The Most Important Tip About Setting Descriptions

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

san-francisco-989032_1280How should you approach describing a setting?

I wager most writers come to that point in their project and immediately turn to the imagination. They let pictures form in their minds, then start to write down what they see. Some writers Google around and find an image they can look at before they begin.

Then it becomes a matter of choosing the details they want to include. However, there’s a subtle trap here that new (and even vet) writers may fall into: the setting description can end up as a dry stack of details:

The conference room was large and cold. It had a big table in the middle, with black leather chairs all around. There was a bookcase on the far side of the room and a credenza with a coffee maker on the other. Floor-to-ceiling windows gave a view of the city.

Now, there’s nothing illegal about this. It does the job in a functional way. But it’s also an opportunity lost. A great setting description doesn’t just paint a picture; it draws the reader deeper into the marrow of the story and the heart of the character.

Which brings me to the most important tip you’ll ever get about writing setting descriptions: 

You describe a scene not so the reader can see it, but so the reader can feel it. And the way they feel it is by knowing how the point-of -view character feels about it.

That’s why I’ve developed a seven-step checklist for myself for writing a setting description. It takes a little extra time, but I’ve determined that the stylistic ROI (return on investment) is worth it. Here we go:

  1. How do you want your character to feel about the setting?

This is the crucial first step, and it’s a strategic one. You know where you are in your story and what the character’s attitudes and emotional landscape are. You know what’s going to happen in the scene (note to pantsers: you’ve at least got some idea). Now you’re going to set the scene through the character’s perceptions about it. Your decision can be as simple as: I want my character to feel intimidated.

Note that you don’t have to name the emotion when you write the scene. In fact, it’s better not to. Let the setting itself create the feeling.

  1. Using the sense of sight, describe the things the character notices.

The items that come into your mind will now be filtered through the POV character. If you want to locate a picture via the Internet, go ahead. But as you look at it, pretend you are the character and try to feel what she feels. Make a list of the items your character doesn’t just see, but notices. This is a crucial distinction. We focus on different things depending on our mood. If you’re unhappy and you walk into a sunny hotel foyer, you might ignore the fancy art and notice instead a droopy plant.

Do a little voice journaling. Have the character talk to you in her own voice, expressing her feelings about what she notices.

  1. Use the other senses to add to the feeling.

Imagine what the character might hear, smell, touch, or even in some cases taste. Make a list.

  1. Look at the items from Steps 2 & 3 and highlight the ones that work best.

That didn’t take long, did it? Five to ten minutes. But if you’re having fun, do more!

  1. Bonus Supercharger: What is the character’s personal interpretation of the place?

Here is a powerful technique used by some of our best writers: when the character offers his own interpretation of the setting, it not only creates a sense of place, but also deepens the character for the reader. Double score!

Here are a couple of examples. This is from Robert B. Parker’s first Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript:

The Homicide Division was third floor rear, with a view of the Fryalator vent from the coffee shop in the alley and the soft perfume of griddle and grease mixing with the indigenous smell of cigar smoke and sweat and something else, maybe generations of scared people. 

Parker uses sight and smell, but also adds generations of scared people. That’s from inside Spenser. That’s his own impression of the place. It tells me as much about Spenser as it does the setting.

Here’s a longer impressionistic description from John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee mystery, The Quick Red Fox. These are McGee’s feelings about San Francisco. (I apologize to all my friends in the City by the Bay!)

And so we drove back to the heart of the city. San Francisco is the most depressing city in America. The comelatelys might not think so. They may be enchanted by the steep streets up Nob and Russian and Telegraph, by the sea mystery of the Bridge over to redwood country on a foggy night, by the urban compartmentalization of Chinese, Spanish, Greek, Japanese, by the smartness of the women and the city’s iron clutch on culture. It might look just fine to the new ones.

But there are too many of us who used to love her. She was like a wild classy kook of a gal, one of those rain-walkers, laughing gray eyes, tousle of dark hair –– sea misty, a little and lively lady, who could laugh at you or with you, and at herself when needs be. A sayer of strange and lovely things. A girl to be in love with, with love like a heady magic.

