The mystery for you this week is, when and where was that picture taken? And, did I have a Squishee?
But what I’m talking about is my latest project, which is a mystery. My protagonist is an FBI agent, who is trying (this is the underneath part) to get back at, if not get, the people who murdered her parents when she was 12. Yes, I always know the backstory of my major characters. Don’t you? Anyway, I’ve never tried a mystery detective story thing before, so I turned, as one does, to a book. In fact, to Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, by Hallie Ephron. Is it a good book? Well, for a mystery fan, probably not. But if you’re trying to make one up out of your, what is it, fervid, fetid, fetishy, whatever, imagination, it will hold your interest just fine. I do not have the latest edition; the link takes you to the edition that I do have. If you want the latest, and can’t figure out how to get there from where I’ve sent you, then don’t try to write a mystery novel in the first place, okay?
It’s been fun, so far. And this may result in my least messy first draft ever. Not that it won’t need revision, but I appear to be getting better at cutting out superfluous modifiers on the first pass. Even if I publish it myself, it will be a long time in the works, so hold not thy breath. But, it’s what I’m working on. For a while. Oh, but, you’ll love it!
It seems to me that we, as a society, expect way too little of each other. A good illustration of this fact is the way that our media, and anyone communicating publicly, tend(s) to simplify things so that the audience can understand. We assume that the audience, even if they are literate (you know, people who read books?,) won’t understand anything that is overly complex. Consider the first Harry Potter book. The title is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Except in the United States. Here it is the Sorcerer’s Stone instead. Why? Well, the publisher (Scholastic, no less) decided that American kids wouldn’t know what the philosopher’s stone was, so they’d better change it to something obvious that stupid American children could understand. That is, unfortunately, true.
And it pisses me off greatly!
American kids, like all kids, are capable of learning. Heck, I knew, when I was a child, what the philosopher’s stone was. (If you think I’m going to tell you, you’re not paying attention!) In fact, there never was, prior to Scholastic, anything at all known as a “Sorcerer’s Stone.” What the heck would it be? There is absolutely no reason to confuse our own children with what is, after all, a lame excuse for a brilliant title. Scholastic should be ashamed!
By not assuming that kids are smart enough to learn from context, or look something up (and they do have the Internet, you know) we are condemning them to staying just a tad more ignorant, and ultimately stupid, than they would have been had we assumed that they had some brains. Maybe it is an Anglo conspiracy to keep minorities down, as I’ve read, but that doesn’t explain why every single copy of that book has the wrong title on it. American copy, I mean. This is an insult to the intelligence of our children, and a great wrong to society. If we expect our kids to be stupid, we get what we expect. How about, instead of expecting good grades, we simply expect them to be intelligent enough to figure out a basic problem (like the definition of a word) and proceed from there? What if that started us on the path to being a smarter nation? Hey, it could happen!
And, for the record, it’s not too late for Scholastic to change that title back to what it is supposed to be for future printings. You listening, Scholastic?
A few weeks ago I mentioned that if you research something, you’ll know it, so then you can write what you know. Is that true? You can research anything and learn it? Well . . .
On a Sophomoric level, sure. You can’t ever really learn something without immersing yourself in whatever it is for long enough to figure it out. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. But . . .
You’re writing about something, and that’s just was Sophomores do best, isn’t it? so, friends, in terms of being able to write about a given activity, yes, yes you can research a topic and learn enough to write about it.
Because, of course, firemen, widows, children, Australian Aboriginal shamans, Vlad Putin, you, me, and everybody else have common motivations and needs. We all want to eat at regular intervals. We all want shelter. We all want some degree of companionship (although if you’re introverted you prefer to be in control of that degree to a large extent, don’t you?) We want our kids if we have them to be able to get ahead as they live their lives, to enjoy things, and not to get hurt. We want to make enough money to live well. We want, well, you’re a human, you tell me what humans want, okay.
