No Risk It, No Biscuit

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

If everything seems under your control, you’re not going fast enough. – Mario Andretti, legendary race car driver

Bruce Arians

Recently we had a bit of a discussion on taking risks, as part of Terry’s post on rules for writers. Today I’d like to give risk more focused attention.

Remember back in 2021 when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl by destroying the favored Kansas City Chiefs, 31-9? With a 43-year-old quarterback named Brady. And the oldest coach ever to win the big game, 67-year-old Bruce Arians.

Arians had followed a long and rocky career path as a quarterbacks coach in the NFL. He got hired and fired several times. His first year as head coach for the Bucs the team went 7–9. Then along came Brady and the Super Bowl.

Through it all, Arians had a saying that kept him and his teams motivated. He actually got it from a guy at a bar at a time when Arians thought his dream of being a head coach would never be realized. That saying is: No risk it, no biscuit.

Now doesn’t that sound like a quintessential football coach axiom?

As Arians’ cornerback coach, Kevin Ross, explained it, “If you don’t take a chance, you ain’t winnin’. You can’t be scared.”

What might this mean for the writer?

Risk the Idea

I think each novel you write should present a new challenge. It might be a concept or “what if?” that will require you to do some fresh research. My new Mike Romeo thriller (currently in final revisions) revolves around a current issue that is horrific and heartbreaking. I could have avoided the subject altogether. But I needed to go there.

My next Romeo, in development, came from a news item about a current, but not widely reported, controversy. It’s fresh, but I’ve got a lot of learning to do. I’m reading right now, I’ll be talking to an expert or two, and soon will be making a location stop for further research.

I do this because I don’t want to write a book in the series where someone will say, “Same old, same old.”

Admittedly, writing about “hot-button” issues these days carries a degree of risk. Especially within the walls of the Forbidden City where increasingly the question “Will it sell?” is overridden by “Will it offend?”

But as the old saying goes, there is no sure formula for success, but there is one for failure—try to please everybody.

Craft Risk

Are you taking any risks with your craft? Are you following the Captain Kirk admonition to boldly go where you have never gone before?

There are 7 critical areas in fiction: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, and meaning.

You can take one or all of these and determine to kick them up a notch. For example:

Plot—Have you pushed the stakes far enough? If things are bad for the Lead, how can you make them worse? I had a student in a workshop once who pitched his plot. It involved a man who was carrying guilt around because his brother died and he didn’t do enough to save him. I then asked the class to do an exercise: what is something your Lead character isn’t telling you? What does he or she want to hide?

I asked for some examples, and this fellow raised his hand. He said, “I didn’t expect this. But my character told me he was the one who killed his brother.”

A collective “Wow” went up from the group. But the man said, “But if I do that, I’m afraid my character won’t have any sympathy.”

I asked the group, “How many of you would now read this book?”

Every hand went up.

Take risks with your plot. Go where you haven’t gone before.

Characters—Press your characters to reveal more of themselves. I use a Voice Journal for this, a free-form document where the character talks to me, answers my questions, gets mad at me. I want to peel back the onion layers.

How about taking a risk with your bad guy? How? By sympathizing with him!

Hoo-boy, is that a risk. But you know what? The tangle of emotions you create in the reader will increase the intensity of the fictive dream. And that’s your goal! In the words of Mr. Dean Koontz:

The best villains are those that evoke pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy as well as terror. Think of the pathetic aspect of the Frankenstein monster. Think of the poor werewolf, hating what he becomes in the light of the full moon, but incapable of resisting the lycanthropic tides in his own cells.

Dialogue—Are you willing to make your dialogue work harder by not always being explicit? In other words, how can you make it reveal what’s going on underneath the surface of the scene without the characters spelling it out?

Voice—Are you taking any risks with your style? This is a tricky one. On the one hand, you want your story told in the cleanest way possible. You don’t want style larded on too heavily.

On the other hand, voice is an X factor that separates the cream from the milk. I’ve quoted John D. MacDonald on this many times—he wanted “unobtrusive poetry” in his prose.

I’m currently reading the Mike Hammer books in order. It’s fascinating to see Mickey Spillane growing as a writer. His blockbuster first novel, I, The Jury, is pure action, violence, and sex. It reads today almost like a parody. But with his next, My Gun is Quick, he begins to infuse Hammer with an inner life that makes him more interesting. By the time we get to his fourth book, One Lonely Night, Hammer is a welter of passions and inner conflict threatening to tear him apart. His First-Person voice is still hard-boiled, but it achieves what one critic called “a primitive power akin to Beat poetry.” And Ayn Rand, no less, put One Lonely Night ahead of anything by Thomas Wolfe!

In short, Spillane didn’t rest on his first-novel laurels. He pushed himself to be better.

He risked it for the biscuit. And he ate quite well as a result.

Over to you now. Are you taking any risks in your writing? Are you hesitant, all-in or somewhere in between? How much do you consider the market vis-à-vis trying taking a flyer?

The Three Types of Opening Lines

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There’s a great Far Side cartoon (among so many great ones from the genius Gary Larson). It shows the back of a man seated at a desk. He has a pencil in his fingers, but his hands are grabbing his head in obvious frustration. In front of him are a series of discarded pages with MOBY DICK, Chapter 1 at the top. They say:

Call me Bill
Call me Larry
Call me Roger
Call me Al
Call me Warren

Ah, we’ve all been there. We often talk about the need for a grabber opening here at TKZ. That’s why we do first-page critiques. The goal is simple: make the reader want to—need to—read on.

If you can do it in the first paragraph, so much the better.

And with the first line, better still!

