Pacing is a crucial component of fiction writing. After all, it’s important to keep your readers “hooked” throughout your story. Whether you are just getting started in writing or looking to break into fiction writing, you’ll need to know the basics of how to pace a novel. Read today’s tip of the day from Crafting Novels & Short Stories. In this excerpt written by Jessica Page Morrell, she explains what pacing is and seven ways to keep your story moving at the right pace.
What is Pacing in Fiction?
Pacing is a tool that controls the speed and rhythm at which a story is told, and the readers are pulled through the events. It refers to how fast or slow events in a piece unfold and how much time elapses in a scene or story. Pacing can also be used to show characters aging and the effects of time on story events.
Pacing differs with the specific needs of a story. A far-reaching epic will often be told at a leisurely pace though it will speed up from time to time during the most intense events. A short story or adventure novel might quickly jump into action and deliver drama.
Pacing is part structural choices and part word choices and uses a variety of devices to control how fast the story unfolds. When driving a manual transmission car, you choose the most effective gear needed for driving uphill, maneuvering city streets, or cruising down a freeway. Similarly, when pacing your story, you need to choose the devices that move each scene along at the right speed.
Seven Literary Devices for Pacing Your Story
You need speed in the opening, middle, and climax of your story. Sure, you’ll slowdown from time to time, especially to pause for significance and to express characters’ emotions, but those times will usually appear just before or after a joyride of skin-tightening speed.
There are lots of tools to hasten your story. Some are better suited for micropacing—that is, line by line—and some are better suited for macropacing—pacing the story as a whole. Let’s take a closer look at each device.
ACTION. Action scenes are where you “show” what happens in a story, and, when written in short- and medium-length sentences, they move the story along. Action scenes contain few distractions, little description, and limited transitions. Omit or limit character thoughts, especially in the midst of danger or crisis, since during a crisis people focus solely on survival. To create poignancy, forgo long, descriptive passages and choose a few details that serve as emotionally charged props instead.
CLIFF HANGERS. When the outcome of a scene or chapter is left hanging, the pace naturally picks up because the reader will turn the page to find out what happens next. Readers both love and hate uncertainty, and your job is to deliver plenty of unfinished actions, unfilled needs, and interruptions. Remember, cliffhangers don’t necessarily mean that you’re literally dangling your character from a rooftop as the scene ends. If your characters are in the midst of a conversation, end the scene with a revelation, threat, or challenge.
DIALOGUE. Rapid-fire dialogue with little or no extraneous information is swift and captivating, and will invigorate any scene. The best dialogue for velocity is pared down, an abbreviated copy of a real-life conversation that snaps and crackles with tension. It is more like the volleying of Ping-Pong or tennis than a long-winded discussion. Reactions, descriptions, and attributions are minimal. Don’t create dialogue exchanges where your characters discuss or ponder. Instead, allow them to argue, confront, or engage in a power struggle.
PROLONGED OUTCOMES. Suspense and, by extension, forward movement are created when you prolong outcomes. While it may seem that prolonging an event would slow down a story, this technique actually increases the speed, because the reader wants to know if your character is rescued from the mountainside, if the vaccine will arrive before the outbreak decimates the village, or if the detective will solve the case before the killer strikes again.
SCENE CUTS. Also called a jump cut, a scene cut moves the story to a new location and assumes the reader can follow without an explanation of the location change. The purpose is to accelerate the story, and the characters in the new scene don’t necessarily need to be the characters in the previous scene.
A SERIES OF INCIDENTS IN RAPID SUCCESSION. Another means of speeding up your story is to create events that happen immediately one after another. Such events are presented with minimal or no transitions, leaping via scene cuts from scene to scene and place to place.
SHORT CHAPTERS AND SCENES. Short segments are easily digested and end quickly. Since they portray a complete action, the reader passes through them quickly, as opposed to being bogged down by complex actions and descriptions.
SUMMARY. Instead of a play-by-play approach, tell readers what has already happened. Because scenes are immediate and sensory, they require many words to depict. Summary is a way of trimming your word count and reserving scenes for the major events. You can also summarize whole eras, descriptions, and backstory. Summaries work well when time passes, but there is little to report, when an action is repeated or when a significant amount of time has passed.
WORD CHOICE AND SENTENCE STRUCTURE. The language itself is the subtlest means of pacing. Think concrete words (like Prodigy and iceberg), active voice (with potent verbs like zigzag and plunder), and sensory information that’s artfully embedded. If you write long, involved paragraphs, try breaking them up.
Fragments, spare sentences, and short paragraphs quicken the pace. Crisp, punchy verbs, especially those with onomatopoeia (crash, lunge, sweep, scatter, ram, scavenge) also add to a quick pace. Invest in suggestive verbs to enliven descriptions, build action scenes and milk suspense.
Harsh consonant sounds such as those in words like claws, crash, kill, quake, and nag can push the reader ahead. Words with unpleasant associations can also ratchet up the speed: hiss, grunt, slither, smarmy, venomous, slaver, and wince. Energetic, active language is especially appropriate for building action scenes and suspense, and for setting up drama and conflict.
A fast pace means trimming every sentence of unnecessary words. Eliminate prepositional phrases where you don’t need them: For example, “the walls of the cathedral” can be written as “the cathedral’s walls.” Finally, search your story for passive linking verbs and trade them in for active ones.
By: Courtney Carpenter
The following blog is from BubbleCow which I received this morning. Because of my editing on Princess Adele’s Dragon, I seem to be paying a lot more attention when I see these helpful tips. I wanted to share it. Have a blessed day. Shirley
I’m talking about that dirty word: grammar.
But more than that, I’m also talking about formatting, which is kind of like grammar for the computer-age. Bold statements aside, if you want to be taken seriously by publishers, editors, and readers, then you’ve got to get your head around formatting conventions on word processors. I often joke that you wouldn’t start playing a sport without first reading the rules. It is the same for writing. You need to be getting the basics correct; there’s no excuse. As a writer, you simply need to know this stuff.
I’m a big fan of writing software in general and favour a whole host of different word processors. However, Microsoft Word is still the industry standard, so I’ll be using that as a reference point. These rules will still apply whether you’re using Scrivener, OpenOffice, LibreOffice, or whatever your software of choice is.
OK, so with all that said, here’s the six grammar/formatting issues that drive us mad:
Ellipses – yep. They showed up last week and they’re back again. A few of you seemed unclear as to the nature of an ellipsis. Well, an ellipsis is the three dots writers use to denote an omission or to show a pause in speech. Here at BubbleCow, we often receive manuscripts where the writer has thrown in a few ellipses but with variable numbers of dots. In fact, some writers seem to think that the more dots they add, the more mysterious and tantalising their cliff-hanger becomes. “I was never there…………………… OR WAS I?” Oh dear. Ellipses only ever have three dots. No more, no fewer.
Two other things to say about ellipses. The correct way to write an ellipsis is . . . – that’s dot space dot space dot. The problem is that this plays havoc with some eBook conversion tools. Therefore, our house style is to alter them to … (three dots with no spaces). This will be picked up in the conversion process and handled correctly.
What about when an ellipsis is used at the end of the sentence? What happens to that extra full stop? Should it be three dots (…) or three and a full stop (… .). The answer is a little confusing. There’s no set rule on this, with different style guides opting for different options. At BubbleCow, our house style ignores that last full stop. Just the three dots for us, please.
Here’s a great LINK to an article on ellipses.
Writing numbers – this, confusingly, is not another case of consistency. Now, we get hundreds of manuscripts where the writers rather sensibly choose to either use either purely numeric or purely written numbers for the entirety of their manuscripts. Then we get those who arbitrarily use a mixture of the two. Strangely, both parties are wrong in this case. Our house style (based on the Chicago Manual of Style) is as follows: numbers up to 100 must be written in words – so: one, seventeen, ninety-four. After that this becomes a little time consuming, so we allow these larger numbers to be written in digits: 1003, 784, 100,000. All you have to remember is that 100 is the magic number.
