How to Come Up With a Title

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

My favorite genre for pure reading pleasure is the pulp and mass market crime fiction of the golden age—roughly 1929 (the year The Maltese Falcon was published) to the early 1960s (when secret agents started to take over). Some of the titles from that period reach out and grab you by the lapels. A couple of my faves:

I Wake Up Screaming. This is a noir by Steve Fisher, first published in 1941 and made into a fine film starring Victor Mature, Betty Grable, and Laird Cregar.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. How’s that for a grabber? This was British noir by a writer named Gerald Butler. It came out in 1947 and was turned into a movie starring Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine. The novel itself is a dark but riveting read with a surprise ending. In form and feel it reminded me of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Speaking of which, where in the heck did that title come from?

In the preface to Double Indemnity, Cain wrote that the title comes from a conversation he had with the screenwriter, Vincent Lawrence, who spoke about the anxiety he felt when waiting for a postman to bring news about a submitted transcript. He would know when the postman arrived because he always rang twice. Lawrence described being so anxious that he would retreat to the backyard to avoid his ring. The tactic failed. Even from the backyard, if he failed to hear the first ring, he always heard the second. Always.

This conversation birthed a title that became a perfect metaphor for Frank and Cora’s situation.

“The Postman” is God, or, Fate who “delivers” punishment to Frank and Cora. Both missed the first “ring” when they got away with the initial killing. However, the postman’s second ring is inescapable; Frank is wrongly convicted of Cora’s murder, and sentenced to death. The motif of inescapable fate is also evident in the Greek’s initial escape from death, only to succumb to the second attempt on his life.

So let’s talk a bit about how to come with titles for your books.

As with any creative pursuit, the way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas, then toss out the ones you don’t like. Thus, when you do title brainstorming, don’t edit yourself. Let the titles flow!

In How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, Dean Koontz talks about his method of title-storming. He uses the example of a story he was going to write about dragons. He just started listing titles with Dragon it them:

The Cold Dragon
The Warm Dragon
The Dancing Dragon
The Black Dragon
The Eternal Dragon

He went on to different variations, such as The Dragon Creeps and The Dragon Walks.

After about forty titles he got to this: The Dragon Came Softly. And then he tweaked it to: Soft Come the Dragons.

And that was the title that set off lights for him—and sold.

So try this:

1. Create a list of single words related to your plot. Kill, blood, bomb, cop, detective, mother, father, child, darkness, kidnapping. Then spend some time riffing off each one, using them in several possible titles.

2. Come up with a word that is the potential theme of your book: Justice, revenge, love, hate, evil, good, God, the devil. Play with those. Mix and match.

3. Maxims or quotations might provide fodder for a title. There’s an Irish blessing that goes:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May you be in heaven an hour
Before the devil knows you’re dead.

That became the basis for one of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books, The Devil Knows You’re Dead.

4. Create a deep, dark secret in your protagonist’s life that you can work into a title. Example: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.

How to Title Series Books

A title hook for a series is a good idea if you can pull it off. In my first Ty Buchanan legal thriller, I came up with the title Die Trying. Turns out Lee Child used that for one of his Reacher books. Instead of chucking it, I tweaked it and came up with Try Dying. I liked that for a number of reasons, and found a place in the book for that phrase. (That’s another tip. You can give a memorable phrase to a character in the dialogue, then use that phrase for the title. The title of the novel that was the basis for the classic noir Out of the Past is Build My Gallows High. That’s something the protag says to the femme fatale in both book and movie.)

Then it occurred to me that Try could fit a series. So I wrote Try Darkness and Try Fear. I haven’t done a fourth, though many readers have asked me to. The reason is I feel Try Fear has the most perfect ending I’ve ever done and I am loathe to mess with it.

I do, however, have a list of a dozen more Try titles. I used to tell people that when I got down to Try the Veal I’d end the series.

Other well-known series hooks include the Prey books by John Sanford, and the color-coded Travis McGee books by John D. MacDonald.

Or use a character’s name. My current series features Mike Romeo, so it’s easy to do: Romeo’s Rules, Romeo’s Way, Romeo’s Hammer, Romeo’s Fight. When I get to Romeo’s Codpiece, I’ll stop.

Final note: Titles cannot be copyrighted, so you can use one that’s been done before, with the following exceptions:

1. Some titles are trademarked. You can’t use Chicken Soup for the Soul or Harry Potter, for example, without hearing from a lawyer.

2. Other titles are “effectively” trademarked. That is, they belong to books that are classics, or were such big hits that to purloin that title would cause massive blowback from fans and Amazon (which would not carry the book to avoid consumer confusion). So don’t title your book The Da Vinci Code or Mystic River.

But if all else fails, put Girl in the title.

So what is your approach to coming up with titles? Do you like to have a working title before you begin writing?

10+

Let No Good Tension Go Unstretched

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

One of my great movie-going experiences was watching Psycho in high school in an auditorium during a storm. The place was packed. The mood was right. And at various points in the film people in the audience screamed their heads off, which greatly added to the atmosphere.

