Friday, March 28, 2014

What We Take For Granted

from Jacqueline

I was reading a news item online today, about a 40-year old woman who has been deaf since birth – due to a condition called Usher’s Syndrome that causes deafness and progressive loss of vision – and who had recently undergone surgery to have cochlear implants.  The moment the implants were “turned on” and she could hear for the first time was filmed, and is now online – I watched every moment.  An audiology specialist was with her, to monitor her and to test the success of the implants.  How it wrenched my heart to see the woman break down as she heard a sound for the first time in her life.  In the background you could hear her mother, herself overwhelmed with joy, encouraging her - as she must have done from the time she was a baby, when faced with the task of raising a child and showing her the world without her voice being heard.  And not for the first time, I began a mental inventory of all the things I take for granted.  The gift of hearing, for a start. 

I remember some years ago writing on this blog, about the sounds I love. I listed coyotes in the hills behind my home, their yip-yipping in the dead of night, and the dawn chorus in my native England.  There’s music that can reduce me to tears.  I love hearing my mother’s voice on my voicemail.  I remember, years ago, saying to a friend who had lost both parents, that my mother had left a message for me.  “Lucky you,” he said.  Yes lucky me.

I live not far from a center where guide dogs are trained, and sometimes when I’m driving through town and see the handlers out training young Labrador pups, it just takes my breath away – the determination you see on the dogs’ faces as they walk along, all paws and a puppy waddle while they learn to stop at this command or that touch.  And then there are the days you see them with their new owners, getting to know each other, placing trust in each other.  The gift of sight – there’s something to be grateful for. I remember when I was a child having that first eye operation, waking up with my eyes bandaged and thinking I was blind. Let’s never take color for granted, or beauty, or even the ugly things in the world we’d rather not see – how can we ever even try to make things better if we cannot see? 

And I remember another time when I was feeling a bit sorry for myself over something that, looking back, was not inconsequential, but not the worst that could have happened in life.  I was sitting in a coffee shop when a middle-aged couple came in with their adult son, probably in his twenties. He was profoundly challenged with some sort of neurological condition, but still they had left their home and made the considerable effort to bring him out into the world.  What love they had for that young man.  It was another opportunity to remember how easy it can be to walk in our own shoes when we don’t have to struggle to put them on.

I remember reading something years ago – in fact, now I think of it, I was at college.  And of course I was broke, because that’s how it is when you’re a student (well, it was when I was a student!).  It was this:  “Every time you think of all the things you want but don’t have, think again of all the things you don’t want that you don’t have.”  And let me tell you, that list of don’t wants was way longer than the list of things I would have liked.

I think it does us good to count our blessings.  To stop and listen to the birds singing, the coyotes calling to the moon, or to cherish the voices of those you love (even when what they’re saying is driving you nuts).  I don’t think I will ever forget the picture of that woman in the video clip, for the first time in her forty years hearing her mother’s voice. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

How to Write a Novel, Part Ten

Has the past nine weeks of blathering discouraged you in any way? Let's be honest, writing a novel is a lot harder than it sounds. But let's also keep it in perspective. It's not like you're putting a roof on a house in Florida during the summer or being shot at by Iraqi insurgents or having to teach a classroom full of kids whose parents have gleefully given the responsibility for raising the kids to the you. There are clearly harder jobs out there. I never complain about being a writer. It is a privilege. I love to do it. I appreciate getting paid for it, as well. But mainly, I like doing it because of some inner drive I couldn't explain.

We still have a long way to go. I might start faltering a little on weekly posts as several major projects come into focus. But I wanted to take this breather and see how we still felt about writing a novel. It's sort of like the All-Star break in basketball. Just stop all the action and consider what you're doing.

Are you reading enough? Are you spending enough time on your novel? Is the rest of your life suffering? Are you still watching TV? You guys are smart or you wouldn't be reading this blog. I'm not bragging about the blog, but I am quite proud to be a part of it and be associated with people like Jacqueline Winspear, Patty Smiley, Paul Levine, Cornelia Read and Ridley Pearson. But this isn’t the sort of thing you decide to read while you're looking for the TV listings for the next UFC fight or monster truck rally. This is a very specific blog and Thursdays have become even more focused. Don't sell yourself short. The fact that you're reading this means you're pretty bright.