But she had lost it, boy. She used to give it away, and now she sells it to the tourists. She imitates herself … The things she says now are mechanical and memorized. She overcharges for cynical services.

I think it’s fair to say we know how McGee feels about San Francisco! One of the things that made this series so popular was passages like the above, where McGee riffs on such matters as setting, social mores and current events.

  1. Write the description using active verbs and concrete images.

At this point, let me advise you to overwrite the description. Don’t try to get this perfect the first time through. Feel it first.

  1. Let the scene rest, then edit.

I don’t do heavy edits as I’m writing a first draft. But I do go over my previous day’s work for style and obvious fixes. So come back to your scene the next day, or at least after a time away from it, and keep the following in mind as you edit:

Check all adverbs with a loaded pencil

If an adverb can be cut without losing anything (which is usually the case) cut it. Strive for a stronger verb instead. He shuffled across the room is better than He walked slowly across the room.

Check all adjectives

First, ask if they’re necessary. Test them. Sometimes cutting them makes the description more immediate.

But adjectives are in our language for a reason. If you keep them, see if you can make them more vivid. Icy may be better than cold, etc.

Beef up what’s soggy 

You may find a spot that needs more descriptive power. Here’s what I do in such a case. I write [MORE] in that spot then open up a blank TextEdit document. I like using TextEdit because it doesn’t feel “permanent” and I can play around. I’ll take several minutes to explore the moment, writing fast and loose, and then I’ll look it over and choose what I like. It may be just one line, or even one word. But if it’s the right line or word, the exercise is well worth it.

You don’t always have to describe a setting at the beginning of a scene

Vary where you put the description. At the top is fine, but sometimes get into the action first. Or start with dialogue. Then drop in the setting description. Readers won’t mind waiting if something interesting is going on.

You don’t have to describe everything at once

You can dribble in bits of description as you go along. This is especially effective as the intensity of the scene increases. Your POV character can notice something that wasn’t evident before, in keeping with the tone of the scene. Hemingway did this famously in his story “Soldier’s Home,” when the young man back home after World War I is feeling hectored at breakfast by his worried mother. Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

Know when less is more, and when more is more

Deciding how much description to use for a setting is not a matter of formula. But here’s a little tip that will help: the more intense the emotions inside the character, the more you include in description.

For example, in an opening scene where the character is not yet in the hot crucible of conflict, maybe the description is brief. The first scene in Lawrence Block’s story, “A Candle for the Bag Lady,” has Matthew Scudder sitting in Armstrong’s, a bar. He describes it this way:

The lunch crowd was gone except for a couple of stragglers in front whose voices were starting to thicken with alcohol.

Block leaves it at that, because this is “normal” Scudder. He’s not feeling anything intensely yet.

But later, as Scudder is trying to find out who brutally murdered Mary Alice Redfield –– the “shopping bag lady” who inexplicably left him a sum of money in her will –– he investigates her last known residence:

Mary Alice Redfield’s home for the last six or seven years of her life had started out as an old Rent Law tenement, built around the turn of the century, six stories tall, faced in red-brown brick, with four apartments to the floor. Now all of those little apartments had been carved into single rooms as if they were election districts gerrymandered by a maniac. There was a communal bathroom on each floor and you didn’t need a map to find it.

So there you have it, friends. With a little thought and planning, you can turn run-of-the-mill descriptions into moments of stylistic magic. That’s the kind of writing that gets rewarded with word-of-mouth and future purchases.

So what is your approach to description?

What authors do you admire who do it well?

