Write Diamonds

by James Scott Bell

We are, of course, flooded with books these days. The Forbidden City still puts out product. The indie output is a veritable tsunami that swells ever larger each day. While most of it is bad (per Sturgeon’s Law), there is also a sizable chunk that is competent, even good.

Which is not enough to make it in this game. You’ve got to strive for unforgettable. You’ve got to write diamonds that sparkle through the rock piles and gravel pits of content.

Emotional intensity is one ingredient that will help get you there.

There’s an axiom attributed to Robert Frost: No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. That is another way of saying you must feel deeply as you write your story, and transfer that feeling to the readers.

Let me offer some tips.

1. Feel it

In my theater days I learned a technique handed down from legendary acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky. It’s called “emotion memory.” You think back to a time when you felt the emotion you want to convey in a scene. Get in a quiet place and recreate the memory with all its sensory data. That means what you saw, smelled, touched, heard and tasted.

As you recall these sensations you will discover that the emotion wells up afresh within you. The sense memories are causing you to experience the emotion as if it were happening in the present.

With a little practice you’ll be able to call up emotions as you need them when you’re about to write a scene.

2. Improvise

Invite your characters to play around. Take a seat in the movie theater of your mind and watch what happens.

Close your eyes and conjure up a character. Set the scene, whatever pops into your head.

Follow the character. How does she move? What is she wearing? How does she react to the setting?

Now give her a reason for being in the scene. Where is she going? Why? Have her turn to the “audience” and say exactly what she’s after. Make that hugely important to her.

[Note: this is not an actual scene for your novel (unless you choose to use it). This is a scene to get to know your character more deeply. Let it surprise you.]

With your character on the way toward a goal, introduce another character into your scene, someone who will be the opposition.

Watch the scene unfold. Don’t try to control it. Let emotions run rampant. Have the characters struggle and fight. Where’s the passion?

The late Stephen J. Cannell, author of the Shane Scully series, said, “I’m a visceral writer. I do improvs through the books. I become the characters. I’ll say something as Shane, then I’ll say something as [his wife] Alexa. And it’ll tick me off. And I’ll react to that. I have to know what my characters want and I have to feel things. That’s part of the fun of it for me.”

Stay attuned also to images that will begin to arise in your imagination at odd times. E. L. Doctorow said he was feeing a “heightened sense of emotion” when visiting the Adirondacks after many years. He saw a sign that read Loon Lake. He liked the sound of the words together, and then a flood of images washed over him—a private train at night going through the Adirondacks; gangsters onboard; a beautiful girl holding a white dress in front of a mirror. He had no idea what the images meant, but started writing about them anyway.

Improvisational images will lead to story material pulsating with emotion.

3. Plan

Let your left brain pitch in and help. Ask some key questions before you write a scene:

– Who is the viewpoint character in this scene?

– What does he want?

– Why can’t he have it? Who or what is opposing him?

– What obstacles are placed in his way?

– What strategy will he use to get what he wants?

– What surprises can happen that will lead to emotional turmoil and the necessity for new plans?

4. Write

Write your scenes as fast as you comfortably can. This is not the time for editorial decisions. Get the words down and overwrite the emotional moments. Let yourself go! Get inside that character. Now, come back to this scene the next day and edit things down to where they feel right. You might only retain a line or two, but because you found them in the overwriting they’ll be choice.

5. Finish, Cut, and Polish

Write on. Keep the momentum. Finish the dang novel!

If you’ve written with emotion your draft will be a raw gem of great value. Now finish the job like an expert diamond cutter. This is the editing process, which I cover in some detail here. Another book I recommend is Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

My final step is always a polish—I look one more time at scene openings and endings, and long dialogue exchanges (where a trim here and there makes a big difference).

Diamonds are formed by heat. So is great fiction. Feel your characters and plots intensely to produce a precious stone. Then cut and polish. That’s how your fiction will stand out from the pile of the merely competent.

What are some of the ways you bring emotion to your pages?