Terry sparked a discussion on opening pages earlier this week. Let’s drill down to opening lines. There are three types: Action, Voice, and Wood.

Action

When the first line drops you right into some intriguing action, you’ve got it made. (All you have to do now is hang a novel on it. Ha!)

One of my favorites is from my man John D. MacDonald’s Darker Than Amber, a Travis McGee novel:

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.

I mean, come on! We’re going to read until we find out who that girl is and why she was tossed in the drink.

James M. Cain’s opening to The Postman Always Rings Twice is aptly famous:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

Dean Koontz used to revel action opening lines:

Penny Dawson woke and heard something moving furtively in the dark bedroom. – Darkfall

Katharine Sellers was sure that, at any moment, the car would begin to slide along the smooth, icy pavement and she would lose control of it. – Dance With the Devil

Remember, dialogue is action, too (waving at Terry). Koontz used to write opening lines just to see what they sparked. This one hit him:

“You ever kill anything?” Roy asked.

When he wrote that, he didn’t know who Roy was or who he was talking to. So he wrote a novel to find out—The Voice of the Night.

In my humble opinion, my best opening line is in Try Darkness, a Ty Buchanan legal thriller:

The nun hit me in the mouth and said, “Get out of my house.”

I still like it.

That’s action. There’s also..

Voice

When the voice is clear, unique, arresting, and immediately tells you the kind of story it’s going to be, you’ll want to keep reading. Mickey Spillane wastes no time in Vengeance Is Mine!:

The guy was dead as hell.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is a peach:

When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. – High Five

Usually we’re going to be in First Person POV for voice. But not always. Here, for example, is the opening of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty:

When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off.

Notice that the leather jacket is ripped off and not stolen. The latter is neutral voice. The former is hot voice, setting up the tone of the book.

Wood

There’s an old saying: Your story begins when you strike the match, not when you lay out the wood. I like that. It holds true for any genre. But with literary fiction, and epic fantasy or history, an exception is sometimes made. Presumably, fans of these genres are patient at the beginning, knowing they’re in for a long, immersive ride.

Certainly, these genres can begin with action, as in Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara:

The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent.

All well and good, as the world building weaves in with the action.

Now have a look at the opening line of The Fellowship of the Ring:

This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history.

And boy, howdy, do we get the history! Fifteen pages of it. This is laying out the wood. But fantasy readers do not seem to mind.

Similarly, David Morrell’s long thriller, The League of Night and Fog, also has a history beginning:

A phrase invented by the Nazis, the Night of the Long Knives, refers to the events on the night of June 30, 1934, in Austria and Germany.

The next eight pages tell us about Hitler’s rise to power, the advent of World War II, and the start of the death camps. It is dark yet riveting history. Morrell lays out this wood, and it stays with us, hovering over the action to come.

There you have it. Three ways to write an opening line. Try them out in your own work. I also recommend you play with all three as a creativity game and idea sparker. Who knows? One of them may jump out and grab you and say, “Now write me the novel, kid!”

And now, if I may, in the spirit of our occasional indulgence here at TKZ, a bit of SSP—Shameless Self Promotion. My latest thriller release begins:

The big, fat liar was dressed in yellow slacks, yellow golf shirt, and yellow socks.

The book is No More Lies. It’s a novel for which I got the rights back (former title: Deceived), and which got some of the best reviews of my career. Publisher’s Weekly said:

A master of the cliffhanger, creating scene after scene of mounting suspense and revelation . . . Heart-whamming.

And Romantic Times:

Bell delivers with this compelling and challenging story of greed, evil and redemption. Worthy characters bring to light situations that can be both beautiful and terrifying. This pure thriller with a roiling plot is not to be missed!

And because money is tight right now, I’m making it available on Kindle this week for 99¢. Grab it here. Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B0B836SCRY

Now back to our regularly-scheduled blog. Do you have an opening line you’re particularly proud of? Share it. Or share one from an author you like. Or both!

Dreams For Your Mirror Moment

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Half my life’s in books, written pages.
Live and learn from fools and from sages.
You know it’s true, oh
All the things come back to you…
Dream on!
– Aerosmith, “Dream On”

We’ve had several discussions about dreams here at TKZ. I believe the consensus rule of thumb (or, in deference to Brother Gilstrap, guideline of thumb) is never open with a dream. As Les Edgerton states in his excellent book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One (Writer’s Digest Books):

Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character’s merely dreaming it all. Not unless you’d like your manuscript hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses. Followed by the insertion of a form rejection letter into your SASE and delivered by the minions of our illustrious postal service.

Ah, remember the days of SASEs and paper manuscripts?

The only exception is when you alert the reader in the first sentence that it’s a dream, as in Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier). Even so, I would counsel against the dream-sequence opening.

As for a dream later in the book, I recommend doing it only once and only for the specific purpose of revealing the character’s emotions at an intense time. Dean Koontz does this in Chapter 15 of The City:

Eventually I returned to the sofa, too exhausted to stand an entire night watch. I dropped into a deep well of sleep and floated there until, after a while, the dream began in a pitch-black place with the sound of rushing water all around, as if I must be aboard a boat on a river in the rain … (etc.)

The exception to this advice is when dreaming is an integral part of the plot. See, for example, Spellbound (1945, dir. Alfred Hitchcock).

Recently, I discovered another way to use a dream. It’s a perfect device for a mirror moment. Those of you who’ve read the book know there are two types of mirror moments that can occur in the center of the novel.

One moment is when the character has to look at himself, as in a “mirror” (sometimes literally) and reflect on who he is, inside. Will he change for the better? The rest of the novel is about whether a fundamental transformation takes place (as it does in, e.g., Casablanca).

