Tag Archives: Jack Bickham

Swamp Strategies

I was driving recently atop a levee built to contain swamp land. It’s spring. The rains are falling in drizzles and torrents. The rivers and lakes are swelling, backing extra water into sludgy swampy places where varmints like snakes and alligators await the unwary who dare venture there.

Sounds fanciful, right? Well, the man who taught me most of the writing craft I know–Jack Bickham–had an apt term for what fancy book writers now tend to call the second act. Jack called it the “Great Swampy Middle.” In my books on writing craft, I refer to it as the “Dark Dismal Middle.” Neither term makes it sound appealing, but they are–I think–apt descriptors.

It’s the longest section of a book manuscript. It’s possibly the most challenging segment to write. It’s where a writer can become lost, flounder, and sometimes sink. It’s the perfect portion of a story to release plot twists that Jack used to call “alligators.”

Although ideally a novel should start in an intriguing or exciting way, escalate strategically through increasing trouble and conflict, and wind up the story problem in a smashing climax, all of that is easier said than done. Once the thrilling opening of your story loses momentum and you reach that section of your plot outline where everything becomes vague because you hoped you’d be inspired by the time you got there, it’s not uncommon to find yourself in a slump. The story’s not so fun anymore. It can seem bewildering and endless. It can become a flat, dull slog. Savvy writers equip themselves with multiple techniques of the writing craft to fend off such problems.

So in this blog series, I want to address what I call Seven Swamp Survival Strategies. They are as follows:

  1. Juggle plates
  2. Check plot progression
  3. Introduce subplots
  4. Use multiple viewpoints
  5. Execute a large or pivotal central story event
  6. Heighten plot suspense
  7. Reveal hidden and back story

They’re by no means all a writer can utilize to keep the middle from sagging or stalling, but in my career I have found them to be effective and useful. I’ll be explaining them one by one in the posts to come.

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Day of Infamy

Pearl Harbor Day will be observed this week. In the bustle and chaos of the end of this semester’s classes, my rush to wrap up a book project, Christmas shopping/decorating, and hauling my geriatric dog to the vet’s office for expensive testing, I nearly had forgotten all about it. But this afternoon, the radio station was tuned to old radio classics and it was broadcasting a famous speech about the day that will live in infamy when Hawaii was attacked without warning by a foreign power. And with a jolt, I realized that this is a time to pause and remember.

Firstly, to remember those people who lost their lives in the attack on Pearl Harbor. That attack galvanized the USA to enter World War II. We had wanted to stay out of it. We wanted to be left alone. We wanted to remain isolated.

On December 7, 1941, the world for Americans changed forever. We continue today to live with the effects of that war. Because of it, we roused ourselves from a semi-rural nation into a worldwide powerhouse and leader. Because of it, our industrial, scientific, and productive gears spun into overdrive, and we have been a consumer-driven country ever since. Because of it, we developed nuclear power and clawed our way into outer space. Because of it, our customs changed and our population shifted. There aren’t many veterans of WWII still living now, but I honor those who served–including some of my uncles–risking their lives and throwing their hearts and courage on the line to preserve us from domination. And as an American, enjoying the privileges of living in this free nation, I give thanks for the sacrifices and bravery our military expended then for the generations to come.

But secondly, I have to remember a different Pearl Harbor Day … December 7, 1977. I was a college senior, majoring in Professional Writing at the University of Oklahoma. And I was enrolled in the novel course, required for my major coursework. That class was the sole reason I moved out of state and attended OU. I wanted to be a novelist, and I wanted to take the novel class more than life itself. I’d wanted desperately to take it as a freshman, and it was agonizing to wait until I was a senior to enroll. But that’s the way the requirements fell.

It was a semester I might refer to–stealing a book title from Irving Stone–as The Agony and the Ecstasy. The ecstasy was that finally I was receiving the training I’d longed for since my childhood decision to become a writer. The agony was that the instructor, Jack Bickham, was intimidating, terrifying, strict, exacting, and tough. He was the kind of teacher that pulled no punches and took no prisoners. When you entered that course, you could psychologically identify with the warriors of ancient Sparta–told by their wives to come home with their shields or on them.

