in your writing where you don’t have to improve. You’ve had some success, so why sweat and strain?

That’s not how a real writer thinks. How do I define a real writer? It’s someone who honors the craft and never settles. The real writer always sets the bar a bit higher than the last jump.

Mailing it in sometimes afflicts even the A list. A series that catches on in a big way can afford the author the opportunity to spend more time on a yacht than behind a keyboard. I’ve seen that happen a couple of times, and it’s not pretty.

On the other hand, you have a writer like Dennis Lehane. There he was with a popular PI series that he could have sat on. But then he proceeds to write one of the great stand-alone crime novels of our time, Mystic River. Not content with that, a few years later he writes an epic historical called The Given Day. I’m not sure he meant this to be a series, but I suspect the popularity of the novel gave rise to the idea. Now that series character, Joe Coughlin, is going to get the Ben Affleck treatment in a major motion picture.

I like what the Amazon “best books of the month” reviewer said about the second Coughlin book, Lived by Night: “Incredibly, Lehane … becomes more masterful with each book…”

That’s the kind of accolade for which a real writer strives. Because, you see, there is a joy and a satisfaction in the striving itself. The mail-it-inners don’t have that anymore. It’s a loss to the soul.

paulnewman460I’ve referred several times to that speech Paul Newman makes in The Hustler, one of my top ten favorite movies. He is “Fast Eddie” Felson, low-level pool hustler whose been told he’s a “born loser” by the satanic gambler played by George C. Scott. One day he describes to his girl, Sarah, what the game of pool feels like when “he’s really going.” It’s…

…like a jockey must feel. He’s sittin’ on his horse, he’s got all that speed and that power underneath him… he’s comin’ into the stretch, the pressure’s on ‘im, and he knows… just feels … when to let it go and how much. Cause he’s got everything workin’ for ‘im, timing, touch… it’s a great feeling, boy, it’s a real great feeling when you’re right and you know you’re right. It’s like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. The pool cue’s part of me. You know, it’s a pool cue, it’s got nerves in it. It’s a piece of wood, it’s got nerves in it. You feel the roll of those balls, you don’t have to look, you just know. You make shots nobody’s ever made before. I can play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before.

Sarah looks at him and says, “You’re not a loser, Eddie. You’re a winner.”

Eddie looks at her quizzically. And she says, “Some men never get to feel that way about anything.”

Get it? Don’t ever settle for mailing it in.

Now how do you get to that “Fast Eddie feeling”? These things work for me:

  1. Read widely, not just in your preferred genre. I love reading great writing, fiction or non-fiction. Right now I’m reading three books at the same time (do you do this?) I’m reading L.A. Noir by John Buntin (about Chief of Police William Parker and mobster Mickey Cohen, and the battle for Los Angeles); a collection of short stories by John O’Hara; and a two-volume biography of Andrew Jackson published in 1938 (elegant prose here of the kind we rarely see anymore).
  1. Be intentional about studying the craft. What I mean is look for books and articles and blog posts on specific subjects that are chosen to address your own writing needs. I break down the craft into what I call “seven critical success factors” –– plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, and meaning (or theme). I advise you try to locate your weakest area and design a self-study program that lasts a minimum of six weeks. Read books and articles on the subject, and do practice writing. Get feedback on your exercises. What if you took the next year and set out to raise your game in each area? What if you designed seven 6-week courses for yourself? (If you would like a ready-made course of study, I do have one available). Your growth will be tremendous. You’ll feel it. Just like Fast Eddie.
  1. Be a risk taker. Go to new places in your writing. You don’t have to jump genres if you’re trying to build a brand. But do something more, different, deeper in your next book.

Early in his career Dean Koontz was rolling along writing bestselling paperback thrillers under several pen names. But he wasn’t satisfied. So he set out to deepen his characterizations. He studied up on psychology and used what he learned to write Whispers. Would his wide audience for fast-paced thrills like it? It was a risk … and it became Koontz’s first New York Times bestseller.

So keep the edge. Make the writing itself (not just the results) the object of your affection. That way you’ll leave behind no regrets when your personal mail is delivered by the groundhog.screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-1-08-22-pm

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Let Me Entertain You

wing-221526_1280Some time ago I was on a plane coming back from New York. Sitting in the window seat was a woman of about sixty. As soon as we were in the air she took a paperback out of her purse and started to read.

Since one out of every three paperbacks in the world is by James Patterson, it was no surprise when I saw his name on the cover.

I took out my Kindle and started reading the complete works of Charles Dickens.

After half an hour or so, I heard a ripping noise. I glanced over and saw the woman tearing off a good chunk of pages from Mr. Patterson’s book. She folded these and stuck them in the seat pocket.

And went back to reading.

I said nothing, returning to the travails of Little Dorrit.

Another half hour or so went by, and the woman did the same thing with the next section of the book. I held my Kindle in a protective position.

Time went on, and eventually what I guessed to be about half the book was torn asunder. At some point a flight attendant came down the aisle with a trash bag. The woman gestured to the attendant and placed the pages that had formerly been part of a bound paperback into the bag.

I couldn’t resist. “That must be a trashy novel,” I said.

She looked at me quizzically, which is a look I’m used to.

“I’ve never seen someone do that before,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, “before I go on a trip I pick up a few paperbacks at a garage sale. I don’t want to carry them around after I’m finished. And if I’m in the middle of a book I don’t want to carry the whole book. I read and tear off pages so I’m left with a smaller book to put in my purse.”

