This Is (Almost) Halloween…

I know. Perhaps it is too early for me to be writing about Halloween. I’ve been seeing  merchandise for the unofficial holiday in stores since September 5th, however, so I’m actually behind the curve. Herewith please find my subjective list of Top Five frightening reads that will carry you through the next few weeks:

MISERY — I was given this newly published book as a present for Father’s Day 1987. I started reading it that afternoon and did not stop until I finished it that evening. Some dad, huh? Stephen King’s now-iconic tale of popular author Paul Sheldon’s extended visit with defrocked nurse Annie Wilkes — his Number One Fan — more than stands on its own merits. It makes/tops my list, however, because I had a relationship with someone very much like Annie, right down to her potentially dangerous mood changes and odd turns of phrase, the manifestation of which always preceded what I would come to call an “episode.” I read this book at least once a year, repenting at leisure and recalling the exhilarating sound of doom whistling by me at a near-miss.

THE SHINING — This tale about Jack Torrance, a struggling author with writer’s block the size of a Jersey Wall, and his family was already quite well known when it was adapted for a (lesser) film by Stanley Kubrick. I screamed twice while reading it. The first was during young Danny Torrance’s encounter with the girls in the hall.  To this day, when I am in a large hotel with a long, carpeted corridor, I think of Danny and the girls who wanted to play with him forever.The second was during the bathroom scene. I have, unbidden, remembered this scene at inopportune moments over the course of my adult life, with unhappiness ensuing. The book as a whole, however, is a terrific example of how to wring every bit of drama that can be wrung out of a single location.

THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty — This early 1970s novel was a potboiler for sure — and that is one of my highest compliments — but it is a cringe-inducing tale of demonic possession and the efforts of a heroic priest to save the life and soul of an innocent girl  which fed right into my Roman Catholic upbringing. My father, who spend serious and quality time in Seminary school, assisted in an exorcism and told me that Blatty’s account of possession was mild compared to what he witnessed. That might have been, but it is hard to believe that what (almost) Father Joe experienced was any more frightening than Blatty’s description.

‘SALEM’S LOT by, ummm, Stephen King — I have always enjoyed well-written vampire novels — there aren’t many of them — but there is a special place in my heart for this story of the Undead and love lost in a small town on its last legs. King’s second novel published under his own name is a textbook example of how to plant a slow, unnamable dread on the first page, nurture it, and grow it to full blossom stark terror. The television adaptation, with David Soul in the lead role, has its weaknesses but actually stands up quite well. A planned sequel was later incorporated into the Dark Tower series in THE WOLVES OF THE CALLA and SONG OF SUSANNAH but neither quite reach the atmospheric levels of fright found in this book.

THE BODY SNATCHERS by Jack Finney — I saw the 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers before I read the book upon which it is based. That august novel, although almost as old as I am, has held up much better than either myself or its film adaptation. Marketed as science fiction, THE BODY SNATCHERS is a paranoia-laden horror story about alien seed pods that land on earth and begin producing a duplicate replacement copy of each human being. You have almost certainly seen at least one of the three films based on the book but you can’t beat the source material on any level. Five-year-old mini-Me was also certain at one point that his parents had been pod-snatched. You might as well, but take a chance and pick up a copy of this classic if you’ve never read it.

You know what I’m going to ask now, I’m sure: what are your favorite horror/scary novels? And why? Thank you.

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Yes, You Can Learn To Write Better Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I love having Brother John Gilstrap back on TKZ. He doesn’t pull punches. He’s the Conor McGregor of writing bloggers. Witness his post last week, Tell the Damn Story. It’s a straight right to the chops.

John and I have gone around on this topic in the past, and I’m inspired by John’s post to do it again today. But rather than get all Floyd Mayweather about it, I’d like to start by looking at where we agree.

There is a lot of good packed into the simple admonition to tell the damn story. To me the gist of this advice is: You are a storyteller, and that is your first and greatest function. So don’t get tied up in “rules” and analysis when you are writing. I even wrote a post on that subject called Avoiding Writing Paralysis Due to Over-Analysis.

John and I agree that when you’re sitting at your typer, with the story in your heart and head yearning to get out, let it out! Get it on the page!

Where John and I part ways is on what to do to make the story better, both before and after the typing.

John says he holds this truth “dear”— “that no one can teach a person to write.” I could pounce on that, but I believe the disagreement may come down to what John means by “to write.” A few lines later John says:

I do believe that instruction and workshopping can hone and develop talent, but it cannot create talent where there is none. Some people are not wired for storytelling.

Ah! Then “to write” for John is tied up in that thing called “talent.” There’s where we could spend more time, talking about what talent really is and how it might be coaxed … or coached.

Further, what John calls “honing and developing” I would simply call “teaching.” So if we parse our terms precisely, I believe John and I would agree that in some measure you can teach a writer things that will make their fiction better.

I also agree that there are some people who are not, as John puts it, “wired” for storytelling. But you know what? In my twenty years of teaching and reading countless manuscripts, I have run across very few who fit this description. The overwhelming majority of writers I’ve taught do have story sense, because how can you avoid it? We grow up reading and watching story after story. We press our reality through the gauze of beginning, middle and end. And most people who come to a workshop do know how to string coherent sentences together. Part of my job as a teacher is to help them stack those sentences in the most effective way.

