How to Cure Mid-Novel Sag

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The plot doctor is in.

I see the waiting room today is full of pantsers. They have that lost look in their eyes that usually appears in the middle of their first drafts.

One comes up to me and says, “Doc, I was having so much fun! I was writing along, letting the characters take me wherever they wanted to go. Now I’m forty thousand words in, and I’m frozen. I don’t know what to write next! Every choice seems like a rabbit hole! Help me, Doc, please!”

“Of course,” I say. “Just have a seat and—”

“Is there any hope?”

“Who’s your plot doctor, huh? Now just wait a moment and all will be well.”

There are plotters here, too. One approaches slowly, as if fearing recognition. He whispers, “Doc, I can’t figure out what went wrong. I had the whole thing mapped out and the pieces were falling into place. But the middle is sagging. Not enough oomph. What can I do, Doc?”

“Well, let me tell you—”

“Not so loud, Doc. I don’t want these pantsers giving me the raspberry …”

I’ve treated many such cases over the years. A cursory examination of the patient usually calls for three things: a shot, a couple of pills, and preventive measures.

1. The Shot

The first step is a shot of the potent “mirror moment” drug. I’ve seen immediate improvement to the eyes (which sparkle) and the mouth (which smiles or shouts Yesss!) after an injection.

The mirror moment gives the writer a new and powerful insight into what their novel is really all about. That illumination shines both backward (to the beginning) and forward (to the ending), stimulating new scene ideas and added character depth.

2. The Pills

Now I give the writer a couple of pills, with the following instructions: take the first one and see if that clears things up. Give it a few days to work. If, however, the symptoms persist, pop the second.

The Best Move Pill 

Step away from your manuscript. Go find a quiet spot or your favorite coffeehouse table, and use a pad and pen (I find this an aid to creativity).

Write down the names of every major and minor-recurring character in your novel.

Now, dedicate a page to each of these characters, answering the following question: Considering what this character wants out of the story, what is the best possible move he or she can make RIGHT NOW?

Please note that most of your characters will be “offscreen” at any given moment in your manuscript. That’s okay. They are not inert. They are in the process of planning, conspiring, sneaking, escaping, suffering … they are all doing or experiencing something. (When characters are offscreen, I call their activities “the shadow story.”)

This exercise will give you lots of plot material, scene ideas, and possible twists. See how it goes. After some time has passed if there is still significant sag, you have this:

The Guy With a Gun Pill

Raymond Chandler once wryly noted, “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Of course it does not have to be a literal man with a gun. It can be any character introduced in some surprising fashion. We’re not talking about a one-off character in a scene, but a recurring character who will add complications to the protagonist’s life.

When you place a new character in your story, you immediately inherit all of that character’s backstory, agendas, secrets, shadow story and so on. Additional scenes arise organically. As you create the new character, ponder a few questions:

  1. What can this character do to make life more difficult for my Lead?
  2. Can this character bear a secret that will upset my Lead’s applecart?
  3. Do they still make applecarts?
  4. Is there a hidden relationship this character can have with another in my cast?
  5. What is this character’s agenda?
  6. How far is this character willing to do to gain his objective?
  7. How can I give this character an even stronger motive?

Writers who dutifully take their medicine usually contact me in a few weeks to report being in the pink again. They have pep in their step and a twinkle in their eye, along with a few other clichés.

I am happy to hear it, but then I advise one further measure.

3. Preventive Medicine

If you want your heart to be healthy, you’ve got to eat healthier (and I never even went to med school!). Have you heard of Burger King’s new offering, the Rodeo Burger? It’s described as “two savory flame-grilled beef patties totaling more than ½ lb. of beef, topped with three half-strips of thick-cut smoked bacon, our signature crispy onion rings, tangy BBQ sauce, American cheese and creamy mayonnaise all on our sesame seed bun.”

I’m so there!

(Yeah, maybe once every three years.)

Anyway, I try to make my heart happy. It takes some discipline (e.g., steamed broccoli) and some hard work (e.g., actually eating the steamed broccoli).

Writing is no different. So if you’re a pantser, don’t be afraid of work and study. Get over the fear that any planning beforehand is stifling to your creativity. It’s not. You need to learn that surprises happen in the planning, too.

You plotters can continue to shore up your foundations with a growing knowledge of powerful story beats, which will allow you to leave a planned route for another choice. You can do that because you’ll know the next beat to write toward. You won’t be lost; you’ll be enjoying the trip!

Ah, the waiting room is clear. My work here is done. The doctor is out.

Do you often feel a sag in the middle of your manuscript? How have you solved that problem in the past?

