Five Ways to Stand out with Humor in Your Writing

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Orphan Black

I learned early on that I can’t write the serious suspense plots that I do and NOT add humor. People/characters use humor when they’re nervous, or a fictional buddy is a cynical smart ass and great comic relief at key times. Laser sharp wit can become a way for any writer to stand out in a crowd of authors or a slush pile. 

I remember reading Robert Crais in an airport when Elvis Cole was on stakeout and spied a small dog taking a dump in a yard, ‘straining so hard its back hunched double.’ Elvis thought, “Awful, the things you see in my line of work.” That line made me laugh aloud and I had to call my husband to read him the passage before my plane boarded. I never forgot it.

Lately I’ve been influenced by odd/dark humor in shows like FARGO and Orphan Black, where the writers do the unexpected. They take quirky characters, weird outlandish settings, and put those elements into over-the-top plot notions. This type of humor isn’t new, but I love that the only limits are the writer’s imagination. It feels like the writers took a dartboard of wild ideas/settings/elements/characters and whatever they darted, they had to come up with a story. So I thought it would be fun to talk about use of humor in novels and break it down into elements I have tried (not just read about) and enjoyed writing.

FIVE WAYS TO ADD HUMOR


1.) Put Serious Characters Into Ludicrous Situations

I used this strategy for a novella I wrote and sold recently – Lillian & Noah – An uncommon Coming of Age Novel. Picture a small fictitious town in Texas, called Why. A well-intentioned bowling team of widows, called the Ball Busters, meet on league night at Why Bowl & Tanning Spa to brainstorm a scheme to compromise certain influential citizens of the town, in order to stop one woman from financially ruining a nice young man who’s trying to send his sister to college. The Ball Busters convert an old carwash at the edge of town (the Why ScrubADub – Motto: “You like it clean, we like it dirty”) and remake it into a sexual fantasy hotspot to raise money for tuition. Harold & Maud meets Risky Business for the baby boomer generation.

BBC America’s show Orphan Black is a prime example of this brand of humor. The characters are deadly earnest in their attempts to dig into the clone conspiracy and stay alive, but in each episode there are ridiculous situations that make a viewer laugh aloud. One incredible actress, Tatiana Maslany, plays all the clone parts from a crazed Russian assassin to a soccer mom to a scientist to this week’s gender challenged Tranny. One example of their over-the-top humor: several of the clones are discussing strategies on Skype with one who can’t be there because she’s sewing costumes for a play she is starring in after she killed her neighbor (by garbage disposal) who had the starring role.

With this type of humor, don’t edit your ideas. Fling them onto a notepad or whiteboard without censorship. Maybe brainstorm with your craziest friends to see what makes you all laugh.

2.) Write Earnest Dialogue With a Sarcastic Internal Monologue from the POV Character

Cut loose on your inner smart ass with this type of scene. The dialogue lines would read as idle banter or may not appear to have color, until the reader sees what the character is thinking or gets a whiff of their cynicism. Whether you write in first person POV or deep third, you can make this happen and add attitude to your character. Remember, people don’t censor their opinion when they think no one hears them, in their head. So let the sarcasm fly, without filter.

Example: From My WIP – Legacy in Blood. My 24-year old bounty hunter wannabe, Trinity LeDoux, argues with Hayden Quinn about coming along on a dangerous trip:

“We? Oh, no,” he said.

“Yeah, but that’s the deal. I go too.”

“That’s crazy. I’m not a coaster ride at Six Flags. You can’t buy a ticket and climb onboard.”

If Quinn were a ride, I’d definitely buy a ticket, but now wasn’t the time to embarrass us both. I had to find another way to pique his interest before he voted me off his island.

Example: Hayden notices Trinity is carrying a weapon when he “visits” her condemned warehouse home

“You’re carrying a weapon,” he said as he let me pass. “I feel better already.”

Busted. Okay, yeah. I had a gun tucked under my Ren and Stimpy T-shirt, my one big investment in my new career. I couldn’t read Hayden’s reaction, but his deadpan sarcasm had begun to grow on me.

I’d once argued that bullets were more valuable than a gun. My shooting instructor went ape shit crazy over that one, especially when I said, ‘Without bullets, any gun is only a passable paperweight.’ It’d been a chicken and egg argument. You had to be there.

3.) Use Funny Sounding Unusual Words to Add Color & Humor

How about these zingers? Bamboozled, bazinga, bobolink, bumfuzzle, canoodle, carbuncle, caterwaul, cattywampus, doohickey, gobsmacked, gunky are but a few of the words listed in my link below, but imagine how you might use these words in a story and who might say them. These words alone could stir your imaginings on a character.