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How To Get Out of Story Stall


I think about Paris when I’m high on red wine.
I wish I could jump on a plane.
And so many nights I just dream of the ocean.
God, I wish I was sailing again. 
If you read my last couple of entries here you know I have been struggling to get some mo on my WIP. This week I finally realized I needed something drastic to kick me out of my funk.
So I took a cue from that great Western philosopher Jimmy Buffett and changed my latitude to change my attitude.
I didn’t get on a plane and go to Paris. But I did take a boat to work.
Normally, I work at home, migrating from sofa to chaise to bed with Acer in tow. But I was feeling closed in and my story was reflecting that. So I stuck the laptop in a backpack, put on clean clothes, combed my hair and slapped on enough makeup so I wouldn’t scare the horses and left the condo.
I live in downtown Fort Lauderdale on a river. A couple days ago, the city started up a free water taxi service. So Saturday, I took the boat to my local Coffee Place With Green Mermaid Logo. I got a cappacino, switched off the Wifi and opened Word. In two hours, I wrote 956 words. And most of them were keepers.
Today, I am back. And as soon as I finish this blog post, I am back to chapter twenty-two. And you know what? For the first time in weeks, I am eager to get to work.
Maybe you are one of those writers who thrive on routine and quiet. God bless you. I envy you. But I can’t do it. I don’t have set hours and I seem to produce my best work when I am in a strange place, preferably with the white noise of hissing espresso machines or bar Musak. But I had gotten in the habit of staying at home and it had resulted in a bad case of story stall.
We all have times when we get stuck in neutral, when our mind-wheels are mired in mud or spinning fast and going nowhere. Yeah, we can call it writer’s block, as this New Yorker article does:

Writing is a nerve-flaying job. First of all, what the Symbolists said is true: clichés come to the mind much more readily than anything fresh or exact. To hack one’s way past them requires a huge, bleeding effort. For anyone who wonders why seasoned writers tend to write for only about three or four hours a day, that’s the answer. Anthony Burgess…concluded that a writer can never be happy: “The anxiety involved is intolerable. And…the financial rewards just don’t make up for the expenditure of energy, the damage to health caused by stimulants and narcotics, the fear that one’s work isn’t good enough. I think, if I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.”

But I think writer’s block is a luxury of literary types. If you write for the commercial market, you can’t afford to wait for the muse to come around every couple years. My story stall and my move to coffee shop got me to thinking about all the ways we can use to un-stick ourselves. I’ll bet you guys have some good tips to add.

Change Your Habits or Habitat

Getting dressed and going to a coffee shop has forced me to treat my writing as more of a job. I also have eliminated all the distractions and excuses of home: dogs, full laundry basket, TV, husband, unfinished crossword puzzle. If you work at home now, go somewhere else. Do you write only in the morning? Try a shift to the afternoon. I know life intrudes (kids, day job, night classes). But even a small change in routine can make you feel renewed.

Switch Point of View

Not just your own, but your narrator’s. When I started my WIP, I envisioned the entire story from my female protag’s POV as she is pursued by a male investigator. But once the guy came on stage, he started stealing the story. I fought him for nine chapters before I realized his story was equally as compelling as hers. In fact, their storylines paralleled thematically. I switched to a dual protag and the story took off.

Simplify Your Plot

There is an urge, when you’re new at novel writing, to use all your best ideas in one book. Maybe it’s because we feel if we don’t, we will never get a second chance. Usually, a simple linear plot works best. (Which is not to say you don’t have complications, obstacles, setbacks, etc.) Two folks in my critique group were wrestling with confusing tangled yarn-ball narratives that overwhelmed their characters. One writer realized he had TWO books in one and has now excised one plot line for a sequel. The other writer realized she was trying to graft an international thriller plot onto what is, at heart, a lovely Romeo and Juliet mystery. Once she jettisoned the over-done thriller elements, the characters began to shine.

Pick a Different Point of Entry

The writer’s saw states, “get into a scene as late as possible.” I’d say that applies to your overall story. As James, Jodie and others have said here often, the optimum moment to begin your story is just before the stuff hits the fan. If you have too much set-up, all the reader “hears” is you clearing your throat. If you come in too late, you can risk losing any chance to build tension. Do you have a prologue? Try cutting it out. I bet you won’t miss it. Click here to read Joe Moore’s useful post on prologues.

