An Editor’s List of Novel Shortcomings

@jamesscottbell


One of the great bon-mots of popular cultural history occurred during the 1974 Academy Awards ceremony. David Niven was at the podium when a “streaker” (an inexplicable fad at the time was someone getting completely naked and running through a public forum) jogged across the stage.
The unflappable Niven calmly waited for the laughter to die down, and then remarked in his impeccable English accent, “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings.”
Thankfully, the streaking fad is kaput. But there are other places where shortcomings are wont to appear.
Some time ago veteran editor Alan Rinzler posted on Writer Unboxed about “issues” writers today are facing. While the post itself was solid, I was more intrigued by one of his comments. Rinzler was asked a question in the combox by none other than super agent Donald Maass. Don wanted to know what the #1 shortcoming Rinzler, as a developmental editor, saw in manuscripts. Rinzler’s answer was:

I see disorganized stories of excessive complexity… intrusive narrative voices that come between the reader and the story by inserting ongoing commentary, explanation, and interpretation…a failure to research and do the homework necessary to come up with something truly original and not reinvent the wheel… two-dimensional stereotype characterization…dialogue that all sounds like the same person.

I like this list. Let’s take a look at each item:

1. Disorganized stories of excessive complexity
I once picked up a bit of screenwriting wisdom that applies here. The best movies (and novels) consist of simple plots about complex characters. That is, while the plot may contain mystery and twists (and should), it is, at its core, a basic story with understandable motives. The real meat and originality comes from putting truly complex characters into those stories. The secret to originality can be found in the limitless interior landscape of human beings.
2. Intrusive narrative voices
Learning how to handle exposition, especially when to leave it out entirely, is one of the most important and early craft challenges. So get to it. Revision & Self-Editing for Publication has a whole section on this, but here’s one tip: place exposition seamlessly into confrontational dialogue. Instead of: Frank never wanted to have a baby. Not until he was a success as a writer. But Marilyn thought his quest was foolish. After all, it had been five years since he left his job at AIG. Marilyn dearly wanted him to try to get his job back.
“You never wanted a baby, Frank.”
“Shut up about that.”
“All because of your stupid writing obsession!”
“I’m not obsessed!”
“Oh really? What do you call five years of typing and no money to show for it?”
“Practice!”
“Well, practice time is over. Tomorrow you’re going to beg AIG to take you back.”
3. A failure to research  . . . to come up with something truly original
Rinzler is talking about the concept stage here, which is foundational. Hard work on fresh concepts will pay off. And remember, freshness isn’t just a matter of something “unfamiliar.” All plot situations have been done. It’s how you dress them up and freshen them that makes the difference. Remember Die Hard? After it became a hit, we had Die Hard on a ship (Under Siege) and on a mountain (Cliffhanger)and so on. Take a standard rom-com about a writer struggling with writer’s block and set it in Elizabethan England and you get Shakespeare in Love. Heck, take an old dystopian cult plot like Deathrace 2000 and put it among kids and bingo, you’ve got The Hunger Games. 
4. Two-dimensional characters
We all know that flat characters are a drag on an otherwise nice plot idea. Such a waste! As Lajos Egri put it in his classic, Creative Writing: “Living, vibrating human beings are still the secret and magic formula of great and enduring writing.”
My favorite book on characterization is Dynamic Characters by my former colleague at Writer’s Digest, Nancy Kress.
5. Dialogue that all sounds like the same person
Ah! One of my sweet spots. In my workshops I always say the fastest way to improve a manuscript is via dialogue. It’s also the fastest way to get an agent or editor to reject you, or readers to give you a yawn. When they see good, crisp dialogue, differentiated via character, it pops. It gives them confidence they’re dealing with someone who knows the craft.
The place to start, then, is by making sure every character in your cast is unique. I use a “voice journal” for each, a free-form document of the character just yakking at me, until I truly “hear” them in a singular fashion.
So there you have it. Five vital areas where shortcomings might be a problem. The streaking guy at the Oscars couldn’t do anything about his own vital area, but you as a writer can.

Anything you’d like to add to the list?
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Juice Up Your Characters With Inner Conflict

In Chapter 9 of Conflict & Suspense I write about Inner Conflict. I define it this way: Think of this interior clash as being an argument between two sides, raging inside the character. Like the little angel and the little devil that sit on opposite shoulders in a cartoon, these sides vie for supremacy. For inner conflict to work, however, each side must have some serious juice to it.

I had a chuckle re-reading that, which chuckle I must now explain.

Last week I was in Minneapolis for the annual Story Masters Conference. Donald Maass, Christopher Vogler and your humble correspondent spent four solid days with a roomful of writers, digging deeply into this craft we all love.

I enjoy Story Masters each year, not just because I get to hang out with Don and Chris and a whole bunch of motivated storytellers, but also because I pick up something valuable each time myself.