Which is what the craft is all about.

John further stated in a comment:

A gifted musician is first and foremost gifted. Studying with a master maestro will help him to greatness. For most of us, though, our piano lessons will only help us become really good amateurs. Ditto athletic prowess. Beyond that innate talent, though, there needs to be the drive and desire to work one’s butt off. That work for us writer’s includes not classroom time, but lots and lots of alone time with our imaginary friends.

I liked this up to and excluding the last sentence. We do agree on this basic point: someone with talent can be made better at what they do through lessons. The boy George Gershwin had monster talent, but he needed lesson after lesson for that talent to shine through.

Still, you only get a Gershwin once in a lifetime. But there are countless superb piano players who make good money in bars and restaurants and hotels. They please a lot of people with their music.

It’s the same with writers. There are not many Hemingways or Chandlers, but there are (now) thousands of fiction writers making bank writing entertaining, well-structured, satisfying novels and stories.

Many of them have been my students.

John and I also agree that “working one’s butt off” is a non-negotiable for anyone to make it as a writer. But I am puzzled by his disdain for the classroom. What’s wrong with listening to an experienced writer sharing techniques that make fiction better, stronger, more compelling, and deeper? Why isn’t that something an ambitious writer ought to be anxious to seek out?

At the very least it might save that writer years of frustration and rejection.

Working with a good editor is another way fiction writing is taught. Now, really good fiction editors are rare and always have been. I had the good fortune to work with one of them, Dave Lambert at Zondervan. He was the reason I chose Zondervan over three other publishers back in the day. Dave was famous for his “Dave letters” — multi-page, single-spaced documents of pure insight and instruction. I was a pretty good writer before Dave. He kicked me up several notches. Without his instruction, and my working hard to incorporate that into my pages, I don’t believe I’d be where I am today.

So to me the big disagreement with John comes down to his statement: “The breakthroughs—the true light bulb moments—can only come via self-discovery while pasting butt to chair.”

That’s like saying to a hacker killing gophers on the golf course to just keep hacking, you’ll find your way eventually. Meanwhile, year after year, he continues to stink and give gray hairs to the groundskeepers.

I react this way because my experience is the opposite of John’s axiom. I did write and write, to no avail and no “breakthroughs.” Indeed, I was told several times that “writing can’t be taught.” So I gave it up. For ten long years.

When I finally felt I had to try again, I decided not to listen to the naysayers and started studying the fiction column in Writer’s Digest every month (penned by Lawrence Block, followed by Nancy Kress). I bought writing books and joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club. One of the featured titles, Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell, gave me the biggest epiphany I’ve ever had in my writing life. It was a huge breakthrough, and led directly to my stuff starting to gain interest, and eventually to sell.

When I wrote, I wrote. But I also valued my study time. And as I tested things on the page, I began to formulate my own theories and techniques and then teach them to others, many of whom have written to thank me for helping them along the fiction journey.

Where would I be if my desire to write had stalled again at the man-made wall with the graffito Writing can’t be taught? In the introduction to Plot & Structure, which keeps selling, I went so far as to call that “The Big Lie.” Because it is.

And now let’s get this deal about “rules” straight. Artists hate that word, because they want to be free! So fine! Don’t use that word!

But do think in terms of fundamentals and guidelines, the tools and techniques that work, that have stood the test of time, and will work for any writer. They are there not only to help you as you try to figure out what to write next, but to help you understand why something you’ve written doesn’t work, and how to fix it.

Perhaps this will ease the conscience of my blog brother: The most important thing a writer can do is produce the words, to write his own stuff, every day if possible. To a quota. That’s always the first and most important thing a writer does. It’s the first advice I always give anyone who asks me what they need to do to become a successful writer.

But I also say this: the writers who have the best chance to make it, to have a career or a good part-time income, will also study their craft with diligence and desire, and without a chip on the shoulder. I’ve seen it happen time after time after time.

Here is my Exhibit A, the highly successful novelist Sarah Pekkanen:

I needed advice before I tried to write a novel. The usual axiom — write what you know — wasn’t helpful. I spend my days driving my older children to school and changing my younger one’s diaper — not exactly best-seller material.

So I turned to experts. Three books gave me invaluable writing advice. One, by a best-selling writer; one, by a top New York agent; and one, by a guy who struggled for years to learn how to write a book and wanted to make it easier for the rest of us.

The books Sarah mentions are Stephen King’s On Writing, Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, and my own Plot & Structure. And she explains exactly what she learned from each.

That was back in 2009, just before her debut novel came out. You can check out Sarah’s career trajectory here.

So leave us not speak in extremes. Don’t give us a blanket “writing can’t be taught,” because that is demonstrably false.

On the other side, don’t speak about iron-clad rules. There are critique-group commandos who will take a tip or suggestion and turn it into a law. Like the now infamous Don’t start with the weather. The real guideline should be Don’t start with the weather unless you know how to use it to hook the reader! (For further elucidation on these , see my post on Baloney Advice Writers Should Ignore.)

That’s my case. Fiction writing can be taught .. and learned … and practiced .. and made profitable. I know because I’ve got a huge email file of testimonials to prove it … and I’ve lived it myself.

The boxing ring is now open. Discuss!

***

I would be remiss if I did not mention that the best of my workshops has been put into a complete video course on the craft. It’s called Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down.

