But I Want Success Now!

When I was a writer aspiring to be published, I went to a book signing here in Seattle where number one bestselling author Lee Child was making an appearance. As I stepped up to get his autograph, I mentioned that I had finished three books and was struggling to find a publisher. He told me, “Remember, it only takes ten years to become an overnight success.”

At the time I thought he was just being kind to a newbie, giving me encouragement that I would someday reach my goal. It wasn’t until a few years later when I was a published author and knew Lee a little better that I ran into him at Bouchercon and reminded him of what he’d said. I told him that I understood he hadn’t been pandering to me, and Lee nodded in agreement. Although he won awards early in his career, it took him eight books before he made an appearance on the NY Times list, and several more years before he became LEE CHILD, brand name author.

I think the Internet has only accelerated our skewed expectation that you should become a huge success as soon as you type “The End” on your first manuscript. Writers focus on promoting their first novel to a fault. I see that mistake frequently when I go to writers’ conferences and spot an author pitching agents the same book they’ve brought three years in a row. I see it with authors flogging their one and only book on social media over and over in the hope that it will take off.

Our excessive exposure to the one-in-a-million shots only exacerbates the problem. We see someone like E.L. James, Kathryn Stockett, or Stephenie Meyer reach a massive audience with their first novels and think that will happen for us. It does happen, about once a year out of the over 200,000 books published, but we don’t often read about the back stories behind other authors who toiled in relative obscurity for years before hitting the big time.

Everyone knows mega-selling author Dean Koontz. He’s been producing work for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t on the bestseller lists, but many don’t realize the dues he paid to get there. Before he published Whispers, his big breakout hit, he wrote thirty-eight novels in twelve years. During that time he was making a living, but he wasn’t a household name like he is now.

The ranks of the current bestseller lists are filled with similar stories. It took twelve years and eight novels for Steve Berry just to find a publisher. Dan Brown published his first three books to little fanfare, and then The DaVinci Code turned them into bestsellers.

Tess Gerritsen wrote nine novels over nine years before she released her first NY Times bestseller, Harvest. Lisa Gardner wrote twelve books over seven years before reaching the next level with The Perfect Husband. Janet Evanovich wrote at least twelve novels before hitting it big with Stephanie Plum in One for the Money. In the self-publishing realm, romance author Bella Andre wrote two series over seven years without much notice and then began self-publishing, after which she became a regular on the bestseller list.

These stories of determination and persistence are the rule, not the exception. While it’s possible to land on that one killer premise from the get-go, building an audience, working on the craft, and developing your voice seems to be the steadier path to ultimate writing success.

I often think of a story from Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. They write about a ceramics teacher who, on the first day of class, divided the students into two sections: one half would be graded on the perfection of a single pot, while the other half would be graded on the weight of their output—an A for fifty pounds, B for forty pounds, and so on. At the end of the semester, the results for the quality vs. quantity test were remarkable. The students being graded on poundage had thrown pots that were of significantly superior quality than the ones by the students who had studied and ached about how to create that one perfect pot. Practice ultimately made the “quantity” students produce better quality as well.

I believe being an author is the same. Thinking about writing doesn’t make you better, writing does. And if you have a large body of work, it’s much more likely a publisher or readers will discover your writing.

So don’t perseverate on perfecting that one novel. If you want to make writing a career, your publisher and readers are going to want many more books. Sit down at your computer and throw those pots. When you’re a success and looking in the rear-view mirror ten years from now, you’ll wonder how it went by so quickly.

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Watchers: Heroes in Fiction (Guest Post Donna Galanti)

Hosted by Jordan Dane

I’m pleased to have a guest for TKZ today. Donna Galanti is the author of the paranormal suspense novel A Human Element (Echelon Press). She is an ITW debut author of the class of 2011/2012 and a member of SCBWI and Horror Writers Association. She lives with her family in an old farmhouse in PA with lots of nooks, fireplaces, and stinkbugs but sadly no ghosts.

Welcome, Donna!

Watchers. My favorite fictional figures that hover on the sidelines weaving in and out of the story. They change lives.