Write Your Book’s Back Copy

Lack of focus is one of the biggest reasons for story stall. If you don’t know WHAT YOUR STORY IS ABOUT, how can you know where it is going? I’m not talking about plot points; I am talking about the big picture, the main drama and the stakes, your character’s arcs, and the theme. If you can’t boil your book’s essence down to one sharply written paragraph of about five sentences, I’m betting you don’t have a handle on what you are trying to say. I wrote about this at length a while back. Click here to see tips.

Print Out Your Chapters

It’s scientific fact that looking at a computer screen changes the way our brains work. Print out your pages and read them like a reader. And here’s another twist: Format your chapters in single space, justified, Times Roman, so it looks as close to a real book as possible. I did this once and my problems with pacing and back story jumped off the page. Also, “typesetting” it breaks your mental image of your WIP, taking it out of “rough” draft (I’m struggling!) to “real” book. (Wow, not as bad as I thought.)

Speed Write

This is something I do in my workshops: I give students an opening line and make them write as fast as possible for ten minutes. Sure, it might produce junk, but more often than not, they come up with interesting stuff. Set a kitchen timer or your iPhone and just let it flow fast and furious. You will surprise yourself. Consider it a creative colonic.

Quit While You’re Ahead

This one’s from Ernest Hemingway: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” Caveat: This does not work for me. I must finish and light up my metaphoric ciggie.  

Get an Imaginary Dog

This is something I know a lot about: Not writing is like not sleeping. It does no good to lay there at 3 a.m. and stare at the glowing digital clock. Likewise, staring at the blinking curser won’t unblock you. Get out and go for a walk. Wordsworth wrote many of his poems on the move. Nietzsche claimed to have made all his philosophical insights while walking, and Kierkegaard wrote, “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.” Walking is something of a luxury in our go-go world. But science has documented the relationship between walking and thinking, that the rhythm of the body seems to free the mind. The ancient sages even had a phrase for it: Solvitur ambulando. “It is solved by walking.” So walk, don’t run. No iPod. Leave early and take the dog.

Get Some Imaginary Kids

We are Writers (capital W). But sometimes it’s good to go lower case and remember we are first storytellers. In our quest for the perfect sentence, the lovely phrase, the big idea, we often get in the way of our stories. Did your parents or teachers ever read to you? Remember how enthralling it was? John Steinbeck once wrote about being stalled: “Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother, or someone that you like.” If you get stuck, imagine you are sitting around a campfire telling a good story to some kids. Would you open with a prologue full of back story? Would you start with some confusing dialogue? No, you’d do something like this: “Every night, before he turned off the light, Jamie would get down on his hands and knees and look under his bed. There was never anything there except the dust bunnies. But on the night of his thirteenth birthday, when he picked up the edge of the bedspread, he saw something he had never seen before.”

Stop Writing

I know, I know. This sounds counter-intuitive. It smells of defeat. But I think we sometimes just need to give ourselves a break and take a break. Maybe your break is only for a day or a week. Maybe it needs to last over a good vacation. Maybe, like I had to do at one time, you need to take a couple months off. The world won’t end. Your WIP will still be there when you go back. But don’t buy into this notion that you MUST write every day. I’ll give the last word to Hilary Mantel:
“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ¬music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.” 
I like that. Be patient. With your writing and with yourself.

0

The Pen is Mightier

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last weekend I was at the Central Ohio Fiction Writers conference, where I met up with TKZ regular Steve Hooley. Steve handed me a package which had, inside, a most remarkable fountain pen.

Remarkable because Steve made it himself. Not only that, he made it out of Irish bog wood, which he ordered special, in celebration of my Irish ancestors. He lathed the wood and polished it, then put together the other components. It’s the kind of pen that would run a few hundred bucks if you bought it at a Waterman store. 

He even put green ink in it, another nod to the Emerald Isle.  

