Tag Archives: Ray Bradbury

Time to Trust

All summer, I’ve been busy working on a book on plotting. As I’ve pondered, analyzed, and explained technique for this manuscript, I realized how easy it can be to over-think fiction. Sometimes, you simply have to back up . . . and let go.

Usually novice writers start out by falling in love with fiction. We absorb books like plants do water and sunshine. Then there comes a day when we decide we’ll write our own stories. Our imagination is teeming. We’re excited. We throw ourselves into our fledgling effort and either zoom to the end–yippee!–or we hit a stumbling block and stall out.

Wannabe writers who zoom along with no awareness of problems often become what I call scribblers. They write effortlessly and heedlessly, oblivious to their mistakes, and happily create drivel in the certainty they’re producing terrific stuff. With such hobbyists, I wish them well but hope they never seek publication.

Other beginners, however, realize quickly that there’s an entire universe of things they don’t know. They falter and stop, overwhelmed by the enormity of what they need to learn.

Of this second group, some pull themselves together and seek training or continue to hunt and peck their way through exploration and discovery. The rest declare writing to be too hard and drop out.

Those who keep trying by joining writers groups, taking writing classes, networking, seeking mentors, and devouring books on writing while generating story after story will improve. Their hard work will pay off, eventually.

But sometimes the determination to learn so much and to overcome difficulties can lead to over-thinking. The placement of every comma; the heroine’s dialogue rewritten and read aloud and rewritten, rewritten, polished, tightened, rewritten and rewritten; the worry over how a subplot is going; the concern that several scenes aren’t quite right, etc. can all lead to a hyper-critical state that becomes counterproductive.

You can become so conscious, so aware, of the process that you make the mistake of trying to control it. And that’s not what pros do. Instead, they trust.

Learning and mastering technique is important because it helps you navigate the challenges of awkward plots and difficult characters. Knowing what you’re doing gives you confidence. Best of all, as Ray Bradbury pointed out, once you’ve mastered technique you don’t have to consciously think about it anymore and you can then concentrate on your story.

Therefore, relax. Accept that the process will always get you there. Learn to trust it and let go, the way when swimming you trust the buoyancy of water so you can float. Allow your story to unfold without agonizing over every word. Write the rough draft from a spirit of fun. Believe in your idea. Follow through with it and stick with what you’ve planned, but allow for little quirks and the extras that are going to occur to you when you’re in the flow.

The actual creation of rough draft should not be censored, criticized, second-guessed, or analyzed as you go. That’s too restrictive, and it will hinder you so much that you may develop writer’s block. You should never attempt to edit yourself while you’re creating. As I’ve said many times, the editing function and the creative function operate in separate brain hemispheres, and the human brain is not designed to utilize both hemispheres simultaneously. Work on one function at a time.

When an idea comes to you, embrace it and indulge it at first. Then analyze and test it. Send it back to the idea-maker and create anew. Then analyze and examine it as much as you need to until you have a solid outline. That’s what you trust–all the upfront work to check plausibility, check feasibility, check plot holes, fix plot holes, think and tweak, etc., until you have a solid plan. Then close your doubts and uncertainty, and just write.

Write with all your heart–not your mind. Write fast. Write passionately. Write until you barely know who you are when you leave the keyboard. Live with your characters. Be your characters. And wear their skin through every scene as it unfolds. Don’t look at them from some remote and safe vantage point. Stand in the dusty crossroads as war refugees trudge along. Smell the dust and fear. Listen to the rumble of trucks and the distant pounding of artillery too far away to see. Feel the beating of your heart. Clutch that silly candlestick that belonged to Aunt Ziva, the one that’s stood on the mantel as long as you can remember. It’s now a symbol of home, all you have left. Hang onto it. Don’t drop it because if you do, you’ll somehow lose connection with the past, with family, with memories of when life was happy, and with any hope that life one day will be good again.

