Monday, April 21, 2014
[Note from Jodie: I'm going crazy with last-minute preparations for my big move across the country
in a few days, so bestselling thriller author and writing instructor Robert Dugoni is filling in for me today. Take it away, Bob!]
I raise more than a few eyebrows when I teach, and that’s usually a good sign. I know I’ve got my students thinking. The first collective class-eyebrow-arch comes when I stand up and say, “No one can teach you how to write.” Students who’ve paid good money to be in one of my seminars or workshops begin to have immediate heart palpitations until I add, “But I can teach you how to teach yourselves how to write.”
So what do I mean by this?
How can I teach any student I don’t know intimately what to write or how to write it? I can’t even teach my two children how to write. Writing is an extraordinarily personal endeavor and each of us brings our own nuances, quirks, insights and experiences to not only what we write but how we write it. All of these things form what we frequently refer to as the writer’s “voice” – how the writer (and really her characters) views the world and others in it and how the character expresses that view. We hope that it is a unique and exciting and interesting. When it is, those are usually the novels publishers clamor to buy.
But the fact is the to-be-published novel will never make it that far if the author forsakes the craft of writing and makes one of those silly mistakes that cry out “amateur” to that would-be editor.
So rather than telling students “I can teach you how to write,” I tell them my job is “to remove as many obstacles in the path to publication as possible.”
One of those big obstacles is when the author intrudes into the story.
Author intrusions into the reader’s experience reading a novel can be deadly. Not only do they raise the “amateur” flag and slow the story pace, they also tend to annoy. It’s like being in a deep and meaningful conversation with one person and having another person continually interrupt that conversation to tell you things you really don’t need to know at that moment or, frankly, you don’t care about!
When a story unfolds, the opening chapters should develop like a play on a stage. The reader wants to see what the character sees, hear what she hears, smell what she smells, taste what she tastes, and touch what she touches. It is not the author experiencing the story. It is the reader experiencing the story through the character. So how does the author intrude?
Let us count just some of the ways.
~ Omniscient narrative
This occurs when you’re reading a scene from a particular character’s point of view and suddenly the author barges in to provide a bit of information that the character doesn’t yet know, couldn’t yet know and may never know. Sometimes this is called bad foreshadowing. Here’s an example:
You’ve just written a killer scene in which your protagonist has arrived at a mountain getaway for three days of R&R and the author ends the scene with something like, “Little did she know that three miles away, Luke Reddinger, a serial killer, had just escaped from the state penitentiary.” Okay, so if the character didn’t know, who’s throwing in this tidbit? Does the reader need it at that moment? Would it be more powerful to see Luke Reddinger escaping, or running through the woods, maybe seeing the cabin she has arrived at? Wouldn’t that raise a story question that would keep the reader reading to find out what happens? Isn’t that what every writer wants?
~ Unnecessary biographical information
Ever read a scene in a book that is going swimmingly when suddenly the author stops the flow of the dialogue and action to tell you where the main character went to high school, their major in college or that their great grandmother was an alcoholic? Unless that high school is going to play a part in the story, the major is important to illustrate the character’s skill, or grandma is a serial killer when she gets drunk, what was the point of interrupting the story? Biographical sketches, if you’re so inclined to do them, are for the author to get to know her characters so the author better understands how the character will act and what she might say in a particular situation or moment. They are not for the reader.
~ Author Opinions
Nothing is more transparent than when an author tries to ram her opinion on a topic down your throat. Even when the author tries to disguise the opinion as a “character’s opinion” it is usually easy to spot. “Mary asked John what he thought about President Obama’s health care reform.” And then John starts spouting off. This is one of those instances where the author would be better off showing rather than telling. If you want to make a statement about the death penalty, write The Green Mile and let us see one of the pitfalls of the ultimate punishment. You want to write about abortion, write The Cider House Rules. You want to write on the evils of slavery, write Twelve Years a Slave. Racism in the south – Mississippi Burning. Greed in the roaring twenties – The Great Gatsby. There’s no place like home – The Wizard of Oz. And so on…
This is usually the cause of the third collective class-eyebrow-arch. Some even snap at this point. Why? Because so many of us use flashbacks in our novels. So before anyone snaps an eyebrow, let me clarify – flashbacks can be used. The author just needs to know how to use them so they are not an intrusion. First, a flashback, despite its name, must still move the story forward. That is, the flashback should impart some information that is relevant to the plot at that moment, drives the plot forward, and/or reveals some important character trait or relationship that will come into play.
