How Did I Get Here?

With Memorial Day upon us, many folks will be on the road, listening to music or daydreaming while stuck in traffic. Nothing at all interesting about it. Though we want our stories to mimic real life, showing every moment or mile gets boring and repetitive fast.

My characters are constantly on the move. If I showed the entire drive, boat ride, or flight, I’d destroy the pacing. Instead, move characters from point A to B by skipping the boring parts.

via GIPHY
When we jump ahead, tell the reader how much time has passed.

Nothing is more jarring than a character at home one minute and in the next paragraph they’re in a new location with no explanation of how they got there. Ground the reader in the first sentence. Or at least, in the first paragraph. Some writers include a scene break between paragraphs — either white space or *** — but that still does not absolve us from orienting the reader.

Show the characters getting into the car. Add a few lines of plot-related dialogue or trees zip past the window to show movement. And boom, they arrive at their new destination. Or, if nothing interesting happens, write something like…

Forty grueling minutes later without air conditioner, I arrived at the hotel with a wet scalp and my t-shirt molded to my chest.

A new chapter signals a time or POV change and/or a new setting.

It’s fine to speed past uneventful stretches in a story. In fact, it’s encouraged. Just be sure to give the reader a sense of how much time has lapsed, especially at the start of a new chapter. Even if we include a timestamp, we should still mention it as many readers will only recall whether the previous chapter took place during daylight or darkness.

Don’t make them have to backtrack to guess where or when the chapter begins.

If the action continues from the previous chapter, it’s still a good idea to set the scene with a brief mention of any time gaps or sensory cue to ground the reader. It doesn’t have to be complicated. “A few hours later” does the trick.

Establish who is present in every scene.

Nothing irks me more than a character appearing out of nowhere to offer a clue when they weren’t in the scene earlier. Too convenient. And frankly, obvious and lazy.

Again, adding a character to a scene needn’t be complicated…

The screen door slapped open, and Jack strolled out to the porch.

Now the reader knows he’s there, so when he offers that all-important clue, it makes sense within the scene.

Change in POV

As a reader and a writer, I don’t understand the fad of including the POV character’s name at the top of each chapter. In my opinion, it’s unnecessary. If we ground the reader in the character’s POV right away, they should know whose head they’re in without a label. If they don’t, then we’ve failed to set the scene. I prefer rotating POVs. They’re easy to follow and add to the overall rhythm of the story.

If you want to include the POV character’s name as a chapter heading, then by all means do so. It’s your story.

The main takeaway for this post is to orient the reader, whether the characters are on the move or we switch to a new POV.

For writers: How do you handle travel or signal a change in POV?

For readers: Have you ever been jarred out of a story due to a change in space or time?

Happy Memorial Day to TKZers in the U.S.!

Slipstream — A Unique, Hybrid Fiction Cross-Genre

Recently, I was Zoom chatting with a writer friend. She asked me how it was going with my current work-in-progress—a project titled City Of Danger. I chuckled and said, “I’m intentionally breaking all the rules.”

“What genre is it in?” she asked.

I kept chuckling. “Hard to put a finger on it. It’s kind of a dog’s breakfast. Part hardboiled/noir detective crime fiction. Part thriller and suspense. A lot of historical nostalgia from the 1920s. And some sci-fi from a dystopian future. It involves malevolent AI and time travel. I might even throw in a touch of romantic comedy.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I’m not doing what every editor, agent, and publishing guru always says to do. ‘Strictly write to one genre.’ Nope. I gotta be different.”

“Sounds like Slipstream.”

“Slipstream? What’s that?”

“It’s a unique, hybrid fiction cross-genre. The style has been around awhile, but it’s really gaining traction. Slipstream pushes creativity boundaries. It explores the depths of human experience, the human condition, in novel ways.”

“Damm. I thought I was inventing something new.”

She laughed, and we moved on to other things. When we were done, she’d piqued my interest. I Googled “Slipstream” and asked Chat about it. Did I ever get my eyes opened, and it fit exactly with what I stumbled upon while building City Of Danger.

Among other information, I found a great article in The Write Life titled How to Write Slipstream Fiction—Full Guide and Definition. Here’s the link and the piece’s opening words which don’t need me rephrasing:

In the ever-evolving genres of fiction, Slipstream emerges as a genre that defies the traditional boundaries of storytelling, offering a unique blend of the real and the surreal. This genre, sitting at the crossroads of speculative fiction and literary fiction, challenges our perceptions of reality, inviting readers and writers alike into a world where the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of crafting narratives that transcend conventional genres, Slipstream fiction may be the creative avenue you’ve been searching for. This article is your comprehensive guide to understanding, appreciating, and ultimately writing Slipstream fiction that captivates and resonates.

What is Slipstream fiction?

Slipstream fiction is a genre that thrives on ambiguity, challenging both writers and readers to explore the spaces between the known and the unknown. Let’s dive into the core aspects that define this intriguing genre.

Our Slipstream fiction definition

Slipstream fiction is notoriously difficult to pin down with a single definition, but at its core, it represents a narrative that straddles the line between the speculative and the literary, often blurring the boundaries of reality and the fantastic. This genre is not just about fantastical elements or futuristic settings; it’s about invoking a sense of wonder, unease, or the uncanny through stories that feel both familiar and deeply strange.

Slipstream challenges our everyday understanding of reality, pushing readers to question what they know about the world around them.

It is this unique blend of the real and the surreal that sets Slipstream apart from more conventional genres, making it a fascinating field for writers who want to explore the depths of human experience in novel ways.

What are the key characteristics of Slipstream fiction?

Before we delve into the characteristics that define Slipstream fiction, it’s important to understand that these traits work together to create a distinctive reading experience that defies easy categorization. Here are the seven most important characteristics of Slipstream fiction:

  1. Ambiguity: Stories often leave more questions than answers, challenging readers to find their interpretations.
  2. Cognitive dissonance: The narrative may combine elements that traditionally don’t coexist, creating a sense of unease or perplexity.
  3. Surreal atmosphere: The setting or events have an otherworldly quality, even if rooted in the familiar.
  4. Emotional resonance: Despite the fantastical elements, the core of Slipstream fiction lies in its ability to evoke deep emotional responses.
  5. Intellectual stimulation: These narratives encourage readers to think deeply about themes, ideas, and the nature of reality itself.
  6. Genre blending: Slipstream fiction often incorporates elements from various genres, refusing to be boxed into a single category.
  7. Metafictional elements: There’s often a self-awareness within the narrative, playing with literary conventions and reader expectations.

