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?

Write Like You’re in Love, Edit Like You’re in Charge

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Several years ago I tweeted the words that are the title of this post. The phrase went viral (is there such a thing as going bacterial? I’m done with viruses!) It got passed around and was picked up by the great writing tips author Jon Winokur (@AdviceToWriters). The phrase aptly sums up my approach to writing a novel.

I thought today I’d unpack it a little, and ask for your responses.

Write Like You’re in Love

Coming up with a great idea, one that gets your nerve endings buzzing, is like love at first sight. You’re giddy. You can’t wait to spend precious months with this new romance.

When you start writing it’s all champagne and moonlight walks on the beach.

But then, out of the blue, you find yourself in an argument. The book is resisting you. Or vice versa.

Usually this happens to me around the 30k mark. I start to think maybe this isn’t going to work out after all.

You say to the book, “You’re not giving me what I need.”

And the book says, “This is how you treat me? After all I’ve done? I’ve given you the best pages of my life!”

Fortunately, I’ve found this little dustup to be only temporary. Let me suggest two ways to kiss and make up with your novel.

First, go more deeply into the characters. Pick any one of them (and not necessarily your Lead) and write some backstory. Create more of their history and use that to come up with a secret or a ghost.

A secret is simply that which the character doesn’t want anyone to know about, for some personal reason related to backstory.

A ghost is an event from the past that haunts the character in the present, and causes the character to act in certain ways. It’s best to let those actions happen without an immediate reveal. It creates mystery for the reader, always a good thing.

Five or ten minutes with these brainstorms will get your story juices flowing again. You’ll want to keep writing just to see what happens to these people!

Second, jump ahead and write a scene you feel excited about. Write it for all it’s worth. Then drop back and pick up the story and figure out a way to get to that scene.

These tips will help keep the love fires burning, like bringing the wife flowers even when it isn’t Valentine’s Day.

(Also see my post “When Writers Hit the Wall.”)

Edit Like You’re in Charge

Once you have a complete draft, you move into the hard-scrapple world of revision. And here you need a system.

The late Jeremiah Healy was a popular author-speaker on the conference circuit. In one of my writing books I found a clipped page from a newsletter I used to get called Creativity Connection. I’d saved it because it was a summary of one of Healy’s talks. In it he described his system of approach after writing a first draft:

  • He set aside the draft for a month.
  • He printed out a hard copy and read it through in one day, not making a marks on the manuscript (“Once you start, you won’t be able to stop.”)
  • He looked for “holes in the plot, underdeveloped characters, anomalies, and inconsistencies.”
  • He edited the draft to address any problems.
  • He next submitted it to three beta readers. “One should be an intelligent general reader. The second should be familiar with your genre. The third should be the dumbest bunny you can find.”
  • Then another edit, based on this feedback.
  • Finally, create the “cinderblock manuscript.” By this he meant the final polish on the old-school paper manuscript you used to submit to a publisher (the shape of a cinderblock). He worked especially hard on the first three pages. “When agents—who get buried in 50 manuscripts a week—decide which of the ‘cinderblock’ manuscripts to take home and read, they do so by reading the first three pages. It may be harsh, but it’s not arbitrary. Eighty-five percent of book buyers decide their purchases by applying the same test.”

That’s a good system, and very close to the one I use myself.

And systems can often be improved by adding a formula. Here’s one I’ll leave you with. It came in an early rejection letter the young (1966) Stephen King received from a science fiction magazine. It was a form rejection, but the nice editor had scribbled the following on it:

“Not bad, but puffy. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”

Now it’s your turn. How do you keep the love as you make your way through the first draft? Do you have a system for revision?

Advice for the Demoralized Writer

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I know a demoralized writer. [Note: This is a composite portrait, though everything in it is fact based.] Said writer had written a number of good novels for a small house, then landed a two-book contract with one of the Big 5. The first book came out to mostly positive reviews, but not massive sales. The second book had to build on the first and make some serious money to justify the advance. The author worked really, really hard on this novel. It was in a popular genre, had a good title, and a great cover. The writer did all the right things marketing-wise, too.

But the book didn’t hit it big. It got a large number of 2 and 3 star reviews (some 1s as well, but those seem unfair, which is usually the case with 1s). Suffice to say, this has ended the professional relationship of said writer with Big Pub.

Demoralizing.

This writer has not written anything since. I have suggested the indie route, but this writer does not have the desire to learn a whole new set of tasks. It appears this career, until further notice, is over.

