writing

It Probably Won’t Kill You

As I have previously mentioned (last week as a matter of fact) I primarily write fiction heavy on suspense, from horror, to mystery/detective fiction, to thrillers. It’s the type of fiction I do best. The primary reason this is true is simple. I’m best at writing suspense fiction because it’s what I’ve practiced over the years. I haven’t tried to write many romances, or westerns, so I’m not very good at them. And I’ve spent most of my time and energy trying to write suspense fiction because it is the type of fiction I have always preferred to read. I was trying to write along with the authors and stories I admired.

According to some sources, I’m not alone in that admiration. Combined, the suspense sub-genres form the best-selling group in all of fiction. By far. Mystery fiction by itself is the best-selling sub-genre in the United States, for all age groups and all genders.

Is it any wonder that most of the best known writers of our generation work in suspense fiction? Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and James Patterson all work in suspense fiction, though in different sub-genres.

So why is this type of fiction so popular?

Because it’s scary.

Most people live lives of varying degrees of tedium, full of monotonous, boring routine. Their day-to-day tasks, while important, are seldom what one would consider exciting. Reading a scary or suspenseful story provides a nice, safe break from that routine.

People enjoy being scared. They enjoy experiencing high-tension, anxious, and frightening situations. We enjoy suspense fiction for the same reason we enjoy roller coasters, whitewater rafting, and sky diving. It shoves the heart rate up, gets the blood pumping, boosts adrenaline levels. We are built to enjoy the trill of the chase. We feel more alive.

Combat veterans—those willing to talk about it—report that while combat was terrifying, they’d never felt so alive as when they were in battle. Time seems to slow down. All their senses are tuned in to everything. They can hear the faintest of sounds, see astonishing detail, smell odors they never would have noticed before. Fear turns up all the body’s senses in an effort to stay alive. And you are truly alive, experiencing everything in total detail.

The thrill of the chase. Unfortunately, in real life, that thrill and the adrenaline rush that comes with it, usually come with a serious risk of injury or death. People die every year from sky diving, whitewater rafting and even roller coasters. (We won’t even count combat.) It’s a tiny fraction of the participants, but that risk is there. It’s why the experience is so exciting. Fear of death or injury.

And that is the great appeal of suspense fiction. Because it is fiction it is a fairly safe way of experiencing the rush of fear. When done well, suspense fiction recreates a little of that sensory aliveness. But, if it gets a little too intense, the reader can always close the book mid-sentence and walk away for a while, letting their emotions return to normal.

Try doing that halfway through a sky dive.

Even the worst case scenario—in which the novel depicts something so horrific, so suspenseful, so overwhelming you simply can’t handle it—the story still probably won’t kill you.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writing Manuals Revisited

Interesting, isn’t it? Those of us who have decided to trod the writing path usually did so because, above all, we are dedicated readers. Before we learned to write, we loved to read. One leads to the other. So, naturally, one of the first things we do (at least one of the first things I did) once we come to understand that writing, and writing fiction in particular, is not really as easy as simply making up a story is to turn to a book for help.

Enter the writing manual.

There are literally dozens of books designed to help the newbie writer. Some are good; some aren’t worth the paper. Over the years, I have settled on my favorites, as much as for how much they inspire my efforts as for any concrete advice they offer.

But first, a general warning: there are some things you honestly cannot learn from a book. Yes, you can learn the general principles and guidelines, but the art itself can only be truly mastered (if it can at all) by old fashioned trial and error.

Reading a writing manual makes you a good writer in exactly the same way that a sex manual makes you a memorable lover.

That said, I do have some writing manuals on the shelf in my office. Yes, I will share them with you.

On Writing by Stephen King.

By far my favorite book on writing. Ever. Part manual and part writing memoir, this book does much more to convince the writer that she can do it, she can be a good writer, than telling her how to do it. It does, however, offer great writing advice—such as removing every word ending in –ly from your rough draft. (He then, a few paragraphs later, uses an adverb, saying that the rules holds unless using an –ly word works. Then ignore the rule.)

