Creative Writing Rules: An Oxymoron?

Handwriting, boredom

photo: David Hall, creative commons license

A friend of mine (two friends, in fact) complained to me about a “mystery writing” class they were taking. It turned out to be a critique group of inexperienced writers and no formal instruction. Then, coincidentally, I met the course instructor of heard his rationale for this approach. He believes there aren’t rules for writing and that creative people violate the supposed “rules” all the time.

This puts him on the same page as Somerset Maugham who famously said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

That viewpoint, of course, negates the huge number of useful guidelines that authors and editors—sometimes out of frustration or even desperation—have compiled. While established authors may have internalized them, they are especially useful for writers starting out. The most useful to me currently is Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction, packed with rich examples.

In the blog Criminal Minds last month, mystery/crime writers talked about the usefulness (or not) of online sites offering writing advice. Author Paul D Marks wrote, “The thing with all advice is to take it with a grain of salt,” which would seem to support the class instructor’s point of view, except that Marks follows it up with “First, learn the rules—you need to know them before you can break them.” In other words, budding writers have to start somewhere, and that’s what the instructor’s students seemed to be missing.

The very number of sources for writing advice can be a problem in itself. New writers need some means for separating the wheat from the chaff, the good advice from the irrelevant, the workable idea from the dead end. They need to be able to separate writing advice (structure, characterization, motivation) from editing advice (redundancies, overwriting, flaccid verbs). In their first draft, they need the former. In all the subsequent drafts, they need both. (Here I’ll share a list of powerful editing tips from Repo Kempt. If only I could get its full benefits by tearing it into tiny pieces and eating it.)

Ultimately, the panel of bloggers seemed to agree, the first key to good writing is lots of reading—reading in the genre the author wants to write in, seeing what works and what doesn’t. If they are reading some of the better advice columns and books along the way, they’ll be a bit more critical (in a good way) when they read. If a particular plot or characterization or passage of dialog really works, or falls flat as roadkill, they can take a moment to figure out why then look for a place in their own writing to use that insight or avoid that same carnage.

Novelist and creative writing professor Colum McCann wrote a fine essay of encouragement for aspiring novelists earlier this year, drawing from his recent book. He acknowledges the instructor’s “rules are there to be broken” mantra yet provides enough orientation to the craft that a would-be writer is not snow-blinded by the blank page.

A Mysterious Affair & the Ur-Story

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Last Saturday the Princeton Arts Council hosted an afternoon conference featuring an impressive gang of mystery and crime writers who ply their trade between New York and Philadelphia. A first of its kind, in my memory at least, it drew around a hundred writers and readers and fans.

Panels talked about writing stories set in a region—does it matter whether you’ve actually been there? Or, when is Google Earth not enough?—and stories where the author can’t have been there, because they’re set in a different historical time—how much research do you really need? Even stories set in the future, in the case of some thrillers—is research even important? Don’t you just make it up?

Audience members asked the burning question: how do people react when the find out you write about murder? And, while this prompted some humorous replies, in fact, most people are fascinated. They often say they would like to write a mystery themselves, though few end up doing it. Panelists encouraged them to. As to how they manage writing, other jobs, families, and so on, panelist Jeff Cohen (who writes as E.J. Copperman) had the best reply: “If you can swing it, it helps to have a wife with a full-time job.”

Guest of Honor S. J. Rozan, a mystery writer with 15 novels, more than 60 short stories, and  multiple awards on her c.v., gave the keynote. She talked about how genre writers—crime (including mystery and thrillers), romance, Westerns, science fiction, and she’d include coming-of-age—are still disparaged as “not literature,” yet remain wildly popular.