You may know them as guardians, guides, mentors, or allies. They help the hero on his journey by blocking them, guiding them, or even saving them. They can be a mysterious and dark overseer or a jolly and light eccentric. They ultimately save the hero or motivate him to save himself.

In my suspense novel, A Human Element, I created The Man in Black (Felix) as a watcher. He is a guardian, a guide, and a hero. He connects to both the earthly and the other-worldliness in my characters. Sometimes Felix is there, like a lifeguard, and sometimes he’s watching and you simply sense his presence, more like a god. In the end he suffers and is a martyr for the greater good so his people can go on.

How did Felix evolve and how do I perceive his function? He evolved as an instrument of light to help others survive so his own world would survive. His presence allows me to push the protagonist truly beyond the brink and eventually be saved. He also represents hope and acts as a catalyst to keep hope alive. He is like a god because he changes the destiny of others for a greater good (an entire people). And, like a god, he chooses not to always interfere unless it’s for the greater good. In a way he is a mythical figure.

My favorite mythical watcher in fiction is Merlin from the Arthurian legend. He’s a man of mystery and magic with roles as a sorcerer, prophet, bard, adviser, and teacher. In Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy, Merlin is an ordinary mortal but one with intuitive intelligence and clairvoyance. He has foreseen that Arthur will become a great king who will unite all of Britain.

Just as Felix’s mission in A Human Element drove him to facilitate a child’s creation to carry on the line of his dying people, Merlin’s vision led him to facilitate Arthur’s creation as well. I like the idea of connecting medieval to modern times knowing that Merlin and Felix share the same mission. They both originate as earthly and mystical watchers who change destinies so their people may conquer. And don’t we, as authors, often look to the past to create something new in the present?

It appeals to me that often the watcher figure is a hero too, willing to sacrifice his life for the one he oversees. He gives the protagonist what he needs to finish his journey and outwit death, and in doing so may need saving himself.

Literature is full of such heroes whose actions require that they, too, be saved. Like Arthur “Boo” Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. He’s a mysterious character we slowly get to know. At first, perceived as a dark, ghostly figure he ends up saving the children, Scout and Jem. He’s a self-exiled loner who appears as needed to save the children from evil. In the end Scout and Jem save him back, providing justice for Boo.   

One of my favorite authors, Dean Koontz, is known for his watchers. In his book, Lightning, Stefan Krieger is a watcher hero who needs saving himself. He’s a time traveler and a guardian of Laura since she was born. He interferes when necessary to save her life many times. In doing so he changes the course of her destiny for good–and bad. His fate eventually interweaves with hers until they are caught in a life or death situation. He saves Laura, but in the end she saves him too.

I can’t forget my beloved animal watchers in fiction. In Watchers (great name!) by Dean Koontz, Einstein is a genetically altered golden retriever with human intelligence. He’s also saved by the couple he watches too. Escaped and on the run, Einstein acts as a guide to bring these two lonely people together and transform them. He becomes their guardian inspiring them to save him from his nemesis, who in turn watches him. Check out other fictional dogs in literature HERE, including my favorites, Buck and White Fang.

I didn’t realize I had an obsession with watcher figures until pulling book after book out from my shelves. And then I knew why. I adore tormented characters and that’s often what watchers are. And that’s why I write them. They are wounded heroes that travel with us to the dark side and help draw us back. They may not always save the hero by their own hand, but at that critical moment they drive the hero to take control of his own destiny. And sometimes the watcher needs saving right back.

Do you have favorite watchers from other books or movies? What “saves” you, as author, when you’ve spent too long on your dark side? Do you have a “watcher” to help pull you back from the dark side and save you?

