Some Healthful and Practical Writing Advice

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We here at TKZ care about writers—how they write, of course, but also how they can stay healthy. Today I bring you some venerable wisdom on both counts.

First, on health:

Over at Project Gutenberg I happened upon the definitive treatment of the healthy side of coffee, published in London in 1721, with the snappy title of The Virtue and Use of Coffee With Regard to the Plague, And Other Infectious Distempers. We all know coffee gives you a lift in the morning, among other benefits. But until I read this little book, I had no idea of the number of infirmities a daily cup of joe can overcome. To wit:

[Coffee] cures Consumptions, Swooning Fits, and the Rickets; and it helps Digestion, rarefies the Blood, suppresses Vapours, gives Life and Gayety to the Spirits, prevents Sleepiness after eating, provokes Urine and the Catamena.

It contracts the Bowels, and confirms the Tone of the Parts, being drank after Victuals, provided it be fresh made; for if it stands but two or three Hours, it loseth much of its Virtue. … It is an effectual Remedy against Worms in Children; so that if the Mother drinks frequently of it when she is With Child, the Infant will not be troubled with Worms, during its first Years.

’Tis likewise useful to such as are afflicted with Rheumatick or Gouty Humours. The Dutch Physicians commend the Use of it in Intermitting Fevers, and hold it to be good against Infection; because of the great Refreshment it gives the nobler Parts of the Body, and its sudden Effect upon the Spirits, which are wonderfully recreated by it. And it is apparently the Opinion of all Physicians who have yet wrote concerning the Plague, That such Bodies whose Spirits are the most overcome by Fear, are the most subject to receive Infections. And again, That the Spirits must be refresh’d only by such Liquors, or Preparations, as will not promote Inflammations. And of this nature, say they, is Coffee, which by a right Use supports the vital Flame, and defends the Body from Pestilential Infection. And as such it is generally recommended, as a necessary Drink, at least twice a day; the first thing in a Morning, and at four in the Afternoon.

Got that? Drink coffee first thing in the morning and at four in the afternoon, and your kids won’t get worms.

Now, about writing. Louisa May Alcott wrote this letter sometime in 1878:

I can only say to you as I do to the many young writers who ask for advice—There is no easy road to successful authorship; it has to be earned by long & patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties & trials. Success is often a lucky accident, coming to those who may not deserve it, while others who do have to wait & hope till they have earned it. This is the best sort & the most enduring.

I worked for twenty years poorly paid, little known, & quite without any ambition but to eke out a living, as I chose to support myself & began to do it at sixteen. This long drill was of use, & when I wrote Hospital Sketches by the beds of my soldier boys in the shape of letters home I had no idea that I was taking the first step toward what is called fame. It nearly cost my life but I discovered the secret of winning the ear & touching the heart of the public by simply telling the comic & pathetic incidents of life.

Little Women was written when I was ill, & to prove that I could not write books for girls. The publisher thought it flat, so did I, & neither hoped much for or from it. We found out our mistake, & since then, though I do not enjoy writing “moral tales” for the young, I do it because it pays well.

But the success I value most was making my dear mother happy in her last years & taking care of my family. The rest soon grows wearisome & seems very poor beside the comfort of being an earthly Providence to those we love.

I hope you will win this joy at least, & think you will, for you seem to have got on well so far, & the stories are better than many sent me. I like the short one best. Lively tales of home-life or children go well, & the Youth’s Companion is a good paying paper. I do not like Loring as he is neither honest nor polite. I have had dealings with him & know. Try Roberts Brothers, 299 Washington St. They are very kind & just & if the book suits will give it a fair chance. With best wishes for a prosperous & happy New Year I am your friend

L.M.A.

Questions:

What is your beverage of choice when you write?

Where are you on the “long & patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties & trials” road that we call the writing life?

What part of writing brings you the most joy?

9+

Indie Book Store Confidential

books

Editor’s note: Kris is up in the wilds of Northern Michigan helping her sister Kelly move into a new condo. She is busy painting the kitchen so Kelly is stepping in today. All these stories are true but the customers’ names have been withheld for obvious reasons.

It was a dark and snowy night. I was working the late shift all alone at Horizon Books in Traverse City. The cavernous store was as empty and quiet as Al Capone’s vault. The windows dripped with sweaty heat. Across the street, the red neon sign of the Milk and Honey Ice Cream shop beat blood-red, like a broken heart.

I was leaning on the counter, reading a copy of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I only cracked it open because it was my job to know what’s hot and I always did my job. But I was only twenty pages in and I was already tired of characters named Thomas.

Suddenly, the air turned cold, sashaying over me like a discarded mink stole. I saw a dame standing near the door. Red heels, silk stockings, red skirt and a high-collared leopard fur coat with a matching hat, cocked with sass. She wasn’t young but I could tell she had paid a lot of money to have folks think otherwise.

Her baby blues jumped left and right and her red lips pursed slightly as she approached the counter. I knew what she was going to ask for. I knew because not only is it my job to know what’s hot, I got a knack for knowing exactly what people want.

She was an easy read. Before she ever reached the counter, I discreetly reached into what we at the store called “The Case.” The Case is where we keep the VHS Porn Movie Guide, Cannabis Culture magazines, Naked Art Books, the Karma Sutra, and a handful of other titles low-lifes have a tendency to sticky-finger out the door.

I wrapped my hand around the slick spine of a trade pulp and laid it silently on the counter. The dame blushed and reached her for dough. It cost her sixteen Washingtons, all shades of green, but I had a feeling that she would’ve paid fifty, one dollar for each shade of Grey.
Then she was gone into the white confetti of the Michigan night, just one of a hundred happy Horizon readers, eager to experience literary new worlds.

I was just being introduced to yet another Thomas in Wolf Hall when the door opened again. This time, it wasn’t milk and honey but milk and cookies. Shirley Temple with red hair and Sock Monkey mittens. She could barely see over the counter.

“Do you have Mable Makes a Move by Anne Mazer?”