Spaces – now I know what you’re thinking. How can anyone mess up a space? Do we receive manuscripts that are just spaceless walls of interlinked words? The answer is no.
I’m talking about making sure that you’re only using one space between words. Now I know how it is – you’re writing passages, deleting them later on, shuffling around paragraphs – things get messy. But I recently ran a find-and-replace on a manuscript and it found 384 instances where two spaces had snuck in instead of one.
We’ve talked about single and double spacing before and it kicked up a bit of a storm. You see back in the olden days of typewriters and typesetting, double-spacing was standard. Those days are over! Double spaces are a nightmare for those unlucky publishers who’re in charge of creating eBooks. They mess up the formatting, resulting in unattractive, oddly-spaced electronic books that inevitably have to scrapped and redone. Our advice? Stick to one space.
Page breaks – this one is easy. The reason I’ve listed it here is because eBook conversions rely on page breaks between chapters. They will see the page break and understand that they need to do something special. If you’ve just pressed Enter a load of time to move the text to the next page you are in trouble. Not only will the conversion process potentially miss the chapter break but you’ll also lose the positioning if you then add or remove text in the chapter.
The bottom line is that you should always use a page break to go to the next page before starting a new chapter. This makes for a clean and presentable eBook, and will also help the printers if you’re going to print copies.
Paragraph breaks versus line breaks – these two phenomena might need explaining as they’re both pretty similar. Indeed, Microsoft Word didn’t start distinguishing between them until about 2003 (don’t quote me on this), but in modern word processing, the difference is very important.
OK, if you open up Word, type “BubbleCow is great,” and then press Enter, you’ll notice that the cursor jumps down to the line below, leaving some space between the previous line and the new one. This is a paragraph break. This is the one you want.
If, however, you were to hold Shift and then press Enter, the resulting new line would be right up beneath “BubbleCow is great,” with no space between them.
A great way of checking this is to use the Show/Hide Nonprinting Characters button, found on the Home tab in Word (it’s the odd black backwards P symbol). A paragraph break will show up as one of these backward-Ps, whereas a line break will be a cornering arrow. You want the P.
Line breaks are a nightmare for those in charge of formatting your masterwork – it groups all the text together, which means that text becomes harder to arrange on the page and stubborn in its disobedience. Using line breaks to create space (at the end of a chapter, for example, so you can get that page break in) can create nightmares for eBook conversions. Paragraph breaks all the way. One of the first things I do with a new manuscript is to find and replace all line breaks with paragraph breaks.
Indentation – those pesky line breaks also have a habit of messing up any system of indentation you might (should) have going. Indents only trigger on paragraph breaks, so there’s an extra reason always to paragraph break! But indents are important in their right.
Here at BubbleCow, we want the first paragraph of each chapter to be a straight flush, with the first sentence in line with the following sentences. After that, though, every paragraph needs its first line to be indented using the Tab key (not spaces! These tend to be messier and can disappear during the eBook conversion process). Again, this is one of the first things we add when we receive a new manuscript, as it helps your manuscript appear clean, streamlined, and readable. It also makes eBook versions far more attractive and is necessary for the conversion process.
This is a piece previously posted by Robbie Blair that contains useful information that I want to share with you. Since I’m in the process of doing my final edit on Princess Adele’s Dragon I found this article helped me. Maybe it can help you also. Have a blessed week. Shirley
Creating powerful prose requires killing off the words, phrases, and sentences that gum up your text. While a critical eye and good judgment are key in this process, some terms almost always get in the way. Here are eight words or phrases that should be hunted down in your story and deleted with extreme prejudice.
“Sudden” means quickly and without warning, but using the word “suddenly” both slows down the action and warns your reader. Do you know what’s more effective for creating the sense of the sudden? Just saying what happens.
I pay attention to every motion, every movement, my eyes locked on them.
Suddenly, The gun goes off.
When using “suddenly,” you communicate through the narrator that the action seemed sudden. By jumping directly into the action, you allow the reader to experience that suddenness first hand. “Suddenly” also suffers from being nondescript, failing to communicate the nature of the action itself; providing no sensory experience or concrete fact to hold on to. Just … suddenly.
Feel free to employ “suddenly” in situations where the suddenness is not apparent in the action itself. For example, in “Suddenly, I don’t hate you anymore,” the “suddenly” substantially changes the way we think about the shift in emotional calibration.
“Then” points vaguely to the existing timeline and says, “It was after that last thing I talked about.” But the new action taking place in a subsequent sentence or sentence part implies that much already. You can almost always eliminate your thens without disrupting meaning or flow.
I woke up. Then I, brushed my teeth. Then I, combed my hair. Then I , and went to work.
“Then” should be used as a clarifying agent, to communicate that two seemingly concurrent actions are happening in sequence. For example, “I drove to the supermarket. Then I realized I didn’t need to buy anything.” Without the “then,” it would be easy to mistake this as pre-existing knowledge or as a realization that happened during the drive itself. “Then” can occasionally be useful for sentence flow, but keep the use of the word to a minimum.
“In order to”
You almost never need the phrase “in order to” to express a point. The only situation where it’s appropriate to use this phrase is when using “to” alone would create ambiguity or confusion.
I’m giving you the antidote in order to save you.
And after ten minutes of brainstorming for an example of a proper time to use “in order to,” I haven’t been able to come up with anything. Legitimate uses of “in order to” are just that few and far between.
“Very” and “Really”
Words are self-contained descriptors, and saying, “Think of tasty. Now think of more tasty” doesn’t help readers develop a better sense of the meal or person you’re describing.
Her breath was very cold chill as ice against my neck .
Mark Twain suggested that writers could “substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Another strategy is to find a more powerful version of the same idea or give concrete details. To say “It was very/really/damn hot” does little, but saying “It was scorching” helps. Even better?: “The air rippled like desert sky as my body crisped into a reddened, dried-out husk.”
Is, am, are, was, or were—whatever form your “is” takes, it’s likely useless. When’s the last time you and your friends just “was’d” for a while? Have you ever said, “Hey, guys, I can’t—I’m busy am-ing”?
The “is” verbs are connecting terms that stand between your readers and the actual description. This is especially true when it comes to the “is” + “ing” verb pair. Any time you use “is,” you’re telling the reader that the subject is in a state of being. Using an “ing” verb tells the audience the verb is in process. By using “is verbing,” you’re telling your audience that the subject is in the state of being of being in the process of doing something.
Take this example:
I was sprinting sprinted toward the doorway.
If the description is actually about a state of being—”they are angry,” “are evil,” or “are dead”—then is it up. But don’t gunk up your verbs with unnecessary is, am, or was-ing.
Any action a person takes is started, continued, and finished. All three of these can be expressed by the root form of the verb. For example, “I jumped.” The reader who stops in frustration, saying, “But when did the jump start? When did it finish?” has problems well beyond the scope of the content they’re reading.
If you’ve been doing yoga for six years, you could reasonably say, “I started doing yoga six years ago.” For you, yoga is an ongoing action with a concrete starting point. But when describing action in a story, there are few circumstances where “start” is effective.
Let’s take this case and look at the potential fixes:
He started screaming.
Is it a single scream? Use “He screamed.” Are you telling us his screams will be background noise for a while? Rather than clueing us in unnecessarily, show us the series of screams first-hand. Do you want to introduce a changed state, such as escalating from loud speaking into screaming? Show us the decibels, the gruffness of voice, the way the air feels to the person he’s screaming at, and the hot dryness in the screamer’s throat as his volume crescendos.