“Mr. Patterson might feel ripped off,” I said.

She stared.

“Are you enjoying the book?” I said.

“It keeps me occupied,” she said.

And isn’t that why most people read fiction? To be occupied, transported, distracted, entertained? To have a few hours when they’re not worried about jobs, relationships, politics, crime, money, Jennifer Aniston?

Thus the term escapist. And that is not a bad thing. In fact, it may be essential for survival. Unless we can shut down for awhile and let our brains be entertained we are doomed to walk through the dense fog of existence without so much as a candle.

Of course, there is room for what some call “difficult” fiction. Sometimes tagged “literary,” it’s the kind of fiction that tests readers, that requires a certain amount of aerobics of the brain. It’s also the kind of fiction that’s being squeezed out of the marketplace, for as one editor said to me at a conference, “The definition of literary fiction is fiction that doesn’t sell.”

Which is more about the business aspect of publishing than any inherent worth. Publishers and authors would love it if literary fiction was more marketable. But publishers need to make money. They do it primarily with A-list authors who entertain.

Again, not a bad thing. “In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness.” – Dean Koontz, How to Write Best-Selling Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, 1981)

So what are the elements of entertaining fiction? Here is what I look for—and try to write myself:

  • A Lead we absolutely bond with and root for
  • A touch of humor
  • Heart and heat
  • Death overhanging (physical, psychological, and/or professional)
  • Vindication of the moral order
  • Surprise, things we haven’t seen before
  • Twists and turns
  • A knockout ending
  • A style with a bit of unobtrusive poetry

A few questions for the TKZ community today:

  1. What makes for entertaining fiction in your eyes?
  1. When was the last time you threw a book across the room (literally or figuratively)? You don’t have to name names, but what prompted your reaction?
  1. What was a “difficult” book that tested your brain?

 

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Sympathy for the Devil: Writing Unforgettable Villains

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


Back when I was pounding the Off-Broadway boards I got a bit part in a production of Othello.  I got to wear tights and say Shakespeare things.

Our Othello was the marvelous stage actor Earle Hyman, better known to most of you as Bill Cosby’s father on The Cosby Show. In point of fact Earle is one of the great Othellos. He is also a very nice man.

Once we were chatting backstage and I told him that someday I would love to play Iago. He said I would be perfect for it because I had such an open, honest face (this was before I went to law school). That, after all, is what makes Iago powerful. Othello calls him “My friend … honest, honest Iago.” And if the part is played right there is even a touch of sympathy for Iago at the end as he’s dragged off to be tortured to death.
This, in fact, is what set Shakespeare apart from his contemporaries. He knew how to mangle the emotions of the audience, even to the point of rendering some sympathy for the devil.
Dean Koontz wrote, “The best villains are those that evoke pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy as well as terror. Think of the pathetic aspect of the Frankenstein monster. Think of the poor werewolf, hating what he becomes in the light of the full moon, but incapable of resisting the lycanthropic tides in his own cells.”

All this to say that the best villains in fiction, theatre, and film are never one-dimensional. They are complex, often charming, and able to manipulate. The biggest mistake you can make with a villain is to make him pure evil or all crazy.
So what goes into crafting a memorable villain?
1. Give him an argument

There is only one character in all storytelling who wakes up each day asking himself what fresh evil he can commit. This guy:
But other than Dr. Evil, every villain feels justified in what he is doing. When you make that clear to the reader in a way that approaches actual empathy, you will create cross-currents of emotion that deepen the fictive dream like virtually nothing else.

One of the techniques I teach in my workshops is borrowed from my courtroom days. I ask people to imagine their villain has been put on trial and is representing himself. Now comes the time for the closing argument. He has one opportunity to make his case for the jury. He has to justify his whole life. He has to appeal to the jurors’ hearts and minds or he’s doomed.

Write that speech. Do it as a free-form document, in the villain’s voice, with all the emotion you can muster. Emphasize what’s called “exculpatory evidence.” That is evidence that, if believed, would tend to exonerate a defendant. As the saying goes, give the devil his due.

Note: This does not mean you are giving approval to what the villain has done. No way. What you are getting at is his motivation. This is how to know what’s going on inside your villain’s head throughout the entire novel.
Want to read a real-world example? See the cross-examination of Hermann Goering from the Nuremberg Trials. Here’s a clip:
I think you did not quite understand me correctly here, for I did not put it that way at all. I stated that it had struck me that Hitler had very definite views of the impotency of protest; secondly, that he was of the opinion that Germany must be freed from the dictate of Versailles. It was not only Adolf Hitler; every German, every patriotic German had the same feelings. And I, being an ardent patriot, bitterly felt the shame of the dictate of Versailles, and I allied myself with the man about whom I felt perceived most clearly the consequences of this dictate, and that probably he was the man who would find the ways and means to set it aside. All the other talk in the Party about Versailles was, pardon the expression, mere twaddle … From the beginning it was the aim of Adolf Hitler and his movement to free Germany from the oppressive fetters of Versailles, that is, not from the whole Treaty of Versailles, but from those terms which were strangling Germany’s future.
How chilling to hear a Nazi thug making a reasoned argument to justify the horrors foisted upon the world by Hitler. So much scarier than a cardboard bad guy.
So what’s your villain’s justification? Let’s hear it. Marshal the evidence. Know deeply and intimately what drives him.