I love little kids who read. There are so few nowadays. I punched at a keyboard that was so old it looked brushed with fingerprint dust, and scrolled through our 1990s WordStock system for the title. Yeah, the computer’s as old as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but hey, it works. And indie bookstores don’t have much cash flow. Nothing came up. Section 904 -– younger young adult — is not my area of expertise. I’m a hard-boiled kind of clerk.

“Is that part of a series?” I asked.

She gave me the How-dumb-are-you? eye roll. “It’s the Sister Magic series. Book Six. Anne Mazer. M-a-z-e-r.”

Feeling a hundred years old, I strolled to the 904 aisle to get the book for Miss Sassy Pants. But I found myself standing there in a maze of pink and purple books, all with glittery spines and little blonde girls and unicorns on the covers.

“There it is,” the girl said as she snatched the book from the shelf. She was back at the counter with the exact change before I could bag her up.

“You’ll enjoy that book,” I say to make conversation as she counted her pennies.

“It’s not for me,” she said. “It’s for my younger sister. I’m reading The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. It’s very old but holds up well. Thank you.”

I sighed in satisfaction as I watched her go, amazed and hopeful for the next generation. Finding the right book for the right reader is the best part of my job. But that’s only part of what goes on in an independent bookstore.

Kelly posing with our book HEART OF ICE and a very nice Horizon Books customer

Kelly posing with our book HEART OF ICE and a very nice Horizon Books customer

We all wear many fedoras here. We shelve new arrivals and ship out the flash-in-the pan hardcovers when they fall off the NYT list. We find impossible-to-find out of print titles for discerning readers. We babysit authors for signings, from the local geezer who wrote a fly-fishing guide to the likes of Steve Hamilton and Mardi Link. We tote books to business luncheons, library fund raisers and school carnivals. And yeah, we make coffee, too. Some of us even know latte art.

You learn a lot working behind the scenes. Some things you might not want to know, like what’s really in a Jimmy Dean sausage. But if you want the dope on how you, as an author, can get the “bulge” (advantage) when working with an indie store, well, maybe this hardboiled old bookseller can give you some hints:

1. Don’t piss off the Author Events Manager.
2. Do not bring in consignment books without being asked.
3. When you first approach the Events Manager, please arrive with sufficient materials in hand so the manager knows what the book is about. A copy of the book might be good.
4. Do not call every Sunday and ask how many books you sold this week.
5. Do not show up late for your event. Maybe, just maybe, people might be waiting.
6. Don’t be a stump. Most events will not require you speak to a group. Your first store events will be done at a table, behind a pile of books. STAND UP. Talk to people, and smile. Have postcards or flyers with a synopsis and let the customer walk away and read your stuff. Pretty good chance they will come back and buy. Flyers can be printed at home!
7. If your book is non-returnable, do not expect your bookstore to carry it on any basis but consignment. You bring it in and get paid only if you sell one.
8. If your book is consignment, do not be surprised if your local store refuses to carry it or do an event. It’s just the way it is. However, even if your book is from Createspace, if it has local interest, many stores are very likely to not only carry it, but actively promote it.
9. If you visit your bookstore as a reader, do not ask a salesperson to look up a book and when you find out the store does not have it but can order it for you, do not tell them you are going to go home and order it from Amazon, where you can get it cheaper. You might find yourself with a boot up your butt as you go out the door.
10. Remember that the folks who work in indie bookstores usually are there because they really love books. And writers. But remember that they are human and just might be having a bad day at the latte machine or just had to deal with a really dicey customer.

Which brings me back to that dark and snowy night. It was near closing and I had already done most my duties: run out the stragglers, reshelved the books people sat and read for eight hours, cleaned the coffee bar, took out the trash, and rolled the pennies for the day shift.

I was this close to a clean getaway when another cold blast of air made me look to the front door.

The kid was standing there wet and bedraggled. As he slurped over toward me, I saw the piercing in his nose and the desperation in his eyes.

“I need a book,” he whispered.

I had already locked up The Case and wasn’t about to open it for another would-be weed farmer.

“We got books,” I said.

“I need it for school,” the kid said. “It’s called One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The kid looked like he didn’t have the strength to go get it himself, so I hopped over, came back and slid the slender paperback across the counter. He stared at it like it was a dead walleye.

“Is this hard stuff?” he asked.

“Not too bad.” I paused, feeling a moment of pity for this pathetic creature. “You seen the movie?” I asked.

His eyes brightened. “There’s a movie?”

“Yeah, it’s a little dated but it’s good and has a powerful message on the mental health system in America.”

The light left his eyes.

“Hey, you can’t go wrong with Jack Nicholson,” I said.

“Who’s he?”

I shook my head and picked up the wad of crumbled bills the kid had set on the counter. I bagged up his book and sent him back out into the night, locking the door behind him. I watched him until he disappeared into the swirling snow.

Life wore a man out, wore a man thin. Tomorrow would be a better day.

I pulled the string on the light and the neon – BOOKS! OPEN! – sign went silent.

7+

The Ten Commandments of Writing Failure

new_cokeMr. Donald Keough died this past week. He was 88 and was for a time the number two man at Coca-Cola. This was during an era called the “soda wars.” Keough’s job was to beat back the challenge of Pepsi, which was winning the younger set while Coke was out there trying to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

Keough was also the mastermind of one of the worst product blunders in history.

The original formula Coke (at least the one that came after they took the cocaine out of it) was, and is, the best tasting cola ever. It was Fred Astaire to Pepsi’s journeyman hoofer. It was Spencer Tracy to Pepsi’s high school senior starring in the school production of Our Town.

But for some unknown reason––probably due to overpaid consultants––Keough decided to change the formula, and “New Coke” was born. With great fanfare they rolled it out. And the country responded with a loud, collective YECCH!

So passionate was the push back that only 10 weeks later they brought the old formula back, calling it “Classic Coke.”

timenewcoke-copyAnd sales boomed. The controversy had become national news. The publicity turned out to be priceless.

Some cynics suggested the whole thing had been planned.  If so, it was brilliant. But when asked Keough said, “We’re not that dumb and not that smart.”

Later on, with a bit of self-deprecatory wisdom, Mr. Keough wrote a book called The Ten Commandments for Business Failure. I thought they might also apply to writers, especially now that self-publishing is a viable business option for the “authorpreneur.” Let’s have a look.