Keep in mind that Slipstream fiction is by its nature a genre that blends elements and influences from a wide range of sources. As a result, feel free to use or ignore whichever characteristics of Slipstream depending on what your story requires.

———

So, now I was really intrigued. I spent the better part of a day digging into Slipstream, and I did what I do with most things that intrigue me. I encapsulated it visually on an 11×17 inch sheet. It came out looking like this:

Some of the takeaways from my research were the terms cognitive dissonance, cognitive equilibrium, and cognitive consonance. I wasn’t quite sure what they meant and how they meshed with the Slipstream style. Here’s what my little AI friend said:

Combined, these three terms encompass aspects of cognitive psychology related to the harmony, conflict, and resolution of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors:

Cognitive Dissonance highlights the discomfort that arises when there is inconsistency between beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors. It emphasizes the tension that individuals experience when they hold conflicting cognitive elements.

Cognitive Equilibrium refers to the state of mental balance or harmony that individuals strive for, wherein their beliefs, attitudes, and understanding of the world are consistent and coherent. It reflects the desire for stability and coherence in one’s cognitive processes.

Cognitive Consonance underscores the psychological comfort that individuals experience when their beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors are in agreement with one another. It signifies a state of alignment and consistency in cognitive processes.

Together, these concepts provide insights into how individuals navigate the internal conflicts and seek harmony in their cognitive processes, whether by resolving inconsistencies (cognitive dissonance), striving for balance and coherence (cognitive equilibrium), or experiencing comfort in consistency (cognitive consonance).

The concepts discussed in this thread—cognitive dissonance, cognitive equilibrium, and cognitive consonance—can intersect with the genre of Slipstream in intriguing ways.

In Slipstream literature, there’s often a deliberate blending of genres, a crossing of boundaries between the familiar and the strange, resulting in narratives that defy conventional categorization. This blending can mirror the cognitive tension of cognitive dissonance, as readers encounter elements that challenge their expectations and beliefs.

Moreover, Slipstream narratives often disrupt traditional narrative structures, creating a sense of cognitive imbalance akin to cognitive dissonance. The stories may provoke a sense of unease or uncertainty, inviting readers to question their assumptions and perspectives, much like cognitive dissonance prompts individuals to confront conflicting beliefs.

At the same time, Slipstream literature can evoke a sense of cognitive equilibrium through its exploration of the surreal and the ordinary coexisting. Just as individuals seek cognitive balance by assimilating new information into their existing frameworks (cognitive equilibrium), Slipstream narratives integrate disparate elements into a cohesive whole, inviting readers to find meaning in the juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Cognitive consonance also finds resonance in Slipstream, as readers may experience a sense of satisfaction or resonance when seemingly incongruent elements in the narrative coalesce into a coherent whole. This alignment of disparate elements can evoke a feeling of harmony, akin to the psychological comfort of cognitive consonance.

In summary, the concepts of cognitive dissonance, cognitive equilibrium, and cognitive consonance offer a lens through which to explore the cognitive dynamics at play in Slipstream literature. The genre’s blending of genres, disruption of narrative conventions, and integration of disparate elements can evoke cognitive tensions and resolutions reminiscent of these psychological concepts.

———

Me This is all well and fair, because the object of all fiction is to suspend disbelief in the reader and take them on an exciting, memorable journey. Mixing genres has been successfully done by many writers with many stories over time. Here are some of the Slipstreams that made it big:

Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Station Eleven by Emily St, John Mandel

Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

The City & the City by China Mieville

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Her — the movie by Spike Jonze

However, the granddaddy of Slipstream, and one of the early ground breakers, was The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. It’s about a guy who wakes up one morning and finds that he’s turned into a giant insect and has to deal with a situation that truly sucks. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Kill Zoners — Who has heard of the Slipstream style? Has anyone read Slipstream, and what do you think of wildly mixing genres? And has anyone written anything that resembles Slipstream? Let’s get a discussion going and share experiences.

Yes or No Questions in Dialogue

Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/geralt-9301/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=973992">Gerd Altmann</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com//?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=973992">Pixabay</a>The other day, I stumbled across writing advice that was only half-true. The advice said to never use yes or no questions in dialogue. The writer made a valid point that yes/no questions stop the action. True. But that’s only half right.

If the MC asks a yes/no question, the action doesn’t need to stop if it’s in the right context, with body language that screams the opposite, or includes hints the character might be lying. We can also use “Yes/No, but” to maintain pace and the trajectory of the story and to create more conflict.

Let’s look at a few examples. I wrote these quick so no judgments. 😉

“Junior, did you steal another cookie from the jar?”

The little boy dragged the back of his wrist across chocolate-covered lips. “No, Mama.”

The story continues because the kid’s body language tells us he’s lying.

Big Dan stroked his daughter’s back. “Are you excited to marry Tommy?”

Yes, but not today.”

“We’re in the church!”

The wedding song blared from the speakers.

“Tell me what you want to do, honey.”

“Hide?”

There’s more to that story, right?

“Why didn’t you come home last night, sis?”

“I stayed at a hotel.”

“Which one?”

“Why? What’s it matter?”

“Jason didn’t come home, either.”

“You think I slept with your husband?”

“Did you?”

“Are you seriously asking me if I’m having an affair with Jason?”

Notice how she responds with another question? Sounds a lot like guilt. Or maybe it’s anger. We’ll keep reading to find out.

“Is that blood?”

Silent, he wiped his cheek.

“You promised me.”

He strode into the kitchen, with the nag on his heels. “I did not kill our babysitter.”

“Then where is she? I won’t go through it again. The cops, the jury, the reporters.” A continual tap of her foot clenched his jaw. “If you’re innocent, give me the basement key.”

No.” He sniggered. “But it’s about time I gave you a private tour.”

Will he kill her, or is he innocent? We’ll keep reading to find out.

This last example I borrowed from one of my novels. The “no, but” construction is in bold. For clarity, Poe is a crow.

“You bought Poe a necklace,” he said as a statement, not a question. “After eleven p.m.”

“Yep.”

“And you paid for the necklace?”

“Cost me three hundred bucks.”

“If you bought the jewelry, you could produce a receipt. Correct?”

Crap. “Not exactly.”

“Be honest with me. Did you steal the necklace?”

“No, sir. I swear I didn’t. Ask Poe if you don’t believe me.”

“Perhaps I should rephrase.” Praying hands tapped his lips. “Was the store open when you allegedly paid for the jewelry?”

I picked at my cuticles. “No, but I swear I didn’t steal it.”

“And the reason you couldn’t wait for the store to reopen is…?”