Example: The word ‘parsimonious’ means stingy. Here is how I used it in my latest WIP – Legacy in Blood:

I hadn’t eaten since early yesterday. If Hayden didn’t kick me off his property, I’d eat enough to last. I’d stuff it in my cheeks like a parsimonious squirrel if I had to. 
(The internal voice of Trinity LeDoux. She’s presently homeless and beggars can’t afford to be persnickety.)

4.) Try Tongue-in-Cheek/Deadpan Delivery in the Banter Between Characters 

In my opinion, less is more. Write the banter in short punches and don’t explain. If the reader finds it funny, that’s good, but don’t overwork it by trying too hard to be funny. Also be mindful of pace. Too much of a diversion can slow the plot. Get in, get out. Or in the case of Robert Crais’s example below, add several quick schticks of the same idea (ie. John Cassavetes) through the book to reinforce the humor in short spurts.

Example: In Monkey’s Raincoat, Robert Crais carries on a schtick with Elvis Cole, PI. A new client flatters him by saying he looked like a young John Cassavetes. After that, Cole asks others if they think so too. Each short punch is funnier and funnier. Here’s one encounter:

“Tell me the truth,” I said. “Do you think I look like John Cassavetes twenty years ago?”

“I didn’t know you twenty years ago.”

Everyone’s a comedian.

Example of Lillian’s POV from my novella – Lillian & Noah:

“It’s a sexual fantasy site,” I said. “Members share their most intimate erotic fantasies on their profile.”

“In my day, guys just wrote those on a bathroom wall.” Vinnie snorted.

“Shut up, Vinnie. Let her finish.” Candy shushed him with her red nails. “What happens next, doll? I think I saw something like this on Days of Our Lives.”

I clenched my jaw as heat rushed to my face. Not even a pig in a blanket helped.

5.) Use Odd Parings in Comparison Humor
In the examples below, it would take a witty or outlandish character to come up with these descriptions, so get your creative juices flowing to conjure who might say these lines. In the case of Schimmel’s bittersweet memoir on cancer, I can see my younger brother saying things like this. When he had his cancer scare, he made sure I was with him at his doctor appointments (along with my mom) because he knew I would laugh at his defensive humor. Mom couldn’t. So I was stuck between my more serious worrying mom, and my irreverent bro who had to laugh or go crazy(ier).

Example:
Games of Thrones is like Twitter. It’s got 140 characters and terrible things are constantly happening.” 
This kind of comparison takes a poke at Game of Thrones AND twitter.

Example: From the late Robert Schimmel’s memoir ‘Cancer on $5 a Day’

“…this stupid hospital gown is riding up my ass. I try to pull it down and it snaps up like a window shade. I cross my legs and suddenly I’m Sharon Stone.”

Any book can be enhanced with some humor. Think about people you know. Most everyone has humor in one fashion or another. Maybe you need a funny secondary character to offset the dire circumstances as comic relief, or the clever banter between a man and a woman could focus on their gender gaps. By adding humor, you put another layer to your writing and another tool in your arsenal of tricks.

Humor Writing links:
Writer’s Digest Article on Humor Writing.
Funny Words

So for TKZ Discussion:
1.) Share some of your funny (short) scenes or one-liners.
2.) Or post authors you’ve enjoyed who use humor in a memorable way.

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Five Ways to Stand out with Humor in Your Writing

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Orphan Black

I learned early on that I can’t write the serious suspense plots that I do and NOT add humor. People/characters use humor when they’re nervous, or a fictional buddy is a cynical smart ass and great comic relief at key times. Laser sharp wit can become a way for any writer to stand out in a crowd of authors or a slush pile. 

I remember reading Robert Crais in an airport when Elvis Cole was on stakeout and spied a small dog taking a dump in a yard, ‘straining so hard its back hunched double.’ Elvis thought, “Awful, the things you see in my line of work.” That line made me laugh aloud and I had to call my husband to read him the passage before my plane boarded. I never forgot it.

Lately I’ve been influenced by odd/dark humor in shows like FARGO and Orphan Black, where the writers do the unexpected. They take quirky characters, weird outlandish settings, and put those elements into over-the-top plot notions. This type of humor isn’t new, but I love that the only limits are the writer’s imagination. It feels like the writers took a dartboard of wild ideas/settings/elements/characters and whatever they darted, they had to come up with a story. So I thought it would be fun to talk about use of humor in novels and break it down into elements I have tried (not just read about) and enjoyed writing.

FIVE WAYS TO ADD HUMOR


1.) Put Serious Characters Into Ludicrous Situations

I used this strategy for a novella I wrote and sold recently – Lillian & Noah – An uncommon Coming of Age Novel. Picture a small fictitious town in Texas, called Why. A well-intentioned bowling team of widows, called the Ball Busters, meet on league night at Why Bowl & Tanning Spa to brainstorm a scheme to compromise certain influential citizens of the town, in order to stop one woman from financially ruining a nice young man who’s trying to send his sister to college. The Ball Busters convert an old carwash at the edge of town (the Why ScrubADub – Motto: “You like it clean, we like it dirty”) and remake it into a sexual fantasy hotspot to raise money for tuition. Harold & Maud meets Risky Business for the baby boomer generation.