Second, a flashback is a scene. Therefore, all of the things discussed above that go into making a great scene still apply. A flashback should not be some character sitting alone at a table reminiscing about something that happened in the past. Put the reader in the scene with the characters and allow the reader to hear and see and smell and taste and touch the scene as it unfolds.
Think about the movie Titanic. Regardless of your opinion on the movie itself, note that it was actually Rose reminiscing about her voyage on that ship. How boring would it have been if the entire three-hour movie was Rose sitting at a table telling the movie audience what happened, rather than the movie audience flashing back to that time and getting the chance to experience it?
~ Information Dumps
This is usually where the writer has done a lot of research on a particular subject and darn it, everyone is going to know it! An information dump is an excessive amount of unnecessary information or details dumped into the story when the character does not need it and might never need it. Like biographies, research is for the author, not the reader. I’d say less than 10% of the information I research and learn about goes into my novels.
Information dumps can take many forms.
Research details. The research dump is when the author has learned a lot of information on a particular subject and dumps it into the story either in omniscient narrative or thinly disguised by creating a “character” to tell the reader everything they needed to know about such things as growing vegetables on rooftop gardens in New York City during the depression.
Character descriptions. Other information dumps are excessive details about what every character who comes on stage is wearing, or looks like. What the character is wearing is only important if the author has set the scene up so that another character has a particular interest in what a particular character is wearing, or the character’s own choice of clothes is important. When your character walks into a high school prom we can assume the girls are wearing prom dresses and the guys are in tuxedos. But if you’ve set the story up so that Billy is determined to make a splash and wears a tear-away tuxedo intending to leave high school by doing the Full Monty, then we want to know the details of that tear-away tuxedo.
Setting. The same is true with excessive details to describe a setting. Authors are not weather men or travel guides so your scenes shouldn’t read like a weather report or travel book. And if your protagonist is running for her life through a forest while being chased by werewolves, please don’t have her take the time to tell us every species of tree and type of fauna they are running past. Necessary details only. Excessive details need not apply!
So when you have the urge to pontificate, opine, brag, or otherwise bore, think about what my friend and brilliant writer John Hough Jr always says: “Dialogue is action and action is dialogue.” Get your characters on the move and talking. Avoid staying too long in a character’s head. Do your biographies and research for you, not for the reader, and give us only those details that will keep the story moving forward.
And above all, once you’ve hooked us with an incredible opening, lured us in with an amazing character, and mesmerized us with a killer plot, then please, BUTT OUT! I’ll thank you to let me enjoy your beautifully crafted story on my own.
Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed and New York Times Best Selling Author of the David Sloane series, The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One and The Conviction. He is also the author of the best-selling stand-alone novel Damage Control, as well as the nonfiction expose, The Cyanide Canary. Dugoni’s books have been likened to Scott Turow and Nelson DeMille, and he has been hailed as “the undisputed king of the legal thriller” by The Providence Journal and called the “heir to Grisham’s literary throne.” Bodily Harm and Murder One were each chosen one of the top 5 thrillers of 2010 and 2011, respectively. Murder One was also a finalist for the Harper Lee Award for literary excellence. My Sister’s Grave is the first in the Tracy Crosswhite series. Visit his website at www.robertdugoni.com, email him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @robertdugoni and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AuthorRobertDugoni.
Sunday, April 20, 2014
Here's an idea: negotiate!
Saturday, April 19, 2014
Friday, April 18, 2014
Thursday, April 17, 2014
Here’s an anonymous submission for comments, entitled WHISPER CREEK. Enjoy and my feedback will be on the flip side.
Excerpt: Whisper Creek
The bullets whizzed by his head. How they missed him—he did not know. The night became a blanket of darkness—no light. Mark couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. The only light came from the intermittent flashes from the end of the muzzles pointed at them from somewhere up ahead. He squeezed off several shots from his M16 rifle, then nothing.
Gunpowder filled his nostrils. An uncomfortable premonition of fear pervaded his senses.He blinked sweat from his eyes.
Keep it together.
Mark pushed the magazine release with his thumb, inserted another twenty round mag, and pressed the slide release. Locked and loaded. He saw a flash of light up ahead followed by another. Mark steadied the weapon on the meaty part of his shoulder, aimed, and waited. He focused his attention at what lay ahead—the enemy—Charlie—the Vietcong.
When he saw another flash, he fired several rounds at the target. No more flash. The platoon of Marines continued to fight…no matter the outcome they must push forward. Never retreat—never surrender.
Through the noises of gunfire, men screamed in agony from being shot, but the unit continued to move through the jungle. Then a fire settled into his right thigh like a hot poker. Mark realized he’d been shot, but pressed on despite the pain. They all knew what happened to Prisoners of War in Vietnam. A quick death in the jungle would surely be more humane than being tortured by sadistic men in a camp. The warm liquid snaked down his leg, but he refused to stop. If he did, he might lose the momentum to keep going.
Ring…ring…ring. Had those sounds penetrated the darkness? Light began to infiltrate the blackness in the distance. Ring…ring…ring. The noises of gunfire faded. The pain subsided.
1.) Bullets whizzed by his head - Think about how this must feel. The noise. The chaos. His not so lucky buddies getting hit around him. In the dark, can he even see what’s going on around him? Does he feel alone in his push to follow his last known orders or is he blindly following others? Every time he moves, he risks getting killed. What’s driving him? My best advice is for the author to stay in the moment and not follow this first line with cliched phrases that take the reader from the immediacy of the battlefield. “How they missed him—he did not know” and “the night became a blanket of darkness—no light (redundant)” dilute what could be an embracing opener. Stay long enough in the moment to put the reader fully in it with their senses.
2.) To convey the chaos of battle, it might be good to shorten the sentences with the bare essence of how Mark is thinking – quick short staccato spurts, rapid fire like the bullets screaming by his ear. The line “the only light came from…” is an example of a description that strikes me as too long to convey the intensity.
3.) M16 is enough of an explanation. Adding M16 rifle reads as redundant, given that Mark is an experienced soldier.
Gunpowder filled his nostrils – I’m sure the author intended for this to be the stench, but I am visually seeing his nose filled with black gunpowder.
An uncomfortable premonition of fear pervaded his senses – I’m not sure a premonition can be considered part of the 5 senses since it refers to a 6th sense. Rather than “tell” the reader that he’s feeling fear and it’s uncomfortable, it would be better to “show” the reader how Mark reacts to the dark notion that he’s marked or the next bullet is his. How does fear manifest in this guy? Does he develop worsening symptoms of an anxiety attack from the start to the finish of this opener…until he wakes up from his presumably troubling PTSD riddled sleep?
Never retreat—never surrender – I have to admit my thoughts went immediately to Galaxy Quest. Anyone else? (I’m sure it’s just geek me.)
Through the noises of gunfire – This read as awkward to me and it’s repeated in the last lines as well. A distinctive phrase like this would be easily noticed as repetitive. Gunfire is a plural noise, not noises.
FOLLOW LOGICAL ORDER OF ACTION:
A common thing I am seeing in this opener is leaping around with images, rather than sticking with a logical progression and flow to the action. For example, “Gunpowder filled his nostrils. An uncomfortable premonition of fear pervaded his senses.He blinked sweat from his eyes.” We move from the stench, to the bad feeling, to sweat. (This leaping can be seen in the 2nd to last paragraph as well where we too quickly move from gunfire, men dying/screaming, Mark shot, POWs & torture, then back to his leg wound.)
The author would do better to view the battle from behind the eyes of Mark and follow him through the scene, staying within his senses in a natural flow. I would recommend the author look up “PTSD” or “anxiety” disorder symptoms and build them into this scene in a subtle way so Mark builds the intensity of his reactions through the opener until he can’t take it anymore. Symptoms could include: Panic, losing control, chest pain, dizziness, hyperventilation, hot flashes, chills, trembling/intense shaking, nausea/stomach cramps, the feeling of being distanced from what’s going on. Pick the ones that would work best and build them into the scene until the reader realizes/feels his mounting affliction.
Ring…ring…ring. Had those sounds penetrated the darkness? Light began to infiltrate the blackness in the distance. Ring…ring…ring. The noises of gunfire faded. The pain subsided – I’m not a fan of noises being described like this – ring, ring, ring. Anyone else feel the same? In this instant, it does not appear to be Mark’s POV. It’s like an omniscient narrator is observing him from outside his body and making sure the reader knows something is ringing. Would Mark be so aware? I doubt it. I imagine where this is going is Mark wakes up from his flashback or nightmare to the shrill sound of a phone. To someone sleeping, how would that come across more realistically?
If war is hell, so is writing. Thanks to this brave submitter. An exciting scene of being in a battlefield would capture my attention if the author savored the rich sensory experiences and not rush it. The author’s instincts to begin here seem right if the execution could be improved a bit. What say you, TKZers?
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
By Joe Moore
I don’t believe in writer’s block. The reason is twofold. First, I’m a professional writer; my job is to come up with ideas. I’ve never heard of a mechanic suffering from mechanic’s block or a doctor suffering from doctor’s block. When I’m faced with an issue in my story, I come up with a solution. That’s part of being a writer.
I think that writer’s block is about being stuck with coming up with ideas, not words. If I can’t come up with the words, I’m in serious trouble. It’s like that mechanic saying he can’t come up with the correct wrench. A master mechanic has a kit full of tools (words); his job is to come up with the correct procedure to fix a problem.
So writer’s block is really a matter of a writer getting stuck for whatever reason. It’s frustrating but not a show-stopper.
First, you need to focus on why you’re stuck.
The most common form of writer’s block is not knowing what happens next. This is basically a plotting issue. The solution can be found in 5 words: What does the protagonist want? If you backtrack to the last point in the story that it was clear what motivated the protagonist’s actions and how it drove the story forward, the answer to what happens next will usually be revealed. Think about the story question. Did you stray from the process of answering it? Chances are you created a scene that does not contribute directly or indirectly in answering the main story question—the big conflict. Starting a rewrite from that point will usually get you back on track.
Another common issue that will derail your story is facing the dilemma of why anything matters. Who cares? This usually deals with the question: What’s at stake. Whether it’s an internal or external struggle, the protagonist must realize that fighting the fight is worth it. If she loses, what’s at stake? What does she stand to lose? If it’s a high concept thriller, what does the community, country, or civilization stand to lose? Reexamining the stakes can help to put you back on course.
A third issue in suffering from writer’s block is facing the crippling question: Is this story logical? In other words, why would it even happen? You might have a really cool idea, but the reality is that no sane person would follow the path laid out by the plot. It’s just not something the reader would buy into. If this is the case, rethink the story in terms of how it relates to HUMAN BEINGS. Don’t get me wrong. Even the most outrageous science fiction or horror stories still have to relate to human emotions and logic. Otherwise, they become 2-dimensional. If your story is so out there that the average reader can’t relate, try reexamining the human aspects of it. Many writers including me believe that there are only two emotions in the world: love and hate. If your story lacks either, then it becomes hard if not impossible to sell the reader on an outrageous, illogical plot. And writer’s block raises its ugly head.
How about you, my Zoner friends. How do you overcome writer’s block?
Coming soon: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore
“THE SHIELD rocks on all cylinders.” ~ James Rollins, NYT bestselling author of THE EYE OF GOD.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
We recently moved into a new town, and I immediately noticed how security-conscious the people seem. The email welcoming us to the neighborhood included an attachment with an update on local crimes. There seemed to be a lot of property crime going on. In one incident, a young woman and her father had interrupted a burglary. The intruders tied them up and held them both at gunpoint for hours.
After reading that report, I started getting more interested in the notion of home security. First I made sure we'd covered all the the standard bases of crime prevention--keeping property lights on, having a dog, never leaving doors or windows unlocked. Our alarm system was obsolete, so I met with a series of security consultants from various alarm companies.
That's when I began to go overboard. We needed motion detectors, I decided, plus interior and exterior video surveillance. (If someone burgles our house, by golly I want to see the guy so I can identify him.)
So now our house is bristling with cutting edge, high-tech security gear. We have a video monitor that lets us see various angles of the property. At night, the displays are infrared. (So far the only intruder we've caught is our male cat on the prowl for a midnight treat.) We even have panic buttons on our key fobs.
Now I'm thinking I went too far with the whole security thing. I've become a regular listener to the police scanner frequency. Then there are all the alerts. Our system lets me know whenever someone approaches our front gate. It also alerts me whenever a bird, butterfly, or errant leaf passes by. I'm collecting an impressive video library of local wildlife.
|MacGregor, fearsome watchdog.|
Does the new system make us feel more secure? For me, it's had the opposite effect. Putting in all these security contraptions has actually made feel more vulnerable. It's illogical, but I felt safer in my previous state of uninformed bliss.
But for now, woe unto any Luna moth who strays across our portal after dark. He better smile for that camera.
|"Do you feel lucky, Moth?"|