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Inspired by Tragedy

It is an unfortunate truth that the most interesting tales are mid-wived by tragedy.  No one is interested in a book or a story about the hundred of airplane flights that take off and land safely each day, or of the thousands — millions — of honest transactions and interactions which occur among our fellow human beings in any given hour. It is, rather, the stories that have an element of the poignant, the violent, and the sorrowful that pique our interest. One could cite many reasons for this and from several sources, be they psychological or religious. When we hear of a child gone missing or an acquaintance’s loved one passing, we may feel sorrow but we also feel, to be honest, a kind of shame of relief that the tragedy is not our own, even as it haunts us. Winston Churchill is credited with saying “Nothing is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Just so.

I believe that this is particularly true of those of us who read and write fiction in the mystery, thriller, and horror genres. Ironically, my favorite book of this type is a work of nonfiction entitled WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP by Michael Lesy. WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP is not a narrative. Lesy compiled photographs taken by Charles Van Schaick in and around rural Jackson County, Wisconsin in the late nineteenth century, and interspersed them among hundreds of transcribed newspaper clippings from the same area to create WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP. The result is a disturbing and unsettling collection of bizarre events which appear unconnected but which taken together seem to document a rural hive madness. To name but a few: the elderly mother of an imprisoned man commits suicide in a particularly dramatic fashion; a respected family man with a reputation as a hard worker dies of an overdose of morphine, leaving only a cryptic note; and a man seeking cheap transportation finds his trip unexpectedly ending in a gory tableau.

The dark beauty of the book for a reader or a writer is that one can open it and random and be enthralled, horrified, and inspired. With regard to the latter, that isn’t just me talking and/or opining. WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP has inspired everyone from Stephen King (he cites the book as the inspiration for his story “1922”) to musicians (Static-X named an album after the book) to late night cartoons (the cult classic series The Heart She Holler). The transcribed newspaper accounts are quite short; if you’re seeking inspiration and in a writer’s group, you could pick an account at random and throw it into the group just to see what each person creates from the spark. I’d be willing to bet the breadth of Jackson County and all that is on it that the stories would be wildly divergent.

WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP has gone out of print a couple of times, but it’s currently readily available for sale off- and online thanks to the fine folks at the University of New Mexico Press. Whether you need a prod creatively, desire inspiration to appreciate your current circumstances, or just want to be quietly horrified, you should check this book out. Oh, and there’s a movie too, which is quite good as well. But we prefer books, don’t we?

My question for you: have you experienced — either first or second hand — a tragedy which has had a long-term influence or affect upon your writing and/or your life? That haunts you, inappropriately and without warning? Be as general or as detailed as you wish. I don’t want to go into detail about mine, but it involves running with a stick. I didn’t let my poor kids run or walk with anything sharper than a limp noodle in their hands as a result.

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Don’t Kill Your Darlings—Give Them a Fair Trial!

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’ve never been a big fan of the writing admonition to Kill your darlings. It’s been a virtual axiom among writers for decades. Yet it seems to me about as useful as Destroy your delight and as cold-hearted as Drown your puppies.

I mean, if something is your darling, should your first instinct be to end its life? Sounds positively psychopathic.

Isn’t a darling at least owed a fair trial?

The phrase itself has its origin in a lecture on style delivered by the English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch back in 1914. He said:

To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament … [I]f you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

At least Sir Arthur was honest enough to call it murder! But murder requires malice aforethought, and that is a terrible way to think about a darling.

Darlingicide should be outlawed, not encouraged!

Stephen King strikes the right balance. In his book On Writing King says the whole idea behind “kill your darlings” is to make sure your style is “reasonably reader-friendly.”

Which means sometimes a darling stays, sometimes it goes, and sometimes you give it a skillful edit.

It’s mostly a matter of ear, what it sounds like. It’s that thing called voice, which is (as I’ve defined it) a synergy of author, character, and craft. You can develop an instinct for the right sound. The more you practice, the better you get.

Begin by being aware of three areas where darlings tend to present themselves:

  1. Metaphors, Similes and Turns of Phrase

I love writing that creates striking word pictures. That’s why I dig Raymond Chandler over most of his contemporaries. I mean, come on, you have to love things like this:

I lit a cigarette. It tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief. (Farewell, My Lovely)

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. (Farewell, My Lovely) 

From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away. (The High Window) 

Obviously, finding just the right touch for this is crucial. I use metaphors and similes in my Mike Romeo series, because it’s true to his character. But my wife (and first editor) is usually right when she says, “This is too much” or “I have no idea what this is supposed to mean.”

Then I don’t kill the darling. But I do show her the door. Much more civilized.

  1. Dialogue

There’s a fine line between memorable dialogue and dialogue that seems to be straining too hard to be memorable.

In Revision and Self-Editing I suggest “one gem per act” as a rule of thumb. A line that really shines. One that you work and re-work.

In my workshops I’ll use an example from the movie The Godfather. It’s in the scene where Michael comes to Las Vegas to tell Moe Green that the Corleone family is taking over. Moe Green is furious. He shouts, “Do you know who I am? I’m Moe Green! I made my bones when you were in high school!”

Actually, no, he doesn’t say that. That wouldn’t be all that memorable. Here’s the actual line: “Do you know who I am? I’m Moe Green! I made my bones when you were going out with cheerleaders!”