Jack didn’t believe in praise. Or encouragement. He issued a single assignment for the class, which was to submit a novel manuscript at the end of the semester. He always chose Pearl Harbor Day as the due date. With a rather evil chuckle, he said it was appropriate because many of us students were headed to destruction. (It was not a remark to inspire confidence.) We had no rewrites, no second chances. One assignment and one grade for a semester’s worth of hard work.

Was he just a sadistic old coot? The kind of jaded, cynical college professor that enjoyed tormenting the young?

No.

It was a writing boot camp designed to make us tough, resilient, and determined to survive. It was to prepare us for the ruthless arena of the publishing industry. He knew in his wisdom and experience that to coddle us and pamper us, to wrap us in praise before we were ready, would be to send us off to be trampled by editors–if we even got that far.  And so, somewhat like a Marine drill sergeant, he scared us and set the bar of achievement high, weeding out the weak, lazy, untalented, and foolish as best he could.

Pearl Harbor Day–a date when a sleepy, naive nation awoke and showed the world what it could do when roused to action. Pearl Harbor Day–a date when I turned in a completed novel manuscript despite fear, shyness, and a dinky portable typewriter that wore out along the way.

America won its war. And my manuscript (THE SIGN OF THE OWL) went onward through more revisions to find eventual publication and a national award.

 

 

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From my bookshelf: Phyllis Whitney

Recently I stumbled across a treasure trove of immaculate hardcover copies of several Phyllis Whitney titles. They are thin volumes, probably Doubleday book club editions, and missing their dust jackets, yet they have been well cared for and look–and smell–brand new. I circled them, debating within myself–should I pounce or were they too out of date for today?

I first learned of this author when I was a professional writing student at the University of Oklahoma. My teacher, Jack Bickham, was a huge fan of Ms. Whitney’s works. He considered her a master of suspense writing and always spoke admiringly of how she would write two books–adult and young adult from a research project.

Finally, I pounced. I’ve read a few of her novels in the past, and while I never became a huge fan I recalled that her books were competent reads. I remembered Bickham’s admiration so I knew they were sound in craft. They weren’t musty. They were $2 each, and they would make a welcome change from what’s currently in the bookstore.

Phyllis Whitney was born in Japan to American parents in 1903. She died in Virginia when she was 104. Her first book was published in 1941; her last in 1997, when she was 94. She authored 39 adult suspense novels; 14 young adult books; 20 children’s mysteries, and several books on writing in addition to numerous short stories. At the height of her career, she sold millions of copies and was published in 30 languages. And although she died in 2008, she still has an active Web site. It is not difficult to find her books, and many are available in electronic format.

Over the weekend, I sat down to read one chosen at random. Without any blurb copy off the missing jacket, I had no idea what it would be about. Title:  THE WINTER PEOPLE. And I rediscovered how smooth and lyrical Ms. Whitney’s prose is.

By today’s standards, the suspense element of the story is mild, and yet the characters are psychologically complex. Modern readers know the terms:  sociopathic, schizophrenic, neurotic, pathological, border personality disorder, etc. However, Whitney doesn’t use labels. She just creates the characters and lets them take action. The evil that’s depicted seems more sinister because it lacks the terminology. As I read, I found myself thinking, I’m glad I’m not having to deal with these people in real life.

The second aspect of the story that struck me is that Ms. Whitney relies so heavily on narrative. Her scenes are short and intense by comparison to long passages of summary. I think this reliance on narrative is reflective of mid-twentieth century style. (THE WINTER PEOPLE was published in 1969.) Narration is a mode of discourse that holds readers somewhat apart from the story action, and yet it moves quickly. Today’s genre fiction tends to be more focused on dramatic scenes and their emotional aftermath, moving in sequential order, with narrative taking a back seat to them. Both ways of approaching story are viable, but styles have changed.

The third thing I noticed–with great pleasure–is how Ms. Whitney sets her hooks. They are as precisely placed as a laser cut, and even if they are merely foreshadowing they are inserted exactly where the story’s interest begins to flag. Click, and she has your attention caught once more. I believe her hooks and their placement are what generated Bickham’s greatest admiration. When I read Ms. Whitney years and years ago, I wasn’t yet good enough at writing to share that admiration. Now, I see her mastery of craft at work.

I am delighted I stumbled across these half-dozen or so books. I look forward to reading the next one in the stack.