This year, during Chris’s talk on The Hero’s Journey, I was struck by something he said about how we feel stories. This came to him, he explained, during his years as a reader for the studios. He noticed that strong emotions hit him physically, at points in his body. There were different points for different emotions.

He connected this to the concept of Chakra. What happens is that certain emotions immediately fuel a secretion of chemicals in areas of the body. Chris realized the that best scripts, the rare ones that really knocked him out, were hitting him in more than one place.

With a playful gleam in his eye, Chris announced to the class what he calls “Vogler’s Rule”—

If two or more organs of your body are not secreting fluids, your story is no good.

This got a laugh from the crowd. Thus, my reference above to the serious juiceof inner conflict is apt.

As Chris’s session went on, I started thinking more about this idea. What Chris suggests is that when our “fluid centers” are activated, we are not being rational. Thus, a great form, perhaps the best form of inner conflict is when the character’s rational mind is being assaulted by a strong emotional, er, fluid.

How human that is, isn’t it? Think of the traveling salesman. He has a wife and children he loves. But at the bar in Wichita he sees a cocktail waitress whose sultry walk and Lauren Bacall voice unleash inside him an immediate animal lust. The fight is between his mind, which reminds him of all he has at home, and his body, which doesn’t care what he thinks at all.

Or what about a sheriff with a high and honorable sense of duty? That’s his mind. He’s thought this through his whole career, lived by that code. But then killers come after him, and he cannot gather a posse to stop them, and his body starts feeding him fear—of death, of losing the woman he’s just married, of perhaps being a coward. This is the inner conflict that throbs throughout the entire movie High Noon. It’s head versus body.

I was reminded of something Iago, who has all the best lines in Othello, says to Roderigo:

If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most prepost’rous conclusions. But we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts. 

Shakespeare was describing this very thing, the battle between reason (the mind) and all our bodily “raging motions.”

It’s such a great way to think about inner conflict, because you can create this tension at any time in your novel. Just arrange for something to strike your character on a strong emotional level, and put that at odds with something he strongly believes.

Thus, I came up with “Bell’s Corollary to Vogler’s Rule” as it relates to inner conflict:

You must have at least one hot fluid fighting your character’s head!

This is where you have so much potential for ratcheting up the readability of your novel. We follow characters not because of what’s happening to them, but because of what’s happening inside them. Make it real and full of churning, roiling inner conflict.

What about you? Are your characters conflicted enough?

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Listen to the Book

James Scott Bell
Twitter.com/jamesscottbell



TCM, may favorite channel, showed a clip the other day of the great actor Eli Wallach talking about Method acting. This was the movement that took off in the 1940s, inspiring a new generation of actors like Brando, Newman and Dean.
Wallach reflected that as a young actor it was exhilarating to work things out with the Method. It was a like a big gymnasium and the actors were all playing off each other, trying things, letting scenes happen naturally.
But as he grew older, he said, he got more cautious. He would sometimes forget those lessons of youth, that sense of play. To break out of his torpor he would reflect back on his early days.
“The Method tends to put you back on the track to enjoy what you’re doing, to listen,” he said. “The big secret to acting is listening. A thought on the screen is amazing. And if you really listen, it comes to life.”
This hit me as something that applies to writing as well. We don’t put our best words on paper unless, in some form or fashion, we listen to the story as it unfolds. Madeleine L’Engle put it this way: “A writer grimly controls his work to his peril.  Slowly, slowly, I am learning to listen to the book, in the same way I listen to prayer.  If the book tells me to do something completely unexpected, I heed it; the book is usually right.”
So how do we listen to the book? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Listen in the morning
A valuable literary practice is to write quickly, first thing after you wake up (I will allow you a minute to start the coffee brewing, of course, but sit down ASAP and write, with pen and paper even, in stream of consciousness mode.)
Dorothea Brande recommends this practice in her wonderful little book, Becoming a Writer. It’s a way to capture that netherworld we inhabit between sleeping and waking, and therein lies treasure. Also, a lot you’ll throw away. But that’s the nature of creativity. The idea is to record as much of the mind stuff as possible, and then use whatever you find that’s valuable. Like panning for gold, you get a whole bunch of the riverbed in your pan then coax out the gold a bit at a time.
2. Use a novel journal
Sue Grafton does this, and that’s good enough for me. She begins each writing stint with her journal (she creates one for each novel). She starts with a diary entry, something about her life at the moment. Then she starts asking herself questions about her WIP. She may want to work on a scene, or a character, or some plot twist, or whatever else is popping up in her mind. Writing freestyle, is a way to open up her mind to hear what the story might be saying. It’s a conversation with the book.
3. Go to the place you fear
Going to places we fear is often where the deepest and most vital material is waiting. I never thought I’d write paranormal (abnormal, maybe). But when I came up with an idea that just wouldn’t go away, a zombie legal thriller, I went with it. It sold. Then, during the writing, I had to listen to what this new genre was telling me. I had choices, to go horrific or dark humorous or serious, throughout the writing of the first book in the series, Pay Me in Flesh. I listened intently, feeling my way along so the book had its own rhythms.
My agent, colleague and friend, Donald Maass, is a master at helping writers press beyond safe pastures. A question Don likes to ask in his workshops is, “What is something your character would never ever do or say?” Then, find a place for the character do or say that thing. Or at least think it, showing a ferocious inner conflict. Wow. Try that some time and then pick up the pieces of your head.
If you ever get stuck on a project, or the inspiration for it has given way to drudgery, remember what Eli Wallach said. Maybe it’s time to listen. Give the book your attention. Allow it to play. It wants to help!
Are you attentive to what your story is trying to tell you?