“That” is a useful word for adding clarity, but like Bibles on the bedstands of seedy motel rooms, the word’s presence is often out of place.
When “that” is employed to add a description, you can almost always move the description to before the term and make a more powerful image.
Ireland was nothing but flowing green hills that flowed green.
In many other cases, “that” can simply be dropped or replaced with a more descriptive term.
I was drunk the night that your father and I met.
Many other uses of “that,” such as “I wish I wasn’t that ugly”, can be enhanced with more descriptive language.
I’m not just saying that, like, you shouldn’t, like, talk like a valley girl (though that too). Here’s the problem: “Like” is used to show uncertainty. And you. Should. Not. Be. Uncertain.
Be bold. When making a comparison, use force. Use metaphor over simile. Don’t let yourself cop out by coming up with a halfway description.
My eyes rested on the gun for a sliver of a moment. I snapped forward, grabbed it, and it was like the chill metal flowed from the gun into my veins.
One of the 36 articles by the infamously fantastic Chuck Palahniuk dives into the issue of like in great detail. It’s well worth checking out.
As always, Orwell’s final rule applies: “Break any of these rules before saying anything barbarous.” There are instances where each of these words fills a valuable role. However, especially among inexperienced writers, these words are frequently molested and almost always gum up the works.
Apply these lessons immediately and consistently to empower your words. Then, with practice, you will suddenly realize that you are starting to naturally trim the text in order to create prose that is very powerful.
One of the first and most important decisions for every writer is determining what to write about. Making this decision can feel overwhelming often because of long-held notions we have about what it means to be a writer. Many people believe that authors just have ideas that come to them or, worse yet, that authors are so intelligent that they are able to create something unique that has never been seen or thought of before.
In reality, neither scenario is entirely true. Most of the time, authors decide what to write about from examining their personal lives and interests or by examining the work of other authors and making parts of existing material into something new and different.
Writing about things you know and care about is important for several reasons. For one, it usually makes writing much easier: if you are writing from personal experiences, you can spend more energy on adding creative twists to a story that already exists.
Second, if you are writing about something you care about, you usually have a deeper sense of the subject and will have more information from which to write. Choosing topics or experiences that you care about will develop a sense of “you” which only you can create.
Here are some strategies for coming up with ideas for writing:
Make lists of topics or things that you are interested in—hobbies, issues, things, places
Draw a floor plan of your home and make a list of three memorable events that happened in each room
Make a list of problems that you have seen characters face in movies, TV shows, or books, and use one as the basis for your own story
Make a list of your most memorable experiences and determine which might be the basis for a piece of writing
Maintain a personal journal and collect thoughts and descriptions that might be used as the basis for a piece of writing
Think about “small moments” of life to expand and explore rather than creating large, involved stories Read and re-read the authors that you are fond of.
Look for places where you can pick up where they left off or think of how the story could be retold from a different character’s perspective
Take elements from an existing storyline from a book, movie, or play and work your own real-life or past experiences in to create a new story
Make a list of your favorite movies or books and look for patterns in the storylines or look for storylines that can be combined or changed
Read, read, read—all great authors are readers who constantly look for ideas from other authors For more information:
Developing Ideas for Writing (Prewriting): http://www.esc.edu/ESConline/Across_ESC/WritersComplex.nsf/3CC42A422514347A8525671D00 49F395/CE2B510E7D9975AE852569C3006ACCCC?OpenDocument
Originally published by NCTE (National Council Teachers of English) Date unknown
We are always wanting to glean what other authors know about writing. This blog by Steve Silberman gathers together authors and has them give suggestions on how to improve your writing and make your book great. I thought it was something worth sharing. Have a blessed day. Shirley
I love books. My late father Donald, who taught Wordsworth and Melville to inner-city kids for decades, used to read Ulysses to me while he carried me on his shoulders. Perhaps it was inevitable that I grew up to be a writer. Now, after years of investigative reporting for Wired and other magazines, I’m finally writing a book of my own.
The subject of my book is autism, the variety of human cognitive styles, and the rise of the neurodiversity movement. The seed of the project was an article I wrote for Wired in 2001 called “The Geek Syndrome” about autism and Asperger syndrome in high-tech communities like Silicon Valley. I’m happy and humbled to say that it was an influential article, and I still get email about it from the families of kids on the spectrum and from autistic people themselves, though it was published more than a decade ago.
The science of developmental disorders has made significant advances in recent years, and some of the social issues that I raised in the piece — such as the contributions that people with atypical cognitive styles have made to the progress of science, technology, and culture — seem more relevant than ever. At the same time, the wave of kids diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the ’90s is now coming of age, and their heroically devoted families are facing fear and uncertainty about the future as crucial government-funded services and support provided to families of special-needs children dry up. Meanwhile,neurodiversity advocates are challenging narrow definitions of “normal” cognition, and autistic people — even those who are unable to employ spoken language — are using assistive technology like the iPad to express themselves. There’s a lot of new ground to cover.
I’ve signed a contract with a wonderful publisher — a Penguin imprint called Avery Books — and a sharp and enthusiastic editor named Rachel Holtzman. One of the most thrilling moments of my life as a writer was walking into Penguin headquarters in Manhattan and seeing classic jackets for Jack Kerouac’s novels like The Dharma Bums framed on the wall. It was reading the exhilarating, compassionate, and perennially fresh poetry and prose of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and their friends that made me want to grow up to be a writer in the first place.
I’m not sentimental about old media vs. new media. Nothing will ever replace the sublime feeling of sanctuary created by the printed page, but I treasure the books on my Kindle too, particularly when I’m reading at 30,000 feet. What I love is words — storytelling, the flow of well-wrought sentences, the gradual unfolding of a long and thoughtful tale, the private communion with an author’s mind.
But now comes the hard part. It’s one thing to work up a 4000-word magazine feature and another to sit down and write a 100,000-word book. I’m acutely aware that I’ve been granted a precious opportunity to cast light on forgotten history and provide a platform for voices that are rarely heard. At the same time, I’m scared out of my wits that the two decades of journalism that have led up to this project have not prepared me to write a good book. I wake up at 3am staring into the darkness, wondering if I’ll have the skills, discipline, and inner resources to pull it off.
I’ve chosen to deal with my anxiety by tapping into the wisdom of the hive mind. I recently sent email to the authors in my social network and asked them, “What do you wish you’d known about the process of writing a book that you didn’t know before you did it?”
I’m delighted with the sheer range of practical advice that poured in. The writers in this group are as diverse as the volumes that line the shelves in my home office. There are top science writers and journalists like Carl Zimmer, Jonah Lehrer, Deborah Blum, Paula Span, and David Shenk; prolific blogger Geoff Manaugh of the endlessly fascinating BLDGBLOG, which focuses on architecture and the future of urbanism; award-winning poet and essayist August Kleinzahler; a wise-beyond-his-years entrepreneur named Ben Casnocha; a Zen master named John Tarrant and an author of Buddhist bestsellers, Sylvia Boorstein; two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee David Crosby of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and two of the geniuses who helped launch 21st century digital culture and the spunky “maker” movement, Cory Doctorow and Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing. A more diverse group of writers, talking about the nuts and bolts of their craft, would be hard to find anywhere on the Web.
A few things became clear as soon as their replies came in. First of all, I’ll have to throttle back my use of Twitter and Facebook to get this writing done (and I may never rev up my idle Quora account after all.) Secondly, scheduling intervals of regular exercise and renewal amid the hours of writing will be essential. And thirdly, I’ll certainly be buying and downloading a software program calledScrivener, which is a powerful word processor specifically designed for writing books and keeping vast amounts of related data in good order.
Reading these tips has made the voice in my head that whispers I can do this a little louder when my eyelids snap open before dawn. I hope the advice here inspires the creation of many great books, not only the one I hope to write. I’m deeply grateful for the time and attention of the master writers assembled here.
