Sunday, March 31, 2013

Let Your Characters Live and Breathe

Among my books on writing is a 1919 title, A Manual of the Art of Fiction, by one Clayton Meeker Hamilton, a professor at Columbia University. It's a bit academic, but I've found some gems in it. Among them is the following. In his chapter on characterization, Hamilton states:

The careless reader of fiction usually supposes that, since the novelist invents his characters and incidents, he can order them always to suit his own desires: but any honest artist will tell you that his characters often grow intractable and stubbornly refuse at certain points to accept the incidents which he has foreordained for them, and that at other times they take matters into their own hands and run away with the story. Stevenson has recorded this latter experience. He said, apropos of Kidnapped, “In one of my books, and in one only, the characters took the bit in their teeth; all at once, they became detached from the flat paper, they turned their backs on me and walked off bodily; and from that time my task was stenographic––it was they who spoke, it was they who wrote the remainder of the story.”

Has that ever happened to you? I suspect it has. It's one of the most pleasurable aspects of writing (though a little daunting if you're a dedicated outliner).

So what should you do when a character starts making a few moves of his own?

1. Listen

As Madeleine L'Engle once put it, "If the book tells me to do something completely unexpected, I heed it; the book is usually right."

Take a breath and just let the turn of events soak in. When writing No Legal Grounds, about the stalking of a lawyer and his family, I had planned all along for the wife to leave the house and go off to stay with her sister. But when I got to that scene she wouldn't go. Just wouldn't do it. I tried to make her, but she told me to go pound sand.

So I walked around my writing desk thinking about it. I listened to her reasons. And it turns out she was right. She became a stronger character. Of course, I had to change my plans from that point on, which brings me to:

2.  Re-Imagine

Whether you are a plotter or a "pantser," now is the time to jot some free-form notes on this new development.

Start with a general document on plot possibilities. Ask yourself questions like:

What further trouble can happen to this character?

What sorts of things has this character unloosed by her independent actions?

How have the other character relationships changed?

And so on. Next, add to your character's voice journal (this is an exercise I follow and recommend in all my workshops. It's a stream-of-consciousness document in the character's own voice). Let the character talk to you about what's going on, and what she might want to do about it.

3. Plan and Write the Next Two Scenes

Don't worry about changing your entire outline yet. Just do the next two scenes. Write them. The act of writing itself is the most important way to let the characters live and breathe. Get a feel for who they are now, by writing out the consequences. Then you'll be in much better shape to write to the end.

So what about you? Do your characters ever take off on you? How do you handle it?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Amazon and Goodreads, Sittin' in a Tree...

I do not visit Goodreads as often as I should. There are readers out there who spend hours on it, and yes, I probably should as well, but I am one of those people who is good socially only in small doses, whether in person or in cyberspace. I only
use Facebook to wish folks Happy Birthday; I text better than I talk, but never instant message; and I rarely visit Goodreads. Part of the reason for my lack of use of the latter is that I cannot keep up with my reading of those books of which I am already aware; if I discovered, say, an entirely different genre --- such as redneck noir, to name but one --- it might send me entirely over the edge that I am already toes up against and leaning forward.

I as a result have only a (barely) working knowledge of the site. I know that it is very user friendly; the opening page treats me with more respect than do my children. It does a wonderful job of pretending that its happy to see me. Maybe I don’t visit often because I know that if I did I might never leave. It is just as well, for I discovered today that Goodreads loves another, a suitor known to its friends and detractors as “Amazon.” They haven’t set a date for a nuptials, but a ring has been proffered and accepted, and a dowry promised.
I’m thinking --- and I cannot stress enough that I am stating this from a position of ignorance --- that, as with other marriages arranged for the purposes of uniting dynasties, this one could result in offspring good and bad. I was amused to read that one of Goodreads’ co-founders asked its users “...what integration with Kindle would you love to see the most?” I was sorely tempted to respond “Kindle. From behind” but felt that such would perhaps be inappropriate. No one asked how the friends of the parties felt about this coming together, however (though that hasn’t stopped Scott Turow from weighing in). 

Until now. I am asking you: how do you feel about Amazon purchasing Goodreads? What do you see as advantages or disadvantages for authors, publishers, readers, and the entities themselves? Is this a good thing or a bad thing, overall? Should Amazon maintain an editorial firewall, if you will, between itself and Goodreads? How will we even know? Ready, steady, go!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Reader Friday: Desert Island Film Festival

Okay, you're stuck on that proverbial desert island. No one around, but for some strange reason there's a movie house and a trained monkey that knows how to run the projector. What three films would you want to have with you, one from each category:

1. Drama

2. Comedy

3. Musical

(We at TKZ will try to air drop you some popcorn)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

So much for women's lib...

by Michelle Gagnon

While watching the season finale of GIRLS, there was a moment at the end where I was seriously tempted to hurl something at the television. Because after all the advances women have made over the past fifty years, apparently for the younger generation of women showcased by the show, we're pretty much back where we started.