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What the Hell Do You Want to Say to Me?

You have to evolve a permanent set of values to serve as motivation. – Leon Uris
This week I’ll be leaving for Houston to teach alongside the mythic structure guru, Christopher Vogler, and the breakout novel sage, Donald Maass. Three intensive days with a room full of writers, talking about what we all love–the craft of fiction.
So it seems apt for this post to riff on a question that Mr. Maass poses at the end of his book, The Fire in Fiction.Maass wants to know what you have invested in your story, where the blood flow is. He asks, “What the hell do you want to say to me?”
Which brings us to the subject of theme, or premise. It’s the part of the writing craft a lot of writers seem to struggle with.
I’ve been reading some resources of late on the subject. Some suggest that you must know your theme up front, or your manuscript will wander. Yet many successful authors say they concentrate on the story itself and “find” the theme as they go along.
Either approach will work as long as you let the theme arise organically out of a plot that shows a character with a high stakes objective, opposed by a stronger force.
For example, in the film The Fugitive you have an innocent man on the run from the law, trying to find the man who murdered his wife. He’s got an opposing force in the U.S. Marshal’s office (embodied by Sam Gerard, super lawman). Forced to keep ahead of the law, Dr. Richard Kimble finds resources within himself he never knew existed, and eventually proves his innocence while nailing the bad guy.


So what is the theme, or premise, of The Fugitive? You could state it in several ways:
– Dogged determination leads to justice
– A good man will ultimately prevail over evil
– Fighting for what’s right, even against the law, leads to the truth
As a writer, you probably have a sense of what your theme is simply by knowing how your character will come out at the end. And you definitely should know at least that much.
For example, when I wrote Try Dying I knew my lawyer protagonist would find out who killed his fiancé, the one true love of his life, and in doing so prevail over the bad guys. In my head, then, I was thinking something along the lines of True love will pursue justice for the slain lover, and win.
That’s what the hell I was trying to say. And I believed it passionately, which is the key to a premise that works. The reader has to believe you believe it.
At some point in your writing –– before you begin or soon after you get going –– ask the following questions:
1.  At the end, what is the condition of your Lead character? Has he won or lost?
2. What is the “take away” from that condition? What will the reader think you are saying about life?
3. Most important: Do you believe it passionately?If not, why are you writing it?
Here’s an example. In Casablanca, what is Rick’s condition at the end of the movie? He has found a reason to stop his self destructive behavior (drunkenness) and his isolation (because of perceived betrayal). He’s found the inspiration he needs to go back into the world and rejoin the fight for freedom against the Nazis.
What’s the take away? True love will sacrifice for a greater good, and restore a person to a life worth living.

Rick sacrifices his true love, Ilsa, because she is married to another man and that man is essential to the war effort. Rick knows that if he and Ilsa go off together she’ll regret it (“Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”)
Coming as it did during the early years of World War II, it’s clear the filmmakers believed this passionately, because that sort of sacrifice for a greater good is what the government was calling upon its citizens to do.
So use those three power questions to find a premise worth writing about.
How about you? Do you consciously identify the themes in your stories? Do you discover them as you go along? Or do you just let it happen as the characters determine?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in detail, as I am currently working on a chapter on theme for a new collection. Let’s have a conversation. 

