Tag Archives: writing technique

Quote for the Day

Amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.

I stumbled across a variant of this saying a few weeks ago. I don’t recall now where I saw it. A niggling thought in my brain suggests I might have seen it on Instagram. Anyway, I scrawled it on a scrap of paper and promptly forgot about it. Yesterday, I came across the scrap of paper and tried to hunt down who said this.

Apparently no one and everyone. It’s so good people of various professions have used it, tweaked it, applied it, and shared it. I have no doubt you’ve encountered it or some variation of it as well.

It speaks to me for obvious reasons, chiefly because I make a living teaching college students how to change their status from amateur to professional. Of course, I help others besides students. Anytime I share writing craft or explain how a story is structured, I am focused on the professional approach, which is writing with the aim of being published and paid.

There are, of course, many who write for the sheer pleasure of self-expression. They fill journals with the joys and tribulations of their lives. (They may even make the journal itself.) Others sustain the fading art of letter writing. Some amuse themselves penning character sketches or generate blogs or share inspiration on Instagram. Countless individuals write stories for their children or grandchildren. And there are those who go about their lives and occupations with a yen to share the stories swimming in their imaginations but who are stymied by having no idea of how to express them.

When I chose writing as my dream, my life, and my profession, I focused my practicing toward one chief aim:  to have my novel on the public library shelf in my hometown. In my childhood, the library was the most magical place I knew. I daydreamed about living there among the towering shelves filled with books. I didn’t mind that it was housed in a ramshackle old building next to the railroad tracks, with brick walls, uneven floors, and large plate-glass front windows from the days when the building was a store. Those details added to the magical kingdom, and as a child I used to plot ways and means of being locked in by mistake so I could spend the night there.

So when I realized I wanted to be a writer I could think of no achievement higher than being shelved in that wondrous, shadowy place. I would choose an armload of books to check out and then go and stand next to the shelf in the “C” section, where someday my novel would belong.

But to reach that objective, I had to get published. And to get published, I had to submit my work. And to submit work that would be accepted by the editors that kindly, or curtly, or impatiently rejected what I sent to them, I had to write stories that were good. And to write good stories, I had to learn what I was doing. And to learn what I was doing, I had to practice. And to practice properly, I needed training.

Fortunately, I received training in the Professional Writing program at the University of Oklahoma. The objective there was not to write creatively, but instead professionally. Oh, the hours of practice I put in, trying to master scene conflict and moment-by-moment dramatization. I would write a scene, only to realize when I read it over that I’d left out some critical plot point. Inserting it would mess up the moment-by-moment/stimulus-response order of dialogue. Then I’d have to rip apart the scene and rewrite it.

I learned to place a small checklist of plot points next to my typewriter–yes, I started my career back then–so I wouldn’t forget key comments. I learned that even as I grew more adept at my craft I would still have to edit and edit and edit. I grew to understand that no matter how delicious breaking a rule of technique felt during the heat of composition, that in the cold light of revision it was far less effective than I’d believed. Of course that meant I had to go back and rewrite the section properly.

And finally, after so much trying, practice, writing, rewriting, and care–I found I didn’t need the checklist. I could park two opposing characters in the same locale and know they would go where they should.

I’m not boasting that I’m as polished and smooth as I’ve always wanted to be. I’m not bragging that I never feel the urge to toss the rules of good craft. I’m not saying that I don’t indulge that urge. I still check my copy. I still edit. I still go back and undo the rule-breaking for something better.

But I get the quote. I live the quote. After so many years of hard effort, it’s good to know this is how I roll.

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Finding the Positive

As I type this, it’s the close of Day 1 of my local community’s lock down. The world has not seen anything like this pandemic since the influenza outbreak of 1918. We are modern. We have prescription insurance and anti-bacterial hand soaps. We shouldn’t have to fear plagues, so what is this? What happened?

In a culture that a few weeks ago was overscheduled, hectic, stressed, busy, and addicted to social media, with nothing more exciting going on than political debates and watching Prince Harry of Great Britain repeating the actions of his ancestor, King Edward VIII, who abdicated royal responsibilities so he could spend his life with the divorced American woman he loved–suddenly, bam, pandemic.

