Two Writing Mind Tricks to Get You Rolling

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

You know me. I’m a quota guy. I call that the best writing advice I ever got. It’s the reason I can look back over 25 years and see all these books lined up.

I write 6,000 words a week. I divide that into six days so I can take one day (usually Sunday) off. If I miss a day for some reason, I make up the deficit on the other days. Since 2000 I’ve kept a record of my daily, weekly, and yearly word count on a spreadsheet.

Every now and then I’ll have a week where I do very little writing, if any. I highlight those weeks on the spreadsheet and note the reason. One time it was pneumonia. Another time it was a week-long conference. Most recently it was a trip to Ireland with my wife and daughter. I give myself a pass in these instances.

Aren’t I nice?

Most days, however, I try to write first or second thing in the morning. If I can hammer out a “Nifty 350” or a “Furious 500,” the rest of the writing day is so much easier. Some days the words flow. Other days writing feels like trying to jog in snow shoes through the La Brea Tar Pits.

You all know what I mean.

After 25 years of this, I dare say I’m familiar with just about every mental condition of the writing life.

So today I want to talk about two mind tricks that will help you get going on days when those snow shoes are attached.

  1. Fifteen Minutes

In the current (October, 2017) Writer’s Digest, David Corbett interviews Michael Connelly. At the end he asked Connelly for his best advice for aspiring writers. Connelly said:

I’d pass along what I learned from Harry Crews, who was my creative writing teacher at the University of Florida. He said if you want to be a writer you have to write every day, even it’s only for 15 minutes. It was the “15 minutes” that hit home. You have to keep the story fresh in your mind; you can’t let it slip away.

A few days ago I was avoiding the blank screen. I remembered the Connelly quote. I looked at the clock and said to myself, “At 11 a.m., I will give fifteen minutes to writing.” That felt doable. It wasn’t a heavy burden.

So at 11:00 I sat down and started typing. I noticed it wasn’t long before I was into the story again. When I next looked at the clock it was 11:25 and I’d typed 654 words.

  1. The One-Inch Frame

This idea comes from Anne Lamott and her book on writing, Bird by Bird. She writes about having an empty one-inch picture frame on her desk.

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car—just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing the woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.

This has worked for me, too. If I bring my focus down to just one thing, and forget about the big picture that is an entire novel, it feels easier to accomplish. Invariably, after I fill that frame, I want to keep going. So I’ll write to another one-inch frame. After that I’m usually off to the races and the words flow again.

As Yogi Berra once said about baseball, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” The same goes for writing, especially if it’s something you want to do long term. That’s why I wrote a whole book on the mental game of writing.

Next time you’re stuck because you just don’t feel like clacking the keyboard, give yourself fifteen minutes or a one-inch frame. You can do that much, and you’ll probably end up doing much more.

So what about you? What tricks do you use to get yourself going when the going gets tough?

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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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To Age, or Not at All

angel headstone

(Photo by Alexy Sergeev, who retains all rights therein)

My friend and fellow TKZ contributor Joe Moore offered up an excellent post three weeks ago concerning the pros and cons of writing a series versus writing a standalone novel. You can find it here if you wish to refresh your recollection of it. My little offering today is focused upon an issue which arises in a literary series when— oh joy! — it becomes extremely popular and continues for books and books and years and years.  Lurking in that blessing is a problem: do you let your primary characters age gracefully, or not at all?

I have been fascinated with this problem since I was nine years old. I was reading a daily comic strip at the time titled “Dondi.” It was created by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen and was about a World War II war orphan who was brought back to the United States and adopted by a G.I. The strip had been going for five years by the time I discovered it in 1960; my mother, seeing me reading it, wryly observed that Dondi was the only five-year old kid in 1960 who could still remember World War II. Dondi stayed five until the strip shut down in 1986. This got me thinking about the problem of aging in fiction, one that is confronting a number of authors right now.  No one really expects characters like Spenser or Lucas Davenport or Harry Bosch or Jack Reacher, to age in real time. What occurs in a novel of genre fiction typically takes place over a few days or weeks, with a new novel being published every year or two. I have heard it said that a year in real time translates into a month or two in the world of the fictitious character, less than that if the succeeding book picks up where the previous book left off. The problem, however, is that when you have series that have survived for three decades and beyond that, events in the real world overtake a long-running series. It’s the Dondi problem, if you will: how is it that a veteran of the Vietnam War is tracking a GPS location on their android phone in 2012, all the while climbing fences and taking down the bad-uns like the thirty-something year old they were when the series started in 1982? Even the most youthful characters should be manifesting signs of becoming long in the tooth at that point. Yes, some authors are addressing this to varying degrees. Ace Atkins, who picked up the Spenser reins from the late Robert B. Parker, is slowing him down just a bit, letting age and damage manifest themselves incrementally but irrevocably. Michael Connelly and John Sandford seem to be moving Bosch and Davenport, respectively, into new situations where they might not be quite as physically active as they were twenty or more years ago. James Lee Burke addressed the problem of age brilliantly in LIGHT OF THE WORLD, wherein he appears (and I stress “appears”) to write finis to the darkly poetic accounts of the life of Dave Robicheaux. Age and death may be inevitable; it is tough, however, to contemplate saying goodbye to these folks, to watch them walk upright, if a bit stiffly, into the sunset.  Do they necessarily have to age? Or can they be like Dennis the Menace or Bart Simpson, stuck in the amber of grade school forever?

For those of you honoring me with your presence today…what say you? If you are writing a series, do you plan to age your characters at some point? Do you have an end game planned? Or will they be forever young? And readers of series…what do you think? Do you want your favorite characters to age, or do you prefer them to be forever young? Do you have a preference?

 

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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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