BBC America’s show Orphan Black is a prime example of this brand of humor. The characters are deadly earnest in their attempts to dig into the clone conspiracy and stay alive, but in each episode there are ridiculous situations that make a viewer laugh aloud. One incredible actress, Tatiana Maslany, plays all the clone parts from a crazed Russian assassin to a soccer mom to a scientist to this week’s gender challenged Tranny. One example of their over-the-top humor: several of the clones are discussing strategies on Skype with one who can’t be there because she’s sewing costumes for a play she is starring in after she killed her neighbor (by garbage disposal) who had the starring role.

With this type of humor, don’t edit your ideas. Fling them onto a notepad or whiteboard without censorship. Maybe brainstorm with your craziest friends to see what makes you all laugh.

2.) Write Earnest Dialogue With a Sarcastic Internal Monologue from the POV Character

Cut loose on your inner smart ass with this type of scene. The dialogue lines would read as idle banter or may not appear to have color, until the reader sees what the character is thinking or gets a whiff of their cynicism. Whether you write in first person POV or deep third, you can make this happen and add attitude to your character. Remember, people don’t censor their opinion when they think no one hears them, in their head. So let the sarcasm fly, without filter.

Example: From My WIP – Legacy in Blood. My 24-year old bounty hunter wannabe, Trinity LeDoux, argues with Hayden Quinn about coming along on a dangerous trip:

“We? Oh, no,” he said.

“Yeah, but that’s the deal. I go too.”

“That’s crazy. I’m not a coaster ride at Six Flags. You can’t buy a ticket and climb onboard.”

If Quinn were a ride, I’d definitely buy a ticket, but now wasn’t the time to embarrass us both. I had to find another way to pique his interest before he voted me off his island.

Example: Hayden notices Trinity is carrying a weapon when he “visits” her condemned warehouse home

“You’re carrying a weapon,” he said as he let me pass. “I feel better already.”

Busted. Okay, yeah. I had a gun tucked under my Ren and Stimpy T-shirt, my one big investment in my new career. I couldn’t read Hayden’s reaction, but his deadpan sarcasm had begun to grow on me.

I’d once argued that bullets were more valuable than a gun. My shooting instructor went ape shit crazy over that one, especially when I said, ‘Without bullets, any gun is only a passable paperweight.’ It’d been a chicken and egg argument. You had to be there.

3.) Use Funny Sounding Unusual Words to Add Color & Humor

How about these zingers? Bamboozled, bazinga, bobolink, bumfuzzle, canoodle, carbuncle, caterwaul, cattywampus, doohickey, gobsmacked, gunky are but a few of the words listed in my link below, but imagine how you might use these words in a story and who might say them. These words alone could stir your imaginings on a character.

Example: The word ‘parsimonious’ means stingy. Here is how I used it in my latest WIP – Legacy in Blood:

I hadn’t eaten since early yesterday. If Hayden didn’t kick me off his property, I’d eat enough to last. I’d stuff it in my cheeks like a parsimonious squirrel if I had to. 
(The internal voice of Trinity LeDoux. She’s presently homeless and beggars can’t afford to be persnickety.)

4.) Try Tongue-in-Cheek/Deadpan Delivery in the Banter Between Characters 

In my opinion, less is more. Write the banter in short punches and don’t explain. If the reader finds it funny, that’s good, but don’t overwork it by trying too hard to be funny. Also be mindful of pace. Too much of a diversion can slow the plot. Get in, get out. Or in the case of Robert Crais’s example below, add several quick schticks of the same idea (ie. John Cassavetes) through the book to reinforce the humor in short spurts.

Example: In Monkey’s Raincoat, Robert Crais carries on a schtick with Elvis Cole, PI. A new client flatters him by saying he looked like a young John Cassavetes. After that, Cole asks others if they think so too. Each short punch is funnier and funnier. Here’s one encounter:

“Tell me the truth,” I said. “Do you think I look like John Cassavetes twenty years ago?”

“I didn’t know you twenty years ago.”

Everyone’s a comedian.

Example of Lillian’s POV from my novella – Lillian & Noah:

“It’s a sexual fantasy site,” I said. “Members share their most intimate erotic fantasies on their profile.”

“In my day, guys just wrote those on a bathroom wall.” Vinnie snorted.

“Shut up, Vinnie. Let her finish.” Candy shushed him with her red nails. “What happens next, doll? I think I saw something like this on Days of Our Lives.”

I clenched my jaw as heat rushed to my face. Not even a pig in a blanket helped.