2. Choices, not just backstory
It’s common and perhaps a little trite these days to give the villain a horrific backstory and leave it at that.
Or, contrarily, to leave out any backstory at all.
In truth, everyone alive or fictional has a backstory, and you need to know your villain’s. But don’t just make him a victim of abuse. Make him a victim of his own choices.
Back when virtue and character were actually taught to children in school, there was a lesson from the McGuffey Reader that went like this: “The boy who will peep into a drawer will be tempted to take something out of it; and he who will steal a penny in his youth will steal a pound in his manhood.”
The message, of course, is that we are responsible for our choices and actions, and they have consequences.
So what was the first choice your villain made that began forging his long chain of depravity? Write that scene. Give us the emotion of it. Even if you don’t use the scene in your book, knowing it will give your villain scope.
3. Attractiveness
The devil is not a cloven-hoofed, red-suited, pointy-eared demon with a pitchfork. Indeed, the Bible says Satan appears “as an angel of light.” He is the most beautiful of the heavenly host. His mode is to entice, not coerce.
The same with the best villains. They are sometimes attractive through raw, worldly power (Gordon Gekko). Intellect may be their weapon (Hannibal Lecter). Or a certain way with the opposite sex (innumerable homme and femme fatales). Hitchcock’s best villains were charming and therefore disarming. They often had wit and style. (My favorite is the widow-murdering uncle played by Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt.)
Give your villain at least one attractive feature and then see what the other characters do with it.
The strength of a thriller is directly proportional to the strength of the villain. The reader has to feel that this character has got what it takes to pull the wool over the eyes of the many. And if you create a touch of empathy as well, you’ll have your storytelling hooks deeply embedded in the readers’ hearts. They’ll thank you for that by buying your next book.
What’s your approach to villain writing?

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What This Old Dog LearnedFrom Teaching New Writers

By P.J. Parrish

You can, it seems, teach an old dog new tricks. I don’t mean the one above. That’s my dog Bailey. She’s as smart as a whip, but at fourteen, she’s not about to let me balance a Wishbone on her nose. I am talking about myself here. Let me first stipulate that I am an “old dog” (way past AARP induction age and been published now since 1985). Yet I am definitely still learning new tricks.

This point was driven home to me last week when my sister Kelly and I were up in Michigan teaching a two-day fiction writing workshop at Saturn Booksellers. It was pretty intense and we worked our charges hard, giving them Powerpoints on the twin pillars of plot and character, and on the finer points of transitions, pacing, theme and voice, rewriting, and what “show vs tell” really means.

But we also forced them to actually write, giving them quick exercises on a host of topics. We would show them a photograph and give them the opening line. Then they had five minutes to write to the assignment.  I was surprised at the quality of the short pieces they produced. I think they were, too.

Almost all of them, they admitted, felt bogged down and somewhat defeated by their works in progress — all for different reasons. But there was something liberating about doing those short-burst exercises that recharged their confidence and got their mental muscles moving again. (For some reason, this photo below, for the dialogue exercise, really inspired some great offbeat writing. Go figure!)

We also offered to critique the first ten pages of their manuscripts. There was some good stuff in their submissions and the mistakes tended to be the usual ones of craft that we here at The Kill Zone talk about all the time. But it was the big-picture issues that I found myself thinking about afterwards. Because even after ten years of teaching, after publishing twenty novels, a novella and a bunch of short stories, this old dog is still learning — from my students.

Here are my top big picture points from our Michigan workshop.

Chose your entry point carefully


Where do you begin your story? This is, to my mind, maybe the most important choice we make as writers and one I struggled with mightily on my WIP. I changed my opening five times before I finally hit upon the right moment to begin my tale. It’s like those astronauts in “Apollo 13”: You come in too late you burn up. If you come in too shallow you skim off the atmosphere and fly off into space. Many folks pick a point too early and the reader gets bored waiting for something to happen. This is why prologues usually fail; it’s just the writer clearing his throat or doing a backstory dump. Here’s what agent Dan Lazar hates to see: “Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes and thinking, staring out the window and thinking, tying shoes, thinking.”  But if you come in too late, you create confusion for the reader aka “coming out of a coma syndrome.” (ie where am I? Who is that? What the heck is going on?”)

Things to consider when picking your entry point: Early on, tell us who the protag is and make us care about her. Create a conflict for the protag in the opening pages. Establish the stakes. And make the opening scene compelling enough that we must read on. But don’t get too clever. Here’s Dan Lazar again: “A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue.”

Don’t try too hard


Nothing’s more cringe-inducing than a writer who’s swinging for the fences and whiffing. Whether it’s lame humor, groddy sex scenes, overly didactic themes, ten-dollar vocabulary, or cutesy attempts to be different (“Look, Ma! No punctuation!”), writing that calls attention to itself is just…bad writing. Yes, we all admire inventive writing, but there’s only one George Saunders. You are not him. Neither am I, alas. Remember what Nathaniel Hawthorne said: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Just tell a compelling story about characters we care about. Get out of the way of your story. This is something, my friends, that I need to have tattooed on my forehead.

Read. Read. Read some more


Our students, who ranged from a 17-year-old writing vampire YA to a great-grandfather writing a WWII novel, were all pretty good on this account. But we stressed to them that they have to read with an analytical eye, dissecting how other writers spin their magic. I have gotten lazy on this account lately, telling myself that I just don’t have time to read. But up in the Michigan woods, I read two terrific books — Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz and The Blue Hour by T. Jefferson Parker. From Koontz I re-learned  the importance of rich characterization and how to handle an unreliable narrator. (Which I am grappling with). From Parker, I got a great lesson in how to handle dual protagonists. If you want to be a writer, you must first be a reader.