Another writer I know of was given an insane advance and a two-book contract back in the wild 90s, when such deals were not uncommon.

The first book, a thriller, was put out with a big marketing push from the publisher. I remember seeing the book featured prominently in the window of a Barnes & Noble. The bio on the dust jacket described said author as the next big name in action thrillers.

Well, the book tanked. Had it been even a moderate hit, there’s no way it could have sold enough copies to cover the advance.

When the second book came out, the publisher gave it no support. I went to the same B&N to find it. It was not prominently displayed. Indeed, I found only one copy, spine out, in the thriller section. This book died. The author, someone told me later, had fallen into the abyss of strong drink.

For a writer, demoralization is always lurking, waiting to be a soul killer. We can’t let that happen.

We’re talking here about the mental game of writing. (Someone should write a book about that.) It’s every bit as important as the craft. Without the right brain settings our writing will stall, drift, flame out or otherwise suffer. All writers must be ready to meet the challenge of demoralization.

The main cause of which, the philosophers and theologians tell us, is expectations unfulfilled. We set ourselves up to desire a result, and want it so deeply, that when it doesn’t happen devastation is inevitable.

Buddha figured this out and proposed a solution: get rid of all desire!

The Stoics, on the other hand, accepted that we all have desires and dreams and worries and fears. Their key to happiness is learning how to focus your thoughts only on what you can act upon, and forget the all the rest.

As Prof. Massimo Pigliucci puts it in his course Think Like a Stoic:

The Roman writer Cicero explained the Stoic position by considering an archer who is trying to hit a target. The archer can decide how assiduously to practice, which arrows and bow to select, and how to care for them. They also control their focus right up the moment they let go of the arrow. But once the arrow leaves the bow, nothing at all is under the archer’s control. A sudden gust of wind might deflect the best shot, or the target—say, an enemy soldier—might suddenly move.

Hitting the target is what you’re after, so it’s what you pursue. But success or failure does not, in and of itself, make you a good or bad archer. This means that you should not attach your self-worth to the outcome but only to the attempt. Then, you will achieve what the ancients called ataraxia: the kind of inner tranquility that results from knowing you’ve done everything that was in your power to do.

For a writer, then, what is out of your control is how your book does in the marketplace. What you can control are your work habits, study of the craft, and interactions with editors and beta readers. On a daily basis, it’s you and the page. You control what words you put down, and how many.

When the book is published, you control what marketing methods to pursue. You can spend money on ads, put out the word on social media, notify your email list, and beg your mom to buy copies for the entire extended family for Christmas.

But after that, it’s out of your hands. The Stoics would say: Don’t give any thought to outcomes. Eradicate such musings from your mind as a good gardener kills weeds.

I learned this lesson years ago. I won a literary award, the Christy. It was the first year of the awards, so I had no expectations. Thus, I had a good, relaxed time at the banquet, and winning was frosting.

The next year I was a finalist again, but this time I was all hopped up on really wanting to win again. That’s all I thought about in the weeks leading up to the banquet. My stomach churned at the dinner, and not because of the rubber chicken. When I didn’t win I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. This feeling lasted a couple of days.

And then it occurred to me that this was a useless and stupid way to feel.

So I went back to the wisdom of the Stoics (one helpful book is The Stoic Art of Living by Tom Morris).

Epictetus

Cut to: Fifteen years later. I was again up for an award, this one from the International Thriller Writers. I did everything in my mental power not to think about it. When I did, I noted the thought and immediately replaced it with something like, “Stop it!”

My wife and I went to New York for the convention and the banquet. When the finalists in my category were announced, I noted that I was pleasantly serene. Epictetus would have been proud!

When my name was called as the winner, it was an unexpected gift, which is the best kind. All the more because I hadn’t been knotted up with expectations.

I offer this example simply to illustrate that you can control your thoughts. It takes practice. It takes many times when you think, Oh, here’s a thought. Is it about anything within my control? No? Then get outta here! (See also this stoic article.)

So to any demoralized writers out there, if writing is still something you want to do (and, deep down, you know that it is), then do this: keep showing up at the keyboard. Dive bravely and daringly into the daily page. Get lost in the telling of your tale. When you start to think But what if this isn’t good enough? or What if this doesn’t sell? or What if I’m just a talentless doofus? give yourself a quick kick to the cerebrum and write some more.

Do this over and over, and soon your brain will get the message and make it a habit. Demoralization will lose its power over you.

You’ll be a writer again.

Quotes

“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.” – David Eddings

“I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable….If I write rapidly…I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” – Stephen King, On Writing

All of you have faced demoralization at one time or another. How did you handle it? Any advice for a demoralized writer?