Ah…

Perhaps this line went through a few iterations. Anything more added to it would have killed the effect. It would have been too darling.

Make sure your dialogue is true to the character who speaks it and true to the moment.

  1. Emotional Beats

Some time ago I read a scene from a manuscript by a young writer. It involved two women who are natural adversaries. The dialogue was pretty good between these two, but unfortunately it was slowed down considerably by line after line of emotional beats. Here’s an example of what I mean (I’m making this up):

“I don’t know what you mean,” Audrey said.

Sally felt the pull on her heart. Did Audrey really not know? How could she not?

“Do I have to spell it out for you?” Sally said. Her hands trembled as she waited for Audrey to answer.

“Maybe you’re talking about Frank,” Audrey said.

Frank’s name on Audrey’s lips made Sally stiffen. If only Frank were really there! But she mustn’t let Audrey see any longing in her eyes.

“I think we should leave Frank out of this,” Sally said.

Audrey smirked. Oh, how Sally hated that smirk. Since they were kids, that smirk had always driven Sally crazy.

You get the idea. While writing with emotion is part of the art of the storyteller, choosing how and when is the essence of that art. Instead of allowing us to flow with the inherent conflict in the dialogue, we’re given way too much interior life here. That dilutes the overall effect. This scene ought to look more like this:

“I don’t know what you mean,” Audrey said.

“Do I have to spell it out for you?” Sally said.

“Maybe you’re talking about Frank.”

“I think we should leave Frank out of this.”

Audrey smirked. Oh, how Sally hated that smirk.

There are times when you do want to emphasize what’s going on inside a character. Times when you want to “go big” for dramatic effect. And you should. I have a suggestion for you: overwrite those emotional moments the first time around. Go for it. Come back the next day and edit it a bit. When you go over your first draft, edit some more. Get feedback from a crit partner or trusted friend on those pages.

Keep what works and trim the rest. You’ll eventually feel the right balance.

It pleases me greatly to write darlings. So I don’t immediately plot their demise. I let them sit, I look at them again, I have my wife render an opinion, and then I decide if they must go. They get a fair trial. And sometimes they are set free!

Case dismissed.

So how do you treat your darlings?

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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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Two Often Overlooked Reasons For Writing Short Stories

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

hemingway-thought-bubble

I love a good short story. When done right, it can lay you out emotionally, delight you, scare you, make you think, or some combination of the above. All in under 7,000 words.

Some of my best reading experiences have been short stories. Off the top of my head I see:

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway.

“The Eighty-Yard Run” by Irwin Shaw.

“Chapter and Verse” by Jeffery Deaver.

“The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury.

All the stories in My Name is Aram by William Saroyan.

“The Ledge” by Stephen King.

When I was in college, I got into a workshop with one of the masters of the short story, Raymond Carver. What I learned was this: I couldn’t write like him. Or Hemingway. Or Saroyan. And I could not figure out the craft of the story. I was discouraged. I wish I’d known what Ray Bradbury was about to say in his Paris Review interview: “You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James?”

A couple of decades later I became a published novelist. Short stories remained elusive to me. But I still wanted to write them. Eventually, I went looking for some sort of key to the craft of short story writing. It took me a long time, but I finally found it.

how-to-write-short-stories-coverNaturally I had to write a book about it.

This book covers my theory of this “master key,” and goes on to suggest strategies for using short stories to help you with your long-term career goals. The book also has five complete stories for your analysis, including the aforementioned “Chapter and Verse” (with the kind permission of Mr. Deaver).

Today I want to talk about two often overlooked reasons for writing the occasional short story. The first reason is, simply, that they’re fun. Lawrence Block, one of the grand masters of crime fiction––short and long––says in The Liar’s Companion: A Field Guide for Fiction Writers:

I figured short stories would be fun. They always are. I think I probably enjoy them more than novels. When they go well, they provide almost immediate gratification. When they go horribly hopelessly wrong, so what? To discard a failed short story is to throw away the work of a handful of hours, perhaps a couple of days. In a short story I can try new things, play with new styles, and take unaccustomed risks. They’re fun.

Why should you sometimes write just for fun? I’m glad you asked:

  • Because “fun is the best thing to have.” – Arthur Bach
  • Taking a break from longer work to have fun refreshes your writer’s mind

Now, “fun” does not mean you’re just writing fluff. Far from it. Which leads me to the second overlooked reason for writing short stories: to deepen your intensity. Once again, Bradbury:

[T]he problem of the novel is to stay truthful. The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone.

Writing a short story this way sharpens your ability to concentrate, and also teaches you to bring intensity to the writing of scenes. Since scenes are the building blocks of your novels, that’s all to the good for your overall craft toolbox.

And so I have launched How to Write Short Stories And Use Them to Further Your Writing Career. The e-version may be found here:

Kindle 

Amazon International Stores

Nook

Kobo

A print version is available via Amazon or Barnes & Noble

In last week’s post, I asked you about books that may have brought solace to you at a point in your life. Can you think of a short story that had a similar impact? Was it memorable in other ways? Who is your favorite short story writer?

And have you tried your hand at the short story? What’s been the result?