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A Legal Thriller to Die For

James Scott Bell
Twitter.com/jamesscottbell



Last week I explained why my next book will bear a pseudonym. It’s really about brand distinction. Man, is it about brand distinction! Here’s why:

About a year and a half ago my agent, Donald Maass, and I are discussing ideas, and I say, “The whole zombie thing is hot now, but it’s all the same, zombies as slobbering, mindless monsters. What if the zombie was the hero? In fact, what if it was a lawyer practicing law in L.A.?”
Don laughed. I went with it. “I mean, how can you tell the difference between zombies and defense attorneys anyway? Most people think there IS no difference. And what if this lawyer specialized in defending outcasts like vampires, who never get a break?”
Don told me to write up a proposal. As with all my ideas for fiction, I had to see if I could get into the characters and the heart of the story. I can’t just write to a market. I know some can. But even with short stories, I have to connect to the material in some essential and emotional way.
So I started doing my pre-writing. I knew I wanted to write in the hard boiled tradition I love. I wanted it to be an actual legal thriller, where I would use my experiences in court (with a paranormal twist. Let me tell you, I’ve been in front of a few judges who I thought came from other planets). I wanted a first person narrator, and then I decided I wanted it to be a woman with a strong voice and attitude and wit.
All that started to emerge. Finally, I came up this concept:
TAGLINE:
In L.A., practicing law can be hell. Especially if you’re dead.
PITCH:
In an increasingly hellacious L.A., zombie lawyer Mallory Caine defends a vampire hooker accused of the crime Mallory herself committed, even as a zombie-killer closes in and the love of her former life comes back as the Deputy DA she must oppose. And as Lucifer himself begins setting up L.A. as his headquarters for a new attack on heaven and earth, Mallory slowly discovers she may be the one who has to stop him.
Well, doggone if Don didn’t go out and sell it to Kensington, in a deal that was everything I hoped it would be. I wanted the books to come out in mass market, with great cover art and the know-how of a terrific company behind it. I also wanted it priced right for you, the reader, both print and e-book.
It is all these things.
And as far as I know, this is the first zombie legal thriller series on the market. It’s not everyday you get to start a genre. Which, to my mind, makes it imperative that you jump on the bandwagon while it’s hot!
And so here it is, the first in the Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law series, PAY ME IN FLESH by the mysterious yet roguishly handsome K. Bennett.
Find it at your local bookstore or online. Official pub date is on Tuesday . . . just in time to deal with the debt ceiling blues!
You can also check with:
K. Bennett has a dedicated website that will post things from time to time. But right now, it’s all about the launch.
So there is really nothing left to say but Bon Appetit!


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How to write a bestseller

By Kathryn Lilley

“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

– W. Somerset Maugham
Bestseller. That’s why we’re all in the blogosphere, isn’t it? We all want to write (or read) a bestseller, we writer-reader-bloggers.

This blog is gifted with multiple bestselling (and modest) authors. Clare, for example, recently hit the IMBA Bestseller list with two of her books at the same time.

But I think everyone wants to learn the secret for vaulting onto the New York Times or USA Today bestseller’s list, and then stick there like Krazy Glue.

So today I set off on a hunt for the magic formula for writing a best seller. Is there one? What exactly does it take to write a breakout novel?

In his excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass says to write a “breakout” book, you have to open up your story. Make it bigger. Give it higher stakes, a larger theme, one that impacts many more people than you’d find in, say, the population of Cabot Cove. So, I’m assuming that with a few exceptions, most cozy mysteries are not going to be bestsellers. If you do have a “small,” domestic family drama in your story, Maass says, you must find a way to amp up the stakes. Think Grapes of Wrath. It’s a family drama, but man, talk about major stakes.

I ran across an interesting article about how not to write a best seller in the New York Sun, which stated that positive reviews in major review outlets don’t guarantee best sellerdom. The author said that catchy titles do seem to be a plus, however.

Interestingly, I found one reviewer in a British newspaper, The Guardian, who advised would-be best seller writers to avoid putting too much originality and sex into their work. That doesn’t sound right to me, but I don’t know. Is that a British thing? Here’s the article.

As I continued my web browsing, I found an article by Cliff Pickover called How to create an instant bestselling novel. It’s worth reading for the “Bestseller Plan” (You have to scroll down to see it). Pickover’s Bestseller plan refers to a NYT article called How to Manufacture a Best Seller by Michael Maxen. I couldn’t find Maxen’s original article at the NYT site (although I did find some crabby Letters to the Editor from authors who resented the article. Maxen must have skewered their books.). I did follow the link that claims to summarize the major points of Maxen’s article. That article offers up an actual 10-step formula for how to write a best-seller, by God. Generally, it seems to involve creating a hero-expert, a villain-expert, and a team of experts. When the action flags, you’re supposed to kill someone. See what you think.

I also read “Lester Dent’s magical recipe for writing a best seller.” It’s sort of interesting. It seems oriented more toward selling than best selling, though, and calls writers “pulpateers.” I loved his tip about how to fake local color and fool editors about murder weapons, though. That’s the kind of thing that most writers will never confess they do.

So I wish I could tell you I found the absolute formula for writing a best seller. Actually I’d like to hear from you. What do you think makes a book leap to the top of the NYT list? Is there a formula, or a secret? Do you think that to become a best seller, you simply write an excellent story, and accept the rest as a crapshoot? Or do you think that it is all a big fix–that publishers mostly decide who will become the Next Big Thing, by promoting certain books?


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Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.
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