The Olympics and Writing

When an Olympic medalist gets emotional while standing on the podium, I imagine all the work it took to get there.

My mind conjures up the physical duress of training.

I feel the pain of sore muscles, burning lungs and total exhaustion.

The mental strain would also be exscrutiating, performing the same tasks over and over until it’s as close to perfect as can be.

The coach yells “That triple flip with a twist and a double shot of espresso isn’t going to cut it against the East Romulans”.  Gotta do it again. And again. And again.

Then there’s all the things they couldn’t do.

Invitations to birthday parties turned down.

Pizza and beer rejected in favor of broccoli and lean meat.

While friends dated, got married, and climbed the corporate ladder, the Olympic athlete was in the gym, on the track, in the pool.

I can’t help but be happy for those athletes whose dreams have been realized and whose sacrifices paid off. But what about those athletes who never make it to the podium?

Didn’t most of them work just as hard? 2,488 total medals will be given out at the Rio games, but there are 11,000 athletes competing. And what about those athletes who tried out for the games, but didn’t even qualify?

They did the work anyway, even though the odds were against them.

Something else motivated them.  Maybe it was the experience of competing in the Olympic games, the opportunity to represent their country, or simply the love of the sport.

Writing is much the same. You have to ask yourself if the time and effort is worth it even if I don’t “succeed”.

Are you willing to write when others are sleeping? Have you counted the opportunity costs? Can you live with never making a dollar from writing? Will you continue to write even if less than a hundred people read your work?

There will be few best selling authors.

Fame and fortune is a poor motivation for the writer.  You gotta love the process. Writing has to be its own reward.

And if you do “succeed”, I will celebrate with you.

 

 

The Joy of Writing

Despite popular opinion, there is joy in writing.

Don’t get me wrong. I can identify with all the famous quotes comparing writing to bleeding and war and constipation.

Yes, the demon of perfectionism has sat beside my computer and said, “You’re not good enough, you don’t have the depth of character to communicate what you want, you have nothing to say, you’re worthless.” The demon of guilt whispers, “How can you waste your time on something so frivolous, fruitless, and impractical? There are more important things you should be doing.”

But there’s still joy.

Even when I’m stuck in a story and don’t know how to fix it, there’s still joy. Even when I spend my waking hours obsessing over what a fictional character should do next, there’s still joy. Even when I’ve laid down hundreds of thousands of words and realize it’s six buckets of hardened dog crap, there’s still joy.

When I get the cursor moving, time flies. I can’t imagine anything more rejuvenating. While the goal of fiction may be to provide catharsis for the reader, the act of writing provides catharsis for the writer.

There’s something amazing about creating a world and bringing characters to life. Don’t lose sight of that, dear writer. Once in a while, give yourself a break from your neuroticism and bask in the joy.

Tips for Writing “in media res”

Maybe you’ve seen a TV show opening scene that goes like this…

The police pursue our hero. She drives her car to the edge of the pier and the cops are right behind her. How is she going to get out of this situation? The scene fades to black and the words “Six Hours Earlier” appear on the screen.

This is an in media res, or “in the middle of things” beginning.

You may be tempted to begin your novel this way, but be ye forewarned:

In media res is hard to pull off in a novel.

Why?

Beginning at a climatic point often means letting up on the tension in the next chapter.

Let’s say aliens are about to blow up The White House in your first chapter. The reader is engaged and is wondering if the intrepid Secret service agent gets liquefied.

In the next chapter, our hero isn’t in danger. Our hero isn’t even in the White House.  Instead she’s baking brownies in Cleveland.

You can almost hear your book being thrown across the room, can’t you?

In media res is also hard to pull off because good action requires caring.

 More often than not, an in media res beginning is an action scene. Explosions and car chases might provide enough eye candy in a TV show to keep you interested. Blowing stuff up doesn’t equate to interesting when it comes to print.

Good action requires your audience to care about the characters. If your hero is shooting her way out of a crack house in the first scene and the reader isn’t attached to the character, the action will bore them.

This is actually true for TV as well. The only reason you care about the woman at the edge of the pier is because you’ve been binge watching the series for twelve hours. You’re invested in what happens to her.

So how do you pull off in media res? Here are 2 tips:

 1) Keep it short.

 If your reader gets engrossed in your first chapter, she’ll expect the story to continue chronologically into the next chapter.

The answer: Don’t let the reader get engrossed.

Give them a paragraph or a page. A good in media res chapter is only a teaser for things to come.

That’s typically how those TV show openings work too. None of them are longer than a few minutes.  If they went too long, the viewer would wonder if they missed an episode.