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READER FRIDAY – Share Your Favorite Character Driven Novel

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

 

“I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.” Stephen King – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Some of the recent character-driven novels I’ve read lately are:
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Give an example of a book you’ve read with a memorable character-driven story – Author & Title – and tease us with why the character story was special.

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John D and Me…And All The
Other Writers I Owe Big Time

First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. ― Kurt Vonnegut

By PJ Parrish

I had been storing this blog to run around Thanksgiving, but John D. MacDonald forced my hand this week, so I’m posting early. I want to take a moment to acknowledge the books and thank the authors who have helped me along the way.

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Recently, I was asked by a writer friend Don Bruns to contribute to an ongoing series that has been running in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune called “John D and Me.” Cool beans, I thought, since other contributors included Stephen King, Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, Heather Graham, JA Jance, David Morrell…the list went on and on. Click here to read my article. Don’t worry…it’s short. I chose to write about MacDonald’s short stories because, truth be told, I hadn’t read many of the guy’s novels back then. But I had found a yellowed dog-earred copy of his short story collection The Good Old Stuff in a used book store, and at that time, I was struggling mightily to write my first short story.

Actually, it wasn’t my first.  My first short story was way back in eighth grade. I was an inattentive student, but I had a lovely teacher Miss Gentry, who made us write a short story. The only touchstones in my little life at that point were The Beatles and my only dream was to run away to London. So I wrote about a lonely cockney boy who painted magic pictures. It was called “The Transformation of Robbie.” I got an A on it.

Miss Gentry

After class, Miss Gentry pulled me aside and said, “you should be a writer.” Twenty-five years later, I dedicated a book to her.

It should be noted that my sister and future co-author Kelly was also churning out short stories in those days. Her most notable effort was called “The Kill.” It was about a serial killer who knocks off The Beatles, one by one. We joke now that nothing much has changed: She still likes to write the gory scenes, I like doing the psychological stuff. I don’t have my early efforts, but she kept hers – see photo below right for the stunning cover she designed at age 11.

THE KILL KELLY

Fast forward to 2005. I am trying to write a story for the Mystery Writers of America’s anthology, edited by Harlan Coben. In addition to the big-name writers the editor invites, the anthology holds out 10 spots for blind submissions from any MWA member. I had a good idea for my story and four published mysteries under my belt. But I couldn’t get a bead on the short story’s special formula. What came so easy at age 14 wasn’t coming so easy at age 54.

So I cracked open The Good Old Stuff. Maybe it was because I had been reading Cheever and Chandler and was getting intimidated. But MacDonald made it look effortless. His stories, culled from his pulp magazine career, had an ease and breeze as fresh as the ocean winds. I realized I had been fighting an undertow of expectations, so I flipped over on my back and floated. The words flowed, the story formed. My first adult short story, “One Shot” got picked for MWA’s anthology Death Do Us Part. It was the second proudest moment of my writing life, right after Miss Gentry’s A.

Writing about MacDonald this month got me thinking about the debts I owed to other writers. Here are a couple I should thank:

E.B. White. Charlotte’s Web remains my favorite book of all time. I love it as pure story, but it taught me a very valuable lesson that all novelists should take to heart: Sometimes, you just have to kill off a sympathetic character.

Joyce Carol Oates. Lots of lessons from this woman about productivity and having the courage to write outside the boundaries of whatever box they try to put you in. But one book of hers had a huge impact on me — Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart. From this murky violent story of murder and race, I learned about the power of ambiguity, about the need to leave room in a story for the reader’s imagination to breath, to resist the urge to tie everything up in a neat bow. Also, she just makes me want to write with more metaphoric power. Check out her opening paragraph:

“Little Red” Garlock, sixteen years old, skull smashed soft as a rotted pumpkin and body dumped into the Cassadaga River near the foot of Pitt Street, must not have sunk as he’d been intended to sink, or floated as far. As the morning mist begins to lift form the river a solitary fisherman sights him, or the body he has become, trapped and bobbing frantically in pilings about thirty feet offshore. It’s the buglelike cries of the gulls that alert the fisherman – gulls with wide gunmetal-gray wings, dazzling snowy heads and tails feathers, dangling pink legs like something incompletely hatched. The kind you think might be a beautiful bird until you get up close.

The-Road-Cormac-McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I still think about this story years after I read it. From it, I learned about spare writing and especially the power of one indelible image. Michael Connelly talks about this, too, about how one gesture, word or image can have so much more impact than an avalanche of description. Connelly talks about how he wrote about a cop who seemed the paragon of cool, how nothing about the horrors of his job seemed to bother him. Except for one telling detail – the stems of his glasses were chewed down to the nubs. In The Road, the image I can’t get out of my head, the one thing that stands in my mind as the symbol of post-apocalyptic survival, is canned peaches.

In the story, a man and the boy discover a cache of supplies in an abandoned farmhouse. Among them is canned peaches. Yes, it’s a delicacy in a time of starvation, but McCarthy also uses it as a symbol marking the split in the world between the fruit-eating “good guys” and the cannibalistic “bad guys.” Here’s an exchange between man and boy:

He pulled one of the boxes down and clawed it open and held up a can of peaches.
“It’s here because someone thought it might be needed.”
“But they didn’t get to use it.”
“No. They didn’t.”
“They died.”
“Yes.”
“Is it okay for us to take it?”
“Yes. It is. They would want us to. Just like we would want them to.”
“They were the good guys?”
“Yes. They were.”
“Like us.”
“Like us. Yes.”
“So it’s okay.”
“Yes. It’s okay.”
They ate a can of peaches. They licked the spoons and tipped the bowls and drank the rich sweet syrup.