My point being that if you have a Sophomoric knowledge of fire fighting, you have enough information to write about a fire fighter as a supporting character, at least. If your villain is an accountant, you can learn enough about what accountants do day to day to draw a realistic picture of one as an antagonist. Now, maybe, if want your main protagonist to be, for example, a Las Vegas bookie, you’ll need to get to know at least one Las Vegas bookie, maybe follow them around on the job, because your main hero is featured in some depth. That’s what Ed McBain did to write his famously excellent police procedurals, after all. That may be true of your main villain, also, but it seems to me to be less likely in that case.
But, my point still stands: even if you have to learn to be a bookie to write your bookie properly, you can do it. Once again, I stress, you can learn what you need to know, but you must always write what you love.
A popular quote amongst writers goes something like this: “There are two rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.” It is always attributed to somebody who should know, but as I don’t have it exactly anyway, I’m leaving that blank. It could be apocryphal anyway, for all I know. My point being that statements like that are simply false.
As far as how you write, when and where, the tools you use, whether you’re sober or caffeinated or drunk or hungover, sure, no rules. Whatever works for you is fine. But, in the end, you need a product that will pay for your computer, paper, coffee, Jack Daniels, or whatever. And if you want to do that, yes, there are rules.
I have a whole darned PowerPoint about the rules, but I won’t burden you with all of that. The rules are quite simple, based upon rule number one: Only write stuff you like to read!
If you write stuff you like to read, you have some distinct advantages. You know your audience (people like you,) you know your subject matter, you know the conventions of the genre, and you know where you can break the rules and get away with it.
The rest of the rules you should have learned in High School English class. Seriously, you should have. And, you can never break those High School English rules in a query, cover letter, any marketing materials, or at any time other than when you are breaking them for the sake of art. Beyond that, read a lot, write a lot, get critiqued, learn how to promote your work, and don’t stop. Those are the rules for writing anything.
You must know the rules like a professional in order to break them like an artist. — Pablo Picasso
*Learn more about the Butterfly Pavilion by clicking here.
It is now going on 11:00 on a Wednesday morning and I am writing. This isn’t the first thing I’ve written today, either. But I haven’t actually put any more words down on an existing project. How’s that? Well, sometimes, I have to write, but I never have to write anything in particular. If you get my drift.
I don’t get writer’s block. I have no idea what that is. What I am writing at the moment is just a sort of quasi-stream-of-consciousness travelogue through the town where I grew up, mostly while I’m growing up in it. I have no idea if anything will ever come out of it, but it is writing, and it keeps me in the groove. The book that’s awaiting my next brilliant plot move will wait, I’m sure.
And that is the point, simple as it is, of this week’s post. Just write something. Frankly, if your project is getting too tough for you to deal with at the moment, then for the sake of creativity and clarity, it’s probably time to back off from it for a while. Nobody will steal your idea and make a blockbuster movie out of it if you take some time away from it. I promise. I do have a discipline. I write every week day that I’m not on vacation. I prefer writing in the morning, but I’ll do it whenever I can, sometimes near bedtime when, frankly, I’m not sure the result is exactly coherent, but I by gosh write it anyway.
Readers are probably aware that I am a fan of the book 13 Reasons Why, by Jay Asher. I’ve reviewed the book on Amazon if you’re interested, although there are so many reviews, you may never be able to find it. Now the book has been adapted into a series and released by Netflix. And, of course, there are reviews of that popping up every day. I probably won’t review the series, because I don’t produce movies, but I can state, with just one episode left to watch, that I have enjoyed it greatly. I do want to talk about this one review of the series, however.
I’m honestly not sure who wrote that review. It says “revised by” or something like that at the top. But, it’s the review, which is a criticism, itself, that I am writing about. The reviewer liked the series, but not the book. And that’s fine. You can read the review to find out why, but for my purposes, I’m fine with anyone having an opinion, and offering said opinion for public consumption. No problem there. But, at one point the review states, and this is a quote, “It is not a good book.” Interesting. On the New York Times Bestseller list for years (literally,) bought by millions of people, recipient of eight (8) awards for excellence at last count, well, check out the Wikipedia page on the book to learn more. And thus is illustrated my problem with critics. Whoever wrote that review calls it a bad book, because I suppose they know better than all of those others who have loved it enough to garner for it all those awards and praise? Take a lesson, friends: remember that your opinions are your opinions, and everybody has one of those, right?