Enjoy — and good luck with your own writing!
Author of A Planet of Viruses, The Tangled Bank, and Brain Cuttings
- Do as much research as possible away from the Internet — with living people, in real places.
- Be ready to organize vast amounts of data. Use a wall, or software like Scrivener.
- Be ready to amputate entire chapters. It will be painful.
- Make it great, no matter how long it takes. There’s no such thing as too many drafts. There’s no such thing as too much time spent. As you well know, a great book can last forever. A great book can change a person’s life. A mediocre book is just commerce.
- Get feedback — oodles of it. Along the way, show pieces of your book to lots of people — different types of people. Ply them with wine and beg them for candor. Find out what’s missing, what’s being misinterpreted, what isn’t convincing, what’s falling flat. This doesn’t mean you take every suggestion or write the book by committee. But this process will allow to marry your necessarily-precious vision with how people will actually react. I find that invaluable.
- Let some of you come through. You’re obviously not writing a memoir here, but this book is still partly about you — the world you see, the way you think, the experiences you have with people. And trust me, readers are interested in who you are. So don’t be afraid to let bits and pieces of your personality and even life details seep into the text. It will breathe a lot of life into the book.
- Write every day. Anything you do every day gets easier. If you’re insanely busy, make the amount that you write every day small (100 words? 250 words?) but do it every day.
- Write even when the mood isn’t right. You can’t tell if what you’re writing is good or bad while you’re writing it.
- Write when the book sucks and it isn’t going anywhere. Just keep writing. It doesn’t suck. Your conscious is having a panic attack because it doesn’t believe your subconscious knows what it’s doing.
- Stop in the middle of a sentence, leaving a rough edge for you to start from the next day — that way, you can write three or five words without being “creative” and before you know it, you’re writing.
- Write even when the world is chaotic. You don’t need a cigarette, silence, music, a comfortable chair, or inner peace to write. You just need ten minutes and a writing implement.
- The first tip is that readers expect books to be exhaustive on their subjects. That doesn’t mean they want the books to be long — it means that they expect that you will cover all the basic ground that needs to be covered to understand the subject, even if they know some of it already. This piece of advice may or may not be relevant to your subject. In my case, with a very idiosyncratic book on viral culture, it led to people asking me at readings why I hadn’t included an analysis of X or Y viral phenomenon in my book. “Because you already know about it,” the magazine guy in me always wanted to respond. But in the book world, people want to see you mention the stuff they already know, at least in passing (or to knock it down)– otherwise, how can it claim to be a book on the subject? It’s worth taking that point of view seriously.
- This is a basic piece of advice, but it can’t be overstated when you’re trying to go from magazine-length to book-length writing: hone your outline and then cling to it as a lifeline. You can adjust it in mid-stream, but don’t try to just write your way into a better structure: think about the right structure and then write to it. Your outline will get you through those periods when you can’t possibly imagining ever finishing the damn thing — at those times, your outline will let you see it as a sequence of manageable 1,000 word sections.
- Don’t hold back on that fantasy site visit / phone call / interview / query / meeting that you have always wanted to do, lest it become too late to include the results in your book. Do it now! This book is your golden ticket.
- Don’t lose track of your notes and/or future ideas for inclusion by writing things down in multiple notebooks or on scattered pages of the same notebook; concentrate, aggregate, cohere, reread, and compress. Keep it all in one place (with back-ups). Obsessive-compulsive organizational habits are your bestfriend; telling insane and vaguely embarrassing stories later on, about how you used eight different colored markers, four highlighter types, and multiple versions of extra pages stapled into a vast mega-notebook that you re-read every night before bed – and that you also took digital photos of lest you lose the whole thing in a house fire – will be a lot more fun than explaining how you forgot to include certain things and your book sucked because you never got your shit together.
- Quick, tossed off, last minute additions, typed right before you submit the final manuscript, probably aren’t a good idea, no matter how funny or emotionally powerful you might feel they are at the time of impulsively writing them. Always allow time to come back and read something from a distance.
- And run all quirky one-liners that you hope to include in your author’s bio (do you “always enjoy a good latté”?) past a close friend; they don’t age well.
- Use Scrivener to write your book. Awesome organizing tool as well as word processor.
- If you have the feeling an interview isn’t yielding much, get off the phone as soon as you can. On the other hand, when you strike interview gold, keep it going as long as you can.
- Don’t forget to write the book that you want to read.
- here are a few things that i’ve learned or that people have told me along the way. i’ve written five books. the first two (monkey wars, sex on the brain) were issue books. the best advice i got when writing an issue book was to write the first chapter LAST. this isn’t absolute, but it’s in the research and writing of later chapters that you often figure out what your primary points will be and how best to frame them.
- the best advice i got in writing narrative non-fiction was to get my hero in trouble and keep him there. this was with my first narrative book, love at goon park. my editor suggested that as the over all arc — how is harry harlow ever going to persuade the scientific community that love matters? — and within that to have him confront an obstacle in every chapter. i’m a little looser with that now, not an obstacle in EVERY chapter, but it’s still a great way to think about structure. for instance, in poisoner’s handbook, every chapter is a poison. so my heroes must confront arsenic in one chapter and thallium in another…
- i usually try to have a single sentence that describes the primary message of the book. this turns out to be really useful when your editor asks you for the one sentence the sales force can use to persuade book sellers to buy your book. but, again, it’s also a useful organizing principle. so with monkey wars, the primary sentence (not brilliant for sales, but still) was “animal research is really about us.” number one species on the planet, can do whatever we want to other species. and i used that to frame every chapter around a decision that a researcher was making in his use of non-human primates, from brain surgeries to testing on endangered species.
- i let my first draft suck. kind of the anne lamott advice on “shitty first drafts.” to me my first draft is just an attempt to start unfolding the flow and logic of the story. if i get stuck, i just put xxx in the draft (for figure this out later.) with one of my books (sex on the brain) i did this so often that i had literal nightmares about it, that people were coming up to me and asking me if i had adopted an avant garde writing style.
- i’m obsessive about the research. i organize and cross-list and file from the very beginning. i make notes of key points, issues, and themes. the amount of research one does for a proposal is very different from the amount of research one does for a whole book. so i keep track of all these key moments in a way that lets me recognize patterns that i didn’t see earlier. and also so that when i’m later actually writing, i know where to find everything. writers waste a lot of time looking for that study that they filed, well, somewhere.
- i recognize that today’s book author isn’t done even after the manuscript is accepted. publishers expect us to be part of the marketing of the book and the sooner that starts the better. i used to tell people that i wanted to be the j.d. salinger of science writing and just stay home and let the royalties wash over me. but that’s mostly in the moments when i’m just overwhelmed. the new public version of a science writer is actually pretty fascinating.
- I find it helpful sometimes — and still to my surprise — trying to explain to someone what it is I’m trying to write about, usually someone bright but in a different intellectual zone, and not a writer. Or, likewise, in a letter or email to such a person.
- When my self-disgust reaches critical mass I seem to be ready to go.
- I tend to discover the structure, a structure, after diving in the deep end and swallowing water awhile, until I stop swallowing water, make my way to the surface and figure out how far it is toward shore or the side of the pool, and what mixture of treading water and the Australian crawl, given my limitations/aptitudes, might get me safely home.
- Shitty first drafts. Anne Lamott nailed it! But with books, it seems to be more like “shitty 20th drafts.” So shitty, for so long.
- Develop a very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions. I use an app called Self-Control on my Mac.
- Develop a very, very, very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions.
Author/editor of The Mindfulness Revolution and In the Face of Fear
- You’re better off than you think, because you’ve done this before, just not in as large a format. Almost every technique and skill you’ve used to structure and tell a story at feature length scales to book length. So, let go of the excess anxiety about never having done this before.
