Escapism Rocks!

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There’s always been a certain amount of stress associated with being alive. In pre-historic times, this was largely based on concerns over being eaten by large animals. Or by having pointy things stuck into your body by the tribe down the road. At the same time, you had crops to attend to and weather events to deal with. All with no TV, internet, or Candy Crush.

Later on, the Greeks sat around inventing philosophy and giving people more reasons for stress, as in, trying to figure out the point of this bewildering existence. Religion was asking the same questions in places like India, China, and Jerusalem.

As the great historians say, stuff happens. Like war. More stress. In America we had a war oddly called “Civil.” And later joined the right side in a couple of wars big enough to be called “World.”

In between WWI and II, we had the Great Depression, and the stress of actually getting food onto the table. Jobs were scarce. Prospects, in many cases, dim.

Which is where escapism stepped in to offer rays of entertaining sunshine. You had the movies, of course. For a dime you could spend a few hours with Astaire and Rogers, Gable and Tracy, Hepburn and Grant. Radio was pervasive, providing laughs from Benny and Hope and Fibber McGee, and adventures with The Lone Ranger and The Shadow. And comfort by way of “fireside chats” delivered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself.

But by far the most popular form of escapism came by way of the pulp magazines. In the 1930s the pulps were booming. Newsstands and drug stores carried dozens of magazines with names like Black Mask, Dime Detective, Amazing Stories, Adventure, and Thrilling Western. Popular series characters (what the great pulp writer Erle Stanley Gardner called “the writer’s insurance policy”) included Nick Carter, Doc Savage, Tarzan, Conan the Cimmerian, Buck Rogers, Sailor Steve Costigan, and Bill Lennox.

Indeed, some of our best American writers came out of the pulps—people like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard, Fredric Brown, and Horace McCoy. Not to mention the many steady professionals who knew one thing above all—how to tell a dang good story.

And just what did these stories have in common? I think Gardner himself said it best:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

I believe this is still true. Which is why I’m launching my own short fiction channel via Patreon.

If you’re not familiar with Patreon, it’s a site where artists of various stripes can find support for their work. Friends, family, and fans become patrons of the artist. Usually that comes in the form of monthly pledges, in return for which a patron receives various benefits, such as early access to new work or a personally autographed print.

But there is another model called “per creation,” which seems to me more applicable to writers. In this model, patrons are not charged monthly, but only when an actual story is published. My job is to deliver the goods, which means entertaining escapism for a busy reading public. Stories you can read on the subway or the bus, or while waiting for the doctor, or simply at home after a long day when you don’t feel like cracking Moby Dick.

All of the details about this venture are on my page. I hope some of you will join me in this venture. The stories I publish will not appear anywhere else. You’ll be able to read this exclusive content online, on your phone via the free Patreon app, or on your Kindle, Nook or Kobo ereader.

My first story will come out June 1. It takes place in Hollywood in 1945. There’s a movie studio, a murder, and a studio troubleshooter named William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster. He’s going to be a series character, so this would be a good time to get in on the ground floor.

Because in times such as these, escapism rocks.

So what are some of your favorite books, movies, or TV shows when you simply want to escape?

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The Joy of Writing Whatever the Heck You Want

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

One of the biggest influences on my desire to write was the late, great Ray Bradbury. I’ve written before about meeting him, and how The Illustrated Man blew me away in junior high. In high school I read Fahrenheit 451, which is of course a classic of the dystopian genre.

I love what Bradbury said in an interview about his reason for writing the book. “I wasn’t trying to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.”

That, it seems to me, is the highest and best use of dystopian fiction. It’s a warning. It’s a prophet crying in the wilderness. And the nice thing is that the prophet can employ the steely voice of a John the Baptist, or the sly wink of a Jonathan Swift.

I don’t specialize in speculative fiction (though I suppose you could call my zombie legal thrillers, written as K. Bennett, speculative. At least I think most lawyers in Los Angeles are not zombies, but I need to check on that). But I recently found myself pounding out a short story and having a lot of fun doing it.

The story idea had its genesis in Rogue One, the new film in the Stars Wars milieu. The most striking part of the film is the meaty supporting performance by Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. Striking, of course, because Peter Cushing has been dead since 1994. In view of his deceased status, he really brings it Rogue One!

Of course, Mr. Cushing is actually realized courtesy of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI). The effect is stunningly effective. Which got me thinking about the possibilities here. What if, sometime in the future, someone wanted to make a film with Cary Grant, or Clark Gable, or Bette Davis? Future technologies will not only make this possible, but easy.

Then I thought about the discussions we’ve had here at TKZ recently about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the prospect of machines getting into the writing game.

So the idea came to me: in the not too distant future, a movie studio is working on a Western starring John Wayne and Lee Marvin, featuring Jane Russell, Andy Devine, Chill Wills, and Victor McLaglen. The technology provides holographic imagery along with AI functionality. What if …

Well, I’ll leave the What if for you readers, because that’s what my new Kindle short story, JOHN WAYNE’S REVENGE, is about. It’s FREE through Thursday. (For those who don’t have a Kindle device, remember you can download a free Kindle app to your phone or tablet or computer, and enjoy Kindle books that way.)

One of the nice things about short fiction is that you can get an idea and just start hitting the keys to see what happens. It’s fun. You can write whatever the heck you want to, without a huge expenditure of time.

That was Bradbury’s practice. He’d hop out of bed in the morning and just start capturing what was in that fertile imagination of his, whatever his writer’s mind had cooked up in the nightly dream world. Only later would he look at the pieces and figure out what was going on. He wrote with more pure joy than any other writer I know of.

So enjoy the story, on me. It’s an under ten-minute read, perfect for the waiting room at the doctor’s office, when you’re lunching by yourself, or after choosing the wrong line at the grocery store.

What if … 

So what have you written lately purely for the joy of it?   

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Short Fiction, Satisfying Endings and Reader Expectations

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

This month a writer named James Patterson (who has had some lg-bookshots-cross-killsuccess and may break out soon) began a new enterprise. It’s called BookShots. These are to be what he calls “short novels” and what everyone else calls “novellas.”

Patterson, the former advertising man, is nothing if not strategic, even visionary. He is always looking for ways to expand his product line and this plan is brilliantly counterintuitive –– find new places for physical books. 

According to a story in the New York Times, Patterson “wants to sell books to people who have abandoned reading for television, video games, movies and social media.” He wants to write fiction that is “shorter, cheaper, more plot-driven and more widely available” than full-length books. But here’s the part that really intrigues me:

[E]ventually, Mr. Patterson and his publisher want to colonize retail chains that don’t normally sell books, like drugstores, grocery stores and other outlets. They envision having BookShots next to magazines in grocery store checkout lanes, or dangling from clip strips like a bag of gummy bears.

“Those venues are very inhospitable to traditional publishing, but we think this is a type of book that could work very well there,” said Michael Pietsch, the chief executive of Hachette Book Group, which publishes Mr. Patterson’s books in the United States through its Little, Brown imprint. “He has enough recognition that his name can make it work.”

In some ways, Mr. Patterson’s effort is a throwback to the dime novels and pulp fiction magazines that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, when commercial fiction was widely available in drugstores.

It’s an ambitious plan, and I doubt any writer except Patterson, backed by mega-publisher Hachette, could pull this off. Maybe Stephen King if he also branded his name as Patterson does. For that is part of the strategy as well:

Hachette is betting that Mr. Patterson is famous enough to overcome … obstacles. The company is planning to publish 21 BookShots in 2016, including thrillers, science fiction, mysteries and romances. The first two, out in June, are “Cross Kill,” a book by Mr. Patterson starring his popular recurring character Alex Cross, and “Zoo II,” a science-fiction thriller written by Mr. Patterson and Max DiLallo. All the books will be written or partially written by Mr. Patterson, except the romances, which will be labeled “James Patterson Presents.”

All well and good. This is a business, after all, and no one has been a more astute businessman than James Patterson. He provides a product. That product entertains. There is an exchange of money for perceived value. And everyone’s happy.

Well, almost everyone. I hopped over to Amazon to have a look at the first BookShot, Cross Kill. Some of the reviewers have a complaint: the ending is incomplete. As one reviewer put it: The story is good, typical Patterson but it ends with a huge cliffhanger and that is what I do not like. … I had expected a short book, like a short story and I liked the idea but now I must say I am disappointed. It would be good if it could be explained where in the Cross Universe these Bookshots fit.

Had the book been advertised as the first part of a serial, all would be well. That’s what Stephen King did back when he and his publisher released The Green Mile. It was done in six installments, and that’s how it was advertised. So readers knew when they purchased one of the short books there would be another to come.

So what does all this mean?

It’s a great new era for short fiction. Short stories (up to 7k words or so); novelettes (7k – 20k); novellas (20k – 50k); and short novels (50k – 70k). You can use these to hone your skills, establish a digital footprint, and make new readers. I’ve been pleased that my series of novelettes about a vigilante nun, Force of Habit, which I did purely for fun, has generated its own little fan base. That’s the pulp fiction idea, and I love that it’s available to us now via direct digital publishing.

But write your stories to completion! No matter the form, the ending has to satisfy the reader. They expect an ending, unless in your marketing you are absolutely clear that you are writing a serial.

I remember years ago when my wife was reading a thriller and kept telling me how good it was. I would say, “But what about mine, honey?” And she’d say, “Shh, I’m reading.”

Anyway, she got to the end and … there was no ending! She was at first confused, then ticked off. I had a look at the book. It was a bit shorter than a “big” novel. And it indeed left off right in the middle of a crucial moment.

Only later did I learn that the publisher had decided to take a “really big” thriller and divide it in two. Their thinking was, “Hey! This is a good novel, and we can double our money by making it two books! The readers will be panting for the rest!”

Only they did not pant. They punted.. They did not want to be “tricked” again. The second book went nowhere.

So don’t treat your short fiction as a throwaway. Over the last few years most of the A-list writers, at the behest of their publishers, have dashed off short ebooks to augment their series or help sell an upcoming release. In several instances these have been less than stellar efforts, garnering a spate of 1-star reviews from fans. Maybe the A-list can get away with it, but the rest of us can’t. We need, more than anything, to establish “trustability.”

So, kids, write the best short fiction you can, every time out. And that means –– unless it’s a serial and the readers know it –– that you give them a satisfying ending.

Have you ever been burned by a story you thought was going to end, but didn’t? Or ended in such a fashion that it ruined all the good stuff up to that point?

And what do you think of this new pulp fiction idea? Do you think there’s a market for it?

_____

Speaking of thinking strategically, if you’d like to pick up a book on how a writer can do that very thing, here it is..

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25 Tips for Writing a Winning Short Story

Jodie Renner, editor & author, @JodieRennerEd

Writing short stories is a great way to test the waters of fiction without making a huge commitment, or to experiment with different genres, characters, settings, and voices.

And due to the rise in e-books and e-magazines, length is no longer an issue for publication, so there’s a growing market for short fiction. You can submit your short stories to anthologies, magazines, and contests, or publish a collection of three or four of your stories yourself in a short anthology. Or even one really good story, and price it at 99 cents. You can also get together with other authors in your genre and each contribute a story for an anthology, as did Kill Zone authors in 2010, with Fresh Kills, Tales from The Kill Zone. Time for another collection, I’d say, wouldn’t you? (Nudge, nudge.)

In fact, it’s a good idea to try to publish a few high-quality, well-edited short stories between novels to help with discoverability and growing a fan base.

Also, today’s busy readers (especially the young ones) have more distractions and temptations for their time, therefore shorter attention spans, so a short story is a nice escapism-byte for increasing numbers of people, I think.

I’ve judged short stories for several contests and anthologies, including for Writer’s Digest, and I’ve come up with some tips for writing a compelling short story that is worthy of publishing or submitting to contests, magazines, and anthologies. Of course, these are only guidelines—like any good cook with a recipe, you’ll tweak them to suit your own vision, goal, and story idea.

PLANNING STAGE:

1. Keep the story tight. Unlike a novel or even a novella, a short story is about just a small slice of life, with one story thread and one theme. Don’t get too ambitious. It’s best to limit it to one main character plus a few supporting characters, one main conflict, one geographical location, and a brief time frame, like a few weeks maximum—better yet, a few days, or even hours or minutes.

2. Create a complex, charismatic main character, one readers will care about. Your protagonist should be multi-dimensional and at least somewhat sympathetic, so readers can relate to him and start bonding with him right away. He should be charismatic, with plenty of personality, but give him a human side, with some inner conflict and vulnerability, so readers identify with him and start worrying about him immediately. If readers don’t care about your character, they also won’t care about what happens to him.

3. Give your protagonist a burning desire. What does she want more than anything? This is the basis for your story goal, the driving force of your story.

4. Decide what your character is most afraid of. What does your hero regret most? What is his biggest fear? What is he most afraid might happen? Give him some baggage and secrets.

5. Devise a critical story problem/conflict. Create a main conflict or challenge for your protagonist. Put her in hot water right away, on the first page, so the readers start worrying about her early on. No conflict = no story. The conflict can be internal, external, or interpersonal, or all three, against one’s own demons, other people, circumstances, or nature.

6. Develop a unique “voice” for this story by first getting to know your character really well. A good way is to journal in his voice. Pretend you are the character, writing in his secret diary, expressing his hopes and fears and venting his frustrations. Just let the ideas flow, in his point of view, using his words and expressions. Then take it a step further and carry that voice you’ve developed throughout the whole story, even to the narration and description, which are really the character’s thoughts, perceptions, observations and reactions. (In a novel, the voice will of course change in any chapters in other characters’ viewpoints.)

7. Create an antagonist and a few interesting supporting characters. Give each of your characters a distinct personality, with their own agenda, hopes, accomplishments, fears, insecurities and secrets, and add some individual quirks to bring each of them to life. Supporting and minor characters should be quite different from your protagonist, for contrast.

8. To enter and win contests, make your character and story unique and memorable. Try to jolt or awe the readers somehow, with a unique, charismatic, even quirky or weird character; a unique premise or situation; and an unexpected, even shocking revelation and plot twist.

Captivate_full_w_decal9. Experiment – take a chance. Short stories can be edgier, darker, or more intense because they’re short, and readers can tolerate something a little more extreme for a limited time.

WRITING STAGE:

10. Start right out in the head of your main character. It’s best to use his name right in the first sentence to establish him as the point-of-view character, the one readers are supposed to identify with and root for. And let readers know really soon his rough age and role in the story world.

11. Put your character in motion right away. Having her interacting with someone else is usually best—much more dynamic than starting with a character alone, musing. Also, best not to start with your character just waking up or in an everyday situation or on the way to somewhere. That’s too much of a slow lead-up for a short story—or any compelling story, for that matter.

12. Use close point of view. Get up close and personal with your main character and tell the whole story from his point of view. Show his thoughts, feelings, reactions, and physical sensations. And don’t show anyone else’s thoughts or inner reactions. You don’t have time or space to get into anyone else’s viewpoint in a short story. Even the narration is your POV character’s thoughts and observations. Don’t intrude as the author to describe or explain anything to the readers in neutral language.

13. Situate the reader early on. Don’t forget the 4 W’s: who, what, where, when. Establish your setting (time and place) within the first few paragraphs, to situate your reader and avoid confusion. But as mentioned above, avoid starting with a great long descriptive passage.

14. Jump right in with some tension in the first paragraphs. There’s no room in a short story for a long, meandering lead-up to the main problem, or an extended description of the setting or the characters and their background. Disrupt the main character’s life in some way on the first page. As Kurt Vonnegut advises, start as close to the end as possible.

15. Show, Don’t Tell. Don’t use narration to tell your readers what happened—put them right in the middle of the scene, with lots of dialogue and action and reactions, in real time. And skip past transitional times and unimportant moments. Just use a few words to go from one time/place to another, unless something important happens during the transition.

16. Your character needs to react! Show your character’s emotional and physical reactions, both inner and outer. And to bring the character and scene to life on the page, evoke as many of the five senses as possible or appropriate, not just sight and hearing.

17. Every page needs tension of some sort. It might be overt, like an argument, or subtle, like inner resentments, disagreements, questioning, or anxiety. If everybody is in agreement, shake things up a little.

18. Dialogue in fiction is like real conversation on steroids. Skip the yadda-yadda, blah-blah, and add spark and tension to all your dialogue. And make the characters’ words and expressions sound as natural and authentic as you can. Each character should speak differently, and not like the author. Read your dialogue out loud or role-play with a friend to make sure it sounds real and moves along at a good clip.

19. Build the conflict to a riveting climax. Keep putting your protagonist in more hot water until the big “battle,” showdown, or struggle—whether it’s physical, psychological, or interpersonal.

20. Go out with a bang. Don’t stretch out the conclusion – tie it up pretty quickly. Like your first paragraph, your final paragraph needs to be memorable, and also satisfying to the readers. Try to create a surprise twist at the end – but of course it needs to make sense, given all the other details of the story.

21. Provide some reader satisfaction at the end. It’s not necessary to tie everything up in a neat bow, but do give your reader some sense of resolution, some payout for their investment of time and effort in your story. As in novels, most readers want the character they’ve been rooting for all along to resolve at least some of their problems. But be sure the protagonist they’ve been identifying with succeeds through their own courage, determination, and resourcefulness, not through coincidence, luck, or a rescue by someone else.

REVISION STAGE:

22. Hook ’em in right away. Now that you’ve got your whole story down, go back and grab the readers with an opening that zings. Write and rewrite your first line, opening paragraph, and first page. They need to be as gripping and as intriguing as you can make them, in order to compel the readers to read the rest of the story. Your first sentence and paragraph should arouse curiosity and raise questions that demand to be answered.

23. Cut to the chase! The short story requires discipline and editing. Trim down any long, convoluted sentences to reveal the essentials. Less is more, so make every word count. If a sentence or line of dialogue doesn’t advance the plot, add intrigue, or develop a character, take it out.

Also, use strong, evocative, specific nouns and verbs and cut back on supporting adjectives and adverbs. For example, instead of saying “He walked heavily” say “He trudged.” Or instead of “She walked quietly into the room,” say “She tiptoed…”

24. Make every element and every image count. Every element you insert in the story should have some significance or some relevance later. If it doesn’t, take it out. You have no room for filler or extraneous details in a compelling short story. In fact, try to make all descriptions do double duty. Rather than listing their physical attributes and what they’re wearing, your description of a character should reveal their personality, their mood, their intentions, and their effect on those around them, and also the personality and attitude of the character who is observing them.

25. Pay attention to word count and other guidelines. Short stories are generally between 500 and 7,500 words long, with the most popular length around 2,500 to 4,000 words. If you want to submit your short story to a website, magazine or contest, be sure to read their guidelines as to length, genre, language, etc. Also, for your own protection, do read the fine print to avoid giving away all rights to your story.

For some great insights on creating a compelling short story, see James Scott Bell’s post here on TKZ, How to Write a Short Story. And check out Anne R. Allen’s great posts on the subject, such as “Why You Should be Writing Short Fiction.” Also, if you’re fairly new at writing short stories and would like more guidance, see my recent post, Some Quick, Basic Tips for Writing a Riveting Short Story. (Click on the titles.)

Do you have any suggestions to add to this list?

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

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