This is not the first time I’ve been offended by a critic, far from it. In college I read (as an assignment) a critique of Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Day by Robert Frost. That critique was by John Ciardi, who, I have to admit, has cred. And he didn’t badmouth Frost at all, but he did go into painful detail as to the meaning of every line, comma, nuance, and stanza of the poem. And I thought as I read, “How dim must one be to not see what Frost is getting at, here?” Really, he means that he’s got things to do before he dies? Wowzers! How profound! I imagine that the instructor was hoping to convert some people to a love of poetry, but I don’t think that boring them with a detailed analysis of a beautiful poem is going to do the job. A poem, it seems to me, speaks for itself. If you don’t see those chickens next to the wheelbarrow, that’s okay too. Do something else.
The moral of this post is that you should, as with anything else, take what you can from your critics, and leave the rest lie. That review of the series makes some decent points. Too bad they had to spoil it, huh?
You remember last week’s post, don’t you? The title is “Go Big or Go Home,” and it’s about how I discovered how to restart a stalled idea by thinking bigger about things. Well, imagine my surprise when, in yesterday’s email, I found, in the latest installment of Writer Unboxed, an article entitled Is Your Fiction Big Enough? Hey, folks, I’m en avant, in front of the trend, setting the pace! Uh, sure, but my point is that the author of that post seems to agree with my post, and in fact puts quite a few illustrations up for consideration.
So, If’n I was ewe, I’d fer sure click on that there link and read what that other fella has ta say!
Okay, a few hints, in case your clicker won’t click, or whatever. The author is James Scott Bell, and he’s had some success with mysteries and historical fiction, and he knows how to use examples to illustrate his point. Examples from books where the action gets big, the problems get bigger, and the danger is overwhelming. Or not, because some of the examples are from the beginning of the hero’s journey, where the poor protagonist is, as it were, asking for it. And he recommends, as an exercise, writing page-long sentences to get a feel for the emotions of a scene. Heck, if you’re writing in German, that should be easy, I suppose. But, he’s right. As I started thinking bigger, my sentences got longer (no, not all of them, but some very important ones.) So, today, I say again, quit reading this (although the picture is nice, innit?) and click on that link to read what a master of the craft has to say. GO!
Go Home! A true story from my own recent past. Besides installing flooring and preparing to be a driver for Lyft, I have been messing around with my writing by producing things that are not the novel I’m trying to get off the ground. Until yesterday morning.
Yes, morning. As I was waking up yesterday, the solution came to me. I have had the basic idea for the book since last June. The first pathetic attempt at it now has the title, “First Pathetic Attempt.” There are more attempts nestled in the directory with that one. (I use a cloud service, Microsoft One Drive, and I highly recommend that if you use a computer to produce your work, you also use a cloud storage solution. One drive integrates seamlessly into my Windows 10 installation, but any one will do you, probably.) The others have such names as, “Il ne marche pas” and “Second first draft.” One file has the same name as the now, finally, properly begun, novel. Nope. Ain’t gonna tell you. Too early, but it’ll be a good one, I’m sure.
The thing is, I tried first person with one character, then a third-person approach, then, okay, first person with another character, which is the version with the French name, and now, at last, limited third-person wherein the POV does shift, but not often enough to make me dizzy. But the big thing is that I needed some sort of real grabber to start the story with. I was seeing it as a romance, but it just wasn’t working. I had a version where a male protagonist was in trouble at the beginning, which is okay, but not for a romance. I had a version where a female protagonist tells it all, but it seemed flat. I had a character disappear out of the story, which was putting too many restraints on the plot. And then, yesterday morning, as I was waking up, BAM!