If you're reading this, you have completed a novel and are frustrated that none of the New York publishers have knocked down your doors to buy it; that means you're sane. You are a normal human being with reasonable emotions. At least when it comes to writing and publishing.

So let's keep all that in mind as we start to step off into other subjects related to writing a novel. I am quite open to suggestions if you want to drop me an e-mail or if one of my blog mates wishes to discuss a subject. Ideally, I will trick you into writing the blog post for me and take full credit.  That makes me a professional writer.

Keep writing and stay sane.  Sometimes it's difficult to do both.

We have several quotes related to our subject matter today.

“Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him." William Faulkner

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”― Maya Angelou

“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you." Neil Gaiman

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

It's Not the Humidity; It's the Miami Heat

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

I had some minor foot surgery this morning, so no tap dancing tonight.  No Sony Tennis Open.  No practicing 50-yard field goals.  And a short blog.

First, a Word (and Photo) About the Miami Heat

First, my son Michael always accuses me of leaving athletic events early to beat the traffic.  Proof positive I stayed to the final gun of last night's Miami Heat 2-point victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.  The photo is Chris Bosh's last second block of Damian Lillard's shot.  If you look closely, you can see me in the brown jacket just behind Lillard's airborne right foot.  And if you look in the second row to the left, you can spot  Mitchell Kaplan (black shirt, beard), owner of the legendary Books & Books, here in Coral Gables and elsewhere.

Mark Twain Would Love the Miami Heat

Opening Lines:  Next in my series of opening lines I love. The opener of Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is well known. Not only does it make us wonder about the narrator, it PLUGS Twain's earlier novel. Now, that's chutzpah. In fact, Twain, much like Dickens, was a helluva self-promoter. Here's the line:
"You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter."

What Would the Duke Think of Birdman's Tattoos?

I don't know what John Wayne would think of Chris Andersen's heavily tattooed body? I imagine he would not like it as much as Mark Twain would.
This is brought to mind because today's New York Times has a MAJOR review of pal Scott Eyman's new biography, "John Wayne: The Life and Legend." There are surprises:
He was a heavy smoker and hard drinker, like many of his characters, but also an avid chess player and book lover who could quote Shakespeare and Dickens (and who, Mr. Eyman reports, “had a surprising taste for Tolkien”). He collected Eastern woodblock prints and kachina dolls, and his impoverished childhood left him with a love of catalog shopping, buying so many presents for his children and friends that “mail order packages would arrive in bunches, 10 or 20 at a time.”
I was never a huge fan of The Duke...or his acting. And while this infuriates many of my friends, I just hate "The Searchers,"  and not just for its blatant racism.  But that's a subject for another day.

Paul Levine

Monday, March 24, 2014

Bad Reviews

Patty here

Yesterday I was looking through a file of old reviews for my second book, Cover Your Assets, and came across a quote I’d saved from Anthony Boucher, a science fiction editor, mystery author and well-known reviewer for the New York Times. The "Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention," AKA Bouchercon, was named to honor him. Boucher said:
“Among the extremely diverse books lumped together as ‘mysteries’ I shall try to judge each fairly according to the best standards of the type which the author intended to produce, and not those of another type which I personally prefer.” 

Digging deeper into my file, I found that most reviews were thoughtful and positive. But a couple of them had ignored Boucher’s credo. One was so critical I was sure the guy not only hated my book but was also thumbing his nose at his boss for forcing him to review it. I don’t care how thick skinned an author becomes, snark hurts because somebody is telling the world you suck.

Reviewing books is hard work, especially if you do it right. You need a broad knowledge of literary structure and keen analytical skills. Hopefully, you’ve read a lot. And, in my opinion, it’s important to have a positive attitude. If you're mad at the world, everything you do and say is filtered through the prism of anger.