Perhaps the best feature of the book and the one that keeps drawing me back is the tone Mr. King uses. It’s a friendly, low-key narrative. Reading it is not like reading a normal textbook, or even a normal writing manual. Reading this book is more like sitting on the back porch, sipping iced tea and chatting about writing while the kids play in the yard.

He makes you feel like an old friend and he’s just telling stories. By far it is my favorite book on writing.

Technique in Fiction by Robie Macauley and George Lanning

Another of my favorites, though this is less a hardcore manual of methods of writing as an in depth look at how various accomplished writers handle aspects of their stories. With chapters titled “Beginnings,” “Characterization,” and “Point of View,” their study is like a short cut for aspiring writers to examples of how the masters handled various problems. The best way of learning is to imitate those who do something well, whether your intent is to write a novel or to build a chest of drawers. The fun part is finding and remembering a novel where a master dealt with a problem similar to the one you’re facing. This volume finds them for you.

It is also great background information for general writing knowledge.

Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich

Like its title implies, one of the great features of this book is the writing exercises included at the end of each chapter. Just like taking a live writing workshop, the idea is to immediately make use of the tips and ideas you’ve just been exposed to. And just like a live workshop, the best way to do that is to make use of them immediately in an exercise. A wise teacher once told me that you never really have learned anything until you could perform the activity on your own, outside the classroom.

An example from the chapter “Plot”: “Take a character, a place and a time, and write three one-page plot outlines of potential stories. In the first place the right person, at the right place, at the wrong time. In the second, the right person, at the right time, at the wrong place. In the third, the right time, right place, wrong person. In the end, choose the outline that promises to become the best story and write one page, plunging into the main action in detail.”

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

This was one of my early favorites, but has dropped as I matured and found better sources. As indicated in its subtitle, this book is directed to young writers just starting out and that is where its value lies. It too, has exercises, which is what initially drew me to it, but they are relatively basic.

The drawbacks to this work are its basic nature and the amount of time Mr. Gardner spends arguing against the value of literary criticism. While his points may be valuable (aspiring authors shouldn’t be writing so as to impress the literary critics) he does beat us over the head with it a bit.

Still, it is a good beginning manual.

These are the writing manuals I keep on my bookshelf. There are others, concentrating on a particular aspect of fiction, such as characterization, description, et cetera, but these are the general manuals I have and use. They’ve done me good over the years.

Perhaps they will do you some good also.

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Writing and Editing

Persistance

One of the hardest parts of living the writing life is dealing with the reality of rejection. No one likes rejection. It is hard to have your work returned to you and not lose faith in its value. It’s just as hard to keep from losing faith in our abilities as writers. It’s something everyone goes through; something everyone has to deal with. Everyone. In fact, one of the marks of a true professional (or dedicated amateur on their way) is their persistence in the face of rejection, usually multiple rejections.

There are some things we all need to keep in mind when that dreaded rejection shows up in our mailboxes. Editors and publishers are not gods (though they do seem to have god-like power sometimes). Their word is not necessarily the last one. Each of them is a human being just like the rest of us doing their job to the best of their ability. And their job is to go through the works submitted and pick the ones they think the reading public will like. A rejection doesn’t necessarily mean the work wasn’t any good. It just means, in their judgement, there was no place for it with them.

The second thing to remember is that editors and publishers, for all their knowledge and experience, are often wrong. Often what several say is awful or will never sell, ends up doing quite well, thank you. But only because the author believed in themselves and their work and didn’t quit in the face of (multiple) rejections.

Below is a list I’ve compiled of books that were rejected multiple times but later went on to be very successful. Some became best-sellers and spawned movies and television series. Others became classics. One or two have faded over time, but were quite successful in their time.

When you find yourself discouraged and doubting your abilities maybe you can remember this list and remember that persistence and faith are every bit as important as talent.