This episode concluded with a nod the classic, "An Officer and a Gentleman" scene where Richard Gere sweeps Debra Winger off her feet, literally. Now, I loved that movie--still do--but the underlying message at the end was that the only way for poor Paula to advance in life was to marry well. I'd hope that nearly thirty years later, we were past such tired tropes. But according to Lena Dunham, they hold true. Not only does her character get "saved" by a man (ironically, the same one that earlier in the season terrorized her), but her fellow castmembers all fall in line accordingly. One starts dating her ex-boyfriend again because he's suddenly struck it rich. Another dumps her boyfriend for not being ambitious enough (as underlined in a scene where his boss explains that, "she wants you to make enough money to be able to keep buying her purses shaped like bread products.") Even the "hippie" character Jessa takes a payout from the wealthy investment banker she was married to for a heartbeat.

Really? Is this what we're selling to girls in their twenties? I understand that GIRLS is a fictionalized version of reality, but if this throwback mentality is being showcased ironically, it's far from apparent. And over the course of the season, this "girls can't do it" attitude has been emphasized time and again. Hannah finally scores a book deal, but suffers a breakdown over the stress and is unable to write it. Marnie is laid off, becomes a hostess (and paramour to an older artist), and decides to become a singer; but we only see her pursue that dream via an ill-advised attempt to humiliate her ex at his office. And Jessa simply takes off.

I'd like to think that this is not emblematic of a wider issue with the upcoming generation of women, but a recent conversation with a friend was very disheartening. She told me that her recently-divorced brother (a man in his forties) now only dates girls in their twenties; thirty is his cut-off point, because after that age they're focused on marriage. Plus, he's discovered that girls in their twenties are extraordinarily eager to please. They have no problem with him calling last minute because another date cancelled. They text suggestive photos after the first date. In addition to the age limit, he also stops seeing them after five dates--and he claims that most of them don't seem to expect anything more.

He's an awful jerk, of course, and probably has a keen eye for girls with low self-esteem. But listening to her, I couldn't help but think that the behavior she's describing is precisely what Dunham has been showing us over the past two seasons. Her characters are not strong young women, struggling to forge their way in the world through that challenging post-college phase. They're highly educated girls whose lives invariably revolve around men, and whose biggest aspirations appear to involve being supported by them.

Mind you, I'm not saying that finding a person to spend the rest of your life with isn't a lofty ambition. And I also strongly believe that deciding to stay home and raise children is just as valid a choice as pursuing a career in the workplace. But the fact that this is what we're seeing on television, at the same time that Sheryl Sandberg's eye opening book "Lean In" is making waves, is telling. Mary Tyler Moore it ain't.

I'd love to see a show aimed at this age group with strong female role models--and I'm hard pressed to name a single one. A show where the "girls" had some self-esteem, and respected their relationships with themselves and their friends as much as their romantic liasons. A show, basically, where it wasn't all about finding the right boys. In television, where shows created, written, and run by women are finally becoming more prevalent, is this really the best we can do?


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Know Your Audience

Nancy J. Cohen

This past weekend, I had the privilege of speaking to the Southwest Florida Romance Writers in Estero, Florida. Up to 25 members were present when I spoke about Social Networking for Writers and passed around my eight-page handout. We could have discussed this topic for a lot longer than the allotted hour, but our time ended and I left for home.

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On the drive back to the east coast, I reflected on how a speaker really has to gear her talk to the audience. Speaking to a bunch of writers is a lot different than giving a talk to a roomful of fans. Readers in general are eager to hear how you got published, where you get your ideas, what you researched for your story, and if you make a living at what you do. Don’t ask me why, but that question always arises. Would you ask a lecturer how much money he makes?

You’re expected to be witty and entertaining and to use anecdotes in your talk. I like to educate the public on the realities of the publishing business, so I’ll talk about the impact of the digital era, choices for writers today, and what readers can do to help authors in terms of customer reviews, Liking our pages, sharing our posts, etc. Lay persons find this information to be fascinating. Sure, I’ll talk about my books but mainly as an overview about my series and some of my research experiences. I don’t believe in doing readings or a book review on a specific title. There’s nothing more boring, IMHO, as an author’s droning voice as he reads from his own work. It’s more exciting to talk off the cuff about the publishing world and what fuels my stories.

In contrast, when speaking to fellow writers, I aim to teach. I want to get points across that they can take home and use in their own work. Motivational talks uplift and inspire writers to keep plowing ahead despite the setbacks that we all experience in this career. I’d rather give practical tips, how-to details, and specific instructions. Handouts accompany all of my workshops. This is not necessarily the case if I’m on a panel, however. Then it’s much harder to get across a lot of information because you’re sharing the time and stage. It’s good to come prepared with a few pointers regardless, and handouts are still appreciated, but having one hour to myself is best for in-depth instruction.

I’ve attended panels at writers conferences where the authors prattle on about their work, and attendees leave the room having been entertained but learning nothing new. I don’t care to attend those types of sessions myself. I’d rather go to a workshop where I can gain new insights or tips on a specific aspect of writing or marketing. Anybody can talk about himself. How many can teach in a meaningful, clear manner? Those who can’t teach will do very well speaking on panels at fan conventions, libraries and community groups.