2) Make it confusing.

This goes hand in hand with keeping it short. Provide only enough info to make your reader want to find out what this opaque snippet is all about.

Let’s say your book opens with your hero trapped inside a water tower with a hungry lion. The reader thinks, “Why is this dude in a water tower and how did a lion get up there?” Give the reader a few details and don’t explain them. Intrigue your audience with the odd situation rather than a generic action scene.

Make them go “Huh?” and then make them want to satisfy that “Huh?”.

In media res ain’t easy and you must have good reasons to go this route.

 Just because you saw it on a TV show isn’t enough. Wanting to “start with action” isn’t enough. Ask yourself if your story is best served by in media res before deciding to do it.

 

The Key to writing a Novella that works

I held my breath after I asked a friend what he thought of a novella I wrote. The gist of his response was, “I wanted more.”

It wasn’t a compliment.

He wasn’t saying “I loved your story so much, I can’t wait for the next one.” He was saying “Something was lacking. Your novella didn’t work.”

Novellas are the awkward middle children of publishing, weighing in at a minimum of 14,000 words and maxing out at 39,999 words (This varies based on who you ask). Because of economic reasons, the traditional publishing industry has fed us a steady diet of novels and short stories.

Writers read, study, and learn by osmosis through the stuff they read. Most of us have not read and studied novellas, but after my experience with my friend, I decided to do just that.

I discovered the goal of the novella is to produce the same power punch experience a novel does, but with less words.

However, a novella is not a novel told quickly.

If you take a trip to Paris, you don’t want your tour guide to speed through the streets and say “That blur to your left is the Eiffel Tower, to your right is the best café in town and you might even get to smell the coffee over the smell of our exhaust fumes, and, oh, there’s a real Parisian diving to the sidewalk to get out of our way.”

You want to see the lights of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower. You want sit and sip the coffee yourself. You want to have an up-close encounter with that real Parisian where he will likely snub you because of your subpar French.

The point is a good vacation means a truly immersive experience in that world. The same goes for novellas. But how do you provide that experience when you have fewer words to work with?

Here’s the key: Less is more when it comes to novellas.

 As I get into specifics, this advice may seem obvious, but it will save many writers from trying to cram a novel into a novella.

You should have only a few characters.

 Have you ever been to a party where you were introduced to twenty people? It’s overwhelming. Who can remember that many names or their relationships to each other or their occupations?

The same goes with novellas. The reader doesn’t want to be overwhelmed with characters. Novellas should only have a few.

Hemmingway’s The Old Man and The Sea is a perfect example of this. The old man, the young boy, and the marlin are the only characters. Yes, you have some references to the townspeople and the boy’s parents, but Hemmingway really boils it down to these three characters.

Can you have more than three? Yes, but the more characters you need to tell your story, the more breathing room your story needs.

You should have fewer point of view characters.

 A novella should have only one point of view character. At the very least, your novella should follow one character for the first 10,000 words.

Why? Immersing the reader into a character’s life requires time. If you switch point of view, the reader has to reorient herself to the new character. A novella’s shortness doesn’t provide the luxury for multiple reorientations.

Are there exceptions? Sure. In Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats, he has several point of view characters. It works because he is writing a mini-plot rather than an arch-plot story. In other words, Tortilla Flats functions like several short stories connecting the lives of several people through a singular theme rather than one giant plotline.

If your story is an arch-plot, I’d steer clear of multiple POVs.

Scale back your Act One.

 Your act one is where you introduce the normal life of your protagonists and all your other main characters before the turning point of act two.

Typically your first act comprises about 25 percent of your story. 50 percent of the story belongs to the second act and the climatic third act gets the final 25 percent. Don’t ask me why, but the human mind is accustomed to this story structure. If a reader spends sixty percent of the book learning who the characters are and then only gets 40 percent building action and climax, she’ll feel cheated.

The length of your first act is like a promise to the reader of how long the rest of your book is.

Science fiction novels are typically longer because establishing the normal world of the science fiction novel takes more time.

The novella’s act one should be short. If you’ve written 20,000 words and you just reached the act two turning point, then you have a novel to write, not a novella.

You must have fewer scenes.

 Today’s average novel has around sixty scenes. Novellas should have no more than thirty. If you have more, there’s a good chance you have a novel, not a novella.

The more settings you have and the longer time period you cover, the more likely you are looking at a novel.

But what if I have sixty scenes and my book is still novella length?

That means there are other areas of writing craft you need to work on that goes beyond the scope of this post. You haven’t teased out the suspense, drama, and mystery enough or you’ve included scenes that should be cut or both.