Little Writing Speed Bumps

traffic-sign-24338_1280There are two reasons to study the craft of fiction writing. The first is to learn tools and techniques that actually work, that have been tested over time. Some of these might be so valuable as to rise to the level of “rules.” A rule, of course, can be broken, but only if you have a very good reason to do so and know exactly what that reason is. Otherwise you’re flirting with danger, like a brain surgeon who decides on a whim to use a butter knife instead of a scalpel.

The other reason for study is to learn what doesn’t work, what trips up a story. You learn not to do certain things.

Some of these errors are relatively small. But commit too many of them and they will have a cumulative, and negative, effect on the reader. I call these errors “speed bumps.”

It’s like this. You’re enjoying a pleasant drive through a scenic part of the country. You’re relaxed, the vistas are inspiring. You forget for a moment that you’re driving and you just take pleasure in the sights.

Then you hit a speed bump. You come out of your reverie for just a moment. But if it’s the only bump you hit, you quickly get back into the nice-drive mode.

But what happens if you keep running over speed bumps? Pretty soon your nice drive is completely ruined and you vow you’ll never take this road again.

That’s the way it is with speed bumps in writing. Most readers don’t consciously analyze these. They don’t sit there and think, Wow, he should not have used an adverb there! But there is a little jolt inside that reader’s mind, back there in the subconscious zone. I contend that enough of these small bumps can ruin the reading pleasure of a book. In some cases it may mean the difference between a reader seeking out another of your titles, or deciding not to give you further consideration.

You don’t want that, do you? So un-bump your writing! That’s one sure way to elevate your craft.

I am now going to offer you an exhibit. This is from a well-regarded and bestselling writer, one whose books I have enjoyed in the past. I want you to read it over and see if you can spot the speed bump. The scene is a restaurant:

“So she didn’t talk specifically about her mother?”

“Just about the murder. The murder is very big in her life.”

The waitress brought us menus.

“My God,” he said. “Actual food.”

“No reduction of kiwi,” I said.

“No skate wings,” Paul said. “No pâté of Alsatian bluebird. No caramelized parsnip puree with fresh figs.”

The waitress took our order.

“Why do you suppose she didn’t want me to talk with her aunt?”

“Daryl’s hard to understand,” Paul said.

“She ever talk about her father?” I said.

“No. I always sort of assumed he was dead.”

“Siblings?” I said.

“She never mentioned any.”

“How long have you known her?”

“Two years,” Paul said. “We worked together in the first play I did in Chicago. When she’s up, she’s a hell of a lot of fun.”

The waitress brought smothered pork chops for Paul, spaghetti and meatballs for me.

“Why are you asking about her?”

“Because I don’t know about her.”

Paul was nodding as I spoke.

Ask yourself if there is any small thing in that scene that might cause a casual reader to feel a subconscious bump, and a more alert reader to actually stop and say, Hold on there a minute. Something’s not right!

Cue Jeopardy music:

Dum dada dum dada dum dum dah, dum dum dum dum DOT dee dada dada….

Time’s up!

Here’s my take: These two men are in a restaurant discussing a murder that took place years ago. The waitress appears and gives them menus…and then stands there while they joke around. In the real world, a waitress would leave the menus and give them time to read them. Or ask for a drink order. I waited tables, my friends!

But maybe we can let that one slide.

They continue their conversation. What they say to each other takes about 23 seconds. I timed it. And then the waitress returns with their full meals! There is no time lapse, either, because as soon as the plates are put down the conversation continues in exactly the same spot!

So either this waitress is the love child of Supergirl and The Flash, or reality has been blithely tossed out the window.

It’s a pet peeve of mine: restaurant scenes where the food timing is all off. I do see it often. In film it’s usually a bar scene where they order martinis and the bartender goes out of the scene for fifteen seconds, then comes back with two perfect martinis that could be neither shaken nor stirred. It always takes me out of the scene. And it’s so unnecessary.

Care enough about your readers to study the craft so you can root out speed bumps. Some will slip by. You just don’t want to fill the road with them. I’m here to help.

There. Off my chest. Now it’s your turn. What speed bumps to you notice in books? Pet peeves that take you out of the story? What do you have to watch for in your own writing?