12+

How to Talk Tough

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Mickey Spillane

Those of us who write thrillers, noir, and crime fiction know that a huge part of our craft is tough talk—dialogue from the mouths of hardboiled protagonists, street hustlers, cops, thugs, hitmen, femme fatales, homme fatales, and other denizens of the dark side.

It’s not easy to do it artfully, for it is much more than littering the page with the F-bomb and its misbegotten progeny.

I saw a movie the other day, a highly-touted crime thriller. I won’t name it because I don’t like to put down other writers, but I will say the dialogue was pretty lame. What I mean is that there were a lot of F words tossed around without any originality or élan. Characters would just spout “F you” or “F that.” (But that’s how people talk in real life! you might be thinking. Well, you’re not writing real life. You’re writing fiction, which is a stylized rendering of life for an artistic purpose. Just recreating “real life” sounds doesn’t move the needle.)

So how can you talk tough without falling into the lazy lacing of platitudinous profanities? Let me suggest a few:

  1. Be Witty

This is the toughest (!) form of tough talk, but it pays big when you can pull it off. The master of this kind of gab, of course, was Raymond Chandler. His novels featuring PI Philip Marlowe are filled with snappy banter that works because (and this is the key) it is perfectly in Marlowe’s voice. It never seems to be a strain. Like this exchange in The Long Goodbye:

“See you around,” the bodyguard told me coolly. “The name is Chick Agostino. I guess you’ll know me.”

“Like a dirty newspaper,” I said. “Remind me not to step on your face.”

Or this from The Little Sister: 

“That slut. What does she say about me?” she hissed.

“Nothing. Oh, she might have called you a Tijuana hooker in riding pants. Would you mind?”

The silvery giggle went on for a little while. “Always the wisecrack with you. Is it not so? But you see I did not then know you were a detective. That makes a very big difference.”

“Miss Gonzales, you said something about business. What kind of business, if you’re not kidding me.”

“Would you like to make a great deal of money? A very great deal of money?”

“You mean without getting shot?” I asked.

“Sí,” she said thoughtfully. “There is also that to consider. But you are so brave, so big, so—”

“I’ll be at my office at nine in the morning, Miss Gonzales. I’ll be a lot braver then.”

Take your time with exchanges like this. Don’t force the issue. Play with the language. A different word here or there can make all the difference. I like the line from Lawrence Block’s short story “Headaches and Bad Dreams.” A detective is describing a suspect who is not exactly lovely to look at. “God made him as ugly as he could and then hit him in the mouth with a shovel.”

  1. Be Crisp

Tough talk is often clipped. It gives nice white space to the page, too. This was Robert. B. Parker’s preferred method. Here’s a bit from one of his Sunny Randall novels, Melancholy Baby:

“Sarah took a lot of drugs.”

“More than grass?” I said.

“Oh, yes. Hard drugs.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. I don’t use drugs.”

“Good for you,” I said.

“I graduate this June, and next year I want to be in a really good MBA program. I don’t want to do anything to spoil my chances.”

“So her drug use was disruptive?”

“Yes. She’d come in at night, late sometimes, and act crazy.”

“Like?”

“Like she’d be crying and seeing things and …” Polly shook her head. “Did you ever go to college?”

“I did,” I said.

“What did you major in?”

“Art.”

“Really?”

I could tell that Polly found that puzzling.

“How did you do?”

“I was a good artist and a bad student,” I said.

Go over all your dialogue scenes and look for words to cut. Replace some verbal answers with silence or an action beat. You’ll love the results.

  1. Be Over the Top

This is the opposite of #2. It should be done sparingly. But every now and then consider having one of your characters give vent with a paragraph or two of straight tough talk.

Mickey Spillane liked to do this. He of course invented the quintessential hard-boiled PI, Mike Hammer. But he also wrote stand alones. In The Long Wait (1951) the narrator, Johnny McBride, has been dragged in by the cops for questioning. McBride insults the cops (this will get him beaten up later) and tells them to inform him of the charges or let him walk. The lead detective says:

“I don’t know what kind of an angle you think you’re playing, McBride, and I don’t give a damn. The charge is murder. It’s murder five years old and it’s the murder of the best friend a guy ever had. It’s murder you’ll swing for and when you come down through the trap I’m going to be right there in the front row so I can see every twitch you make, and there in the autopsy room when they carve the guts out of you and if nobody claims the body I’ll do it myself and feed you to the pigs at the county farm. That’s what the charge is. Now do you understand it?”