Animal Farm       Number of Rejections            4

George Orwell

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone         8

J.K. Rowling

Valley of the Dolls                                              10

Jacqueline Susanne

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance      12

Robert M. Pirsig

Twilight                                                               14

Stephanie Meyer

Diary of Anne Frank                                           16

The Peter Principal                                             16

Laurence J. Peter

Jonathon Livingstone Seagull                             18

Richard Bach

Lorna Doone                                                        18

Richard Doddridge Blackmore

Kon-Tiki                                                                20

Thor Heyerdahl

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison                                   20

Charles Shaw

MASH                                                                    21

Richard Hooker

Dubliners                                                                22

James Joyce

Dune                                                                       23

Frank Herbert

A Wrinkle in Time                                                    26

Madeleine L’Engle

Carrie                                                                       30

Stephen King

Chicken Soup for the Soul                                        33

Jack Canfield

Gone With the Wind                                                  38

Margaret Mitchell

If all the authors listed above hadn’t persisted in the face of such rejection, the world would have been cheated out of some very good works of literature, wouldn’t it? Kind of makes you wonder how many are out there somewhere that are just as good (maybe even better) but we’ll never see them because the author gave up after a couple of rejections.

We can’t let ourselves become one of those authors.

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Uncategorized

Pardon the Interruption; Housekeeping

I will not be posting my usual attempt at insight this week because I will be tied up (all but literally) with putting on a writers’ conference. But I’m quite sure I will return next week with all sorts of new ideas (and new ways of looking at some old ones).

In the meantime, some housekeeping:

Recently, someone asked me to read some of their work and prepare a critique. I agonized over this decision for several days. I have the teacher’s spirit. I enjoy passing my knowledge on to others. I also consider helping others a way of paying back the Universe for all the help I’ve been given over the years.

However, I decided to pass on the critique.

I based my decision on two factors. First, I between my own writing projects, marketing my books, this blog, working with the other members of my critique group, and my work with the Writers Conference, I don’t really have a lot of free time. I certainly don’t have time to take on very many new projects. And, once I agree to do it for one person, I pretty much need to do it for everyone who asks.

So it is better, to just say no, thank you.

The second reason that pushed me toward saying no was something I read years ago on Stephen King’s website. I believe it was in the FAQ’s where someone asked whether they could send manuscripts for him to look over. In response, he politely requested that no one send him their manuscripts. Whether we like it or not, we live in a society that likes to file lawsuits. The best defense against an accusation of plagiarism is the ability to prove that we’ve never seen the work in question.

Like it or not, cynical or not, it makes sense. It’s a good business decision.

So sorry folks, but for the above stated reasons, I am unable to critique your works at this time. (Much as might want to.)

See you after the Conference!

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Words Without Meaning

In On Writing, his remarkable book about writing and the writing life, Stephen King advises everyone wanting to perfect this art we call writing to go through their manuscript and remove every word ending with the letters –ly. It’s good advice. What it does is remove all adverbs from the text. Adverbs and adjectives are words whose sole purpose is to modify other words, verbs in the case of adverbs, subjects and objects in the case of adjectives. In each case, the modifier should be used as seldom as possible because it weakens the writing. How? Because it is telling the reader, rather than showing them.

“He climbed into his battered old Ford” tells the reader that the car is old and battered. “He climbed into the Ford, wincing at the creaking door hinge” is better. It shows the reader the state of the car, rather than showing it to them.

Sometimes an adverb or adjective will be an integral part of what you’re trying to write, but nine times out of ten, it is just an extra word, telling, not showing. Meaningless.

But adverbs and adjectives are not the only meaningless words. Some words have been so overused as to have lost their meaning. Every writer should be very careful when trying to use them. Even better, try to not use them at all. Below is a list of some of the worst offenders.

Very

The word “very” is just another way of increasing the value of a word without adding anything descriptive. You’re also using two words when one good word would work just fine. Instead of saying “very loud,” say “deafening” or “thunderous.”

Really

Same as “very.” It is another meaningless intensifier. Choose a better, more creative and descriptive word.