Deep Backstory

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Back in 1988, on the day I decided I had to become a writer, I laid out a plan. I would read books on the craft, even though I’d been told several times that you can’t learn to write by reading writing books (which I soon discovered was a crock). I also went to my favorite used bookstore, the marvelous A & M Booksellers in Canoga Park (sadly, they had to close up shop when the 2008 recession hit; happily they still do business online). This wonderland had a large, revolving inventory of popular paperbacks. On this day I bought an armload of books by Grisham, King, and Koontz. I wanted to read them systematically to try and figure out what they did that was so good.

It was a superb education.

One thing I noticed with Mr. King was something I didn’t have a name for. It just seemed to me that his characters were so … real. He gave them lives that were vivid and detailed. And that, more than anything else (in my estimation) is what has made King so immensely popular. He weds an imaginative plot with characters you can almost touch. I believe he, like Dickens, will be remembered as much for his characterizations as his twisty-turny storylines. 

As was my wont in those days, I wrote a note about that in my ever-expanding document about technique. Eventually I called it “deep backstory.”

I was reminded about this the other day when I read one of his short stories, “The Things They Left Behind,” which is included in his collection Just After Sunset. It’s a moving story about a man with survivor guilt because he “played hooky” from his job at an insurance company in the Twin Towers on 9/11. Of course, several of his friends and co-workers died.

One day the narrator, Scott Staley, returns to his locked apartment and finds a pair of distinctive sunglasses with red frames on a table (they had not been there when he left). But wait…sunglasses like these had belonged to Sonja D’Amico, a colleague of his who died on 9/11. Also, leaning on a wall, is a baseball bat. But not just any bat. It’s a bat that another dead co-worker, insurance adjuster Cleve Farrell, had at his desk. Farrell had used a hot iron to burn CLAIMS ADJUSTOR into the wood. 

How could these items possibly be here? That, of course, is a King-ish story question. And in another writer’s hands it might have become a mere puzzle. But King weaves in backstory magic that brings the characters marvelously to life.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

I felt that way, too. Yes indeed. Because those sunglasses had to be gone—long-time gone, as the Dixie Chicks say. Ditto Cleve Farrell’s Claims Adjustor. (“Besbol been bery-bery good to mee,” Cleave would sometimes say, waving the bat over his head as he sat at his desk. “In-SHOO-rance been bery-bery bad.”)

King likes to reference popular culture in his stories (e.g., Dixie Chicks), which some writing teachers warn against. Bosh, I say. Even if someone reading the story years hence has never heard of the Dixie Chicks, it sounds real and truthful. 

But look especially at the parenthetical bit. Those of us old enough to remember the early years of Saturday Night Live will recognize the words of Chico Esquela, a Dominican baseball player created by cast member Garrett Morris. We’re talking late 70s now. But even if a reader of King’s story in 2020 has no idea who Morris-as-Chico was, the material still works. It sounds unique and lifelike, something a middle-class insurance adjustor might have said when horsing around. 

Later, Scott hears ghostly voices in conversation:

Sometimes they talked about the picnic at Jones Beach—the coconut odor of suntan lotion and Lou Bega singing “Mambo No. 5” over and over from Misha Bryzinski’s boom box. Or they talked about Frisbees sailing under the sky while dogs chased them. Sometimes they discussed children puddling along the wet sand with the seats of their shorts and their bathing suits sagging. Mothers in swimsuits ordered from the Lands’ End catalogue walking beside them with white gloop on their noses. How many of the kids that day had lost a guardian Mom or a Frisbee-throwing Dad? Man, that was a math problem I didn’t want to do. But the voices I heard in my apartment did want to do it. They did it over and over.

I find that paragraph brilliant. The sense of smell and sound and sight. And the specificity of detail. Not just music, but Lou Bega singing “Mambo No. 5”; not just swimsuits, but swimsuits ordered from the Lands’ End catalogue. 

Now, Mr. King is a well-known pantser. His approach, as explicated in his book On Writing, is: The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—comes next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate.

So all of that good, deep backstory comes out of King as he writes. That explains things like that parenthetical, above. He thought of a character with a bat, then his imagination went into overdrive to personalize it … it was a baseball bat … a voice from the memory chamber echoed in King’s mind: “Besbol been bery-bery good to mee.” Wait. That was Chico Esquela, right? Yeah, and that’s something unique this character might have said. 

