writing, Writing advice

One of a Kind

There’s a saying among people who say such things that there are no original stories. They do have a point. Human beings have been telling stories to each other stories for about 10,000 years so I tend to agree with them about the originality angle. Though the trappings change over time, from ferocious animals to space ships and computers, the basic human stories are the same. The basic human stories are universal.

In my college days, there was an apocryphal theory (I’ve never researched its validity) going around that in all of literature, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Star Wars, there are only two real stories: Jack, The Giant Killer, and Cinderella. According to this theory, everything is simply a variation of one of those two templates: The underdog is victorious against all odds (or isn’t); and the person goes from rags to riches (or doesn’t).

I’m not sure how valid the theory is. But I have always thought it interesting and possible.

The biggest lesson I take from the “Two Stories” theory is the inarguable fact that none of us can write a truly original story because all the original stories have been told already and several times. If we wait to find an original story to write, we will never write. It can’t be done.

That isn’t to say that we can’t be original. We can. But the difference is that while we will never be able to write an original story—that is impossible—we are more than able to tell an existing story in a new way. We can set it in an original place (Star Wars is an old fashioned western set in space). We can show it from a different point of view. We can tell the story in a different (such as a nonlinear) form. We can turn a work of fiction into a poem; a poem into a work of prose.

Most of all, we can use our own, original voice and perceptions, to make a familiar story new. Each of us is a unique individual. We each have a unique set of skills and values and relationship with the world around us. It is that which, when we properly harness it, creates the originality we seek in all art.

The originality isn’t in the story itself; it’s in how we tell the story.

Trust your skill. Trust your instinct and vision. Most of all trust yourself and be yourself. It is only through trusting yourself and your voice that you can truly write original work.

writing, Writing advice

Why I Write What I Do

At a reading I gave a couple of weeks ago, one of the questions I fielded from the audience had to do with why I’d chosen to write genre rather than literary fiction. It’s a fairly common question, especially among university educated, literary types. Sometimes there’s a bit of snobbery involved, similar to that a jazz musician might feel when speaking to a pop star, but I didn’t feel it this time. This time it was about genuine curiosity.

Why do I write suspense fiction (ranging from horror to crime) rather than more literary fiction?

The answer is somewhat complicated.

First, suspense fiction is not the only thing I write. It is the only genre I write novels in, but I do write short fiction of a more “literary” nature. I even write some poetry and essays (like this one).

However, most of my time and effort goes into writing fiction in the broad style of suspense fiction. Why? Well, primarily, suspense fiction is the type of novel I prefer to read. I will and do read just about anything (except Harlequin Romances, sorry) but my favorites are in the suspense spectrum, from the horror of Stephen King and Peter Straub to the thrillers of David Baldacci and John Sandford to the noir detective works of Dennis Lehane and Greg Iles.

This is the genre I know the best. I write what I know. I write suspense fiction.

But there is another story that explains how I chose the path I’m currently on. For once I too was a young college student, taking writing and literature classes and trying to write cutting edge, experimental fiction. I read Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. I tried to be symbolic.

Don’t ever try to be symbolic.

Then I read a detective novel by John D. McDonald, one of his Travis McGee novels. One of the characters in this novel (I have no idea which one anymore) was a young woman who painted abstracts. In one scene, she asked the detective what he thought of her work. Instead of an answer, he asked her to do him a favor. What? Take out a pencil, a piece of paper and draw that lamp. She made an effort, but couldn’t do it. He told her that before she attempted to experiment with her art, she needed to have mastered the basics.

That scene struck me and made me think. Before experimenting, one must have first mastered the basics. Well, what are the basics of writing fiction? In short, storytelling. Before I tried to push the edges of my art form, I needed to know and have mastered the basics of storytelling.

I’ve spent the next thirty-five years doing just that, learning the basics of storytelling. That means plot, characterization, dialogue, description, exposition, voice, and everything else it takes to tell a story. Now, I think I’m getting to the point where I can tell a pretty good story.

So am I going to start experimenting with my fiction? Perhaps. And perhaps I already have.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Three Pillars of Fiction

Last week I examined some useful (I think) information I found in an informal study called “Immerse or Die.” Largely, this consisted in a compilation of mistakes the author found in fifty ebooks he’d read, mistakes that caused him to break out of his “immersion” in the fictional world.

This was interesting and useful because it provides us with real-world, concrete examples of common mistakes writers make. It gives us something to watch for as we write and, more importantly, as we edit.

It was good.