When you’ve finished the rough draft, you can once more put on your editor’s hat. You can think, criticize, revise, and pick at it until it’s tight, clear, and riveting. Just remember that when you revise, be honest. Did you come close to what you planned initially? Or did you fall seriously short?

If you made technical mistakes or lost your way through part of the manuscript, trust the process you’ve learned and fix the errors. Then step back, say “good enough,” and let the story live. Don’t kill it by polishing the zest and breath from it.

Plan. Trust. Write. Fix. Believe. Submit.

It’s never easy. But it really is that simple.

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Grab ’em quick!

Ever try to get your story started in a dynamic and exciting way, but you just can’t seem to pull it off?

Ever feel like you’re taking too long to set up and establish your story situation?

Ever feel like your story needs more oomph somehow?

Open with a hook.

Make it short and catchy. (pun intended)

Design it deliberately to grab the reader’s interest. Don’t worry if it feels cheesy or over the top. Just set the hook. Be blatant and obvious about it.

Consider the following examples pulled at random from my bookshelf:

Sidney Shelton’s IF TOMORROW COMES:  She undressed slowly and dreamily, and when she was finished she put on a red negligee so the blood wouldn’t show. [thriller]

Brandon Sanderson’s THE ALLOY OF LAW:  Wax crept along the ragged fence in a crouch, his boots scraping the dry ground. He held his Sterrion 36 up by his head, the long, silvery barrel dusted with red clay. [science fiction]

James Patterson’s ALONG CAME A SPIDER:  1932 … The Charles Lindbergh farmhouse glowed with bright, orangish lights. It looked like a fiery castle, especially in that gloomy, fir-wooded region of Jersey. Shreds of misty fog touched the boy as he moved closer and closer to his first moment of real glory, his first kill. [thriller]

Jack Campbell’s THE LOST FLEET:  DAUNTLESS:  The cold air blowing in through the vents still carried a faint tang of overheated metal and burned equipment. Faint echoes of a blast reached into his stateroom as the ship shuddered. Voices outside the hatch were raised in fright and feet rushed past. [science fiction]

Erin Hilderbrand’s SILVER GIRL:  They had agreed not to speak about anything meaningful until Meredith was safely inside the house on Nantucket. [women’s fiction]

Jude Watson’s LOOT:  No thief likes a full moon. Like mushrooms and owls, they do their best work in the dark. [children’s fiction]

And finally, Harlan Coben’s NO SECOND CHANCE:  When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter. [thriller]

Although thrillers pretty much have to open with a hook, I’ve included other genres in this small sampling to show you how hooks apply to any type of fiction.

In each of these examples, there is an element of danger and/or action leading to danger.

You may be thinking that you aren’t writing an action-adventure story. You may intend something slower-paced. You want to make your setting an important element, and you feel the need to introduce it first.

So how about this from Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES?

First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month:  school begins. Consider August, a good month:  school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine:  there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.

But you take October now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.

But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early.

One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight.

See what I mean?

Bradbury has taken longer than any of my other examples to set his hook, but once he’s caught you, you’ll keep turning the pages.

Keep in mind that stories need to start with a moment of change for the protagonist that has big consequences. And whether it’s positive or negative, change is perceived as threatening because change alters the status quo. It makes things different, and we aren’t quite sure we want them to be.

Use atmosphere or weather–spooky twilights, crashing thunderstorms–and make it extreme. Let your word choice set the mood you’re going for. (Spiky leaves, cracked sidewalks, houses hunched in silhouette against the setting sun) And try to either plunge the protagonist immediately into danger–say, within the first 25 words if possible–or put the character in the middle of dangerous action.

Don’t be subtle. Don’t cram too much information into the opening sentence. Don’t explain anything. Keep story action simple, clear, and direct. And set the hook. Grab your readers fast, and don’t let them go.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Chapters

For some reason, chapters tend to baffle newbie novelists. I am frequently asked questions such as

What are they?

How long should they be?

How should they start and end?

Are they the equivalent of a short story? Is a novel a series of short stories strung together in chapters?

Should they have titles?

Let’s take these one at a time.