Where am I going with this? If you have a speaking engagement coming up, consider your audience. If it’s a bunch of fans/readers, talk about your books, the publishing world, where you get your ideas, the writing process. If it’s a group of writers, target your material so they can take away something worthwhile.

If you’re a reader, what do you like to hear when you go to see an author? If you’re a writer, do you differentiate how you approach each audience?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On the road again

I'll be flying most of the day today, praying for a lull in the wacky weather that's been plaguing the East coast this year. (Whatever happened to Spring, anyway?)

I've been known to make heroic efforts to write when traveling. One time back in the 90's during a family visit in Cleveland, I holed up in a hotel room, rented a typewriter (a typewriter--that's how long ago the 90's were),  and banged out several chapters. 

"What is Kathryn doing all day?" my kinfolk wanted to know. 

I never try to write when I'm physically on a plane, however. It's all I can do to make it through a few pages of whatever book or magazine I grab at the airport store. There's something about the way the stale, over-pressurized air mixes with the stoic energy of passengers crammed into gerbil seats that puts a damper on creative energy.  I feel like I need my elbows to write.

But that's just me. What about you? Are you able to write in a productive way on an airplane?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Yes, and...

One of the classes I’m taking during my Hollywood experience is the basic level improvisation course at The Groundlings. This troupe is renowned for launching the careers of many famous comedians, including Lisa Kudrow, Will Ferrell, and Melissa McCarthy. Although reaching the comic mastery those people have achieved would be a dream, my reason for participating is simpler. I think the class will provide great tools for use in my writing and acting.

For those who’ve never seen improv, particularly live, you’re missing out. It’s astounding—and almost unbelievable—that these performers can take a single suggestion from an audience and build an entire scene or even a whole production around that word. Yesterday I saw a two-act play created on the fly in the style of a Jane Austen novel using the audience suggestion of “topiary.” The results were hysterical. I think it’s safe to say that Regency-era contrivances have never before been dependent on a hedge trimmed to look like an ailing cat.

The most important concept in improv is the requirement that you always respond “yes, and” to your scene partner. If your castmate says that you two are at the beach, then you are expected not only to accept that idea but also to build on it, perhaps by saying, “Yes, and here’s your surfboard. Let’s catch some waves.”

As children, we tended to be great at taking an idea from our playmates and building a whole recess period around it, no matter how crazy it sounded. We played. As adults, however, we’ve been conditioned to say “no” or “but” in response to something that may not fit into what we want to do or because it sounds silly. I can attest that it’s very hard to restrain yourself from saying the dreaded b-word in improv. For many of us, it’s our first impulse and has to be consciously quashed.

The problem is that “but” stops any momentum you have in the story you’re building. If your scene partner says you two are at the beach, and you say, “But we can’t be because we’re in the mountains,” the scene dies right there. You’ve completely negated the offer and told the person that you don’t like the idea and want to do it your way. This kind of negative response is called blocking.

As writers, we can suffer from the same blocking process when we’re creating. I always have that little voice in my head that wants to say “but” every time I come up with what initially seems like a brilliant brainstorm. The voice presents all the worst-case scenarios: “But you might paint yourself into a corner with this plot twist”; “But this new character might not end up being interesting”; “But this scene probably won’t work with the rest of the plot.” Often the response is more blunt: “But that’s a stupid idea.”

If I let it go too far, I find myself editing the story before I have anything written, and it can bring the entire process to a standstill. I think that’s where writer’s block comes from: we are blocking ourselves from creating because we’re dismissing everything that comes into our heads, telling ourselves something won’t work before we even give it a chance.

So I’m trying to say “yes, and” to my ideas. That’s where the magic of improv is made. You might start with a simple day at the beach and find it leads you to a mysterious encounter with a fragile object washed up on shore. It’s that serendipity I want to rediscover in my writing. Sometimes I don’t realize where my own mind can take me, and if I say “but” to inspiration, I’ll never get to those amazing destinations.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

How to Write a Short Story

James Scott Bell

A novelist friend recently asked, What is it that defines a short story? What's the key to writing one? How is it different from a novel or novella?

My "boys in the basement" have been working on it, and the other day sent up a message. It said, "A short story is about one shattering moment."

I pondered that for awhile. Could it really be so? What about the different genres? There are literary short stories (e.g., Raymond Carver), but also horror (Stephen King), science fiction (Harlan Ellison), crime (Jeffery Deaver) and the like. They couldn't all be about one shattering moment, could they?

I decided to have a cheeseburger and forget the whole thing.

But the boys would not let me drop it. And now I think they're right (as usual). So let's take it apart.

When I took a writing workshop with one of the recognized masters of the modern short story, Raymond Carver, I found his genius lay in the "telling detail," a way to illuminate, with a minimalist image or line of dialogue, a shattering emotional moment in the life of a character.

The story we studied in his workshop was "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" A married couple, middle class with two young kids, have a conversation one night. The wife brings up an incident at a party a couple of years before. Slowly, we realize she needs to confess something, needs to be forgiven. She'd slept with another man that night. That is the shattering moment in the story, the husband's realization of what his wife did.