As disruptive and frightening as it is, this health crisis–once and if we and our loved ones get through it–will eventually serve as fascinating fodder for future stories. We have plummeted into changes we could never have foreseen, and our emotional confusion is nearly overwhelming.

A writer’s chief stock in trade is character emotion. It fuels characters. It motivates characters. It drives them to smoulder and plan and weigh options and take action. It makes them seethe, resent, fret, lash out, worry, agonize, fear, flee, and panic.

This month, I have witnessed fear and panic. I have seen empty store shelves–and never before have I ever seen a huge supermarket wiped out of meat in a day. I have seen hoarding of supplies. I have seen generosity and kindness from strangers. I have seen people shaken from their self-absorption in their families and/or their social media friends to instead reach out and speak kindly to people they don’t know. I have seen the good in people, and I have seen barbarous indifference as shown in the Spring Break news feeds. At the latter, we shake our heads, yet it takes time to slow down a country and stop its wheels. We are a nation on the go, and yet now we sit on a side railing, waiting. We aren’t used to sitting idle. It’s unAmerican. It’s weird. We’re supposed to work, to go to school. We’re supposed to be busy and productive. We’re not supposed to sit in our homes, afraid when we venture out to move past the six-foot line. We’re not supposed to stay away from our workplaces or our houses of worship. We don’t quite believe this can be happening to us.

We’re in a situation that can certainly be called a lulu. If you ever needed to study human nature to gain insights into motivation, reaction, true nature, and capacity to act, here is opportunity. We are just over a century from WWI, just over a century from the deadly flu epidemic, just over a century from the sinking of the Titanic. History does repeat. It cycles around, and disaster strikes us when we aren’t paying attention. Disaster also forges us into something better than we were, or it shatters us.

I don’t want to belittle the gravity of what we’re facing now. But it’s a chance to observe, to gain insight into deepening our stories.

The point of plots is to put a protagonist through a stress test to see what this individual is made of. How much can the protagonist take? What does the protagonist fear? What secrets does the protagonist harbor? What is holding the protagonist back, and how can the story events push him or her into changing?

It is typical human nature to resist change. Change is perceived on a psychological level as threatening, and some people dig in so stubbornly to avoid change that they would rather remain in an unsafe situation than do anything differently. Consider the 58-year-old man that’s 250 pounds overweight and at risk for a coronary. His doctor tells him he has to exercise by taking daily walks and eat a healthier diet. Frightened, the guy heads straight to the grocery store and loads up on broccoli, kale, flaxseed meal, and salmon fillets. He struggles his way through a week of power-walking, then skips a day because of work issues, then never catches back up. It’s too hard. It’s boring. He gets too hot. His shoes rub blisters on his toes. He’ll exercise on the weekends. He’ll exercise later. And kale tastes like cardboard. Flaxseed meal makes him itch. The fish doesn’t agree with him. He hates broccoli unless it’s smothered in cheese sauce with bacon bits sprinkled on top. Hey, he can order pepperoni pizza with broccoli on it, right? Sure. And what has he changed within a month of his doctor’s warning? Nothing.

Let’s hammer this point with another example:  the elderly individual that won’t leave her house despite widespread flooding and an evacuation order. She has nowhere else to go. No family to take her in. She’s terrified of being put in an old folks’ home. Her cat has disappeared in the rain and if she leaves her cat won’t have anyone to come home to. So the water rises, and every day the woman climbs higher in her house, until she’s trapped in the attic. Finally her little house is swept off its foundation and goes bobbing along in the torrential waters, necessitating rescue personnel to risk their lives to save her.

Or consider the person that stays in an abusive relationship, afraid to leave for the children’s sake. Never mind what this toxic home life is doing to the kids. They deserve parents that stick together. They deserve the nice house, their own cell phones, laptops, and tablets, the pool, and their generous allowances. Such things will more than make up for the emotional misery and psychological/verbal abuse that poisons everything in this dysfunctional family day after day. Right? Otherwise, what’s it all been for?

