Making Writing Advice Relevant

Authors  may diligently read books about “writing,” which, admit it, can be an effective diversion to put off the actual writing (a list of my favorites is at the bottom of this post). I’ve read a lot of them myself. And, what I’ve learned is that I’m not very good with the theoretical. I’m talking about books that provide general recommendations to do or not do this or that. I can puzzle over what the authors are trying to tell me, but my mind wanders, and the point they’re making doesn’t necessarily stick.

But what I am good at is understanding examples. If the advice-giver provides specific examples, I can extrapolate until the cows come home. Even better, I can create my own examples, riffing off those in the book. I’ve tried this with both novels and short stories. I read a piece of advice, then stop a moment and think about where in my current manuscript such an insight might apply and make a note. Yes, my advice books are marked up scandalously. Yes, the best ones are read over and over again, because the context of where I am in my writing makes such a difference to what I can absorb. Then I weave into my story the changes implied by some piece of expert insight.

Recently, I paired writing a short story about a mysterious contemporary museum with reading George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, recommended to me by a friend. Saunders takes four Russian authors and analyzes their stories in depth. I read a bit, worked on my story a bit, cross-referenced the two, thought about it, and plowed ahead, back and forth, working the new, deeper ideas into the text. I guarantee Chekov and Turgenev wouldn’t spot the places where my work headed down paths similar to theirs—not in plot or writing style, of course, but in what the Russians’ purpose was in various passages and how they arranged information to achieve it. Invisible though their influence may be, I’m sure my story, such as it is, is stronger for the effort.

A friend likes to say that reading is breathing in and writing is breathing out; it’s the method I used for that story.

Recommended Reading:
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
by Booker Prize-winner George Saunders
On Writing by Stephen King (heard of him?)
The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass, a real eye-opener for me
From Where You Dream by Pulitzer-winner Rober Olen Butler
The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter

If you order any of these books using my affiliate links above, I receive a small referral payment from Amazon. Thanks!

The Ending in Our Imagination

Recently my husband and I saw a movie that ended with a few questions still up in the air, and, we asked ourselves, “what happens next?” It was interesting that the two of us, who had seen the same build-up and evolution of the plot and the same characterizations, came to opposite conclusions. That made me think about the endings in novels and how they sometimes leave just an outline at the end for the reader to color in. Let the reader do some of the work!

The endings of stories have been of interest to me since I started this blog more than ten years ago, and below is what I wrote about them then.

“I wished it would never end.” How many times have we said that as we closed our book with a sigh. I’ve caught myself reading slower and slower over the last few pages of a book I’ve loved, just to delay the inevitable!

For an adult ed class on Dickens, I reread A Tale of Two Cities. At the end, the travelling coach carrying Lucie and her daughter, Doctor Manette, Mr. Lorry, and the unconscious Sidney Carton speeds away from Paris in its desperate escape. We know that the unconscious man is really Lucie’s husband Charles and that Carton has taken his place in the tumbrils headed for the guillotine. I waited in vain for identity of the slumbering man to be recognized, for Charles to wake up and realize he had been “recalled to life.”

But Dickens doesn’t give us that scene. He leaves us to imagine it. I can see amazement and joy mixing with horror and guilt when the realization finally comes to them, and they understand what Carton has done. What, in fact, he told Lucie he would do, some 200 pages earlier: “For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything.” I see Lucie’s misery, as she recognizes the implications of Carton’s vow and feel the unbearable weight of her promise to keep it secret.

My vision of that scene—and yours—is beyond the covers. Our own ending to solve and resolve.

Ask an Author: Melissa Pritchard

In an interview a few years back, award-winning author Melissa Pritchard talked about how she had finally gotten over her hesitation to write about herself and how to put her own experiences—though in exaggerated or embellished form—in her works, in order to achieve a literary effect. It sounds like a brave development, to expose your true self in that way, but also risky in the hands of a less expert author.