I’m glad my first exposure to the movie was not on TV. I got to see it uncut (which is more than we can say for Janet Leigh after the shower scene). But more important, I got the full effect of the suspense without commercial interruption.

When Vera Miles started walking toward the house, the audience shrieked. Most people were shouting Don’t go in there! Stop! NOOO! My skin erupted in a million pin pricks.

Of course, Vera didn’t listen. And it seemed like forever for her to get inside the place, and then down to the basement to meet, ahem, Mrs. Bates.

The screaming did not stop during the entire sequence. The anticipation was unbearable. The surprise-twist-climax actually changed my body chemistry. I didn’t sleep right for a week.

Which demonstrates why Alfred Hitchcock was called the master of suspense. What he did better than any other director was stretch the tension. He never let a thrilling moment escape with a mere whimper. He played it for all it was worth.

And so should fiction writers. Learning how to stretch tension is one of the best ways to keep your readers flipping pages, losing sleep and buying your books.

I first became aware of this a long time ago, when I was trying to learn to the craft. I’d read somewhere that Dean Koontz took his career up a notch with his novel Whispers. He has a scene early on, all inside a house, with a would-be rapist stalking the lead character. It goes for 17 pages!

How did he do it? Beat by ever-loving beat. Alternating action, thoughts, dialogue, description and more action. Each beat is played out in full. Almost like slow motion. Which is a good way to think about stretching tension. Focus in on each step in the scene and expand it. The expansion becomes story discovery, which is exactly what you want. You can always scale back the scene later, if you so desire.

Now, usually you’re going to find these high-tension places in the middle and toward the end of your novel. But don’t forget about the opening. And here I’m not just talking about mere action. I’m talking about a tense situation stretched to the limit.

If you’d like to see what I’m talking about, check out the first five chapters of one of Lee Child’s best, Gone Tomorrow. The tension starts on page one and stretches all the way to a shocking climax 26 pages later! Click on “Preview” below if you’d like to read it for yourself.

Try this: ID the three scenes in your manuscript with the highest degree of tension. Can you stretch them out even further? Can you add emotional beats? Inner thoughts? A memory? More action? Dialogue? Can you force the reader to read one, two or three more pages in order to find out what happens next?

Note: This is not in conflict with previous advice about writing tight. We are talking about adding beats which increase reading pleasure by delaying resolution of tension. Indeed, such beats should be the tightest writing in the book!

Comments may now commence. Shower at your own risk. 

***

Speaking of tension, today I release a new story, a contemporary suspense with a twist ending. There’s room for you to hop on board! Details are on my Patreon page.

10+

What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Check out this first page from a brave author:

The house alarm is screaming out, not the early-warning beep but the piercing you’re-totally-screwed-if-you-don’t-move-now squeal. I don’t know how long it’s been going off, but it’s too late for me now. The searing oven-blast heat within the four corners of my bedroom. The putrid black smoke that singes my nostril hairs and pollutes my lungs. The orange flames rippling across the ceiling above me, dancing around my bed, almost in rhythm, a taunting staccato, popping and crackling, like it’s not a fire but a collection of flames working together; collectively, they want me to know, as they bob up and down and spit and cackle, as they slowly advance, This time it’s too late, Emmy—

The window. Still a chance to jump off the bed to the left and run for the window …

The author is Mr. James Patterson (along with his co-writer David Ellis). The novel is Invisible. Mr. Patterson is “brave” for choosing this opening gambit, for later on in the scene we learn the above is only a dream!

And that simply isn’t done.

At least you would think so if you’ve spent any significant amount of time around writers talking writing. Surely at least once a week, in some critique group somewhere, someone is uttering, as if citing stone tablets, that you must never begin a novel with a dream. Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One (Writer’s Digest Books), is unequivocal:

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.

Les brings up a practical matter. If you’re submitting to an editor (remember the old days of the SASE?) and you pull the dream-opening thing, it’s almost certain he or she will consider your manuscript amateur hour.

But what do readers think?

The aforementioned Mr. Patterson, it may be safely said, is unequaled in his ability to gauge the pulse of the reading public. He has at least one other novel, Maximum Ride, that opens with a dream. (And last time I checked, Mr. Patterson’s manuscripts are not being returned.)

So what’s the actual deal on opening with a dream?

I don’t like it. There! That settles it.

Okay, just my opinion, folks. But it always feels like a cheat to me to get me caught up in the action, only to have the character wake up.

In all fairness, however, I’m hyper aware of craft. Most readers are not.

Maybe they don’t care in the slightest.

Let me make a subtle yet critical distinction here. One of the most famous openings in literature is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.

Here we have the first-person narrator telling us about a dream. That’s not the same as the “dream fake-out”—beginning with intense action that turns out not to be real.

Practically speaking, then, if you’re a writer seeking a traditional book contract, I would counsel you not begin with a dream, for the reason Edgerton suggests. Most editors won’t go for it.

If you’re self-publishing, you have the choice.

I’d still advise against it.

Here is my further thought on dreams in fiction: Unless dreams are an integral part of the plot (e.g., a character has recurring, prophetic dreams), I would suggest limiting yourself to using a dream only once, if at all.