How about the writer that sweats to complete a novel manuscript, but won’t submit it to a publisher because it needs just a bit more polish? It could be self-published digitally, but no it really needs a third-act rewrite. Despite the fact that it’s been written and rewritten six times in eight years, it really isn’t quite ready because the writer is afraid to expose it to any potential criticism. After all, it might be published and what would be so bad about that? Well, the writer would have to change by working on a new and different project. On the other hand, if it bombs, the writer will have to face that it’s no good and then change by working on a new and different project.

Change–good or bad–is threatening because it upsets the status quo. It makes things different. It jolts us from our ruts, our routines, our habits. While in real life we dodge change as much as possible, in fiction we need it. We should use it to jump-start our stories at the beginning, then let it pressure and challenge our protagonist into a steady arc of evolving in order to win, to succeed, to survive, to become better. Or, if you’re channeling Mario Puzo and design your protagonist to devolve, the arc of change will end in disaster and defeat.

And all the while, our protagonist is battling not just an antagonist, not just physical or emotional danger, but fear. Fear of the story situation, fear of the antagonist, fear of the mission going wrong, fear of the unknown, fear of a worsening spiral of trouble, fear of failure, fear of daring to leave the box and leap for a risk never attempted before.

Change and emotion. They force character action. They ignite the sparks of conflict. They push the protagonist into doing something, into taking risks, into leaving what’s familiar and known to try what’s different.

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The Importance of Setting

In some fiction genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and westerns, setting is so important it is considered a character. In mysteries and romance stories, it serves to contribute to the discovery or misdirection of clues, to enhance plot and mood, and to elevate what could be banal or mundane into something fascinating. In horror and thrillers, it evokes spine-tingling atmosphere and can raise the stakes in cat-and-mouse suspense.

What setting should never be is generic, interchangeable, and dull. Plunking your plot and characters into a blah, ho-hum backdrop is shortchanging your readers and sabotaging the full potential of your material. Does this mean you have to set your story in Barbados instead of Backyard, USA? Not at all. A skilled, experienced writer can make just about anywhere interest someone, but it takes work, attention to detail, and knowledge to bring it to life.

Setting in creating fiction is a technique important enough to justify a series of posts devoted to it. I’ll be bringing you those posts soon.

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Shaken

Firstly, I apologize to the followers of this post for having neglected you for so long. This year, I have found many such apologies in the blogs that I follow, and I understand. Sometimes, we’re interrupted or become over-committed. LIFE gets in our way. In my case, I could kick about my situation or complain about LIFE stepping in and throwing my recent writing goals to the curb, but as a writer I know that we need LIFE to give us new material.

Also, after my three recent books on writing technique, I felt for a while that I’d said all I had to say on method and approach. This attitude is unfair to you as followers and shirks my responsibility to you. However, as a writing teacher once said to me many years ago when I was as yet unpublished and living on dreams and sheer determination … “From time to time, you have to let the well fill back up.”

Earlier this summer, when I was feeling guilty about posting nonsense about toads instead of advice on killing adverbs, I told myself to pull it together. It was time to walk into my office, sit in my writing chair, and resume posting on writing techniques.

Instead, a weird thing happened. I was plowing through a stack of possible novels to assign to my university course on genre fiction this fall when I read a book by a highly successful author of romance and romantic suspense. It was my first exposure to this writer’s work. I don’t know whether it’s representative of her usual effort or an aberration or a new direction for her.

All I know is that this genre novel had next to no plot. The protagonist hit a strong and dangerous problem in chapter one. That problem was resolved in chapter two. The romance was clenched in less than twenty-five pages. The subplots were introduced and resolved without any conflict. And the rest of the story filled in with illness, personal makeovers, and wardrobe decisions.

That book poleaxed me.

In hindsight, I realize that it got to me because I was tired and stressed due to LIFE. Worry and lack of sleep had sapped my reserves more than I realized. And for the last three weeks after reading that book, I kept thinking, What is the use?

That question is always a danger signal for any writer, at any time, in any situation.