Chapters divide a novel into sections that psychologically give readers a stopping point. They help to break up a very long story and make it visually less intimidating. They serve to assist writers with transitions, viewpoint changes, and the setting of hooks. They are usually centered around a plot event.

Therefore, if an average-length novel contains roughly 20 plot events–give or take–then there will be approximately 20 or so chapters.

Chapter lengths vary. Time was when chapters were lengthy, featuring perhaps two or three scenes, with sequels in between. But then James Patterson started the trend of very short chapters. His rationale was based on shortening attention spans and multi-tasking, where readers are increasingly distracted by our hectic, modern world. So you might pick up an older, midlist book where chapters run as long as ten or fifteen pages. Or you might decide to read the latest young adult bestseller, where chapters average two to five pages.

The shortest chapter I can recall reading is in Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. It’s one sentence long.

It’s placed somewhere in the midpoint of the book for special effect, and it works beautifully as a transition and pacing change.

Chapters should end with hooks. Chapters should begin with hooks, or viewpoint changes, or time/location changes. Avoid starting each chapter the same way. Avoid ending chapters with your protagonist falling asleep. Set a hook at the end to keep readers turning pages.

Chapters are not short stories and should not be written in the same way. As I’ve already mentioned, they are either focused on a story event, which may involve one scene or two scenes. They may be focused on the aftermath of a major story event, where the protagonist has to pause and process what just happened.

Chapter titles usually appear in fiction for young readers. They serve as a guide or a foreshadowing of what’s about to happen. In effect, they are a tiny hook to keep young readers going. Fiction for adult readers seldom requires them.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A Charming Discovery

In past posts, I’ve moaned about how I’ve largely had to give up used books because so many of them are musty and aggravate my allergies. And yet … sometimes the thrill of discovery is impossible to resist.

After all, I was a reader long before I became a writer. The lure of reading remains strong, and I hope it always will be that way. From time to time, my heart overrides my head and I’m willing to sacrifice breathing for the chance to grab an especially intriguing tome.

Of course, I have some books still residing in my freezer, stories that I long to read but may never get a chance to explore. I have books banished to the garage, books I dragged home much the way I used to bring home stray kittens. Someone ought to love these books. Someone ought to read the magical tales their covers shelter. Someone ought not to forget them or their authors, who labored long by pen or primitive little typewriter to bring these stories to life.

And then, now and again, I stumble across a book collector’s special trove, as I did last weekend. I had never heard of the BUDDY series by Howard R. Garis, but apparently there are 20 titles published between the 1920s and the end of WWII, with a 21st book that came out after the war. Buddy is a cheerful boy that experiences many enthusiastic adventures. Here is a sampling of the titles:
BUDDY ON THE FARM
BUDDY AT RAINBOW LAKE
BUDDY AND HIS FLYING BALLOON
BUDDY AND THE SECRET CAVE
BUDDY IN DRAGON SWAMP

BUDDY books

I think these must be at a similar reading level to THE BOBBSEY TWINS series. Garis was also the author of such well-known children’s classics as UNCLE WIGGILY and THE CURLYTOPS.

I stumbled across the BUDDY books at an estate sale. They were being sold individually instead of as a set, so by the time I arrived and fell in love, six were already gone. The collector in me howls in frustration at the loss in value a broken set represents. The reader in me is delighted to have any of them.

Their dust covers and inside illustrations are charming, very much representative of an American era now gone. Notice how all the covers are identical except for the titles. Smart marketing for a small publishing house with an eye on the bottom line. Commission one cover painting and keep using it while also building brand recognition for the series.

I found one of the books particularly interesting. On the back of BUDDY AND THE VICTORY CLUB, copyrighted in 1943, is this statement from the publisher, Cupples and Leon Company:

BOOKS ARE A SYMBOL OF LIBERTY
Books have always been the priceless heritage of a free people. When a new volume has been added to our shelves, it simply means that democracy and all it stands for is still at work.

Take away our books, and we become slaves, unknown and unknowing.