We all gravitate toward certain types of books, but I always venture out of my comfort zone if the book comes highly recommended. For example, years ago a friend told me about the novel Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, billing it as a time-traveling “romance.” At first, that didn’t sound appealing to me but she so strongly suggested I read it that I did. It is a time-traveling romance but so much more. I loved the book and went on to read all of the novels in the series.

I generally don’t review books, especially written by people I know. As mentioned above, it’s a lot of work to do the book and the author justice. But I do tell everybody within shouting range when I love a book. That’s why I’m gratified to be blogging with my fellow Naked Authors. I can say without reservation that I love their books—all different, all wonderful. And each came highly recommended by “big mouth readers” like me.

I just finished James O’Neal AKA James O. Born’s The Human Disguise. It’s a science fiction novel, featuring a tough Florida cop in a futuristic world. For those of you who are W.E.B. Griffin fans, he offers this blurb is on the cover: “One helluva story from one helluva writer! Only a cop like James O’Neal could create futuristic bad guys like those in 'The Human Disguise.' And only O’Neal could weave them into such a slick, fast-paced story—one you’re convinced is the real world. This is a ride—and a writer—you’re long going to remember.”

Stay tuned for an announcement from James O about upcoming releases.

I’m a big fan of Jacqueline's Masie Dobbs series, and I’m looking forward to reading her new standalone, which is due out on July 1, 2014: The Care and Management of Lies.

Also looking forward to Paul’s new book, which is due out…Paul?...Where’s the new Jake?

Happy Monday (this is not a review)!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Sweet Bird Of Youth

from Jacqueline

No, this post isn't about the Tennessee Williams play – I just liked the title.  And this is about youth and some fine representatives of the condition I met recently at book-related events, though my story meanders a bit, but then you know that about me by now.

First up, a visit to Sierra Madre, a lovely town close to Pasadena, CA.  My book Maisie Dobbs was chosen for their 2014 One Book, One City program, which was a huge honor – so I was thrilled to visit in February to give a talk organized by the library.  Now, just to let you know how important this was – my husband came with me.  John almost never comes to events any more, mainly because he hears me quite enough thank you, so who can blame him?

The event was held in the Gooden School hall.  When you walk into a school where children are encouraged to post notes on the wall listing all the things for which they are grateful, you know you’re in a good energy kind of place.  Every wall in the main hall had a positive message for the students, and it was infectious. 

Before being ushered onto the stage to speak to the very large gathering, two girls, probably around 12 – 13 years of age (and I am sure I will be corrected here), were introduced as “teen history docents.”  I was blown away.  Teen History Docents – how great is that?  Putting the town’s history in the hands of the town’s future to bring it to life – a brilliant idea. The girls explained that, after the presentation they would be at the library giving “virtual tours” of Sierra Madre during the WW1 period.  They were articulate and engaging, and though I had to rush off after the event, I am sure it was a hit!  But what an idea – bringing history to life through young people and “their” technology for the entire community to become involved.  Impressive.

Moving on apace, last week I was in Tucson, first for the Brandeis University Book and Author Luncheon – and a chance to meet more local young folk.  It was before the event began that seniors from a local high school were ushered in by their teacher.  The authors each sat at a table while groups of students moved from table to table.  As one of the kids observed, “It’s like speed dating.” And what an amazing date it was. I loved talking to these young people, asking them about their dreams and aspirations, what they liked to read.  I answered questions about writing, about books – it was great. I spent some time with the teacher, asking about her students – all the kids were in AP English, so they were pretty motivated.  We talked about the fact that they were just finishing up The Great Gatsby in class, and she commented that she wasn’t sure what to follow it with.  I was so pleased when she liked my suggestion (How about John Dos Passos?).  The whole conversation reminded me how much I enjoy teaching.

If at this stage you’re thinking that my enjoyment in the company of these young people was colored by the fact that they were among the more advantaged and motivated kids of this world – I would have to tell you that it wasn’t.