The other type of moment is when the character looks at her situation and realizes she’s probably going to die. The odds are just too great. For example, Katniss in The Hunger Games. In the exact middle she assesses her situation and says to herself, This is an okay place to die. The story question for such a moment becomes will the character gain the strength and smarts to fight and win against the odds?

Here’s today’s tip: Either of those moments can be given to us through a dream.

I was re-reading John D. MacDonald’s final Travis McGee book, The Lonely Silver Rain. In this one McGee is dispatched to find a stolen boat. When he does, he discovers a grisly scene—three horribly murdered bodies. A bit later someone tries to kill McGee. Then there’s another attempt on his life. Why? McGee has no idea, except that it must have something to do with what happened on that boat. He undertakes a laborious investigation to find the answer. But he keeps running into a wall. Thus, in the middle of the book:

The cold had awakened me from a dream. I had been in a poker game at an oval table, with the center green-shaded light hung so low I could not make out the faces of the men at the table. They all wore dark clothing. The game was five-card draw, jacks or better to open. They were red Bicycle cards. Every time I picked up my five cards, I found the faces absolutely blank. Just white paper. I wanted to complain about this, but for some reason I was reluctant. I threw each hand in, blank faces up, hoping they would notice. All the rest of the cards were normal. I could see that each time a winner exposed his hand. There was a lot of betting, all in silence. A lot of money. And then I picked up one hand and found they were real cards. I did not sort them. I never sort poker hands or bridge hands. The act gives too much away to an observant opponent. I had three kings of clubs and two jacks of diamonds. In the dream I did not think this odd. They were waiting for me to bet when the cold woke me up. In the dream I had been shivering with the tension of having a good hand. The shivering was real. 

Why did he dream this? McGee knows there are people out there to kill him, but cannot figure out who (he can’t see the faces of the other players). He has talked to many potential witnesses, to no avail (blank cards). The knowledge he does have may be misleading (like having three kings of clubs and two jacks of diamonds in a poker hand). The shivering in the dream is uncertainty, brought into the real world.

It seems to me a perfect way to show us “the odds are too great” type of mirror moment. A dream can easily be used to show the first kind, the “is this who I really am?” type.

To make it work, the dream should have those bizarre details we get in dreams—like blank playing cards which suddenly become cards of the same type. Of course, the symbols should relate somehow to what’s going on in the story.

A good dream sequence works emotionally on the reader. In some cases it may cause the reader to pause and ponder, trying to figure it out. Either outcome is a good one, as it gets the reader more deeply invested in the story—which is what every writer dreams of, yes?

Help! My Plot is Getting Away From Me!

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

(Today’s post is adapted from the book Plotman to the Rescue: A Troubleshooting Guide to Fixing Your Toughest Plot Problems. It is used by the kind permission of the author.)

Here’s a question I get from time to time. What do I do if I’m in the middle of my novel and there are so many things happening, so many characters running around, that I’m losing my way?

You would think this question would come primarily from “pantsers,” the If-I-knew-what-my-story-was-about-before-I-wrote-it-I’d-be-bored school of writing. But it arises with the plotter, too, who has perhaps been overly ambitious in the planning. As sometimes happens for the plot engineers, a sudden twist or turn or character may try to horn in at, say, the 20k mark, throwing the whole outline off.

So what do you do when you discover you’ve a) gone down that infamous rabbit hole; b) have plot points or characters popping up you didn’t plan for; c) are lost in a dark forest; or d) have fallen off a cliff into the bleached bones of the author’s graveyard?

I will allow you one wail of frustration.

Now let’s get a handle on things.

First of all, where are you, as the ad men used to say, “outline wise”? Do not skip over this part, pantsers, for you better have an outline, too.

Wait, what?

I’m talking about a “rolling outline,” one you put together as you roll along. When you finish a scene or chapter, write a quick synopsis of who the viewpoint character is, what he wants and what happens, as in: Ishmael gets depressed, decides to go to sea, and sets off to find a ship.

Scrivener is ideal for this because you can put the rolling outline on scene “cards” and view them on a virtual corkboard. But Word or even Excel will work fine, too.

Now, if you feel your plot is getting away from you, print out the current version of the rolling outline and do this:

Clean House on Characters

How many viewpoint characters have you got? This means you have more than one character with a storyline of their own. For example, in a traditional romance you usually have two viewpoint characters, the lovers. In a long historical or fantasy novel, you may have three, four or more.

If this is so for you, precisely define the following: What is each character’s death-stakes objective? (Death being physical, professional, or psychological.) If it’s not death, find a way to make it so, or drop this as a plotline. In the alternative, consider taking away this character’s viewpoint scenes and converting that line into a subplot. This means the character shows up in scenes told from another character’s point of view and (this is crucial) complicates the viewpoint character’s objective.

For example, you have a woman as a viewpoint character, and a man as another viewpoint character. The man’s plotline is not working out in a death-stakes way. You might remove him as a viewpoint, but have him show up in the woman’s plotline as a potential lover or long-lost brother or secret agent or alien from a parallel universe.

Clean house. Keep only the crucial characters.

For further study: The Stand by Stephen King, and Strangers by Dean Koontz. You’ll see how these authors make the several character lines work on their own terms before bringing the strands together.

Cut Scenes That Don’t Connect to Plot

Now that you are squared away on the objective of the main character or characters, assess each scene you’ve written so far. Ask:

  • Does the goal in the scene relate in some way to the overall, death-stakes objective of the Lead? If not, cut it.
  • Does the scene present an obstacle to the attainment of the objective, emotionally or physically or both? If not, why is it there?
  • If the scene is part of a subplot, how does it intersect with the main plot? How does it complicate matters for the Lead?