Suddenly

Again, this is telling the reader what to feel rather than making her feel it. Let the sentence or action jar the reader into feeling how quickly the action happens. Even worse (as one of my college writing professors used to say), it is a long (three syllable) word trying to express something brief. Say the word “suddenly.” It neither sounds nor feels sudden.

Amazing

Two reasons to avoid this word. First, it again is telling the reader how to feel, rather than showing them. “The view from her living room was amazing.” Is telling the reader how to feel about the view. Instead, describe the view and let the reader feel what they feel.

The second reason to avoid “amazing” is that it is seriously overused. Everything from the local hamburger to your laundry detergent is amazing these days. It doesn’t mean anything.

Awesome

For the exact same reasons as “amazing.” Do you actually mean to say her soup put you into a state of awe?

Wonderful

See “amazing” and “awesome.”

Beautiful

Again, telling instead of showing. Besides, what exactly does “beauty” or “beautiful” mean? I can’t tell you how many times someone has been described as beautiful and I, personally, don’t find them all that attractive. The same goes for “handsome.”

That

“That” isn’t always useless or meaningless. But it is also often used as a crutch without any real purpose. Consider the following sentence: “I think that all kittens are cuddly.” The word “that” adds nothing to the sentence. In fact, it detracts from it. A better sentence would be: “I think all kittens are cuddly.” Every time you’re about to use the word, consider whether it is truly (I almost wrote really) necessary.

Started

“He started running after them.” The previous sentence is passive and slow. “Started” does nothing but slow the sentence down and diffuse its impact. A much more powerful sentence would be: “He ran after them.” There are times when the word serves a legitimate purpose, such as when something began at a specific point in time, but most of the time is useless. Like Mr. King observed with the adverb, it would serve you well to remove all uses of “start” and “started” as a default. Only if and when it refers to a specific time, do we allow it back in.

Others to be careful around (primarily because they have been seriously misused or overused):

Literally

Originally meaning “exactly as written,” it now is often used as a generic intensifier. If so, it is not serving a useful function.

Basically

Meaning “fundamentally,” but now just another generic verbal filler. Avoid if at all possible.

Incredible

Also changing meaning. Originally meaning “impossible to believe.” Now is more often used as just a general positive descriptor. Was that omelet really impossible to believe?

Unique

Originally meaning one-of-kind, or the only known example, it has now come to mean better than others, or very good.

Remember always, the advice of the famed French novelist Gustave Flaubert. Our job as writers is to search out the perfect word for each sentence. It can be hard, tedious, brain-wracking work, but if it were easy everyone would be best-selling writers. Right?

A tip-of-the-hat to the Huffington Post and Writer’s Circle for inspiring this post and providing some material. Thanks.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

The Character Tag

Perhaps the most difficult part of learning this craft of writing fiction is learning to create and describe characters. Characterization is as much of an art as it is a science. We must give our readers enough physical and emotional description for them to create a mental image of the character, but not so much that it slows down the story. We must provide enough, but not so much that it gets in the way.

So how do we do that? What is the formula? Just as important, how do we learn to strike that artful balance?

Unfortunately, like all art, there is no formula. (If there was, we’d all be great artists, right?) The only real method to learn how to achieve that balance is by reading established masters and then trying to do it in our own work. Imitation, coupled with trial and error, really is the only way to get there from here.

With that being said, there is one technique that is quite useful in communicating characterization to the reader and that is the character tag.

The character tag is a memorable term or phrase used to mark or differentiate a character from others. It can be a physical feature (like a birthmark), a mannerism (say, chewing nails under stress), a verbal quirk (like referring to one’s self in the third person), or by tying them to a particular location. It’s a shorthand manner of reminding the reader who they are seeing.

Think of it as a literary theme song.

It’s especially useful when you have a large number of characters the reader needs to somehow keep straight in their head, or the action moves so fast you, the writer, don’t want to slow things down with a lot of description.