At college in London I studied Education and English (taking what Americans might call a double major, though the Education was part of the whole deal, because it was a teaching qualification I was after).  When I started college there was a huge shortage of teachers in England, but by the time I graduated, there was a glut – and I’d decided I didn’t want to teach – well, not straightaway.  I wanted to experience LIFE.  However, in each of the three years at college, we spent a whole term (a term was about three months) teaching in a school – and I don’t mean sitting watching while the real teacher went about her job.  No, we were thrown in at the deep end and the class teacher effectively had the term to herself.  At least one of the high schools where I taught was in what could be called an “undesirable area” with kids that were far from motivated.  In fact, motivation wasn’t something you were after – a sense of order and enough quiet to make yourself heard was the main goal.  My hardest “TP” – teaching practice – was in a school that should have been condemned.  In some of the classrooms – still suffering bomb damage from WW2 – you had to step around joists holding up the ceiling. 

On most days there were significant student absences.  In one class a boy and his brother shared a pair of shoes, so only one could attend school on any given day.  Probably 30% of the kids had at least one parent in prison, and gypsies let their horses graze on the sports fields at night - and this was a London suburb. The head of PT would come in with sacks and a shovel to collect manure in the morning – his wife ran a nursery and liked it for the shrubs.  The kids in that school were hell for a student teacher.  After two days I made the decision that if it was them or me, well, it wasn’t going to be me.  I’d already seen a fellow student broken by a class – we'd started on the same day, and she was gone by day four. 

I struggled with those kids at times, but I found I could bring shafts of light into the classroom when I threw out my lesson plans and just went with my gut, turning to stories to engage them, and giving them images to inspire their writing.  One of my most troubling students – it would not have surprised me to learn that he was in a young offenders detention center before another year had passed – knuckled down and wrote a beautiful poem in class one day.  There was the usual struggle before we reached that point of creative endeavor, but I set them to work on prose or a poem about someone they saw every day but didn’t know.  We did all the usual things – talked about the senses etc., and then I let them get on with it.  I had never known the class so quiet – you could hear the rickety roof creaking.  The troublesome boy put his arm around his work and began writing, running his teeth across his bottom lip as he wrote.  When everyone was finished, I asked for volunteers to read.  As the gang ringleader, this boy obviously could not be a shrinking violet. We all expected a poem filled with expletives and perhaps a description of the girl he fancied.  Instead he wrote about an old lady he saw every day, and how he imagined her going home to a cold flat, empty, without family or warmth.   His poem was filled with compassion, and everyone was silent, if only for a brief, fleeting moment.

I don’t  know why, but I thought about that boy over the weekend while at the Tucson Festival of Books.  It was packed with parents and children; there were teens and grandparents and everyone came together around books.  Lucky, lucky children, to have family who encourage reading and learning.  And kudos to those teachers who work hard to bring creative opportunity to kids less fortunate.  At age twenty-one I walked away from it.

I’m off to Monterey this weekend, for Left Coast Crime, my favorite meeting of mystery authors and readers.  Here’s wishing you a lovely weekend!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

How to Write a Novel, Part Nine

Are you a writer or a storyteller? It’s a legitimate question and also one of the great mysteries surrounding successful authors. I know a number of fantastic writers who are not bestsellers. I know a few great storytellers who are not particularly good writers. When you find a combination of a good storyteller and a good writer, you have the potential for a bestseller. (I'm not going to go into the huge number of variables that could also affect sales. Some have to do with the publisher, some have to do with timing, most have to do with wild, blind luck.)

I listened to a talk by the late Michael Palmer a few years ago. The best-selling author and medical doctor was telling the story of his first novel and how the agency he gave it to told him he wasn't a good writer technically, but he understood the stuff that couldn't be taught, like emphasizing the drama. The agent told him not to worry because they could teach him the rest. And it is things like that which distinguish a good storyteller.