Shouldn’t I just write my story until it’s done and not worry about length?

 Yes, but the common answer to the question “How long should my story be?” is usually “Your story should be as long as it needs to be to tell your story”. I agree, but it’s not all that helpful advice to the new writer.

The tendency is for the new writer to rush the narrative. Hopefully my guidelines on the novella will help you not end up on the receiving end of a comment like “I wanted more.”

Major Fiction Writing Mistakes: Information Dumps and Dumpettes

Jen and I got an audiobook for a recent road trip. We chose an author neither of us had read before. Yes, we live dangerously.

The gamble wasn’t too bad, but we didn’t quite hit the jackpot. The story was intriguing and the characters seemed real, but the author had a terrible habit:

Information dumps.

Jen and I learned the backstory for a large cast of characters almost from the moment we were introduced to them. My mind wandered when we were regaled with the journalist’s extensive employment history and the long relationship between the police chief and the main character. Rather than engaging with the information, I contemplated whether getting Flaming Hot Cheetos at our next pit stop would be worth the red stained fingers I would have for the next couple days.

Information dumps slow down the narrative.

They also don’t have to be as extreme as what I’ve just described to detract from your story.

Even short info dumps (or dumpettes, as I like to call them) can negatively affect your story.

Here’s an example:

Jack and Jill, a retired surgeon, go up the hill.

Jill’s occupation has nothing to do with the tragic story of Jack and Jill going up the hill to fetch a pail of water, unless of course she mends Jack’s broken crown after they came tumbling down. Even if that’s the case, it’s an obtuse way to introduce information the reader needs.

It’s better to have Jill flipping through a catalogue of the latest surgical tools while geeking out about how her work would have been so much easier if she had the BoneSaw 5000. Jack could then make a comment about how morbid she was and then ask her to go up the hill to fetch that pail of water.

If you can introduce important character background organically through action and dialogue, it will  be surprising when that background information is utilized later in the story.

Information dumps also come in forms other than character backgrounds.

 One form is by describing a character’s character. This is the most egregious way of breaking the classic “show, don’t tell” writing advice. Don’t tell me your antagonist is evil; show me. Don’t tell me the sidekick is lovable; show me through action and dialogue.

Another form of the info dump is the technical info dump. Technical information can be engaging, but often it comes off as a lecture inserted awkwardly into fiction.

Lee Child pulls off technical information well in the beginning of his book Gone Tomorrow. He adeptly tells the reader how Israeli counterintelligence spots a suicide bomber.

It works because:

1) The information is extremely interesting.

2) The main character, Jack Reacher, is actively thinking about the information as he assesses a possible suicide bomber on a New York subway.

3) He doesn’t give the information all at once, but instead allows tension to build as he matches each characteristic against the suspect on the subway.

Too often, technical information is inserted like this:

Detective Smith saw the front door had been kicked in and immediately pulled is .44 Magnum. He liked to use the Magnum rather than the standard issue Glock because….

And that’s when you get the lecture about the gun’s stopping capacity and reliability.

This doesn’t work because:

1) Gun specs are overdone in books and therefore not as interesting.

2) Neither Detective Smith nor your readers are thinking about gun specs at the time. They care about the danger in the house.

3) The information is a long, uniterrupted paragraph blocking the flow of the story.

Dialogue often contains information dumps.

 Robert McKee talks about a common and terrible line in movie scripts that goes something like this:

How long have we known each other, Bob? It must be thirty years, right? When we both worked down at McGruber’s.

The only reason this dialogue exists is to tell the audience the two characters have a long history. Characters shouldn’t ever utter dialogue solely to give the audience information.

One way to naturally introduce information through dialogue is to have a character who is new to the group ask questions. The new kid at school is shown around and gets the inside scoop on all the relationships; The new girlfriend asks about the scar on the cop’s arm; the baby reindeer asks why Rudolph is an outcast.

But what if the best way to get the reader the information they need is to tell them?

 Then tell them, but author and editor Jeff Gerke suggests writers do zero “telling” and all “showing” in the first 50 pages of a novel. Is this rule hard and fast? No, but the big problem with information dumps is they are usually boring.

And “Don’t be boring” is a hard and fast rule.

Major Fiction Writing Mistakes: Tensionlessness

Your audience wants to see bad stuff happen. Reading about a character going through the motions of her day is boring. We crave tension and we want it in every single scene of your book.

A major temptation is showing your protagonist living in Happy World Land before dropping her on the bullet train to heck.

 Some writers believe showing a character in happy moments will endear her to the reader.

The horrible truth of the human condition is that even the happiest people are dissatisfied with aspects of their lives. Unbridled happiness isn’t reality and, therefore, doesn’t resonate.

Tension does.

But how do you have tension even before the first major crisis of your book?

 Glad you asked. Here are some ways to do just that:

 

  • Start with the major crisis on page one.   Is your pre-crisis world really necessary? Really? If the answer is no, then skip it. Your crisis itself can hit readers at a gut level and instantly draw them into the story.
  • Begin with minor tensions. Put your character in line at the DMV. Have her bicker with a family member. Give her the flu.
  • Showcase character flaws your protagonist is unaware of. Maybe your protagonist lives alone and is content to celebrate his birthday by ordering a pizza for himself. Screenwriter Blake Snyder would call this “stasis equals death”. The reader will feel the tension even if your character doesn’t.  That lonely guy has to get out of his house and live his life. If he doesn’t do something, he’s lost.
  • Overemphasize the happiness. If your character is happily married with 2.3 kids, owns a ranch-style house in the suburbs, and just got a new promotion at her job, then you are giving readers the cue that her world is about to come crashing down. The tension comes from the reader realizing some unknown horror is a few pages away while the character is blissfully unaware.

Tension should rise throughout your story.

Don’t let up. Your character may reflect on the obstacle she just overcame, but then the next obstacle should be bigger and more tension-filled than the last.

Tension should even be in the denouement of your story.

By definition, a denouement means the loosening of tension, but there’s still tension. Oh, yes, there is. It’s the tension of looking backward and forward at the same time.

If you’ve ever been through a traumatic experience, you might look back with sadness, remorse, or gratefulness that you made it through the ordeal.

You also look forward with a changed perspective. Maybe you’re more hopeful, suspicious, confident, or sober than you were before.

Even in the thriller or mystery series, this is true. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher reasserts his vagabond lifestyle after being entangled in the latest political plot. The hard-boiled detective becomes more jaded after uncovering yet another avenue of human depravity.

Tension drives story.

 Stop thinking of stories as plot-driven or character-driven. Stories are propelled forward by tension.

Major Fiction Writing Mistake: Vagueness

Maybe you’ve seen a police procedural TV show where one detective asks “Do you believe her?” and the other detective says something like “With those details, she couldn’t be lying.”

When someone lies, he or she tends to be vague. Truth is often accompanied by specific detail.

If you’re a parent, you may have experience with this phenomenon as well. You might hear a ruckus in the next room and ask, “What are you and your sister doing in there?”

A small voice says, “Nothing. Just playing.”

You smell the lie a mile away and yell, “Come in here and play where I can see you.”

Compelling fiction requires good lying.

Have you ever read a novel and got the distinct impression the writer didn’t have any idea what he was talking about? You think, “This writer doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a goat herder in Nepal.”

YOU also have no idea what it’s like to be a goat herder in Nepal either, so why are you busting the writer’s chops? Probably because of vagueness. It smells like a lie.

Specificity is key.

Let’s say you have two men in masks get out of a car to rob a convenience store. Without specificity, even an act as exciting as a robbery can be boring. Know why? Because it’s generic, not specific.

Now I tell you two men wearing Tom and Jerry masks get out of a Ford Mustang to rob a 7-11, it already becomes more interesting. The scene comes alive. You can picture it.

You should be specific in action as well.

 The less nebulous your verbs are the better. Instead of saying “two dogs were fighting”, you could say two dogs lunged, growled, or chomped at each other’s throats.

Instead of saying “he preformed a hostile gesture toward me” you could say, “He thrust his chest out toward me.”

Specificity doesn’t necessarily mean writing pages and pages of description.

 If the reader sees tons of description, she may decide it’s filler and skip it.

Specificity means being precise. You could go on and on about a minor character having slick, black hair and a widow’s peak, a pale and pasty complexion, and high arching eyebrows.

Or you could say the character looks like Dracula without the fangs. The reader gets the same image.

Specificity takes work.

 When you write a first draft, it’s okay to be vague. Boring descriptions are normal. Part of your rewriting process should include pumping up your specificity. It can be time-consuming, but it’s worth it.

Good fiction means getting your reader to believe your lies.

 

 

Major Fiction Writing Mistake: Filtering

Which of the following sentences was most likely written by a novice writer?

 I saw Maurice come through the front door.

 Maurice came through the front door.

If you said the first sentence, you win the proverbial cookie.

A common mistake made by beginning fiction writers is constantly filtering images through a character. The phrases He saw, she observed, I noticed fill the amateur’s manuscript.

Why is filtering bad?