For what purpose? To show the emotional state of the character at some intense point in the book. Or to reveal backstory that is affecting the character’s psyche. I would also make sure the reader knows up front it’s a dream, as in the beginning of Chapter 15 of The City by Dean Koontz:

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 …

Another option is to eschew a dream sequence altogether, and simply have the character describe the dream and how it is relevant. Thomas Harris does that in the aptly titled The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling is a young FBI trainee tasked with extracting clues from the notorious killer and creative chef, Hannibal Lecter. Lecter trades her clues for intimate details about her life. At one point Clarice tells Lecter about the haunting memory of being at her uncle’s ranch, when she was ten, and hearing the screaming lambs being led to slaughter. And how she still dreams about it.

Lecter tells her that’s why she’s obsessed with catching Buffalo Bill. She thinks it will stop the lambs from screaming. It leads to the moving last line of the book:

But the face on the pillow, rosy in the firelight, is certainly that of Clarice Starling, and she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs.

To summarize my take:

  1. Don’t open with a dream fake-out.
  2. Use dreams sparingly (like, once) unless it’s an integral plot element.
  3. Let the reader know up front it’s a dream.
  4. Consider characters talking about a dream rather than giving it to us as a scene. Just make sure the dialogue has conflict or tension. (For example, the character doesn’t want to talk about the dream, but the other character drags it out of her, as in The Silence of the Lambs.)

Now it’s your turn, O Writer and (especially) O Reader. What do you think about dreams in fiction?

 

12+

Herd Your CATS

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We all know that getting a reader inside a lead character’s head is one of the keys to compelling fiction. But it has to be done seamlessly so it doesn’t jerk us out of the narrative and put a crimp in the fictive dream.

Which means we have to learn to handle what I call “Character Alone Thinking Scenes” (CATS) in a deft manner.

The first issue is whether to begin the book with a CATS. As last Wednesday’s first-page critique demonstrated (in my view, at least) the answer should almost always be No.

Why? Because we have to have a little personal investment in someone before we can care deeply about their feelings.

Imagine going to a party and you’re introduced to a fellow with a drink in his hand. You say, “How are you?” and the guy says, “I’m really depressed, man, I wake up every day and the room looks dark and the sun never shines, even though it’s out there, and I don’t see it because of the dark dankness in my soul, and life has lost its meaning, its luster, whatever it was it once had for me when I was young and ready to take on the world. Ya know?”

AHHHH!!!!

Well, the beginning of a book is like walking into a party. The reader wants to meet interesting people. And interest is aroused by what people do. The way you catch readers from the start is through action and disturbance, not feeling and expounding.

I can’t tell you the number of manuscripts I’ve read over the years that did not begin with a real scene, but instead opted for the inside of a character’s head. What I usually do in such cases is flip the pages until I get to some dialogue, because that automatically means we’re in a scene. And 98% of the time that is the best place to start. (Sure, an argument can be made that a great style might be enough to carry the opening pages. But it better be truly great and truly brief.)

So, re: the opening—save your CATS for later.

Once you’re into the novel there are two types of CATS to herd—active and reactive.

In an active scene, the character is alone but with a major scene objective (something that materially relates to the plot), and thinks while trying to overcome whatever scene obstacles are in her way.

In a reactive scene, the character is alone with a chance to reflect. She may be thinking about what’s already happened in the story, or her current psychological state, or the other characters. When done well, reactive scenes strengthen our emotional bond with the character.

A couple of examples. The first is from Dean Koontz’s Intensity. A young woman named Chyna Shepherd is thrust into the dark world of serial killer Edgler Vess. After Vess murders a family (not knowing Chyna is in the house, too) Chyna sneaks into his motor home in the hopes of saving her best friend, whom Vess has dumped there. Alas, she’s dead. But it gets worse. Vess starts driving away and Chyna is trapped in the back of the motor home.

Her objective now is survival. She must keep her presence in the vehicle a secret, find an adequate weapon, and somehow kill or disable Vess. As she looks for a weapon she makes a grisly find—the body of a young man hanging in the small closet, his eyes and mouth sewn shut.

She pulled shut the pleated-vinyl panel. Though flimsy, it moved as ponderously as a vault door. The magnetic latch clicked into place with a sound like snapping bone.

In all the textbooks she had ever read no case study of sociopathic violence had ever contained a description of a crime sufficiently vivid to make her want to retreat to a corner and sit on the floor and pull her knees against her chest and hug herself. That was precisely what she did now – choosing the corner farthest from the closet.

She had to get control of herself, quickly, starting with her manic breathing. She was gasping, sucking in great lungfuls, yet she couldn’t seem to get enough air. The deeper and faster she inhaled the dizzier she became. Her peripheral vision surrendered to an encroaching darkness until she seemed to be peering down a long black tunnel toward the dingy motor-home bedroom at the far end.

She told herself that the young man in the closet had been dead when the killer had gone to work with the sewing kit. And if he’d not been dead, at least he’d been mercifully unconscious. Then she told herself not to think about it at all, because thinking about it only made the tunnel longer and narrower, made the bedroom more distant and the lights dimmer than ever.