When I write a story with a female protagonist, I take care not to model her too much on me, because when I do, I tend to make her “too perfect”—always saying the right thing, living up to expectations (as I would like to do myself; if only). Characters need flaws just like those real people have. It takes experience for an author to come up with characters that are both deeply felt and independently real. Some not-very-good books seem to be less an exploration of character and more an exercise in wish fulfillment, with the author as hero.

Naturally, the sum of all an author’s experiences are present in the imagination like a smorgasbord to pick a little from here and a big serving of there, and the resulting story reflects those fractured bits of reality. But that’s very different from writing a story in which the central character is a (much smarter, slimmer, younger) stand-in for one’s self.

My series of four short stories about young Japanese American newspaper reporter Brianna Yamato are set in Sweetwater, Texas. The Sweetwater in these stories, to the extent it reflects the real town, is a simulacrum of what it was sixty years ago, when I would visit my aunt and uncle who lived there. Brianna is so different from me, in age and cultural background that I can safely write those stories in first person. My “I’s” won’t get crossed. And she’s feisty. She stands up to the Texas Old Boys Club in a way I never would have! Definitely not me.

Pritchard says that when she’s starting a new story, she tries first, second (tough), and third person voices to see which best speaks to her. She relies “on an internal ripple of intuition that manifests physically as a kind of charge in my solar plexus.” When it’s right, it feels right.

She describes how in a story of mothers and daughters—potentially fraught territory there—a conventional approach just wasn’t working. It wasn’t getting her “to the emotionally dangerous point I needed to get to.” This story, “Revelations of Child Love,” was eventually told as a series of sixteen confessions and she needed that right voice and form to “carry the charge and danger the story needed.”

Sometimes, she says, it takes a couple of drafts to find the danger point. When she’s not sure what danger point she’s aiming for, she asks herself what secret she’s keeping from herself. That’s where she’s trying (as a writer) to go and not succeeding. She advises her students to look for those secrets too.

Such probing can be hard and difficult work, and I wouldn’t say I’m especially successful at it. For me, it takes time. In this context, though, I’ve been thinking about a short story I recently finished that took an unexpected turn at the end. I thought it was a kind of horror-story adventure, but realized later it was about trust. How for one character, trust is established, and for the other, it’s destroyed.

Melissa Pritchard has taught at Arizona State University and currently lives in Columbus, Georgia. She’s won a great many awards as the author of four short story collections, including The Odditorium (love the title!) and five novels. Her new novel, Flight of the Wild Swan, will be published next March.

Writers Need Both Sides of Their Brains!

The business side of writing requires that today’s authors (especially new authors) cannot focus solely on their writing. They need to gear up the analytical left side of their brains to think like entrepreneurs. Extroverts make great entrepreneurs. Alas, most writers are introverts. We love to sit alone at our computers and create worlds.

“I don’t want to do all that promotion stuff, and I don’t know how!” is the initial reaction. It’s like telling a boy who loves baseball that, in order to succeed, he must take up needlepoint.

Writers are generally aware they must compete fiercely for discoverability. In recent years, the estimated number of books published (including self-published) in the United States is 4,000,000 a year. Yours is one of them. It takes a lot of effort to have that book noticed. It’s one frozen drop in a Niagara of ice.

There’s a (marketing) flaw in writers’ tendency to hang out with other writers—you know, people who don’t ask, “So when is yo(of a dozen or more) is done. We should be trying to connect with readers. That takes work and as much creativity as goes into the novel itself. “My book is for everyone” isn’t a marketing strategy.

Book groups, e-newsletters, and now TikTok are among the ways to reach some readers, but are they the right ones for your book? Are you comfortable with them? I like book groups, I like the Q & A, and the participants often buy the book, unless the club is sponsored by a library. TikTok’s audience skews too young for my books (half of their users under age 30), but would be perfect for another author.

I like participating in book fairs. They’re fun, but I’ve learned the hard way they aren’t a very efficient way to sell (my) books, though children’s authors seem to do better. And have a lower price-point. At book fairs, I do fall prey to that tendency to hang out with other writers. As we sit or stand there, hoping to catch the eye of a potential customer, whom do we talk to? Each other, of course.