- Planning. Planning. Planning. It’s a campaign. I used some project management tools in the end to put some order into the vastness. That’s the thing about the bigger scale. It requires more management to support the creativity. Cultivate a good relationship with your editor from the beginning. He/she is going to be your task master at some point. That’s going to go so much better if he/she is also your friend, colleague, supporter, and fan. The campaign of writing a book can get so lonely sometimes, you need a good attaboy just to remind yourself of why you’re doing it and that you’re not the crazy loser who needs to get out more.
- As Trungpa Rinpoche said (I paraphrase): enjoy refreshing activities from time to time. If you’re planning and scheduling well, you can find opportunities regularly to breathe more fresh air into your life and replenish yourself, because “the work fills the available space” is nowhere more true than on a book project. Watch out for self-indulgent and cheap substitutes for actually taking an honest to god break, of whatever duration.
- When I’m writing a book I only read other books that somehow inform my book. If it doesn’t serve my process — no matter how much I want to read it — I don’t. I suspect there are a lot of people who will give the opposite opinion (take a break from reading about your subject matter, etc.), but I’m not one of them. This is your time to be completely and justifiably obsessed. So go ahead — bask in the madness.
- Non-fiction shouldn’t mean poorly written. Writing is writing and art always counts. Make your book beautiful to read and you’re more likely to communicate your messages to your reader.
- Don’t focus on the promotional aspects of social media. Just share your passion for the subject matter as it filters through your writing process. The promotion aspect will be an organic extension of your passion.
- Cathartic effect.
- Love of the well-turned phrase.
- Set specific times to work.
- You already know what you need to know to do this. The fact is, my 60,000-plus-word book was pretty much like writing 8 to 10 long-form pieces. I didn’t do it differently, in terms of research or writing or rewriting. My existing skills were perfectly adequate to the task; yours will be too. It took me 2.5 years but then, I was teaching and freelancing at the same time; had I focused solely on the book, it probably would’ve taken 18 months. So you will make your deadline, even if your book is longer and more complex.
- Unhelpful, right? But maybe not. Bottom line, this is not some whole different sphere for which you are ill-prepared. For better or worse, whether you use some nifty software to organize your material or you use a whole bunch of yellow legal pads and photocopies in hanging files (like me — so retro), this is familiar territory and you are an old hand. So get to it.
- I had the easiest time of my life writing my three Asperger books. I just ran like Secretariat once I got going. But, I did learn that questionnaires make good research tools. I had three levels of questionnaires, each expanding on the one before it, so I didn’t have to individually interview each person. I did that by email or phone if and when it was warranted. By the time I wrote Aspergirls I had it streamlined: The questionnaires were posted on my site, the first one visible to the public so anyone could use it, then the 2nd and third were on hidden pages that I gave my participants the URL to. The data was compiled and I received email alerts whenever there was a new entry. So while I was researching certain elements of my book, the questionnaires and the people who used them were doing a lot of the legwork. Being that I’m fairly uneducated, I think I did a pretty good job with it.
- Advice from a Newsweek editor I worked with in the ’80s, Nancy Cooper. Roughly my age, but so much smarter and more worldly and sophisticated. I was worried about writing the opening story of the nation section. And she sent me a note that read: “You just start working and you keep working til it’s done. That’s all there is to it; no mystery.”
When I settle into writing, i.e. proposal signed, accepted, etc., I…
- Do not open email until 5PM on any weekday or other day when i expect to be writing much of the day.
- Do not read other people’s work on the same subject. That might be hard for you, since you are collecting research data, but I say very little about what other people have said or thought. They’ve already said or thought it.
- I am VERY selective about having other people read it as I go along other than my editor, and that only when I have enough written to feel secure that I have found my voice.
- When I do not like how what I’m writing is sounding, I quit. I leave the computer. I do something else, like cook soup. I “hear” what I am about to type before I type it and if it is not sounding like me naturally talking, I know i am not clear or balanced enough to go on.
- I do not write from the beginning to the end. I write in the order that particular parts take form in my mind and I enjoy mulling them over… I mull and mull and imagine I am explaining them to someone and then I write them down. I have the order in mind, so I write whatever part is bubbling energetically in my mind, print it out (always) and begin a stack on THE BOOK on a corner of my desk into which I can add pieces (in their proper order) as they get written and so I have a visible proof at all times that something is happening.
- I take the due date for the first draft EXTREMEly seriously., like everything depends on that day. it makes the project energetically alive for me, like a James Bond five-minutes-and-fifty-two-seconds until the whole world blows up movie and even if the draft is finished a week early I push the SEND button just after 12AM on the day it is due. Theatrical, I know, but I learned it from a friend of mine whom I admire as being a fine writer who prides himself on doing that.
Author of notable books on science and psychology
What I wish I didn’t know now that I didn’t know then:
- How hard writing a book would be on my body — two major illnesses and two surgeries in two years, a health record unprecedented in my life, and unrepeated in the two years since. No idea what to do differently, other than maybe make sure I have good health insurance. (But you shoulda seen me revising my last draft as they wheeled me into the OR for an appendectomy.)
- How important and valuable the final reward would be. Not the money, but (in my case) the promised trip to a very special place. Wish I had put the photo of my destination on my screensaver long before I did, as it worked like an extra force of gravity pulling me to the end. The trip also gave me a coda to write into the book, just an extra added benefit.
- How inept publishers are at selling books, even books that, as in my case, they have a significant financial stake in and that they profess to love. Once they get rejected by Today and Terry Gross and once the Sunday Timespasses (or, as in my case, assigns a review and then never runs it), they’ve exhausted their playbook. Solution: what you’re already doing, which is to build your brand among your intended audience.
- The most striking thing about my book processes was that no one at the publisher did any editing at all. No fact checking, no line editing.
- Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.
- Find ways to break it into chunks and set concrete deadlines with friends/agent/editor. I’m sending my agent material every week now. The shit is super rough, but at least I’ve got *something* on page. Also consider a writer’s group. When I asked Bruce Feiler for this advice at the start ofLincoln’s Melancholy, he said: “emotional management.” I told him, yeah, but I really want practical advice, etc. etc., and he repeated the phrase. Writing a book is a crushingly lonely experience in ways that no one who hasn’t been through it can really imagine.
- What’s the idea/argument in a sentence or two? You shouldn’t have this necessarily at the start but will want to by the time the book is done.
- Apply to MacDowell, Yaddo, Blue Mountain Center, Headlands — a few other good residencies, including one in Cali I can’t remember now. Four to eight weeks of you, quiet, among other artists, with people feeding you on schedule can do wonders.
Here’s a triplet of things that may apply only to me.
- Ideas don’t come from anywhere identifiable, so I’ve come to trust that they will be given. This is along the lines of not whipping the donkey.
- The process of lining the book up, giving it a bedside manner, asking “Is this what it is about? But what is it really about?” was a plunge. I had to explain the work to myself in more and more elementary language. I came to enjoy doing this. It helped when I realized that the discovery process was part of the writing and I didn’t have to be through it already.
- There is always period when I wrestle alone with my own process and at the same time I like collaboration. So I’ve learned what kind of editing works for me. A good editor is an impersonal force who says things like, “You could ditch the first half of your first chapter and start with what comes next,” and immediately I know if the edit is true or not. So I learned to be confident about sharing my work when it is not fully formed, learned that the process is robust and will look after itself.
- My one piece of advice is to insist that your editor be brutal — there should be red pen on every page. At least in my experience, the book only gets decent during this phase, as all the darlings and digressions get killed. It’s such an important process, and yet too many editors are too meek (or overworked) and too many writers resist their edits. A good editor is a great thing.