Pick a tense moment of tough talk and put yourself inside one of the characters. Write a 200 word rant. Do not pause to edit. Come back to it later and review. Even if you only end up using one line, it’ll be a good one.

  1. Be Suggestive

As I said, tough talk does not have to be laced with expletives. You’re a writer. You have a whole palette of possibilities open to you.

Writers of the 40s and 50s often simply wrote things like: He cursed and walked out of the room. You know what? That still works. Readers can fill in the blanks in their own heads.

There are other methods. In Romeo’s Way I have a character, Leeza, who is young and foul-mouthed. Mike Romeo is trying to help her. She doesn’t want any. This character would definitely unleash a curse storm. But I didn’t want to lay that on the reader. So I did it this way:

She jumped back like I was the guy from Friday the 13th.

“I don’t think you’re safe here,” I said.

“What the h—”

“No time to talk. Come with me.”

I put my hand out. She slapped it. “Get away from me.”

“I’m on your side,” I said.

She began a tirade then, peppered with words with a hard K sound. She was a symphony of K. It was so constant and crazy, it hit my brain like woodpecker woodpecker peck peck woodpecker.

“Ease up,” I said. “There’s bad people who want you. Did you forget that?”

Woodpecker woodpecker!

“Your boss, one of your bosses, Kat Hogg, is in a car over there. Come with us.”

Leeza looked across the street. Then she turned and ran.

I said something that sounded like woodpecker myself and gave chase.

Dialogue, as I’ve said many times in workshops and in books, is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. So when it comes to tough talk, don’t be lazy about it. Be crafty.

10+

How to Describe a Character

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) and Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) in Murder, My Sweet, the film version of Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Following up on my post on scene descriptions, I turn today to describing characters. The basic principle is the same: we want to create a feeling over and above a mere picture. And the way we do that is to filter impressions through the point-of-view character.

I’d like to break this subject down into two parts. First, how to describe the main character, the protagonist. Second, how to render the other characters through the eyes of the protagonist.

Main Character Description

There are two schools of thought when it comes to describing a main character.

The first is to give little or no visual info about the character. This allows the readers form their own picture. There’s a vividness that springs directly from the reader’s imagination.

This approach––minimalism––seems to be the preferred style these days. The exception may be category romance, which usually puts the main characters right on the cover.

If you want to offer a fuller character description, your challenge is two-fold. How much detail, and how to deliver it? In the past it was common to give full information via an omniscient POV, as in the beginning of Gone With The Wind:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Here eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin––that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

These days, however, the more intimate Third and First Person POVs are favored. So how do you describe a main character without her sounding vain? I brushed aside a wisp of my auburn hair and focused my startling green eyes on him.

Here are a couple of ways:

Have another character provide the description

In my first Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Way, I wanted readers to know Mike was in great shape and looked like a fighter. So the first scene finds him jogging and stopping to talk to a middle-aged woman trimming flowers (just before a church blows up):

She put out her hand. “Nell,” she said.

“Mike,” I said.

“Happy to meet you, Mike. Except …”

“Yes?”

“You don’t look like a flower man.”

“What do I look like?”

“Football player, maybe?”

I shook my head.

“Then what exactly do you do with all those muscles?”

“Are you flirting with me, Nell?”

She pushed her hat back slightly. “If I was thirty years younger, I’d rip your T-shirt right off.”

The mirror trick

It is frowned upon by keepers of the craft to have a character pause in front of a mirror (or window or bright, shiny toaster) and report what she sees. I looked in the mirror and saw my red hair hanging there like a bunch of kelp. My jade eyes, which men normally went wowsers over, seemed dull and lifeless. Was I really that depressed?

You know what? I don’t think readers care about it as much as writing teachers and critique-group nannies do. So if you really want to put in such a moment, I’m not going to throw a pencil at you.

There’s an alternative: imagine what another character would see when looking at the protagonist.

I could just imagine old J.D.’s reaction. “What’s with those baby blues of yours, Hal? They look scared. And why don’t you just give in and cut your hair? You want to be a Viking or a lawyer?”

No matter what style of description you choose, be sure to put it somewhere up front, because it only takes a few scenes for your readers to lock in a picture. If you give them some startling descriptive element in the middle of the book, it will be jarring.

Describing Other Characters

Now let’s turn to when the POV character in a scene describes another character. As with setting, I have a checklist:

  1. How do you want the reader to feel about this character?

This is a strategic decision. What’s the tone and purpose of your scene? How will this new character figure into that?