This happens in the middle. The rest of the story is about the emotional aftermath of that moment. Thus, the structure of the story looks like this:

This is the same structure as Hemingway's classic, "Hills Like White Elephants." In this story about a couple conversing at a train station, the shattering emotional moment occurs inside the woman. It's when she accedes to her boyfriend's desire that she have an abortion (amazingly, the word abortion is never used in the story). We see what's happened to her almost entirely via dialogue. In fact, she has a line much like the husband's in the Carver story. She says, "Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?"

We know at the end of both these stories that the characters will never be the same, that life for them has been ineluctably altered. That's what a shattering moment does.

Structurally, this moment can come at the end of the story. When it works, it's like an emotional bomb going off. Two literary stories that do this are "The Swimmer" by John Cheever, and "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates. That structure looks like this:

Now let's move to the genre short story. Here, the same idea applies. The shattering moment is usually one that is outside (i.e., a plot moment) as opposed to inside (i.e., a character moment). Often, that moment is a "twist" at the end of the story. The most famous example is, no doubt, O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi."
Jeffery Deaver is a master of this type (see his collections Twisted and More Twisted.) Get your hands on his story "Chapter and Verse" (from More Twisted) to see what I mean.  It's one of my all-time favorites.

My recent crime short story, "Autumnal," follows this pattern as well. We think the story is going one way, but at the end it is quite another.

This is also the structure most often used in The Twilight Zone. Think about some of the classic episodes:

"To Serve Man." Remember the shattering shout at the end? "It's a cook book!"

"Time Enough at Last." Always voted the most memorable episode, because of its heartbreaking twist at the end. This is the one where the loner with the thick glasses emerges after nuclear war has killed everyone, but now has time enough at last to read all the books he wants. And then...

"The Eye of the Beholder." This one blew me away as a kid. It's the one where the surgeons, in shadows all the way through, are working to save the disfigured face of a patient. One of the all time great twists.

This pattern is just like the one described above for literary short stories, only now it's a shattering plot twist at the end:

And, you guessed it, you can also do a story with the shattering moment somewhere in the opening pages, and work out the aftermath in the rest of the tale. Lawrence Block's "A Candle for the Bag Lady" is like that (You can find this story in Block's collection, Enough Rope). The structure looks like this:

So there you have it. If you want to write a short story, find that moment that is emotionally life-changing, or craftily plot-twisting. Then write everything around that moment. Structurally, it's simple to understand. But the short story is, in my view, the most difficult form of fiction to master. So why try? Two reasons: First, when it works, it can be one of the most powerful reading experiences there is. And second, with digital self-publishing, there's an actual market for these works again. The short story form was pretty much dead outside of a few journals. Now, in digital, you can make some Starbucks money with them. That's what the Force of Habit and Irish Jimmy Gallagher stories have done for me. And when I put together a collection, I expect to make even more.

And nothing will give your writing chops a workout like a short story. Why not make them part of your career plan?

Saturday, March 23, 2013


By the time you read this, I’ll be in South Africa. The Alpert family is going on safari. Our main destination is the Okavango Delta in Botswana, but we’ll also visit Victoria Falls in Zambia. And we’ll make a stop at Soweto so we can give the kids a little history lesson about Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement.

As a side benefit, I’m sure I’ll find some thriller material. I’m already terrified of the killer hippos that supposedly inhabit the Okavango wetlands. They can move surprisingly fast through the swamp and have been known to chase boats that come too close. Sounds like a fun scene, right?

I’ve gotten some good stuff from previous international trips. In 2008 I toured the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan, which I described in my second book, The Omega Theory. A year later I went to China for two weeks, visiting the places that would become settings for Extinction, my latest thriller. And last year I went on a river cruise in the Peruvian Amazon, an experience I’m reliving now as I race to complete my fourth novel, which will come out in 2014. I’m only a couple of chapters from the end. I’m hoping to finish the book on the 15-hour flight to Johannesburg.

Because there’s often a long lag between when I take the trip and when I write about it, I’ve developed some techniques for helping me remember the places I visit. I take lots of photos, of course. More important, I give myself instructions: LOOK. LISTEN. Pay attention to EVERYTHING. I’ve discovered that simply telling myself to pay attention really helps me remember things later on.

This technique, by the way, is also helpful in lots of everyday situations, like when I’m trying to remember what my wife told me to buy at the supermarket. It’s good all-purpose advice: life is short, so pay close attention.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Reader Friday: Casting Director

When you write, do you imagine the movie version? Who would you cast in the lead roles in your current novel? 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

8 Ways to Add Layers of Depth to Your Scenes

By Jordan Dane

I’ve been working with college-aged writers recently and noticed that many of them rush a scene by sending it to me too soon, as if they’re in a race. My job is to get them to be their own critic and not settle for mediocre, even if it means they won't get a grade. To get noticed in the slush pile of an agent or editor, today’s author must bring something new to the table that is uniquely from them and their storytelling ability.