I can’t eat canned peaches anymore because of this. I want to cry just thinking about.

Neil Gaiman. When I was working on our latest book She’s Not There, I needed to find just the right children’s book that resonated with my adult heroine. It was happenstance that I found Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. It follows the adventures of a boy named Bod after his family is murdered and he is left to be brought up by a graveyard. Which metaphorically is what happened to my heroine. I just started  Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which, like my own book, is about the fragility of memory. I think what I am learning from Gaiman is the need to be original, to not follow the pack, to be true to yourself as a writer. He sums it up in this quote:

Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.

David Morrell. Several years ago, David was the guest of honor at our writers conference  SleuthFest here in Florida. This talented teacher, prolific writer, and editor of the anthology Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, and creator of Rambo no less, had tons of great advice. But here is the single line that impacted me as a writer.

Find out what you’re most afraid of, and that will be your subject for your life or until your fear changes.

David credits this lesson to another writer Phillip Klass (pen name William Tenn) who told David that all the great writers have a distinct subject matter, a particular approach, that sets them apart from everyone else. The mere mention of their names, Faulkner, for example, or Edith Wharton, conjures themes, settings, methods, tones, and attitudes that are unique to them. How did they get to be so distinctive? By responding to who they were and the forces that made them that way. And all writers are haunted by secrets they need to tell. David talks about this in his book The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing. Click Here to read the first chapter.

And last but not least…

Unamed Romance Novel. I read this eons ago as part of my education back in the days when I thought I was going to make a million bucks writing for Harlequin. This novel (I won’t use the title here) taught me perhaps the most valuable lesson of all, one that every writer – published or un – should take to heart. Here is the line from the book that did it:

She sat on the sand on Miami Beach and watched the sun sink slowly into the ocean in a blaze of orange and pink.

When I read that line, I threw the book across the room. But then I picked the book up and put it on my shelf, where it still sits today. (Well, on my bathroom shelf). Because this book taught me that no matter how brilliant your metaphors, how original your story, how beguiling your prose, how deep your unexplored fears, if you have the sun setting in the east, nothing else is gonna work.

So who were your teachers, what were their books, and what did you learn?

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Flipping the Script by Joe Hartlaub

 

City of the sun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 2016! I plan on having a successful one and hope that you do as well. Let me start the year off with an example of how we both might do that.

The tale concerns an author named David Levien. The name might not mean anything to you. His work will. David co-wrote the screenplays for the films Ocean’s Thirteen and Runaway Jury, as well as the less known but nonetheless riveting Rounders. He also is the author of a series of novels — a series which I hope and pray will continue — about a troubled ex-cop named Frank Behr who works as a private investigator in Indianapolis. The books in the Behr series — City of the Sun, Where the Dead Lay, 13 Million Dollar Pop (also known as The Contract), and Signature Kill, are full of rough streets, dark alleys, and grim characters with nothing to lose. They are each and all critically acclaimed, but have not had the commercial success to match.

billions

That may change, and very shortly. Levien has in a way flipped the script with his latest project, one which has garnered a great number of well-deserved pre-release accolades.  It is a series for Showtime called Billions, and it premieres tomorrow, Sunday, January 17, 2016, though you can find the first episode online if you know where to look. Billions contains no Indianapolis, no alleys, no fisticuffs, no guys with nothing left to lose. We instead get New York and high rises, raised voices but no violence (other than that between consenting adults), and guys with everything to lose.  Billions, you see, is about winning. It pits a driven, obsessive U.S. Attorney named Chuck Rhoades against a likable hedge fund billionaire named Bobby “Axe” Axelrod. Rhoades has an enviable win record in bringing down successful Wall Street brokers and traders because, in his own words, he only prosecutes cases that he can win. Rhoades believes that Axelrod’s success is the result of insider trading. Axelrod will tell you — and he does — that he simply reads the market better than anyone else. Who is right will be played out, no doubt, over the course of the series, which gets rolling over the purchase of a house. Is it a seventy-eight room house that costs fifty-eight million dollars, or a fifty-eight room house that costs…well, things get rolling because of the purchase of a house. Frank Behr can barely make the nut on his apartment every month. As I said, Levien, with his co-creators, has flipped the script. And with that, came up with what may well be the best line of dialogue I’ve heard in years, if not a decade or two. Watch the first episode of Billions. It will jump out at you. It might also encourage you to read one or more of those Frank Behr books, which are very different from their brother Billions but are just as well-written.

What does this mean for you? And for me? Just this: try flipping your script once in awhile. If you’re writing a cop story, try your hand at a romance or science fiction. And vice-versa. I had a guy pitch a novel to me yesterday that was so different from what he’s been doing, and yet so unique and original, that I was left silent. For a whole ten fifteen seconds. That’s a new record. Anyway, give it a shot. You might not get a series on Showtime or Netflix or even Starz, but you might surprise yourself. And maybe even the world.
Can you think of an author who changed genres or styles for better or worse, for one project or more? I’ve got a couple. One is John Jakes, who wrote science fiction novels without success but wrote a series of best-selling historical novels which, among other things, were adapted for television. I can’t read Misery by Stephen King without thinking of Jakes. That’s the better. For the worse: Samuel R. Delany, a highly respected, critically acclaimed and commercially successful science-fiction author who felt compelled to write, among other things, pornography. That’s his description. I would agree. Yikes. NSFO, or anywhere else. Anyway, can you think of anyone? Have you tried the flip? And do you plan to watch Billions?