Despite the hurdles, today’s authors have marketing opportunities in both traditional and electronic publishing. A key difference is that traditional publishers are most interested in initial sales. If a book doesn’t do well out of the gate, their efforts to promote it go from almost nothing to nothing at all, and the book vanishes. By contrast, Amazon (Kindle) and other e-publishers are in it for the long haul. Maintaining the e-file is all but free, and if an author has a book success next year or the year after or the year after that, sales of the earlier book/s may very well creep upward too. This can be a boon to writers sitting on a backlist of books that never sold well, simply because they didn’t get a big enough jolt in visibility.

The publishing mountain continues to get steeper, but writers persist. It’s in our bones. And at least one side of our brains. But, like climbing any mountain, you do it one step at a time.

Writing Believable Cop Dialog

Criminal lawyer Repo Kempt wrote an interesting column for LitReactor a while back, “Cops Don’t Talk Like That!” Convinced I’m prey to every bad writing habit going, I read it carefully. I also joined the Public Safety Writers Association, comprising retired cops, FBI, EMTs, military, fire fighters and people who write about them—a great group generous in reviewing members’ ideas and words. They’re my insurance policy against cliched portrayals of law enforcement!

In his column, Kempt emphasized that good dialog is one of the best ways to make law enforcement characters believable. And he offered a tip: listen in to actual police radio frequencies to get a feel for it, or listen to podcasts with actual police from different parts of the country talking about their cases, as there are significant regional differences in jargon. “Figure out where your story is set, and tune into law enforcement transmissions or podcasts in that area.” Works for a story set in the 2020s, anyway.

“Good dialog” is hard to achieve when we’re exposed to a lot of lousy, formulaic dialog from television and movies—and, yes, books. In a display of lazy writing, a lot of writers rely on cliched personalities and behavior to save them the trouble of figuring out something new. For example the cliché of the troubled alcoholic detective doesn’t require a lot of writerly delving; we’ve seen it so many times, we already sort of “know” this character. The author is cheating readers out of getting to more meaningful, nuanced and fresher insights when relying on that trope, or the one where an older cop is near retirement (guilty!) or a jaded veteran is teamed with an idealistic young rookie, or the cop is fighting a custody battle. These are not constant topics of conversation.

Gallows humor between partners or in the squad room is another standby. Some authors—John Sandford (admittedly, I’ve only read one of his) and Tami Hoag—do this very well. A UK author I read recently turned this plus into a giant minus by making every cop statement a launchpad for another cop’s snarky comment. Truly clever comments are appreciated. Reflexive snark becomes tiresome. As one of Kempt’s interviewees said, “Real police dialogue is more normal.”

Believable dialog added a lot to author SA Cosby’s latest, All the Sinners Bleed. The Black sheriff of a rural Virginia county is juggling a lot of difficult issues—racism, a cluster of child murders, a badgering county commissioner. Cosby’s sheriff and his team each have a distinct, convincing personality. I’m especially aware of this because I listened to the audio version ably narrated by Adam Lazarre-White.

In 400 Things Cops Know, author Adam Plantinga points out that cops don’t scream at suspects in the interview room and includes the advice to new officers, “If the public screams at you, don’t scream back. Because if they piss you off, they own you.” In other words, you have to stay (or at least appear) emotionally uninvolved, no matter what. A scene in the last episode of Unforgotten (season 5) violated that principle and didn’t ring true to me. A character made a (self-justifying) confession, and the detective interviewer, not persuaded, slow-clapped his performance. Perhaps she didn’t believe him, but the slow-clap seemed not something a senior officer would do.

And what about grammar? Plantinga says, “Even if you pride yourself on speaking the King’s English, as a cop, your vernacular will soon regress to match that of those you encounter. . . . Hearing mangled diction is the linguistic backdrop of your day and eventually you yield to it.” He quotes Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities: “In a room with three people who said She don’t, he couldn’t get a doesn’t out of his mouth.”

