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+

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?

11+

Avoiding the Tar Pits of Fiction

@jamesscottbell

Nothing slows down a novel quite like large mounds of exposition and backstory. Expositionis material the author puts on the page to explain context. Backstory is story material that happened in the past but for some authorial reason is dropped in the present. When this kind of material appears in the middle of a scene it can slow the pace, sort of like a Mastodon trying to escape a hungry caveman by way of the tar pits. 
Now, let me be clear that not all exposition and backstory is bad. In fact, properly handled, it’s tremendously helpful for bonding reader with character. But if it’s plopped down in large doses, and without a strategy in mind, it becomes a pool of hot goo where the story gets pitifully stuck.
Here is how to handle exposition and backstory, especially at the beginning.
First, ask yourself is it necessary at all? Quite often the writer has all this story info in his head and thinks the reader has to know most of it to understand what’s going on. Not so! Readers get into story by way of characters facing challenge, conflict, change or trouble. If you give them that, they will wait a LONG TIME before wanting to know more whys and wherefores.
You can do yourself a favor by highlighting the exposition and backstory in your opening chapters and then cutting all of it. Make a copy of the material. Look it over. Then dribble in only what is necessary. And I do mean necessary. Be ruthless in deciding what a reader has to know, as opposed to what you think they have to know.
Second, put a lot of this material in dialogue. Dialogue is your best friend. Make sure there is some form of tension or conflict in the dialogue, even if it is simply one character feeling fearful or nervous. Arguments are especially good for exposition and backstory. Recently I watched the Woody Allen film Blue Jasmine, and nodded approvingly at an early scene between Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) and his ex-wife, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). They’re arguing about Ginger’s sister, who calls herself Jasmine. A lot of background is revealed in this exchange:
“What’s the rush, Ginger? You got a date?”

“It’s none of your business. It happens to be Jeanette, so…”
“Jeanette?”
“Jasmine.”
“What’s she doing in town?”
“She’s living with me till she gets back on her feet. She’s had a bad time.”
“When she had money she wanted nothing to do with you. Now that she’s broke, she’s moving in.”
“She’s not just broke, she’s screwed up. And it’s none of your damn business. She’s family.”
“She stole our money.”
“Okay!”
“Understand? We coulda been set. That was our whole chance in life.”
“For the last time, Augie, he was the crook, not her, okay? What the hell did she know about finance?”
“Don’t stand there and tell me that. She’s married to a guy for years, up to his ass in phony real estate and bank fraud. She knew nothing about it? Believe me, she knew, Ginger.”
Third: Act first, explain later. Stamp this axiom on your writer’s brain. Or put it on a note and tape it where you can see it. This advice never fails.
Let’s have a look at the opening of one of Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone novels, Stranger in Paradise:
Molly Crane stuck her head in the doorway to Jesse’s office.
“Man here to see you,” she said. “Says his name’s Wilson Cromartie.”
Jesse looked up. His eyes met Molly’s. Neither of them said anything. Then Jesse stood. His gun was in its holster on the file cabinet behind him. He took the gun from the holster and sat back down and put the gun in the top right-hand drawer of his desk and left the drawer open.
“Show him in,” Jesse said.
As we will find out, Jesse Stone knows this Cromartie very well. He’s called “Crow,” and he’s a Native American hit man. There is lots of backstory between Jesse and Crow. But Parker doesn’t reveal any of yet.
What he does instead is show Jesse getting his gun ready. That’s intriguing. He knows something about this man after all, and it requires his gun being ready. Act first, explain later. The scene continues:
Molly went and in a moment returned with the man.
Jesse nodded his head.
“Crow,” he said.
“Jesse Stone,” Crow said.
Jesse pointed to a chair. Crow sat. He looked at the file cabinet.
“Empty holster,” he said.
“Gun’s in my desk drawer,” Jesse said.
“And the drawer’s open,” Crow said.
“Uh-huh.”
We now know that this Crow is someone who notices things, especially when it comes to guns. What kind of person is that? We don’t know and Parker isn’t telling us. We only know this guy is probably dangerous. This is not friendly small talk. The air is crackling with potential trouble.
Half a page later, we get this:
“Last time I saw you was in a speedboat dashing off with a lot of money,” Jesse said.
“Long time back,” Crow said. “Longer than the statute of limitations.”
“I’d have to check,” Jesse said.
“I did,” Crow said. “Ten years.”
“Not for murder,” Jesse said.
“You got no evidence I had anything to do with murder.”
Boom. Now we get backstory information, but notice where it is. In dialogue! And that, indeed, is how Parker delivers almost all the essential information in this novel.
Of course, Parker is writing in a particular, stripped-down style. But the principles he uses will serve you as well.
It may be your choice to render some backstory in narrative form. If you do, let me give you a rule of thumb (not the same as an unbreakable rule!) that I’ve given to many students with good results: in your first ten pages you can have three sentences of backstory, used all at once or spread out. In your second ten pages you can have three paragraphs of backstory, used all at once or spread out. But if you put backstory or exposition into dialogue, then you’re free to use your own discretion. Just be sure the dialogue is truly what the characters would say and doesn’t come of as a none-too-clever info dump (I explain more about this in my book, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue.)
We place a lot of emphasis here at TKZ on sharp, intriguing openings. For good reason. That’s what editors, agents and browsing readers look at first. We don’t want to leave them in the tar pits—we want them to keep on reading!