  1. Using the sense of sight, make a list of what the POV character notices about physical appearance

Jot down five to ten items. As you go along, push beyond the familiar. See if you can find one “telling detail.” That’s one image that seems to sum up the entire character. David Copperfield’s first sight of the unctuous Uriah Heep begins:

The low arched door then opened, and the face came out. It was quite as cadaverous as it had looked in the window, though in the grain of it there was that tinge of red which is sometimes to be observed in the skins of red-haired people. It belonged to a red-haired person—a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older—whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep. He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth; buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand, which particularly attracted my attention…

What got me was “no eyelashes.” That’s surprising and vivid. And it goes with Heep’s character, for his is always secretly observing. He is not to be trusted. He’s creepy. Dickens captured all that.

  1. Consider the other senses

Smell, hearing (the voice), touch (a handshake) … think about these as well. I’d leave taste out of it (eww).

  1. What personal impression does the character make?

Here is where you can use the POV character’s personal interpretation, like we did with scenes. He wouldn’t stop talking. He was a New York traffic jam full of angry cabbies.

  1. Write the description, let it rest, then edit

Give it your best shot, then take a little break. Grab some coffee. Watch the news.

On second thought, don’t watch the news.

Then come back and tweak the description as you see fit. 

The grand master of character description was Raymond Chandler. He wrote his Philip Marlowe detective stories in First Person POV. Here’s Marlowe’s description of Moose Malloy in Farewell, My Lovely:

He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.

Here is the snarky voice of Marlowe, and the perfect image—beer truck. Chandler could have chosen anything. …not wider than a schoolhouse…not wider than a cow pasture. But those images would not be how Marlowe thinks nor how Chandler wants to set the scene. A beer truck is urban. It is for people who drink in bars. That’s the feel of the whole chapter, which takes place inside a saloon.

A few paragraphs later, Moose Malloy returns: 

A hand I could have sat in came out of the dimness and took hold of my shoulder and squashed it to a pulp. Then the hand moved me through the doors and casually lifted me up a step.

Not a big hand. But a hand I could have sat in. Then what that hand does to his shoulder, and not just lifting, but casually lifting Marlowe. Two lines, and we know this character is huge and dangerous and in control.

Additional Notes

You can characterize by comparing the person to something

Robert B. Parker does this in The Godwulf Manuscript: 

He looked like a zinnia. Tall and thin with an enormous corona of rust red hair flaring out around his pale, clean-shaven face.

I like what a middle-schooler once wrote as part of a metaphor exercise in English class:

John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met. 

Needs some editing, but perhaps with a little coaching this kid will be a writer someday.

Minor characters should have at least one unique, visual tag 

Minor characters are an opportunity to add spice to your book. Don’t waste their descriptions by making them plain vanilla. Give them at least one unique visual tag.

Instead of the doorman let me in try a doorman too fat for his faded green coat let me in.

You can characterize by what another character is not 

In my current WIP, a Mike Romeo thriller, he is describing the banal bathing-suited men and women at a Hollywood pool party. They are all pose and giggles. Mike observes:

A meeting of the American Philosophical Society this was not. 

You don’t have to describe everything at once 

It’s often a good idea to drop in descriptive details along with the action. Think of it as you would in real life. You see someone at a distance. You form an impression. As you get closer, you notice other things. It’s sort of like a camera starting with a long shot then moving in for a close-up.

Let me end this post with my favorite descriptive example of all time. It comes out of the popular Bulwer-Lytton bad opening line contest from several years ago.

With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned, unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description.

Any thoughts you’d like to add on the subject of character description? 

*** 

NOTE: For years people have asked when my writing seminar might come to their town. Well, now their town can come to my seminar. WRITING A NOVEL THEY CAN’T PUT DOWN is live. You can get all the info by going here. And here’s a little promo:

19+

What We Can Learn From
Ballet and ‘The Big Sleep’

“The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average — or only slightly above average — detective story does…. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things. But the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way.” — Raymond Chandler

By PJ Parrish

Okay, it’s time to talk about the F-word.

But before we do, I have to back up a little and first talk about ballet.

Back in my newspaper days, I spent 18 years as a dance critic. I was privileged to see every great ballet company in the world, and interview wonderful dancers. I also took a lot of classes, starting when I was a tubby little 12-year-old to around 35 when I finally hung up the toe shoes. I didn’t know it at the time, but ballet was really good training for becoming a crime novelist. Because both are based on finding magic within the formula.

A quick primer for all you ballet-adverse types out there. Bear with me, because you will need this when I get to Raymond Chandler:

iballep002p1

Everything in ballet can be boiled down to five positions. There are only five ways to position your feet, five ways to hold your arms. But…

Everything in ballet -– from the classical precision of Swan Lake (1875) through the sassy sweep of Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs (1982) — flows out of this. Think about that for a second: Within one strict formula can be found myriad unique opportunities for self-expression.