Why is that? She said genre writing can be distinguished by having an ur-story, a fundamental story line. Readers (and moviegoers) expect and take comfort in those ur-stories and in their very predictability, and writers violate the established genre conventions at their peril. The ur-story in the romance genre is “love conquers all”; in science fiction, it’s “what it is to be human.” Mysteries and thrillers, despite their uncountable variations, have ur-stories too, she maintains. In mystery, it’s “here’s why this happened”—attractive in a world where so much seems inexplicable—and in thrillers, it’s “is there time?” This last manifests itself in the frequently encountered literal “ticking clock” that thriller protagonists are trying to beat.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell maintained there is a single ur-story underlying all fiction, ancient to 21c. This has led to the “hero’s journey” school of story construction, in which a protagonist is marched through a call to adventure, begins a quest, overcomes trials, brings home the goods, and so on. That fundamental storyline can be detected in Rozan’s more descriptive genre-specific ur-stories. Whatever it is, however it’s aggregated or subdivided, we love hearing and seeing the ur-story over and over in books, on stage, and in the movies.

The event, sponsored by Princeton’s Cloak & Dagger bookstore, was co-hosted by the local chapters of two organizations I belong to: Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime.

Good Storytelling Works, Regardless of Genre

draft

photo: Sebastien Wiertz, creative commons license

Genre fiction is no longer disparaged as the poor stepchild to literary (i.e., “real”) fiction. In some ways, writing it can be harder. Jennifer Kitses for LitHub recently discussed why genre fiction is not necessarily easier to create and, more to the point, what lessons it teaches all writers.

The elements of noir she thought of as genre-specific—“high-stakes encounters, a mystery to solve, a protagonist in danger”—are key elements of good storytelling, regardless of genre, she says.

Readers of this blog will recognize in her words the sentiment of late Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, which appear on my website’s home page: “Every good story has a mystery in it.” Think Hamlet—a murder and a ghost story. Think Macbeth—a murder and an inciting female. Think the Greeks.

Kitses cites seven lessons from attempting her own crime novel:

1) don’t be afraid of adding tension – and remember that what ramps up the tension is not necessarily some violent episode. It can be a character’s own ongoing situation. A perfect example is Gin Phillips’s recent Fierce Kingdom, in which the tension is almost unbearable, while all the protagonist is doing is hiding herself and her four-year-old behind a rock. That situation may be internal, as when Melissa Scrivner Love’s Lola has to turn on her own brother.

2) give the reader a chance to breathe. Personally, I had to put Gin Phillips’s book down from time to time because of 1). This is one aspect of pacing, and many authors give their readers a break by introducing humor, typically among the detectives or with secondary characters. Tami Hoag is excellent at this in her Kovac and Liska novels.

3) chapter endings shouldn’t feel like endings. The last lines of one chapter should carry your readers into the next, keeping their curiosity piqued through artful (not cheesy!) cliffhangers.

4) let your reader know whom to root for. Thrillers commonly use multiple points-of-view to present the story. Poorly handled, that can dilute your readers’ focus. Tammy Cohen’s recent They All Fall Down keeps her character Hannah front and center by writing the chapters from her point of view in the first person, whereas chapters from other points of view are third-person, filtered through the narrator’s voice.

5) love your secondary characters. It’s great when they’re real, and not just moved onto stage like cardboard cut-outs. Nick Petrie’s character Lewis is a good example; I grinned when he showed up in Petrie’s second novel, Burning Bright. SO glad to see him again!

6) keep research in perspective. Research can be a way to avoid actual writing. Because I like research, I have to avoid the Too-Much-Already quicksand. What works for me is to do enough to start sparking ideas. After that, I confine myself to just-in-time research as I go along. When you do begin to write, your reader doesn’t need every detail. Feel free to hit the highlights and feel confident about the firm base underneath.

7) remember you’re writing fiction – just jettison plot developments that aren’t working. Characters too. I’ve swept up

characters from the cutting-room floor and put them in short stories. Lessens the pain.

Where Are Your Story’s Characters?

road trip, map, travel

photo: rabi w, creative commons license

Occasionally a book review will comment on the strong sense of place an author has evoked, so much so that the city or country almost becomes another character in the story.

Many details about the way a place looks, feels, smells, and how its denizens behave make up that reader impression.It starts with a clear—or clearly imagined—geography. Get the bones of the place right and you can attach all those memorable details to it. Create geographic confusion, and your reader may be lost.