Don’t be afraid


One of the hardest things for our students was exposing themselves and their writing. This is why we made them write in class and share. Fear is a common affliction among writers. I’m not immune; I’m afraid I don’t have the chops to pull off my WIP story. For the yet-unpublished, the fears are more basic. They are afraid of scrutiny, criticism, ridicule, rejection — you fill in the blank. I know folks who have slaved for years over their books (aka The Thing That Has Eaten Up Ten Years of my Life) who have never worked up the courage to show it to anyone. Yes, we get personal gratification from the process. But the purpose of writing is communication. You have to put it — and yourself — out there.

Make your story compel someone to say, “Wow, that’s exactly how I feel.” If you do that, well, then you can relax a little. Because you’ll know then that you really are a writer. Peace out. Woof.

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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.
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Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie Renner, editor & author

In my editing and blog posts, I often suggest techniques for bringing characters and the scene to life on the page. A big one I advise over and over is to show the protagonist’s immediate emotional, physical, and/or thought reactions to anything significant that has just happened. This glimpse into the POV character’s real feelings and thoughts increases readers’ emotional engagement, which keeps them eagerly reading. (See Show Your Characters’ Reactions to Bring Them Alive)

Showing your character’s immediate thought-reactions frequently is a great way to let the readers in on what your character is really thinking about what’s going on, how they’re reacting inside, often in contrast to what they’re saying or how they’re acting outwardly. And it helps reveal their personality.

Here are some examples of brief, immediate thought-reactions:

A scene in Breaking Bad

No!

Damn.

What?
 
In your dreams.   

What the hell?

Give me a break!

These direct thoughts, the equivalent of direct speech in quotation marks, are silent, inner words the character can’t or doesn’t want to reveal. It’s most effective to italicize these quick, brief thought-reactions, both for emphasis and to show that it’s a direct thought, like the character talking to herself, not the slightly removed indirect thought.

Here are a few examples of indirect thoughts vs. the closer-in, higher-impact direct thoughts:

Indirect: She’d had enough. She really wanted to leave.

Direct speech: “I’ve had enough. I’m heading out.”

Direct thought: This sucks! I’m outta here.
 
(Or whatever. More personal, more unique voice, more attitude, less social veneer.)

Use present tense for direct thoughts.

If your story is in past tense, as most novels are, narration, indirect speech and thoughts will be in past tense, too. But it’s important to put direct, quoted speech and direct, italicized thoughts in present tense, and first-person (or sometimes second person), as they are the exact words the character is thinking.

Direct thoughts = internal dialogue.

Note: Never use quotation marks for thoughts. Quotation marks are for words spoken out loud.

A few more examples:

Indirect thought: He wondered where she was.

Direct speech (dialogue): “Where is she?” he asked.

Direct thought: Where is she? Or: Where the hell is she, anyway?

Note how the italics take the place of quotation marks when it’s a direct thought, the character talking to himself. Also, the italics indicate direct thoughts, so no need to add “he thought” or “she thought.”

Indirect speech: She asked us what was going on.

Indirect thought: She wondered what was going on.

Direct speech: “What’s going on here?” she asked.

Direct thought-reaction: What on earth is going on?
 
(Or whatever, according to the voice of the POV character.)

To me, using these direct thought-reactions brings the character more to life by showing their innermost, uncensored thoughts and impulses.

In these cases, italics for thoughts take the place of the quotation marks that would be used if the words were spoken out loud. But I advise against putting several long thoughts in a row into italics. In fact, do we even think in complete sentences arranged in logical order to create paragraphs? I don’t think so. Thoughts are often disjointed fragments, as is casual dialogue.

Since italics are also used for emphasis, be sure not to overdo them, or they’ll lose their power.

But do use italics for those immediate thought-reactions, the equivalent of saying out loud, “What!” or “No way!” or “You wish.” Or “I don’t think so.” Or “Yeah, right.” Or “Great.” Or “Perfect.” Or “Oh my god.” Only, for thoughts, take off the quotation marks, of course, so you’ll write: What! or No way, etc.

To me, italics used in this way indicate a fast, sudden break in the social veneer, a revelation or peek into the psyche of the thinker.

So try to insert direct thought-reactions where appropriate to effectively show your character’s immediate internal reactions to events.

But don’t italicize indirect thoughts.

To me, italicizing indirect thoughts (in third-person, past tense) would be the same as putting quotation marks around indirect speech, like: He said, “He wished he could come, too.” (Should be: He said, “I wish I could come, too.”)

So don’t italicize phrases like: Why were they looking for her? She had to find a place to hide!

(“her” and “she” refer to the person thinking.) Keep it in normal font, or change it to a direct thought and italicize:

Why are they looking for me? Where can I hide?

EXAMPLES FROM BESTSELLERS:

Some bestselling authors use a lot of italicized thought-reactions, while others just use them sparingly or not at all. It seems to be a growing trend, though, and I think it’s a great technique for highlighting the character’s inner emotional reactions effectively, directly, and in the fewest possible words.

Lisa Scottoline, for example, uses italicized brief thought-reactions a lot in her novels. They provide a quick peek into the character’s immediate thoughts, without a lot of explaining. Like in Daddy’s Girl:

The heroine, Natalie, has a small cut on her face, and her father, on the phone, asks which hospital

she went to. She says she didn’t need to, “It’s just a little cut.”