How Do I Write? Part 2

woman writing

But if pantser authors don’t know where they’re going (i.e., where the story will end up) how do they get there? I use before-the-fact and after-the-fact techniques to manage this process. Before I know whether I’ll need them or not, I drop in potential clues early on (and make a note of them in the unanswered questions list). It can be anything potentially, but not certainly, important. Then I just keep going. In the early pages of Architect of Courage, the first murder victim has long vertical scars on her wrists, evidence of a serious suicide attempt. I didn’t know whether that would make sense or not as I got to know her better, but hundreds of pages later, it fit the evolving story meaningfully. I credit my subconscious mind for working that one out!

After the fact, when I find a story has worked out a particular way, I may realize that I haven’t laid sufficient ground work. I haven’t described the characters or situation in a way that makes the conclusion, as they’ve said since Aristotle, “both surprising and inevitable.” At that point, I have to go back and find the best places to weave in the necessary missing bits.

Plotters too sometimes find the story escapes the structure they’ve built for it. At the Book Festival where I gave this presentation last weekend, my colleague Jeff Markowitz and I had a long conversation with an author who says she’s a confirmed plotter. She told us she’d been writing a story in which the main character was an injured soldier. All planned out. Very neat. One day she burst out of her office yelling, “The nurses have taken over the story!”

All this discussion about plotting versus pantsing reflects a basic difference not as much in how people write, but why. Plotters have a particular story in mind for their novel and are working to produce the best vehicles for that story. For me, the joy in writing is the joy of discovery. I like to discover what happened, how the pieces fit, in much the same way a reader will.

This takes me back to my opening point from yesterday’s post: what do I want people to get out of my novel? I’ve come to believe, as a lot of other writers before me have, that when I write “The End” at the close of a story, it isn’t truly the end. It’s the beginning. The story will come to its full potential and fruition when readers—working as my unseen collaborators—read it, add to it their own experiences and world views, and find elements there that are meaningful or entertaining for them.

Part 1 of How Do I Write?

How Do I Write? Part 1

Handwriting, boredom

Every fiction author develops a unique recipe for making diverse ingredients—characters, plot, setting, language, and theme—emerge from the creative oven as a whole creation. A work of wonder. A novel. I’m often asked how that happens, though I feel I hardly know and can only speak for myself.

Last Saturday, at the Hoboken Library Festival, I gave a short talk that answered some of the questions readers often ask: how do I put a book together and what do I hope they will get out of it? Starting with the end product in mind, I held up my crime thriller, Architect of Courage, and said my hope with it was to give readers an exciting adventure that, along the way, shows the risks in making assumptions about people, the meaning of loyalty, and the ability of an ordinary person to find ways to accomplish extraordinary things.

You’ve probably heard that fiction writers divide roughly into two camps. The plotters—those who have dozens of 3×5 cards or different colored post-its or Scrivener index cards noting every scene and major plot development. They shuffle these around until they achieve what they believe will be be the most effective, compelling, reader-aware sequence to get to the end they have in mind.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the “pantsers,” so called because they write by the seat of their pants. They start writing (not always in the right place, but that’s what revisions are for) and find the story developing before them. They go where the story leads them.

Suffice it to say, neither camp understands how the other one works—or can work!

Truthfully, although most authors probably are in mainly one camp or the other, they often try the other approach too. I find I write a chunk (say 20,000 words of what will turn out to be a 95,000-word manuscript), then take stock. At that point, I might make myself a map of who the main characters are, their conflicts, their strengths and weaknesses, their alliances and antagonists, and look for new ways they might come interact. Arrows all over the place. That sets me up to write another big chunk. When I finally see the end coming, I do have to be more organized to make sure that when I get there, all the story questions have been answered. (Like, how DID Charles know Adeline was allergic to peanuts? Or where DID the money to buy the lake house come from?)