One of my favorite ballets is George Balanchine’s Serenade. Balanchine was a genius. He sort of did for dance what Raymond Chandler did for the detective novel, building a bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries, finding new permutations within the old formula, and changing everything that came after forever. Serenade was the Rosetta Stone for a new kind of dancer. Philip Marlowe, likewise, held the DNA for a new kind of hero.

The opening of Serenade is breathtaking in its simplicity and promise. Seventeen dancers stand motionless on stage, one arm raised, feet parallel. Then, slowly, their arms come down together in first position, and a beat later, their feet turn out. With that one motion, they mutate from mere women into dancers, standing in the first position from which all movement flows. Go watch it and come back. It will only take 53 seconds.

Now, here’s the opening of Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

 

Like Serenade, this opening is breathtaking in its simplicity and promise. Right away, we know we are beginning a journey with a very special guide. And oh, those telling details. Who but a man who’s been on too many benders would point out that he was sober this time? And that last line? A lesser writer would have been content with: “I was going to see a rich guy.” Such delicious sarcasm and attitude!

Both Serenade and The Big Sleep are exemplars of two master artists working within the confines of their genres even as they explore and expand the formula.

So back to the F-word. Let’s talk about formula. I think it’s become a dirty word in our crime writing world, tossed around as a pejorative by folks who want to put us in our place. Some want to draw distinctions between genre fiction and literature. (“Her novel transcends the blah-blah-yada-yada.”) And some, even within our own circle, want to diminish writers who hew too closely to the bones. (“He’s working the tired old formula.”)

Years ago, I was on a panel about the future of the PI novel. There was a strange undercurrent to it, like it was put on the program almost as an apologia. It was like the conference organizers were accommodating the private eye novelist as the goofy cousin you seat at the kid’s table at Thanksgiving. Chandler himself, in a great interview with Ian Fleming put it this way: “In America, a thriller, a mystery writer as we call them, is slightly below the salt.” (Click here to hear the entire fascinating exchange.)

But I think the PI formula — and indeed, the entire crime fiction blueprint — has much to recommend it. Mainly because, as with ballet, once you master its fundamentals, once you understand the underlying structure and learn the basic “rules,” you are freed to swing for the fences.

I guess we should stop and take a hard look at that word “rules.” It’s a scary word because some of us think we don’t know the rules and others think the rules are there only to be broken. There have been a lot of rules doled out over the years regarding crime fiction. S.S. Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” written in 1928, might be the most famous. Van Dine prefaced his rules thusly:

The detective story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more—it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws—unwritten, perhaps, but nonetheless binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them.

My favorite Van Dine-ism: “There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better.”

A year later,  Ronald Knox wrote “The Ten Rules of Detective Fiction” My favorite Knox sin: “No Chinaman must figure into the story.”

T.S. Eliot was a big fan of detective novels, and was compelled to publish his own set of rules, in 1927 in his literary magazine The Criterion:

  1. The story must not rely upon elaborate and incredible disguises.
  2. The criminal’s motives should be fairly predictable. “No theft, for instance, should be due to kleptomania (even if there is such a thing).”
  3. The solution should not involve the supernatural or “mysterious and preposterous discoveries made by lonely scientists.
  4. Elaborate and bizarre machinery is an irrelevance. Detective writers of austere and classical tendencies will abhor it.
  5. The detective should be highly intelligent but not superhuman. We should be able to follow his inferences and almost, but not quite, make them with him.

Even Raymond Chandler himself couldn’t resist laying some laws. Here are his Ten Commandments For the Detective Novel:

  1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
  2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
  3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
  4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
  5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
  6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
  7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
  8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
  9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law….If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
  10. It must be honest with the reader.

Now of course you can see that Chandler’s “rules” are more in tune with our own modern sensibilities. He, like ballet’s Balanchine, pointed the way to the future. He, like Balanchine, took the old formula and made it new. Which is why we still read him today and we don’t read S.S. Van Dine or Ronald Knox.

It’s often said that we writers only recycle the same plots over and over. There are, in fact, only seven stories in the world,  according to the writer Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch. Here they are:

  1. man against man
  2. man against nature
  3. man against himself
  4. man against God
  5. man against society
  6. man caught in the middle
  7. man and woman

So Romeo and Juliet is reborn as West Side Story.  Moby Dick resurfaces as Jaws. King Lear becomes A Thousand Acres in the hands of Jane Smiley. And don’t get me started on what Bram Stoker unleashed on us.