  “On your face, no cut is too little. You don’t want a scar. You’re not one of the boys.”
   Oh please. “Dad, it won’t scar.”

Later, a good-looking guy, Angus, makes a suggestion about lunch while they’re working.

   Did he just ask me out?

Later, as they’re working together, Angus tries to protect her, but she isn’t having any of it. The thought-reaction shows the contrast between how she’s really feeling and how she wants him to think she’s going along with his plans.

“I’ll get you out of here in the morning, and you’ll be safe.”
   No way. “Okay, you’ve convinced me.”

Andrew Gross uses frequent thought-reactions in italics very effectively in his riveting thriller, Don’t Look Twice. Here’s one brief example:

A chill ran down her spine. … Don’t let him see you. Get the hell out of here, the tremor said.

And Dean Koontz uses this technique from time to time in his novel Intensity. For example:

Chyna is hesitating about opening a door, then decides to throw caution to the wind:

   Screw it.
   She put her hand on the knob, turned it cautiously, and…

Then later:

   He was coming forward, leisurely covering the same territory over which Chyna had just scuttled.
   What the hell is he doing?
   She wanted to take the photograph but didn’t dare. She put it on the floor where she’d found it.

Note that these intensified thoughts are often at the beginning of a paragraph or set off in their own line, for emphasis. Or sometimes they’re at the end of a paragraph, to leave us with something to think about, as in later in the same book.

Lee Child’s The Affair has lots of examples of Jack Reacher’s critical thoughts in italics. Here’s one of many I could have chosen:

   He asked “Was I on your list of things that might crawl out from under a rock?”
   You were the list, I thought.
   He said, “Was I?”
   “No,” I lied.

(Not to nit-pick with a huge bestselling author, but in my opinion, neither the “I thought” or the “I lied” are necessary above.)

Lee Child also uses this technique a lot in The Hard Way, especially to show Jack Reacher’s mind busily working away while he’s talking to or watching someone, or to emphasize the importance of a bit of info he’s just learned.

David Baldacci uses this technique frequently in Hell’s Corner to show the direct thoughts of his
protagonist, Oliver Stone. Here’s one example:

Burn in hell, Carter, thought Stone as the door closed behind him.
   And I’ll see you when I get there.

Brenda Novak, in her romantic suspense, In Close, uses italicized thoughts to show the contrast between what the character, Claire, is saying and what she’s really thinking:

   “Maybe I could get back to you in the morning after I’ve…I’ve had some sleep.” And a chance to prepare myself for what you might say….

Even TKZ’s James Scott Bell uses this technique in his delightful novellette, Force of Habit. The spunky, rebellious Sister J, a former actress and trained martial arts expert, is being confronted by someone obnoxious who has recognized her. Her internal dialogue shows her (unsuccessful) attempt at calming herself.

   “Can you still kick butt?”
   She could all right, and she felt like kicking something right now. His shin, if not the wall. Think of St. Francis, she told herself. Think of birds and flowers…

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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Facing Down the Harsh Realities of Publishing


Why doesn’t Phil Ivey get to the final table every year in the World Series of Poker? In fact, why hasn’t he ever won the main event? Every observer of the game puts Ivey at the top of the charts in terms of all-around poker skill. He wins a lot of tournaments, but never the big one.

It’s because poker isn’t only about skill. You’ve got to get the cards. You can go all in with pocket aces only to see your opponent from Hoboken draw that third eight on the river.

So yeah, it’s a mixture of skill and luck. While you may not feel you have the skill to succeed when playing poker on an online uk casino, this doesn’t mean you can’t win big. Which pretty much defines any endeavor in life.

Of course, stronger skills increase your odds of success. As one wag put it, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

In the writing world, especially now, you’ll hear a lot about luck and the “harsh reality” of publishing. Whether you’re self-pubbing, going with a traditional house (large, small or in between), or doing a mixture of both, the truth is it’s hard to break through to big numbers.

A few weeks ago the highly successful, and most generous indie author, Hugh Howey, wrote the following in regard to a post on Joe Konrath’s blog.

I think Joe comes as close as anyone to sorting it all out. Like me, he includes luck in his secret recipe, and he qualifies that with the hard work that magnifies luck. Let’s say luck, as an ingredient, accounts for 30% of the Breakout-Sauce. That’s enough to explain how some authors go nuts with a single book, or expensive books, or books with crappy cover art (like mine), or books with technical faults. It would also explain how someone with a dozen excellent titles isn’t taking off. How someone who does everything “right” doesn’t have success.

If that’s the reality of it, then what’s the answer? The same answer you’d give anyone starting a business. Do you really want to do this? Are you willing to pay the price? Can you live with risk and uncertainty? Can you look reality in the eye and make adjustments? Is this business enough of a passion that you’d do it even if you barely clear your bottom line (e.g., run an independent bookstore)?

Yes? You will keep writing? Even if things are not taking off? Okay. Then:

1. Keep your expectations low

The great world religions, and various schools of philosophy, teach that unhappiness comes primarily through expectations unfulfilled. Expectations can form images in your mind, such as seeing your ebook hit the Kindle Top 100 list, or some such. When it doesn’t happen, your brain orders a secretion of chemicals that make you feel like pig slop.

Set goals and have dreams, yes. But temper them with your mind telling you not to be dependent on them for your happiness or productivity. “If you can dream, and not make dreams your master . . .” Kipling wrote.