These tips will keep you out of the goo.              

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Untrue Romances

I am writing this on Valentine’s Day. Call me sappy (or, perhaps, unable to think of a better topic) if you wish; however, we should consider our favorite couples in fiction (as opposed to fictional couples, a plethora of which exist in the real world!) even though we will be a day late and dollars short of V-Day by the time you read this.

Please permit me to take the plunge first. No one comes close to Spenser, the world’s most self-satisfied detective, and Susan Silverman. Each installment of Robert B. Parker’s iconic series (which lives on through the immense talent of Ace Atkins) is propelled by dialogue, and Dr. Silverman’s ability to match her tough-guy boyfriend line-for-line makes for great reading indeed. I will confess that in my own day-to-day conversations (though never in my stories) I have with abandon misappropriated sentences (nay, paragraphs!) which originally sprung from the mouths of both of these characters. Naturally, my favorite book about their relationship is A CATSKILL EAGLE, where Susan and Spenser kind of, sort of break up for a book or so. This gives Spenser an excuse to get truly medieval, and he does.

How many Spenser books are there? Dozens, at least.  Accordingly, my second-favorite romantic pairing is an angst-laden one, played out over the course of but one book. The couple would be Johnny and Sarah; the book would be THE DEAD ZONE by Stephen King. It’s not necessarily one of King’s best books, but it is one of many favorites, and the relationship between these two very nice people is one reason why. Their courtship is cut short when an automobile accident puts Johnny in a seemingly eternal coma. Sarah, sort of understandably, moves on after a decent interval and marries a decent enough guy, though King indicates here and there that the gentleman’s ancestry just might include a sphincter (or two) and maybe even a plastic device for holding a certain vinegar and water concoction.  She is comfortably though not necessarily happily married when Johnny comes out of the coma. The book is not so much about their romance as it is about Johnny’s psychic powers, but the back and forth between Johnny and Sarah throughout the story as they look but can’t touch and then say what-the-heck, let’s touch anyway, is worth the price of admission all by itself. THE DEAD ZONE, by the by, was nominated for, but did not win, the 1980 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.
Now: your turn. Any romantically linked couple in fiction, in any media, is acceptable (though if you tell us Batman and Robin…), and please explain why. And Happy Valentine’s Day, wherever you are.
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How to Work on More Than One Book at a Time