The new version, the version that I think will stick, opens with a rape. Or at least non-consensual sex, for those who like to parse meanings. That’s the thing that will carry the entire story, always under there, always causing trouble, possibly ending/changing/starting relationships. And it will justify (when I’m done with it) some pretty nasty stuff happening to the bad guy. (The guy who rapes the girl, you fool!)
So, point is, I went big, and it worked! No, no vivid descriptions of exactly what happens. Plenty of that available for free, innit? But an emotional description from her POV. Not so much of that available for free. So, it’ll be months before this thing is ready to talk about, but stay tuned, because talk about it I shall. And so shall my characters, all of whom, of course at this stage, I love.
In conclusion, if you’re having trouble starting a story, try going bigger. It costs nothing (maybe some paper and ink) but it can yield some big rewards!
Genetic testing, bought for me as a present some years back, reveals that I am, on my fathers’ side (plural intentional) Norse. I have common DNA with men in Uppsala, Copenhagen, and a couple of small villages in western Russia. I have a blood condition common around the Mediterranean, also, which, along with those Russians, indicates that it is likely that an ancestor of mine visited Byzantium and brought home a bride. Upon learning that, I became interested in Norse mythology. I’ve learned about Odin, and Thor, and Freda, and Hel (yes, the original Hel,) and many other gods worshipped by my ancestors. And I have always been curious about Ragnarok.
Ragnarok, in the short version if you don’t click the link, is a story about events at the end of the world. Thor manages to kill a monster snake, but is killed in the process. Odin dies, Freda dies, everyone in Valhalla dies, oh, it’s a bloodbath. The good guys do win, but holy smokes, at such a cost.
I always wondered why anyone would include such a terribly pessimistic story in their cultural mythos. Everybody dies! So what’s the point? Right?
Except, after reading Neal Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. (See my review on Amazon from February 18th for more.) Gaiman tells the story so clearly and enjoyably that I finally got the whole story on Ragnarok, which is darned difficult to do reading the Eddas. The fact is, of course, that everybody doesn’t die. I knew that, but I didn’t know what happened next.
Two of Thor’s children survive. Two of Odin’s children survive. One human couple survives by hiding deep in the branches of the World Tree. So, one might surmise that the Norns are still down there at the roots dealing out fate, right? And Balder, the nicest, most beloved, all-around good person of everyone at Asgard, comes back from the underworld, because, well, why not, huh? The former Asgardians set up a new city at the site of Asgard, a better one. The world starts coming back, better than ever. And one day the gods are out sitting in the grass when they notice something shining in the sun, mostly buried in the grass. It turns out to be a chess piece, representing one of the gods. They find a chess piece for each of the gods, in fact, even Balder himself. Then they set up a game, and Balder, whose smile is like the sun coming out after a rain, reaches down and makes his move. Then, as Gaiman puts it, the game begins anew.
Wow! So, there is no end to the world, really. But it is terribly, destructively, difficult to defeat evil. But, the game always begins anew, in a better place, with better players. Holy cow, does that remind you of anything?
Like how the Great Depression and World War Two ushered in a newer, better, world, based upon the virtually total destruction of an old one? The Renaissance? The Industrial Revolution? Today?
Like all stories, Ragnarok is a metaphor. In this case, it is a lesson in how tough it is to put down evil and build a better world, but that in spite of that, good always triumphs, and a new, better, situation emerges. If we give it our absolute all. Damn, but I felt better after reading that book!
And there you go! Metaphor! Sure, there are people who don’t get it. Well, too bad for them, huh? But for the rest of us, we can march into Ragnarok fully knowing that a bit of what we hold dear will survive, while our enemies (whatever that means in a given case) will be wiped out. Take that, snake! I’m not saying that you should consciously insert metaphor into all of your stories. I’m saying that if they are good stories, the metaphor will be there, and be what’s making them so good. Wow. And all about reading about a mythical battle at the end of the world!