“Because Pissy Pants over there”—I jutted a thumb at the little diva—“wouldn’t even gimme twenty-four hours. If anyone should be in trouble, it’s him. Unless you condone blackmail?”

He rocked back on his heels. “Blackmail?”

So, can we use a yes/no question in dialogue? Absolutely… if it leads to more conflict. Otherwise, we’ve wasted precious real estate.

Thoughts? There is a ton of terrible or incomplete writing advice online. Have any new ones to share? Please explain why the advice doesn’t make sense.

One Word Holds Power

Have you ever received a text from a family member or close friend and knew something was wrong even though the words indicated the opposite?

I’ll show you what I mean with a real-life example.

The Kid planned to drive up to deliver ducks to the couple who lives at the top of our mountain, off-the-grid in a year-round camp surrounded by tall pines, oak, birch, and maple trees. By 10 a.m. that morning, we still hadn’t heard from The Kid, which is unusual. He’s always been an early riser.

So, I shot him a text. “Still planning to come up today?”

Several minutes dragged by before he responded. “Yes.”

My intuition tapped me on the shoulder. Something’s wrong. He never responds with one word. Besides, a simple yes didn’t give me enough information. If he brought all three grandkids, I would need to plan to feed six rather than three.

Plus, I let my little fur-babies run around my office during the day, but our grandchildren have a habit of leaving doors open. So, when they visit, it’s safer to leave them in their guinea pig habitat.

I texted back, “The Joe and the chicks coming, too?”

Another long pause. “Just The Joe.”

“You okay? You sound… I dunno… off.”

The Kid knows I’m tuned into him. Over the years I’ve learned to trust my intuition, and it has never failed me. Lying would be pointless.

“I was chasing ducks.”

“Okay, cool,” I texted, but something told me “chasing ducks” wasn’t the full story. Regardless, I didn’t want to push the issue via text. “I get the feeling you won’t be staying long.”

“We can stay for a bit.” The five-minute pause seemed to last twenty. “The longer the better. LOL”

And there it was—the first hint of the real reason he seemed off. Which he’d spill in person. It’s much harder to hide behind a false façade while staring into a concerned parent’s eyes. Though I’d never want to come across as pushy—he is a grown man, after all—I can’t take it when my kid is hurting. I don’t care how old he is. I’ll always be fiercely protective of his beautiful heart.

I do have a point to all this.

With that one simple word—Yes—I, the reader, knew to pay attention. That yes held power. That yes held unlimited power, more powerful than if he’d written an entire paragraph.

Writers should do the same. It’s a simple but effective way to add tension to a scene, cause a disturbance, and cue the reader to pay attention. The one-word, staccato sentence is a tool used for emphasis.

Run. Now.

It’s short and to the point. It calls attention to itself and exploits a reader’s emotions. Varying sentence structure holds a reader’s attention.

The following example looks like an exaggeration, but I once had to critique the first few pages of a novel written just like it.

As he stared at me, I could not look away. As I moved around the room, his stare held me hostage. As he moved closer, I told him to stop. As I backed away, he kept coming.

Every sentence began with “As” for three, never-ending pages. Not only is it grueling and repetitive, it’s annoying to read.

Rewrite:

His wolf-like stare held me hostage. Stop. Please stop. He moved closer. I backed away. Dear God, no. Not again. My spine hit the wall, my fingers searching behind me for the doorframe.

See how much more immediate the second example sounds? We don’t want to overdo it, but nothing can replace a well-placed staccato sentence here and there.

Writers have access to a plethora of writing tips, but it’s important not to overlook simple ways to hone our craft, like the act of reading and sentence structure.

Thoughts? Let’s discuss. 

 

Warriors battle a ruthless animal trafficking ring in Yellowstone. They will protect the sacred lineage of American Buffalo by any means necessary.

Even murder.

Download a sample on Amazon

 

Dealing with Doubt Words of Wisdom

In my experience doubt is one of the greatest obstacles writers face. Doubt that you have the chops to finish your latest book. Doubt that you have the skills to even start. Doubt when you find yourself stuck, whether you are an outliner or a discovery writer, or a hybrid of both.

Doubt and I are old acquaintances—it wasn’t until I had been studying and practicing the craft of fiction writing that I began to overcome it, but, even then, doubt continued to get in my way.

My late friend and mentor Mary Rosenblum told me in no uncertain terms I needed to figure out a way to vanquish the inner “demon” of self-doubt or I would never progress as a writer. She told me one of the most talented writers she ever knew had been crippled by intense self-doubt after initially writing some promising work and had not written anything since. I took her advice to heart.

It took me several years after her urging to finally begin to get a handle on overcoming doubt, but I did.

I learned you never banish doubt completely, but rather, you figure out how to write and finish despite the doubt. Today’s Words of Wisdom looks at doubt and how to overcome it before and during writing, as well as when you are stuck not knowing what happens next, with excerpts from James Scott Bell, Joe Moore and PJ Parrish.

Another reason excellent writers experience doubt is, ironically, excellence itself. Because these authors keep setting their standards higher, book after book, and know more about what they do each time out. That has them wondering if they can make it over the bar they have set. Many famous writers, unable to deal with this pressure, have gone into the bar itself, and stayed late.

Jack Bickham, a novelist who was even better known for his books on the craft, put it this way:

“All of us are scared: of looking dumb, of running out of ideas, of never selling our copy, of not getting noticed. We fiction writers make a business of being scared, and not just of looking dumb. Some of these fears may never go away, and we may just have to learn to live with them.”

Yes, you learn to live with them, but how? The most important way is simply to pound away at the keyboard.

You write.

As Dennis Palumbo, author of Writing from the Inside Out, put it, “Every hour you spend writing is an hour not spent fretting about your writing.”

If a writer were to tell me he never has doubts, that he’s just cocksure he’s the Cheez-Wiz of literature, I know I will not want to read his work. That’s why I think doubts are a good sign.

They show that you care about your writing and that you’re not trying to skate along with an overinflated view of yourself.

The trick is not to let them keep you from producing the words.

Don’t ever let the waves of doubt stop you. Body surf them back to shore, let the energy of them flow through your fingertips. That’s the only real “secret” to this game.

James Scott Bell—July 10, 2011

 

So when you get stuck, what can you do? Here are some suggestions that I’ve used. Perhaps they’ll help you, too.