Write or Rewrite Your Pitch

If you’re a pantser, you may not have a pitch for your novel. After all, you’re still discovering what it’s about! Well, if you’ve done some thinking as this post suggests, you’ve made discoveries. Try putting them together in a pitch—250 words or less that would make someone interested in this story. Doing this will give you focus on where to go next.

If you’re an outliner, rewrite your pitch to include the elements you’ve uncovered. Get excited again about your journey.

Be sure to read Sue’s post on crafting a pitch.

Push On

Now finish your draft. Don’t do any more dawdling. You should have enough direction to push right on to the end. As you do, keep adding to your rolling outline. It will be helpful when you get to the editing stage.

Can you describe a time when your plot got away from you, or you felt lost? Is this a common occurrence for you? What do you do to get back on track? 

 

Your Guide to a Weekly Creativity Time

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

If I may riff off Brother Gilstrap’s recent post, I think there are generally two types of writers. There are “natural” storytellers. John is one of them. I think he’s shared this here on TKZ, but I remember him telling me about getting virtually the entire story for Nathan’s Run while on a long drive. How’s that for nice?

Other writers have to dig in hard ground to find, stimulate, and coax ideas. Then take the good ones to the workshop and figure out the best way to develop them into stories. That would be me. When I started out on this writing journey I dove into study of the craft. I devoured writing books and subscribed to Writer’s Digest. I read popular fiction analytically to unpack how successful writers did things. I studied movies with an eye toward learning structure.

And when it came to finding ideas worth turning into full-length fiction, I found I couldn’t sit there waiting for one to show up. I had to follow Jack London’s advice: “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club.”

Early on I read How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz. He has a section in there on finding story ideas. Among his suggestions:

Read widely. Newspaper stories can present the germ of an idea. Nonfiction on various subjects, too.

Write narrative hooks. Just sit at the keyboard and type hooks (first lines) until “you find one that is so intriguing that you simply must find out what happens next.” One day Koontz wrote:

“You ever killed anything?” Roy asked.

He had no idea who Roy was or what he meant. But he sat there looking at it and it came to him (“out of my subconscious mind”) that Roy should be a boy of fourteen. From there his imagination started chugging and he wrote two pages of a conversation between Roy and a boy he named Colin. When he was finished he knew the book was going to be about the duality of human nature (good and evil), that Roy was the villain, and that the book would be fast-paced and suspenseful. Indeed it was, and became an early bestseller called The Voice of the Night.

Titles. Write out titles by the bunch until one of them tickles your fancy.

Characters. Start writing about an intriguing character and pile on backstory details. When one starts to take on life, ask:

  • What does the character fear more than anything else in the world?
  • What would be the very worst thing that could happen to him?
  • What event would throw his life into complete turmoil?

So I scheduled a weekly creativity time. A half hour to an hour sitting in a local coffee joint doing these exercises, just letting the ideas flow. After a few weeks I noticed that my creativity muscle was growing stronger. Indeed, it began working “on its own.” I’d be driving down the street and see a billboard and suddenly I’d be asking What if? What if that happy couple clinking champagne glasses is about to be blown up by a bomb?

I kept all my ideas in a file. When one of them cried out for further attention I put into “development.”

My first step in the development process is what I call a “white hot document.” This idea comes from Dwight Swain’s classic Techniques of the Selling Writer. You start a document that is an exercise in “focused free association.” You just start writing what comes to mind, go off on tangents, explore rabbit trails. Ideas for scenes, themes, characters, plot developments—write them all down without any intrusion from your inner editor.

You put this aside and come back the next day to edit and annotate. You take what’s most emotional and exciting for you and develop it further with more free association. Do this for several days and you’ll have a solid foundation for a plot. Swain wrote: “The important thing, always, is not to sit idly waiting for the feathers to grow. Don’t just hope for ideas. Hunt them down! Find a springboard! Develop a plan of action!”

So unless you are a natural storyteller, make it a point to exercise your imagination on a regular basis. Play games. Go wild. You’ll find good ideas soon enough and your creativity synapses will grow stronger.

Then all you have to do is write the novel. And the one after that. And the one…

What kind of storyteller are you—natural or a digger in hard ground? Where do your ideas come from? Do you wait for them to show up or do you light out after them with a club?

How Far is Too Far With a Pseudonym?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A controversy over an award-winning female thriller author has broken out in Europe. That’s because the female thriller author doesn’t exist. “She” is really three men who have been writing under the pseudonym Carmen Mola. When one of their novels won a million-euro prize, the trio stepped out from anonymity to claim it.

The men, all in their 40s and 50s, denied choosing a female pseudonym to help sell the books. “We didn’t hide behind a woman, we hid behind a name,” Antonio Mercero told Spanish newspaper El País. “I don’t know if a female pseudonym would sell more than a male one, I don’t have the faintest idea, but I doubt it.”

But this ruse required a web of (shall we be gracious here?) fabrications to create the illusion of a real-life writer whose backstory itself was a marketing tool. They made Mola a “university professor and mother of three, who taught algebra classes in the morning then wrote ultra-violent, macabre novels in scraps of free time in the afternoon.” They even commissioned a noirish photo of a woman, facing away from the camera. It appeared on their agency’s website but has now been scrubbed. The three dudes are there instead, and appear quite happy.

Not everyone is fine with this.