1. Quit Taking Risks

Resting on your laurels. Mailing it in. Doing the same old, same old. Maybe that works for a few traditionally published and bestselling authors. But for the true writer, the one who wants to honor the craft and get better, risk taking is part of the plan. Risk in characterization and plot and style and theme. That, in turn, brings a certain excitement to the writing, and you know what? Readers can sense that you’re excited. That makes your writing more appealing.

2. Be Inflexible

“Flexibility,” writes Keough, “is a continual, deeply thoughtful process of examining situations and when warranted, quickly adapting to changing circumstances.” These days, every writer, no matter who butters their bread (i.e., New York or Seattle) needs to be aware of process, changes in the marketplace and distribution channels, and quality improvements.

3. Isolate Yourself

Success in business means being in touch with both workers and customers. A good manager is one who walks around and knows what’s going on in the building and in the satellite offices.

Writers, who by the very nature of the work spend most of their time alone, need to know how to nurture a fan base, work social media wisely, grow an email list and, if contracted with a traditional house, schmooze a little with the increasingly nervous staff therein.

4. Assume Infallibility

You want to fail at this game? Then put a chip on your shoulder and always blame somebody else. Your critique group is a great place to start. Tell them you’ve forgotten more about writing than they’ll ever know. Reject editors’ notes. Then rail at the marketplace when your books don’t sell. Do anything but admit you have weaknesses that need to be addressed.

5. Play the Game Close to the Foul Line

What Keough means by this is that cheating, even a little, will eventually catch up with you. In recent years we’ve seen instances of plagiarism and sock-puppetry snag writers and impact careers. Trust is built up over time but can be lost in an instant. Just ask Brian Williams.

6. Don’t Take Time to Think

The saying in business is “data drives decisions.” You have to stop doing things that don’t lead to profit and do more of the things that do. Which is why traditional publishing companies drop authors who aren’t selling enough books. If you are a midlist writer and that has happened to you, maybe it is time to think … about going indie.

For the full-time indie writer, data is available so you can see what’s selling and how certain promotional ventures pay off. You can keep on developments via many fine blogs (start with The Passive Voice, a good aggregator of publishing news).

When I was running a small business I took time each week for “thinking, planning, and studying.” I called this my “TPS time,” which must never be confused with the TPS in this clip.

7. Put All Your Faith in Experts and Outside Consultants

Writers, more than ever, need to take responsibility for their own careers, no matter what side of the walls of the Forbidden City they’re on. You cannot simply hand everything over to an agent or publisher. You have to know what questions to ask and what terms to refuse. You have to know how to limit a non-compete clause and define “out of print” in a way that is meaningful and fair.

If you self-publish, the worst thing you can do is give some outfit thousands of dollars to get your book out there, and then thousands more for them to “market” your book. You need to know how to do this yourself. You need a plan, like the one I’ve followed and put into a book, which is on special now for 99¢ (you also have to know how to spot a real bargain, and this is one of them).   

8. Love Your Bureaucracy

In business, the bigger the organization the harder it is to move. Traditional publishing has been living this challenge for the past five years. Why only five? Because when digital publishing took off in 2008-09, the main reaction of the Bigs was to see it as a blip, nothing to worry about. They had their comfy bureaucracies.

Oops. Now we see all the changes that have been happening inside the Forbidden City, from the cutting of editorial staff, to tussles with Amazon, to new direct-to-consumer programs. It’s been a difficult transition period and it’s still going on.

The indie writer, on the other hand, can move quickly, but can also fall in love with systems that aren’t ultimately helpful. For example, if you’re spending 80% of your time on social media and 20% on your writing, you’re actually heading backwards.

9. Send Mixed Messages

In business they say “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” As a writer, your main thing is to tell great stories. If you also want to be a bad-boy blogger, or a mouthpiece for some political persuasion, just know that readers will have mixed reactions. If that doesn’t bother you, fine. Just be intentional about it.

I consider myself a writer first and a teacher of writing second. What I do on this blog and in social media is consistent with those two things. That doesn’t mean I won’t share the occasional opinion, or even write a book with opinions in it [drop intriguing teaser about upcoming book here]. But I keep most everything consistent with those two roles.

10. Be Afraid of the Future

Oh, this is major. For 150 years the publishing industry has operated one way. It had a settled distribution system and there were plenty of bookstores for their stock. All that has changed in a flash, leaving agents, editors and trad-based writers wondering how this is all going to shake out. To which the answer is: no one knows. It’s like what old Carson the butler says with a sigh in a recent episode of Downton Abbey: “The nature of life is not permanence, but flux.”

So the successful writer keeps writing and doesn’t let anxiety freeze up his flying fingers. Keep writing, keep trying to get better.

Keough finishes his book bonus eleventh commandment:

11. Lose Your Passion for Work, for Life

You’ve got to find ways to keep the joy in your writing life. That doesn’t mean it’ll always be unicorns and rainbows. A lot of the time it’s tar pits and tsetse flies. But an inner core of love for what you do, and hopes for what you can achieve, will keep the fire burning.

When the flame begins to dim, take a couple of days to relax, regroup, rethink. And reread. Take a few of  your favorite novels off the shelf (or off your ereader) and look at a few chapters. Get caught up again in the romance of great storytelling. Soon enough you’ll be itching to get back to the keyboard.

So here’s today’s command: write your best scene ever. When you’re done, pour yourself a Coke … the real thing. Once in a blue moon the calories won’t hurt you!

26+

“Story. Dammit, story!”

John D. MacDonald typingIn his introduction to Stephen King’s first collection of short stories, Night Shift, John D. MacDonald explains what it takes to become a successful writer. Diligence, a love of words, and empathy for people are three big factors. But he sums up the primary element this way: “Story. Dammit, story!”

And what is story? It is, says MacDonald, “something happening to somebody you have been led to care about.”

I want to home in on that something happening bit. It is the soil in which plot is planted, watered, and harvested for glorious consumption by the reader. Without it, the reading experience can quickly become a dry biscuit, with no butter or honey in sight.