Donna Galanti Contact Info:
Facebook & Website & Twitter: @donnagalanti

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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.
***
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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The Two Things Every Novel Needs


“Trouble is my business.” – Raymond Chandler
So you want to be a writer. You want to sell your novel to a publisher, via an agent, or maybe you’re thinking of going indie like 90% of sentient beings these days. Maybe you think if you do the latter, and do it fast, you’ll rake in a boatload of easy lettuce.
Well, you won’t. Unless your book has the two things every novel needs.
Without these two things, you will have no story. At least, no story most readers will care about. You might have an “experimental novel,” and that’s okay if you understand what experimental novel means. It means a novel that five people buy. (Please note: This may not matter to you, and that’s perfectly fine with me. Experimental artists have given us some good stuff over the years. A lot of bad stuff, too. But if that’s your corner of the artistic world, go for it. This is America, after all).
But if you want to sell your work and have a shot at generating income, you need to master these two elements.
They are Conflict and Suspense.
Conflict
What is the goal of the novel? Is it to entertain? Teach? Preach? Stir up anger? Change the world? Make the author a lot of money?
It can be any of these things, but in the end, none of these objectives will work to their full potential unless they forge, in some way, a satisfying emotional experience for the reader.
And what gets the reader hooked emotionally? Trouble. Readers are gripped by the terrible trials a character goes through. (There are psychological reasons for this that are beyond the scope of this post).
That’s where conflict comes in. While there are writers who say plot comes from character, let me say that’s too simplistic. Character actually comes from plot. Why? Because true character is only revealed in crisis. Put your character into big trouble (plot) and then we’ll see what he or she is made of (character). If you don’t believe me, imagine a 400 page novel about Scarlett O’Hara where she just sits on the porch all day, sipping mint juleps and flirting. Gone With the Wind only takes off when she finds out Ashley is going to marry Melanie (trouble) and then the Civil War breaks out (big trouble!)
Another way to think about it is this: we all wear masks in our lives. A major crisis forces us to take off the mask and reveal who we really are. That’s the role of conflict in fiction: to rip the mask off the character.
Now, this conflict must be of sufficient magnitude to matter to readers. That’s why I teach that “death stakes” must be involved. Your Lead character must be facing death—which can be physical, professional or psychological.
Genre doesn’t matter. In a literary novel like The Catcher in the Rye, it’s psychological death. Holden Caulfield must find meaning in the world or he will “die inside.” Psychological death is also the key to a category romance. If the two lovers do not get together, they will lose their soul mate. They will die inside and forever have diminished lives (that’s the feeling you need to create. Think about it. Why was Titanic such a hit with teen girls? It wasn’t because of the special effects!)
In The Silence of the Lambs,it’s professional death on the line. Clarice Starling must help bring down Buffalo Bill in part by playing mind games with Hannibal Lecter. If she doesn’t prevail, another innocent will die (physical death in the subplot) and Clarice’s career will be over.
And in most thrillers, of course, you have the threat of physical death hanging over the whole thing.
That’s why, novelist friend, trouble is indeed your business. Without sufficient conflict readers aren’t going to care enough to finish the book.
Suspense
The second element is suspense,and I don’t just mean in the suspense novel per se. Suspense means to “delay resolution so as to excite anticipation.” Another way to say this is that it’s the opposite of having a predictable story. If the reader keeps guessing what’s going to happen, and is right, there is no great pleasure in reading the novel.
We’ve all had the wonderful experience of being so caught up in a story that we have to keep turning the pages. This is where writing technique can be studied and learned and applied. For example, there are various ways you can end a chapter so readers are compelled to read on. I call these “Read on Prompts,” and it was one of the first things I personally studied when I started learning to write. I went to a used bookstore and bought a bunch of King, Koontz and Grisham. When I’d get to the end of a chapter I’d write in pencil on the page what they did to get me to read on.
Invaluable. Of all the reader mail I’ve received over the years, the ones that please me most are those that say, “I couldn’t put it down.” Music to a writer’s ears. Suspense will make music for you.
And again, genre doesn’t matter. You have to be able to excite anticipation and avoid predictability in any novel. 
I am so passionate about this that I wrote a whole book on the subject, and Writer’s Digest Books has just released it.