  • Change your writing environment. I have a home office with a desktop PC. I also have a laptop. Sometimes I need different surroundings so I grab my laptop and move to another room or outside. Just the act of breathing fresh air can fire up your brain.
  • Listen to music. Often I write to background music, usually a movie score (no distracting lyrics). But sometimes setting down in front of my stereo and rocking out to my favorite group can clear my head and refresh my thoughts.
  • Get rid of distractions. TV, email, instant and text messages, phone calls, pets, and the biggest offender of them all: the Internet. Get rid of them during your writing time.
  • Stop writing and start reading. Take a break from your writing and read one of your favorite authors. Or better yet, pick something totally out of your wheelhouse.
  • Don’t decide to stop until you’re “inspired”. I’ve tried this. It won’t work.
  • Open a blank document and write ANYTHING. It’s called “stream of consciousness”. It worked for James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust. It can work for you.
  • Write through it. Beginners sit around and hope for a solution to come to them in their dreams. Professionals keep writing. The solution will come.
  • Finally, do something drastic. Bury someone alive. Works every time.

Joe Moore—July 20, 2016

Maybe there are writers out there who never have any doubts. Maybe Nora Roberts or Joyce Carol Oates never break out in a cold sweat at night. But I suspect there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of you out there who are in the same sweaty boat as I am. Because getting published is the easy part. (I know, those of you who aren’t don’t want to hear that, but it’s true.) Staying published is what’s tough. That means consistently writing good books that people want to read. And did I mention trying to always become a better writer?

Here’s Chuck Wendig on the subject of self-doubt. He’s my favorite go-to-guy when I am feeling alone and fraudulent:

You’re sitting there, chugging along, doing your little penmonkey dance with the squiggly shapes and silly stories and then, before you know it, a shadow falls over your shoulder. You turn around.

But it’s too late. There’s doubt. A gaunt and sallow thing. It’s starved itself. It’s all howling mouths and empty eyes. The only sustenance it receives is from a novelty beer hat placed upon its fragile eggshell head — except, instead of holding beer, the hat holds the blood-milked hearts of other writers, writers who have fallen to self-doubt’s enervating wails, writers who fell torpid, sung to sleep by sickening lullabies.

Suddenly Old Mister Doubt is jabbering in your ear.

You’re not good enough.

You’ll never make it, you know.

Everyone’s disappointed in you.

Where are your pants? Normal people wear pants.

You really thought you could do it, didn’t you? Silly, silly penmonkey.

And you crumple like an empty Chinese food container beneath a crushing tank tread. 

There’s no easy way to cope with this. But here are some things I have found that have helped me over the decades. If you have some remedies, pass them on. We can all use the help.

  1. Talk to other writers. Be it through a critique group or at a writer’s conference, or just hanging out at blogs like this — make human contact with those who understand. One of the hardest lessons I learned was that, although writing is a solitary pursuit, it’s not a good idea to go it alone.
  2. Get away from your WIP.  Which is NOT to say you should abandon writing for days or weeks because it you do that you lose momentum and risk being exiled from that special universe you are creating in your head.  But it is a good idea, when you a stuck or in deep doubt, to feed your creative engine. Go for a good hike (leave early and take the dog). Read a good book or better yet some poetry. Go see some live theater  or a concert. You will come back refreshed. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle: You can sit there and stare at 19-across for days and not get it, but if you put the puzzle down for awhile then pick it up, you see the pattern and can move on.
  3.   Stay in the moment.  Don’t project your fears forward or your regrets backward: What if I spend the rest of the year working on this story and it turns out to be a heaping pile of poop? What if no editor ever buys it? What if I only sell four copies on Amazon? If only I had started doing this when I was younger or before I had kids (or fill in the blank) I might be successful by now.  As a therapist friend of mine once told me: If you stand with one leg in the past and the other in the future, all you’ll do is piss on your present.    
  4. Don’t be afraid to fail.  Because you will, at some time and at some level. If you spend all your energy worrying about this, you will never be a writer. Failure can often lead you in new directions. Margaret Atwood took a vacation to work on her novel but six months later, she realized the story was a tangled mess with “badly realized characters” and she abandoned it. But soon after that, she began her dystopian masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale. As she put it:

Get back on the horse that threw you, as they used to say. They also used to say: you learn as much from failure as you learn from success.

PJ Parrish—March 14, 2017

***

  1. Is doubt an obstacle you face as a writer?
  2. Do you feel doubt when starting or finishing a project?
  3. If you get stuck while writing, is doubt part of your creative struggle to unstick your writing? What techniques do you use to overcome doubt and unblock your writing?
  4. How do you overcome overcome self-doubt in general regarding your writing?

How To Use White Space

When I was first learning the craft, I studied many novels, searching for how the author drew me in, held me in suspense, and propelled me to turn the page. Still do. 😉 One of the things I noticed was their use of white space — the blank field around the words and paragraphs.

White space can help create drama, emotion, or add a quiet pause before the storm hits. With so many “rules” or guidelines, sometimes white space can get overlooked. Yet it’s a powerful tool when used with intent.

Let’s look at a few examples. The first two are from our own James Scott Bell.

Last Call from JSB:

“Yo,” she said. “Go back to your table, okay?”

He stiffened and his smile melted into his beard. “Real friendly.” He shook his head as he went back to his table. He turned his laptop around then sat with his back to her.

Just like the rest of the world.

Long Lost from JSB:

With the wind blowing outside, Stevie fell into a calm sleep. Deep like the desert night.

He woke up with a rough hand over his mouth. Pressing him down. Maybe it was Robert playing a game. But it wasn’t. It was something big.

A monster.

 

The eye is drawn to the last line in both examples. They’re sharp and dramatic when sectioned by white space.

In the Eyes of the Dead by Jordan Dane:

I wanted to fight it, but I couldn’t. The hopelessness of becoming a victim rushed over me like a floodgate opening. I nearly choked on the magnitude of it. Images of my ordeal bombarded me. I caught glimpses of another face. It all happened too fast, I wasn’t sure I could retain what I’d seen.

Just like last time.

Again, Jordan could’ve set the last line in the same paragraph, but it would lose its punch there.

We can also use white space to break up dialogue.

Here’s an example from Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman:

“Then you know that if I was a witch, I could turn myself into something else. Into a burrowing owl. I could fly out the smoke hole and go away into the night.”

Silence.

“But I am not a witch. I am just a man. I am a singer. A yataalii. I have learned the ways to cure. Some of them. I know the songs to protect you against a witching. But I am not a witch.”

See how “silence” added to the drama? Had he put all the dialogue into one paragraph, it wouldn’t be as effective, even with an intriguing conversation.

The Killing Song by PJ Parish:

The cold nub that had formed in my gut was growing. I was never one to trust vague feelings. I was a reporter and trained to believe only what I could see, what I could prove.

But the feeling rising up and putting a choke hold on my heart now was real.

Mandy was gone.