I love maps, so imagine my delight to discover a kindred spirit in author Barbara O’Neal,  who wrote a fascinating Writer Unboxed essay titled “The Complex Power of Mapping the World of Your Novel.” It isn’t surprising that many science fiction and fantasy writers who create “new worlds” create physical maps of these places as a writing aid. My two novels-in-progress are set in real places—places I’ve been—and yet I rely on numerous maps, both paper and electronic, to plot my characters’ actions. O’Neal has connected with other writers who also need “that physical representation of the world of our imaginations,” she wrote.

Some authors go so far as to create a map on the flyleaf of a book–or on the back cover as in a “locked room” mystery I recently read—to keep the reader in the picture. That book, Hake Talbot’s The Rim of the Pit, contained a map of the grounds as well as the layout of rooms in the hunting lodge.

Why It Matters

Without a firm sense of place, fantasy authors risk confusing their readers, but my readers would be writing angry letters: “You should know it’s impossible to walk from the Piazza del Popolo to the Colosseum in Ten Minutes!?” Either problem distracts the reader from the story and diminishes its believability. And it is a problem because, as author consultant Chris Roerden explains, “We humans have a primal need to orient ourselves in our surroundings.”

We’ve lost something with GPS giving us a mostly narrow view of where we’re going and what we need to do next in order to get there. The “big picture” orientation a full-sized map provides is gone. (I laughed when I read a millennial’s observation that some of his co-workers use GPS to get to the office and home again, every day.)

O’Neal cites a growing body of research that shows our brains are wired to ensure we have a connection to places—“to be oriented, very intricately, to place, time, and thus, emotion.” The blind child Marie-Laure in Anthony Doerr’s magical All the Light We Cannot See navigates the physical world through the map that exists in her imagination. How her father taught her that map was Doerr’s powerful evocation of finding her place—literally and metaphorically—in the world.

The maps O’Neal creates in parallel with her fiction, like the reference points I establish for my characters, help us establish a consistent geography, are the first step in establishing a strong sense of place, which is, she says, “one of the most powerful parts of writing.”

Further Resources

American Nations by Colin Woodard – maps eleven cultural strains in U.S. history and politics; fascinating! Great insights for establishing “sense of place.”
Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden – helpful guidance and refresher for authors; winner of an Agatha Award for best non-fiction

How to Write: Chair, Door, Goal . . . Truth

typing

photo: Kiran Foster, creative commons license

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft describes how this mega-best-selling author became a writer. Along the way, he gives common sense advice about writing that benefit anyone seriously interested in becoming a better author. The process he follows is just the start, and here it is.

Like most people who dispense advice to the novice, he emphasizes the virtue of writing every day, despite the pull of other responsibilities and distractions. Otherwise, he says, “the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people . . . the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade.” The excitement King talks about is what gets me out of bed every morning before six.

He also insists that you shut the office door, “your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business.” Eliminate distractions—phones, beeping email alerts, insistent cats—anything that takes you away from the page. In my case, cats.

Goals are important, King thinks, and he tries to write 10 pages a day—about 2000 words. I’m a fan of powering through and getting a completed draft. I try not to get mired in all the inevitable issues and lapses and problems, but fix them in rewrite. Maybe make a note of them, if I see them, so my mind lets them go, and I can move on.

Ass-in-chair, closed door, goal. Adhering to these basics, King believes, makes writing easier over time. “Don’t wait for the muse to come,” he says, write. So many would-be authors talk to me about needing inspiration, as if it sprinkles down from the clouds rather than up from the mind’s carefully plowed field. King says, “Your job is make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day.”

By the time we’re adults, lots of other people’s words, many not very good, have passed into our brains from books, tv, and movies. When a phrase or scene comes too easily for me, almost unconsciously, my mind is simply replaying someone else’s words—they’re not original any more. In my story, they’re false.