The examples I always use are the late Tom Clancy and my friend, WEB Griffin. Clancy’s novels, from beginning to end, told a story of conflict, often between two entire nations, which somehow encompassed politics, the military, national sentiment and occasionally a nuclear weapon. It's one of the reasons so many of his novels have been made into movies. They were great stories. He was a very good writer. But mostly he was known as a great storyteller.

WEB Griffin tells more personal stories, usually centered around a few characters, that are no less compelling. Sometimes he'll take several books to tell the arc of one character.
His series The Corps, which featured a Marine Corps private named Ken McCoy in pre World War II China, is one of the best series ever written. That's a bold statement, but I'll stand by it. I can recall picking one up in 1988 and reading it from cover to cover almost without a break. It compelled me to check several stores (remember this is pre-Amazon) until I found the sequel. Eventually, I followed Ken McCoy's odyssey through all of World War II into the Korean War. If that's not the result of a great storyteller I don't know what is. But Griffin is also known, rightfully so, as a great writer. He’s worked in every genre and supported a family as a writer for longer than many of us have been alive. That is a real accomplishment.

So ask yourself if you’re a storyteller or a writer. Does a story flow out of you or do you have to fight piece by piece to put it together?  Are your books grammatically and technically correct, but no one wants to read them? Think of what would compel you to finish watching a movie. Is it action? Is it comedy? Is it high-stakes? All of that can apply to your own novel.

It's great to be a good writer, but I think it might be better to be a good storyteller.

The quote today is from one of my heroes:

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Truth, Fiction, and Dirty Lawyers

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

This is my second blog post today.  Over on my website, I reveal how covering the courts as a young newspaper reporter helped shape my cynicism about the so-called justice system and therefore my fiction.  Please take a look at "Mystery Writers Find Truth in Fiction."

Then come back over here where I'm hard at work.

A Plague of Dirty Lawyers?

I never told this to anybody.

Okay, last night, I told my fiancee, Marcia Silvers.   No, I'm not a fugitive, and I've never been committed or convicted of "moral turpitude," which was a crime back when I was covering the courts.

Here's the big secret.  Twenty-five years ago, when I was tiring of practicing law in a multi-national, deep-carpet, boring-as-hell law firm, I considered a couple of career changes.  One, obviously, was writing mysteries or legal thrillers. Resigning my partnership at Morgan Lewis for that life looked like a straight path to the poorhouse.  (Of course, that's the path I chose, and everything worked out swell...with a few bumps along the road).

The other option I considered was becoming a Florida Bar prosecutor and going after shady lawyers.  Really.  I've always been offended by crooked or incompetent lawyers.
This may be surprising since two of my main characters in fiction, Jake Lassiter and Steve Solomon, have been known to cut a corner or two.

But they don't steal!

And they never put their own interests ahead of their clients.  In fact, just the opposite.  They frequently risk everything for their clients.  Or for a woman.  As Steve says in Law Number 8 of "Solomon vs. Lord:"

"I will never break the law, breach legal ethics, or risk jail time...unless it's for someone I love."
But that, friends, is fiction.  And this is not.  Every couple weeks, the Florida Supreme Court disbars, suspends or publicly reprimands dozens of lawyers.  (A reprimand sounds pretty mild, but the lawyer is required to stand before the Court in open session and receive a tongue lashing.  It has to be humiliating as hell.  And that's for relatively minor offenses like missing filing deadlines or telling a trial judge to jump in the lake).

I just picked up the current list of lawyers tied to the stake and burned in the public square.  Or rather, disciplined by the state's highest court after trial. I am awed and stunned by their actions.   This is a SMALL sampling.  I see no reason NOT to use their names, do you?

Guy Jean-Pierre of Boca Raton was disbarred for forging his niece's name on some stock-trading documents.

Anthony Martin Livoti, Jr. of Fort Lauderdale was suspended indefinitely after being convicted of money laundering in an $830 million fraud case.  ("Indefinite" suspension is virtual disbarment).

Frank Exel Marley III of Davie was suspended indefinitely after being convicted of bilking the Florida Seminole Tribe of $1.3 million in "travel, phone calls, and meetings that never occurred."