The character was coming to life before his eyes during the writing. But there’s no reason you can’t do this discovery before you write. In my book, Writing Unforgettable Characters, I recommend creating a “voice journal” for each character:

This is a free-form document where I just let the character talk to me. I might prompt him with questions, as if I’m doing an interview. “Tell me about your home growing up.” Or “What’s your philosophy of life?”

What I want is for the character to begin talking to me in a voice that is not mine. I’ll keep up this free-form writing until that voice emerges. And though I’m doing this mainly for the sound of the voice, I also end up with background material the character shares with me.

So either way, be ye plotter or pantser, allow your writer’s mind some wild time to dream up deep backstory. Write down a lot of it, then choose the best parts to weave into the narrative. Like the marbling in a rib-eye steak, this will add marvelous flavor to your story.

Giving an Old Book New Life

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Gather round the ol’ cracker barrel, children. Let me tell you a story of long ago, when the only place you could get books was a bookstore. Yes! It’s really true! 

Now, a bookstore was a wondrous place. It was a building made of bricks and mortar, and it had shelves filled with books you could touch, take down and look at—right there in the store!

In this land the only way a writer could get a book into those stores was by entering into a contract with a publishing company and ceding the rights to his work. 

Those were perilous times, children. A time of heady highs and dismal lows. There was the excitement of that first novel showing up on a shelf in a Barnes & Noble. Sure, it was only a copy or two, and only the spine showed. But you were there! Along with John Grisham, Stephen King, and Dean Koontz!

Well, sort of. Those guys took up a lot of shelf real estate with their backlist titles. You, the new kid on the block, were going to have to prove your commercial worth over a period of years before you got that attention. After all, the bookstores were in business to make a profit. Every month thousands of books swept into the stores for their debut. Most of these were swept right out again on the tide of the next month’s releases. If yours was one of them, you kept your hopes of making a buck or two alive by working on your next project.

Until your publisher decided, well, it doesn’t look like you’re making enough money for us to keep you around. Sorry, it was a nice try, and good luck to you.

Your books became, in the jargon, OOP—out of print. If you had low sales numbers it was unlikely another publisher, unless it was dinky, would offer you another contract.

You would be out in the cold, and your books, your precious babies, were still under the control of the company that dropped you.

Hopefully, you and your agent negotiated a fair Out-of-Print clause which would enable you to request your rights back. 

But then what? Again, it was highly unlikely that another company would reprint books that didn’t do so well the first time. Your backlist was essentially a ghost town.

Then into this land came a wizard named Bezos. With one wave of his magic wand he changed the game forever. Now there was a way for a writer to make some dough without a big publishing company, physical bookstores, or sales reps! How could such a wonderful thing be?

But it was.

Many a midlist writer began seeking rights reversions so they could make their “dead” titles available again. Even more, they could control pricing and promotions. They could give their titles the attention they had long been denied. And do so in the world’s largest bookstore! Once again, right alongside Grisham, King, and Koontz.

Huzzah!

And “Huzzah” is exactly what I am saying as I bring back to life one of my books from the “old days.” In doing so, I have given it a light edit, a new cover and title, but in all other respects left it true to its time and place. I am happy to announce the pre-publication of Long Lost (formerly published as The Whole Truth). 

At the age of five, Steve Conroy saw his seven-year-old brother kidnapped from the bedroom they shared. His brother was never found. And the guilt of his silence that night has all but destroyed Steve’s life.

Now thirty years old with a failing law practice, Steve agrees to represent a convicted criminal, Johnny LaSalle, who has ties to a notorious family—and some information that threatens to blow Steve’s world apart. 

Desperate for his final shot at professional success, Steve will do anything to find the truth. But Johnny knows far more than he’s telling, and the secrets he keeps have deadly consequences. Now Steve must depend on an inexperienced law student whose faith seems to be his last chance at redemption from a corrupt world where one wrong move may be his last. 

I’m doing something Crazy Eddie-ish with this book. When I was living in New York in the 70s there was an electronics store called Crazy Eddie. It hired a fast-talking disc jockey named Jerry Carroll, who did something like 7500 commercials for them, with a rat-a-tat riff that ended with the tagline: “His prices are IN-SANE!” Have a look:

All that to say, my pre-pub deal price is IN-SANE! Only 99¢. For an 87,000 word novel. Why? Simply because I want my supportive readers to have it for a song (I can’t sing, so this is the nearest I’ll get). After launch I’ll price it at a sane $4.99. But you can  reserve your copy at the deal price by going to:

Amazon

Amazon Canada

Amazon UK

Amazon Australia

(A print version will follow shortly.)