That last line smacks you in the face — because it’s separated by white space.

Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes by Karin Slaughter:

The line finally moved, and Julia went into the first stall. She felt her pager vibrate as she started to unbutton her jeans. She didn’t scroll the number right away. She sat down on the toilet. She looked up at the ceiling. She looked at the posters taped to the back of the stall door. She finally looked down at the pager. She pressed the button to scroll the number.

222.

Her heart broke into a million pieces.

222.

Julia looked up, trying to keep her tears from falling. She sniffed. She counted to a slow one hundred. She looked down again, because maybe she was wrong.

222.

 

The repetition also draws you in. If the author were to continue too long, the rhythm would lose its value. When done with intent, it’s dramatic and effective.

The last example is from my new thriller, Savage Mayhem (releases once my designer completes my cover).

A hair-raising screech stopped me mid-stride, my heartbeat quickened to a fast pitter-patter, pitter-patter, pitter-patter. Quaking aspen leaves trembled as we passed. Night owls slalomed through the trees, oarlike wings emitting a whoosh with each stroke. To my left, sticks crunched under heavy paws. Or hooves.

Bear?

Moose?

Wolf?

Here, I used white space for a dramatic pause and to draw attention to each individual threat. Which allows the reader to wonder. I also used Onomatopoeia words to deepen the scene.

White space can help fix long, rambling passages of text, pacing issues, and story rhythm. It’s a tool we should never overlook. Use the precious real estate to your advantage.

With the exception of mine (this is NOT a shameless plug), I recommend all these books. They’re fabulous.

Have you read any of them? Did you notice the white space while reading? Do you pay attention to white space in your writing?

Find the Right Critique Group for You

Photo credit: Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Recently Jim Bell suggested I write a post about critique groups. Thanks for the idea, Jim!

What should a new writer look for?

New writers need three things:

  1. Accountability – A critique group motivates you to write consistently. It’s human nature that you’re more apt to meet someone else’s deadline than one you impose on yourself. A frequent comment: “If I didn’t have to turn in pages for my critique group, I wouldn’t have gotten around to writing.”
  2. Readers – Unless you’re keeping a journal only for yourself, you eventually want others to see your work. Critique groups are good first readers for a new writer.
  3. Feedback – The most important job of a critique group is to improve your writing. They spot trouble areas, inconsistencies, lack of clarity. The writer is often too close to the work to see problems. Critique groups offer objectivity. They make suggestions such as how to strengthen prose, what parts to cut or expand, ways to make characters come to life, etc.

When I was starting out, critique groups filled all three needs for me. Thirty-five years later, I’m pretty good about #1 (accountability) but I still need #2 and 3, readers and feedback. Currently I participate in two groups, one with long-time author friends, the other on Zoom with writers scattered around the country I’ve never met in person.

“But I’m not a joiner.” If you can effectively work alone, that’s great. But consider a critique group or beta readers for feedback before submitting for publication.

How to find a critique group:

  • Take writing classes – My first group grew out of students I met at creative writing classes at the community college.
  • Join a writing organization – Check out this list. Some are generalized with a broad interest range that includes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting, journalism, memoirs, etc. Other groups focus on specific genres like romance, mystery, historical, children’s, Christian, etc. Most organizations offer active programs to help you meet other writers in your area of interest.
  • Attend a conference – Critique groups sometimes form among attendees.
  • Ask local bookstores and libraries – They frequently serve as meeting places for critique groups.
  • Search online – Meetup.com, Google, social media, etc.

How to set up a new group:

  • Gather six to eight other writers. That’s enough to give a variety of viewpoints. More than that, it’s difficult to review everyone’s submission in a timely way. If possible, find writers with more experience than yourself who are willing to help those with less experience.
  • Decide how often to meet–weekly, bi-weekly, monthly.
  • Find a convenient location, such as members’ homes, coffeeshops, bookstores, the library, etc.
  • Meet remotely via Zoom, Facetime, etc.
  • Agree on rules. Basic guidelines are: be respectful, courteous, helpful; don’t interrupt and don’t be snarky.

Join an existing group:

Some groups are open to newcomers. Others are by invitation only. You may need to submit a writing sample, or be recommended by someone already in the group.

Two common formats:

  1. Read pages aloud to the group. This takes time and limits the number of submissions that can be reviewed. But it also helps newer writers hear problems they don’t see on the page.
  2. Submit pages in advance, then discuss at the meeting.

Generally, the author remains silent during discussion. Afterwards, they may ask questions or comment.

Authors frequently want to defend their work or explain what they really meant, which is not necessarily what is actually written on the page/screen. Remember, when the story is published, the author isn’t there to explain. The writing must stand on its own.

Is this the right group for me?

  • Trial run – Ask if you can attend a couple of meetings (in person or by Zoom) to get to know other members. You can tell a lot by how respectfully they treat each other. Strong suggestion to newcomers: listen more than talk.
  • Compatible chemistry – Can you work with these people? Can they work with you? A group that writes gritty noir is not useful for a children’s picture book author.
  • Tone – Lively discussions are not the same as pointless arguments.
  • Attitude – Are they helpful and encouraging? Do they actively look for solutions to problems? Do authors go home excited and energized?

Danger Signs to Watch For:  

  • Poisoners – Some groups are just plain toxic. They exist to savage someone else’s writing to make themselves feel superior. Avoid such people at all costs. They never help and destroy your enthusiasm and confidence.
  • Divine Emperor – Someone appoints themselves the ruler of the group, delivering proclamations straight from Mount Sinai. When you’re not experienced, it’s easy to be intimidated by those who know more than you do. But what often masquerades as “knowledge” are simply arbitrary rules.
  • Monopolizer – This person demands attention. Drop everything right now and focus on my story because the world really does revolve around me. All take and no give doesn’t work in critique.
  • Closed Ears – This writer won’t listen to suggestions. S/he repeats the same problems month after month.
  • Frustrated Actor – This writer wants applause from an audience. S/he wants affirmation, not constructive criticism.

What Are Potential Problems?

  • In groups of new writers, sometimes the ignorant are leading the uninformed. Educate yourself by reading craft books and articles and taking classes. Expand your knowledge at the same time you practice writing.
  • Personality clashes may arise. Try talking one on one to work out your differences outside regular meetings. Maybe you can agree to disagree and keep discussion civil. If you can’t, one of you might have to find a different group.
  • Lack of participation. Some people rarely submit and offer lots of excuses. They’d rather talk about writing than write. Some submit and accept feedback, but don’t comment on others’ submissions. A group only works with active give and take.

Here are a few additional thoughts from one of my early guest posts for TKZ.