Nick W. Stieglitz, Jr. of South Miami was suspended indefinitely for misappropriating client funds.
 I could go on.  Thee are what seem to be hundreds.

Now, I wonder if I should, in my dotage, offer my services, pro bono, to prosecute shyster lawyers.

Remembering the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood

Many thanks to Patty Smiley for posting the photograph she took of Harley Jane Kozak and me at what would turn out to be my last signing at the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood. Along with many others, that fine bookstore is sadly gone. Paul Levine

Monday, March 17, 2014

So, you've printed a draft of your manuscript. What now?

Patty here

This past weekend I reached an important milestone in my writing. I printed a copy of the manuscript I’ve been working on since forever. It's a departure from the four novels in my Tucker Sinclair series. This book is about a female LAPD homicide detective. Big deal, you say. Well, yes. For me, it is.

I used to print copies willy-nilly because—you know—printing takes time, which means that while the HP is spitting out pages I don't have to deal with writing contrivances and sketchy character motivations. At some point, I began to feel guilty for wasting so much paper so I stopped printing copies and tried with mixed success to edit on the computer screen. Once I wade into the depths of the manuscript it’s difficult to flip back and forth between pages on the screen. I need to hear the scratching of my pen across the paper when I jot down notes, i.e. “Haven’t I written ‘she buttoned her coat against the chill’ fifteen times already?”

Each manuscript is printed on a different color paper so I know which draft it represents. The current copy is green. The next will be beige because it's the closest color to the white paper of a finished book.

Once I printed this current manuscript, I read through it as quickly as possible. That allowed me to spot word echoes and mile-wide plot holes. During this fast read-through, I didn't make many notes because I wanted to keep reading to make sure the story held together. The plot hit a pothole on page 369 when I realized that two scenes were out of order. The way I had written them was not organic or logical. One thing did not lead to another. Luckily, it’s a small change that makes the story stronger and opens several story elements I’d not considered before.

My able writing assistants Riley & Scooter
While reading, I also realized I needed to do a better job early on of foreshadowing an event that happens to one of the ancillary characters. Again, this isn’t hard to do. I have already written the story elements. I just need to lift some of the words out of their nesting places and drop them throughout the book to ratchet up tension and suspense.

During the next read-through I will question everything on the page: is it accurate; is behavior true to the characters I've created; is it organic. Once those changes have been transferred into my computer file, I’ll worry over it a while longer before printing out what I hope will be a polished copy. Then I’ll plead, beg, whimper and ask politely if one or two of my more talented writer friends will read and critique it. Any volunteers?

While I await feedback, I'll reread some of my favorite books on writing just for inspiration, including On Writing by Stephen King.

Here’s a great interview with King that includes his Top 20 Rules for Writers:
  1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” 
  2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.” 
  3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.” 
  4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.” 
  5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.” 
  6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.” 
  7. Read, read, read. ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” 
  8. Don’t worry about making other people happy. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.” 
  9. Turn off the TV. “TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.” 
  10. You have three months. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.” 
  11. There are two secrets to success. “I stayed physical healthy, and I stayed married.” 
  12. Write one word at a time. “Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the work is always accomplished one word at a time.” 
  13. Eliminate distraction. “There’s should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.” 
  14. Stick to your own style. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.” 
  15. Dig. “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.” 
  16. Take a break. “You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.” 
  17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “(kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)” 
  18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story. “Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.” 
  19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing. “You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.” 
  20. Writing is about getting happy. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”

Thursday, March 13, 2014

How to Write a Novel, Part Eight

There is still a lot to talk about related to writing a novel. But if you think about the basics, we've covered structure and characters, so now let's talk about plot. Is it entirely necessary? That is entirely up to you. There are people who believe plot is secondary to everything else. Usually those people aren't wildly successful writers, but occasionally they are.