It means, in effect, that the writer is surrendering, giving up, and abandoning the art and joy of creating with words on the page. Whether a writer is stymied by lack of time, distractions, hindrances, self-doubt, criticism, lack of support, or whatever form of resistance being thrown at her, too much of it becomes a tsunami that can drown intentions, goals, writing schedules, and projects.

What is the use, I wondered, of standing on technique, of trying to teach unwilling and recalcitrant students how to form scenes, follow plot questions, or handle pacing? It was as though I was trying to swim across a river, and that novel was a cement block thrown at me instead of a life preserver.

In recent years, I’ve seen waves of poor writing flood our entertainment industry, whether in books or films. I’ve read too many reader reviews raving about books that turn out to be nothing more than gimmickry or a mess of episodic events strung together. I’ve attended writer conferences where young, up-and-coming writers thumb their noses at plot and story design. I’ve watched the publishing industry crashing in Zepplin-flames as the seasoned editors retire or are driven from their jobs in the name of corporate downsizing.

From food to stories, the fashion du jour seems to be deconstruction. I understand this is a fad. I understand that youngsters love rebellion and delight in taking things apart. Yet in a year where the whole world seems to be embracing the cause of anarchy with no signs of stopping, I can’t help but think of that era of history when knowledge and civilization faltered, and Europe plunged into the Dark Ages.

See what I mean? In such a gloomy mindset, how easy–after reading a pleasant but utterly plotless effort by a bestselling author–for me to say, “Writing has reached its end. Stories are dead.”

Yeah, I realize I’ve been a drama queen about the incident. But writers have to over-react. Writers have to be too sensitive. Writers have to be so empathetic that we absorb the emotions of others and vibrate to their joys, tragedies, and comedies.

Good stories are still being written. Plots still exist out there. But, for the past month, I clung to the cement block and sank. I spent a lot of evenings thinking and pondering whether to abandon the abilities and skills I’ve been honing for a lifetime. Was it time to walk away? To say, no more writing?

Well, one of the precepts of genre writing is that readers will accept any emotion in a character except self-pity. It seems to me that it’s a good precept to follow in real life as well. So I dropped the cement block and floated back up to the surface.

Meanwhile, LIFE has backed off its pressure slightly. Stress has dropped a fraction. Sometimes, I get more sleep. I have been reading other books from my stack and they are better. I have dug down and found that my innate stubborn determination is still within me. It’s shaken but intact.

There is usefulness in what I do and teach. I will not stop doing what I know and believe in. I am competitive enough, stubborn enough, certain enough, and trained enough to go on. And if American literacy drops even lower than its current, shameful fourth-grade level, and we become monkeys able only to point and click, then I will hold my lantern aloft for as long as I’m able.

Meanwhile, my intention is to resume regular posts and put my writing schedule back on track. We’ll see how it goes.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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Kindle at Last!

I’m pleased to report that my editors at Manchester University Press have–after much persistence–come through. The mysterious and perplexing glitch that’s been delaying the ebook publication of THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA is now “un-glitched.” TFFF is finally available on Kindle. Woo-hoo!

Some of you have been waiting quite a while for the ebook version. I’m sorry about the long delay, and thank you for your patience.

Sometimes there are gremlins in the house, but at last they seem to have gone away.

The Fantasy Fiction Formula Final

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Bubble, Boil & Trouble

Just the other day, I told my class that more amateur fiction fails from insufficient conflict than for any other reason.

Conflict, problems, adversity, bad luck, pressure, stress, worry, anguish–these are all part of a writer’s toolkit and should be at the center of stories.

However, sometimes new writers stumble over these variants of character trouble or dodge them altogether.

Instead, let’s look ’em right in the eye:

TROUBLE

Conflict is the linchpin of scenes. I always define it as two characters in direct, active opposition to each other. They meet in confrontation. They argue, fight, interrogate, bicker, evade, etc. Each one comes into the confrontation with a strategy and maneuvers through various tactics and persuasions in an effort to win the encounter.

So as long as you’re writing scenes, fill them with conflict.

If your characters won’t confront each other, you have a problem, and the scenes will crumble.