So now King gets to the hard part. You have to tell the truth. Your story’s truth. “The job of fiction,” he says, “is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies.” Even when we love the characters in a book and we really, really don’t want it to end, if the book has told the truth, we feel satisfied when we turn that last page.

Despite how hard it may be to find and express a story’s truth, King says that even the worst three hours he ever spent writing “were still pretty damned good.”

John Abbott’s Kitchen Boy

By Vicki Weisfeld

My name is Aaron Jeffries. I am twelve years old. I want to write what happened to me in the War of Independence, so that other boys will take note.

I am a single orphan since 1775, when my father cut his hand hauling ammunition boxes at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He got poisoned blood and Died. When he went to join up with General Washington, I asked why he did not side with the Tories, so he could stay here in New Jersey with us. He was a powerful admirer of Doctor Franklin and quoted him back to me: “He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.”

I surely do not want to rise up with fleas, but I miss my father and blame the Redcoats for taking him. Our mother was hard put to feed four children, so in the spring of 1776, when I was eight years old, I and my older sister had to quit school and be put out to work, while the babies stayed home.

John Abbott House

John Abbott House; photo: Blake Bolinger, creative commons license

Mother sent me to Mr. John Abbott. He has a fine big house about two miles away, and I could walk home on weekends. So that you will not think I am too much of a Braggart, some of what I tell below I copied from letters Mrs. Abbott wrote my mother. She said I could.

Mr. Abbott was away most days, being active in Politicks. Mrs. Abbott and her sister ran the place and were very regular in their ways. I helped Gus, the hired hand, take care of the chickens and the garden, which I did know how to do. A lot of things I never done before and had to learn about them. They had me polishing the brasses and the silverware and carrying dishes back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen. I was working for Mrs. Abbott only about two weeks when a greasy dish slipped out of my hand and crashed to the floor. That broke one of Mrs. Abbott’s fancy plates!

She gave me a Broom and told me to take the pieces to the cellar and put them in a big pan she used for broken dishes and glassware and the like.

“My mother buries them in the yard,” I said, thinking to give her helpful advice. “Behind the chicken shed.”

“I can’t be planting a new flower bed and be cut to ribbons by a buried piece of crockery,” she said. I understood that. She did not want Poisoned Blood.

I found the pan and set the pieces in it like she said. After that, on hot days, I’d go down to the cellar and study those broken pieces and pretend they were treasure in a treasure chest.

Mrs. Abbott wrote to my Mother about it: “One day this week Aaron dropped a dish that broke, and I know he sorely regretted it. If he mentions it to you, please reassure him that we understand accidents happen. He moped a bit, so I think it troubled him. There’s no need. He’s a very good boy, always helpful and interested in everything that goes on around here.”

Boy in Snow

photo: Chris RubberDragon, creative commons license

That fall we harvested and preserved the farm’s fruits and pickled the vegetables and stocked the root cellar. We had meats in the smokehouse too. Mrs. Abbott sewed me a warm jacket, and her sister knitted me a sweater. Once when it snowed on Saturday, Gus took me home in the wagon. After that, Mrs. Abbott got me some Boots.

Mrs. Abbott likes inishativ. She said she does not want to have to tell me every little thing. If I see something that needs doing, I should just do it. I told Gus she was complaining her kitchen knives were dull, and he said we should get busy and sharpen them.

“You be careful,” she hollered out the door when she saw us with the grindstone. “You can cut yourself to ribbons doing that.” That was true, and I Was careful.

One night in early December, a long while after dark, we had a Visitor. A wagon pulled up out front and we heard a knock. I ran to the door and opened it wide. It was Mr. Samuel Tucker, who is a friend of Mr. Abbott.

I knew him because he came to the house a few days before and brought boxes full of papers. He and Mr. Abbott hid them in the Attic under my bed. Mr. Tucker was the State Treasurer for New Jersey. Mr. Abbott said that meant he was in charge of all the Money for the state. He told me that that money would help us win the War. I brought Mr. Tucker right into the front parlor.