Think about stories you read. Do you prefer to have a twisting and engaging plot, or do you like to see the characters studied in great detail? I'm not saying that they are mutually exclusive, but too much of either can crush a reader's interest. I've often heard people talk about "literary fiction," as a story without much plot. I'm not going to get into that debate.  I don't care if you graduated from an Ivy League Masters of Fine Arts program or if you're just some dumbass attorney who stumbled onto an undiscovered talent to write excellent legal thrillers, you’re the one who has to make the choice of how complicated and what direction your plot takes.

The dictionary says this about plot:
The main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.

There are sites to help you generate plots like this one in the UK: 

Writing Exercises from the U.K (This is a nod to Jackie)

There are dozens of different theories about a limited number of original plots.  This number is anywhere from 3 to 21. The claim is that every plot has been done over and over and over throughout humankind in all forms of literature. One example is from Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots.

Overcoming the Monster
Hero learns of a great evil threatening the land, and sets out to destroy it.

Rags to Riches
Surrounded by dark forces who suppress and ridicule him, the Hero slowly blossoms into a mature figure who ultimately gets riches, a kingdom, and the perfect mate.

The Quest
Hero learns of a great MacGuffin that he desperately wants to find, and sets out to find it, often with companions.

Voyage and Return
Hero heads off into a magic land with crazy rules, ultimately triumphs over the madness and returns home far more mature than when he set out.

Hero and Heroine are destined to get together, but a dark force is preventing them from doing so; the story conspires to make the dark force repent, and suddenly the Hero and Heroine are free to get together. This is part of a cascade of effects that shows everyone for who they really are, and allows two or more other relationships to correctly form.

The flip side of the Overcoming the Monster plot. Our protagonist character is the Villain, but we get to watch him slowly spiral down into darkness before he's finally defeated, freeing the land from his evil influence.

As with the Tragedy plot, but our protagonist manages to realize his error before it's too late, and does a Heel-Face Turn to avoid inevitable defeat.

Personally, I don't subscribe to the limited number of plot theories. I prefer to think more about my characters in a specific story and how their interactions propel the plot and resolve the central conflict in the story.  Every scene that I write and every character that appears in a novel has to have some effect, no matter how minimal, on the outcome of the story. This is a question I think too many new writers don't ask themselves after writing a scene. Is it necessary? If there is even a hesitation in the answer, the scene should be cut and you should move on with the story. You can justify it a thousand different ways if someone questioned you about the scene, but you know in your heart whether the scene is necessary to resolve the plot. 

I often point to Michael Connelly when I talk about writing, because frankly, I feel he is one of the finest writers working today. Please don't tell him I said that. Please don't tell any of my fellow Florida State alumni that I am praising a graduate of the University of Florida. Luckily, he's generally drunk by this time of the day and I doubt he would be able to comprehend a blog like this if he stumbled upon it. That is, when he's not stumbling down the street after one too many dirty martinis.

Anyway, Connelly is a master of intriguing and compelling plots. The two books that stand out in my mind are The Lincoln Lawyer and Echo ParkThe Lincoln Lawyer is such a maze of ingenious plot constructions that it is virtually impossible to stop reading until you know what happens. Part of this is because the characters are so fully fleshed out and part of it is because of the thought Connelly put into the plot and its outcome.

Echo Park is a slightly less intricate plot that shows such a deep view of the main character, Harry Bosch, and his experiences both in Vietnam and growing up in an orphanage, that it feels like the book is only fifty pages long. When people ask me what my favorite police novel is I pick Echo Park and Joseph Wambaugh's The New Centurions. Both are genius. Connelly’s is the more impressive because he was probably impaired when he wrote it.

If you don't believe he has a problem, watch this video:

Now that I'm done with my fan-boy rant of books I wish I’d written, I’ll state again that I like a strong plot, coupled with well thought out characters. You won't lose anything by not writing for a few days as you consider the ramifications of your character's actions and where they might end up. In other words, how your plot unfolds. This is the part of writing I love. One of the reasons it ranks high on my list is that I can do it any time. I can think about the plot and how it might unfold while I'm going for a run, riding my bicycle, listening to my wife tell me about her day or just driving to the store. 
There is no time that is not a good time for thinking about plot.

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