And just so you know, it got some excellent trade reviews upon release. If I may:

“James Scott Bell takes this intriguing what-if concept and weaves it into yet another page-turning, redemptive thriller.” — 
TitleTrakk.com

“
This gritty tale will have readers cheering for Steve as he desperately tries to put the pieces of his life back together. The scenes and characters jump off the page to create a startling, emotionally stirring story. Deliciously suspenseful.
” — Romantic Times

The novel begins, They put Robert in Stevie’s room when Stevie started having night terrors.

It ends with said.

Thanks for listening. And help yourself to the crackers.

Should a Fiction Writer Use a Thesaurus?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Dr. Peter Mark Roget

In college my roommates and I used to play a game with a dictionary. We cleverly called it “The Dictionary Game.” It was played with a big dictionary and scraps of paper. When it was your turn you’d look through the dictionary until you came across a word no one was familiar with. You wrote down the correct definition. The other players made up fake definitions that sounded right. The object was to fool as many people in the game as you could. You got a point if you guessed the correct definition. You got a point if somebody guessed your fake definition. The person who chose the word would get a point for every wrong guess.

I learned some cool words this way. The one that has stayed with me for over forty years is borborygmus. It means a “rumbling in the bowels caused by gas.”

This still cracks me up. It’s an onomatopoeia, a word that sounds like the thing it describes (although onomatopoeia itself is definitely not an onomatopoeia). And it makes for a great insult: You borborygmic swine! That’ll stop a bad guy in his tracks!

Which brings me to the subject of word choices. We have them. We have a whole passel of them (passel: a large number or amount). We even have a resource dedicated to word choices—the thesaurus (brainchild of Dr. Peter Mark Roget [1779 – 1869], a British physician and lexicographer).

Which invites (not begs) the question: should a fiction writer use a thesaurus? Mr. Stephen King has an oft-quoted opinion on this matter, as expressed in “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully—in Ten Minutes.” This article appears in the 1989 edition of The Writer’s Handbook, which I just happen to have on my shelf (you can also find King’s essay here).

You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Well now! What are we to think … I mean, what are we to surmise, suppose, conjecture, conclude, and determine about Mr. King’s rule?

Some might call it bunk (balderdash, bosh, codswallop, twaddle). But the context of this quote comes under the heading: Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft. King wants you to get that story down, in flow. So much so that he has advice on another form of flow:

When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else but go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.

Ahem.

Anyway, I mostly agree with King. When you’re first setting down your tale, you should do so as expeditiously (swiftly, rapidly, efficiently) as possible. Don’t stop and go looking for a ten-dollar word when a buck or a fiver will do the job.

But I will offer a wee (used in the sense of little) exception. When King wrote his piece we were only in the beginnings of the personal computer age. At the time, King was using a dedicated word processor—a big (huge, bulky, Brobdingnagian) machine that did only one thing: saved your typing on floppy disks. Thesauruses (Thesauri?) were bound, paper books. It would take you precious flow-minutes to look up a word.

Now, of course, we all have personal computers with a Dictionary/Thesaurus app. I use mine most often to find a synonym for something mundane, like walk. Sure, a character can walk into a room. That doesn’t do much for the reader. So I open my computer thesaurus and in five seconds find: stroll, saunter, amble, trudge, plod, dawdle, hike, tramp, tromp, slog, stomp, trek, march, stride, sashay, glide, troop, limp, stumble, and lurch.

Recently, I was working on my NIP (novella in progress). I was writing a scene with a drug kingpin and his pet monkey. The monkey keeps shrieking. But I didn’t want to use that same word over and over. So I popped open the thesaurus and immediately found: scream, screech, squeal, squawk, roar, howl, shout, yelp. Just what I needed. I used five of them.

The alternative to using the thesaurus in this manner is that you sit at the keyboard for several minutes trying to come up with alternatives. But in this case “the hunt”— to use Mr. King’s term (expression, phrase, idiom, locution) — is faster and more efficient with a thesaurus app.

Is there another exception to Mr. King’s rule? I think so. I like to lightly edit my previous day’s work before jumping back into the first draft. When I do this I’ll sometimes find a spot where I wish to apply Mark Twain’s dictum: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” A minute or two here pays off in stylistic coin that will please your readers.

So I’m not ready to discard (jettison, scrap, chuck, dump, dish) my thesaurus.

What about you?