They sent me to bed, and I did not know any more about it until the next day when I was in the cellar fetching a pot of jam and saw a big Barrel that had not been there before.

I asked Mrs. Abbott about the barrel, and she started talking about the Chores I had to do that day, so I knew she did not want to discuss it. I would have to see about it on my own and I did.

Barrels

photo: Pixabay

I went down to the cellar that afternoon and had a peek. A ways down, there was some straw, and I pushed it aside. Underneath were more gold coins than I ever hoped or thought to see and paper money. Later I found out it was more than twenty-five hundred pounds, the whole treasurey of the State of New Jersey! Mr. Tucker had been dessprit to find a good hiding place for it.

As things turned out, it wasn’t such a good place, because a Woman in Trenton knew what he’d done and pretty soon hundreds of Redcoats marched up to Mr. Abbott’s house. He was in Philadelphia.

I was scrubbing the kitchen floor when I heard their racket, and I did not need to think twice to know why they were there. I took a candle down to the cellar, thinking to guard the state treasurey if I had time and could figure out a way.

I heard soldiers stomping overhead, and soon one of them came down to the cellar. He was very tall and had to bend over because of the low sealing.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“The kitchen boy.”

“What are you doing down here?” He pointed his Brown Bess at me, the bayonette close to making a hole in my new winter shirt.

“Fetching a pot of jam,” I said and pointed at the full shelves. “Do you want some?”

“What’s this?” He pointed the bayonette toward Mr. Tucker’s barrel.

“Our broken dishes and glassware.”

“So much?” He looked at me, narrowing his eyes.

I kept quiet.

He lifted the lid of the big barrel with the tip of his bayonette. “I see,” he said.

“Those pieces can cut you to ribbons,” I said and held out a small pot of plum jam. He put it in an inside pocket.

“On your way,” he said.

I took my candle and he followed me up the stairs. Mrs. Abbott and her sister were in the front parlor. When they saw me come up from the cellar with the bayonette of the soldier right behind me, Mrs. Abbott went pale as milk.

This is what she wrote my Mother: “You can believe, my dear Mrs. Jeffries, that my sister and I were absolutely quaking when that Redcoat marched Aaron up the stairs. He did not look injured, nor was he crying, but we had no idea what had gone on down there. I called him to me and the three of us stood together in the parlor speaking nary a word. After a few minutes the soldiers upstairs clomped down with Samuel Tucker’s boxes and carried them out to their wagon. They didn’t know it, but the papers in those boxes will be useless to them!

“‘I hope you are finished,’ I said to the officer in charge. ‘We’ll have ourselves quite a time putting everything back in order.’

“He was not pleased with my tone, but his English manners would not permit him to be rude to a lady, and he swallowed his temper. I counted seven soldiers who had entered my home, and seven who left. Nevertheless, Aaron helped us search the house to be sure. I’ll let him tell you himself about the very good deed he did that day.”

Once the Redcoats were well away and we saw they had not left behind any spize, Mrs. Abbott put her hands on my shoulders and asked, “What happened down in the cellar?”

I showed her how I had dumped the broken dishes on top of New Jersey’s money. It looked like a barrel full of dangerous Sharp Pieces.

“So he left with nothing?”

“I gave him a pot of plum jam.”

She laughed for pretty near five minutes at that and told me how proud of me she was. And that is why I got to go back to School, with Mr. Tucker and Mr. Abbott sharing the cost of my Schooling and me still helping Mrs. Abbott and her sister every Saturday.

Broken crockery

photo: Ann Larie Valentine, creative commons license

#

Note:  The New Jersey state treasury was indeed hidden from the Redcoats under a pile of broken crockery, though not by fictional eight-year-old Aaron Jeffries, at the John Abbott II house. The house is now the home of the Hamilton Township Historical Society and available for tours. One hundred fifty years after this story takes place, Scotsman Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, and a small cut was no longer a potentially deadly hazard.

This short story was published in the July 26, 2017, U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue.

 

 

Family History Models (Part 2)

tree

photo: bananaana 04, creative commons license

How you decide to tell your family story depends on your goals, the amount of time you have to spend, and what you’re comfortable doing. I’m a mystery writer, and I approach family history as if it were a mystery story—conflicting clues, unreliable information, secrets—but nevertheless enabling some sort of conclusion.

As last Friday’s general tips for organizing and reporting your genealogical findings emphasized, there is no one “right way” to do this. Three ways to narrow the task of presenting your data were described yesterday. Here are two more elaborate, but very different, options.

Broad in Information, Simple in Execution

My goal in exploring my family’s story has been to understand better the context of my ancestors’ lives, so my family history includes a lot of information about the places and times they lived in. In this, I’ve had the great benefit of contributions from other family members and especially the partnership with a first cousin who lives many states away.

Most of our research has been on the Edwards family. There’s lots of information online about the Edwardses, much of it bogus. Here’s why, if you’re interested (large amounts of money are involved).

I haven’t taken the plunge of putting our family story online, though there would be many advantages of doing so. To date, it’s still a Word document—225 pages long, with 350 footnotes, photographs, charts, maps, and numerous appendixes. Coping with such a large and, in places, unwieldy document, I’ve learned one overriding lesson: don’t let your reader get lost!

People can grasp graphical “family tree” information quicker than text. A whole family tree, which can include hundreds of names, is probably best created online in one of the sites developed for that purpose. However, using descendant software (some of which is free and open source; see this discussion) to display a relevant portion of the tree keeps readers oriented.

map, New Haven

New Haven, Conn., 1641

Maps and timelines help your readers—and you, too!— stay oriented. For example, I found an interactive map of old London on which I can approximate the location of an ancestor’s shop in 1550. Maps can reveal relationships. The 1641 map of New Haven, Conn., shows the householders’ names, including our ancestor’s and that of their neighbor, a ship’s captain active in the Chesapeake Bay. Thanks to him, the next generation of our family ended up in Tidewater Maryland.

Graphics are helpful too. Charts, maps, illustrations, bulleted lists—all those elements break up your text and enhance readability. Of course if you have family photos, that’s great, but feel free to be creative. Some of the pictures in our Civil War chapter are historical photos of particular battle-sites. Look for images that are not copyright protected so that you are free to “publish” your work to the Web. (Google Images > Tools > Usage Rights > labeled for reuse)

Narrow-to-Broad in Information, Elaborate in Execution 

Finally, there’s a true high-end way to go, with a self-published book. Find lots of information on those choices, including some pricing information, in this guide.

Ancestry.com has a publishing partnership with MyCanvas, for example, where you do most of the writing work. Another example is a company like Bind These Words, which combines family interviews with photographs and graphic elements. The cost of such a project depends on the time involved and number of photos/graphics. (I have not worked with either of them.)

These are examples to explore. While working with a commercial publisher is expensive, it might be appropriate for some defined piece of your project or to commemorate a special wedding anniversary or other family milestone.

Cliff-Hangers: Learning from the Masters

Harold Lloyd, cliff-hangerLast Friday’s quick tips about writing cliff-hangers can help keep your reader immersed in your story. Today, here’s some of what we can learn from the masters. (Sources listed below). The Victorian novelists who published serials—like Charles Dickens—had to create chapter endings that would bring readers back the next week or month. The successful ones became experts at it.

  • Thus, clinging fast to that slight spar (her infant child) within her arms, the (dying) mother drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world. Not: “She was dead.” By referencing the common fate of mankind, Dickens allies readers with the dying mother. Even in death, there is action; she is clinging and drifting.
  • And there, with an aching void in his young heart, and all outside so cold, and bare, and strange, Paul sat as if he had taken life unfurnished, and the upholsterer were never coming. Not: “What in the world was he going to do now?” Dickens gives Paul’s common dilemma an engaging and memorable treatment through a specific visual image, a metaphor for loneliness.
  • The Judge, whose eyes had gone in the general direction, recalled them, leaned back in his seat, and looked steadily at the man whose life was in his hand, as Mr. Attorney-General rose to spin the rope, grind the axe, and hammer the nails into the scaffold. Not: “Pronouncing a death sentence was never easy for him.” Dickens injects images of action, albeit fanciful—spinning, grinding, and hammering—into the reader’s mind. He doesn’t just describe the Judge’s passive mental activities: “pondering, contemplating, assessing.”
  • I put my light out, and crept into bed; and it was an uneasy bed now, and I never slept the old sound sleep in it any more. Not: “Pip tossed and turned all night.” Dickens lets you know something about Pip’s future here, but again, it is not all in his head, it’s tied to the physical reality of the light and the bed. It’s saying goodbye to childhood.