 I’m a big fan of critique groups because the ones I’ve been in included good people who are eager to learn and are glad to help others. YMMV. If you had a bad experience in the past, consider trying again with different people.

We all start out as beginners. Learning to write is intimidating. Sharing what you write with other can be scary.

But it can also lead you to rewards you never imagined.

~~~

TKZers: Are you in a critique group? What helps you? What causes problems?

~~~

Critique groups contributed invaluable help to every book in Debbie Burke’s Tawny Lindholm Thriller series. Available here.

First Page Critique – The Mark

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Good morning and welcome to the first page submission from another Brave Author who says the page is in the crime genre. Read and enjoy then we’ll discuss.

  The Mark

Pink hair, tattooed hands, open casket. That’s all he remembered. Well, not quite all he remembered. He remembered his cell phone which he had forgotten to turn off, violating the sacred service with its demand for attention.  Afterwards, standing at her gravesite, he looked skyward, muttered a few obscene words and prayed for forgiveness. 

Hanagan sat and sipped the espresso. The wall mounted tv in the bar was showing early morning futures charts on the screen. Hanagan was a mid level options trader for a company called Maverick Trading. He’d had a good year trading other people’s money which was why he sat in this coffee bar waiting for someone named De Vries.  The man had called him minutes ago, apologizing for his tardiness and promised he’d be there within 15 minutes.

Jensen De Vries had spent all night laboring on a 60 by 80 painting of an early 20th century abstract. Several shades of blue juxtaposed with bright iridescent streaks of red. Blackened blocks of burnt sienna guided the eyes to the hero marks that often identify the style of a painter. He moved his eyes back and forth from the canvas to a photo now projected onto his laptop screen. The photo of the twentieth century abstract that was last reported to be in a family estate somewhere in Portugal.

The coffee shop was not far from where De Vries painted. A rent controlled studio in a warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen.  De Vries entered the bar and scanned the crowd looking for a bright blue blazer that would identify Hannagan.

He began to approach the man but hesitated. Another person had just sat down to join Hannagan. A woman he did not trust.

Earlier that day, in the suburbs of Greenwich, Connecticut,Maria De Vries stood in a darkened living room holding a gun. The room smelled like bleach, as if a crew had cleaned up any incriminating evidence.  She turned towards the seated man and began to tell him what she was going to do and the order in which it had to be done. He didn’t like her patronizing tone, but kept his thoughts under control. He swiveled clockwise to a side table and selected a cigar from a humidor. He raised the cold cigar to his nose and inhaled the earthy aroma.

~~~

Let’s get to work.

Brave Author, your writing is solid and skillful. Your descriptions are vivid and full of excellent sensory detail. I can immediately visualize the body in the casket and hear the rude intrusion of a cell phone at a funeral. Iridescent red, blue, and burnt sienna are strong visuals. The smells of bleach and an unlit cigar are palpable.

Now the nitty gritty:

The first scene is in an unspecified cemetery and the point-of-view (POV) character isn’t identified. It’s in italics, indicating perhaps a preface.

The next scene switches to a coffee bar and an options trader named Hannagan (BTW, Hannagan is spelled two different ways) told through his POV. He’s waiting to meet an artist Jensen De Vries who’s late for their appointment.

Suddenly the location and POV switches to De Vries working on a painting in his studio in Hell’s Kitchen. He then heads for his appointment at the coffee bar with Hannagan but hesitates because he sees Hannagan with a woman he doesn’t trust.

Then the reader is yanked to earlier that day, in yet different location in Connecticut, with another new character, Maria De Vries, holding a gun on yet another new unnamed character who’s about to smoke a cigar and in whose POV we are now.

That’s SEVEN characters, FIVE location changes, and FOUR points of view in a single page. 

This jumps around like a 30-second film trailer for an action movie that might have a title like Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Each scenario by itself could be compelling: a funeral; a mysterious meeting with a stranger; a woman who can’t be trusted; a woman (not sure if she’s the same woman) holding a gun at what may be a murder scene. Each one raises questions the reader wants answers to.

Yes, an author needs to instantly grab attention. But a precisely aimed bullseye is more effective than wildly scattered birdshot.

Trying to cram in too much information all at once overwhelms, confuses, and frustrates the reader. S/he feels whiplashed and never has a chance to become grounded in any single character, storyline, time period, or setting. 

My strong suggestion is to pull back and look at the totality of your story. The connections among these scenes will undoubtedly be revealed later. Each has intriguing potential. But, as presented in this first page, they’re a discombobulated jumble.

Ask these questions:

  1. Which one of these characters is the most compelling?
  2. Which one of the conflicts makes the best launch point for this book?
  3. Which situation will make a reader the most curious to turn the page?

Assessments like this are difficult to make when an author is too close to the story. Don’t feel bad–we’ve all been there.

If you’re unsure how to answer the questions, find an editor, critique group, or beta reader to objectively review the book.

Listen to their feedback carefully. What scenario captures their attention the most? Which elements appeal to them and why? Then decide on the best time, place, space, and character to kick off the story.

When you rewrite the first scene, slow it way down. Give the reader a chance to explore that world, form an impression of the POV character, and become curious about the conflict/problem.

Your quick thumbnail character sketches are well done but too short. The descriptions are vivid and full of sensory detail. The situations are intriguing. Expand on them. You don’t need to rush so much. There’s a whole book ahead to add more plot lines, characters, and complications.

Brief, punchy scenes with jump cuts can be effective but not before the foundation has been established and the reader is firmly enmeshed in the story.

Brave Author, your skills are good, and you have all the necessary elements for an exciting crime story. I’m sure you’ll find the right beginning that fascinates readers so much that they’ll want to keep turning pages. Best of luck!