Mind you, there are readers who like dry biscuits. Just not very many.

MacDonald reminds us that without the “something happening” you do not have story at all. What you have is a collection of words that may at times fly, but end up frustrating more than it entertains.

I thought of MacDonald’s essay when I came across an amusing (at least to me) letter that had been written to James Joyce about his novel Ulysses. Amusing because the letter was penned by no less a luminary than Carl Jung, one of the giants of 20th century psychology.   

Here, in part, is what Jung wrote to Joyce (courtesy of Brain Pickings):

I had an uncle whose thinking was always to the point. One day he stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you know how the devil tortures the souls in hell?” When I said no, he declared, “He keeps them waiting.” And with that he walked away. This remark occurred to me when I was ploughing through Ulysses for the first time. Every sentence raises an expectation which is not fulfilled; finally, out of sheer resignation, you come to expect nothing any longer. Then, bit by bit, again to your horror, it dawns upon you that in all truth you have hit the nail on the head. It is actual fact that nothing happens and nothing comes of it, and yet a secret expectation at war with hopeless resignation drags the reader from page to page … You read and read and read and you pretend to understand what you read. Occasionally you drop through an air pocket into another sentence, but when once the proper degree of resignation has been reached you accustom yourself to anything. So I, too, read to page one hundred and thirty-five with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way … Nothing comes to meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it. The book is always up and away, dissatisfied with itself, ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter …

Now, I’m no Joyce scholar, and I’m sure there are champions of Ulysses who might want to argue with Jung and maybe kick him in the id, but I think he speaks for the majority of those who made an attempt at reading the novel and felt that “nothing came to meet them.”

I felt a bit of the same about the movie Cake, starring Jennifer Aniston. When the Oscar nominations came out earlier this year it was said that Aniston was “snubbed” by not getting a nod. I entirely agree. Aniston is brilliant in this dramatic turn.

The problem the voters had, I think, is that the film feels more like a series of disconnected scenes than a coherently designed, three-act story. The effect is that after about thirty minutes the film begins to drag, even though Aniston is acting up a storm. Good acting is not enough to make a story.

Just as beautiful prose is not enough to make a novel. Years ago a certain writing instructor taught popular workshops on freeing up the mind and letting the words flow. The workshops were good as far as they went, but this instructor taught nothing about plot or structure. Finally the day came when the instructor wrote a novel. It was highly anticipated, but ultimately tanked with critics and buyers. And me. As I suspected, there were passages of great beauty and lyricism, but there was no compelling plot. No “something happening to someone we have been led to care about.”

Of course, when beautiful prose meets a compelling character, and things do happen in a structured flow, you’ve got everything going for you. But prose should be the servant, not the master, of your tale.

Let me suggest an exercise. Watch Casablanca again. Pause the film every ten minutes or so, and ask:

1. What is happening?

2. Why do I care about Rick? (i.e., what does he do that makes him a character worth watching?)

3. Why do I want to keep watching?

You can analyze any book or film in this way and it will be highly instructive. You’ll develop a sense of when your own novel is bogging down. You can then give yourself a little Story. Dammit, story! kick in the rear.

14+

The Basics of Endings

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Here at TKZ, we often talk about advanced writing techniques that go well beyond the basics. And because of that, there’s always something here for everyone—wannabes and bestsellers. I have not been writing for very long. My first book was published in 2005. Because of that, I haven’t forgotten what it wdeadend1as like to know little about writing techniques—I had a story or two struggling to get out of my head and that’s all I cared about.

When I consider the many basic tips I wished I’d know back then, I find a strong desire to share what I’ve learned. Not that anything I suggest should be taken for gospel, but some of this stuff actually works.

So many most new writers stumble and fall out of the gate. It’s why so many manuscripts fail to get published or even get considered for publication. And a lack of appreciation for the basics is a huge source of frustration later on when things aren’t clicking. There are no magic beans or silver bullets in dealing with the basics. And despite some urban legends, you won’t be initiated into a secret society of published authors with a special secret handshake. The basics are just that: basic concepts on which to build your story without letting anything block the flow of your creativity.

Today I want to discuss the basics of creating endings.

It’s obvious that a strong ending is as important as a strong beginning. Your reader should never finish your book with a feeling that something was left hanging or unanswered that should have been completed. It doesn’t matter if the ending is expected or unpredictable, it shouldn’t leave the reader with unanswered questions. You don’t want to wind up with a dead ending.

Oftentimes, beginning writers don’t successfully bring all the elements of a story together in a satisfying ending. There’s no real feeling of accomplishment at the end. Your readers have taken part in a journey, and they should feel that they have arrived at a fulfilling destination. This is not to say that every conflict should be resolved. Sometimes an open-ended conflict can cause the reader to ponder a deeper concept, perhaps an internal one. Or a more obvious reason to have an unresolved conflict is to suggest a sequel or series. But something has to occur that will give your readers the feeling of satisfaction that the journey was worth the investment of their valuable time and money.

There are a number of basic methods you can use to make sure your ending is not a dead end. Consider ending with a moment of insight. Your character has gone through an internal metamorphosis that causes her to learn an important life-lesson. Her growth throughout the story leads up to this emotional insight that makes her a better or at least changed individual.

Another technique is to set a series of goals for your main character to work toward and, in the end, are achieved. Naturally, the harder the goals, the more satisfying the ending will be for the character and the reader.

The opposite of this technique is to have the protagonist fail to overcome the main obstacle or goal in the story. The ending may not be a happy one for the character, but he can still experience an insight that is fulfilling for the reader. An example of this would be a character who truly believes that riches bring happiness only to find that true fulfillment comes with the loss of material wealth. In the end, the goals of becoming rich are never met, but he is a better person for it.

You might choose to end your story with irony. This usually occurs when the character sets out to accomplish a goal and expects a certain result only to find in the end the result is exactly the opposite. A con artist tries to pull off a big scam only to be conned and scammed by the victim. There’s an old saying that the easiest sell in the world is to a salesman. Watch The Sting.

How about a surprise ending? There’s probably never been a bigger surprise ending than the movie The Sixth Sense. A kid keeps telling a guy that he can “see dead people”. Well guess what? He sees the guy because the guy is dead. There were audible gasps in the theater at the ending of that one.