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Pearl Habor Day

Those of you with some knowledge of history (or calendars with notations) recognize today as the anniversary of a “date which will live in infamy.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

But aside from the historical event of 1941, when our navy harbored in Hawaii was bombed without the warning of a declaration of war, does this date have any other significance for you?

Perhaps not.

It certainly does for me.

When I was a senior at the University of Oklahoma, majoring in professional writing, I took a novel writing course taught by a scary, intimidating curmudgeon called Jack Bickham. His course required us to write an entire novel manuscript in one semester, with absolutely no coaching or feedback along the way. You listened to his lectures and you wrote like a fiend in every spare moment you could find, and you sweated bullets because you had no idea whether your idea was feasible or your plot was viable or your scenes were comprehensible or your characters likable. You got one grade in the course–the final grade.

And the due date was always Pearl Harbor Day.

You lived or died on that single submission, and he would announce the deadline with an evil chortle. Somehow, because he tied it into the “date of infamy,” it loomed even larger and more horrible than ever. At least it did in my imagination.

Are you thinking he was cruel? Not really. Although he scared his undergraduates to death, it was good for them. He made the process of writing that student novel as realistic and real-world as he could. Because that’s the way most novelists actually work. On spec and in the dark. Gambling on an idea without any guarantee that an editor will ever buy it. Writing alone in the small hours of the night without feedback or encouragement.

Later, once a writer becomes established and sells a few books and gains a reputation, then it’s possible to land contracts on the basis of a well-written outline and sample chapters.

But until then, you have to pay your dues. By taking a risk. By stretching yourself past your comfort zone. By working hard, long hours. By not being satisfied until you make a scene work. By having the guts to face those plot holes and spongy parts of your manuscript and fixing them before you ever dare submit to an editor or upload to Kindle.

Bickham made us work hard because writers always work hard. He made us afraid so that we could learn to face fear and realize it couldn’t defeat us if we stood up to it and delivered.

It meant a lot to me back then to show up to class on Pearl Harbor Day with my manuscript. And since then, when this infamous day in early December rolls around, I remember the people who lost their lives in 1941 … and I remember how I gained a small measure of pride and self-respect for having met Bickham’s notorious deadline.

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Plot Shopping

The other day I happened to be in a large hardware store. I was tagging after a friend, with no errand or list of my own. As I wandered down the aisles, I saw a wide variety of products, all of them useful, and each of them reminding me of chores I needed to tackle or projects I didn’t know until that very moment that I wanted to do.

The longer I lingered, the more items I wanted. Granite cleaner, sponges, epoxy glues, bird feeders, lovely rows of canned spray paint in hues I didn’t know spray paint came in, grilling accessories, Yeti ice chests that evoked a strong desire to go camping in Yellowstone Park, and an entire plethora of garden hoses and devices to organize my closets.

Had I not been possessed of an iron will and a dwindling amount of cash, I might have succumbed that day to the myriad temptations spread before me.

The point is that, just like me on the loose without a list in a hardware store, if you don’t have a plan when you’re pulling together your plot elements for a story, you’re going to be enticed by too many choices, alternatives, and possibilities.

When plotting fiction, the best approach is to follow my instructor Jack Bickham’s advice: “Keep it simple.”

I might add my own advice to that:  “Keep it on track.”

In other words, don’t thoughtlessly and heedlessly grab potential plot events, using anything that pops into your head, in an effort to make your story idea more exciting.

Just as you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry because you’re more likely to over-buy, it’s easy to over-plot when you lack a clear direction for what your characters will be doing.

For example:  let’s say I want to write a fantasy where a group of five friends embark on a quest to find a mountain oracle that tells the future.

Seems clear enough. But is it?

This scenario has a goal, which implies direction, but it’s much too vague to enable me to plot clearly, simply, cleanly, and effectively.

Why?

Well, what’s going to happen first after they set out on their journey?

Maybe I intend them to meet up with a caravan of travelers. They’ll get acquainted, walk together until they reach a fork in the road, and then they’ll part company.

Snore.

What’s next?

Well, aware that perhaps the traveler episode wasn’t all that lively, let’s say that I want my band to cross a river, encountering a swifter current than expected. They’ll lose their supplies, and maybe one of the group will be swept away. They won’t know if their friend is alive or drowned. This will cause much angst and drama. It will be exciting.

Check. And then what? Gotta top drowning, squelchy shoes, and shivering on the riverbank.