I hold this fine instrument in my hand with trepidation. I don’t wish to befoul a virgin sheet of paper with the indecipherable scrawl that is my cursive writing. Ever since I first learned handwriting, I have never been able to get it to look like anything other than a secret code made up on the spot by a drunken Croatian spy. Steve’s pen deserves to have beautiful writing at the end of its nib, which is why entrusting it to me is like placing a twelfth-century illuminated manuscript in the jaws of a pit bull for safekeeping.

However, I have determined that it must be used. Otherwise, it would be like having a solid gold Cadillac in the garage, covered in a tarp and never taken out for a spin.

Now, it just so happens I have a completely blank Moleskine notebook sitting on my shelf. 

All this calls to mind (mine, at least) the Paris of the 1920s. I should be like Hemingway or Fitzgerald and find a cafe with outdoor tables, and make notes on the passing scene, or try to write “one true sentence.” I should be jotting my thoughts about writing and the writing life so this notebook can be discovered by my heirs after I shuffle off this mortal coil, and be published with great fanfare (or some kind of fare, even if it’s just cab fare). 

Maybe it should be a diary of my deep, dark secrets, such as: I actually like Hamburger Helper. I think Bruce Springsteen is overrated. I have a secret longing to return to this life someday as Sam Elliott’s voice. 

Frankly, I don’t know what to do. Should I journal? Doodle? Try to write a story? What is the best use of my beautiful pen and immaculate notebook?

I will entertain suggestions from the TKZ community.

I thank you.

What about you? Are you a pen person? Do you like the feel of it? Or are you a dedicated typer?

And what will happen to our culture as cursive writing slides into oblivion?


0

Do you need a rock?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


My book group just read A Paris Wife by Paula McLain, the fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley Richardson, and we all agreed to having mixed feelings about Hadley and her role as Hemingway’s ‘rock’  during his early career in  Paris. 

The book evokes the bohemian world of 1920s Paris and name drops a lot of literary giants but at its heart is the relationship between Hadley and Hemingway. The book made me question the extent to which Hemingway relied upon and needed Hadley’s stolid support during those early days. 

I wondered how many writers feel they need someone close to them to be that kind of ‘rock’  – to provide emotional as well as (often) financial support (although Hadley certainly didn’t appear to contribute financially). Then there’s the more mundane  support in terms of housekeeping and family duties (Hemingway could, after all, leave Hadley and his child at home while he went to a cafe to write without being bothered by any of those pesky fatherly duties!). In this day and age, I’m not sure anyone quite gets that kind of all round, ‘solid as a rock’ support – we are all juggling so many work/life issues that we usually have to find that support from within, rather than from someone else. 

Hemingway also found mentors for his work in Paris (most notably Gertrude Stein) so it’s not entirely clear the extent to which he fed off Hadley’s unwavering (if unimaginative) support for his writing (although he certainly seemed to feed off adulation and praise of any kind!). Hemingway also never lacked self-confidence or the belief that he was destined to be a ‘great’ writer – but how many of us can say the same? 

So how many of us writers feel we need a ‘rock’ in our life to reinforce our confidence and help propel our careers forward (especially early in our careers when we are still finding our literary feet)?  Do we require a ‘rock’ of unwavering support? Or a mentor who respects and promotes our work? Or do writers really only need a ‘room of one’s own’ in which to flourish?

In my own career I’ve certainly had very supportive friends and family, but I don’t think I’d classify any of them as a ‘rock’ in the vein of Hadley Richardson. Most of the time I feel I have to rely on myself more than others to keep the writing going. Likewise, I’ve some terrific writer friends who I turn to for much-needed support but none of them have ever really acted as a mentor for my own work. I’m not sure in this modern age whether the same kind of ‘mentoring’ really exists like it did in say 1920’s Paris. But then again, maybe I just don’t hang out in literary enough writing circles!!

So TKZers what do you think? Do you have, or indeed need, a ‘rock’ in your writing life? Have you been lucky enough to have a mentor for your career? And if you were to give advice to someone contemplating the writing life, what would you tell them regarding having either of these? 