She put her face in her hands, and her hands were cold but her face seemed colder. For no reason that Chyna could understand, she thought of her mother’s face, as clear as a photograph in her mind’s eye. And then she did understand.

To Chyna’s mother, the prospect of violence had been romantic, or even glamorous. For a while they had lived in a commune in Oakland, where everyone talked of making a better world and where, most nights than not, the adults gathered around the kitchen table, drinking wine and smoking pot, discussing how best to tear down the hated system, sometimes also playing pinochle or Trivial Pursuit as they discussed the strategies that might bring utopia at last, sometimes far too enraptured by revolution to be interested in any lesser games …

Koontz then gives us a page-and-a-half of backstory, filtered through Chyna’s perceptions and thus relevant to the present action. She’s alone, but moving toward her scene goal. Her thoughts—which in real time would flash through her mind but in fiction time are detailed—are part of the action.

Now let’s take a look at a reactive CATS. This is from John Fante’s classic Ask The Dust. Arturo Bandini is a young writer living a meager existence in L.A. He has just decided to he’s going to steal milk off a truck. In his dingy hotel room, he reacts to his decision:

The night came reluctantly. I sat at the window, rolling some cigarets with rough cut tobacco and squares of toilet paper. This tobacco had been a whim of mine in more prosperous times. I had bought a can of it, and the pipe for smoking it had been free, attached to the can by a rubber band. But I had lost the pipe. The tobacco was so course it made a poor smoke in regular cigaret papers, but wrapped twice in toilet tissue it was powerful and compact, sometimes bursting into flames. 

The night came slowly, first the cool odor of it, and then the darkness. Beyond my window spread the great city, the street lamps, the red and blue green neon tubes bursting to life like bright night flowers. I was not hungry, there were plenty of oranges under the bed, and that mysterious chortling in the pit of my stomach was nothing more than great clouds of tobacco smoke marooned there, trying frantically to find a way out. 

So it had happened at last: I was about to become a thief, a cheap milk-stealer. Here was your flash-in-the-pan genius, your one-story writer: a thief. I held my head in my hands and rocked back and forth. Mother of God. Headlines in the papers, promising writer caught stealing milk, famous protégé of J. C. Hackmuth haled into court on petty theft charge, reporters swarming around me, flashbulbs popping, give us a statement, Bandini, how did it happen?

The scene continues, with Bandini eating an orange, doing some typing, all the while thinking about his prospects as a writer. The chapter ends with Bandini making the milk snatch, giddily bringing the two bottles back to his room, opening one and taking a long drink. And immediately spitting it out. He’d stolen what he hated—buttermilk.

There should be activity in a reactive CATS. It is often innocuous (rolling cigarettes, eating oranges, typing) but it provides the space for emotion and analysis.

The big thing to know about CATS is that they are the best way to control pace. If you need to slow things down a bit, give us more thinking. If you need to pick up the pace, compress the thoughts.

In other words, learn to herd your CATS and the readers will lap up your fiction.

11+

The Most Productive Approach for the Aspiring Novelist

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Got an email the other day from TKZ reader Gary Neal Hansen. With his permission, here’s a bit of it:

We’ve not met but I wanted to thank you for your help, so generously offered in the blogosphere. I stumbled across a post you made in 2015 on The Kill Zone about being a prolific writer. You drew the distinction you made between project ideas being on an “optioned” list, with a few moving forward to an “in development” category, and a single project being “greenlighted” as the WIP.

I wanted you to know that this has helped me see how to move toward clarity and self-organization in my newly independent writing life.

For 17 years I was a professor, where the demands of teaching and pursuit of tenure gave structure to my work. I recently left that position when my wife got her first faculty appointment to a really fine university.

Now I’m continuing to write non-fiction, but am (with the help of NaNoWriMo) adding fiction to the mix. Whether I become skilled enough as a storyteller to publish fiction is an open question, but I’m having fun. And your little book on short stories has also been very helpful — so thanks, very much, and I look forward to reading more of your craft books.

Grand! I love hearing about someone turning to fiction for the first time and having fun doing it. It’s also a nice nod toward NaNoWriMo, which has helped countless newbies over the years get into the habit of writing full-length fiction.

Gary then asked a question which he thought might make good fodder for a TKZ post:

Which of the following do you think would be a better strategy to jump start my skills in the craft?

  1. Pretend it is NaNoWriMo for five successive months and produce five 50,000 word drafts. Then set out to learn the process of editing the best one. Or,
  1. Edit my first NaNoWriMo for a month or two, then do another pretend NaNoWriMo, and keep repeating the cycle. Or,
  1. Draft new material in the mornings, and edit the previous manuscript in the afternoons (while, I suspect, quietly losing my mind). Or,
  1. Something else?

Here is my answer.

I like a combination of #2 and #3. I still recall finishing my first full-length novel. It was around 1990 or so. What I remember most is how much I learned by making myself complete a draft.

My education continued as I did my first self-edit, studying craft issues that came up. The novel was not ready for prime time, but I knew I’d made strides as a writer.