~~~

TKZers, what suggestions do you have for this Brave Author? Which of these scenarios strikes you as the best place to start?

~~~

Please visit DebbieBurkeWriter.com to enter a drawing for a Legacy Wood Deep Fake Sapphire Pen (hand-crafted by Steve Hooley) and a BONUS FREE Short Story when you join my reading group.

How To Write a Dance Scene

I was eavesdropping on Quora again and stumbled across a thread about how to write a dance scene. Because I included a sensual dance in the WIP, the question piqued my interest. I’ve written dance scenes before, but my characters spent most of their time spying on bad guys. Nothing like the scene I wrote in the WIP (which also ties into the plot).

The writers who responded on Quora had such great advice, I had to share.

Each answer attributed to the writer, of course.

Original question: How can you describe a dance in writing?

Emma Thomas, Novelist wrote:

Here’s two examples of how not to do it.

She stepped onto the floor and awed them all with her dancing.

Under-descriptive. Dancing is such a physical and emotional movement that you have to balance those two in your writing and neither happened here (Sue: She means in the above example).

She gazed across the lacquered wooden tiles and, with a sudden burst of courage that she hadn’t known she’d possessed, stepped onto the dance floor. As the thrumming rhythm of classical music whispered into her ears, she began to dance.

Sliding her right foot back and the other one forward, she dropped low so that her dress brushed the ground, then sprang back up again, so quickly that she got whiplash. She threw her arms out and waved them from side to side, perfectly in tune with the beat, before jumping into the air. Her dress spun around her and for a moment it felt like she was flying … then the ground was beneath her again.

That hurt as much to write as it did to read. I shouldn’t be telling the reader each one of the movements that our dancer makes, unless I want an incredibly monotonous one-hundred page instruction manual on how to jump up and down and fling your hands in the air, like what the MC is doing here. Did you catch that? Possibly not; it sounded like it had taken an hour for her to dance when it was really just a split-second.

When you write about someone dancing, make sure that it’s obvious. It’s okay to say the word “dance.” Not everything has to be a ten-page description — but not everything can be a one-word summary, either. Tie in enough of the surroundings to establish a mood and a sense of place. Lastly, make sure that the dance conveys what you want it to — if it’s careless, make it sound careless. If it’s more meaningful, make it sound like that.

Let’s try this again.

She was dancing. Arms flailing in the sky above her, she whirled around and whooped her happiness into the sweat-stained air. Foot forward. Back. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done this — why had she ever stopped? A hand grabbed hers and she was swung backward, dipped low, then soaring into the air, the flashing colors momentarily blinding her … she touched ground again and skidded to a smiling, breathless halt.

That’s a rough paragraph but it conveys what it needs to. It established a sense of place, action, and a connection with the dancer. Not under-descriptive or over-descriptive, just effective.

Aaaand that’s it. Hope it helped.

Shreya Pandey wrote:

Do not describe each and every dance step in detail. It’ll get complex and it’ll sound very mechanical. Describe one step, then follow it up by describing how a character felt while they did it. Do they feel dizzy? Happy? Feel an adrenaline rush? Feel scared?

Describe what they see. Does the room start to spin? Do they see the audience looking at them in awe? Describe the way their body moves. Is it effortless? Are they having trouble remembering the steps? Is any part of their body sore?

Describe the atmosphere. Are they dancing at a party? What kind of music is playing in [t]he background? What kind of beats does it have? Can they fee the bass thumping through their body? Is it a popular song? How many people are there? Are they dancing in a crowd, or alone on a stage? What are they wearing?

Give meaning to the dance. It must be significant if you are introducing it in your text. Why is it significant? Is it about how liberated, happy and care free the character feels when they dance? Is it an intimate dance sequence the character shares with someone they love? Does the dance bring back memories? Is it demonstrating their hard work? Is it something they are doing to lose some steam? Do they have a purpose behind it?

The dance scene is always more than just the movement of the character’s body. It is significant to the plot in some way. You need to subtly highlight that significance. At most, if it isn’t anything serious, it can be used to manipulate the reader’s senses. Make them feel, hear, touch, smell, move, see, etc. Transport them. Make them feel as if they are dancing, or as if they are the audience and they are watching someone dance from up close. Writing the perfect atmosphere perfectly is the key.

And my favorite answer…

James Sams, Writer/Editor wrote:

I’d like to caution you against “over describing”. Books are not movies. We can see every step of the Tango in a movie, but no one wants to read what every step is. If you write things like…

“He moved his left foot backward in a smooth motion, sliding across the slick floor. She slid her right foot forward, chasing his retreating foot with hers, like a fox on the hunt. Dipping forward and looking into her eyes, his fingers tightened on her ribs as his left foot came forward again, surprising her foot and chasing it back. They stopped, toe to toe, and he pulled her hips in close to his.

Threatening to brush his lips against hers, he looked to the left, and then to the right. She mimicked him, turning her head opposite. To the right, then to the left.

He pushed her away as though she were too terrible, yet to[o] wonderful, to be near, yet he held on to her left hand with his right, catching her as their arms pulled taut and spinning her out and away. Then he reeled her back in, unable to give her up.

She fell into him, his strong arms wrapping her tight, protecting her before casting her out again.”

… you can get away with it for a paragraph, maybe two. Even with the nice similes and small details, it will soon become agony for a reader to get through. You have become a puppet master, forcing the reader to imagine each foot, each hand, each head motion exactly the way you want it to be. Readers don’t like that. They like to use their imaginations. They want you to give them a coloring book outline and then hint at what colors they should use when they color it in with their imagination.

To give them those subtle colors, only give sweeping descriptions, and add in the senses. Put in the emotions, even if they are only faux representative ones [that] describe the types of movement.

The best thing you can do with a dance, is keep it short, at least in your description. Focus on the characters’ feelings, fears, hopes and thoughts, and then come back for another quick description. If you took the dance I wrote above and stretched it out for the full dance, describing every move in detail, I guarantee even an editor will begin skipping over it as they read. Even if you don’t give every little dance step, it will be too long and people will just let their eyes slide over it, looking for the place you stop describing and get back to the story.

Don’t be afraid to use a dance, just remember, readers are reading for the characters and their thoughts, feelings, and stories. The descriptions, backgrounds, clothes, etc. need to always take a back seat.

I hope that helped.

What do you think, TKZers? Have you written a dance scene? If so, did you follow these guidelines? Any other tips to share?

Novella Words of Wisdom

I wanted to follow last time’s Words of Wisdom on short fiction with a Words of Wisdom look at the novella. I’ve written several novellas, and have published three of them, and have been hankering to write another. So, it seemed like the perfect follow up to short stories.

It turned out that Steve Hooley did that, after a fashion, not quite two years ago. His own post had an excellent definition and history of the novella, and then listed bullet points from James Scott Bell’s 2012 post on writing the novella, as well as Jordan Dane’s look at the novella in 2016, as well two points from a 2015 Joe Moore post.