[Insert short commercial here!]
For the PRINT version:
Or E-BOOK:
[End commercial here with woman looking pleased with product]

I could go on and on about this subject, but we don’t want to overstuff one blog post. Suffice to say that if you were to concentrate almost exclusively on these two key elements for the next few months, your books will take a huge step toward that exalted “next level” everyone always talks about. Try it and see.
May your own new year be filled with plenty of conflict and suspense (on the page, I mean!)
***
NOTE: I will be teaching a workshop on conflict and suspense at the annual Writer’s Digest conference in New York, January 20-22. It’s the perfect time to travel to the Big Apple (just bring a coat). And it’s an awesome conference. Use this code: WDCSPEAKER12 when you sign up and you’ll get a $115 discount off the regular price (the home office says this is for new registrations only). Go to the WD Conference page to find out more.
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How I Went From Idea to Story

James Scott Bell
Twitter.com/jamesscottbell

I used to say this: It’s not a lie if somebody isn’t owed the truth. I don’t say that anymore. One More Lie
I am pleased to announce the publication of my new suspense collection, ONE MORE LIE. It’s available on Kindle, Nookand Smashwords.  You can view the trailer here.
This collection includes the title novella and three new stories. I thought it might be instructive to tell you how I went from idea to story for the novella.
There are various creative exercises I use to come up with story possibilities. One of my favorites is the first line game. You make up a bunch of intriguing first lines all at once and see where they lead. I learned this from Dean Koontz in his classic HOW TO WRITE BESTSELLING FICTION. Koontz himself once wrote the line: “You ever killed anything?” Roy asked. He didn’t know anything else, but the line grabbed him and eventually he turned it into the hit novel The Voice of the Night.
For ONE MORE LIE, I actually got a first chapteridea. So I wrote it. I liked it so much I put it in my “active file” to noodle on later.
It stayed there for about a year as I worked on other projects, primarily those for which I had been paid, the publishers having the perfectly quaint notion that I therefore owed them a book.
But every now and again I’d return to that opening and think about it.
The day came when I had a window of time and decided to give it a whirl. So what I did was this:
1. Fleshed out the main characters. In this case there were four, and I spent time coming up with relationships and backstory. That in turn suggested further plot developments. I call this “orchestration” and it’s one of the most important things a writer can do with a new idea.
2. I experimented with POV. I had originally written the opening in 3d person. Sometimes I’ll switch POV to see how it feels. In this case, I decided that First Person was a better fit. My previous novella, WATCH YOUR BACK, was written in that sort of James M. Cain style I like, so I went with the same for ONE MORE LIE.
3. I let the plot unfold as I wrote, but took notes and outlined as I went. This is a “rolling outline” that enables you to think ahead during the writing process itself. It allows a certain freedom in plot while at the same time you’re building a solid structure. One benefit is that a particular twist happened out of the blue that completely changed the direction of the story and gave it the deeper dimension I was looking for.
4. I completed a first draft, let it sit, then printed it out in hard copy for my first read through. I take minimal notes at this stage, wanting to have a “reading experience” first. Then I assessed the big picture and revised it.
5. I gave it to my beta readers, starting with my lovely wife, who has a great editorial eye. I got terrific notes back. One of the readers did the copy edit for me.
6. I prepared it for e-publication, sent it out to be formatted. My son wanted to take a stab at designing the cover, and who was I to argue? The price was right. As in zip.

7. My son, a film grad, also did the trailer. For that I bought him dinner.
The result is a novella that got this advance copy blurb from Ane Mulligan of Novel Rocket: “James Scott Bell is at his best in One More Lie. Fast paced, this novella will leave you breathless to the unforeseen end. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. Novel Rocket and I give it our highest recommendation. It’s a must read!”
And I still love that first chapter. So I’ve put it up online and invite you to read it. If you feel compelled to read on (and I think you will be) then for $2.99 you can get the whole thing, plus three other stories to boot. No contests. No gimmicks. Just bang for your reading buck. That’s what I’m going for every time out.
Now I want to know about YOU. How do you like to generate and nourish ideas? When do you know you’re ready to take one to the max and write? 
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I Feel Like a New Man

James Scott Bell
twitter.com/jamesscottbell


My next print book will be issued under a pseudonym.