5.) Use Odd Parings in Comparison Humor
In the examples below, it would take a witty or outlandish character to come up with these descriptions, so get your creative juices flowing to conjure who might say these lines. In the case of Schimmel’s bittersweet memoir on cancer, I can see my younger brother saying things like this. When he had his cancer scare, he made sure I was with him at his doctor appointments (along with my mom) because he knew I would laugh at his defensive humor. Mom couldn’t. So I was stuck between my more serious worrying mom, and my irreverent bro who had to laugh or go crazy(ier).

Example:
Games of Thrones is like Twitter. It’s got 140 characters and terrible things are constantly happening.” 
This kind of comparison takes a poke at Game of Thrones AND twitter.

Example: From the late Robert Schimmel’s memoir ‘Cancer on $5 a Day’

“…this stupid hospital gown is riding up my ass. I try to pull it down and it snaps up like a window shade. I cross my legs and suddenly I’m Sharon Stone.”

Any book can be enhanced with some humor. Think about people you know. Most everyone has humor in one fashion or another. Maybe you need a funny secondary character to offset the dire circumstances as comic relief, or the clever banter between a man and a woman could focus on their gender gaps. By adding humor, you put another layer to your writing and another tool in your arsenal of tricks.

Humor Writing links:
Writer’s Digest Article on Humor Writing.
Funny Words

So for TKZ Discussion:
1.) Share some of your funny (short) scenes or one-liners.
2.) Or post authors you’ve enjoyed who use humor in a memorable way.

0

Keys Ways to Add Layers to Your Writer’s Voice

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane
 



Joe Moore’s guest blogger yesterday, editor and author Jodie Renner, had a great post on Developing a Strong Third Person Voice that stirred other ideas for me to dove tail off. I thought of experiencing a scene through the senses of my POV narrator and giving that character an opinion of his surroundings to add setting description color as well as insight into the narrator to reflect on him or her. By making each word choice serve more than one purpose (to add color as well as insight into the character) an keep the pace moving without bogging down the narrative.

James Patterson talked about this at a Romance Writers of America conference in Reno in 2004 to a packed house of writers that filled two ballrooms. He said on his computer, he has words that inspire him to remember the basics. BE THERE were the words he posted to remind him to put the reader into the scene by using their senses to trigger images from the words on the page.

When writing any scene, get the words down, but then go back and layer in other elements to enhance the voice of your narrator and make the reading experience more vivid for the reader. Ask yourself what your character would be seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and how something would feel when they touch it. Adding these elements can bring depth to the scene and draw the reader into the world you are creating, by triggering the “familiar” with them.

Below is an excerpt from Robert Crais’s The Sentry, one of my favorite authors. This comes from the very start of the book.

The Sentry – by Robert Crais
Monday, 4:28 AM, the narrow French Quarter room was smoky with cheap candles that smelled of honey. Daniel stared through broken shutters and shivering glass up the length of the alley, catching a thin slice of Jackson Square through curtains of gale-force rain that swirled through New Orleans like mad bats riding the storm. Daniel had never seen rain fall up before.
     Daniel loved these damned hurricanes. He folded back the shutters, then opened the window. Rain hit him good. It tasted of salt and smelled of dead fish and weeds. The cat-five wind clawed through New Orleans at better than a hundred miles an hour, but back here in the alley—in a cheap one-room apartment over a po’boy shop—the wind was no stronger than an arrogant breeze.
     The power in this part of the Quarter had gone out almost an hour ago; hence, the candles Daniel found in the manager’s office. Emergency lighting fed by battery packs lit a few nearby buildings, giving a creepy blue glow to the shimmering walls. Most everyone in the surrounding buildings had gone. Not everyone, but most. The stubborn, the helpless, and the stupid had stayed.
     Like Daniel’s friend, Tolley.
     Tolley had stayed.
     Stupid.

This very visual and sensory description from Crais’s excerpt incorporates elements of the senses, as well as metaphors and analogies to describe an opening scene. Using adjectives like “arrogant” to describe a breeze is unexpected yet effective to say that the hurricane winds had been tamed. You can taste and smell the rain. It “tastes of salt and smells of dead fish and weeds” which adds to the raw feeling near the gulf. The narrow French Quarter room was “smoky with cheap candles that smelled of honey.” “Broken shutters” give you more than a visual when you can feel the chill of the hurricane through the “shivering glass.” The notion of “mad bats riding the storm” give the bluster a sinister feel too.

Having given these examples, it’s important not to overwrite the setting/scene. In this excerpt, there is a laser focus on setting the mood and the word descriptors are deliberate choices, like using dead fish and weeds to describe the rain in the French Quarter. It adds to the ambience without being overdone or by being unrelated to the location or mood. Recently I read a book where the metaphors and similes stood out because they were not only unrelated to the other examples on the first few pages, but these comparisons did nothing to enhance the mood or give insight into the character or setting. It made the author appear like a student trying to impress the teacher, with not much thought going into the word choices and how they pertained to the story.