Problems that can’t be ignored or evaded give your characters something to do. Problems in the story’s opening situation, in the story’s subplots, in the characters’ backgrounds are all useful devices for filling mushy places in your plotline where the story action might otherwise flag.

Adversity (aka random bad luck) carries a warning label because it’s so often misused whenever inexperienced writers try to substitute it for conflict.

Let me state this clearly:  conflict and adversity are not the same thing. Adversity is conflict’s weaker cousin and it can’t do the job that conflict is responsible for.

Even so, occasional adversity doesn’t hurt. Like problems, adversity in small doses injected strategically brings another level of trouble to a story. If you’re writing plenty of conflict and your scenes are strong, adding an occasional dollop of bad luck will help raise the story stakes and keep your plot less predictable.

However, adversity alone just doesn’t carry a story well. Random bad luck is the volcano spewing molten lava on the spot where the hero just happens to be standing. Had the sidekick been there instead, the lava would have melted him. The lava doesn’t care. It has no intelligence, let alone a reason for doing what it’s doing.

Yet if lava spewing danger to a resort Hawaiian community is a catalyst that kickstarts a story and gets the protagonist moving in an effort to warn the community residents or evacuate them, then the volcanic eruption works very well as a backdrop of added danger. But on its own, it is not an actual antagonist.

Pressure ups the stakes. Pressure comes from deadlines, bad luck, and threats. Just when your protagonist has more than enough to cope with, add more pressure. Maybe Granny decides to have a coronary just as the protagonist is trying to load everyone on her neighborhood block into a van for evacuation ahead of the lava flow. The ambulance is cut off from rendering assistance. Minor characters are panicking. And now the protagonist has to find a way to save Granny.

Stress is a by-product of trouble and pressure. And while I want to experience as little stress in myself as possible, I certainly want my protagonist to suffer through a lot of it. Because stress indicates my protagonist is being tested, which is what fiction is really about.

Worry in a hero when things are going from bad to worse creates a corresponding concern in readers. And that helps keep pages turning.

Anguish stems from scene conflict that’s more challenging than the protagonist expected, ending in setback or disaster. Think about times in your life when you’ve wanted something so very, very much and it did not happen. Look at the faces of Olympic athletes who’ve trained for years for the split-second ending of a race when they reached out with all they had and fell short.

That’s your protagonist, reaching through conflict and opposition so bad he isn’t sure he can survive it, and feeling intense anguish as the story goal looks to be dropping away, lost forever.

BOIL

Conflict, problems, and trouble have to start strong and grow harsher and more formidable as the story progresses. This kind of story pressure will then force your protagonist into taking risks and growing. It will push your protagonist’s emotions into a churning turmoil of conflicting feelings.

If your viewpoint character isn’t “on the boil” inside, then chances are you haven’t pitted him or her against enough opposition.

Raise the stakes and stop protecting your protagonist.

BUBBLE

What’s bubbling beneath the surface? What do you know that your readers don’t? Is your protagonist torn within, at conflict with himself as he struggles to find a way out of his current difficulties?

External plot conflict should exacerbate whatever flaws your hero possesses. Not just little things like failing to pick up her clothes, but areas where your protagonist lacks something necessary to win, to survive the story situation.

The external conflict should force your protagonist to grow. And a character grows whenever he’s pushed from the cocoon of physical, emotional, or psychological safety where he’s taken refuge.

Trouble with consequences that can’t be ignored is the first step toward shoving your protagonist beyond the safety zone. Being pitted against an antagonist that shows no mercy will compel your protagonist to strive to do things never tried before despite that inner flaw or fear. The story’s plot is all about making your protagonist face her fear or overcome her inner weakness despite all the internal doubt and uncertainty holding her back.

Without trouble, boil, and bubble–protagonists are flat and lifeless on the page. They never quite come to life. They fail to be compelling.

Reach past your personal comfort zone and stop protecting your hero. Amp up the challenge, and kick emotions to life.

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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.

 

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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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Viewpoint podcast

This week’s podcast from Manchester University Press is the third of a six-part series of interviews and centers on viewpoint.

Enjoy!

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