Which is why I’ve counseled new writers to finish that first novel, because it will reveal to you strengths and weaknesses in your craft. I’ve also advised they write first drafts “as fast as you comfortably can,” because it builds the discipline of completing a project.

Now, once finished, let the manuscript sit for three weeks or more. During that time, be at work on you next novel. This project should already have been “in development” as you worked on the previous book. That means you’ve done some thinking about the idea, some planning, some casting, even some writing.

When it comes time to self-edit the first MS, print out a hard copy and read it through, taking minimal notes. You want to experience it as a reader, or better yet as a harried editor or agent reading it on a commuter train, looking for a reason to set it aside!

After that, do a second draft, fixing what you can. Take note of problem areas in your craft so you can study those in more detail.

Show this new draft to beta readers, your critique group, perhaps a freelance editor. (All the while, you are keeping up a word quota on your next novel.) Take all that feedback and re-write once more.

Does that sound like a lot of work? Good. Because it is. And should be.

Now, one does not have to strive to write every novel in NaNo fashion. NaNo is a special speed-writing month, and once a year is quite enough. My guideline for “normal” times: figure out how many words per week you can comfortably write, then up that by 10%. Make that your quota and stick to it for the year. After a year assess and tweak the quota, then hop to it again.

That means that #3 is a good practice. Use your peak creativity time (morning, afternoon or evening, depending on your bio-preference) for the new stuff, and other times for editing. You won’t, as Gary wonders, lose your mind. Going from drafting to editing uses different parts of the brain, and many writers have done it just this way.

My caution: don’t do heavy editing of your WIP at the same time you’re writing it. Do a light edit on the previous day’s work, just to clean things up, then move on.

I’ll mention my “20k Step Back,” however. I found that if I pause to assess my characters and plot at the 20k point, I can save myself a lot of grief by making sure the stakes are truly high, the characters are rightly motivated, and the Lead is pushed through the Doorway of No Return.

Then I push on until I’m finished.

So that’s my advice to Gary an all others starting their the novel-writing journey. Let me offer a few notes on the other two suggestions:

  1. Pretend it is NaNoWriMo for five successive months and produce five 50,000 word drafts. Then set out to learn the process of editing the best one.

While I love the idea of this pulp-style prolificacy, those writers knew the craft of story first. If you write in this fashion I fear you’ll develop some bad habits that may be hard to break. It’s sort of like telling a new golfer just to go out and play eighteen holes every time without once taking a lesson.

There are better ways to choose what idea to develop (I’ll cover that in a future post). The steady quota, alongside directed craft study, is best.

  1. Something else?

Kerouac liked Benzedrine and a roll of butcher paper flowing through his typewriter. I don’t recommend this method.

Dean Koontz works on a single page, over and over, before moving on to the next page. That’s why he hasn’t found success yet. But if all you do is write 70 hours a week, I suppose you can do it this way. I’d go mad.

Balzac stimulated his imagination by drinking up to fifty cups of thick, black coffee every day. He was definitely prolific, but since he died at 51 of caffeine poisoning, I cannot give my imprimatur to this practice.

Countless unpublished writers wait for “inspiration” before they write. There’s a term for this: unprofessional.

Some writers steal. Don’t.

So I open it up to you, TKZ community. What’s your preferred practice? What other advice would you give the new novelist?

(I’m in travel mode today, so I’ll try to respond as best I can!) 

14+

Let Me Entertain You

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The year was 1919. The “Great War” was over and the “Roaring Twenties” about to begin. Out in Hollywood Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith got together to form a new film company they called United Artists.

In Georgia, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was born. In New York, Theodore Roosevelt died.

On September 21, at the Ansonia Hotel in New York City, a cabal of Chicago White Sox ballplayers met to plan how to throw the World Series in exchange for gambling kickbacks.

On April 10, in Mexico, the revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata was assassinated, never knowing that one day he would be portrayed on the big screen by one Marlon Brando.

And out of Camden, New Jersey, the Victor Talking Machine Company was shipping its latest model Victrolas, an item that had become all the rage for an emerging middle class. For through this wonderful machine music of all types could be piped right into the living room. Everything from Caruso to Al Jolson, from Beethoven to Eddie Cantor was available for purchase on vinyl discs with a hole in the middle.

All Victrolas sold in 1919 came with a booklet, a little manual instructing the customer how to get the most from their purchase.

Today, when for the first time you have brought a Victrola into your home, we wish it were possible to show you how much this, the most versatile and so the most satisfying musical instrument in all the world, can be made to entertain, to console and to inspire.

To say that the Victrola offers you, your family and your friends “all the music of all the world”—is to dismiss the subject with an entirely inadequate phrase and so this booklet has been prepared to offer certain suggestions for your greater enjoyment of this, your newest and we verily believe your happiest possession.

This was a huge development in our cultural lives in the age before radio became pervasive. Victrola extolled the benefits of music for the weary traveler on life’s highway:

Intimately associated as we are with the development of the Victrola, yet we are fully conscious of the wonder of it and we, no less than our customers, have learned that amid “the daily round of irritating concerns and duties” we have only to turn to the Victrola in order to be once more in love with life and its beautiful, blessed burdens.