We are Visual Learners
Many people are visual learners, so using the senses (and/or metaphors and analogies) can bring in the visual using something familiar. These ideas can quickly suggest a setting without slowing the pace with too much word description. They give a quick snapshot of the scene in a way to trigger the reader’s mind and delve into their own experiences to make things more vivid. These images can also trigger emotions, such as comfort or fear, at the same time. Adding these elements can not only bring color and distinction to the voice, but they can also layer in elements of emotion and visual triggers to enhance the voice. So let’s talk about metaphors and analogies.


Metaphors
A metaphor is an implied comparison that brings two dissimilar things together and implies that the two things are alike or comparable. Metaphors can be used to describe a complicated concept or setting, to make it more easily understood or relatable. They can enhance the imagery by adding a familiar feeling, such as the lightness of taking flight when you describe being in love, or describing death as a candle that is snuffed out.

Examples:

  • Ideas can mushroom
  • Love has wings
  • A brave man has the heart of a lion

Analogies
Just like a metaphor, an analogy makes a link between two dissimilar things, but implies there is a difference between the two things, while a metaphor treats them as the same.

Examples:

  • A fish is to water, what a bird is to air
  • A CEO is to a company, what a General is to an Army
  • A mother giving birth to a child, is what an author would be to the creation of a novel


I wanted to include other excerpts that use a visual imagery well in terms of metaphors and similes. One of my favorite books is The Book Thief. If you’re a regular at TKZ, you’ve heard me talk about this book before. I hope you enjoy these:

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
“She was the book thief without the words. Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.” The Book Thief by Markus Zusak 
 
“Upon her arrival, you could still see the bite marks of snow on her hands and the frosty blood on her fingers. Everything about her was undernourished. Wire-like shins. Coat hanger arms. She did not produce it easily, but when it came, she had a starving smile.” The Book Thief by Markus Zusak 

Anne Bronte – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
“His heart was like a sensitive plant, that opens for a moment in the sunshine, but curls up and shrinks into itself at the slightest touch of the finger, or the lightest breath of wind.” The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

If you are a reader – what are some of your favorite and memorable lines from books you’ve read that enhanced the mood, setting, or characters? If you are a writer – do you have any tricks to share on adding layers of a unique voice to your work?

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“Heed this advice now!” she warned desperately

Note from Kris: I am in France this week so am handing over the reins to my co-author and sister. Take it away, Kelly!


By PJ Parrish

I was sitting in a restaurant the other day when my friend and fellow author, Tom Swift, happened to stop by and ask if he could join me.

“Yes,” I said cordially.

He sat down, his eyes slipping secretly to the paperback book lying wantonly near my wine glass. “I see,” he said insightfully, “that you are reading a popular author.”

“Yes,” I said affirmatively, nodding energetically.

“Do you like the book?” he asked inquiringly.

I wasn’t sure how to answer. Both of us had just returned from SleuthFest, which was geared for aspiring writers. There was a lot of good advice about plot structure, the differences between thrillers and mysteries, and character building.

My friend wisely picked up on my silence. “So,” he said flatly. “I take it you don’t like the book?”

“It was hard to read,” I said effortlessly.

“In what way?” he asked inquisitively.

“Well, I’m not sure what it was,” I said perplexedly.

“How was the plotting?” he asked ploddingly.

“The plot was okay. But it kind of fell apart toward the end,” I added brokenly.

“That’s too bad,” he said sympathetically. “Anything else?”

“The characters were okay but kind of cardboard,” I added woodenly.

“Really?” he said shockingly.

“Yes,” I acknowledged.

“But the book was a New York Times bestseller,” he interjected suddenly, jabbing at the book pointedly. “You are suppose to love the bestsellers. This one got great blurbs. And all the reviewers loved it.”

“Well,” I said deeply. “I just don’t know what it was about the book that I found tiresome but there was something.”

Tom Swift gave me a nod of his head, shaking it up and down, and then added a small, understanding smile, displaying his Hollywood teeth. “Well,” he said philosophically. “Some books are just like that.”

And with that, Tom sauntered away, slowly and casually disappearing into the misty dark inky black night.

I was left with my thoughts — and that bad book. I was thinking about all the good advice I had heard at SleuthFest. Really good stuff, even a great debate about talent versus technique. But one thing kept coming back to me — the thing all the good authors stressed. Robert Crais had said it best in his keynote speech: “Adverbs are not your friend.”

He didn’t say it lightly. He didn’t it dramatically. He didn’t even say it succinctly. He just said it.

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Author Affirmations with Stuart Smalley

by Jordan Dane

“Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggoneit, people like me.”
Stuart Smalley, Saturday Night Live (Al Franken)


I’ll be on a panel at the Romance Writers of America annual conference in Anaheim in July – “The Care and Feeding of the Writer’s Soul.” Ever since I committed to doing it, I’ve been pondering my contribution and examining my own practices when it comes to nurturing my writer’s spirit.

But I wanted to open the topic up for discussion here to get your input. If you could create a box of affirmations for the writer, what would be your personal contribution?

On my computer I have been collecting sayings that have meant something to me over the years. These have come from author speaking engagements, emails, or things I’ve found online that inspired me enough to post it where I could see them every day. Affirmations can be reminders of author craft you want to repeat or they can be a way to keep a positive attitude or make progress in your career.

Here are a few sayings on my computer that mostly deal with author craft:

“Stick with the action.” Romance author Dana Taylor
When I muddled an intro action scene with back story, Dana wrote these words in an email after she critiqued the scene.

“Be there.” James Patterson
Patterson was a speaker at am RWA conference in 2004. He filled a ballroom, standing room only. By these two words he meant to put your reader into the scene using all their senses. He also said that he puts as much care into the first sentence of each chapter as he does the first line in any book. (I wonder if all the James Patterson(s) do this?)

“Trust the talent.” Robert Crais
I heard Crais present this on a video he sent via email in one of his newsletters. He talked at length about how he writes in constant fear, but that he trusts the talent that has brought him his success. It reminded me that all people have doubts. That’s human nature, but when you have a natural storyteller inside you, you should trust it.

“Get in, make your point, then get the hell out.” Robert Gregory Browne
Rob spelled this out when he explained ELLE on a blog post. Enter Late, Leave Early. The method is best explained by the TV show “Law & Order” where the scenes are sharp, concise, and don’t over-explain to slow pacing. The barest essentials of the scenes are captured to move the story along and a viewer’s mind fills in the gaps in action. The same works for books.

Here are a few that would be my contribution to keep a positive mental attitude:

“The next pair of eyeballs to see this proposal will be the ones to say, Yes!”

“I strive to be better with every book. My best story is always my next one.”

“I touch new readers with every story.”

“My books are unique because they are filtered through me and my personal experiences. I’m not in competition with anyone, except me, to be the best author I can be.”

Here are a few silly ones:

“I never get my page numbers wrong. I must be good at math.”

“When I kill people on paper, they stay dead. Booya!

As for practices to keep me positive, I have a shredding ritual for any rejection to expel the negativity from my house. Try it. It’s liberating. When I complete any project, I also treat myself with something that isn’t food—time off, vacation, fun evening with friends or family, attend a book signing, buy a new outfit. I used to think that each positive step in my quest to become a published author was only a small part of a longer future—that celebrating too much is a distraction that can swell your head. But now I celebrate everything. Life’s too short not to cherish even the smallest of pleasures.

Please share your thoughts. What would you write and contribute to an author’s affirmation box? What practices do you have to keep your mind positive and your writer’s soul nourished?

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A Lesser Me

Well, it’s author photo time again.  The one here on the left is the one that my publisher likes best.  Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure that I agree.  I don’t like the sloppiness of the shirt in the front.  I wish the photographer had told me that the shirt was all bunched up.

The exciting part of the author photo this time around is that for Damage Control (July, 2012), my ugly mug will dominate the back cover of the book.  I wish I were modest enough to say I didn’t care about that, but we all know each other too well for me to pull that off.  I think it’s very cool.

Now, if I had my ‘druthers, the chosen pic would be the one in the sports coat.

I just think it’s a sleeker look.  It also shows me in the first Armani jacket I have ever owned.  Trust me, it was bought at a steep discount, but still.  Armani!  Note to the uninitiated: I learned a long time ago that while expensive clothes are, well, expensive, they also fit better and last longer.

For me, though, this particular author shoot is a milestone event for me.  As you read this post, I will have officially crossed the one-year mark for having kept off the fifty pounds that I lost.  Not to get all sappy, but in May of 2010, I had emergency gallbladder surgery that didn’t go entirely well, but left me alive.  I didn’t enjoy looking mortality in the eye.  On the day I left the hospital, I vowed to my wife, Joy, that I would take life’s warning shot for what it was, and change my gluttonous ways. 

I understand that no one is more annoying than the recent convert who presumes to preach to others.  I, too, remember that moment when Oprah celebrated her weight loss by rolling a wagon full of animal fat onto the stage to show what a wonderful thing she’d done, only to apply all of that fat back to her waistline within a year or so.  Having been prone to weight issues my entire life (I’ve been way more self conscious of my profile than I ever was of my hair line), I know better than to boast, because I know that I could backslide anytime.  Still, it’s a good sign that I like vegetables now, and that they don’t have to be fried for me to get them down.

Does it help a weight loss regimen to spend a few months barfing up food that annoyed your gallbaldder?  You betcha.  It’s God’s ultimate diet plan, and I credit Him with half of the fifty pounds.  The rest of it, though, is on me, and I’m proud of it.

My pride and narcissism aside, let’s turn this into a discussion about books.  Do author photos matter to you when it comes time to buy a book? 

Does the fact that Bob Crais looks like a friggin’ movie star make you more likely to buy his books than if he were, you know, more Gilstrapian?  Does putting an author’s mug on the outside of the cover where it can be seen by the casual observer make any difference at all?  Or is book buying really about the quality of the writing?

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My Writer’s Costume

by John Gilstrap

This blog entry is scheduled to post on September 17, 2010 at 12:01 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, so as you read it, chances are that I am either asleep or on my way to (or I have already arrived in) Salt Lake City, where I have been invited to speak at the annual meeting of the League of Utah Writers. Actually, I’ll be speaking a lot. I’m the luncheon keynoter, and I’ll also be teaching two instructional sessions.

Here’s my question to Killzoners: What would you coinsider appropriate speaker’s attire for such an event?

If this were a keynote address for my Big Boy Job, the wardrobe selection would be easy: Any color dark suit combined with any color white or blue shirt and conservative tie. But as a writer–as a “creative” person, the question is more complicated. I’ll never forget the laughter I evoked from a Warner Brothers studio head when I wore a business suit to a story meeting at his office. It was so not-Hollywood chic. You can make light, but these things matter. Like anywhere else, first impressions are important.

If I were 25, I could get away with fashionably torn jeans, shirttail out and a sports coat. That’s the new creative chic wardrobe, from what I can tell. But I’ve been 25 twice now (with change to spare), and I can’t pull that off anymore. Even if I could, I’d feel stupid.

I’d also feel stupid in a business suit and republican tie. It’s a weekend, after all, and I’m a writer, not a lawyer. In this venue, I’m not even the association executive that I play during the work week. So what’s an engineer/thriller writer to do?

A former publicist told me years ago that there should never be any doubt who the celebrity writer is. She stressed that speaking gigs are work, and as such, one should never forget that work is about sales, and that sales are about image. That means, she advised, finding the right balance between mystery, professionalism and approachability. Think about it. That’s a hell of a balance.

When I think back on the various conferences I’ve been to, some writers truly do wear writer’s uniforms that are unique to them. Parnell Hall is always (except this last summer at ThrillerFest) in blue jeans, a T-shirt and a blue sports coat. Harlan Coben is famous for his wild ties, and Robert Crais is Mr. Hawaiian shirt. I have never seen Mary Higgins Clark or Sandra Brown when they are not dressed to the nines. Sharyn McCrumb is always . . . flowy. (That’s not a slam at all, I don’t know what else to call the look.)

Thomas Harris told me one time that the reason why he does so few interviews is because he feels that the less he is known, the more people are intrigued by his books.

The photo you see of me among my Killzone colleagues to the right is what we call my “badass” photo. It’s supposed to look like a guy who writes scary books–and I guess it does–but it’s not at all my personality. I actually like people, and lord knows I love a party; but there’s a legitimate argument to be profferred that the writer-John should more closely resemble the book-John than the real-John. Okay, fine.

I don’t buy it, and maybe that’s because I know I couldn’t pull it off. For others, though–Lord knows Thomas Harris has sold a lot more books than I have–maybe therein lies the recipe for success. Who knows? As for the League of Utah Writers, I think I’ll wear the same uniform I wore at ThrillerFest: a nice gray pinstrip suit with a black shirt. No tie, though. I’m a writer, after all.

So, what do you all think? What is your writer’s uniform? What do you expect of favorite authors when you see them in person?


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Did You Just Use Italics?

James Scott Bell


Controversy? You want controversy? You thought Michelle’s post about F-bombs was controversial? John’s post about offending readers?

Well, step right up, cause I’ve got your controversy, right here: How about the use of italics?

That’s right! I said italics!

I love the way writing “rules” sometimes get floated around the internet, become a meme, then move to “accepted wisdom” or even “non-negotiable truths from on high” – while, all along, it may be wrong for an across the board regulation.

Sometimes there’s a kernel of truth. For example, there’s a “rule” that says, No Prologues! Part of that may be simply because agents see so many bad ones. Maybe we’ll discuss that in a future post.

Today I want to discuss the use of italics for rendering the inner thoughts of a character. You know how that’s often done:

Susan walked into the room and saw Blake. Back in town! I don’t want him to see me like this!

That’s the shortest possible route to showing us the inner thought. Another alternative is to not use italics, but put in an attribution:

Susan walked into the room and saw Blake. Back in town, she thought. I don’t want him to see me like this!

A third way is to use 3d Person, but filtered in such a way that we know it is Susan thinking it.

Susan walked into the room and saw Blake. So he was back in town. She didn’t want him to see her like this.

That last two renderings are probably the preferred type these days. Or at least the fashion cops seem to think so. But does that mean italics should never be used for thoughts?