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Finding the Right Door
to Enter Your Story

Disney2

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

By PJ Parrish

I had a whole ‘nother blog in the works today but Clare’s post yesterday on common amateur mistakes made me want to switch gears. That, and the fact that I was hearing voices in my head the other day and this is a good way to exorcise them.

A while back, I gave a talk to a beginning writers group about what makes for a great opening in a novel. We had a good time analyzing which of their openings had promise or why they had veered off track. It’s a popular topic, as we at TKZ here so well know, but I think it’s one that we all need to revisit constantly. Me included.

See, the other day, as I was pounding around the jogging oval at the park, I heard a strange voice whispering in my head. I had never heard her before, but she was insistent: “Tell my story! Tell my story!” I tried to ignore her, because as Kelly and I await the Sept. 9 launch of our new book SHE’S NOT THERE, we are 16 chapters into a new Louis Kincaid. And one of the commandments of novel writing is Thou Shall Finish One Book Before Starting a New One. But this woman wouldn’t shut up, so I went home and banged out 2,000 words. Wow! I never get out of the gate that fast! I was chuffed.

Well, I re-read it yesterday. Wee-doggies, it stinks. I open with a woman sitting alone in a fishing boat in the Everglades. She is thinking about her life and what brought her to this point. She is sad. She is regretful. She is boring as hell. I also larded in pages of description of the saw grass, the weather, the clouds, the water, even the type of fishing lure she was using. Finally, toward the 2,000-word mark, I reveal she is a Miami homicide detective who turned in her badge when her husband and child were killed in a drug deal gone bad that she was involved in.

This morning, I deleted the chapter. Lesson number 1: Just because you have an idea doesn’t mean you should act on it. Lesson number 2: Even experienced writers have trouble with openings.

Even Stephen King. You think you sweat bullets over openings? He says he spends months and even years before he finds his footing. I read this recently in an interview King gave to The Atlantic magazine. He talks at length about what makes for a great opening, and how hard it is for him to find the right one.

When I’m starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.

And he makes a great point, that the right opening line is as important to the writer as it is to the reader:

You can’t forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who’s actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.

Which is why I deep-sixed my woman in the fishing boat. Maybe her story does need to be told, but I entered via the wrong door. I’m going to set her aside for a while. In the meantime, I am going back to school. Want to come along?

HOOKS

Enthuse or lose! What was the prime crime of my bad chapter? NOTHING HAPPENED! The first chapter is where your reader makes decision to enter your world. Your hook needn’t be too fast or fancy. It can even be quiet — like someone going on a fishing or hunting trip (see example below!).  But it must be suspenseful enough to makes us care about your character. Fancy hooks can be disappointing if what follows doesn’t measure up. If you begin at the most dramatic or tense moment in your story, you have nowhere to go but downhill. Also, if your hook is extremely strange or misleading, you might just make the reader mad.

What about opening with action scenes? I’ve seen it work well; I’ve seen it look silly. I think intense action scenes work only if they have context and reason for happening. Car chase, bullets fly, things explode, dead bodies! But unless you give reader reason to care about someone, it feels cheap and pushy, like a Roger Moore James Bond movie. If you can make us CARE about the person during intense opening action scene, yes. If not, it’s boring and trite.

OPENING LINES

A good one gives you intellectual line of credit from the reader: “Wow, that line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.” A good opening line is lean and mean and assertive. One of my fave’s is from Hemingway’s story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber:  “It was lunch now and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. But if it feels contrived or overly cute, you will lose the reader. Especially if what follows does not measure up.  Stephen King has two favorite opening lines. One is from James M. Cain’s great novel The Postman Always Rings Twice:  “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”  Here’s King on why he loves it:

Suddenly, you’re right inside the story — the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting — and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody’s riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He’s a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who’s going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious. This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do.”

GET INTO STORY AS LATE AS POSSIBLE

This is one of my pet peeves about bad writing…throat clearing. Begin your story just moments before the interesting stuff is about to happen. You want to create tension as early as possible in your story and escalate from there. Don’t give the reader too much time to think about whether they want to go along on your ride. Get them buckled in and get them moving. Preferably not in bass boat.

INTRODUCE THE PROTAGONIST

Another pet peeve of mine. Don’t wait too late in the story to introduce your hero. Don’t give the early spotlight to a minor character because whoever is at the helm in chapter one is who the reader will automatically want to follow. I call these folks “spear carriers” after the guys who stand in the background holding the spears in “Aida.”  They aren’t allowed to steal the spotlight when Radamès is belting out Celeste Aida. So don’t let your secondary characters get undue attention or the reader will feel betrayed and annoyed when you shift the spotlight.

IDENTIFY THE CONFLICT OR QUEST

Begin the book with conflict. Big, small, physical, emotional, whatever. Conflict disrupts the status quo. Conflict is drama. Conflict is interesting. Your first chapter is not a straight horizontal line. It’s a jagged driveway leading up a dark mountainside. Don’t put a woman in a fishing boat in the Everglades thinking about how crappy her life is and expect the reader to care.