And while championing the virtues of classical music, the booklet also recognized the great benefit of simple entertainments:

Art is art, no matter what form it may take, and those who are sincere in their musical opinions will no more despise the lighter and more popular music than they will despise good music which is the product of other kinds of feeling and other rhythms. In certain moods and at certain times there is as much “inspiration” to be derived from ragtime as there is from a Beethoven symphony or the thunderous emotions of a great opera. Each produces its effect in its own way and each supplies a very real human need…

Well said, Victor Talking Machine Company! Let me be so cheeky as to translate this into slightly different terms:

Art is art, no matter what form it may take, and those who are sincere in their literary opinions will no more despise the lighter and more popular books than they will despise literature which is the product of other kinds of feeling and other rhythms. In certain moods and at certain times there is as much “inspiration” to be derived from a thriller as there is from a National Book Award winner. Each produces its effect in its own way and each supplies a very real human need…

And yet … there has always been a tension between the “serious” writer and the “commercial” kind. At times the former may think of the latter as a hack. The latter may consider the former a snob.

Mickey Spillane was the mass-market paperback king of the 1950s. He engendered a lot of envy. (What? Envy among writers? Surely not!) Many “serious” writers were supremely ticked off that their wonderful, years-long-to-write novel of domestic angst only sold 300 copies, while Spillane’s fast-paced Mike Hammer PI novels sold in the millions. Even Ernest Hemingway took a poke at Spillane, in print, which prompted a TV interviewer to ask Spillane if he’d read Hemingway’s criticism. Spillane said, “Hemingway who?” The audience roared (Hemingway never forgave Spillane for that!) As The Mick later put it, “Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.”

Well, friends, there is room for both caviar and peanuts, pheasant-under-glass and bacon burgers. And culinary delights in between. But I happen to believe that the novels that move us most and heighten our perception of life also entertain on a basic, storytelling level. If I’m not fully invested in the characters, or if the plot is a drag, I’m not prone to sticking around for any message.

And pure entertainment deserves an honored place, as Dean Koontz pointed out in How to Write Best-Selling Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, 1981): “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.”

So let me entertain you! And you me! Here’s what I like to see in a novel:

  1. A hero or anti-hero we root for

A hero represents the values of the community. An anti-hero has his or her own moral code but is drawn into a conflict within the community. The big question is will the anti-hero transform? Katniss Everdeen is an anti-hero who becomes a hero. Rick in Casablanca starts out unwilling to help anyone (“I stick my neck out for nobody”) but by the end is ready to sacrifice himself for the greater good (“But I’ve got a job to do too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do you can’t be any part of. I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”)

This doesn’t mean the lead character has to be what we normally call “good.” I root for Richard Stark’s hard-core criminal Parker, because among the other thieves and lowlifes, he has the better argument! 

  1. Conflict within and without

My favorite novels have both levels going on. That’s why I love the Harry Bosch series. We are as invested in Harry’s inner journey as in the case he happens to be working on. Even straightforward action thrillers like The Executioner series are elevated when Mac Bolan pauses to reflect on what all this killing is doing to his soul.

  1. An Ah or Uh-oh ending

My favorite endings leave me with a definite feeling. One feeling is “Ah…”, a sense of such satisfaction that I feel all the circles have been completed, the outer plot and the inner journey. Usually the ending scene is a personal one. Examples are Lost Light by Michael Connelly, Nathan’s Run by John Gilstrap, and Eight Million Ways to Die by Lawrence Block. These books have final scenes that move me at the heart level.

Stephen King is a master of the “Uh-oh.” As in, something bad is going to happen again! For example Pet Sematary and The Stand.

Kris (P.J.) wrote recently about the ambiguous ending. In the right hands, that can have the same effect as combining the “Ah” and the “Uh-oh.” An example is The Catcher in the Rye. 

  1. Some unobtrusive poetry in the style

That’s a phrase I lift from one of my favorite writers, John D. MacDonald. He’s describing a style that is more than plain-vanilla minimalism, yet not so over-the-top that it screams Look at me! I’m a real writer! The latter is where we get the axiom “Kill your darlings.” You can fall in love too much with a felicitous phrase, though I will say that the axiom is a bit too barbaric for my taste. Sometimes I’ll show mercy to a darling, but always defer to the judgment of my true-life darling and first editor, Mrs. Bell.

Give me those things, and you’re liable to turn me from a reader to a fan. And it’s what I hope to give you with each book. 

So let me put it to you, TKZers. What entertains you? Do you prefer to feast on one kind of fiction? Do you think one type is “better” than any other? Or do you like a big buffet with lots of choices?  

What do you try to put in your own fiction?

***

Historical notes:

The Victor Talking Machine Company’s logo featured a Jack Russell Terrier listening to an “external horn” player, cocking his head because he heard “his master’s voice” coming out of the horn. The name of the dog is “Nipper.”

The external horn machine was not a Victrola. Victrola was exclusively used for a model that had the horn inside a nicely designed cabinet, with small doors in the front that opened and closed. There were many fine Victrola designs, like this one:

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Storytelling Saves Lives

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

001-scheherazade-and-shahryar-theredlist

Once upon a time there was a king of Persia who witnessed his wife’s clandestine infidelity. Distraught, the king cried out, “Only in utter solitude can man be safe from the doings of this vile world!”

He then had his executioner dispatch the queen. And he swore an oath that he would ever after take a virgin as wife, abate her maidenhood that night, and slay her the next morning. This plan was to “make sure of my honor. For there never was nor is there one chaste woman upon the face of earth!”

Too bad there was no Xanax back then.

Anyway, the king’s project proceeded apace, until the supply of local maidens began to dry up. One day the king tasked his chief wazir to bring him a beautiful bride-to-be, but the poor counsel could not find one … except his own, beloved daughter.

Her name was Scheherazade.

To save her father’s life, Scheherazade insisted on being delivered to the king. Her resolve was a wonder to her father. What he didn’t know was that the clever Scheherazade had a plan of her own.

She was going to tell stories.

It was midnight when Scheherazade arose from the marriage bed and asked the king’s permission to spin him a yarn. And so she began … told a mesmerizing tale … and left off with a cliffhanger!

The king was so pleased by this that he gave her another night to finish the story. She did, then started a new one, and left off at another page-turning moment. So the king spared her again!

And so it went, for 1001 nights, as Scheherazade extended her life by the power of her storytelling. Included in the tales were the likes of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “Sinbad the Sailor,” and “Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp.”

After the whole cycle, the king was thoroughly smitten (about freakin’ time!), and decided to spare Scheherazade and make her queen.

Storytelling, you see, saves lives.

As I was working on this subject, writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch shared a most interesting post. She wrote about the days following the 9/11 attacks, the despair, the feeling that “we were all waiting for another, equally horrible shoe to drop.”

She needed to escape.

Thank heavens for J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. I had never read Harry Potter, and frankly, I wasn’t planning to. But I had the first book, and since nothing else was holding my attention (besides the tragedy), I started to read.

And escaped. Harry’s world is different enough from ours to shut out the horrors of the real world, and heal. I will forever associate those books with that need for healing.

I also credit them for teaching me about the value of fiction.

***

I had forgotten that fiction got me through a dark, bleak, and lonely childhood. I had forgotten that stories were the only thing that bonded me and my cold, unhappy mother. I had forgotten that stories got me through tragedies and injuries and losses. I had forgotten just how important escape was, how essential it is to rest, relaxation, and gearing up to go another round in the fight—whatever that fight is.

Dean Koontz makes much the same point in his book, How to Write Best-Selling Fiction. “I write to entertain. In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape.”

My friend, the late Stephen Bly, once told a group of writers why he wrote the kinds of books he did. First, it was for “Jannie-Rae,” his beloved wife (the writer Janet Chester Bly). Then, he said, it was for that single mom who has put in a hard day at work. She picks up the kids from day care, brings them home, feeds them, gets them washed and in bed. And now she has a few moments to herself before falling asleep, and picks up a book.

If it was to be his book, he wanted it to carry that mom away and give her the fictive dream and the uplift of an inspiring story.

Isn’t that all to the good? Stress relief can extend life. Entertainment can make the present life better. Sure, we can have challenging fiction of various kinds, but the real power comes from the “lostness” of a reader inside a compelling narrative.

That should be the goal, anyway. Just ask Scheherazade.

Have you ever had a book take you out of a dark time? Provide solace? Make you glad to be alive?

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Top Ten Things You Need to Know About Characters

Scarlett210. Characters are how  readers connect to story

I’ve read books about the history of eras, and while interesting, they are nothing compared to a good biography (I’m currently reading H. W. Brands’ biography of Andrew Jackson). Why? Because we are more fascinated with people than epochs. (I once heard history described as “biography on a timeline.”)

We all love twisty turny plots, chases, love, hate, fights, freefalls––all of that. But unless readers connect to character first, none of that matters.

9. On the other hand, character without plot is a blob of glup

Contrary to what some believe, a novel is not “all about character.” To prove the point, let’s think about Scarlett O’Hara. Do you want 400 pages of Scarlett sitting on her front porch, flirting? Going to parties and throwing hissy fits? I didn’t think so. What is it that makes us keep watching Scarlett? A little thing called the Civil War.

A novel is not a story until a character is forced to show strength of will against the complications of plot. Plot brings out true character, rips off the mask, and that’s what readers really want to see.

“Blob of glup,” by the way, is a term I remember from my mom reading me The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber. I always thought it quite descriptive.

8. Lead characters don’t have to be morally good, just good at something

Two of the most popular books in our language are about negative characters. I define a negative character as one who is doing things that the community (theirs, and ours) do not approve of, that harm other people. A Christmas Carol has Scrooge, and Gone With the Wind has Scarlett. Why would a reader want to follow them?

Two reasons: They want to see them redeemed, or they want to see them get their “just desserts.”

The trick to rendering a negative Lead is to show, early, a capacity for change. When Scrooge is taken back to his boyhood, we see in him, for the first time, some compassionate emotion. Maybe he’s not a lost cause after all!