2. Keep your work ethic high

I believe I said this best in my post called “How to Make Money Self-Publishing Fiction.” Especially the part about constantly learning the craft. Get feedback. Read books and articles on writing. Keep learning. Try new things. Experiment with short form. Maybe you’ll find a new genre you like, and that readers like, too. At the very least, you’ll be exercising your skills. Dean Koontz was a middling writer for the first ten years of his career. But he was crazily prolific. And all along the way he taught himself about the craft. When he intentionally took a leap into deeper characterization (with Whispers) he shot up another level. And he’s had several leaps like that since.


3. Keep your joy hot

I also wrote about joy in your writing being a key to success. You see, it’s always a combination of things that betters your odds. Knowing how to free your voice is one of those things. It’s also more fun to write this way. You might as well have fun at this thing.


4. Keep your grumbling cool

I used to say that if you got a rejection from a publisher or agent, let it hurt for half an hour, then get back to your keyboard. Same if you self-publish. Your latest release mired in mud? Okay, grouse to somebody about it, or bay at the moon, but then get back to work on your next project.


5. Keep on writing for the rest of your life

If you love to write, why would you ever stop? If writing doesn’t make a living for you, do it because you love it, and do what you can of it. Keep your day job but find your “quota sweet spot” and stick to it.

Persistence plus production plus quality improvements all along the way. That’s been the formula for business success ever since Eli Whitney (did you know the cotton gin didn’t make him rich, but muskets did, years later? Well, now you do).

Let Hugh Howey, from the same comment I linked to above, have the last word:

Which leads to my point of this long-winded nonsense: Time has to be an ingredient. An important one. This revolution has barely gotten started. Good luck and bad luck require time to even them out. If you’ve done everything right, your works might take off in ten years. Who knows? We haven’t been at this long enough. I think it’s too early for any of us to say something isn’t working or that it won’t work. I just have to remember back to writing seven novels over three years and watching them sit between #335,204 and #1,302,490 in the Amazon store. I didn’t care. I just kept writing. I read about Amanda Hocking, and I thought: “Hellz yeah!” And I kept writing. I gave myself until I was 40 and I had twenty titles published before I worried about whether I sold enough to pay a bill. And even if that never happened, it was an excuse to publish twenty titles. I could always say that. No one could take it away from me. And anyway, I’d sold a handful of books and heard from people that they loved them. I remembered when that was just an idle dream.

So how is the reality of writing treating you? What do you intend to do about it? 

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Analyzing Book Description Copy

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


One of the key elements of selling online these days is the ability to write book descriptions (also called “cover copy”) that sizzle and do the job in three paragraphs or so. In this age of short attention spans, you can’t afford to waste any space. You can read about one method of generating good cover copy here(h/t Jodie Renner).

For amusement recently, I randomly looked at some descriptions from bestselling authors. You ought to do the same. Go through Amazon and study the best books in your genre. See what professional marketing people have come up with. Figure out what works and doesn’t work for you. Then write your own copy accordingly.
Below are links to Amazon for three book descriptions (I didn’t want to overstep copyright concerns by producing them in full). Give each a quick read and then come back for my analysis.
Innocence by Dean Koontz

The first line is pretty good. Captures me and makes me want to read the next line (which is the whole secret of copywriting).
But that second line is a bit soft. I would change “do her harm” to “kill her.”
I would like to see more specificity in the third paragraph. What is it that creates the “bond”? What sort of “reckoning” are we talking about here? Why are these two people involved?
The last line, of course, is purely for the author. If you’re Dean Koontz, you deserve such praise. But my advice for us mere mortals: do not use over-the-top fluff. You can mention kudos, but only if you back it up with something like a nice blurb from a well-known writer, or a review from a trusted source. I don’t care how good your self-published thriller is, it is not going to “leave readers transformed forever and change the course of history for all mankind.”  
***
NYPD RED 2 by James Patterson & Marshall Karp

This copy starts with a “headline” style, which is often a good idea. But only if the headline is short and to the point. Here, I would take out the whole parenthetical statement and leave this: NYPD Red hunts a killer who is on an impossible mission.
The next two paragraphs are excellent. They are specific and to the point and tell me exactly what type of story this is. It has both outer plot (serial killer) and inner journey (Kylie has been acting strange recently). It’s all there.
The puffery about Patterson is, of course, also well-deserved. But notice that it is backed up with a clip from a trusted source.
***
Stand Up Guy by Stuart Woods
The headline focuses on the series character, which is fine. Readers of the series will want to know about it. “Edge-of-your-seat adventure” is a cliché, of course. I wonder if readers have a slightly negative reaction to such things, even subconsciously. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m not sure. What are your thoughts on it?
The first paragraph has some issues. What is a “well-deported” gentleman? I had to look up deported, and found out it’s an archaic word for “conduct.” Key copyrighting tip: Don’t make readers work hard! Write in such a way that a middle school student could read the copy and not get tripped up by any of it. 

Also, is there enough at stake? Does “keenly interested” indicate enough trouble? 
The second paragraph gets us a little closer to specifics and how they involve the lead character. I’m okay with that.
***
Now here’s one for a short story:
Sometimes, comedy can seem like death…
For Pete “The Harv” Harvey, stand up comedy is a serious business. At least, he wants it to be. But the struggle to make it in the glitter dome of L.A. hasn’t exactly been a smashing success.
One night, after bombing onstage at a local club, Pete wonders if his next stop is managing a car wash. Then a man sits next to him at the bar–a man with an almost unbelievable proposition. One that could mean a whole lot of money to Pete “The Harv” Harvey, who will soon learn that deals too good to be true are no laughing matter.
I think the author did okay with that. It’s brief and to the point, gives the set up and then gets out of the way.