The most critical thing a writer does is produce. — Robert B. Parker
When I started writing seriously, after ten years of believing the Big Lie that you can’t learn to write fiction, I decided I had no time to waste. I wanted to be prolific. So I set out to work. Looking back at 20 years of getting paid for what I write, I see three practices that have helped me more than anything.
First, a quota. I’ve always written to a quota and that, IMO, is the most important thing a writer can put into practice.
Second, I systematically and consistently studied the craft. I read novels with intention, examining author technique. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest, went to conferences, devoured books on writing and practiced what I learned.
Third, I always worked on more than one project at a time. That’s what I want to talk about today.
No publishing house or agent is looking for one good book. They are looking for authors who can keep on writing them. Which is why it pains me when I see the same faces at writer’s conferences who are still working on the same projects, year after year.
I am always telling writers who show me their first finished manuscript, “That’s great! Congratulations. You learn a tremendous amount finishing a novel. Now get to work on the next one. And the one after that.”
This is especially important in the new era of self-publishing. The winning indie formula is quality production over time. You want a trend line that looks like this:

Upward direction is a function of producing new work, the best you can do, in various forms (short stories, novellas, novels, non-fiction). So work on more than one project at a time.
My method is to think of myself as a mini-studio. I always have a main project (my work-in-progress, or WIP). I have several projects “in development.” That means I’ve started making notes on character and plot, and perhaps a preliminary story board (I use Scrivener’s index card view for this). Projects in development go into a file I call “Front Burner.”
Then I have a file of hundreds of ideas I’ve collected over the years. Usually one or two lines. Sometimes just a title. I scan these ideas from time to time, looking for the ones that catch my fancy and, if they do, I make a few more notes. If I start to like something, I move it to the Front Burner.
As far as the writing itself goes, my first priority each day is to my WIP. I want to meet my word quota on that project. Part of my day will usually be spent editing a finished work. To do this, I print out a hard copy. I still like to be able to cross out and write notes on paper.
Another portion of my day will be spent on a Front Burner project. I prioritize these. I want to concentrate on the ones that meet this formula:
Desire to Write + Commercial Potential
Somewhere in the intersection of those two things is the project I “green light” for writing in full. I lean heavily on the desire line, because I believe you write best what you’re passionate about. For example, I love writing my Jimmy Gallagher boxing stories. They only make me Starbucks money, but I write them because I want to. Eventually there will be enough for a collection. I write the Sister J vigilante nun series because the concept was too good to pass up. (Note: I’ll have Force of Habit 2: And Then There Were Nuns out later this month. And a new Jimmy Gallagher next month). 
Now, I realize time is an issue for many writers. There’s the day job, the family, the remodel, the PTA. But that doesn’t mean a writer cannot put into practice a personal plan for prolificity (like all those p words? That was fun to write, but there’s no money in it). Here is what I suggest:
1. Figure out how many words you can comfortably write per week. Up that by 10%. Make that your writing quota.
2. Keep a notebook (or electronic equivalent) with you, and train yourself to think “What if?” all the time. Write down lots and lots of ideas in this notebook. The key to creativity is to take in a ton of ideas without judgment, and only later choose the best ones.
3. Spend a few hours each month looking at your idea file and expanding the ones you really like into a few paragraphs.
4. Try this: write like mad on your WIP. Take a break. Then write like mad on another project. Go back and forth.
5. Finish your novel. If you’d like some help with it, I will soon be offering you a way to do that. Check here for more information.
6. Revise your novel. At the same time:
7. Get to work on your next novel (or novella or story).
8. Never stop.
A plan like this, consistently followed, will please and amaze you. And you will be a real writer, one who produces words. That’s the main ticket in this game. Everything else is secondary.

What about you? Do you have some sort of system you follow for consistent productivity? How do you choose what projects to write? 
* * *

My new thriller DON’T LEAVE ME is available here:

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How Many Brands Can an Author Have?