The Pandemic Invades Fiction – Is it a Game Changer?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

The longer I am cooped up behind my four walls, the more my mind wanders on how every day life will be changed by a life threatening virulent pathogen. When I thought the lock down would be for a month, I imagined it to be a vacation or an indulgence. But now that I see the virus invading all aspects of our lives – now and in the future – Covid19 will have an impact that we are only beginning to grasp. Similar to how 9/11 changed our sense of security in the world, how we traveled and how we fear “the other,” we will be defining this experience in new ways that will affect our writing too.

Writers at fanfiction.net are adapting very quickly to story lines that involve current events. They take their favorite TV shows or classic literature and add a COVID angle. Below are some spins I thought would give you an idea what I am writing about – my take.

1.) Imagine romance during the time of a pandemic. How would people “meet”? How would they practice social distancing & not jeopardize the important people in their lives? Is there an APP for that? Would they revive AVATARS to experience the physical aspects of a relationship from a safe distance? Let your imagination run wild. Stories could be romantic comedies or deadly angsty serious.

Picture a modernized version of ROMEO & JULIET where one family has antibodies but the other is pure blood and want to remain that way. Put two young lovers at the apex of a pandemic where governments must decide which family or race should be allowed to survive. A sick romance with a Hunger Games twist?

TAMING OF THE SHREW adaptation where genetics brings two unlikely & resentful lovers together for the sake of the human race’s survival.

2.) DOCTOR DOLITTLE UNDER QUARANTINE – A children’s book where the doctor only has animals to talk to.

3.) STEPHEN KING’S ‘IT’ ADAPTATION IN THE HORROR GENRE – where an isolated anti-hero has a lifelong neuroses about hygiene and disease and crosses the path of a vindictive serial-carrier (aka Pennywise, the clown). A series by the name of KILLING TIME.

4.) LES MISERABLES in a SciFi futuristic genre – Imagine a post-pandemic world where the politics of our time creates a rift between the classes. Rebellion born from pandemic and isolation.

5.) MAGAZINE SERIAL – For writers looking for a writer’s outlet. New York Magazine is looking for fresh takes on pandemic stories. Add the right amount of cynicism and angst with a vivid imagination, and you might sell your pitch.

What would happen if you wrote a series from the perspective of THE VIRUS? Think FANTASTIC VOYAGE (the movie) meets THE HOST (Author Stephenie Meyer-YA), a pathogen could be a sentient being (either from another planet or an awakened yet ancient species living deep in the rain forest until it’s disturbed). The only way they can survive is to inhabit a host and they live their lives by adapting to the human body and “living vicariously” through a larger host. 

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Have you been thinking of writing a story influenced by Covid19 or a pandemic? Tell us about it.

2.) How would you reinvent a classic literature or more modern bestseller to inject it with a deadly virus? Get creative.

PANDEMIC PASTTIMES:
If you’re going stir crazy during the Covid19 pandemic, Audible is generously offering FREE READS at this LINK. I love audio books and listen to them most nights. I can’t wait to dive into these Audible gems. The star series of the lot is Harry Potter by J. K. Rowland but there are books for young readers as well as literary classics for all ages.

Rendering Dialects and Accents in Dialogue

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked about dialogue is how to render dialect and accents without bogging down the text with phonetic indicators and apostrophes all over the place, as in:

“Say, Mose, ah reckon there’s a-gonna be a shootin’ or a hangin’ over ’ta the saloon.”

“Ah reckon yer right ’bout that.”

“Ah reckon the whole town’s ’bout ’ta ’splode.”

“Reckon so.”

“Yep, this shore is a day of reckonin’.”

Or a conversation between an Alabama farmer and a New York writer:

“Thar’s a far out yonder.”

“A what?”

“A far.”

“Oh, you mean fire.”

“Ah said far, didn’t ah?”

Too much of this is going to wear a reader out. That’s why heavy dialects and accents in dialogue are out of favor with editors and readers. (Note: A dialect is based on word choices particular to a region; an accent is the “sound” of the speaker when saying the words.)

But what if you do want the character to have a heavy accent? Be clever about it. Give the reader an indication of the speech pattern the first time the character speaks, then use a few sprinkles of it every now and then as a reminder.

For instance, you can do a dialect-heavy first line and then pull it back in subsequent lines. Liz Curtis Higgs does this in Thorn in My Heart, a novel set in 18th century Scotland. A local shepherd greets a lost horseman with:

“D’ye ken whaur ye’re goin’, lad?”

You have to look that over a couple of times, but that’s what Higgs wants you to do. The heavy brogue is now implanted in our minds. After that she keeps the odd spellings to a minimum.