Beatriz Gimeno, a feminist, writer, activist – and former head of one of Spain’s national equality bodies, the Women’s Institute – attacked the men for creating a female persona in their publicity for Carmen Mola books, over several years.

“Quite apart from using a female pseudonym, these guys have spent years doing interviews. It’s not just the name – it’s the fake profile that they’ve used to take in readers and journalists. They are scammers,” she said on Twitter.

Several questions arise. Is writing under a pseudonym always some form of “scam”? Or is it the sex change and fictional biographical details that are the sticking point?

In the “old days” a pseudonym was often used so a writer with a name could branch out into other genres. Agatha Christie was, of course, the most popular mystery writer of all time. Her name on a book meant clues and suspects and sleuths. So when she wanted to do romances she adopted the name Mary Westmacott to keep readers from confusion or frustration. She wrote six Westmacott books and managed to keep her true identity unknown for twenty years.

Evan Hunter (whose real name was Salvatore Albert Lombino!) always considered himself a “literary writer.” To earn extra dough he wrote police procedurals under an alias so the critics would not look at his “serious” work with a jaundiced eye. But as Ed McBain he produced a remarkable run of noir that made him a multi-millionaire. The truth came out eventually, though Evan was probably always a little jealous of Ed.

Some writers wanted to have more books published per year than a single contract would allow. Dean Koontz at one time was writing under nine or ten pseudonyms, including a female guise.

Then there is Stephen King, alias Richard Bachman. When he published under that pseudonym he included an elaborate backstory for Bachman:

Although King initially created Richard Bachman to experiment with literary ideas under the veil of secrecy, the author elaborated on his alter ego’s character to create a more comprehensive author bio. Apparently, Bachman wrote his novels by night, working on his dairy farm in New Hampshire during the day. He lived with his wife Claudia, mourned his son who had died at a young age in an accident, and underwent surgery for a brain tumor that isolated him from interviewers. King also included a picture of his agent’s insurance broker on the inside folds of the books.

Well, a bookstore clerk in D.C. did some digging when he found Bachman’s writing a whole lot like King’s. King was outed, and it ticked him off. He’d been planning to publish Misery as a Bachman. Now that he was “caught” he told the world that Bachman had died of “cancer of the pseudonym.” He went further, stating that Bachman’s widow had “discovered” unpublished manuscripts in Bachman’s attic: The Regulators (1996) and Blaze (2007)!

But what about men writing as women, or women as men? J. K. Rowling wanted to write crime fiction and wanted those books to stand on their own. So she chose a male pseudo, Robert Galbraith. And made up a backstory, that asserted Galbraith was “a former plainclothes Royal Military Police investigator who had left in 2003 to work in the civilian security industry.”

The first book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, received generally positive reviews. But soon the secret got out—and sales of the book jumped 4,000%!

If you go to the Robert Galbraith author page on Amazon you’ll see a photo of J.K. Rowling, and this explanation:

J.K. Rowling’s original intention for writing as Robert Galbraith was for the books to be judged on their own merit, and to establish Galbraith as a well-regarded name in crime in its own right.

Now Robert Galbraith’s true identity is widely known, J.K. Rowling continues to write the crime series under the Galbraith pseudonym to keep the distinction from her other writing and so people will know what to expect from a Cormoran Strike novel.

So…is making up a backstory for a pseudonym out of bounds? Or is it just another aspect of marketing? Does it matter if the author is using a persona of the opposite sex? Do readers care if the ruse is discovered? Didn’t seem to hurt King, Rowling, or the Spanish guys.

What do you think, TKZers?

The How and Why of Epigraphs

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I love a good epigraph. That’s the quotation some authors put on a standalone page right before the novel begins. It is not to be confused with an epigram, which is a pithy and witty statement. However, if placed at the front of a book, an epigram becomes an epigraph, thus epitomizing epiphenomena (secondary effects).

This is the epigraph from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather:

Behind every great fortune there is a crime. — Balzac

The purpose of an epigraph is one or more of the following:

  1. Hint at the theme of the novel.
  2. Help set the tone.
  3. Create curiosity about the content.
  4. Put a wry smile on the reader’s face.

Stephen King is positively giddy about epigraphs. He usually has two or more. Like in Cell, a novel about an electronic signal sent out over a global cell phone network. The signal turns those who hear it into mindless, zombie-like killers. Why? Perhaps by removing all psychological restraints, resulting in animalistic behavior. Here are King’s epigraphs:

The id will not stand for a delay in gratification. It always feels the tension of the unfulfilled urge. – Sigmund Freud

Human aggression is instinctual. Humans have not evolved any ritualized aggression-inhibiting mechanisms to ensure the survival of the species. For this reason man is considered a very dangerous animal. – Konrad Lorenz

Can you hear me now? – Verizon

That last one gave me a wry smile indeed. Here a few more examples:

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

Lawyers, I suppose, were children once. — Charles Lamb

FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

If they give you ruled paper, write the other way. — Juan Ramón Jiménez

GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn

Love is the world’s infinite mutability; lies, hatred, murder even, are all knit up in it; it is the inevitable blossoming of its opposites, a magnificent rose smelling faintly of blood. — Tony Kushner, THE ILLUSION

For my Mike Romeo thrillers, I use two epigraphs. Because Romeo is both classically educated and trained in cage fighting, I choose a quote from classic lit and something more contemporary. For example, here are the epigraphs for Romeo’s Way:

Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles … – Homer, The Iliad

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. – Mike Tyson

How do I find a good epigraph?

First, brainstorm some of the topics and themes that apply to your novel, e.g.,

  • Drug use among kids
  • Criminal enterprises, darkness of
  • Fighting to balance the scales of justice
  • Chaos in the streets
  • Hope in hopeless situations
  • Is true love possible?