*In case I haven’t mentioned it in too long a time, all of the photographs on this site were taken by myself unless they are otherwise labeled.*
I am the coordinator of the Las Vegas Writers’ Group. I will be presenting to the group in April on “The Rules of Writing.” Feel free to drop in, but in case you can’t make it, here is a short summary. I promised them that I’d hit all of the rules, but for you, I’ll keep it lighter. Ready? Begin . . .
You must know the rules like a professional in order to break them like an artist.” — Pablo Picasso
My favorite Picasso Quote. A mistake new writers seem to make a lot is to not follow the basic rules of writing. They notice that the big, successful writers don’t always follow the rules, so they don’t either. But, what they fail to do first is to learn the rules so well that they can follow them without even thinking about them. Then, if clarity demands it, rules may be broken. And the first, and most important, set of rules are the ones your high school Language Arts, or maybe English, teacher made you repeat back to him/her week in and week out. Here are a few, to remind you.
I before E, except after C, or when sounded as “A” as in “neighbor” and “weigh.”
The Oxford comma, which is to put a comma before each single entry in a list, even the very last entry. An example is one, two, and three. Is it okay not to use an Oxford comma? Sure, but when is it okay?
Parts of speech: nouns, verbs, pronouns, subjects, objects, prepositions, and the rest. When do you use “who” and when, for pity’s sake, does one use “whom?” Why is that?
Two, to, and too. Their, they’re, there.
Is it its it’s? (I’m actually kind of proud of that one.)
Which witch is which?
You get it. All that stuff from school. True, most people forget more than you have to know. And that’s okay because most people are not professional communicators. But you are! Once you know all those rules, and there are many that I did not list, you are ready to break them as needed.
But, when does a writer need to break the rules? Simply put, when clarity demands it!
If Huckleberry Finn spoke good English, nobody would read that book. If Holden Caulfield spoke properly, nobody would know who that even was. In both of these instances, clarity demanded that various traits of the protagonists be demonstrated in their speech. So, rules out the window; they talk like they talk. So, the first rule beyond those from school is that Clarity is Primary!
One of the primary ways a writer can be more clear is to, as they say a lot, “show, don’t tell.” I like jokes, so here is a quick illustration of what “show don’t tell” means, using a joke.
When I die, I want to go peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car!
That is a joke because of its structure, but it also is an excellent illustration of showing something rather than telling it. When you read that, you know what happened. But, look again. Nowhere is that tragic event actually mentioned. Not a word about what happened, really. As a reader, your own imagination fills in the terrible details, and a joke is born. If that joke were to be explicit about actual events, it would be the news, and not a joke. Keep that in mind when writing a description. You can show it to us, rather than tell us about it. Readers don’t need the news, they need to see the story in their own minds.
This post up to now is the basics of how to actually write a good story. There’s more, such as story arcs, character goals and motivations, conflicts, dangers, and other specific elements, that I have not covered. Don’t proceed just on the basis of what I’ve written here. Read everything that you can about writing before you begin.
Beyond the Basics
Rule the First: Only write things which you like to read!
By writing what you like to read, you automatically have a leg up on the process because you are familiar with the conventions and genres of your favorite topics.
What you know? (I hear you.) The fact is, if you don’t know something, you can learn it. If you only write what you know, you are severely limiting your range of subjects, places, and character types. Research has gotten much easier in recent years, so take advantage of that, and learn what you need to learn in order to write what you know. Then write it in a way that you’ll like reading it.
Read a Lot
Practice (write) a Lot
Get a lot of Help
Books on writing
People whose opinions you trust
People you will critique in return
To find critique partners
To meet kindred spirits
Meet fellow writers
Meet successful authors
Meet (and pitch to) agents and editors
And at last we come to Marketing, which I’m not going to cover in this post. Just know that, if you succeed, you will have done, and continue to do, a lot of marketing of yourself, your brand, and your writing.
There! Now, go forth and write! You now have no excuse for not being a successful author!*
*For free information on a fabulous bridge, contact your author.