Using an example of constructing a house, they send me the basic framework, but the finishing touches are lacking. Is the dialogue there? Check. Is there a beginning, middle and end to the writing sample? Check. Did I meet the bare essence of the assignment? Check. But a good house needs walls and all the finishing touches that make it feel like a home. Well-balanced scenes can be those finishing touches that make a house a home. They can add a balance of color/setting, voice, emotion, and memorable characters that doesn’t slow the pace down and make your work stand out as unique, too.

Here are 8 key ways to layer your scene with more depth and make them stand out:

1.) MAKE YOUR VOICE UNIQUE - Pick a POV for the character who will tell the story of the scene and give him or her a unique voice. That means you must see through their eyes and add their senses and opinions to the scene. You can talk about what’s in a room, as if it were a forgettable inventory, OR you can add color by having your character say things like, “the dump smelled like cat piss.” Also give each character their own unique voice, using the same care as you craft each one.

2.) USE ACTION - Show your character taking part in the scene, rather than merely talking about the emotion they’re feeling. A guy who is forced to fight when he’d rather cut and run like a coward will behave differently than a guy who wants to be there and do the right thing. The coward might hang back or urge someone else to take his place or fake an injury to get out of what he really doesn’t want to do. The brave guy would take lead or protect the others by shielding them with his body, for example.

3.) USE DEEP POV - Set your character’s deepest thoughts in italics as “Deep POV” to give the reader insight into your character’s internal motivation. These could be expletives or funny one liners that he /she would mutter under their breath or in their head. The right Deep POV touches can add punch.

4.) WEAVE IN BACK STORY SPARINGLY - Know your character and their back story so you can slip it into the story seamlessly. Not many readers today tolerate a back story dump. There’s not many ways to disguise it either. But weaving a back story over a longer timeframe of your story is a good way to build upon your character’s history without slowing the pace—and it can create a mystery element. Other characters (who have a past with him or her) can fill in the gaps in a more interesting way.

5.) PICK THE ESSENCE OF EMOTION - Emotion is vital to make a scene memorable. Pick out the best images or set the stage in actions that best highlight the emotion you’re trying to weave into the scene. Add only the essential images. This could be a man talking about the small of a woman’s back, at a certain time of day when her body entices the shadows, or his memory of the first time he’d ever noticed how perfect that gentle curve had always been. The sensuality can be there, without overwriting the description of her, plus it conveys his enduring love for her in a sensual way. I'm not a poet, but I often think that good writers have the soul of a poet in them when I read certain passages that make me stop and reread them.

6.) PICK THE MOST PROMINENT PHYSICAL TRAITS - Beauty is in the small details. Today’s average reader may not tolerate an author describing a character in great detail because that would slow the pace, but try picking out the most essential characteristics of your character and pepper your scene with those images to suggest traits, rather than spell them out. Instead of describing how thin a guy is, add color by saying his suit hangs on him as if he were a human coat hanger.

7.) GIVE THE SCENE STRUCTURE – I think of scenes as mini-stories that will propel the story along with 1-3 plot points infused into every scene. They have a beginning, a middle and an end so that the characters in that scene take a journey and move the story forward. Internal monologue should not be repeated. Have your character discover or learn something about themselves during the scene, for example.

8.) ADD SETTING THAT ENHANCES YOUR SCENE – Any scene can be enhanced with the right setting. The bare bones of two characters talking in a study can be enhanced if there is a menacing storm rumbling outside, a loud crackling fire in the hearth, and a musty old library smell in the air from the countless alchemy books that lined the shelves, an extensive collection of magic books that spanned centuries, set in a mansion in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Classic.

I’ve mentioned 8 key ways to add depth to your scenes. Can you add more to this list? Please share your thoughts and what has worked for you.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Keeping your reader on a need-to-know basis

By Joe Moore

Along with plot, setting, dialog, theme, and premise, your story is made up of characters. Hopefully, they’re interesting and believable. If they’re not, here are a few tips on making them so.

It’s important to think of your characters as having a life prior to the story starting, and unless you kill them off, also having a life beyond the last page. You need to know your character’s history. This doesn’t mean you have to explain every detail to the reader, but as the author, you must know it. Humans are creatures molded by our past lives. There’s no difference with your fictional characters. The more you know about them, the more you’ll know how they will react under different circumstances and levels of pressure.

The reader doesn’t need to know everyone’s resume and pedigree, but those things that happened to a character prior to the start of the story will help justify their actions and reactions in the story. For instance, a child who fell down a mine shaft and remained in the darkness of that terrible place for days until rescued could, as an adult, harbor a deep fear of cramped dark places when it comes time to deal with a similar situation in your story. Why does Indiana Jones stare down into the ancient ruins and hesitate to proceed when he says, “I hate snakes.” We know because he had a frightening encounter with snakes as a youth. But the background info must be dished out to the reader in small doses in order to avoid the dreaded “info dump”. Keep the reader on a need-to-know basis.

Next, realize that your characters drive your plot. If a particular character was taken out of the story, how would the plot change? Does a character add conflict? Conflict is the fuel of the story. Without it, the fire goes out.