Maybe I have another event in mind, like — hmm — a forest fire or earthquake or an encounter with a stampeding herd of magical moose. Or maybe I’m starting to approach that fuzzy nebulous part of my premise. To fill the void, should I toss in any and every incident that comes to mind? Do I feel a touch of desperation, that niggling little worry that none of this stuff is good enough or exciting enough? Am I going to be reaching for clichés, random events, and over-complication?

Why not step back, pause, and think through a storyline first? In other words, do you have a shopping list – aka story plan – to follow instead of sheer impulse? A plot plan that will get your characters where they need to go and help them accomplish what they need to do from beginning through middle to end?

To return to my quest example:  the friends want to seek the mountain oracle. But who or what is actively trying to prevent this? Is it an outside source, or a member within the group? The latter option would allow for events of sabotage, growing suspicion, and friction among the friends. Each action would have a consequence, which would lead to the next decision and next action. Thus, the events become progressive and logical instead of random. I could have arguments and conflict instead of moose stampedes. (And, yeah, maybe I could still drown a character, particularly if that drowning is due to betrayal from the evil member of the group.)

When you develop plot events sequentially, with one leading to the next, you can explore their ramifications instead of jumping impulsively from one disconnected activity to another. Your plot stops being frenetic and becomes engaging instead. And you the writer will be less easily distracted or lured away from the story you originally envisioned.

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The Slog and the Glory

From time to time, I’m approached by a student wanting reassurance that writing will bring guaranteed success or income. My answer is usually to tell the individual to choose another major. Shocked, the young person often walks sadly away and gives up the creative dream.

The reality of writing is that it bring no guarantees of any kind. Very few things actually do. Those of us who write generally do so because we can’t not write. It is a part of our heart. It is our blood, our breath, our life. We can turn our backs on it. We can close our ears to its siren’s call. We can ignore it, and we can smother it. But we do so at the peril of rejecting a gift that most people will never experience.

Of course, the writer’s life is not always kind. It’s certainly not easy. Dictating bestselling novels while reclining on a chaise longue and eating chocolate is more fantasy than reality. Just when you think you’ve come up with a genius-level story premise, you find that no editor is interested and no publisher will buy it.

And when you’re slogging along in what feels like a muddy rut to nowhere, a friend will email you and ask, Have you checked your numbers lately? They’re fantastic. Congratulations!

My writing teacher, Jack Bickham, used to say over and over, “Trust the process.” And that’s all a novelist can do when half-blind, dazed, fatigued, and unsure whether any scene in the middle of his book is working. You trust your idea and your knowledge of the writing craft. You have faith in those elements, and you just keep going.

Once I learned how to put scenes together, how to write dialogue, how to design characters, how to control viewpoint, and what pacing was all about, I had to learn trust. And trusting something can be the hardest lesson of all.

I’m stubborn. I’m deliberate. I’m inclined to take my time. I do not trust quickly or readily. I was the child who spent the entire first week of my two-week series of swimming lessons learning to put my face in the water. But once I give my trust, I give it.

When I learned that trusting the writing craft would see me successfully through the completion of a novel every time, I put my belief in it. I won’t say that every book I’ve written since then has been stellar, but I know that when a story falters it’s due to my mistakes and not the fault of writing principles.

I’ve also learned to trust my story sense and the fact that I was put on Earth to write stories. I don’t mean to sound grandiose or egotistical in expressing that. It’s just the way I’m made. It’s what I do.

For me, writing flows in a feast or famine cycle. There are lean years and fat years. There are times when I am unable to explain to anyone why I continue to write. I just have to.

Experience has taught me that if I keep going, keep utilizing my craft to the best of my ability, then just about the time I feel most lost is about when the famine cycle flips to a feast.

In my view, if a writer gives up when feeling most discouraged, then he’s never going to find the glory that follows the slog.

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Goin’ Steady

Ever wonder how some novelists are so darned prolific? HOW do they write book after book after book? HOW do they write so fast? What is their secret? Are they paying pixies to do it while they sleep? Are they taking daily doses of the vitamin “Fizzywrite?” Are they just geniuses?

Various writers have various methods. For example, Jim Butcher uses the BIC (butt-in-chair) approach. Brandon Sanderson claims it’s all about consistent writing, day in and day out. Stephen King writes daily, taking off only his birthday and Christmas. Jack Bickham assigned himself a 50-page per week quota. Mel Odom writes between a dozen and twenty books a year. Somerset Maugham sat down to work at 9 a.m. every day.