This post was inspired by Larry Brook’s post here last week on concept vs premise. Go back and read it if you haven’t already. As I said in my comment there, the current hit movie The Martian is really just an old plot, one Sir Arthur himself would recognize as Man vs Nature but transported to Mars.  Before The Martian, we had Robinson CrusoeThe Swiss Family Robinson, PD James’s Children of Men,  Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Richard Matheson’s  I Am Legend,  which was recycled into the cheesy Charleston Heston movie Omega Man.

Formulas are not, in themselves, bad things. And given the long and glorious history of the crime novel, it is something we should honor, not disdain. The “trick” for us is to find within the universal human experience, fresh things to say about our own times and situations.

viewimage_story

The ballet Serenade ends on a mournful note, a man borne off by a female dancer who, to my mind, is a symbolic angel.

And then, there is the equally elegiac ending paragraphs of The Big Sleep.

I went quickly away from her down the room and out and down the tiled staircase to the front hall. I didn’t see anybody when I left. I found my hat alone this time. Outside, the bright gardens had a haunted look, as though small wild eyes were watching me from behind the bushes, as though the sunshine itself had a mysterious something in its light. I got into my car and drove off down the hill.

 

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.

 

On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver Wig, and I never saw her again.

There is nothing new. Just new ways of making us feel.

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Why you need an editer. Ah, make that an editor…

By. P.J. Parrish

Editors have been weighing heavily on my brain of late. Mostly because right now I don’t have one. And don’t it always seem as though you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone?

Kelly and I are between contracts and are working on a stand alone that is sort of different for us. So we don’t know if it will ever find a home in the traditional publishing arena. This is fine with us. It’s exciting (and scary) to work without a net. We haven’t done this in more than a decade, so I remember now what many of you are going through – that feeling of walking alone in a dark forest, not knowing for sure if you are on the right path.

But I also read a couple of things this week that got my brain churning about the value of good editors.

I read a comment on a writing blog from a self-published author who wrote: “When I finished the novel, I put it into the hands of a few big-time publishing houses. They all told me the same thing. ‘We like the writing, but in order for us to sell it, you have to rewrite this and rewrite that, then send it back to us.’ I wasn’t about to start rewriting my book so that maybe some traditional publisher would take it.”

And, I just got an email from an unpublished writer whose manuscript I critiqued for charity a while back. This writer had a good idea, an engaging character, even a nice voice. But all that was obscured by the usual craft problems (wavering POV, throat-clearing opening, unclear physical action, too many characters introduced too quickly, adverbitis…) But this writer stuck to it, rewrote and rewrote, got an agent who made her rewrite some more. She just sold that mystery as part of a three-book deal and was writing to tell me the good news.

Which of these two has the right attitude? (Put aside the question of whether you should go traditional vs self-publishing for a moment). This is not a trick question. It if were, why don’t more writers get it?

You need an editor.

I need an editor.

Every writer needs an editor.

Now before I go any further, let’s get our terms straight. I don’t mean a copy editor (the comma and lay/lie arbiter). I am talking about the first reader of your book after you turn it in, the person who can tell you if you’ve tangled your plot in digressions, misunderstood your hero’s motivation, or picked the wrong bad guy. The Big Picture Guy or Girl who understands what you are going for in your book and helps you get there.

Let me get back to my own experience for a moment. Because we collaborate, Kelly and I edit each other’s writing. But we know that isn’t enough, as Joe Moore here can attest. We know we need the entity we have come to call The Cold Third Eye.

Why? Because we, like all writers, we live our story with every breath we take, intimately for months on end. Every day, it is playing on those screens in our heads, and we can see everything so clearly. But as with any writer, there is often a disconnect between that screen and our fingers as they hit the computer keys. Something misfires, something is lost in translation.

That is where the Cold Eye comes in. This is the person who tells you where you have gone astray. The Cold Eye (aka the editor) usually communicates in the form of the dreaded Revisions Letter, a document that can run as long as a legal brief and be just as scary. Even more scary these days with the advent of Word Review Mode. Now, getting this feedback is tough and sometimes writers get a tad defensive about it. Here are the kind of comments you might see in a revision letter — and how some writers might react:

Editor: Think about making this a prologue.
Author: What? Prologues are strictly bush-league! It’s the crutch of every bad writer! I won’t do it! You can’t make me!

Editor: I think X is a wonderful complex character but her relationship with Y is underwritten.
Author: But X doesn’t really love Y, so it’s supposed to be without passion!  I’m not writing romantic suspense here! Geez…

Editor: Is all this stuff between Y and Z necessary? Cut as much as possible.
Author: But I need this scene because it illuminates Y’s motivation while introducing two quirky secondary characters who help convey the small-town setting! 