In Stephen King’s masterful (and long) novel, It, virtually every major character has a tag, from “stuttering” Bill, to Richie and his “voices,” and even the evil entity with its clown and balloons. All it takes after the introduction of each character is a quick mention of the tag and we know exactly who we’re dealing with. Like much of Mr. King’s work, it’s masterful.

F. Scott Fitzgerald uses tags in The Great Gatsby, one of the shorter novels out there, again, with mastery. This time it’s a vocal tag. Whenever the subject of the novel, Jay Gatsby, speaks, we hear him use the term “sport” when referring to the people around him. It’s unique within the work and is an integral part of his characterization. From the first time we meet him, we can recognize his speech without any further description.

That’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.

In my first novel, Ni’il: The Awakening, I used a tag to describe the local doctor/medical examiner who is something of a mid-major character. When we first meet him, I give the reader a moderate physical description, ending “with his long hair and granny-style glasses, he bore a strong resemblance to John Lennon.” From then on, throughout the novel (and its sequels) whenever he reappeared, all I needed to do was mention the John Lennon connection for the reader to place him.

The danger inherent in using character tags is getting too cute with them and risking ending up with caricatures instead of characterizations. The way to avoid this is to make sure the tag is an essential part of the character’s description. Rather than invent a tag and place it on the character, describe the character and create the tag from that description. It will help to ensure that the tag is organic and not just clever or cute.

But as we strive to achieve that balance of description and brevity, keep tags in mind as a part of your toolbox. If used well, they can help greatly.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writing Manuals

A short time ago, a friend who also happens to be an accomplished poet asked a question on a social media site to which we both belong. It seems she’s thinking about branching out into writing fiction and she wanted her prose practitioner friends to recommend the best fiction writing books/manuals.

I, of course, recommended my personal favorites. But more on that later, what piqued my imagination for this post was one of the responses my friend received to her question. The person in question (who I don’t know) posted something like this: “And did you learn to write your poetry from a book?”

An interesting question. Can you learn to write fiction or poetry from a book? Can you learn how to write from a book, period?

Well, if you’ve ever read an issue of Writer’s Digest, or been to their web site, you know right off that they think you can. Or they have created an industry of selling lessons to people who believe they can. And Writer’s Digest isn’t the only one. There are thousands of how-to books on everything from basic story mechanics, to the details of every genre, to the business aspects of writing.

You might have read a few. I know I have. Do they do us any good? Are they worth the cost of the money we shell out to purchase them and the time we spend reading the advice they give?

Like many things in this life, the answers to any of the above questions are more complicated than simple “yes” or “no.”

Can you learn to write from a book on writing? Sure. But if you have never read a single piece of fiction or poetry in your life, then pick up a book on how to write a bestselling novel, you probably won’t be able to immediately write one. Not a good one, anyway. By the same token, under the same circumstances, taking a creative writing class at your local college wouldn’t help either.

The only way to truly perfect our craft, whether it’s fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, is by reading and studying the masters, then trying to create our own works, using the lessons we learned in our readings.

That being said, we can save a lot of time spent in trial-by-error by learning some general guidelines from those willing to teach us. That’s where the writing guides can come in handy. We could write a hundred stories over ten years of practice before we realize that adverbs are generally not our friends. Or we could read it in a book of writing advice and immediately improve our writing noticeably.

The real value in reading books on writing advice, just like creative writing classes or workshops, is not that they can really teach those who cannot write to write. That is a difficult challenge for any book. The real value of these books is in helping those of us who have already gained a working knowledge of the writing basics to improve our game. Faster. Not all books will help us all. Many will have little or nothing for us, but some will have tips or approaches we have not thought about before.

So yes, by all means, pick up that book of writing tips by your favorite author. It might not have anything that helps you improve your craft, but you won’t know until you read it. Will you?

Now back to the question my friend asked: what are my favorite advice books for fiction writers?

On Writing, Stephen King (Scribner 2000)
Technique in Fiction, Robbie Macauley and George Lanning (St. Martin’s Press 1987)
Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Josip Novakovich (Story Press 1995)

There are others, but these are the three that helped me most. So far.

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