As you decide on an ending and begin to write it, think of the summation an attorney makes right before the jury goes into deliberation. The final verdict will be whether the reader loves or hates your book. Or worse, feels nothing. Present a convincing argument, review all your evidence, and walk away knowing you’ve done all you can to get the verdict you want.

——————-

Max is back! Coming this Spring, Maxine Decker returns in THE TOMB from Sholes & Moore. #1 New York Times bestseller Brad Thor calls Sholes & Moore one of his favorite writing teams.

1+

Women Doing Men…and Vice Versa

Got a great fan letter the other day from a lady named Rose O’Malley:

Dear P.J.: My husband is a Stephen King fan. Has read all his books and needed a new author. We went to the bookstore and found your first Louis Kincaid book. Well, he is hooked and is always looking forward to the next one. Here’s the funny part. He doesn’t think women can write as good as men. He thinks P.J. Parrish is a black man. I just found out when I went to your website [that you are women]. This is a good one. I can’t wait to tell him.”

Wish I could say this is rare. But we get a lot of fan letters that come addressed to Mr. Parrish. Whatever the reason — that our protag is a man or our style hardboiled — many of our readers assume we are male.

Now I’m a card-carrying feminist. (Well, I would carry one if there WAS a card). And I used to be miffed about this Mr. Parrish thing, believing that I had a duty to carry the standard for female crime writers. (Maybe I did strike a blow for the crime writing sisterhood in the O’Malley household at least.) But you know, after living fifteen years now as the neuter P.J. Parrish, I no longer take offense. I’ll let reader Wade Beeson, in his email to us, tell you why:

“As a compliment, I could not decide if you were male or female, as you seem sensitive and understanding of both sexes. Thank you for a provocative read.”

The women writing men and men writing women thing is a pretty hackneyed subject. It’s dragged out for at least one conference panel a year. And I suspect the men are as tired of explaining how they “do” women as I am tired of talking about how I “do” men.

It boils down to one thing for me: If you can’t slip into the skin of another sex (or race or anyone outside your paltry sphere of experience) you have no business even trying to write. Failure to write believable characters of ANY kind is the supreme failure of the imagination.

Madame Bovary is one of my favorite books. From the first time I read it, I was awed by Emma. And by her creator’s ability to bring her to such vivid life. At that time in my life, I had just run my Visa up buying a designer purse when my rent was overdue. How did Flaubert understand how I sank to that nadir?

Flaubert “did” women well. But when he said “Bovary, c’est moi,” he wasn’t claiming he was his character. Actually, he once admitted he was terrified by “the need to invent.” (Which I find vastly comforting!) He was a literary magpie who read medical textbooks to write about clubfeet, observed the town folks around him, and when he had to write a chapter about an agricultural fair, actually went to one.

It’s said he probably even stole the whole idea for Bovary from a scandal that was going on near his town at the time, buying into the advice of his friends who told him “write what you know.”

For years after his book came out, he peevishly maintained he just made the whole damn thing up.

But Flaubert WAS Bovary in a very basic way. His powers of observation, his imagination, his sensory antennae, his understanding of human nature — all those things that make up what we call writer’s talent — it all allowed him to inhabit other skins. It allowed him to create one of literature’s greatest female archetypes.

This man-woman thing is swirling in my head today as my sister and I write chapter 38 of our new book. The finish line is in sight, but it has been a hard race. See, this book is the first in a new series featuring a female protagonist. Now we wrote a female protag before when we gave Louis’s lover Joe Frye her own stand alone. But this charcacter isn’t a tough homicide cop like Joe. Gaslight.) Also, she is an unreliable narrator, which is a bitch to write well. It is exhausting being in her head. So for the first time in years, I can sympathize with those of you just starting out — those of you still trying to fit into that new skin. She’s a rich socialite whose life goes to hell when she comes to believe her husband is trying to kill her. (Yeah, I know…Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.)

Our new woman is taking shape. As are the men around her. A whole new world is coming to life every day under my fingertips. It is frustrating, frightening all over again. And deeply thrilling. I tapped into something inside myself to become Louis. I will plumb the female side of myself for this new chararacter. (I have never been a rich socialite, after all…despite buying that designer purse.) I’ll willingly lose something of myself.

Here’s Flaubert talking about that process:

“What a delicious thing writing is — not to be you anymore but to move through the whole universe you are talking about. Take me today, for instance: I was a man and woman, lover and mistress; I went riding on a fall afternoon beneath the yellow leaves, and I was the horse, the leaves, the wind, the words he and she spoke, and the red sun beating on their half-closed eyelids, which were heavy with passion.”

Isn’t that, in a nutshell, why we write?

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Plot Motivators

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

For most novelists, one of the easiest things to come up with is an idea for a story. It seems that intriguing ideas swirl around us like cell phone conversations—we just use our writer’s instinct to pull them out of the air and act upon them.

The next step is to develop characters and stitch together the quilt of a plot that will sustain the story for 100k words. And right up front, we must consider what plot motivation will drive the story and subsequently the characters. Fortunately, there are many to choose from.

So what is a plot motivator? It’s the key ingredient that provides drama to a story as it helps move the plot along. Without it, the story becomes static. And without forward motion, there’s little reason to read on. Here is a list of what I consider the most common plot motivators.

Ambition: Can you say Rocky Balboa.

Vengeance: Usually an all-encompassing obsession for revenge such as in THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK.

The Quest: LORD OF THE RINGS is a great example as is JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.

Catastrophe: A series of events that proves disastrous like in THE TOWERING INFERNO.

Rivalry: Often powered by jealousy. Remember CAMELOT?

Love/Hate: Probably the most powerful motivators in any story.

Survival: The alternative is not desirable. Think ALIEN.

The Chase: A key element in numerous thrillers including THE FUGITIVE.

Grief: Usually starts with a death and goes downhill from there.

Persecution: This one has started wars and created new nations.

Rebellion: There’s talk of mutiny among the HMS Bounty crew.

Betrayal: BASIC INSTINCT. Is that boiled rabbit I smell?