They BURNED the books in that dark land of oppression and cast into the flames not only words of beauty and knowledge, but a symbol of liberty: Man’s right to read the books of his choice.

We must never let that happen here!

Buy War Bonds and Stamps now so that we and our children may continue to enjoy the blessings of freedom, now and forever.

So well expressed, and an important message to remember even today as America’s literacy rate slowly drops a little more each decade. Recent stories such as Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF remind us of how the Nazis sought to limit knowledge and suppress ideas through book burning. Ray Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451 conveys a similar warning in a futuristic scenario.

Last week, I was standing in the checkout line at Sam’s Club. A large dump at the end of the conveyer belt contained the most recent book in the DIARY OF A WIMPY KID series. A little boy of eight or ten years wanted that book so much he could barely stand it. I overheard him negotiating with his parents because the book cost $8 and he only had $6. They wouldn’t let him have the book. Something was mumbled about how he’d already chosen an item in the cart and that was that.

Now I’m sure the adults were trying to teach this kid economics, but when I see a boy this age–in the demographic most at risk for dropping out of reading–denied a book, I have a hard time not butting in. I can’t express how intensely I wanted to step forward and hand the kid the two dollars he wanted.

He trailed away, his head down in dejection. Five minutes later (this was a very slow-moving line), he came back with a new deal on the table. He offered to eliminate the bag of Cheetos that he’d evidently chosen earlier, and that would make up the difference in the cost of the book.

I was so impressed by this child. He wanted to read a book. He figured out a solution, a reasonable one, and he made a logical pitch for it. He was willing to sacrifice junk food for a BOOK.

Did he get it?

Nope. His parents rejected the deal and kept the Cheetos. Score a point for Team Ignorance & Stupidity! In a year or two, this boy won’t care anymore. His interest in reading will have waned and died from lack of support at home. He’ll be lost to video games, probably never to read again for the rest of his life. He’ll be lazy of mind, low of imagination, and ripe for believing biased media sound bytes.

Even if we don’t have Nazis burning books these days, another way to destroy the knowledge and freedom of thought that derive from reading is to trample the desire to read.

Granted, there’s nothing deep or profound about the WIMPY KID series. I doubt there’s much that’s deep or profound about the vintage BUDDY series either. But their value lies in that they’re fun and entertaining. And as you and I know, fun reading can lead to the willingness to tackle more challenging books and insightful ideas.

Alas!

I also found myself admiring Mr. Garis for the dedication he put in BUDDY AND THE VICTORY CLUB:

“To the boys and girls of the United States of America who, by their hard and unselfish work in collecting scrap, including tin cans, helped the United Nations to Victory.”

He knew his audience, and he respected these young readers enough to acknowledge their effort toward winning the war. Because, after all, everyone matters no matter how small, how young, or how humble.

Meanwhile, I plan to tackle the volume dated 1929 first. They aren’t musty–hurray!

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Chapter Structure

Long ago in the far away of my writer’s training, I was taught to focus on my plot, write it according to valid story principles, and relax in the knowledge that chapters would take care of themselves.

But although this Zen approach works for me, I’m asked about chapters enough to realize that not everyone understands what chapters are, what they do, why they’re structured as they are, and what their purpose is.

Now I haven’t bothered to research the history of chapters or when they first came about in the musty tomes of past literature, but my guess is that they were devised to aid readability, just as the Bible was divided into chapters and verses at some point. If the family gathered around the light of a candle in the evening and listened to someone reading aloud, chapter breaks were useful in providing a stopping point so that weary folks could go to bed.

Modern authors have put a different spin on this by building in hooks and plot twists to make it difficult for a reader to stop at the end of a chapter. We want readers to remain enthralled, unable to put the book down.

So what, then, is the structure?

I might as well say now that there are no particular rules about what makes up a chapter, much less how long it should be. For example, my favorite chapter of all time occurs in Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. It consists of one sentence:  “And nothing else happened for the rest of the night.”