After some thought, I decided it would still be worth giving Steve’s, Jim’s and Jordan’s posts the full Words of Wisdom treatment, with excerpts from each for discussion. I hope you will find this return to the novella not too soon. Certainly it’s a perennial favorite of mine.

Definition

The word “novella” is the feminine form of “novello,” Italian (masculine) for “new.”

The novella has been described as “a short novel or a long short story.” Its length is listed as 10,000 – 40,000 words (some sources say 20,000 – 50,000 or even 15,000 – 60,000). The novella usually has a single plotline, is focused on one character, and “can be read in a single day.” It may or may not be divided into chapters, and white space is traditionally used to divide sections.

Examples of novellas that used chapters:

  • Animal Farm – George Orwell
  • War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells

During its history, the novella has been used in different ways. Let’s see if it is the “load-it-up-with-everything compact utility vehicle” or a “fast-sexy-Italian sports car.”

History

The Britannica entry for Novella (summarized) states that the novella originated in Italy during the Middle Ages, where its form was originally based on local events (humorous, political, or amorous). Writers such as Boccaccio, Sacchetti, and Bandello later developed it into a psychologically subtle and structured short tale, using a frame story to unify.

Chaucer introduced it to England with The Canterbury Tales.

During the Elizabethan period, Shakespeare and other playwrights used plots from the Italian novella.

The content and form of these tales influenced development of the English novel in the 18th century, and the short story in the 19th century.

The novella flourished in Germany (known as Novelle) in the 18th, 19th, and 20thcenturies, often contained in a frame story and based on a catastrophic event. It was characterized by brevity, a self-contained plot, and ending with irony, while using restraint of emotion and an objective presentation.

Examples of novellas:

  • Tolstoy – The Death of Ivan Ilich
  • Dostoyevsky – Notes from the Underground
  • Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
  • Henry James – The Aspern Papers

Steve Hooley—April 22, 2022

 

Yes, a novella is obviously shorter than a novel. A rule of thumb puts the novella between 20k and 40k words.

Here are the general guidelines for writing a novella. I say general because, like all writing principles, they are subject to change. But ONLY if you have a good reason for the exception!

  1. One plot

The length of the novella dictates that it have one plot. It’s a too short to support subplots. That doesn’t mean you don’t have plot complications.It’s just that you are doing your dance around one story problem.

  1. One POV

It’s almost always best to stick with one point of view. Both of my novellas, Watch Your Back and One More Lie, are written in first person POV. That’s because you want, in the short space you have, to create as intimate a relationship between the Lead character and the reader as possible.

As indicated earlier, more than one POV is acceptable if you have a reason for including it. And that reason is NOT so you can fill more pages.

A modern master of the novella is, of course, Stephen King. A look at his collection, Different Seasons, reveals three novellas written in first person POV. The exception is Apt Pupil, which is about an ex-Nazi’s influence over a thirteen-year-old boy. The story thus has a reason for shifting between these two points of view. However, I note that Apt Pupil is the longest of these, and I actually suspect it’s over 40k words, making it a short novel.

  1. One central question

There is one story question per novella, usually in the form: Will X get Y?

In Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King, the question is, will the wrongly convicted Andy Dufresne survive in God-awful Shawshank prison?

In The Old Man and the Sea: Will the old fisherman, Santiago, land the big fish?

A Christmas Carol: Will Ebenezer Scrooge get redemption?

  1. One style and tone

There are novels that crack the style barrier in various ways, but a novella should stick to one tone, one style throughout.

In the old pulp days, novellas were common and usually written in the hard boiled style.

My two novellas are done in the confessional style of James M. Cain––the narrator looking back at his past sins, detailing the consequences of same, with a twist ending.

Romance would have a different tone. Ditto paranormal. Whatever the genre, keep it consistent.

The Benefits of the Novella

Digital publishing has brought novellas back into favor. There are some story ideas that don’t merit 90k words, but may be just right for 30k. The suspense story is particularly apt for this form. One of the great masters, Cornell Woolrich, practically made his career on novellas of suspense.

An indie-publishing writer can charge 99¢ – $2.99 for novellas. They can obviously be turned out more quickly than a full length novel.

Some Suggestions for Writing the Novella

  1. Make sure your premise is rock solid

You don’t want to travel down the road of a flabby idea, only to find out after 15k words that it isn’t working. Come up with a premise that creates the greatest possible stress for the Lead character. For example, One More Lie is about a man accused of murdering his mistress. He’s innocent of the crime, but guilty of the adultery. A bit of stress, I’d say.

  1. Write in the heat of passion

Novellas are great for the NaNoWriMos among us. Getting the story down quickly releases that inner creativity we long for. And there won’t be the need for as much revision as in a novel, which has subplot complications to deal with.

  1. Use white space to designate scene changes

Instead of chapters, the novella usually employs white space between scenes. Some writers do break up a novella into sections designated by numbers. That’s a matter of style. Just don’t say “Chapter 1” etc. It’s not necessary and interrupts what should be the flow.

  1. Keep asking, How can it get worse?

Whether your novella is about the inner life of a character (as in The Old Man and the Sea)or the outer life of the plot (as in Double Indemnity) turn up the heat on the character as much as you can.

Think of the novella as a coil that gets tighter and tighter, until you release it at the end.

James Scott Bell—August 12, 2012

 

Challenges of Writing a Shorter Story:

I have always been a novel writer. I never started out on shorter material, thinking it would be easier to write, as some people might believe. In my mind, a shorter story is more challenging. It’s only been this year that I’ve written shorter stories for Amazon Kindle Worlds. My novellas have been 25,000-30,000 words, at my option. That length forced me to change how I write, but I didn’t want my readers to feel that I’ve short-changed their reading experience because my voice or style has been stripped down.

Personal Challenges:

1.) Plots must be simpler – This has taken some new thinking and conceiving of plots in advance while I’m planning my story. More intense story lines with complex layers have to be shed in order to peel back to the essence of a story.

2.) Minimize subplots – Subplots can still be done, but they are more of a challenge, so I try to limit the way I think out a story. The subplot must be integral to the overall story and enhance the pace or suspense.

3.) Setting descriptions and prose must be simplified – Getting straight to the bare emotional elements of a scene or a story will stick with readers and provide them with a solid reading experience, without making them feel that the writing is too sparse. I must be truly selective on what images I choose and the wording I use to create the most impact.

4.) Novellas are like screenplays – My shorter stories are more like screenplays with a focus on dialogue and major plots movements, less on back story and lengthy internal monologue.

5.) Novellas are like the visuals of film – I like this aspect. Give the reader a visual experience as if they are watching a movie. The scenes must have memorable images to tap into their minds quicker, using fewer words to do it.

Jordan Dane—April 21, 2016

***

Thanks for revisiting the novella today. Now it’s your to weigh in.

  1. Do you enjoy reading at the novella length? Do you agree with the definition of novella that Steve shared above?
  2. Do you write novellas? What tips do you have ?
  3. If you do write at the novella length, what challenges have you encountered? How have you overcome them?
  4. Have you published a novella, traditionally or indie? If so, how has it gone? What differences, if any, do you see in how novellas are marketed versus novels?