These are moments of high drama and great resonance with the reader. They are integral to the tale, not tacked-on contrivances. Note how specific they are. They contain physical actions, not just thoughts and feelings. And paradoxically, by being so specific, they achieve universality.

Modern writers don’t employ Dickens’s florid language, but they still can achieve an organic approach to cliff-hangers. By organic, I mean an ending that grows out of the story and gives it somewhere to go.

  • They respected him, stopped watching him all the time. But he never stopped watching them. (This plants a seed of menace and tells readers something important about the character.)
  • Ma snorted, her nose and chin almost meeting as she screwed up her face. “How can you sit there and look Ruth in the eye and say you searched the dale? You’ve not been near the old lead mine workings.” (Up next: lead mine workings.)
  • “You’re not a monster. Well, except when you wake up with a hangover. It’ll be fine, George,” Anne soothed him. “It’s not as if the past holds any surprises, is it?” (An almost painful foreshadowing.)

There’s a vast difference between this last example and the weak one cited previously (“she had the distinct feeling that this peace was about to be brutally shattered”). In the negative example, the author is simply reports a conclusion—head-work—of the protagonist. If readers have been paying attention to the story, they’ve already reached this same conclusion. And, if not, well, there are bigger problems . . .

By contrast, McDermid’s characters are engaged in conversation (action, not reflection). Their statements propel the story forward; readers know what the characters next will do (explore the lead mine workings) or be (surprised). They react with an Aha! Or even Uh-oh.

Don’t destroy your cliff-hanger’s value of by using it to tell readers what they already know. Let them run on out ahead of you. That’s what makes reading fun.

Sources:

The Dickens quotes, in order are from: Dombey and Son, end of Chapter 1, Dombey and Son, end of Chapter 11, A Tale of Two Cities, Book II, end Chapter 2, and Great Expectations, Chapter 18.

The modern quotes, are from: Bill Beverly, Dodgers, end Chapter 18; Val McDermid, A Place of Execution, Part 1, end Chapter 13; Ibid., Book 2, Part 1, end Chapter 3.

Cliff-Hangers: Making Them Work

Harold Lloyd, clock, cliff-hanger

photo: Insomnia Cured Here, creative commons license

Mystery and thriller writers are often advised to end chapters with a cliff-hanger to propel the reader forward through the narrative, to create those page-turners, to make them read “just one more chapter.” Writing cliff-hangers sounds like one of the easier bits of lore to follow, but it can be deceptively difficult to write good ones.

Simple Guidelines

  • Don’t repeat the same formula too often, like asking a question—Would the police arrive in time?  (I’d advise almost never using a question, but that’s me.)
  • Remember that something that sounds compelling to you, embroiled as you are in the fates of your characters, can come across as ho-hum obvious to the reader. In a new thriller about the search for a serial killer, one chapter ends with the head police investigator saying, “We have to find him.” Well, duh.
  • Include a hint of what’s to come. This can be done well or, in this case, badly: “As she stood alone on the once tranquil country lane, she had the distinct feeling that this peace was about to be brutally shattered.” That’s the author strolling into the scene and explaining. Reader responds, “I hope so. This is a thriller!”
  • A good general rule to write on a post-it and stick it to your computer screen is this, then: never be cheesy. If you find you’ve written a cliffhanger that’s no more than a transparent attempt to ramp up the tension, better to delete it. I’ve jettisoned plenty of them.