But there was more in the article to be gleaned. In his analysis of the data, the author had an interesting thought. He grouped all the mistakes into one of three categories: what he termed the three aspects of writing fiction. More accurately, they are the three areas that each must be done well for the fiction to work.

They are:

Mechanics: the nuts and bolts skills necessary to work effectively with the language: grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage.

Story telling: the traditional skills and elements we have been learning for years: plot, characterization, suspense, dialogue, etc.

Story building: weaknesses in the story design itself, such as tired old cliché plots, illogical economic systems, impossible physics, unbelievable characters.

What was very interesting about this part, I thought, was the results when he classified all the mistakes (I listed most of them last week) into these three categories. What he found was that 44% of all the mistakes were in the way the story was being told. Problems with the story building accounted for 31% of the problems. Surprisingly, problems with the mechanics, though including the most frequent single mistake, as a category only made up 25% of the total mistakes.

Interesting. Surprising, even. (Personally, I would have guessed that the mechanics category would have ranked higher, but what do I know?)

So what can we learn from this?

First of all, the easiest category to correct, Mechanics, though the smallest group of mistakes, still accounts for 21% of them. Study some grammar and usage and we can eliminate nearly a quarter of our mistakes.

Second, all the time we have invested in learning the art of storytelling was well-spent. Storytelling mistakes make up the largest portion of the mistakes he identified. It only increases the importance of continuing to hone our skills.

Lastly, how much time and energy do any of us devote to honing our story building skills? These were a full 31% of all the mistakes, so the category is not something to be taken lightly. Unfortunately, the mistakes we make in story building are often the most difficult to spot ourselves. That is why it is so important to have beta readers you trust to tell you about them.

Where do you find beta readers? Among your friends (but make sure they will tell you the truth, not just try to feed your ego), or join a critique group. As a last resort, you can hire a professional editor, who will do a thorough, trustworthy job, but can be fairly expensive.

Just as an example, a friend sent me a scene from a project she was working on. In this scene, she had her protagonist touring Italy in the summer. Because of the sun, she protected herself with a parasol. (Makes sense. Okay.) She was also described as taking numerous photos with a digital camera. Okay…wait…most people need to use both hands to hold the camera still enough to take a photo. So how was she holding the parasol?

My friend, intent on setting up the next plot twist, hadn’t even noticed the conflict, but it makes the reader sit up and say “That can’t happen.” It breaks their immersion.

The same happens when you say it takes twenty minutes to travel from point A to point B in lower Manhattan, when anyone who lives there knows it takes at least an hour, or when your hero’s life is saved when her bulletproof vest stops a sniper’s bullet, when a little research would tell you the standard Kevlar vests police use are designed to stop pistol rounds, not rifle, which would usually go through it.

All these are mistakes a reader can (and usually will) catch. When they do, they immediately lose their ability to believe the illusion you have created is real. They will stop reading and that is exactly what we DON’T want them to do.

In short, we all need to work at improving our skills in all three areas of fiction. It is only when we have mastered all three of them that we can truly become successful at this writing life we’ve chosen.

Writing advice

Story Ideas

This is one of the most frequent questions I’m asked, both by readers and interviewers:

Q: Where do you get your story ideas?
A: I take long walks and find them lying alongside the road.

Seriously, the world is chock full of stories and story ideas. We just need to look for them.

There are three billion people (and growing) on this planet and each of us is engaged in a daily struggle to find and make our place in the world. Each day is a story. Each day is made up of many stories, small victories and minor defeats that all tell a story. Each has a high and low point, a conflict met and overcome—or not—a problem solved, for better, or worse. We, as writers, just have to pay attention.

Listen to the stories the people around you tell about their lives. We are a species hard-wired for story-telling. We do it at the dinner table, in the break room, at the neighborhood bar. Listen. Glean them for story ideas: how does your boyfriend deal with the backstabbing rival at work? How does your little sister deal with the boy who has a crush on her at school? How does she discourage him without being out and out mean? How do you come up with the thousand dollars to replace your car’s transmission? Every one of us lives a myriad of stories every day.

Watch the news. Read the newspaper. Both mediums are based on high drama (it’s what drives the ratings), mostly tragedy, but also tales of heroism and the human spirit overcoming incredible adversity. Pay attention. Take notes. Keep a pen and paper with you, or download a note-taking app for your phone. Be ready when an idea appears.

Most important of all, every writer needs to be adept at the old childhood game of “what if?” What if an ordinary man could become invisible? What if we lived in Florida during colonial times and a hurricane came ashore? What if you woke up one morning and your entire life up to now was just a dream?

What if? The possibilities—and stories—are endless.