Also remember to allow the reader to do a lot of the heavy lifting by building the characters in their mind. Give just enough information to let them form a picture that’s consistent with your intentions. The character they build in their imagination will be much stronger that the one you tried to over-explain. Telling the reader how to think dilutes your story and its strength. Don’t explain a character’s motives or feelings. Let the reader come to their own conclusion based upon the character’s actions and reactions.

Avoid characters of convenience or “messengers”. By that I mean, don’t bring a character on stage purely to give out information. Make your characters earn their keep by taking part in the story, not just telling the story.

Challenge your characters. Push them just beyond their preset boundaries. Make them question their beliefs and judgment. There’s no place for warm and cozy in a compelling story. Never let them get in a comfort zone. Always keep it just out of their reach.

And finally, make your characters interesting. Place contradictions in their lives that show two sides to their personality such as a philosophy professor that loves soap operas or a minister with a secret gambling addiction. Turn them into multi-faceted human beings in whom the reader can relate. Without strong characters, a great plots fall flat.

Keep your reader on a need-to-know basis and your characters on their toes to maintain suspense and a compelling read.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Killing off good characters


Yesterday, I killed the dog.

I didn’t want to do it but it had to be done. The creature had been hanging around far too long and I had sort of grown to regret ever allowing it into my life. So I killed the dog.

I waited as long as I could -- chapter twenty-two to be exact. But then I just typed the words and the mutt was gone. Now I have to endure the after-wrath. It won’t come for months because the book won’t be published until next year but I know it will come. There’s an unwritten rule in our genre that you never kill animals. Because if you do, your readers turn on you like, well, rabid dogs.

It’s not just dogs. It can be cats. I am a big fan of the British writer Minette Walters, read every book she put out. Until “The Shape of Snakes” and she had a character who tortured cats to death with duct tape. Repulsed, I threw the book across the room. I had seven cats at the time.

This rule about animals is not just limited to cats and dogs. It’s birds, hamsters, horses. I refused to see the movie “War Horse” until a friend assured me the horse didn’t die. And don’t get me started about what those damn pigs did to Boxer the Horse in “Animal Farm.” 

The killing of the good and innocent. It’s the toughest thing we writers do. I am often asked what books have influenced me most as a writer and my first answer is “Charlotte’s Web.” It taught me that yes, sometimes you just have to kill off a really good character for the sake of the story, even if it’s only a spider. 

Is it harder if it’s a human being?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
That’s King Lear speaking. He’s grieving for the dead Cordelia. She was the good daughter, if you recall. Now Shakespeare had no qualms about killing off the good. (That’s why they called them tragedies.) We writers are still learning from him after all these years, especially those of us in the crime genre where death is the main machine in our plots. 

I’ve been thinking hard about this lately. Not just because of the dog thing but because of “Downton Abbey.” When Matthew Crawley bought the farm on that country road my mouth dropped open. Damn! They killed the good guy! He's never coming back. Unless Mary steps into the shower and declares that his death was just a dream.

I felt the same way when Bobby Simone did his Mimi bit on “NYPD Blue.” Ditto when Col. Henry Blake’s helicopter went down in “M*A*S*H.” And I was upset that Lane Pryce hanged himself in “Mad Men” before he had a chance to make things right in his sad life.

Is it different in novels? Do readers feel less invested than viewers? Or are the attachments they form in the pure ether of their imaginations even stronger than those forged by film?

Consider Charles Dickens. He delivered his novel “The Old Curiosity Shop” chapter by chapter to his fans and when he killed off his heroine, Little Nell, all hell broke loose. One critic wrote, “Dickens killed Nell just as a butcher would slaughter a lamb.”

Author Conan Doyle always wanted to kill off Holmes. (“I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him," he once grumbled.) When Doyle finally did Holmes in, thousands canceled their subscription to The Strand. Doyle eventually gave in and resurrected Holmes in "The Hound of the Baskervilles."

Closer to home, a few years ago crime writer Karin Slaughter killed off one of her beloved characters. Readers were furious, many accusing her of doing it for the shock value and vowing to never pick up another one of her books again. Slaughter felt compelled to post an explanation on her website. 

Readers take these things personally. At least they do if you, the writer, are doing your job. It broke my heart when Beth died in “Little Women.” I was mad at Larry McMurtry for weeks after he killed Gus in “Lonesome Dove.”  It took me decades to understand why Phineas had to die in “A Separate Peace.”

In fact, I didn’t really get what Fowles was doing with that book until fairly recently when I finally got around to reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” Finney, I realized, had to die so Gene could find a way to live.

I wish I could say that in those decades between “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Hero’s Journey” that I have learned how to the handle death of the good. That is what the best books are supposed to do, after all, teach us about such big questions. But I think I have become a better at dealing with death as a writer. So let me offer a few suggestions for anyone who is struggling with this.