In the past, there were various reasons writers chose to publish with pen names. Evan Hunter (The Blackboard Jungle; Strangers When We Meet) always considered himself a “literary writer.” To earn some extra dough he wrote police procedurals under an alias so the critics would not look at his “serious” work with a jaundiced eye. But as Ed McBain he produced a remarkable run of noir that made him a multi-millionaire. The truth came out eventually, though Evan was probably always a little jealous of Ed.
Some writers wanted to have more books published per year than a single contract would allow. Dean Koontz at one time was writing under nine or ten pseudonyms, including a female guise. He wisely got the rights back to those early works and re-released many of them under his own name after he became a mega-bestseller.
Stephen King wrote some novels under the name Richard Bachman. He says his reason was to see if he could “do it again,” by which he meant find success from the ground floor. He wanted to show that his status as a bestselling author was not the product of pure luck. His experiment was starting to show some results until a suspicious bookstore clerk outed him. So King “killed” Bachman, which was a pretty funny way to end the line.
Then there is protection of a “brand.” Agatha Christie was hugely popular as a mystery writer. Her name on a book meant clues and suspects and sleuths. So when she wanted to do romances she adopted the name Mary Westmacott to keep readers from confusion or frustration.
My own reason for taking on a pseudonym is quite simple: I don’t want the heads of my established readership to explode.
You see, my new book is different from my brand. Boy Howdy, is it different. Imagine Hemingway deciding to write for Madmagazine––that sort of different.
But this is a book, and series, I wanted to write. Plus, I now have this added authorial benefit: I get to write as two people, which I find very cool. I will be issuing books under two names, not one.
See, I loved those old pulp days when writers like Erle Stanley Gardner (aka A. A. Faire) were turning out the work, pounding their typewriters long into the night. I always thought I’d have fit in perfectly in the 1930s writing for Black Mask and Dime Detective and then putting out novels and getting called to Hollywood and hanging out at Musso’s with Chandler and Faulkner and Ben Hecht, writing legendary dialogue for Billy Wilder and Jacques Tourneur, and talking back to Harry Cohn and getting fired, then getting re-discovered in the 60s and going legend, writing into my nineties while college kids tracked me down for interviews.
Or something along those lines. One dreams.
But this is now and I am here, and I’m just thankful I get to play in a new genre.
So what is my new name, and what is the book that will have it on the cover? Well, I write suspense so . . .
 . . .I will reveal all next week.
Meantime, would you ever consider using a pseudonym? For what purpose?
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Train Wrecks and Bad Guys

Unless you just got back from exploring the surface of Pluto, you have heard about the train wreck that is Charlie Sheen.
It started as a bit of industry gossip a couple of weeks ago. Sheen went on a radio show and started ranting about his producer in very unflattering terms. It got worse, to the point where the producer and CBS put a hold on their big hit show. Which means hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. Which means this was getting serious.
The media was more than happy to put Sheen on the air, where his wild eyes and self-reflections (“I’m a total bitchin’ rock star from Mars”) evidenced a mind that desperately needed help. Even his X-rated inamorata described him as “a sad hot mess.”
California authorities apparently agreed, and stepped in to remove Sheen’s children from his presence.
Now, I like Charlie Sheen the actor. Very talented and appealing onscreen. My three favorite Sheen films: Wall Street, Terminal Velocity, The Arrival.
So at first I shook my head at Sheen’s unraveling, then I started to get a little ticked off at what he’d done to himself and others. Finally, sadness was added to the mix.
Yes, I know he’s responsible for what drugs he puts in his body, how he’s treated women, and so on. He is reaping what he has sown. Still, I can’t help feeling a little sorry for the guy.
Which brings me to the point of today’s post. When you write about train wrecks — people whose lives are a mess and who do things society generally frowns upon — you need to find your way to a compassion point. If you do, you’ll write much better fiction, because the emotions you create in the reader will be more complex.
This is especially important in the writing of “bad guys.” I make writing students answer this question about their villains: Why do I love this character?  I force them to get deep into the background and relate to the bad guy in a tough love kind of way. As if he were a family member you deeply understand and care about. Sort of the way Martin Sheen, Charlie’s dad, must feel right about now.
The least interesting bad guys are those who are pure evil, or just crazy. The ones who stay with readers will have different levels that give off a gray, rather than a black tone.
Dean Koontz put it this way: 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.”
So, for an insatiable public, the Charlie Sheen saga continues. I hope he gets the help he needs and really cleans up this time, because his children need a father.
Which reminds me, I have a bad guy right now who needs a little more of my sympathy. I’m going to see what I can find out in his background that makes him do the things he does.
What about your bad guys? Do you love them?
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Top Ten Writing Influences