Do you see a pattern here?

Among these admittedly different authors, there’s a steady methodology of consistent work habits–writing daily, writing weekly, writing habitually. None of these writers admits to the binge method of procrastinating for weeks and then typing furiously around the clock like the Mad Hatter on deadline.

You don’t get books written by just sitting and thinking about them. You don’t achieve a substantial body of work through dreaming it. You don’t succeed in typing “The End” by wishing it.

You can only accomplish it by writing steadily on a regular schedule that works realistically for you. Set a daily time and keep it as you would an appointment. Set an achievable page quota–a minimum that you must hit before you can leave the keyboard. One page a day isn’t so intimidating. And even at your least inspired, surely you can type one page of character dialogue or a passage of description when your protagonist Irmentrude enters the ballroom. Anything you write beyond your minimum quota deserves a reward.

For example, Jack Bickham attempted to write ten pages daily so he could take the weekend off. If he failed to create his self-assigned fifty pages by Friday, then he wrote on the weekends to stay on track.

One of the worst things you can do for your story is to write irregularly. If you only write when you can find the time, you won’t be consistent. Your story will suffer more from distractions. You’ll tend to forget important details that you meant to include but didn’t. You’ll lose touch with your protagonist’s emotions and motivations. Sadly, you may even lose heart and interest in what probably would have been a solid plotline.

And when you’ve given up and abandoned the story because it isn’t working, why not be honest and answer the question: is it the story that’s not working, or is it you that’s not working?

If you’re stuck and can’t get your story out of a corner, spend your writing time sketching out a thorough character dossier. Do you really know what makes your protagonist tick? Have you ever considered your antagonist’s motivations? Or maybe you should think about that plot hole you’ve been avoiding. Then write that minimum one page of copy, even if you hate every word of it.

It doesn’t take long to form good writing habits, once you put in the effort to establish them. Pretty soon, you’ll realize that your imagination is automatically clicking on at the designated time. You’ve trained it, and by golly it’s starting to cooperate!

Writing rituals can also help establish habitual working methods. What works for you? A certain type of music playing in the background? Making a cup of tea before you get started? Putting two cookies on a plate next to your keyboard … but you can’t eat them until you’ve written your quota? Turning off your cell phone or leaving the phone in another room?

Just sitting down and powering up your computer can be a sufficient ritual. My dog–the one I call The Spook–spent this summer making it his job to stare at me every morning at 10 a.m. before heading off into my office and curling up under the desk next to the computer tower. If I dawdled, just the sight of him faithfully curled up, waiting to “help” me work, was enough to make me feel guilty. And it would be BIC for me.

A ritual I don’t recommend, however, is checking your email before you start writing. You may possess the discipline of steel to take a quick glance before you open that Word file, but I doubt it. Instead, deal with your mail after you finish writing for the day. It will keep your priorities in the right order, and you won’t be distracted from writing an epic love scene by thoughts of the car insurance reminder floating in your computer’s inbox.

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Clearing the Decks

Here’s the way life works:

A writer about to begin a new manuscript will be immediately attacked by all types of distraction.

It can come via family, friends, work, computer crashes, a beloved pet suddenly developing melanoma, roof leaks, illness, weird weather, or some other crisis–short of a meteor hitting the Earth or imminent alien invasion.

I used to have a ritual that involved cleaning off my desk after the completion of each novel. It was a way of keeping the paper clutter under control and clearing the deck for the next manuscript to come.

However, these days, life is crazy. The things coming at me like mosquitoes vectoring in for the kill often leave me spinning in confusion. As a result, I’m almost afraid to tackle the mess lest I inadvertently create a new writing distraction.

My father would say that life isn’t supposed to be that way. But short of living in remote isolation–of finding a Walden’s Pond of my own–distraction is here to stay.

Steven Pressfield, author of THE WAR OF ART, writes about the problem–calling it Resistance. He says, in effect, that whenever a person is about to begin anything worthwhile, all sorts of barriers will immediately snap into place. It’s up to the individual–or the writer–to overcome them in order to achieve the desired objective.

(That’s kind of like what we put our story protagonists through, isn’t it?)