Origins

Although the movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower would have you think differently, Dickens did not invent the term cliff-hanger (though he certainly used the technique). That honor goes to Thomas Hardy, whose serialized novel A Pair of Blue Eyes left protagonist Henry Knight hanging off a cliff, from whence he reviewed the history of the world.

Because Charles Dickens also serialized his novels, with people in England mobbing the newsstands and Americans clamoring for arriving ships to unload the publications containing the next chapters, I figure he knew a thing or two about writing an effective cliff-hanger, one that would kindle enough interest in readers to last a week or even longer. If you have any Dickens lying around, check him out or wait until my next post (There, a cliff-hanger with a hint of what’s to come).

Monday: Examples of effective cliff-hangers, past and present.

Change and Emotion Spark Your Novel, and Voice Carries It

Greg Beaubien

Guest poster Greg Beaubien; photo, courtesy of the author

Story and voice are essential in novels. Start by thinking of the most compelling story you know or can imagine, and then tell it in your own voice, as if you don’t expect anyone else to ever read it. A common mistake beginning writers make is trying to impose style on their work. Attempting to impress readers has the opposite effect; they can smell a contrived or self-admiring tone.

To win readers over and give your novel that all-important element of voice, tell your story in a simple, straightforward way, with your own personality or attitude. Your voice becomes your style. Most professional writers do their share of hackwork to pay the bills, but when you write a novel, never censor your fiction or try to please others.

What makes a good story? Something changes in the lives of the characters, setting the narrative in motion. In The Godfather by Mario Puzo, the sudden, ominous appearance of a heroin dealer who wants financial backing and political protection from the Corleone family—and then tries to assassinate its patriarch when that support is denied—is the story’s catalyst. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy begins with the funeral of the protagonist’s grandfather, an event that leads to the impending sale of the family ranch in Texas and the young man’s decision to embark on an adventure to Mexico with his best friend. Early in my novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities, an American tourist kills a drug dealer in Morocco—an action that may or may not have been taken in self-defense, and from which the rest of the story flows into the past, present and future.

The change that sparks a story might be as big and dramatic as the outbreak of war or a natural disaster, or just someone new who enters the main character’s life. Stories that capture our attention involve a problem or barrier that the protagonist must face, a dilemma or an elusive goal. Something is at stake. In one way or another, there should be constant conflict—whether it’s a physical fight, an argument, or just a haunting memory. That pressure keeps the story moving and holds the reader’s interest.

Important as the story catalyst is, equally significant is how the characters react to the situations they’re in, according to their own personalities, desires, and fears. Tell your story, but show your characters. Always have empathy for them, even the villains. As the author, you should be able to sum up your novel’s story—how drug trafficking changed the Mafia in the 1940s, for example—but you also need to know what it’s about emotionally. In the case of The Godfather, the answer might be, “In taking over his father’s organized-crime empire, a son betrays his family and himself.”

Using the raw materials of your story, characters, emotional theme and naturally occurring authorial voice, write scenes in your novel similar to those in a movie. And just as filmmakers do, propel the narrative and hold the audience’s attention by getting into your scenes late and leaving them early.

A finished novel should be about 70,000–90,000 words long (established authors sometimes write them twice that length). But once you reach the end, plan on revising at least five or six drafts—and maybe many more. Much of the beauty in well-written novels occurs through the author’s self-editing. When you eliminate extra words, slow or dull passages, repetitions, clichés and errors, your story and voice are honed and the real book starts to emerge.

Guest poster Gregory W. Beaubien is a longtime journalist and feature writer, who published his debut novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities in 2014 (Moresby Press). He is revising a new novel called Air Rights, about struggling fathers who try to blackmail a real estate tycoon, not realizing that the businessman also has a family and is facing serious legal and financial problems of his own.

More about target word length?

These helpful articles from Writer’s Digest and the Manuscript Appraisal Agency delve into great detail about length targets for different book genres.