And here’s more news: This story, “No Laughing Matter,” is FREE today through Wednesday on Kindle. The favor of a review is requested.
Go ahead and get the story now. I’ll wait.
Welcome back! Now dive in and leave a comment on book descriptions. What do you think works, or doesn’t work? What grabs you? What makes you shrug your shoulders and go “Meh”?

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The CTFD Writing Method

By Boyd Morrison

Dear Me Five Years Ago,

I just read about a revolutionary new parenting method created by David Vienna called CTFD, or Calm The F*ck Down. Vienna proposes that kids are resilient and will grow up to be fine if parents would stop worrying about every little thing so much. CTFD isn’t for the children. It’s the parents who need to calm the f*ck down. I think his method has great lessons for you, so listen up.

As an unpublished author, you are concerned about everything (yes, I still remember like it was yesterday). You have so many concerns, I wonder now how you get any writing done. They go on and on: How will you get published? What if you’re writing isn’t good enough? Why doesn’t an agent want to represent you? Will you ever be able to do this for a living? Good God, you’re a mess.

I’m writing from the future to tell you…calm the f*ck down.

Even after you get Irene Goodman as an agent, you’re going to wonder why no publisher wants you (BTW, she advocated pretty much this same method, but you won’t really take it to heart at the time). When you get published by a big six publisher, you’re going to fret over the marketing for your first book even though most of it is out of your control. While you’re doing all that, you’re going stagger under the pressure of writing a great follow-up, convinced that you’ve run out of ideas.

Calm the f*ck down.

You’re going to give me an ulcer if you keep worrying about every little thing. You need to pace yourself. You’re so consumed with how that one book is going to be received that you’re not realizing you have a whole career ahead of you. I (we? you?) have six books published now, and I can assure you that there will be plenty of ups and downs in the coming years.

You’ve written three books without getting published? CTFD. Steve Berry wrote eight in twelve years before he got published. If you’re serious about making writing you’re job, don’t get hung up on those books. If they don’t sell, keep writing. You never know what’s going to be your breakout. When you were working at Microsoft, did you tell your boss: “My project is done—well-funded retirement, please!”? No, you went on to the next project.

You plan to be writing for the next forty years. That’s at least forty books ahead of you. Hell, Dean Koontz has written a hundred novels, and it took him forty before he wrote one you’ve heard of. You’re complaining that you’re career hasn’t taken off after three?

Buddy, calm the f*ck down.

I’m telling you, there’s no secret sauce. There’s hard work and luck. Sure, you’d love to have that one stratospheric hit that reaps millions of dollars and readers around the world. But here’s the thing: you have no idea which book that will be. It may be the next book or it may be ten books down the road.

Stop focusing on the book you just finished. It’s done. Yes, do your best to get the word out about  it, but then move on and write another one. As James Scott Bell said in his blog yesterday, if you’re passionate about the story, odds are some other people will be, too. Maybe even a lot of people.

And if the next book doesn’t resonate with people, calm the f*ck down. You’ve got forty more chances to make it happen.

CTFD,
Five Years Later You

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How to Make Money Self-Publishing Fiction

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


Last week’s post on publishing options drew some spirited responses, especially from one of TKZ’s erstwhile contributors. In his opinion, self-publishing is an exercise in frustration and a path to near-assured failure for first-time authors.”

Now, I have great affection and respect for said commenter, who argues well for his point of view. But I was nonetheless discomfited by that “near-assured failure.” Been thinking about it all week. What does “failure” even mean? Who sets the standard? If a new author finds a way to make steady but not huge income, is that “failure”? If a new author keeps working and growing as a writer, is that “failure”? On the other hand, might it possibly be said that self-publishing, done consistently and skillfully, can actually lead to near-assured success? What is “success”? Is it a loyal readership, even if it pales in comparison to Dean Koontz’s (well, every readership pales in comparison to Dean Koontz’s)? Is it the happinessthat comes from writing and publishing more, faster, being in control of one’s destiny and, yes, making some money at it?

This led me to reflect, yet again, on the writers I admire most: the professionals of the old pulp days. I’ve been on record for a long time stating that this new digital age is like the pulp era, only with more opportunity and potentially better pay. But it requires a certain kind of writer. One like Erle Stanley Gardner (1889 – 1970).


Gardner is best know as the creator of Perry Mason. When he hit on that character and that formula, he was set for life. But what most people don’t know is how hard he worked to get there. He was a practicing lawyer in the 1920s, and was looking for a way to make money on the side. Writing for the exploding market in detective and crime fiction seemed promising. 

He set out to do it the only way he knew how––full speed ahead. His output was, as he described it later, “man killing.” One hundred thousand words a month. A month. Over a million words a year, for at least ten years. (And much of it while he was still practicing law).

He did manage to sell some stories, but not enough to please him. Then one day he realized he did not know how to plot. His stories were merely “event combinations.” Lawyer that he was, he set out to find out how to write plots that sold (I resonate with this, because I was a practicing lawyer when I set out to learn the same thing!)