You can also use straight narrative to tell us what the accent sounds like. This was Stephen King’s choice in Pet Sematary. At the beginning of the novel, Louis Creed and his family have just moved to a little town in Maine. There they meet a neighbor, an older gentleman named Jud Crandall, a native of the region. Here is part of the introductory conversation:

Crandall nodded. “Course you are,” he said, which came out: Coss you awe.He glanced at Rachel. “Why don’t you take your little boy and your daughter over to the house for a minute, Missus Creed?”

Instead of making the pronunciation part of the dialogue itself, King tells us directly what it sounded like. The dialogue then proceeds without phonetic spellings. But the sound is now in our heads. We can “hear” Crandall in his unique fashion.

A few paragraphs later, King drops in a reminder:

“Not at all,” he said. “Lookin forward to having young ‘uns around again.” Except the sound of this, as exotic to their Midwestern ears as a foreign language, was yowwuns.

It’s interesting to note that for the word Lookin King does not use an apostrophe. This is true throughout the novel when gs are dropped. I like that. It doesn’t bother me a bit, and actually is pleasing to the eye.

I brought this up with a group of writers recently, indicating that if I ever wrote a Western, I’d like to give that a try. But one of the astute younger scribes reminded me that there are typo hunters out there now who will downgrade their reviews over such things.

Good point. So if I ever write Day of Reckoning I reckon I’ll be puttin’ in them little marks.

Thus, for dialects and accents:

  • Keep odd spellings to a minimum.
  • Do some of rendering up front to plant the sound, then minimally after that as a reminder.
  • Use well-chosen regionalisms. For example, the Scottish shepherd would say Aye instead of Yes, and Lass instead of Woman.

If ya feel a bit o’ sharin’ comin’ over ya, then be doin’ it in the comments, if ya please.

 

 

Tips on Writing a Domestic Thriller

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

image purchased for use by Jordan Dane

Domestic/psychological thrillers have found greater traction since Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL & THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins. James Scott Bell’s YOUR SON IS ALIVE is a great example of a domestic thriller. Laura Benedict’s upcoming book THE STRANGER INSIDE is a novel I can’t wait to read. I’ve pre-ordered it and you can too. Release is coming Feb 5, 2019.

These books remind us that readers are drawn to “reading what they know” but with a twist. The domestic thriller brings terror into the home/life of an average family or allows readers to see what might be held secret behind a family’s locked doors.

This seems like the ultimate terror, to set a story inside anyone’s house, but it can keep your writing sharp and focused on tough subject matter. Maybe your story will hit too close to home, making it a challenge to write.

Keys Factors for Writing Domestic/Psychological Thrillers

1.) Set your domestic thriller in familiar settings. Give the reader comfort until they realize your novel doesn’t take place in Mayberry. Set your story in a small town, on a commuter train, in a home with a family who could live next door to you, or create a situation that seems harmless at first until it escalates into a terrifying tale. Much like Stephen King is partial to turning everyday objects into nightmares–I’ll never use a turkey carving knife again–it’s important to think through an effective setting that lulls the reader into a false sense of security until you pull the rug out.

2.) Make your story hinge on familiar subjects. I’ve suggested a few below, but I’m sure you could come up with more that could be turned on its ear with escalating tension. Use your own personal experiences to discover what might touch your readers.

  • A marriage that doesn’t need much to send it over a cliff
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Neighbors from Satan
  • A clandestine love affair
  • School rivalry/Helicopter moms competing against each other
  • Parenting – Lots of possibilities
  • Family relationships
  • Boyfriends/Girlfriends/Jealousy

3.) Now ask yourself the critical question of “what if…” What are the worst plot twists that could happen in the world you’ve created? Think WAY out of the box. Use a dartboard to add some unpredictability to your brainstorming.

4.) Make your character(s) real. Imagine people you have known, but elevate them into a major player’s role in your story. It helps to start with the familiar to make it real, but then your character would take on his/her own journey. Remember, your characters need to be real and not supersized into movie star status. Take “every man or every woman” and force them to step into an horrendous plot. Make your starring character(s) believable.