Author of The Panic Virus and Feeding the Monster
- If you’re a Mac guy, I whole-heartedly, full-throatedly recommend using Scrivener. I think you can get a free 30-day trial, so it’s at least worth checking out. Especially with this last book, it totally saved me from having hundreds of (virtual) stacks of thousands of (virtual) scraps of paper.
- For me, it was vitally important that all non-book related reading be as mindless as possible. I binged on mysteries…Rex Stout and Donald Westlake/Richard Stark in particular.
- I tried, not always successfully, to start each day with some discrete goal I wanted to accomplish: write 200 words, or get through a certain amount of research, or conduct two interviews, or whatever. If I set out to spend a day “writing,” that would be so overwhelming I’d end up just farting around online all day instead of starting the climb the mountain.
- Finally: assume your book is going to completely tank commercially. That’ll help you remember that you’re not writing this for the purpose of writing a best-seller (at least I assume you’re not), but because it’s something that you care passionately about and excites you intellectually and because you hope to be able to share your thoughts and observations and conclusions with a group of people you respect and want to discourse with. Everything else is gravy. At the end of the day, what’s important is producing something you believe in…not producing something that’ll catch people’s eyes at B&N.
- Find an organizational scheme for your notes and materials; keep up with it (if you are transcribing sound files or notebooks, don’t let yourself fall behind); and be faithful to it: Don’t obsess over an apparently better scheme that someone else has. At some point during your work, someone will release what looks like a brilliant piece of software that will solve all your problems. Resist the urge to try it out, whatever it is, unless 1) it is endorsed by people whose working methods you already know to be like your own and 2) you know you can implement it quickly and easily without a lot of backfilling. Reworking organizational schemes is incredibly seductive and a massive timesuck. (I use DevonThink, OmniOutliner and Filemaker Pro. David Dobbs apparently has a quite different flow. We hope to do a workshop on this at NASW.)
- Don’t wait too long to start writing, especially if your book incorporates descriptive or narrative elements. Write at least a quick sketch of the sensory and emotional elements that stick with you as you come back from field reporting.
- You’re going to spend a lot of time in your head. Take care of your physical self too. Be just as committed to that as you are to getting your writing done every day. If you don’t care about your health, think your vanity — there’s an author video and a lot of public appearances in your future.
- Bonus tip: Be good to your spouse/partner and protect time for them. They’re in this with you, but unlike you, they didn’t choose it.
We all made mistakes as beginner writers and I still do even though I’ve been writing a number of years now. It’s always nice to get reminders of what type of mistakes top writers and editors find consistently. It’s even better to find out how to fix them. The craft of writing is a continual learning process. When you stop learning. lay down your pen. Have a blessed day. Shirley
Today, one of our most experienced editors on Reedsy shares some invaluable advice for first-time authors! Lourdes Venard specializes in crime fiction, science fiction, Young Adult, memoirs, and other nonfiction. She also teaches for the University of California, San Diego’s copyediting certificate program.
When it comes to writing, every writer is unique. But mistakes made by first-time authors are not as unique. In a very unscientific poll, I asked fiction editors which errors they come across the most often. Not surprisingly, the culprits were the same.
Below are the six most common writing mistakes identified by fiction editors, with simple fixes that can be done in the revision stage.
Wordiness can come from overdescription, overexplanation, and redundant language. Those of us who are editors see this all the time in descriptions, especially in the use of adjectives and adverbs. Many first-time writers believe they need to bolster their nouns and verbs with adjectives and adverbs, but this often marks the writer as an amateur. Instead, writers should focus on using strong nouns and verbs. Take the simple phrase “a small river rushing by quickly.” A river that is rushing will naturally be doing so quickly, so eliminate the adverb.
The fix: When revising your manuscript, look through your descriptions—are there unnecessary words? Are you relying on adjectives and adverbs, rather than strong nouns and verbs? Look to cut as you revise.
“Telling,” rather than “showing.” This comes from explaining too much and not trusting the reader to understand—or not giving the reader the opportunity to fill in the spaces with his own imagination. A subset of this, as one editor said, is having characters discuss things in dialogue that no rational person would: “Did you know, Ian, that the agricultural sector in England was transformed by the Black Death, which arrived in England in 1348 and killed many laborers, and by the Hundred Years’ War, which was actually a series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453, as well as the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381?” If this sounds like a Wikipedia entry, it’s because it was indeed cobbled from Wikipedia—not from an actual conversation.
The fix: Dialogue can be used to effectively impart information, but is it believable and natural? Use dialogue to move the story ahead, to add tension between characters, and to impart—but not dump—information. Break up the information in conversation-sized tidbits.
A character is introduced and immediately a description, head to toe, is given; hair color, eye color, glasses, what the character is wearing are all covered in depth. The author may repeatedly mention those “liquid brown eyes.”
The fix: It’s much more effective to describe a character through their behaviors, actions, body language, and dialogue. Here, crime fiction author Ian Rankin gives a description that skims over a character’s looks, but manages to give us plenty (because our mind’s eyes fill in the rest): “He was twenty years younger than Rebus, and a stone and half lighter. A bit less gray in his hair. Most cops looked like cops, but Fox could have been middle management in a plastics company or Inland Revenue.”
You want to keep your point of view to one protagonist (maybe two, if the story lends itself, as in a romance or a story with two strong characters whose paths cross, as in the award-winning All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr).To have more POVs dilutes the bond that a reader forms with the protagonist. Even worse is to have a point of view bounce from character to character in the same scene (we start out in the head of one character, only to hop into another character’s head).
The fix: It’s more powerful for the story to be told through the eyes of the main character, so make that your viewpoint. It may be more work to recast your story, but it will be the stronger for it.
Inappropriate dialogue tags
Many new writers have a fear of reusing the same dialogue tags—“said” or “asked”—and so editors see an abundance of incorrect dialogue tags: he yawned, she growled, he laughed. These dialogue tags mark the writer as inexperienced. Someone doesn’t “yawn,” “growl,” or “laugh” dialogue and, besides, they are clichéd ways of marking speech. Dialogue itself should show the reader whether a character is angry, happy, or sleepy.
The fix: Stick to “said” or “asked,” which become invisible to the reader, or avoid dialogue tags when it’s clear who is speaking. If you must indicate that a character has missed his naptime, then write, “he said, yawning.” Or even better, use a dialogue beat: “He stretched and yawned, putting down his coffee cup.”
This is one of the most common grammatical errors. These are phrases or clauses that are not clearly related to what follows. This not only makes for awkward sentences, but often unintentionally funny ones. For example: “After making some repairs, the pigs soon found their way to the fixed trough.” If pigs could fly—or repair their own troughs!
The Fix: Locate the modifier and relocate it to the appropriate place, or rewrite the sentence with the missing information. “After the farmer made some repairs, the pigs soon found their way to the fixed trough.”
Finally, there’s one other “fix” that may catch these and other errors. Read your manuscript aloud (some writers even go as far as reading it into a recorder, then playing it back). You’ll be surprised at what you find—portions that are dull, dialogue that goes on for too long, and awkward constructions that trip up the tongue. Simply delete or rewrite these!
This is an article by Sarah White that I thought I would share with you. It’s always a good thing to read advice that can help improve our writing. Shirley
You’re about to work on your first big writing project. Whether it’s a novel, memoir, or short story, you don’t want everyone to know it’s your first (even if you’re shaking in your boots, just a little).
Many first-time writers fall into traps that can decrease the quality of their piece, and these newbie blunders can diminish their credibility.
New writers fall into these habits for all kinds of reasons: putting pressure on themselves to write something enormous and profound, attempts to mimic other authors, and probably in the most common occurrence, a bad case of writer’s block during their first big project of their career.
The pressure is on and your brain has gone into panic mode, resorting to comfortable cliched phrases.