I keep a running list of story questions as I go along. Since, as in real life, some questions are unanswerable, the story must recognize that that particular element is beyond reach. I show that the characters may not know the answer, but they (and I) haven’t forgotten the question.

Another way I stay organized is to put a table at the head of the long Word document that’s the novel. The table lists chapter number, 2-3 words describing the main action, who’s the point-of-view character, date the action takes place, word count. That table lets me easily navigate around the document. It was a godsend when my editor suggested shortening the timeframe of the novel. If I hadn’t known the exact dates when events happened, I would have been lost. That revision necessitated another table column, “New Date.” I know Scrivener automates this kind of thing, but I stick to my homegrown approach.

How Do I Write? – Part 2 tomorrow

Myths about Writers & Writing

A few months ago, Emily Harstone wrote an entertaining post “14 Myths about Writers” for Authors Publish. “False assumptions, clichés, and myths” abound when it comes to the writing profession. The half-empty glass of bourbon on the desk, a pall of cigarette smoke. How many of these myths do you believe? Here are some of my favorites t:

1. The Muse – Although sometimes a writer is suddenly struck by a great idea, bringing it into reality (words on the page) doesn’t happen solely by inspiration. She quotes Pablo Picasso, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

2. The Day Job Is the Enemy – yes, a job can take time away from the writing (as well as put food on the table), but it also exposes how people relate to each other, what the dynamics of a workplace are, and maybe even immerses the writer with content background that feeds the writing. Alafair Burke writes compelling courtroom dramas because she is a former Deputy District Attorney and teaches criminal law and procedure. Work experience informed the office environment for my suspense novel Architect of Courage, and readers who know the world of architecture found the interactions completely believable.

3. Writers are eccentric. Harstone says people believe writers “can say strange things and get away with it.” I actually have never gotten away with it. My family makes sure of that. Writers aren’t hermits, either, though sometimes when cranking away at a particularly troublesome juncture in a work-in-progress, we may shut the office door and put the phone on mute.

4. Writers have perfect grammar and never make mistakes. One read of a contemporary novel published by an editor-free small press will disabuse you of that idea. Even bigger publishers, sometimes. A thriller I read last year, published by a company claiming six editorial staff, was burdened by careless phrases like “about him and I.” Shudder.

5. “Everyone has a story, they just have to get it out.” Harstone says this is one of the most enduring of the myths. It isn’t just telling the story, it’s doing it well. Learning how to write takes time. I’d always done a lot of writing on-the-job, but I was writing fact-based reports and policy papers. When I started writing fiction seriously, I had to learn to write all over again.

6. Writers don’t “just make it up.” This isn’t in Harstone’s list, but I hear it a lot. It’s as if the author has total freedom. So not true. A story has to seem real to readers; characters must act believably (note: not “rationally”); plots have to make sense; descriptions of places and actions have to make sense; and it all has to fit together to fulfill the story’s purpose. Even fantasy and science fiction, in which the author is dealing with a completely unfamiliar world, actions and descriptions follow an internally consistent path. “World-building” it’s called, and it’s a lot of work!

And, apropos of the photo at the top of this post, it reminded me of a favorite line from Marge Piercy’s poem, “In Praise of Joe”: “All my books are written with your ink.”

Writing Tips: 38 Ways to Improve

Click-bait headlines like “The Six Grammar Mistakes Almost Everyone Makes” or “Ten Rules for Writing Mysteries” lure me in every time, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when a savvy friend forwarded me a blurb for The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack Bickham. It was originally published in 1992 and reprinted in 1997. Anyone familiar with this book or him?

Amazon lets me take a look at the table of contents, and it’s charmingly aggressive: Chapter 10, “Don’t Have Things Happen for No Reason,” (so unlike real life, then); Chapter 16, “Don’t Let (Characters) Be Windbags,” (no BOGSAT* here); Chapter 28, “Don’t Worry What Mother Will Think”!; and, something every writer needs, Chapter 37, “Don’t Give Up.”