As writers, we tend to be dramatic and temperamental–or we would like to be. So it’s easy to let distraction or Resistance loom larger than it has to.

The key is to simply stay on track. To not get emotional, frustrated, hyper-sensitive, or dramatic about it.

This is, of course, easier said than done.

My two Scottish terriers are temperamentally opposite. One is hyper, nervous, super-alert, and imaginative. He worries about the things he observes in his environment. And he observes things in his environment that aren’t always actually there.

The other dog is laid-back, gentle, calm, and slow. He likes to look things over and consider the situation before he takes action. He’s highly observant but seldom distracted from what he intends to do. Once he’s in motion, it’s hard to deflect him. When he settles on an objective, he doesn’t abandon it.

To do our jobs well, writers need a combination of both these temperaments. We need the quick, vivid imagination and sensitivity in order to create settings and characters, to write dramatically, to generate the emotional and empathetic content necessary to bring our stories alive.

Yet we also need to stay calm, to carry on no matter what comes at us. We can’t let ourselves be ruffled or stymied or so frustrated that we abandon our manuscript partway through. We mustn’t pay attention to whatever is trying to distract us. We have to persevere and stick with our deadlines and schedules so that the work gets done.

Last night, Turner Classic Movies showed a couple of bio-pics about individuals who overcame huge obstacles in order to achieve their dreams. The first film was THE GLEN MILLER STORY. How closely it follows Miller’s actual life, I don’t know. But it’s a pretty good movie just the same. In it, Miller is trying to develop his special sound. He turns down secure jobs as a musician in order to search for the right arrangement of instruments that he keeps yearning for. And finally, he achieves it.

The other film centers around Mounty Stratton, a baseball pitcher who overcomes a leg amputation in order to continue competing in professional sports.

The point of both films–other than the chance to listen to foot-tapping 1940s music or watch Jimmy Stewart play baseball–is that nothing worthwhile comes easily. The Resistance and the distractions are always going to be there. It’s up to us whether we ignore them or let them defeat us.

Our best line of defense is to form clear objectives and schedules for ourselves. (I know! My creative side is already twitching at the thought of such discipline.) Whether we set a daily or weekly word count or choose a regular time of day when we will write, we need the structure.

On my office wall, I keep this quote from W. Somerset Maugham in sight: “I write only when inspiration strikes me. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

It sounds too regimented, doesn’t it? Too restrictive, too constrained. Our inner artist longs for freedom. We want to write when the mood strikes us, and maybe we haven’t a clue who W. Somerset Maugham is. (You should. Read him!)

I know from experience that writers who want productive careers in commercial fiction shouldn’t live in an emotional muddle. Waiting on inspiration is a good way to starve. And letting distraction get in the way–whether it comes from outside forces or your own inner doubts–is a sure route to achieving nothing.

As my writing teacher, Jack Bickham, used to say: “Get on with it!”

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Moon Alligators

I think that sometimes the writing craft can start to take itself too seriously. We can get so wrapped up in scene structure and character complexity and viewpoint rules that it’s possible to lose our nerve, our verve, and our sense of fun.

After all, the imagination is like a child. Nurture it and set it free, and it will laugh, skip, and play. Hem it in and restrict it with too many rules, and it will sulk.

That isn’t to say that we should set aside what we know about structure and craft. But we should never let those elements chain us down until writing is a dreary, tedious chore.

When the storyline is bogging down … when my creativity seems stilted and static … I know it’s time for a plot twist, the less predictable the better.

In such emergencies, I can’t worry about what’s already been laboriously set up to happen in the story. I need to bring something in from left field. My writing teacher Jack Bickham called this tactic an “alligator” because it would be dangerous to the hero, arrive unexpectedly in the story, and be capable of doing anything.

Last week, I read a zany fantasy novel by Jim C. Hines called LIBRIOMANCER. Halfway through the book, the protagonist Isaac suddenly finds himself on the moon where he proceeds to fight robotic automatons in conditions of zero gravity and kicked-up moon dust.

In a million years, I wouldn’t have expected a fantasy novel to suddenly land me on the moon. (In the words of that Dish satellite commercial: “How’re we breathin’?”)

Hines doesn’t care how his protagonist is breathing. I’m still not entirely sure how Isaac even got up there or how he got back, except that magic was used.