  1. It’s unnecessary.

The reader is smart enough to know your point of view character is doing the “seeing”. Trust the reader. Filtering is clunky and the reader will feel it.

  1. It creates distance from the narrative.

You want your reader immersed in your story, right? Then put the reader in the thick of the action. Get right to it. Whenever possible, give them the unfiltered experience.

Another common issue associated with filtering is “turning”.

The novice writer will not only “see” things but also do a butt-load of “turning and seeing” things.

Example: I turned and saw Maurice picking his nose.

If you absolutely must “turn”, write it like this: “I turned. Maurice was picking his nose.”

Other sensory details fall prey to filtering.

It’s good to include other sensory details besides sight in your story, but smell, taste, touch, and hearing can also fall victim to filtering.

Here are some examples.

Filtered: I heard gunshots in the distance

Unfiltered: Gunshots boomed in the distance.

Filtered: I smelled his nasty breath.

Unfiltered: His breath stunk.

As a rule of thumb, the most direct, unfiltered version of the story is best. Filtering is for coffee, not for fiction.

Is your writing too clever?

ONEA woman who works in my office building puked twice- once in the hallway and once right outside the back entrance.

I think she did it on purpose. Not the throwing up itself, but the strategic placement of the reddish messes.

My brief encounters with her suggest she is a drama queen. The first puke in the hall I can understand. Maybe she couldn’t quite make it to the bathroom.

The second incident I saw with my own two eyes. She was literally three feet away from the trashcan.

My assessment may be uncharitable, but I believe this was her way of saying “Hey, everybody. I’m sick. Hey, look how sick I am! No discreet hacking in the private bathroom for me! By Odin’s beard, every man, woman, and child who walks through this building will know I am sick!”

Maybe you know someone like this, someone who likes to draw attention to himself or herself. Hopefully not to the extent I’ve described, but a guy or gal who must have the spotlight.

Sometimes our writing draws attention to itself. It says, “Look at me, look at me!”

 Is that a bad thing?

Almost always, unless you are writing metafiction.

 The goal of the writer is to achieve the “fictional dream”.

 John Gardner says, “…one of the chief mistakes a writer can make is allow or force the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream.” In other words, you want the reader to be enthralled in your story and you don’t want them to be snapped out of it. As much as possible, they should forget they are reading a book. “Waking” them from the story of your book is a sin.

Sometimes breaking the fictional dream is accidental.

 Typos, confusing sentence structure, lapses in logic, continuity problems and other errors in technique draw the reader out of the story.

Sometimes breaking the fictional dream comes from a writer who is trying to be too clever.

 Here the writer makes a conscious and “clever” style choice that draws attention to the writing.

On style, Noah Lukeman says “Take a step back and ask yourself what’s more important: your writing or the story? Would you rather readers admire your writing, or become engrossed? If you answer the former, you must change your way of thinking. You must realize that when a reader gets lost in your story, turns pages rapidly and does not notice your writing, he is paying you the highest compliment.”

What are some examples of “too clever” writing?

 Using big vocabulary words when little words will work just as well.

Writing using only sentence fragments or only run-on sentences.

Trying to be ultra-minimalist, purposely leaving out all scene descriptions.

What if my clever stylistic choice is necessary for the story?

 If you told your story to a friend rather than writing it, would the telling be vastly different from your writing? If yes, then I would suggest you change your style.

Do some soul searching. Make absolutely sure your choices have nothing to do with ego and everything to do with the story. You don’t want to do the literary equivalent to drawing attention to your upchuck.

Should I Quit My Novel and Start a New Project?

You just found out a major plot point doesn’t make sense. Maybe the second act has stalled. And your antagonist somehow needs to leave Tahiti for The Gobi Desert.

Do you try to make it work or is it time to move on to another project?

Starting a novel is like getting married.Untitled design-5

That guy or gal is all rainbows and bacon at first. But somewhere along the line life goes askew. He leaves his toenail clippings on the coffee table, she nags about fixing the dishwasher, his mother comments on the cleanliness of the house, her father gets drunk every Christmas and defecates on your manicured lawn.

Suddenly Gertrude in accounting and Hans the Zumba instructor are the new rainbows and bacon.

Why?

Because you don’t know the problems yet. Gertrude will sell your dog while you are out with your friends and Hans will wear Speedos at your daughter’s pool party.

Just like a relationship, that new story idea seems so much better than your current novel.

That new story doesn’t have any difficulties. Yet.

The plot holes haven’t emerged. But they will.

The characters and the plot work in harmony. But not for long.

I encourage you to work through your current novel’s problems. Finish it before starting a new one.

And don’t cheat on your spouse.