A common interview question for writers is, Who were your literary influences? I’ve given it some thought over the years and have come up with a list of my top ten. Here they are, in no particular order:
Franklin W. Dixon
This was, of course, the cover name for the Hardy Boys series. Several authors did the actual work (a Canadian named Leslie McFarlane was the first). From The Hardy Boys I learned that you could make readers read on by ending a chapter with an exclamation point! Today I don’t use the actual punctuation mark, but try to achieve the same feeling—so readers have to turn the page.
The Classics Illustrated comic books guys
I loved the old Classics Illustrated series. I got acquainted with much great literature that way. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Men of Iron and on and on. Beautifully illustrated and written. I learned pure storytelling from these little gems.
Edgar Rice Burroughs
My first “grown up” novel was Tarzan of the Apes. I loved the experience of being pulled into a big story and then not wanting it to end.
William Saroyan
My beloved high school creative writing teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Bruce, encouraged me to read more than sports biographies. At a book fair she got me to buy My Name is Aram, which is still one of my favorite collections of short stories. I love Saroyan’s whimsical voice.
Ernest Hemingway
In college, Hemingway knocked me out. I think he is the greatest short story writer who ever lived. His style is easy to satirize, but no one has ever been able to do it better—not even the lionized “minimalists” of current fashion. I am very proud to have been a semi-finalist one year in the Imitation Hemingway Contest.
Jack Kerouac
I think most college guys who are into literature go through a Kerouac phase. I ate up On the Road and Kerouac’s idea of  “be-bop prose rhapsody.” Even now I try to follow some of his writing techniques, like:
–  Submissive to everything, open, listening
–  No time for poetry but exactly what is
–  Believe in the holy contour of life
Raymond Chandler
Oh man, when I discovered Chandler, I was in heaven. Still the best prose stylist of any hard boiled school you want to name. Nothing more needs to be said.
John D. MacDonald
Storyteller supreme. Great stylist of “unobtrusive poetry.” I’m thinking mainly of his 50s stand alone novels. The Travis McGees are enjoyable on their own and have much to commend them. But his output before that was amazing and the top quality of the paperback writers of the day.
Dean Koontz
I learned a lot from Koontz about how to write a flat-out page turner. Koontz also wrote a superb book on the craft, How to Write Bestselling Fiction. It’s out of print and goes for about $200 on the open market. I got mine off a library giveaway shelf and still refer to it.
Stephen King
King puts it all together. A great stylist, plotter and character creator. I read King and sometimes just shake my head at how good he is. Please don’t bring up the fact that he also sometimes seems to be the king of F-bombs. He succeeds in spite of, not because of, that little fact.
So writers out there, who are some of your writing influences? What is it about them you like?
If you’re primarily a reader, what writer would you pick as someone you’d recommend to a writer to learn from?
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The Great Backstory Debate