Not to worry: these writing pitfalls can be easily sidestepped with some awareness.
Here are 10 of the most common writing errors that new authors should strive to avoid.
1. Including too many cliches
Just because it’s the most popular phrase doesn’t mean it’s the most effective. Consider your personal experiences before plunking down a common saying or phrase — those unique reactions are what give you an edge as a writer.
Even when writing fiction, use your own perspective to your advantage as you play with metaphors and other ways of developing your story.
2. Writing inauthentic dialogue
Suspending disbelief is easy when the dialogue in your story universe sounds natural. Dialogue is extremely hard to do well, but can also make or break your story.
Listen to conversations around you; take note of verbal ticks or idiosyncrasies that appear in normal human speech.
3. Rushing the plot
Getting your characters from Point A to Point B is certainly important, but not so much as providing a solid foundation for these transitions.
Whether you decide as you go or map out your character’s story beforehand, ask your editors or critique group if they can name the cause and effect of each major event. DIY MFA’s mapping technique can help you organize the interwoven events that take place over the course of your story.
4. Choosing a cop-out ending
“And then he woke up” is a perfect example of a cop-out: an ending that negates all other given information that the readers have been led to believe is useful in analyzing the plot, characters, and ending.
After fully engaging with the universe you’ve created, your readers don’t want to feel tricked!
5. Abandoning or using your characters
If a character suddenly makes an “exciting” choice that makes no sense with his or her aforementioned stable traits, your readers will instantly question your motivation for inserting that choice into your story.
To avoid this pitfall, take special consideration when choosing your point of view. An event in your character’s life that might read as mundane in a typical third-person scenario might come across as more significant in a first-person voice.
6. Repeating syntax
An entire paragraph — let alone an entire novel — of “The [adjective] [noun] [verb-ed] the [adjective] [noun]” sentences will not hold the attention of your audience, no matter the reading level.
If you’re cranking out a first draft, don’t spend too much time worrying about this. But if you’re ready to have a colleague review your work, scan each page for this predictable repetition.
7. Not trusting your audience
Over-explanation can be just as harmful to your work as under-explanation. As mentioned earlier, your audience does not like to feel deceived, and they certainly do not like to feel belittled, either.
Much of the joy of reading is discovering your connection to the author’s writing. Remember to let your readers dig into your story independently.
8. Changing the setting excessively
Unless constant shifts in space and time are essential to your piece, you need not create pauses after every event. Connecting to a piece of writing is challenging when there isn’t at least some sense of fluidity.
While there can be many settings, timelines, or universes — and creating an unusual format is always an interesting feat — consider whether every shift is a necessary one.
9. Not doing your research
Even if you “write what you know,” it’s critical to verify your information for factuality, especially if your story is heavily based in realism.
Say that your story’s villain is a world-renowned scientist; you’ll lose your readers with the first innacurate algorithm. No one is scared of a mad scientist that can’t even do the math for his own experiments.
Figure out how to access the databases at your local public or university library to locate journals, documents, and other research to support your story.
10. Forgetting your audience
“You can’t win ‘em all,” they say, but you can win over the hearts of yourparticular demographic. Know who you’re writing for and who you plan to reach, or you risk reaching nobody. If you’re in love with your historical fiction piece, don’t write to please the romance enthusiasts.
If you find a couple of cliches or other common errors after your first draft, don’t sweat it!
We’ve all come across at least one of these holes in our own writing. In the end, a good portion of creating fresh, interesting work relies on trusting your own instincts.
Keep an eye out, use good judgement, and most importantly, write from your own experiences and your own heart.
This blog was originally published in Southern Living and was written by Rick Bragg who is a Pulitzer Prize- Winning writer and author of several best selling books. I identified with it so much I wanted to share it with you.
When I was a boy, when monsters were real. I would see it in the distance, hovering just above the hot, almost liquid blacktop. It had no form, just a thing shimmering, indistinct. Now I know it was the heat itself, distorting the very air. How odd, to see the heat. But when I was small, it was easy to see more in it than that. This was the creature that came in the worst of summer, the boiling eye of it. It was the could in a white-hot sky that gave up no rain. Aristotle knew it, and the Romans, and then us, in the American South. That thing of glimmering heat from my imagination did not have a name, truly, but its season did. We called it the dog days.
The Greeks and Romans believed Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Great Dog), ushered in an evil season in late summer, one that boiled seas and soured wine and sent people and livestock into fits. In that season, the DogStar and our sun hung together in the heavens, one rising, one setting, which, they believed, produced more heat than the planet could stand.
Now, of course, we know it is the tilt of the planet, closer to the sun, that brings the heat, but my grandmother knew better. Ava Bundrum knew there were more things than heaven and earth, and spoke of the dog days the way she would any unnatural thing. She would motion me close, as if the clinging air were listening, wave a cardboard funeral home fan at me like she was giving me some kind of blessing, and tell me to stay out of the pasture, stay out of the woods.
It was more than myth. Dogs went mad, or lay panting, glassy-eyed, and you could not rouse them to play. Food went bad in the dog bowls. Cats, through, did not seem to care. Cats don’t ever care.
I can remember children crowded around a rattling box fan, as if it were telling them a story. I remember strong men going white as chalk, trying to catch their breath.
Bulls went mad and tore through fences. Cows would not give mild, and when they did, it went sour, or tasted of sulfur or onions. Birds flew in the house, a bad omen. It meant someone was going to die. Chickens perished in the coops Rabies resurfaced, in foxes, usually, and men shot them from the porch.
The gardens withered. You got either quick, violent storms or no rain at all. Mudholes vanished into pieces of hard clay, like someone had smashed a pot on the ground. Grogs perished, which made my grandmother sad; the more frogs, the healthier the land. (Everyone knew that.) Only the insects reveled. Flies and gnats swirled. Mosquitoes danced. and there was nowhere to hide.
Air-conditioning was myth. We put a man on the moon before my family had a window unit. But when we did, when the air blew cool in August, it was like the mean season became myth itself, just another story, like the ones that old people told of the Depression. I guess I am the old people now. I think of the dog days when I see that glimmer on the distant asphalt, but when I there, it is already gone.
ZfdfdStar and our sun hung tog
This article by James Scott Bell was first published in the Writer’s Digest. I read it this morning on Books Go Social Authors Group ( https://www.facebook.com/groups/booksgosocialauthors/?fref=nf ) and thought it was worth sharing. Even if were not writing a thriller we may want to add a touch into whatever we’re writing. Enjoy. Shirley
Remember when Tommy Lee Jones holds up the empty shackles in The Fugitive and says, “You know, we’re always fascinated when we find leg irons with no legs in ’em”? It makes me think of readers who pick up thrillers and find no thrills in them. Or at least not as many as there could be.
I’m not just talking about plot here. It’s possible to have guns and bombs and hit men and terrorists and black helicopters and still not have a novel that grips the reader in the gut.
For a healthy, fully functioning thriller, try some literary vitamin C. Dose your book with these five Cs and it will stand strong, chest out, ready to give your reader a run for the money.
- Complex Characterizations
The first place to fortify a thriller is its cast of characters. A critical mistake made here can undermine even the best story concept.
Is your protagonist all good? That’s boring. Instead, the thriller hero needs to struggle with issues inside as well as outside. She’s got to be a carrier of flaws as well as virtues. These roiling conflicts make her survival an open question.
When we first meet Detective Carol Starkey in Robert Crais’ Demolition Angel, she’s flicking her cigarette ash on the floor of a therapist’s office, “pissed off” because it’s been three years and her demons are still alive and well. Quite an introduction, especially for someone on the LAPD bomb detail. We know she has a short fuse. And we want to watch to see if it goes off.