0

Flash Fiction

What is called “flash fiction” is not new. The term “flash fiction” seems to have been around since at least 1992. If one accepts the definition of “flash fiction” as stories ranging from a few to three hundred (or one thousand) words, however, then flash fiction has existed since storytelling began. Aesop, for one, wrote flash fiction; so more recently did Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. among a number of others. The popularity of the shorter-than-short story has seemed to increase, proportionately and simultaneously with the ability of authors to self-publish their work as eBooks. The argument has been made that because people don’t want to invest the time in reading a novel they might be inclined to read much shorter works on a regular basis. There is some logic to that — one baked potato versus a bag of tater tots comes to mind — but I am not sure if the argument holds up.  I have read a number of flash fiction collections. Some are quite good, such as 420 CHARACTERS by Lou Beach (yes, it is based on a gimmick — 420 characters, I am told, is the limit for a Facebook status post — but what an interesting and disciplined gimmick it is); others bring to mind the observation that just because anyone can do something does not mean that everyone should.

Have you read any collections of short, short stories, otherwise known as flash fiction? Have you actually purchased any of those collections, as physical books or eBooks? Do you know of anyone who seeks out these collections and stories? And have you read any flash fiction you consider worthwhile, or do you consider flash fiction to be the eReader equivalent of bathroom books? And for our authors in the audience, whether not yet published or otherwise…have you turned your hand to short, short stories? Have you been happy with the result?

0

How to Write a Short Story

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A novelist friend recently asked, What is it that defines a short story? What’s the key to writing one? How is it different from a novel or novella?
My “boys in the basement” have been working on it, and the other day sent up a message. It said, “A short story is about one shattering moment.”
I pondered that for awhile. Could it really be so? What about the different genres? There are literary short stories (e.g., Raymond Carver), but also horror (Stephen King), science fiction (Harlan Ellison), crime (Jeffery Deaver) and the like. They couldn’t all be about one shattering moment, could they?

I decided to have a cheeseburger and forget the whole thing.
But the boys would not let me drop it. And now I think they’re right (as usual). So let’s take it apart.
When I took a writing workshop with one of the recognized masters of the modern short story, Raymond Carver, I found his genius lay in the “telling detail,” a way to illuminate, with a minimalist image or line of dialogue, a shattering emotional moment in the life of a character.
The story we studied in his workshop was “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” A married couple, middle class with two young kids, have a conversation one night. The wife brings up an incident at a party a couple of years before. Slowly, we realize she needs to confess something, needs to be forgiven. She’d slept with another man that night. That is the shattering moment in the story, the husband’s realization of what his wife did.
This happens in the middle. The rest of the story is about the emotional aftermath of that moment. Thus, the structure of the story looks like this:
This is the same structure as Hemingway’s classic, “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this story about a couple conversing at a train station, the shattering emotional moment occurs inside the woman. It’s when she accedes to her boyfriend’s desire that she have an abortion (amazingly, the word abortion is never used in the story). We see what’s happened to her almost entirely via dialogue. In fact, she has a line much like the husband’s in the Carver story. She says, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
We know at the end of both these stories that the characters will never be the same, that life for them has been ineluctably altered. That’s what a shattering moment does.
Structurally, this moment can come at the end of the story. When it works, it’s like an emotional bomb going off. Two literary stories that do this are “The Swimmer” by John Cheever, and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. That structure looks like this:
Now let’s move to the genre short story. Here, the same idea applies. The shattering moment is usually one that is outside (i.e., a plot moment) as opposed to inside (i.e., a character moment). Often, that moment is a “twist” at the end of the story. The most famous example is, no doubt, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.”
Jeffery Deaver is a master of this type (see his collections Twistedand More Twisted.) Get your hands on his story “Chapter and Verse” (from More Twisted) to see what I mean.  It’s one of my all-time favorites.
My recent crime short story, “Autumnal,” follows this pattern as well. We think the story is going one way, but at the end it is quite another.
This is also the structure most often used in The Twilight Zone. Think about some of the classic episodes:
“To Serve Man.” Remember the shattering shout at the end? “It’s a cook book!”
“Time Enough at Last.” Always voted the most memorable episode, because of its heartbreaking twist at the end. This is the one where the loner with the thick glasses emerges after nuclear war has killed everyone, but now has time enough at last to read all the books he wants. And then…
“The Eye of the Beholder.” This one blew me away as a kid. It’s the one where the surgeons, in shadows all the way through, are working to save the disfigured face of a patient. One of the all time great twists.
This pattern is just like the one described above for literary short stories, only now it’s a shattering plot twist at the end:

And, you guessed it, you can also do a story with the shattering moment somewhere in the opening pages, and work out the aftermath in the rest of the tale. Lawrence Block’s “A Candle for the Bag Lady” is like that (You can find this story in Block’s collection, Enough Rope). The structure looks like this:

So there you have it. If you want to write a short story, find that moment that is emotionally life-changing, or craftily plot-twisting. Then write everything around that moment. Structurally, it’s simple to understand. But the short story is, in my view, the most difficult form of fiction to master. So why try? Two reasons: First, when it works, it can be one of the most powerful reading experiences there is. And second, with digital self-publishing, there’s an actual market for these works again. The short story form was pretty much dead outside of a few journals. Now, in digital, you can make some Starbucks money with them. That’s what the Force of Habit and Irish Jimmy Gallagher stories have done for me. And when I put together a collection, I expect to make even more.
And nothing will give your writing chops a workout like a short story. Why not make them part of your career plan?

1+

The Perils of Internet Information


We all know that Bogart never said, “Play it again, Sam.” That mangled quote, which Woody Allen famously used in his stage play (and later movie) came from Casablanca,where Bogart’s character actually has this exchange with Dooley Wilson (as Sam):
Rick: You know what I want to hear.


Sam: No, I don’t.


Rick: You played it for her, you can play it for me!


Sam: Well, I don’t think I can remember––

Rick: If she can stand it, I can! Play it!
Recently, I’ve seen another bastardized quotation zapping around the internet. It’s a quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway. As a Hemingway-phile, I was quite interested. The quote goes like this: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
I was immediately suspicious. Something was rotten in the state of Bartlett, for it was the great sports writer Red Smith who said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and just open a vein.” (There are some variations on this, but the source is clear. You can read more here.)
This quote, in fact, became the basis of a book on writing, Just Open a Vein by William Brohaugh (Writer’s Digest Books, 1987). The Red Smith quote, with attribution, was printed right on the cover.

So how did these words get into Ernest Hemingway’s mouth, and thence to the wide world of the internet?
A TV writer did it, that’s how! As I investigated this further I came across an EW article from May 28, 2012, by Ken Tucker. It was a review of an HBO movie about Hemingway and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn. Tucker writes:
There’s a lot of dialogue that sounds as studied as Hemingway must have intended it to sound as he declaimed it (“Let me tell you about writers — the best ones are all liars”) and stuff that’s almost certainly cobbled together from various sources. (I was particularly amused when a negative review of the movie today in The New York Times made a point of ridiculing one Hemingway line — “There’s nothing to writing, Gellhorn — all you do is sit down to your typewriter and bleed” — but failed to realize it most likely derived from a New York Times sportswriter Red Smith’s wry dictum, “Writing it easy; all you have to do is open a vein and bleed.”)
So there you have it. It seemed like a good line to give to Hemingway in a biopic. But there’s another problem with having him say this (besides the fact that he never said it). The problem is he never would have said it!
Because Hemingway drafted in longhand, and he drafted standing up! He stood because of injuries sustained during his service in World War I. It was easier on him to be on his feet.
He usually only got to a max of 500 words in a single day, because he was famously trying to write “one true sentence” followed by another, and so on. (NOTE: There’s a famous author photo of Hemingway at a typewriter for the back cover of For Whom the Bell Tolls. But this was a staged photo to emphasize the Hemingway field reporter mythos).
So let’s be clear, when doing the hard work (the “bleeding”) of a first draft, Hemingway:
Did not sit.
Did not use a typewriter.
As his grandson, Sean Hemingway, once explained: “Hemingway wrote his first drafts in longhand, and you do not have to be a handwriting analyst from the FBI to appreciate his bold, fluid penmanship. Despite the author’s own comments in the book about the difficulty of the writing process and the need for revisions, many of his first drafts are remarkably clean, poignant testaments to his continued abilities as a writer later in life.”
And by the way, Hemingway never employed a secretary named Sam. Thus, he never, ever said, “Type it again, Sam.”
So here’s one instance where a reliance on what’s floating around the internet becomes a virus of error.
The irony, of course, is that I used the internet to do the research to get to the bottom of this. But this is the age we live in!
So what erroneous information have you come across in your internet surfing? What checks and balances do you use in your own research?  