Editor: Unclear whether X or Y is asking this. And they just don’t seem to be as concerned about the evidence tampering as the reader will be. This whole plot element doesn’t land properly.
Author: Doesn’t this guy watch Cops? Police do this kind of stuff all the time! It’s completely believable!

Editor: Timeline problem: Is this the same day or a week later?
Author: This is a simple linear plot! A ten-year-old could follow this, for god’s sake. 

Editor: “X pursed her lips.” You use pursed lips too many times.
Writer: (sigh…)

Editor: Think about making this an epilogue
Writer (Gigantic sigh…)

Okay, for the record, these are actual comments from one of our editors for our book A Thousand Bones. His revision letter was seven pages, single-spaced. And you know what? Once we got over ourselves and went back into the manuscript to see what he was talking about, we realized he was spot-on about everything.

Chapter 1 works better as a prologue, making us rethink the advice we have given to other writers over the years that prologues don’t work. Sometimes they do. In other words, there are no fast rules.

The romantic relationship we had set up in our book WAS underwritten. Our experience writing hard-boiled stuff had made us squeamish about mucking about in such emotions, so we had tried to ignore it. Result? Anemic character development that didn’t set up the impact we were going for at book’s end.

The scene he asked us to cut with our beloved quirky secondary characters was nicely written but useless. We had fallen in love with the sound of our own words and disobeyed one of our own prime tenets of crime writing: If it does not advance the story in some way, take it out.

The part about the evidence tampering? Technically, we were right in that the scene we had written was true to life. We knew this; we had done our homework. But sometimes the truth isn’t true in fiction. If your reader can’t buy into the reality you are creating on the page, you have to bend reality enough to make it feel right and help your plot. Or as Stanley Kubrick once said: “It may be realistic, but it’s not interesting.”

The timeline problem our editor noted? Here is the perfect example of author blindness. Kelly and I saw our story perfectly in our heads. We had even story-boarded it and charted the timeline on a graph. But the way we had written it was confusing, and we couldn’t see it. You have to slow down and stick in enough time and place signposts so your reader doesn’t get lost. Lost = confused. Confused = angry. Angry = book thrown across the room.

Pursing lips? Well, that’s our Author Tic. Every writer has one or two. You just don’t see ’em. The Cold Eye does.

And yes, we changed the last chapter to an Epilogue.

So, what’s the lesson here? Find your Cold Eye. Unfortunately, it may not be easy. Being published by a “real” publisher is no guarantee you’ll get a talented editor. And in today’s Wild West self-publishing world, there are some scammers out there ready to take your money for no real help. Our own Jodie Renner had a great post on this recently. Click here to read it. And some editors, truth be, are just bad and meddling. Raymond Chandler once wrote to his publisher:

“Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive.”

But that rare good editor? That person won’t kill your style. But neither will he tell you you’re brilliant (that’s mom’s job) or that your stuff is a million times better than James Patterson’s (that’s your hopeful spouse). A good editor — your Cold Eye — will tell you how to be better than you already are.

I leave you with one more quote, this one from James Thurber:

“Editing should be a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The [editor] should say to himself, ‘How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?’ and avoid ‘How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?'”

P.S. I have no editor for this blog. It is self-published. Any mistakes are mine alone, God help me…

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The Movie Was Okay, but the Book…

 
My wife went to the movies with a church group last week and saw Noah. When asked how it was, she responded, “Not bad. But the book was better!” How many times have those of us who love to read told someone that? I can remember the first time I did. I was in third grade, in 1959, and a film version of Jules Verne’s JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH was all the rage. It starred Pat Boone as Alec (who, in the book, was named, uh, “Axel”) and was great. It wasn’t however, as good as the book. And so it usually goes. Reading requires that the reader use their imagination, even when the character is described to a crossed-t. My idea of what Jack Reacher looks like isn’t going to match yours, or, apparently, Christopher McQuarrie’s. That’s fine; it’s neither the best nor the worst example. Sometimes the reader — me, in this case — is wrong; I never imagined Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark and thought casting him in Iron Man would cause the film to be a dud. Wrong. He was perfect.
I’ve been thinking about this because my younger daughter is in the middle of a short film project for her Photography class and has chosen to adapt a Kurt Vonnegut short story.  She is soldiering on in spite of all sorts of difficulties: the weather isn’t cooperating; her original choice for the male lead had a hissy fit and backed out (D.R., you’re on a Father’s List. Just so you know); she couldn’t quite get the equipment she wanted. She’ll get it done, and it will be good — great actually — but she is shooting as close to the story, word for word, as the medium will permit. We’ll see how it all works out.
All of this leads to my question for you, which is: what is your favorite film adaptation of a novel? I have a few: my friends might be surprised when I list the adaptation of Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, but and might not be when I mention Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. The one that really did it for me, however, was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep — the first one, directed by Howard Hawks — which I watched one summer morning on television when I was six years old and which planted the seed of love of detective fiction in my brain, long before I discovered The Hardy Boys or ever saw the knowing leer of Shell Scott on the cover of a Gold Medal paperback.  What’s yours? And if you wish, please tell us why.
 