There are many other sub-motivators that are strong enough to drive a scene or section or secondary character of a book, but I don’t consider them global motivators. Examples include fear, pleasure, knowledge, lust, sacrifice, thrills, and others.

You can easily find a combination of these in most books especially with a protagonist and antagonist being empowered for totally different reasons. But the global plot motivator is usually the one that kick starts the book and moves it forward.

What plot motivators are you using in your WIP or latest novel? Did I miss any?

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Sometimes You Gotta Suck It UpAnd Write the Darn Outline

By PJ Parrish

Before you read this, I’m going to suggest you back up one day and read Steven James’s Monday post, “Fiction Writing Keys for Non-Outliners.” It’s a really good argument against outlining and I agree with almost everything Steven says.

I hate to outline. To me, it’s on par with pap smears, getting your teeth cleaned, filing taxes, and watching the Raiders play the Jets. It’s tedious, painful and feels utterly pointless. It’s not fun. It’s a major buzz-kill.

But after reading Steven’s eloquent argument, I abandoned my post-in-progress and decided I needed to respond. Because I believe – hack, hack, hack! – that sometimes you just gotta suck it up and outline.

Did I mention I hate to outline?

First, some context. I have published, via the traditional New York house route, fifteen books. My first book was bought as a full manuscript and that is the norm. First-timers don’t usually get in the door without a finished book. But for my next book (in a two-book contract), I had give my editor a full outline. This was because I had not yet established my reputation and they needed assurance I wasn’t a one-trick pony. So I did the grunt work and wrote a detailed outline.

Did I mention I hate to outline?

This outline pattern stayed in place for my second two-book contract, but by book five, I went to contract on the strength of a five-paragraph concept. This was because by this point my editor knew I could write, make deadline, and sustain my series momentum.  But when I switched to a new publisher, I had to go back to outlining because my new editor wanted a stand alone thriller. But for the four books that followed (which were back in my Louis Kincaid series), I was able to go back to contract via concepts.

I haven’t had to slog through the outline exercise for six years. Which brings us to the present. About a month ago, I submitted a detailed concept and 100 pages of my WIP to an editor at a traditional publisher. She loved it but she had to send it to the acquisitions committee, which okays every deal. (This is SOP for traditional publishing houses; everything is run up the flagpole to be saluted by editors, market types and bean counters). To do this, I had to give the editor…an outline.

Now, given my druthers, I am a confirmed pantser. My sister and I start with an idea, flesh out our main characters, then we plot-then-write in chunks of about four chapters at a time. But my new publisher wanted to know the major dramatic arcs of the story so Kelly and I spent two weeks not doing what we love – writing – but doing what we hate — brainstorming and sweating blood creating a plot map.

They bought the book.

Did I mention I hate outlining?

So I’ve swung both ways. Outlining is awful but it can be very useful if it gets you where you want to go. And every writer is different. Some of us thrive on structure; others crave chaos. There is no one path to the truth, grasshopper.

So who outlines? Let’s pull back the curtain and see…

John Grisham starts with 50-page outlines, with a paragraph or two about each chapter, setting out major events and plot points.

Michael Palmer spends four to five months outlining and goes to contract on outlines. His outlines are 40 to 60 single-spaced pages and his editor “clears” the outline before he writes one word. Sez Michael: “When I get down to the actual writing, I feel free to deviate from the outline, but out of courtesy, I will call and discuss any major deviations from what was agreed upon with my editor. There are those writers who can pen a novel and then do it over again if the story doesn’t work. With my busy schedule as a doctor and a daddy, I am not in that group. Reworking a detailed outline is possible for me. Rewriting an entire book would be disastrous.”

James Patterson writes a detailed outline and then hires someone to write the scenes, usually in 30 to 40 page chunks, which he reviews. Patterson describes it: “The outlines are very specific about what each scene is supposed to accomplish. I get pages from [the collaborator] every two weeks, and then I re-write them. That’s the way everything works. Sometimes I’ll just give notes. I’ve done as much as nine drafts of a book after the original comes in.”

Self-published eBook phenom Amanda Hocking (now in print with St. Martins) hand-writes her outlines before formatting them. “I’ll write usually about two or three outlines, so by the time I do write the book I’ve got the story completely mapped out in my head,” she says.

Joseph Finder describes writing without an outline like doing a high-wire act without a net, saying that his book Power Play, “took me several months longer than usual, simply because I wasted a lot of time on plot and on characters that I ended up cutting out.”

Robert Ludlum’s outlines routinely ran to 150 pages. I don’t know what he does now that he’s dead. I’d like to think he’s up there being a happy pantser.

Who doesn’t outline? Lee Child, for one. And Harlan Coben, who describes his process thusly: “I usually know the ending before I start. I know very little about what happens in between. It’s like driving from New Jersey to California. I may go Route 80, I may go via the Straits of Magellan or stopover in Tokyo but I’ll end up in California.”
 
That driving metaphor is a riff on E.L. Doctorow’s famous quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I’ve written both mysteries and thrillers, some romance and even fat historical sagas. Some came easy; others fought me all the way. And while being a pantser is my default method, I have come to appreciate that outlining can be useful. Here’s why:

1. It helps you get rid of bad ideas. This is very important because we all have bad ideas and bad ideas are like the Devil — they often assume a pleasing shape. (Wow! What if I have the bad guy sneak some plutonium into a White House toilet, then the Senate minority leader comes out of the john with green skin and…)  If you write your bad ideas down they won’t lurk in the shadows of your brain.
 
2. You might have to produce an outline to go to contract with a publisher. If you’re lucky enough to get a multi-book deal, outlining is often specified in contracts. Also, you get paid in lumps: part on signing, part on turning in the manuscript, part on publication. But sometimes, one of the lumps comes via outline.  Also, your editor might have to approve the outline before you begin working on the book.

3. It can speed up the writing process. Just seeing a map on paper can often help you manage your writing time. If you have some idea of the journey, you can budget your time more efficiently. This is important as you get farther into your career and must produce a book or more a year.