Make it worth something. You must create a bond between the doomed character and the reader so when that character dies, it has value. The death has to propel the plot forward or affect the emotional arc of another character. Check out this stellar passage from one of my favorite books "Smiley’s People" by John le CarrĂ©.
Slowly, [Smiley] returned his gaze to Leipzig’s face. Some dead faces, he reflected, have the dull, even stupid look of a patient under anaesthetic. Others preserve a single mood of the once varied nature – the dead man as lover, as father, as car driver, bridge player, tyrant. And some, like Leipzig’s, have ceased to preserve anything. But Leipzig’s face, even without the ropes across it, had a mood, and it was anger: anger intensified by pain, turned to fury by it; anger that had increased and become the whole man as the body lost its strength.
The death has to be organic. Make sure there is enough time for the reader to come to know the character. The death may be a surprise but there should be a subtle feeling of foreshadowing about it. Lennie Small in “Of Mice and Men” strikes an empathetic chord with the reader. That’s why his death at the hands of his best friend George to spare him from a lynch mob, is so powerful.

Don’t do it to fix a weak plot. We’ve all read books where another corpse is dropped and we go “meh.” Mercifully, I won’t include any examples here.
Keep true to your book’s tone. How do you want your readers to feel about this? Fearful? Deep sense of personal loss? Generalized feeling of human tragedy? Maybe you want them to laugh. Yeah, can be appropriate. I can’t think of any book examples but here’s an image I can’t forget from "L.A. Law": Villainess Rosalind Shays accidently stepping to her doom in that open elevator shaft.

Don’t preach. Let the readers make their own conclusions about what the death means. Don’t tack on one of those awful codas where the hero stands around telling us what truths he has learned. And don’t, for corn’s sake, have someone say something like, “well, I guess we should steer clear of cannibals in the future.”

Be sure of what you are doing. Unless you’re in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s league, you can’t undo a death. At least not without some silly deus ex machina thing. I mean, I am glad that Spock didn’t really die from radiation poisoning in the warp drive tube. But I thought his rebirth was cheesy. I recently read a really good mystery by a successful author and I am pretty sure that the character he killed off isn’t really dead. (Can’t tell you the title; the author would kill me). I hope I am wrong. I hope the character is dead because it feels truer to this writer’s voice. Which leads me to my final point...

Let the end make room for beginnings. Pay attention to the survivors in your story and make sure death affects their lives. Leave room for redemption. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” what’s so disturbing about Tom Robinson’s death is its awful inevitably. After falsely being found guilty of rape, he tries to escape but is shot by prison guards. But are we left in despair? I don’t think so because through this experience, Jem and Scout are learning about the dark complexities of the adult world. And at the end, there is Jem, keeping Scout from squishing that little roly-poly bug. There is hope in his need to protect the most vulnerable. There is hope for us all.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Walking Gore

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I've been up to my eyeballs in boxes over the last two weeks as we unpack and settle into our new house in Colorado. In the weeks before the move, however, I confess to becoming a reluctant fan of The Walking Dead. Reluctant because at first I couldn't watch beyond about ten minutes before I had to switch off. Gore, you see, isn't my thing. And The Walking Dead is full of gore...

But then I tried again (fast forwarding through the truly stomach churning bits) and I became hooked. Despite the copious amounts of blood, guts and brains, I found myself invested in the characters and the story and, though I still couldn't stomach the amount of gore, I had to keep watching. Story had triumphed over queasy stomach. 

When it comes to thrillers and mysteries, I usually draw the line at unnecessary violence and gore. I've never been one to go to horror movies and I don't enjoy flinching at detailed, bloodied, descriptions of death or mutilation. But the key for me is the term 'unnecessary'. Sometimes the story requires a degree of explicitness for it to remain authentic - and in this case, sometimes (only sometimes) I will forgo my usual sensibilities and keep reading. 

For me there are three critical elements needed for me to suspend my natural gag reflex and read on:

  • Firstly I must totally trust the writer - I need to feel assured that the violence/gore is both necessary and sufficient and that my trust in the writer won't be destroyed. I don't want to suddenly face a completely gratuitous scene which makes me doubt the authenticity of the experience the writer has provided.
  • Secondly, the context of the story must demand the level of explicitness/violence/horror or gore provided. I don't pick up a cozy mystery expecting to find a hacked corpse oozing bodily fluids and explicit description on page 100...
  • Thirdly, the explicit descriptions must be compelling and accurate. I don't want to find my stomach churning with a mishmash of innards only to suddenly think 'whoa, that doesn't sound right'. I'm no forensic pathologist or anatomy expert but sometimes explicit descriptions can easily veer into the realm of farce.  A good rule of thumb is probably not to involve too many body parts...

Still, there are lines that I am reluctant to cross. These include scenes involving children and animals. The story had better be the most compelling, viscerally affecting, and most brilliantly written piece of all time for me to cross over those lines.

So what about you? Any Walking Dead fans out there? How do you feel about gore in thrillers and mysteries? Are there lines you won't cross (as either a writer or a reader?)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Perils of Pure Pantsing

James Scott Bell

There are pansters. And then there are pure pantsers.

Pantsers (derived from the idiom "seat-of-the-pants," as in performing an act solely by instinct) are those writers who do not plan (or plan very little) before they write. These folk love to frolic in the tulips of the imagination. "We get to fall in love with our words every day," they say. "We are intuitive. Don't rain your outlines on our parade!"