 

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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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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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Ya Gotta Have Heart

James Scott Bell

Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder. – Raymond Chandler

John D. MacDonald wanted to bury the corpse. In this case, the corpse was one of his books. In 1963 he accepted an offer to write a novelization of a movie. The movie was Judy Garland’s I Could Go on Singing. MacDonald took the gig because the money was good.

The book wasn’t. Even he knew it. After it went out of print, MacDonald never gave permission for it to be printed again.

Since I collect MacDonald, I snagged a copy from a bookstore owner I know, who charged me a fair price. I did read it. And no, it isn’t up to MacDonald’s usual standards.

It’s pretty obvious why: his heart wasn’t in it. It wasn’t his material.

Lesson: If you’re going to get your writing noticed, read, published and re-read, you have to put your heart into it.

You’ve no doubt heard that before. At least once at every writer’s conference, you’ll hear someone on a panel say, “Forget chasing the market. Just write the book of your heart.”

I understand what’s being said, though I would tweak it a bit. You have to find the intersection of the market and your heart, then get that heart beating.

I’m a professional writer. I cannot afford to frolic in the fields of eccentric experimentation. But that doesn’t mean I only write what I think will make money.

There are those who have done that. Nicholas Sparks is right up front about how he chose his genre. He saw the tear-jerker-romance-by-a-male-author slot as a great business opportunity. David Morrell talks about this in his fine book, Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing. Morrell himself says he couldn’t do it that way. He has to have something “gnawing” at him to write. He has to find the heart of the matter.

It’s like when I was a criminal defense lawyer. (Spare me the jokes. When your son or daughter is arrested, you’ll call someone like me.) Anyway, defense lawyers have an essential part to play in our system of justice. It’s called upholding the Constitution. That’s what you have to believe when you’re defending someone who is pretty much cooked as far as the evidence goes. You have to believe that, or you’ll do a lousy job.

I write for readers. I write so that readers will enjoy what I write and buy my next book. But to do that, I have to find the heart of the story and ramp up the passion level.

See, the unexpurgated “book of my heart” would be a post-realistic satirical look at the philosophy department of a major university, written somewhat in the style of Kurt Vonnegut channeling Jack Kerouac.

Could I sell such a book? I don’t know. I know I’d enjoy writing it, but I also know it would be tough to sell a marketing department on it.

I could write it for fun, and might someday, but right now I need to keep earning a living.

So what I do is take my favorite genre, thrillers, think up concepts and then make them the book of my heart. I find ways to fall in love with my story.

The way it happens for me is through characters, getting to know them deeply, creating a colorful supporting cast –– and then scaring the living daylights out of them in the plot.

How about you? What gets you amped about your writing?

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Book Inhalation

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com

Just a quick post today as I have just returned from book tour for The Serpent and The Scorpion and look a little like this picture – not that my boys care. They seem happy just to have me back home (bless ’em!) I had a terrific time visiting amazing mystery bookstores (and meeting actual readers!) in LA, Houston, Seattle, Portland and of course here in the SF Bay Area. I also got to have a great time at Bouchercon in Baltimore – am I lucky or what! But above and beyond this I also got to read some terrific books – with flights and travel I get to indulge in my favorite past time – ‘book inhalation’.

I’ve been away nearly two weeks and have managed to ‘inhale’ the following books (all of which I loved):
* Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (embarrassingly I hadn’t read this until now!)
* Charlaine Harris’ first Stookie Stackhouse – Dead until Dark
* Harlan Coben’s The Woods
* Linwood Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye
* Tana French’s In The Woods followed immediately by ‘The Likeness’ – you can see how much I loved those books int hat I read both in three days!

Not bad going I must say and my brain was thankful to finally have the time to sit back and enjoy. So I loved the book tour – spent lots of time with readers, fans, other writers and bookstore owners as well as books!
Now for some sleep…Before I do some more local events this week and then off to Arizona next week!

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