Boy, did he ever get it. And he kept up his prodigious output until he was a mainstay of famous pulps like Black Mask. Then, in 1933, came The Case of the Velvet Claws and the

introduction of Perry Mason. There was no looking back. At one time Gardner was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the bestselling author who ever lived.


While the success that Gardner achieved is rare for writers of any stripe, his example and work ethic can be replicated today. More and more authors are doing a nice business self-pubbing. I’m not just talking about the “stars” like Hugh Howey, Bella Andre and the newest sensation, Colleen Hoover. I’m talking about people you’ve never heard of, and who don’t really mind that because they have plenty of readers who have.

So how do you self-publish fiction successfully? Learn the following lessons from Erle Stanley Gardner. (Note: The info in this post comes from the biography of Gardner by Dorothy B. Hughes.)

1. Treat it like a job

For Gardner and other successful pulpsters, writing was a job, especially during the Depression. They had to eat. They didn’t have time to sit around the coffee bar ruminating about theories of literature. They actually had to produce stories, lots of them. They studied the markets (and wrote in popular genres, like detective and Western) and pounded the keys of their manual typewriters. Gardner was a two-finger typist and had to put adhesive tape on his tips because they would start to bleed. (This is one reason he later turned to dictating his stories, having them transcribed by a team of secretaries).

Seeing writing as a professional pursuit, Gardner reflected on his previous work in the sales field. “I had always told our salesmen that if a man had drive enough, if he kept on punching doorbells, sooner or later he would make his quota of sales. I guess the same thing applies to story writing. I know it did in my case.”

It can in your case, too. Volume is a key to success in self-publishing fiction. That, and learning a few business basics and strategies.

2. Treat it like a craft

When Gardner kept getting rejection slips that said “plot too thin,” he knew he had to learn how to do it. After much study he said he “began to realize that a story plot was composed of component parts, just as an automobile is.” He began to build stories, not just make them up on the fly. He made a list of parts and turned those into “plot wheels” which was a way of coming up with innumerable combinations. He was able, with this system, to come up with a complete story idea in thirty seconds.

Learning to plot stories that sell can be done, because Gardner did it, and I did it. And I wrote a book about it. It’s called Plot & Structure.

Gardner also wrote in various lengths. Successful self-publishing writers write short stories and novellasas well as full novels. Keep learning and growing as a writer. 

3. Treat it like a sacrifice

There’s an old saying about the law, that it is a “jealous mistress.” To be any good as a lawyer demands time and sacrifice. Gardner knew he had to be productive to make real money, so he set a quota for himself of 5,000 words a day. If he missed a day due to a trial or other legal matter, he would make up the difference on another day.

I am often asked what the single best piece of writing advice I ever got was, and I always say, Write to a quota. I write six days a week, and take Sundays off. It’s worked for me for over twenty years. Virtually no one can write 5,000 words a day like Gardner. And of course most writers have day jobs and family responsibilities. So the key is to figure out what you can produce and commit to doing that week in and week out.

This is my standard suggestion: Figure out what you can comfortably write per week, given your particular circumstances. It doesn’t matter the number, just find it. Then up that by 10% and divide into six days. Make that your goal. Keep a record on a spreadsheet that tracks your daily writing and turns it into weekly totals. It will give you confidence to see those numbers adding up throughout the year.

Be prepared to give some things up (TV is a jealous mistress, too) in order to find time to write.

4. Treat it like a mad passion

You’ve got to be a little nuts if you want to be a professional writer. In those early years, Gardner said, “I would work until one, one-thirty or two o’clock in the morning when I would be so dog-tired that I would stop to rest and would fall asleep in the chair and have nightmares, dreaming for the most part about the characters in the story, waking up a few seconds later all confused as to what was in the story and what had been in my dream. At that time I would go to bed. I would sleep for about three hours a night, waking up around five or five-thirty in the morning. Then I would take a shower, shave, pull up my typewriter and write until it came time to go to the office.”

Now, I don’t suggest a madness of that magnitude! I find it inspiring, but also know I could never keep a schedule like that (well, maybe if I was twenty-five and unmarried . . .) But dip your quill into Gardner’s passion and scribble some of it on your writing soul. And embrace the fact that you are part of a grand fellowship of the mad, the storytellers, the weavers of dreams.

5. Treat it like an adventure right up to the end

A favorite anecdote about Gardner, when he was selling some but not enough, occurred after he felt he finally “got it” about plotting. He sent a story to Black Mask with this note: “If you have any comments on it, put them on the back of a check.” Gardner knew he had reached a place of consistent sales, was in this for the long haul, and would never stop writing.

Do you know that about yourself? Are you in this thing to the finish? Make that decision now, and you have a chance to become successful self-publishing fiction.

Gardner completed his last Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Fabulous Fake, six months before his death. Cancer caught up with him. He was hospitalized a few times. But he kept working on a non-fiction book about crime. His editor at Morrow sent him a note suggesting he might want to slow down. Gardner sent one back: “You should know Gardner by now . . . when I get enthusiastic about something, I put the whole machinery into operation.”

Erle Stanley Gardner died on March 11, 1970. He had made some autobiographical notes before his death. The last words were these: “My life is filled with color and always has been. I want adventure. I want variety. I want something to look forward to . . . The one dividend we are sure of is the opportunity to have beautiful daydreams . . . . This is as it should be. This is the color of life. I love it.”

If you want to self-publish fiction, and make some money at it, do it the Gardner way. Love life, love writing, put your “whole machinery” into action, and never shut down the operation.

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