Next, think of your lead character’s strengths and weaknesses, such as:

  • Will kick your butt if provoked
  • Hard to trust other people
  • Has an anger issue
  • Has compassion for the weak
  • Can’t stand injustice anywhere

With those in mind, you can being your search. I have big library of quote books, led by the venerable Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I also have “off the wall” collections that provide funny or ironic possibilities. Two of my faves are The Portable Curmudgeon by Jon Wikonur and 1,911 Best Things Anybody Ever Said by Robert Byrne.

There are online resources, of course, like The Quotations Page, which allows you to search by keyword and author.

So you look around and find several possibilities. Later, choose the best one. Save the others in a file for possible use in the future.

Can I make up an epigraph?

Well, some have. Dean Koontz made up many of his, and even a fictional source, The Book of Counted Sorrows. Readers and booksellers all over the world were stymied trying to find a copy of this rare tome. Koontz eventually copped to it, and even issued a short-term ebook version of it via Barnes & Noble. (If you want to read the epigraphs, you can do so here.)

I don’t advise this tactic, however. A reader may become frustrated trying to track down the quote on the internet. And who do you think you are anyway? Shakespeare?

Do I need permission to quote?

You do not need permission from a copyright holder to use a line or two from a published source. An epigraph is the very essence of fair use.

The one possible exception to this is song lyrics. Careful lawyers and nervous publishers will tell you to get permission. That is a long, laborious process that could end up costing you a fee. I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores of the fair use doctrine, which you can find online (as here). I think an argument can be made for the fair use of a line from a song. See, e.g., this well-reasoned opinion. (Note: I dispense no legal advice in this post. Talk about being careful!) The risk-reward ratio may not be favorable for most writers.

Where do I place an epigraph?

On the page just before Page 1 of your novel. And note: an epigraph is not a dedication. If you use a dedication, the epigraph should follow, not precede it.

How many epigraphs can I use?

My rule of thumb is one or two. At most, three. More than that risks overburdening the reader and diluting the purpose.

With a book broken up into parts, you can put an epigraph before each part. If you’re feeling frisky you can use an epigraph for every chapter (!) as Stephen King does in one of his Bachman novels, The Long Walk.

Do I put quote marks around the epigraph?

No.

Do I italicize an epigraph?

It’s up to you. Either choice is fine. Just never italicize the source. E.g.,

The free-lance writer is one who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps. — Robert Benchley

What if I can’t find a good one?

When in doubt go to Shakespeare, the Bible, or Mark Twain.

Do readers really read epigraphs?

The true answer is that most probably don’t. Or else they just skim right past them on the way to the story. Which raises the question, is it worth the author’s time to hunt them down?

You have to answer that for yourself. My answer is yes. I like epigraphs and I’m happy to spend the extra time for the readers who like them as well.

Plus, after finishing a novel, my search for the perfect epigraph is like my gift to the book. The book has been with me since the idea phase, whispering sweet nothings in my ear, fighting me sometimes but always with its heart in the right place. I figure I owe the book a little something and a good epigraph is it.

Over to you now. Are you an epigraph fan? Have you used them yourself?

Inspired Every Morning

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” – Peter De Vries

Anyone who’s written for any length of time knows there are times when the writing flows like the Colorado rapids. You whoop it up and enjoy the ride.

Sisyphus, Franz Stuck (1920)

Then there are times when it feels like you’re Sisyphus halfway up the mountain. You grunt and groan. But you keep pushing that boulder, because you know that writing as a vocation or career requires the consistent production of words.

What’s helped me in the Sisyphus times are writing quotes I’ve gathered over the years. I go to my file and read a few until I’m ready, as it were, to roll.

I’ve even contributed a couple of quotes that have found some purchase in cyberspace. The one that seems most widespread is this:

“Write like you’re in love. Edit like you’re in charge.”

There are, however, some writing quotes that are oft shared but were never said…or are misattributed. Two of them have been hung on Ernest Hemingway.

“Write drunk. Edit sober.” Nope, he never said that. Indeed, it would have horrified him. Hemingway was one of the most careful stylists who ever lived. He did his drinking after hours (and too much of it, as it turned out).

The other one is, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

It’s a great quote, but should be attributed to the legendary sports writer, Red Smith. Smith probably got the idea from the novelist Paul Gallico (author most famously of The Poseidon Adventure). This is from Gallico’s 1946 book Confessions of a Story Writer:

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.

(If you want to deep dive on the various attributions of the quote, go here.)

So how did this blood quote get attributed to Hemingway? I know the answer, for I am a skilled detective!

Actually, I am a Hemingway fan, so one day I decided to watch a TV movie about Hemingway and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn. The film, imaginatively titled Hemingway & Gellhorn, starred Clive Owen as Hemingway and Nicole Kidman as Gellhorn. As I recall, the movie is okay. But I do remember Owen delivering this line: “There’s nothing to writing, Gellhorn. All you do is sit at your typewriter and bleed.”

And there you have it. The script writers thought this quote, which they got from Red Smith, would be a perfect line for their rendition of Papa. And really, it might have been a line for him to utter, but for the fact that Hemingway did virtually all of his drafts in longhand.

Speaking of renditions of Hemingway on film, my favorite is Corey Stoll’s performance in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Allen and Stoll managed to capture Hemingway’s bluster without turning him into a cartoon. I especially love this exchange with Owen Wilson, who is a laid-back writer from our time transported back to the Paris of the 1920s, where Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and others were all tossed together.