Last week I wrote about the re-launch of my first series, co-authored with Tracie Peterson. City of Angels, Book 1 in the Trials of Kit Shannon series, is now available for the intro price of $2.99 on both Kindle and Nook.
Which raises (not begs!) the question: can an author today have several brands?
Back in the “old days” (like, before August, 2010) branding was a key concept in the traditional publishing world. Still is, actually. That’s because a publisher trying to make money with an author has to build a repeat readership, and that’s done over time, book by book. 
Take a hypothetical author. Let’s call him Gil Johnstrap. He comes out with a terrific first novel, a thriller about a boy on the run from the law. A fan base starts to form and they eagerly await his next book. If that book were to be about a horticulture competition in Surrey, England, circa 1849, they would tend to be confused and frustrated. They might decide to skip the next Johnstrap because they’re not sure what it contains.
So Gil and his publisher come out with another thriller, this one about a family on the run from the FBI. Fans buy it and are happy. They start spreading the word to other thriller fans about this Johnstrap fellow. The growing base looks forward to the next thriller. And so it goes.
Now, if an author becomes overwhelmingly popular, like a King, Grisham or Patterson, they earn the right to try, on occasion, something “off brand.” King might write about a girl lost in the woods. Grisham about a painted house. Patterson about whatever the heck he wants—I have a feeling his parking tickets would sell a million copies.
But the publishers will insist on getting “back on brand” with the next book, because that is the bread and butter for them, the guaranteed sales.  
Cut to: today. And e-publishing. What is the state of branding now? Let me start with my own experience.
I have been writing contemporary suspense, like the Ty Buchanan series for Hachette and Deceived for Zondervan. I’ve now augmented those books with novella/short story collections I’ve self-published. These all fall into the suspense category, so they are complementary. They make new readers for the traditional work. Everybody wins. 
I’ve self-published a couple of boxing stories, because I like writing them. These make me new readers for the rest of my work, too. They do absolutely no harm to the print brands. Plus they bring in nice-dinner-with-my-wife money each month.
I write zombie legal thrillers under the pen name K. Bennett for Kensington. I plan to augment these with short, paranormal stories. These stories will make new readers for the novels. Once again, both publisher and author win.
As mentioned up top, I’m re-launching the historical romance series featuring Kit Shannon, six books in all. I daresay the readers of the Kit Shannon books may find the Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law books a tad “off brand.” But that’s okay. Two different audiences, but with potential cross-over. And no harm, no foul to either brand.
I do non-fiction for Writer’s Digest Books. I support those books with articles for Writer’s Digest magazine, my regular Sunday column here at TKZ and on Twitter (where I’ve also developed a strategic brand). Again, everything working together.
So: Can an author today juggle several brands?
My answer: Not only can, but should.
Branding in the days of print-only was partially determined by physical shelf space and seasonal purchases. An author could not come out with several different titles at roughly the same time. Bookstores wouldn’t buy. And they’d be a bit confused. If Gil Johnstrap did write that horticulture novel, A Garden in My Heart,would it be placed on the thriller shelf next to his other titles, where fans would look? Or on the romance shelf? Or in “Gardening”?
But there are no such limitations in the digital world. All books are “shelved” cover out. Digitized books are given, via algorithm, space next to similar books. A reader can find new authors in a genre this way. Quite easily.
An author can distinguish between his brands via cover art, book description, tagging, and even a pseudonym.
John Locke, poster boy for self-publishing success, writes contemporary thrillers and Westerns. Just like Robert B. Parker did after he became a household name with Spenser.
As I said a couple of years ago, this new e-publishing era is a lot like the old pulp fiction days. I look back at a Depression-era writer like Robert E. Howard. He wrote stories in the fantasy, horror, detective, western and boxing genres. All of ‘em. And made a living. That can be done again, now, in today’s e-world. It’s a great time to be a writer who loves to write.
There is only one fly in this ointment: a traditional publishing contract with a boilerplate non-compete clause the publisher is determined to enforce. I know some writers in this predicament. And while I understand that publishers are undergoing paradigm shock right now, this is not the best reaction. Publishers should be willing to re-negotiate these clauses so their writers can earn extra income and make new readers without harming the brand they are creating together.