Last week we looked at the great semi-colon debate, which was a bit tongue-in-cheek (but only a bit!) Today we look at a real writing controversy, a little thing called backstory. Specifically, how much (if any) do you put in your opening pages?
You will find those who argue that there should be no backstory at all in those first chapters. Why not? Because, by definition, backstory is what has happened before your narrative opens, and you want to establish the action first, get the readers locked in on that.
This is, on the surface, sound advice. These days we do not have the leisure time, a la Dickens, to set the stage and do a ton of narrative summary up front. Or, a la Michener, begin with the protozoa of the pre-Cambrian earth and record their evolutionary development into the Texans of today.
I am an advocate of beginning with action (which doesn’t mean, necessarily, car chases or gun fights). The best openings, IMO, show a character in motion. And further, manifesting a “disturbance” to their ordinary world.
I tell writing students, “Act first, explain later.” A big mistake in many manuscripts is that chapter one carries too much exposition. The writer thinks the reader has to know a bunch of character background to understand the action. Mistake. Readers will wait a long time for the explanations when there’s a character in motion, facing a disturbance.
However, I believe in strategic backstory in the opening. I say strategic because you do have a strategy in your opening, one above all—bond your character with the reader.
Without that character bonding, readers are not going to care about the action, at least not as much as they should. Backstory, properly used, helps you get them into the character so there is an emotional connection. Fiction, above all, should create an emotional experience.
I also stress properly used. That means marbled within the action, not standing alone in large blocks over several pages.
The guys who do this really well also happen to be two of the bestselling novelists of our time, King and Koontz. You think that’s a coincidence?
So here’s the simple “rule.” Start with action. Let’s see a character in motion, doing something. Make sure there’s some trouble, even minor, on the page (disturbance) and then you can give us bite-sized bits, or several paragraphs (if you write them well!) of backstory.
An early Koontz (when he was using the pseudonym Leigh Nichols) is Twilight. It opens with a mother and her six-year-old son at a shopping mall (after an opening line that portends trouble, of course). On page one Koontz drops this in:
To Christine, Joey sometimes seemed to be a little old man in a six-year-old boy’s small body. Occasionally he said the most amazingly grown-up things, and he usually had the patience of an adult, and he was often wiser than his years.
But at other times, especially when he asked where his daddy was or why his daddy had gone away––or even when he didn’t ask but just stood there with the question shimmering in his eyes––he looked so innocent, fragile, so heartbreakingly vulnerable that she just had to grab him and hug him.
Koontz bonds us with this Lead through sympathy. We don’t know why the boy’s father isn’t there, but we don’t have to know right away, do we? In this way Koontz also creates a little mystery which makes us want to keep on reading.
Now, a word of warning when writing in first person POV. It’s much easier for the narrator to give us a backstory dump. But the “rule” remains the same: act first, explain later. To see how it’s done, check out the opening chapter of Harlan Coben’s Gone for Good, which begins:
Three days before her death, my mother told me – these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close – that my brother was still alive.
We then cut to the mother’s funeral, and the narrator, Will Klein, leaving the house to walk through his old neighborhood. He has a specific place he’s going, the place where a terrible murder happened years before. Along the way he describes the setting and drops in some backstory, especially about one night when his big brother explained the “facts of life” to him from a ninth grader’s perspective. It’s a warm, human bit that creates sympathy. But Coben weaves it in with the action, which is about the narrator getting to the murder spot. That happens on the very next page. Very little time is lost to backstory.
Some time ago I interviewed Laura Caldwell, author of the Izzy McNeil series. She told me the following:
“I wish I’d known how to weave in background information instead of dumping it in big chunks. It’s still something I struggle with, although I think I’ve improved a lot. It’s a skill that has to constantly be refined so the background information which gets delivered reads and feels organic right at that point in the story.”
Good point from Laura.
How do you handle backstory in your opening pages? Are you strategic about it?  

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The First Line Game

James Scott Bell

A number of my novelist friends share an e-mail loop, and from time to time we put up the first lines of our WIPs. It’s always fun to strut our stuff and see what others are doing.
First lines can also be an idea generator. Dean Koontz, in his book How to Write Best Selling Fiction (1981), told how he used to do this all the time, in order to find material. One day he wrote this:
“You ever killed anything?” Roy asked.
He stared at it awhile, then decided Roy was fourteen and talking to a younger boy. And from that one line he developed what became The Voice of the Night.
Joseph Heller wrote this line, without knowing anything else: In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. This became the genesis of his massive satirical novel, Something Happened. (The line was moved further in by Heller once the book was finished, but it was the line itself that suggested the larger work).
I was at Bouchercon last week, in a good place because I had just submitted my manuscript to my editor. I am about to begin another novel, so sitting in the hotel lobby one afternoon, I was “in between.” I took out my notebook and wrote this line:
He had loved her since she was six years old.
Now, that is not my usual style, and it has the word had in it, which I would normally try to eschew. But that’s what I wrote. Then I kept on writing, to find out what the scene was about. When I got to the end of the page I had made two startling discoveries, both of which I’ll keep to myself as I may actually want to write this thing!
It is very cool to find ideas this way. Do you ever do that?
Okay, if you’re a writer, do you want to share the first line of your WIP?
If not, what is a favorite first line from a recent book you read? 

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