4. If you write big complex plots, it can keep you on track. Ken Follett starts with an outline between 25-40 typed pages that details chapter-by-chapter events and includes bios of all characters. He shares this with his editors before he starts writing. He also rewrites his outlines!

I rewrite the outline – and this may happen several times. Typically there will be a first draft outline, a second draft outline and a final outline, so it would twice go through the process of being shown to a number of people. The whole process of coming up with idea, fleshing it out, doing the research, drafting the outline and rewriting the outline comes to about a year all told. There are quite often a couple of false starts within this. I may spend a month working on an idea before I realise that it isn’t going to work and abandon it. But after this whole process, I’m ready to write the first draft.

5. If you’re trying a new genre, it gives you confidence. I have a friend who, after a long and successful career writing a light amateur sleuth series, is making the switch to darker fare. She has always been an avid outliner but with this new project, she found even more extensive outlining gave her sure footing in her new territory.

6. It keeps you motivated and focused. While working on my new book, the hardest thing I had to deal with was my sense of being at sea. Because I was working without the security of a contract for the first time since starting out, I often felt myself drifting into a lot of “what ifs.”  What if I can’t pull this story off? What if no one buys it? What if I’ve run out of good stuff and it’s time to hang up the creative cleats?  But there was something about writing an outline — having to do the elbow grease of the mind and produce on deadline — that injected juice back into my story and resolve back to my spine. If nothing else, I finished the damn outline.

So, yes, outlining is a good thing. But…

Can I add my caveats? If you outline, please don’t let it put a strangle hold on you and your story. It is a guide, a suggested route, one way to go but never the only one. I love this quote from Donald Barthelme:

“Not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of the mind moving in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”

So even if you do outline, leave room in your planning for serendipity and detours because, as Steven said so well in yesterday’s post, that is where your story is hiding out waiting for you.

Think of an outline as those colored lines they paint on the linoleum in hospitals to help you find your way. The red will get you to the cardiac unit, the yellow to the cafeteria, the black to the emergency room. But sometimes you just gotta follow the blue and go look at the babies.

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How To Get Out of Story Stall


I think about Paris when I’m high on red wine.
I wish I could jump on a plane.
And so many nights I just dream of the ocean.
God, I wish I was sailing again. 
If you read my last couple of entries here you know I have been struggling to get some mo on my WIP. This week I finally realized I needed something drastic to kick me out of my funk.
So I took a cue from that great Western philosopher Jimmy Buffett and changed my latitude to change my attitude.
I didn’t get on a plane and go to Paris. But I did take a boat to work.
Normally, I work at home, migrating from sofa to chaise to bed with Acer in tow. But I was feeling closed in and my story was reflecting that. So I stuck the laptop in a backpack, put on clean clothes, combed my hair and slapped on enough makeup so I wouldn’t scare the horses and left the condo.
I live in downtown Fort Lauderdale on a river. A couple days ago, the city started up a free water taxi service. So Saturday, I took the boat to my local Coffee Place With Green Mermaid Logo. I got a cappacino, switched off the Wifi and opened Word. In two hours, I wrote 956 words. And most of them were keepers.
Today, I am back. And as soon as I finish this blog post, I am back to chapter twenty-two. And you know what? For the first time in weeks, I am eager to get to work.
Maybe you are one of those writers who thrive on routine and quiet. God bless you. I envy you. But I can’t do it. I don’t have set hours and I seem to produce my best work when I am in a strange place, preferably with the white noise of hissing espresso machines or bar Musak. But I had gotten in the habit of staying at home and it had resulted in a bad case of story stall.
We all have times when we get stuck in neutral, when our mind-wheels are mired in mud or spinning fast and going nowhere. Yeah, we can call it writer’s block, as this New Yorker article does:

Writing is a nerve-flaying job. First of all, what the Symbolists said is true: clichés come to the mind much more readily than anything fresh or exact. To hack one’s way past them requires a huge, bleeding effort. For anyone who wonders why seasoned writers tend to write for only about three or four hours a day, that’s the answer. Anthony Burgess…concluded that a writer can never be happy: “The anxiety involved is intolerable. And…the financial rewards just don’t make up for the expenditure of energy, the damage to health caused by stimulants and narcotics, the fear that one’s work isn’t good enough. I think, if I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.”

But I think writer’s block is a luxury of literary types. If you write for the commercial market, you can’t afford to wait for the muse to come around every couple years. My story stall and my move to coffee shop got me to thinking about all the ways we can use to un-stick ourselves. I’ll bet you guys have some good tips to add.

Change Your Habits or Habitat

Getting dressed and going to a coffee shop has forced me to treat my writing as more of a job. I also have eliminated all the distractions and excuses of home: dogs, full laundry basket, TV, husband, unfinished crossword puzzle. If you work at home now, go somewhere else. Do you write only in the morning? Try a shift to the afternoon. I know life intrudes (kids, day job, night classes). But even a small change in routine can make you feel renewed.

Switch Point of View

Not just your own, but your narrator’s. When I started my WIP, I envisioned the entire story from my female protag’s POV as she is pursued by a male investigator. But once the guy came on stage, he started stealing the story. I fought him for nine chapters before I realized his story was equally as compelling as hers. In fact, their storylines paralleled thematically. I switched to a dual protag and the story took off.

Simplify Your Plot

There is an urge, when you’re new at novel writing, to use all your best ideas in one book. Maybe it’s because we feel if we don’t, we will never get a second chance. Usually, a simple linear plot works best. (Which is not to say you don’t have complications, obstacles, setbacks, etc.) Two folks in my critique group were wrestling with confusing tangled yarn-ball narratives that overwhelmed their characters. One writer realized he had TWO books in one and has now excised one plot line for a sequel. The other writer realized she was trying to graft an international thriller plot onto what is, at heart, a lovely Romeo and Juliet mystery. Once she jettisoned the over-done thriller elements, the characters began to shine.

Pick a Different Point of Entry

The writer’s saw states, “get into a scene as late as possible.” I’d say that applies to your overall story. As James, Jodie and others have said here often, the optimum moment to begin your story is just before the stuff hits the fan. If you have too much set-up, all the reader “hears” is you clearing your throat. If you come in too late, you can risk losing any chance to build tension. Do you have a prologue? Try cutting it out. I bet you won’t miss it. Click here to read Joe Moore’s useful post on prologues.