Okay, well, that's one approach to writing a book, and there is nothing sinful about it. Get that? I am not saying to you that this is in any way an invalid method of finishing a manuscript—so long as you recognize the hard work that must follow to shape a readable novel out of this mass of pantsed material. But to any writer or teacher who says writing this way is not only best, but easy, feed them this phrase: Pants on fire!

Then there are the "pure pantsers," a more radical ilk. These are the ones who want to throw away all thought of structure, whether at the beginning or the end of the process. They find structure formulaic and offensive to their artistic sensibilities. They stand on their tables and shout, Off with the shackles of what's been taught all these years! Throw away the tools of the craft! We are the true writers around here! We laugh at you structurally imprisoned slaves! Join us! (Perhaps we should call this the Occupy Storytelling movement?)

So let's have some plain talk about pantsing.

In The Liar’s Bible, Lawrence Block recalls writing one of his Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries. Larry wrote and wrote without an outline or even the thought of one, then looked up from his manuscript one day and observed:

I had incidents. I had plot elements. I had characters in search of a story. But all manner of things were happening in my book and I didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on. Why had a man named Onderdonk inveigled Bernie into appraising his library? What were hairs from a golden retriever doing in the cuffs of a corpse’s pants? Who was the young woman Bernie ran into in the Kroll apartment, and how did she fit into what was going on? Who had stolen Carolyn’s cat, and how, and why? What connected the Mondrian in Onderdonk’s apartment, which someone else had stolen, with the one in the Hewlett Museum, which Bernie was supposed to steal in order to ransom the cat? If I couldn’t answer any of these questions, who could? And if nobody could, how could I keep on writing the book?...

For a time I persisted, telling myself to Trust The Process, and feeling all the while like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis. Then, with 175 pages written and a maximum of 75 left in which to Wrap Things Up, I stopped writing and threw up my hands. And my lunch.

All pantsers face this at some point. They have to wade into that mass of verbiage and excreta and figure out what's good, what's dreck, what fits, what doesn't, where the story is going and how to help it get there. But if they have been told to "forget about structure" they are lost at sea in a leaky boat with no navigation tools.

Sometimes I have to fire up my rescue dinghy and motor out there with a life jacket.

The other day I consulted with a #1 New York Times bestselling author. She called on me because she's a fan of Plot & Structure and needed help getting a novel idea into shape. The book was fighting her and she had pages due her publisher.

So we sat down for three hours and hashed it out. It was easy duty for me because she gets structure. She's studied it. She's used it. She knows it. And her book is going to be killer because of it.

After that meeting I had another consultation, this with a new writer. He has a pantser's mind, and it shows. He writes reams and reams, and his imagination soars . . . but he keeps going off on tangents (a fancy term for rabbit trails to hell). Ideas burst out of him, but he has no idea what to do with them, how to form them into a coherent story. When I sat down with him he said with obvious frustration, "I know I can write, but I don't know where this story is going!"

So I walked him through some key questions, based on what I call "signpost scenes." These are key scenes in a well-structured story, scenes you can write (even pants!) toward as you move along. After I prodded him with a few "What ifs," he started to get it. He began to see the structure of the whole laid out in his mind. He was excited. He could feel the strength that structure gave him, and the direction: he now knows what kind of scenes to write so they are organic and related to the plot. He is not just spinning his scribal wheels. (And he really can write. His story is going to be killer, too).

So, dear friends, I am not telling you not to pants your way through a manuscript. I am telling you that at some point you've got to face structure because if you don't, you're going to end up with a novel that doesn't sell, except by accident. (Yes, accidents happen, but that's no way to build a career).

Sure, there are some writers who say they don't ever think about structure and they do just fine. I believe about ten percent of them. The ones I believe are the lucky ones. They can intuit their way to a novel that works. Maybe even on the first draft (you can choose to hate Lee Child at this point). But the structure is always there, even if they don't plan for it. They've simply got it in their writing bones.

But the overwhelming majority of authors need to study and utilize structure and technique. I recall a sad story about a talented writer (his prose was superb) who inked a deal for a three-book thriller series. The first book came out and bombed, and as a consequence the big publisher let the other two "die on the vine."

I read that first book and my heart just sank for the guy, because his structure was off. He made some obvious craft mistakes up front which resulted in a dull first act (which you really want to avoid in the thriller genre). I wish I could have been his editor, because with a little help so much of the trouble could have been avoided.

Here's the key to everything: you must put your original voice and vision and style and spice and characters and love and passion into a story that, structurally, helps readers feel what you want them to feel.

That's what the craft of structure is about. It's not to limit you, the artist. It's to set free your story so an actual audience can enjoy it.

So go ahead and pants your way through a first draft if you like. But after that put on bib overalls and get your tools out and start working on the structure.

You may wish to ignore this advice. You may seek to pitch a tent in Occupy Storytelling Park, grow a beard, and rail at the passing pedestrians. But understand this: several of them will be writers who know structure and are on their way to the bank to cash their checks.