Or show that the negative character has strength, which could be an asset if put to good use. Scarlett has grit and determination (fueled by her selfishness) and just dang well gets things done. We admire that, and hope by the end of the book she’ll turn it to something that actually helps those in her world. She does, but by then it’s too late. Rhett just doesn’t give a damn.

7. Characters need backstory before readers do

Yes, you have to know your character’s biography, at least the high points. One question I like to ask is what happened to the character at sixteen? That’s a pivotal, shaping year (unless your character actually is sixteen, in which case I’d go to age eight).

But you don’t have to reveal all the key information to readers up front. In fact, it’s good to withhold it, especially a secret or a wound. Show the character behaving in a way that hints at something from the past, currents below the surface. Why does Rick in Casablanca stick his neck out for nobody? Why does he play chess alone? Why doesn’t he protect Ugarte? Why doesn’t he love Paris? We see him act in accord with these mysteries, and don’t get answers until well into the film.

6. But readers want to know a little something about the character they’re following

Against the advice that you should have absolutely zero backstory in the first fifty pages, I say do what Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Connelly and most every bestselling novelist does: sprinkle in bits of backstory in the opening pages. But only what is necessary to help readers bond to character.

A rule of thumb I give in my workshops is this: In the first ten pages, you can have three sentences of backstory, used all together or spread out. In the next ten pages, you can have three paragraphs of backstory, used all together or spaced out. This will force you to examine closely what you include, saving the rest for later, and letting the story get cracking.

5. Memorable characters create cross-currents of emotion in the reader

We all know about inner conflict. A character is unsure about what he’s about to do, and there’s an argument in his heart and soul, giving him reasons both for and against the action. That’s good stuff, and one way to get there is to identify the fear a character feels in each scene.

But to create even greater cross-currents of emotion in the reader, consider having the character do something the absolute reverse of what the reader expects. Brainstorm ideas for this, and you’ll often find a great one down the list, beyond your predictability meter. Put that action in. Write it. Have other characters react to it.   

Only then find a way to justify the behavior, and work that into your material.

It was E. M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, who defined “round” (as opposed to “flat”) characters as those who are “capable of surprising us in a convincing way.”

4. Great villains are justified, at least to themselves

The antagonist (or as I like to put it, the Opponent) is someone who is dedicated to stopping the Lead. It does not have to be a villain, or “bad guy.” It just has to be someone on the other side of one definition of plot: two dogs and one bone.

When you do have a bad guy opponent, don’t fall into the trap of painting him with only one color. The pure-evil villain is boring and manipulative, and readers won’t fall for it. You’re also robbing them of a deeper reading experience (for which they’ll thank you by looking for your next book).

One exercise I give in workshops is the opponent’s closing argument. Pretend they have to address a jury and justify their actions. They are not going to argue, “Because I’m just a bad guy. I’m a psycho. I was born this way!” No bad guy thinks he’s bad. He thinks he’s right.

Make that argument. Weave the results into your book.

3. Don’t waste your minor characters

One of the biggest mistakes I see new writers make is putting stock characters into minor roles: The burly bartender, wiping glasses behind the bar; the boot-wearing, cowboy-hat-sporting, redneck truck driver; the saucy, wise-cracking waitress.

Instead, give each minor character something to set him or her apart from the stereotype. Think of:

• Going against type (a female truck driver, for example)

• An odd tick or quirk

• A distinct speaking style

Use minor characters as allies or irritants. Even those who have only one scene. A doorman, for example. Instead of his opening the door for your Lead, have him give the Lead a hard time. Or have your Lead in a hurry but the cab driver is lethargic and chatty.

A little time spent on spicing up minor characters will add mounds of reading pleasure to your readers.

2. Great characters delight us

When I ask people to name their favorite books or movies, and then ask why, it’s invariably because of one great character. As good as Harrison Ford is in The Fugitive, people always mention Tommy Lee Jones, and even his famous line, “I don’t care!”

The Silence of the Lambs? Two great characters. The absolutely unforgettable Hannibal Lecter, and the insecure but dogged trainee, Clarice Starling. Lecter delights us (because we are all a little twisted) with his wit, deviousness, and dietary habits. Clarice delights us because she’s the classic underdog who fights both professional and personal demons.

1. Great characters elevate us

Truly enduring characters end up teaching us something about humanity and, therefore, about ourselves. They elevate us. And that is true even if the character is tragic. As Aristotle pointed out long ago, the tragic character creates catharsis, a purging of the tragic flaw, thus making us better by subtraction.

On the positive side, I think of Harry Bosch and Atticus Finch, both on a seemingly impossible quest for justice. I’m the better for reading about them, and those are the kinds of books I always read more than once.

On the negative side, I think of the aforementioned Scarlett O’Hara. We are pulling for her to do the right thing, to get with it, to join the community of the good. Then she goes off an marries some other guy she doesn’t love and uses him mercilessly. When she finally suffers the consequences of her actions we, too, are duly warned.

So, TKZers, when you think of an unforgettable character, who comes to mind? What is it about this character that moves you? Elevates you? Makes you want more of the same?

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