Now, back to business. Here are five of my favorite writing quotes:

Remember, almost no writer had it easy when starting out. If they did, everyone would be a bestselling author. The ones who make it are the stubborn, persistent people who develop a thick skin, defy the rejection, and keep the material out there. – Barnaby Conrad

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. – Ray Bradbury

In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness. – Dean Koontz

Keep working. Keep trying. Keep believing. You still might not make it, but at least you gave it your best shot. If you don’t have calluses on your soul, this isn’t for you. Take up knitting instead. – David Eddings

The first page of a book sells that book. The last page sells your next book. – Mickey Spillane

Your turn! Let’s get inspired. Share a favorite writing quote and why it speaks to you.

More Escapism, Please

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Erle Stanley Gardner

Say, just wondering, but have any of you awakened lately and felt like you’re not in your own bed, but rather inside the trash compacter from Star Wars?

That’s what I thought. Thus the word escape comes to mind. And isn’t that what good, solid, entertaining fiction is about? I believe in escapism. It’s as necessary for human flourishing as good food, good sleep, and good company.

Erle Stanley Gardner, said:

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

Dean Koontz said:

“In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness.”

And this from our own Brother Gilstrap:

“I want to make their hearts beat a little faster and I want to make them laugh and sometimes cry. I want to earn those occasional emails I get from readers who share that my stories have been welcome diversions from the problems stacked up by real life.”

That can be said of all of us here at TKZ. Nothing pleases us more than transporting readers into a fictive dream.

And yet, it isn’t always easy to escape into fiction these days. When was the last time you “got lost” in a book? So much so that all considerations of time and other pursuits went completely away?

It was a lot easier in the days before computers, smart phones, social media, cable and satellite TV with a gazillion channels, endless content streams, 24/7 news cycles and on and on.

In spite of all that—nay, because of it—we all have a craving for regular escape.

So here’s what I’ve done. I have a special chair in my family room, set by a window, which is my reading chair. Having the same physical location for my reading sets off a Pavlovian response in my mind, i.e., that here is where I don’t have to check my phone, scan the internet, or worry about anything. The only concession to technology is putting on smooth jazz via the Pandora app on my phone.

Also, in this chair I prefer to read a physical book. I like that old-school feeling of having pages in my hands and a to-be-read stack on the table. (When I’m not in my chair, but in bed or waiting in an office, I do utilize my Kindle, with its 99¢ collection of the complete works of Dickens, and so on. I’m no Luddite.)

Next comes the “getting lost” part. There’s a certain mental practice required here, I believe. For example, when I start a novel I give the author the benefit of all doubt. I am pulling for them to pull me in. When they do, it’s magic. If the opening chapters aren’t stellar, I still give the author some space, hoping things will change for the better. This space is limited, however; I am more prone to setting aside a book that doesn’t hold me than I used to be.

What if you don’t have a lot of time to escape? Or you’re in the midst of a pressing day and you need to snatch some relief?

The answer is the short story. In the bookshelf near my reading chair are several collections of short stories. Everything from Hemingway (who I consider the undisputed master of the form) and Irwin Shaw, to collections of classic pulp, such as The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (ed. Otto Penzler).

I can always grab one of these and go for a satisfying ride. When I return to “real life,” I feel refreshed.

In that regard, please indulge me in a short commercial. I’ve got a project for escapism over at Patreon. My product is short stories. I write stand-alone suspense, stories that tug the heart, and on occasion something speculative, a la Ray Bradbury. I also have a series character who is a troubleshooter for a movie studio in post WWII Los Angeles (written in classic pulp style). These stories are exclusively for patrons, and cost less than a Starbucks drip. (I also do flash fiction—under 1k words—for ten-minute escapes.)

And for the price of a fancy-dancy frothy drink, you get the stories plus advance review copies (ARCs) of my full-length fiction.

All the details can be found here. I would be most grateful for your support.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program, with some questions from our host:

When was the last time you got lost in a book? Is finding time to read more difficult for you these days? Do you have a preferred place to read? Are you a “physical” or “ebook” or “doesn’t matter” reader?

 

Stretch That Tension

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here’s a first page up for critique. Put on your muskrat-fur ushanka and join us in the bowels of Moscow’s busy transit system. And watch your back.

***

Death was close, following him like a ghost’s lingering presence.

District court judge Konstantin Reznikov felt it deep in his bones as he rushed along the platform of Komsomolskaya metro station. He clutched his briefcase like his life depended on it. And in a way it did. If he could pass the evidence to the man he was meeting, he might live to see another day.

People were swarming into the station from all sides that early Monday morning and there was barely enough room to put one foot in front of the other. A stranger’s warm breath grazed his neck and frozen fingers brushed his hand—the one holding the briefcase. He shuddered as a chill coursed through his body. Ignoring the angry protests as he pushed through the crowd, Konstantin searched for his contact. All he’d been able to find were some old newspaper photos, but he couldn’t have changed much.

“Damn it,” he muttered when a train entered the station and more people flooded in. Right then and there, he hated the Russian subway system and its 1 minute time-lapse between trains during rush hours. As the sound momentarily deafened him, he hated himself even more for choosing this place as the rendezvous point.

Komsomolskaya metro station was one of the busiest stations in Moscow. Even tourists came to visit due to its breathtaking architecture. Once upon a time, when he’d been a student from the province coming to attend law school, he’d been one of these awed people. But that was long before cynicism and corruption rotted away his innocence. For so long he’d been unable to live with himself, but this last case was too much. He couldn’t turn a blind eye to this one too.