WHAT IS AT STAKE HERE?

What is at play in the story? What are the costs? What can be gained, what can be lost? Love? Money? One’s soul? Will someone die? Can someone be saved? The first chapter doesn’t demand that you spell out the stakes of the entire book in neon but we do need a hint. And we don’t care that her fishing lure is a 1-ounce jig with a bulky trailer.

CREATE A DRAMATIC ARC

Your whole book has an arc, but every chapter should have a mini-arc. Ask yourself “What is the purpose of this chapter?” and then build your chapter around that. This does not mean each chapter needs a conclusion but it needs to feel complete unto itself even as it compels the reader onto the next chapter. The opening chapter should have its own rise and fall. It is not JUST A LAUNCHING PAD!

GET YOUR CHARACTERS TALKING

Dialogue is the lifeblood of your story and you need it early. Too much exposition or description is like driving a car with the emergency brake on. Likewise, don’t bog down your opening with characters doing menial things. Like fishing. Or thinking about boring stuff. Like fishing lures. Here’s some good advice from agent Peter Miller that I read once on Chuck Sambuchino’s Writer’s Digest blog: “My biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition, when they go beyond what is necessary for simply ‘setting the scene.’ I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further.”

SO DOES THAT MEAN  I SHOULD OPEN WITH DIALOGUE?

This goes to personal taste. I’m not a fan of it, but I have seen it pulled off. But be careful because opening with dialogue tosses the reader into the deep end of the fictional pool with no tethering in time and place. This is like waking up from a coma. Where am I? Who are these people talking? I could be wrong because I haven’t read them all, but even Dialogue Demon Elmore Leonard gives you a quick couple lines or graphs first. (Okay, I’m wrong: LaBrava opens with “He’s been taking pictures three years, look at the work,” Maurice said.) But if your dialogue only leads to confusion, that isn’t good. Which relates to…

ESTABLISH YOUR SETTING AND TIME FRAME

The first chapter must establish the where and the when of the story, just so the reader isn’t flailing around. Yes, you can use time and place taglines, especially if your story is wide in geographic scope or bouncing around in time. But if your story is fairly linear and compact (taking place, say, all within six months time in Memphis), sticking a time tag on each chapter only makes you look like you don’t know how to gracefully slip this info into your narrative.

ESTABLISH YOUR TONE AND MOOD

First impressions matter. From the get-go, your reader should be able to tell what kind of book he is reading – hardboiled, romantic suspense, humorous, neo-noir? Yes, the cover and copy conveys this, but you need to convey it in your opening. Everything in your book should support your tone, but the first chapter is vital to inducing an emotional effect in your reader. I’ve mentioned Edgar Allan Poe’s Unity of Effect often here but it’s worth repeating: Every element of a story should help create a single emotional impact. But remember that a little mood goes a long way – think of a few swift and colorful brush strokes rather than gobs of thick paint.  Did you know that in the Everglades, intense daytime heating of the ground causes the warm moist tropical air to rise, creating the afternoon thundershowers? And that most of the storms happen at 2 p.m.? I should have just wrote “It rained in the afternoon.”

MAKE YOUR VOICE LOUD AND CLEAR

This is where you are introducing your story but also yourself as a writer. Your language must be crisp, you must be in complete control of your craft, you must be original! Shorter is usually better. No florid language or indulgent description, no bloated passages, no slack in the rope. The reader must feel he is being led by a calm, confident storyteller. See quote about by Stephen King about James M. Cain.

BACKSTORY AND EXPOSITION

The first chapter is not the place to tell us everything. Don’t be like a child overturning his bucket of toys — then it’s just a colorful clamor, an overindulgence of information. Exposition kills drama. Backstory is boring. Give us a reason to care about that stuff before you start droning on and on about it. Incorporating backstory is hard work, but you must weave it artfully into the story not give us an info-dump chapter 1.

Shoot-1

To end, let’s go back to Stephen King. So we know he admires James M. Cain. But what is his all-time favorite opening line? It is from Douglas Fairbairn’s novel Shoot. Here’s the set-up: A group of middle-aged guys, all war vets, are on a hunting trip. As they come to a riverbank, they spot another group of guys, much like themselves, on the other side. Without any provocation, one of the hunters on the opposite bank raises his rifle and fires at the first group, wounding one man. Reflexively, one of the first group returns fire, blowing the shooter’s head apart. The opening line: “This is what happened.”

And here is King on why he loves it:

“This has always been the quintessential opening line. It’s flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we’re dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I’ll tell you the facts. I’ll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there’s an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know. A line like “This is what happened,” doesn’t actually say anything–there’s zero action or context — but it doesn’t matter. It’s a voice, and an invitation, that’s very difficult for me to refuse. It’s like finding a good friend who has valuable information to share. Here’s somebody, it says, who can provide entertainment, an escape, and maybe even a way of looking at the world that will open your eyes. In fiction, that’s irresistible. It’s why we read.

King loves it so much, he echoed it in the opening of of his own novel Needful Things: “You’ve been here before.”  And guess what? It’s his own favorite opening. Which is a good place to end, I think.

 

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