Write Your Book’s Back Copy

Lack of focus is one of the biggest reasons for story stall. If you don’t know WHAT YOUR STORY IS ABOUT, how can you know where it is going? I’m not talking about plot points; I am talking about the big picture, the main drama and the stakes, your character’s arcs, and the theme. If you can’t boil your book’s essence down to one sharply written paragraph of about five sentences, I’m betting you don’t have a handle on what you are trying to say. I wrote about this at length a while back. Click here to see tips.

Print Out Your Chapters

It’s scientific fact that looking at a computer screen changes the way our brains work. Print out your pages and read them like a reader. And here’s another twist: Format your chapters in single space, justified, Times Roman, so it looks as close to a real book as possible. I did this once and my problems with pacing and back story jumped off the page. Also, “typesetting” it breaks your mental image of your WIP, taking it out of “rough” draft (I’m struggling!) to “real” book. (Wow, not as bad as I thought.)

Speed Write

This is something I do in my workshops: I give students an opening line and make them write as fast as possible for ten minutes. Sure, it might produce junk, but more often than not, they come up with interesting stuff. Set a kitchen timer or your iPhone and just let it flow fast and furious. You will surprise yourself. Consider it a creative colonic.

Quit While You’re Ahead

This one’s from Ernest Hemingway: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” Caveat: This does not work for me. I must finish and light up my metaphoric ciggie.  

Get an Imaginary Dog

This is something I know a lot about: Not writing is like not sleeping. It does no good to lay there at 3 a.m. and stare at the glowing digital clock. Likewise, staring at the blinking curser won’t unblock you. Get out and go for a walk. Wordsworth wrote many of his poems on the move. Nietzsche claimed to have made all his philosophical insights while walking, and Kierkegaard wrote, “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.” Walking is something of a luxury in our go-go world. But science has documented the relationship between walking and thinking, that the rhythm of the body seems to free the mind. The ancient sages even had a phrase for it: Solvitur ambulando. “It is solved by walking.” So walk, don’t run. No iPod. Leave early and take the dog.

Get Some Imaginary Kids

We are Writers (capital W). But sometimes it’s good to go lower case and remember we are first storytellers. In our quest for the perfect sentence, the lovely phrase, the big idea, we often get in the way of our stories. Did your parents or teachers ever read to you? Remember how enthralling it was? John Steinbeck once wrote about being stalled: “Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother, or someone that you like.” If you get stuck, imagine you are sitting around a campfire telling a good story to some kids. Would you open with a prologue full of back story? Would you start with some confusing dialogue? No, you’d do something like this: “Every night, before he turned off the light, Jamie would get down on his hands and knees and look under his bed. There was never anything there except the dust bunnies. But on the night of his thirteenth birthday, when he picked up the edge of the bedspread, he saw something he had never seen before.”

Stop Writing

I know, I know. This sounds counter-intuitive. It smells of defeat. But I think we sometimes just need to give ourselves a break and take a break. Maybe your break is only for a day or a week. Maybe it needs to last over a good vacation. Maybe, like I had to do at one time, you need to take a couple months off. The world won’t end. Your WIP will still be there when you go back. But don’t buy into this notion that you MUST write every day. I’ll give the last word to Hilary Mantel:
“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ¬music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.” 
I like that. Be patient. With your writing and with yourself.

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Riding Out the Rough Spots

By P.J. Parrish

This has been the week from hell. I don’t know what else can go wrong. Here’s what has happened so far:

I hit the wrong button and deleted chapter sixteen and had to recreate it from memory.

I got to chapter eighteen and realized a scene I had written back in chapter five, which I was certain was absolutely brilliant, now makes no sense and I have to cut it.

My plot timeline is out of whack and I have lost three days somewhere, sort of like Ray Milland in Lost Weekend but without the gin anesthesia.

I did a virus scan and it came up with 778 “issues” but apparently none of them are fixable unless I cough up $69.99 for the Super Anti-Spyware Deluxe Version.

I tried to vacuum my crumb-ridden keyboard and sucked up the 4 and + keys.

I really need a vacation. The kind of vacation where I can get away from everything, including my WIP aka The Thing That Is Devouring My Soul. We all get to this point at times, right? (If you don’t, I don’t want to hear about it today, okay?) We get discouraged, disoriented in plot hell, doubtful of our talent, and desperate to just get the damn thing finished.

This is the nature of writing. It isn’t always sunshine, lollipops, rainbows, and brighter than a lucky penny. Often, very often, it is long slow slog where the words come hard and the joy comes even harder. This is where I am this week.
 
But here’s the thing: When you’re in a trough, like I am right now, you need to remember that it’s temporary. You need to know that if you just ride it out, you will end up on a crest again where you can survey the wider sea and regain your bearings. I need to be reminded of this every so often. We all do. So I made myself a list. It’s a list of the things I really love about this whacked out business. If you have something you’d like to add, please share.

TWELVE COOL THINGS ABOUT BEING A WRITER
  1. You can drink on the job and no one makes you pee in a bottle.
  2. You can write off trips to New York.
  3. You don’t have to wear a bra at work.
  4. You get to kill people you hate and not go to prison.
  5. You can have mind-blowing sex with whoever you want and not worry about rubbers, disease or your spouse leaving you.
  6. You get to read fan letters (I answer every one I get and save them forever like old love letters.)
  7. You get to be in the Library of Congress. (In 1983, I went there and asked for the librarian to bring me a copy of my paperback romance. She did. Quite humbling.)
  8. You get to walk into a tiny bookstore in Moose-Butt Maine and see your book on the shelf. And then find out the old lady behind the counter has read your entire oeuvre and remembers each character better than you do.
  9. You get to live inside your head for days, weeks, months, at a time and not get carted away in a white jacket.
  10. You get to find a note taped to your bathroom mirror from your spouse or kid saying, “I’m proud of you.”
  11. You get to do something that gives others pleasure.
  12. You get to do something that gives you joy.

Thanks for listening. I feel better now. Hit it, Lesley!

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