Going to the moon was an alligator. It was unexpected. It woke me up. The protagonist was so jazzed to find himself on the moon that he made me happy to be there, too. The event didn’t make a lot of logical sense and it could have been cut without affecting the story. However, I’m so glad no dour editorial instinct slashed it to the trash bin. It’s charming.

Long ago, when I was writing the first novel that I would actually sell to a publisher, I got stuck about halfway through. I was befuddled and tired. I couldn’t think of what should happen next. I knew I wasn’t ready to push the characters into the climax. What to do?

That’s when I learned to cut loose with the “what if” game.

The only requirement for the “what if” game is that you should go for the most outrageous, crazy, wild thing you can think of.

Never mind how it will work or connect. Let yourself go with anything that strikes a chord with you.

In effect, give yourself permission to throw a pie in the protagonist’s kisser.

Hines let his protagonist walk on the moon. Then he found a way to make it fit.

In my first novel, A LOVE SO WILD, I put a dead rat in the heroine’s picnic basket. Why? Where did that come from? Dunno! But it made her scream, livened up a blah scene, and gave her a reason to fling herself, weeping, into the hero’s manly arms.

Even better, by bringing in an alligator, I found my flagging interest in the story revived. My energy level improved. My imagination went back to work. Yes, it was a challenge to plant a plausible explanation for the rat, but that’s what revision is for. Meanwhile, I wrote onward with renewed zest.

So when you’re stuck, try reaching for a moon alligator. Don’t censor yourself. Just have the courage to play.

You’ll write all the better for it.

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Trusting Enough to Fall

Have you ever been to one of those corporate seminars where they have people pair off and then topple backward, trusting their new partner to catch them?

Writing along the lines of technique can be a bit like that. It’s scary and hard. So much easier to remain timid and hold back.

Yet until you can force yourself to trust the proven principles of writing enough to follow them, your writing will probably never grow or improve past a certain point.

Back in the old days, when I was learning to write, my instructor Jack Bickham used to drill us mercilessly in techniques such as scene construction or viewpoint management. Then he would talk about a book he loved–ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE–and he would tell us to “Trust the process.”

Over and over, he stressed that dictum: “Trust the process.”

At the time, I didn’t know much about the zen philosophy and I didn’t always understand what he was trying to teach us. But he repeated “Trust the process” so often that it became imprinted on my brain.

So eventually I did trust technique enough to use it. Other than learning scene construction and the importance of conflict, trusting the process–the principles of writing, if you will–is probably the most valuable lesson that Bickham ever imparted to me.

Believing in the foundation techniques of plot and story progression got me my first publication. It got me better contracts. It kept me publishing steadily across my career. It served me well that year when I was homeless, distracted by insurance claims adjusters, and struggling to meet a book deadline. Even now, when I’m frustrated or lost, baffled by the Gordian knot I’ve somehow wound my plot into, I can hear that gruff voice speaking to me: “Trust the process.”

That’s when I stop, calm myself down, review the writing craft that I know, and make myself go to the most basic rules of writing.

The solution to my problem is always there. Always. I may not like that solution. It may involve throwing out pages or jettisoning a character. But it’s there. And if I grasp it and move forward, I reach the finish of my story without fail.

Ray Bradbury said to master the techniques of writing so that you don’t have to think about them anymore. You can then concentrate fully on your story.

Sound advice.

I spend my working days watching my fledglings crowding along the edge of uncertainty, afraid to test their wings, afraid to jump and soar, afraid that if they try they’ll fall.

They’re just learning the principles of how plots are made and scenes are constructed and stories are ended in dramatic climax. They barely grasp these concepts. They struggle to try them and falter, and when that happens they hunch up and lose their nerve.

It is safer, of course, to stay on the ground and fold their wings and refuse to try. Staying put brings no risk.

But staying put brings no glory either.

You can’t trust the process if you never jump.

Maybe you crash and fail the first few times. Practice more! Try it again. Adopt the motto of GALAXY QUEST: “Never give up. Never surrender!”

You must believe it’s possible to solve the mystery of writing. You must believe that you can do it. If you lacked any ability to write you wouldn’t be drawn to it in the first place.

Like Dumbo in the Disney animated film, you have to grasp the magic feather and fly.

Find the process that works for you. Learn it. Practice it until you can recite it in your sleep. Master it. And then trust it.

It will catch you every time.

It will catch you.

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