Ironically, the theme of the station’s eight large ceiling mosaics was the historical Russian fight for freedom and independence. Maybe that’s why his subconscious had chosen this particular place. Maybe this was his attempt to fight and rebel against the system that had trapped him for years in a golden cage adorned with money and accolades.

There it was again: malevolent eyes boring into his back. His time was running out and the man was nowhere to be found.

Inhaling deeply, steeling himself, Konstantin stopped next to the escalator, clutching the banister until his knuckles turned white and looked around once more. Finally, he saw him.

***

JSB: This is good fodder for a grabber of an opening page. I love the uniqueness of the setting and the description of it. And what’s not to like about a Russian judge in the grip of an opening disturbance of the most basic sort—life and death? The writing is cinematic. I can see this on the big screen. Brian Cox as Konstantin.

So let’s do some editing.

Death was close, following him like a ghost’s lingering presence.

There’s nothing really wrong about this opening line. It acts like a teaser for the scene to follow. That’s a technique many a writer has used before. For example, Ken Follett in The Pillars of the Earth:

 The small boys came early to the hanging.

So it’s fine as is, but I’ll suggest an alternative for future reference. Instead of telling us in narrative what’s about to unfold, just start off with the unfolding:

District court judge Konstantin Reznikov rushed along the platform of Komsomolskaya metro station. He clutched his briefcase like his life depended on it. And in a way it did. If he could pass the evidence to the man he was meeting, he might live to see another day.

In this way, you drop the reader into the story in medias res—into the action itself.

He shuddered as a chill coursed through his body.

Two descriptions, side by side, of the same thing dilute the overall effect. Sol Stein called this the “1 + 1 = 1/2” mistake. I would go with shuddered. Chills coursing through bodies or up spines is a cliché.

All he’d been able to find were some old newspaper photos, but he couldn’t have changed much.

This needs more clarity. The pronoun he is used twice in the sentence, but applied to different people, so it slows us down (we recently discussed the importance of grammar, and this is a good example of the need). Put in another sentence or two about when and where this research was done, and a line explaining why this person “couldn’t have changed much.” People change their appearance all the time, often instantly, if they don’t want to be recognized, etc.

“Damn it,” he muttered when a train entered the station and more people flooded in. Right then and there, he hated the Russian subway system and its 1 minute time-lapse between trains during rush hours. As the sound momentarily deafened him, he hated himself even more for choosing this place as the rendezvous point.

I’m not getting why he would choose this place if he hated it so much. Later you say it might be his “subconscious.” That’s a little hard to buy considering this man is a judge who seems careful about planning things out, and knows that what he’s doing could get him whacked.

Also, as a general rule, spell out numbers under ten. And don’t hyphenate time lapse, as I believe that always refers to time-lapse photography. Thus: … Russian subway system and its one-minute time lapse between trains…

For so long he’d been unable to live with himself, but this last case was too much. He couldn’t turn a blind eye to this one too.

Another confusing sentence. If he’d been unable to live with himself, then this last case really didn’t push him anywhere. I’d suggest this fix: For so long he’d been fighting to live with himself, but…

Ironically, the theme of the station’s eight large ceiling mosaics was the historical Russian fight for freedom and independence.

This sounds a bit too author-ish. Almost like a line out of an essay. I do like the detail here, so filter it through the character. Something like:

For a moment he looked at the eight large ceiling mosaics depicting Russia’s historical fight for freedom and independence. He choked on the bitter irony, trapped as he was in a golden cage adorned with money and accolades.

There it was again: malevolent eyes boring into his back. His time was running out and the man was nowhere to be found.

Here, I think, is a good place to do some stretching of the tension. That is, whenever you have a suspense situation, do not resolve it too soon. In fact, in a first draft, overwrite these scenes. You can always trim them later. But the more skilled you become at tension stretching, the more you’ll be writing what all us scribes are after—a page turner (or page swiper or page clicker, as the case may be nowadays).

So instead of telling us Konstantin’s time is running out, show us. Instead of a feeling of “malevolent eyes,” give us more to see on the page, like Konstantin spinning around, desperately looking for his stalker. Maybe spotting one who might be him! Approaching! But then the guy jumps on a train, or just walks by. Etc.

Inhaling deeply, steeling himself, Konstantin stopped next to the escalator, clutching the banister until his knuckles turned white and looked around once more.

The POV police will let you off with a warning this time, but watch it from now on. We are in Konstantin’s POV, so he is not looking at his white knuckles (in any event, the cliché squad will come after you, too). But he can feel his knuckles. (Note, escalators have handrails; stairways have banisters). Thus: …clutching the handrail until his knuckles ached… 

Finally, he saw him.

I would definitely turn the page. But I get the feeling the scene (a prologue?) is soon to end, with Konstantin getting iced. Maybe not. Maybe this is our lead character. Assuming for the moment he is not, let me leave you with a suggestion about using strategic backstory.

This scene could go on for two, three, maybe more pages. You could stretch the tension with added beats, but also drop in Konstantin’s internal thoughts and more details about his backstory. Does he have family? How did he get put in the gilded cage? Does he have hope for the future?

What this does is build up empathy and even a little sympathy. We as readers get more invested in this character. So if he does indeed get sent to the marble orchard we’ll feel some emotion. And that is the key to popular fiction, after all—it is primarily an emotional ride.

To see how a master stretches tension with strategic backstory in what is essentially a prologue, and creates sympathy for a character who is being stalked, have a look at the opening of Dean Koontz’s Midnight (below).

Again, writer, good setting and situation. I hope these notes and the comments to follow help you on your scribal journey. Keep writing!

***

Click “Preview” to read the Koontz opening.