Brainstorm a list of at least 10 inner demons your hero has to fight. Ten. Get creative. Then choose the best one. Work that demon into your hero’s backstory, and show how it is affecting him in the present—and could hinder him even further in the future. Give him actions that demonstrate the flaw.
Move on to the rest of your cast. Avoid the “stock character” trap, which can be especially perilous in this genre—e.g., the cold, buttoned-down FBI agent; the police detective with a drinking problem. Here’s a good habit: Reject the first image you come up with when creating a character. Entertain several possibilities, always looking for a fresh take.
Then, give each character a point of potential conflict with your hero as well as with the other characters—especially those who are allies. Look for ways friends can become enemies or betrayers. Short of that, create more arguments.
To help you add complexity, make a character grid like this:
Mary Steve Cody Brenda Julio
Now, fill in the blank boxes with possible relationships, secrets and areas of conflict. For example:
Hates him because he abused her sister
Steve Knows that Mary had a child by Julio
If possible connections are eluding you, try running this exercise for each of your main characters: The police come to the character’s residence with a search warrant. In his closet is something he does not want anyone to find, ever.
What is it?
What does this reveal about the inner life of the character? Use the secrets and passions you discover to add another point of conflict within the cast.
Standout thrillers need complexity and webs of conflict, so that every page hums with tension.
I call the main action of a novel the confrontation. This is where the hero and antagonist battle over the high stakes a thriller demands.
When it comes to the antagonist, writers can easily make the opposite of the “all-good protagonist” mistake: They make their bad guy all bad. Worse, they make him all bad because he’s crazy.
More interesting confrontations come from a villain who is justified in what he does.
You mean, in doing evil things?
Yes, that’s exactly what I mean—in his own mind, that is. How much more chilling is the bad guy who has a strong argument for his actions, or who even engenders a bit of sympathy? The crosscurrents of emotion this will create in your readers will deepen your thriller in ways that virtually no other technique can accomplish. The trick is not to overdo it—if you stack the deck against your villain, readers will feel manipulated.
Start by giving your antagonist just as rich a backstory as your hero. What hopes and dreams did he have? How were they dashed? What life-altering hurt did he suffer? Who betrayed him? How did all of this affect him over the course of his life?
Write out a closing argument for him. If he were in court, arguing to a jury about why he did the things he did in the novel, what would he say? Make it as persuasive as possible:
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my name is Hannibal Lecter. You’ve heard a lot of lurid tales about me from the prosecutor. Now you will hear my side of the story. You will hear about a world that is better off without some people being in it. And you will hear about the conditions I endured inside the horror of a place called the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane …”
It can feel a bit disturbing to try to understand someone you might hate in real life. Good. You are a writer. You go where angels fear to tread.
Now take all of that material and use it to strengthen the antagonist’s position in the story. A stronger confrontation can only result.
There’s nothing like a stunning twist or shock to keep readers flipping, clicking or swiping pages. Part of the fun for readers is thinking a story is going one way, and getting taken completely by surprise.
Harlan Coben is one of the reigning kings of the art of surprise. “I’ve rarely met a twist I didn’t like,” he has said. His method, if it can be called that, is to write himself “into a lot of corners” and see how things work out.
That’s one way to go. Forcing your writer’s mind to deal with conundrums is a great practice.
But there is another way. Pause after every scene and ask yourself: “What would a reader expect to happen next?” Create a list of at least three directions the story might take.
Then discard those three and do something different. I call this unanticipation.
Another method is the old Raymond Chandler advice: When things slow down, bring in a man with a gun. It doesn’t have to be an actual man with an actual gun, of course. It can be anything that bursts into a scene and shakes things up. Here’s the key: Get your imagination to give you the surprise without justification.
Make a quick list of at least 10 things that just pop into your mind. For example:
- A woman runs in screaming.
- The lights go out.
- A car crashes through the wall.
- Heart attack.
- SWAT team outside.
- Marching band outside.
- TV announcer mentions character’s name.
- A baby cries (what baby?).
- Blood drips down the wall.
- Justin Bieber comes in with a gun.
Some things on your list will seem silly. That’s OK. Don’t judge. Look back and find the most original item, and only then find a reason for it. In this case, No. 8 creates the most interest for me. I have no idea where that came from or what it means. But I can make it mean something.
And so can you.
The best thrillers stab the heart, throughout. They do it by getting readers to experience the emotions of the scenes.
How can you do that? First, by experiencing them yourself. Sense memory is a technique used by many serious actors. Here’s how it works: You concentrate on recalling an emotional moment in your life, and recreate each of the senses in your memory (sight, smell, touch, sound, etc.) until you begin to feel the emotion again. And you will. The actor transfers that to her role; the writer, to the page.
When I was getting to the heart of one of my own thrillers-in-progress, a story of two brothers, I needed to feel what the younger one was experiencing when the bad guys came. I recalled a time when I was 6 or 7, and some bullies were holding me hostage on a hill. Terrified, I finally made a break for home and sobbed to my big brother about what had happened. He left me at the house.
I never saw those bullies in our neighborhood again.
When I wrote the scenes with the younger brother, I focused on feeling those moments again, and transferred those emotions to the page.
They’re going to kill Chuck and they’re going to do the same thing to me. That’s why they have me tied up and they put another thing in my mouth and they won’t let me talk. … They hit me. I’m in the back of some truck. They’re taking me somewhere. I hope they take me where Chuck is. If they do anything to Chuck I will bite them. I will do anything I can to hurt them. Maybe I’m going to die but I will not die until I hurt them because of what they’re going to do to Chuck.
Another way to tap into your character’s heartbeat is the run-on sentence. Interview the character at the height of an emotion. Write down his reaction for at least 200 words without using a period. Then explore that text to find gems of emotional description. You might actually use some of it, as Horace McCoy did in his 1938 noir thriller, I Should Have Stayed Home:
All Dorothy’s fault, I thought, cursing her in my mind with all the dirty words I could think of, all the filthy ones I could remember the kids in my old gang used to yell at white women as they passed through the neighborhood on their way to work in the whore houses, these are what you are, Dorothy, turning off Vine on to the boulevard, feeling awful and alone, even worse than that time my dog was killed by the Dixie Flyer, but telling myself in a very faint voice that even like this I was better off than the fellows I grew up with back in Georgia who were married and had kids and regular jobs and regular salaries and were doing the same old thing in the same old way and would go on doing it forever.
The original storytellers spun thrillers. When heroes went out into the dark world to confront monsters and demons and great beasts, the tribe vicariously lived the tale. But there was something more—they learned how to fight, act courageously and survive.
The first thrillers carried a message and helped bring a local community together.
Readers still seek that kind of story. So you ought to spend some time asking yourself what your thriller is really about. Does it offer hope for justice? Does it end with justice denied?
In short, what will the reader take away from your book?
Many aspiring thriller writers, perhaps seeing the genre as action-driven, avoid thinking about theme (or meaning, or premise). They prefer to let the characters duke it out, and leave it at that. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, as long as you realize that you will be saying something. Why not be intentional about it?
Here’s an exercise I call “The Dickens” (named for Charles and his time-traveling story A Christmas Carol): Go forward in time 20 years after your story ends. Your lead character is now 20 years older and has had time to reflect on all that happened in the story you told. You’re now a reporter, and you track down the character and ask, “Looking back at everything that happened to you, why do you think you had to go through that? What life lesson did you learn that you can pass on to the rest of us?”
Let the character answer in a free-form way, for as long as possible, until you sense that it’s right.
Now use all your skills to demonstrate that lesson at the end of the story itself, without necessarily using words. Give us Clarice Starling sleeping at last, the lambs of her nightmares silenced. Or Harry Bosch in Lost Light, holding for the first time the hands of the daughter he never knew he had.
Those are the moments that will take your thriller from entertaining to unforgettable.
Here’s to the health of your thrillers.
—By James Scott Bell