Publishers who make an investment in an author do deserve consideration and protection. They deserve the author’s best work (non-diluted by overwriting). And they are entitled not to wake up one morning to find their author selling a novel in the same genre for 99¢. Authors need to appreciate the harsh business reality of traditional publishing. 
All that said, I see no reason why writers cannot be strategically developing different brands for their digital platform, and have fun doing it. Nor do I see a reason for publishers to resist sitting down with author and agent and hammering out contractual language that is fair to both sides on this matter.


Now I’m going to run a warm bath, put on some Yanni and relax with A Garden in My Heart.

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Do Not Go Gentle Onto That Good Page

James Scott Bell

Do not go gentle into that good night . . .Rage, rage against the dying of the light. – Dylan Thomas

Brett Favre, one of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game of football, was supposed to be over-the-hill at 40. But he recently finished what is probably his finest season and almost got the Minnesota Vikings to the Super Bowl. In the NFC championship game against the New Orleans Saints, he took a beating. He was on the turf constantly, sometimes under 380 pounds of beef. In the second half he got his left ankle twisted, limped off, got re-taped, and came back into the game. But for a number of turnovers by his teammates and one ill-timed interception, the Vikes would have won. It was an inspiring performance, adding to his legend.

Robert B. Parker, creator of Spenser and one of the most prolific authors of our time, died last month at the age of 77. He was supposed to be over-the-hill, too. Some critics thought he was, but most readers did not. Parker was turning out books to the very end, and not just in his Spenser series. He had other series going, including Jesse Stone, which Tom Selleck has brought to TV. He also wrote stand alones and Westerns.

He was reportedly about 40 pages into a new Spenser novel when he died at his desk of a heart attack.

For a writer, baby, that’s the way to go. I only hope I’ve just typed the last page.

Regardless, Favre and Parker are two guys who refused to go gentle into that good night. To write well, there has to be a part of you that is determined to rage, rage against the dying of the light––and against rejection, criticism and the slough of despond.

You’ve got to have some attitude.

Now, this attitude is not the same as arrogance. Arrogance shouts and gets tiresome pretty fast. Attitude is just as ornery, but it’s quiet. It does its work and keeps on doing it. It wants to prove itself on the page, not in the mouth. And it refuses to give up.

A knock on Parker in the latter phase of his career was that he wrote too much, sacrificing quality. Well, that’s between him and his readers. He wrote, they bought, they enjoyed, maybe some got frustrated. But the relationship was lasting, and the man was doing what he loved.

If you love to write, you’ll find a way to do it. No one can promise how that’ll turn out. No one can guarantee you a publishing contract. But you’ll never get close if you don’t rage a little, and turn that into determination to keep writing, keep going, keep producing the words.

My grandfather and my mom both wanted to be writers. So they wrote. My grandfather wrote historical fiction and ended up self-publishing some of it. It’s really not bad at all, but it’s very niche stuff. Yet I remember him being proud of it, and it pleased the family.

My mom wrote radio scripts while she was in college in WWII. I have a whole bunch of them. Quite good. She worked on a small local newspaper when I was a kid. I remember, when I was twelve or so, finding a short story she wrote, a sci-fi kind of thing, that had a cool twist ending. She never got it published but it influenced at least one young writer––me.

So do not go gentle onto that good page. At the very least you’ll know you’re alive, and you won’t walk around (as Murray says in A Thousand Clowns) with that wide-eyed look some people put on their faces so no one will know their head’s asleep.

Rage a little, throw the heat, write.

How do you actually feel when you’re writing? What’s going on in your head? And how long do you expect to be writing?

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