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Type Hard, Type Fast

First, I want to thank everyone for the launch of my new book last week. I spent most of Sunday chatting up the book in social media. A “virtual book tour” so to speak. Then I sort of watched to see what would happen. It’s only been one week and one book, but the results have exceeded my expectations. 
And I have more of this material in my pipeline. A lot more. Because as I mentioned last week, I love the old pulp days when writers really wrote, fast, because they had to.
Fast does not mean hack work (it can, of course, but not necessarily). I’m not discussing the editing process, either. Concentrated effort is what I’m talking about. I contend that many young writers would actually improve their craft –– and chances of getting published –– if they would write faster, especially at the beginning of their learning curve.
First, a few facts. Some of the best novels of the past century were produced at a rapid clip by authors who found writing time each day, and went at their task with singular resolution:
— William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, writing from midnight to 4 a.m., then sending it off to the publisher without changing a word.
— Ernest Hemingway wrote what some consider his best novel, The Sun Also Rises, also in six weeks, part of it in Madrid, and the last of it in Paris, in 1925.
— John D. MacDonald is now hailed as one of the best writers of the 50s and 60s. Within one stunning stretch (1953-1954) he brought out seven novels, at least two of them – The Neon Jungle and Cancel All Our Vows – brilliant (the others were merely splendid). Over the course of the decade he wrote many more excellent and bestselling novels, including the classic The End of the Night, which some mention in the same breath as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Also Cry Hard, Cry Fast, which is the basis for the title of this blog entry.
So prolific was MacDonald that he was needled by a fellow writer who, over martinis, sniffed that John should slow down, ignore “paperback drivel” and get to “a real novel.” John sniffed back that in 30 days he could write a novel that would be published in hardback, serialized in the magazines, selected by a book club and turned into a movie. The other writer laughed and bet him $50 that he couldn’t.
John went home and, in a month, wrote The Executioners. It was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, and turned into the movie Cape Fear. Twice.
–Ray Bradbury famously wrote his classic Fahrenheit 451 in nine days, on a rented typewriter. “I had a newborn child at home,” he recalls, “and the house was loud with her cries of exaltation at being alive. I had no money for an office, and while wandering around UCLA I heard typing from the basement of Powell Library. I went to investigate and found a room with 12 typewriters that could be rented for 10 cents a half hour. So, exhilarated, I got a bag of dimes and settled into the room, and in nine days I spent $9.80 and wrote my story; in other words, it was a dime novel.”
I’ve counseled many writers at conferences who have come with a single manuscript yet haven’t got another project going. I tell them, “That’s wonderful. You’ve written a novel. That’s a great accomplishment. Now, get to work on the next one. And as you’re writing that next one, be developing an idea for the project after that.”
You see, publishers and agents are not looking for a book. They are looking for solid, dependable writers. They invest in careers. They want to know you can do this over and over again.
The best advice I ever got as a young writer was to write a quota of words on a regular basis. I break my commitment into week-long segments (anticipating those days when I ride a bike into a tree or some such). I believe this discipline has made all the difference in my career. The testimony of so many other professional writers attests to its value.
One such testimonial comes from Isaac Asimov, author/editor of 500+ books. He was once asked what he would do if were told he had only six months to live.
“Type faster,” he said.

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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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