Never say never, especially when it comes to writing “rules.” I think italics are still perfectly acceptable when used in moderation.

Note that word: moderation. The overuse of italicized thoughts gets a bit wearying.

But an italicized thought may be the best, most economical way for a character to recall a key point or phrase uttered earlier in the book. And to set it off for the reader, too.

For example, early in the book your Lead character is given a clue about the villain by someone, who says, “Baxter will be wearing cheapie shoes that squeak.”

Near the end of the book, the character hears someone enter the room with squeaky shoes. You could write it the clunky way: She listened to the sound of his shoes on the tile. And she remembered what Clive had told her about Baxter, that he would be wearing inexpensive shoes that squeak.

Or you could do it quickly and easily with italics:

She listened to the sound of his shoes on the tile.

Baxter will be wearing cheapie shoes that squeak . . .

If you have a scene that is mostly interior dialogue, using italics can be a means of variety. In Lisa Scottoline’s Courting Trouble, lawyer Anne Murphy has to process some shattering news. First, Scottoline uses no italics:

Could this be? Could this really be? Was Willa dead? Anne’s heart stalled in her chest. Her eyes welled up suddenly, blurring the busy boardwalk . . . . She struggled against the voice and the conclusion, but she couldn’t help it. Willa, dead? No!

But then, as Anne continues to try to “wrap her mind” around it, there’s this:

Kevin got out, but how? Why didn’t they tell her?

The switch to italics, for one line, adds a certain immediacy to the thought process. I don’t think Scottoline should be arrested for using it. I don’t even think she should get a ticket.

In The Hard Way by Lee Child, a man in a hooded sweatshirt who takes money off drunks is walking down the street, and sees: A big man, but inert. His limbs were relaxed in sleep.

As the hooded man moves closer, Child inserts a series of quick thoughts, between paragraphs of narrative:

His hair was clean. He wasn’t malnourished.

Not a bum with a pair of stolen shoes.

[more narrative]

A prime target.

And so on. It’s just an efficient way to get the point across and get out of the way. Could the same thing be done without italics? Perhaps. Should it? That’s up to you.

Another jab against italics is that they are “hard to read.” I don’t buy that. That’s why I didn’t mind that Robert Crais has whole chapters in italics in L.A. Requiem. He has a reason for it, and I’m not going to call the Style Felony Hotline to report him.

Here’s my pragmatic conclusion: yes, there may be some prejudice against italics. But if they’re used judiciously and for good reason, I see no problem.

Do you?

Do you?

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Beginning A Series

by John Gilstrap
http://www.johngilstrap.com/

On Wednesday, Joe wrote of the trauma of ending a series. He likened it to a death in the family, and that seemed apt to me. I think that’s also the way fans feel when they know that a series is coming to an end. I confess to feeling a certain melancholy when J.K. Rowling placed the final period on the Harry Potter series. There was a sadness to the conclusion of the saga, of course, but for me it was more than that. I had come to look forward to my annual or biannual journey into the story. It was a passion and a pastime that I could share not just with my son over those years, but also with people on the subway.

Remember Jack Ryan? In the early ’90s, you couldn’t board an airplane without noticing that 80% of the male travelers had their noses buried in one of the Tom Clancy novels. Personally, I lost interest in Jack Ryan’s saga toward the end, but during the time he was important to me, he was very important to me.

Steve Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger, Bob Crais’s Elvis Cole and John Miller’s Winter Massey are more literary friends with whom I love to spend time. Oh, and Jeff Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme, too. Sneaky Pie Brown not so much, but then I’m not much of a cat person in real life. Once they start talking, my powers to suspend disbelief fail me. That said, I’d walk a mile to hear her friend Rita Mae give a speech. I heard her once at Magna Cum Murder in Muncie, and she was a hoot. More recently, I’ve bonded seriously with Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas.

In June, I launch a series of my own, and I confess that I’m worried. I’ve always written stand-alones in the past, and I find the prospect of this long-term relationship with Jonathan Grave and his friends to be a bit daunting. In the early draft–all 750 pages of it!–I found myself developing so much fodder for future books that the main story for Grave Secrets (the first installment of the series) became hopelessly bogged down. I fixed it, and now the story is really tight, and I’m thrilled with it; but now I have to write another one. Same characters, different story.

And more pressure. It’s one thing when fans buy your books because they like your writing–that’s the main (only?) dynamic in stand-alones–but now some percentage of fans are going to buy the next book because they like the characters to whom they were introduced in the first. That’s a good thing, of course, but it adds a whole new dimension to crafting the story. The last thing I want to do is disappoint readers, and it seems to me that by creating a new series, I’m increasing the likelihood of doing that. Remember when Clarice Starling fell in love with Hannibal Lecter at the end of Hannibal?

Okay, I could never disappoint readers that badly, but I still worry.

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