I have a shelf full of writing-advice books and some are really excellent. And some are more excellent at some times than others. A lot of this advice kind of passes over my head, but when I’m faced with a particular story problem, even one I can’t quite define, the same advice I’ve read many times before finally hits the bulls-eye. A book organized like Bickham’s would at least help me focus on what I think is the problem, though I may be wrong!

While a lot of story constraints and possibilities have changed since 1997—social media, cell phone ubiquity, as examples—the fundamentals of character development, plot clarity, and scene construction stay pretty much the same, unless you’re writing experimental fiction (which I find generally unreadable).

Bickham, who wrote and published more than 90 novels in various genres—crime, espionage, westerns—and under various names, died in 1997. He’s was a University of Oklahoma professor and was awarded the university’s highest honor for teaching excellence. I think that comes through in the down-to-earth approach he takes in this book. If you find you like The 38, he’s written five other books on such craft specifics as scene and structure, short stories, and the like.

If you know this book, tell us whether you found it useful.

*BOGSAT: Bunch Of Guys Sitting Around Talking

Image by Markus Winkler for Pixabay.

Fiction as “the Humanizing Act”

Author KL Cook began his writing career as an actor, unlike so many of us who always knew we wanted to be writers. When he finally began to write, he immediately recognized that his theater training was perfect for fiction writing. Perhaps it’s the practice in taking on different characters’ personas in a deep way, figuring out how each one relates and reacts to the others, learning to put oneself inside the story—being not an observer, but an “experiencer.” He’s said, “I think of writing as performance—something that ideally enchants, haunts, and persuades through the senses.” This is a strategy all writers can practice. If you were your character on stage, how would you be? relate?

From his theater background, which included studying and performing the works of Shakespeare, he found the kind of complex characters authors strive to achieve. “You can never reach the bottom of them,” he says. Hamlet, Iago—they contain mysterious contradictions. It would seem that the struggle to try to understand them is what prepares writers for creating their own story characters.

Cook’s principal character in the award-winning novel, The Girl from Charnelle, is a sixteen-year-old girl. He says that while writing the book, he sometimes felt as if he were such a girl. But he had some false starts. He wrote the whole 400- page novel in the third person, then rewrote it in first person and wasn’t satisfied with the result. The narrator had to look back at her sixteen-year-old self make some judgments and interpretations that took some of the tension out of the story. So he switched it back to third person, in what must have been a tear-your-hair-out decision! Revisions, revisions, all along the way. The message here is that even changes that require some massive amount of work like these, help you get inside your characters and understand their stories better. Whatever, it worked, and gained great acclaim.

Having made that switch myself in one novel (which has multiple point-of-view characters, only one of which changed) and one short story, I can attest that it involves much more than switching pronouns.

Writing a character very different from yourself requires seeing the world in a different way—part of the challenge and the fun of it! “The only limitation is imagination,” Cook has said. This sound like a more controversial point of view than it once was, now that we’re in the era of sensitivity readers. At the same time, I believe, as Cook has said, that “Access to other lives is why fiction is such a great humanizing art.” People different from us.

Inhabiting characters different from oneself requires giving them their due—making them neither cardboard cutout villains nor perfect specimens. You find out in my novel, Architect of Courage, that the main character has been having an affair. Worse, when he finds his lover dead, he panics and does a very human thing—he panics and runs. But how to make that situation real, not cliché? I tried to make his situation believable in the first chapters by clearly describing his wife and his lover, who were totally different in personality, appearance, and behavior. Neither was a bad person. No bitchy wife or scheming younger woman. It had to be plausible that he could, as he eventually realizes, love them both, independently.

KL Cook’s award-winning books span genres. His first book Last Call, is a collection of linked stories and a novel about the lives of a Texas panhandle family (and I should read them, because that’s where my grandparents lived!). He’s published other short story volumes, a book of poetry, and essays on fiction-writing titled The Art of Disobedience. Sounds like another worthy read. He’s an English professor and co-director of an MFA program at Iowa State University.