5.) Give your characters flaws that could prove to be fatal. It’s a balancing act to pick vulnerability that doesn’t make them appear too weak. Give them insecurities they can overcome in a believable way, without making them whiners. Force them to face their insecurities. Are they capable of overcoming their worst fears? Give them a chance to do it. Will they? Dig deep with a journey for your character to survive through your plot. They must struggle to gain ground or appear that they never will. Nothing trite will work here. It must seem insurmountable. I found a great resource for character flaws – 123 Ideas for Character Flaws

6.) Unreliable narrators are gold in this genre. What if your main character doesn’t know what going on? Use it. Are they so paranoid that their very nature can’t be trusted? Great plot twists can abound with the use of unreliable narrators or unreliable secondary characters. Once the readers starts to question what’s going on, you have them hooked deeper.

7.) Bend those plot twists. In order to play with the minds of your characters, you must get into their heads and mangle their reality. It’s not easy to write and set up a major plot twist, so plan ahead and let your imagination soar. Sometimes you will know the plot twist that will come at the end – the big finale twist. Other times you can filter unexpected plot twists through the novel at key intervals to escalate the stakes & create key turning points that take the plot in different directions.

8.) Don’t be afraid to SCARE your readers. Make their skin crawl with the anticipation of something bad about to happen. Titillate them with the build up and add twists to keep the tension going. What would scare you? Picture times you might have told ghost stories around a campfire and what made you jump. That adrenaline rush is what you want to give your readers. I often like to walk the edge of the horror genre, but these days, books are written with multiple genres to tell a good story. Don’t be afraid to add elements of horror or mystery to your suspense thriller.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Share your current writing projects & genre. What has got you excited in 2019?

2.) Have you read a good domestic thriller lately? Please share the novel and the author.

All Stories Have Legs

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

During Abraham Lincoln’s law-practice days, he had occasion to share a stagecoach with his soon-to-be adversary, Stephen A. Douglas, and a man named Owen Lovejoy. They were on their way to the courthouse at Bloomington, Illinois.

Douglas, known as “The Little Giant,” was about five feet tall with a long body and short legs. Lovejoy, on the other hand, had a short body and long legs. Lincoln, of course, was 6’4”. It must have been crowded in that coach.

At one point, Douglas tossed some shade at Lovejoy, remarking on his “pot belly” and long legs. Lovejoy came back with a barb about Douglas’s vertically-challenged sticks.

Then Lovejoy looked at the future president and asked, “Abe, just how long do you think a man’s legs should be in proportion to his body?”

Lincoln replied, “I have not given the matter much consideration, but on first blush, I should judge they ought to be long enough to reach from his body to the ground.”

And how long should a story be? Long enough to reach the end, and no longer. (Please note, I have not run this theory by George R. R. Martin.)

Which is why I love the novella form. In a brisk 20k-50k, you can grab a reader and deliver a wallop. Did you know that The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain is only about 35k words? Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has a similar count.

Stephen King has done some of his best work in novellas (e.g., The Body and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption)

The novella really matured during the golden age of the pulp magazines. In the classic years of the pulps, roughly 1920 – 1955, America was awash in inexpensive commercial fiction of all types. These were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, bound between wonderfully lurid covers. You could buy one of these magazines for a dime or 15¢, and inside you’d have a plethora of short stories and novellas and perhaps even an entire novel (or an episode from a novel in serialization).

A productive pulpster who could deliver the goods could make a living, even at a penny a word.

The novella largely disappeared after the death of the pulps. It was a difficult sell for book publishers who had to price them to make a profit, while bookstore browsers thought they might not be getting enough story for the price.

That didn’t mean the occasional novella didn’t break out (***cough***The Bridges of Madison County***cough***). But by the 2000s there were few being published simply because production costs exceeded revenue.

Now, because of the digital universe, those costs have disappeared, which has brought a revival of novella-length fiction.

Like the one I’ve just published.

Here’s how Framed came about. A couple of years ago I was playing the first-line-game. That’s a creativity exercise where you just come up with great opening lines and see if any of them spark a story idea. I’ve got a whole file full of ’em, some of which have led to published work.

This particular morning I found myself writing It’s not every day you bleed to death.

I had no idea who my character was or how he or she got into the implied predicament.

So I started to play with it. How could this have happened? Was it a suicide or attempted murder? Did my character have a near-death experience? Could he be narrating from the beyond?

I kept asking myself what if questions and writing things down, and eventually came up with an explanation that I liked. And from there I proceeded to develop the story.

I set it aside for awhile as I worked on other projects, then late last year came back to it and finished it. And you know how I knew it was done?

Because its legs had reached the ground. The ending felt just right.

So now, in the spirit of the pulps, I am launching the ebook for just 99¢ on Kindle. I want you to have it. I believe there is a huge market for brisk, suspenseful fiction, just like there was in the 1930s and 40s.

Do you agree?