Most chapters, though, run longer than that. If you’ve read a LOT, then you should have a pretty good idea of how material is grouped together. Some writers make a chapter of each scene. That worked pretty well a couple of decades ago, when scenes were long and thorough, running perhaps 10-12 manuscript pages. But today, scenes tend to be shorter and tighter. We have authors who specialize in what I call scene fragments, where they hit the heart of the conflict and break away quickly to some other portion of the plot. (John Sandford is a master of the scene fragment, although he doesn’t write all of his Prey thrillers that way.)

These days, scenes and chapters alike are growing shorter. Why? We live at a faster clip. We are inundated with more and more information–valid and useful, or not–and much of what we encounter is telegraphic to fit tweets and sound bytes.

This reduction within chapters has happened gradually during the 21st century. Although I’ve known about the trend, I hadn’t really noticed the difference until I recently started converting some of my backlist titles to digital versions for Kindle’s platform. (Then I saw how long my scenes used to be, and how my book chapters usually featured at least two scenes bridged by a sequel.)

Feeling confused yet?

Okay. Let’s simplify the topic. Don’t worry about whether you have a one-scene chapter, a one-sequel chapter, or a combination of the two types of dramatic units.

Instead, think about a chapter as a division of story that opens with a grab for the reader’s attention and builds to a hook at its conclusion.

The chapter’s content should span a single event that’s written as a scene of conflict. Or it should span a series of incidents related in narrative summary where the protagonist is pursuing some objective.

For example:  Let’s say Paul Protagonist wants his mother to loan him her house in the Hamptons so he can throw a big party.

He calls her. No answer. He texts her. No answer. He drops by her Park Avenue apartment, but she’s not at home. The manservant tells him that she’s at her favorite spa, getting a facial. So he goes there and finally tracks her down. Coated in mud and up to her neck in a boiling hot tub, Mom peels the cucumber slice off one eye and glares at him.

“Are you nuts?” she asks. “Of course you can’t borrow my house to throw a party. The last time your friends were in there, you let an elephant knock down the kitchen walls.”

“I didn’t bring the elephant,” Paul assures her. “I won’t invite the guy who did.”

“Absolutely not,” Mom replies, sticking the cucumber slice back in place. “Go hire a house if you want a party.”

“Hire one? Hire one? It will cost me a fortune, and I have to pay for caterers and booze.”

“The people next door are renting their place for events. Cheaply, I understand. Try them.”

“But they’re Russian vampires.”

“I know, darling. Such tacky people. How they ever got into our gated community, I don’t know. They keep trying to join the country club. So tiresome, but try them anyway. Now leave me alone.”

Okay, this is admittedly a very silly example, but it demonstrates how Paul has pursued his objective in several ways through scene and narrative clustered around the common goal of finding his mother.

Now, because she won’t cooperate, he must form a new objective and decide whether he’s going to approach the vampire neighbors or do something else. But that should fall into a new chapter.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Brighter Side

Despite my penchant for overly dramatic wailing and teeth-gnashing when things interfere with my writing, I was raised to be an optimist.

Experience has taught me that no matter how frustrating and exasperating interruptions are, a delay in my writing time usually enables me to think of a way to make the story better.

It is possible to write a story too quickly, to push it so fast that some scenes or chapters are superficial and perhaps thoughtless.

Although I do believe in Ray Bradbury’s adage about writing hot and revising cool, I always remember that if I write too hot I will have to do a lot more cold revision.

Be careful, however. If you use delays to second-guess yourself, you can create unnecessary problems. Time, practice, and experience will help you evaluate the possibly brilliant new idea that occurs to you when you can’t write steadily every day.

Here are some ways to judge whether you’re throwing out the baby with the bath water:

1) Is the new idea a minor tweaking of the scene or the dialogue, or is it radically different, involving changing plotlines and major rewriting?

2) Is the new idea one that fits within the outline you’ve already established with thought and care?

Tweaking is fine. Major, drastic changes should wait until you have at least completed the draft and can better judge how much revision is really necessary.

Just keep going!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized