Tag Archives: writing

Plotting Workbook

Thanks for being patient! I’m delighted to announce that FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING PRACTICE, the companion workbook to FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING, should be live on Amazon.com in the next few hours. It will be available in both print and Kindle versions.

ffpp-DC-front red

Those of you who have been requesting drills and exercises will find this book filled with them, and there’s plenty of “homework” to keep you busy for quite a while.

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From My Bookshelf: Mary Roberts Rinehart

I have long been a fan of Rineharts’ mysteries. When I see her name on a ratty, much-worn, or faded binding, I usually pounce. Far too frequently, the book proves to be so musty I pass it up, but sometimes I grab it anyway, determined to find a way to read it even if it must be shelved in the garage.

When you start looking, she’s not impossible to find. A few of her best-known works can be found in paperback editions or e-books. A few.

Trouble is, I want them all.

Have you heard of her? Have you ever read her?

She was born in 1876 and died in 1958. She is best known for her mysteries–and she wrote over 60 of them. But she also penned plays that were performed on Broadway, plus short stories and articles for the Saturday Evening Post. She was a travel writer and a war correspondent for that publication during World War I. In the latter capacity, she interviewed Winston Churchill and Queen Mary. In addition to her prolific writing, she trained as a nurse, married a doctor, helped him with his practice, and raised three sons.

She is held responsible for coining the phrase, “The butler did it.” Her first book was published fourteen years before Agatha Christie came along, yet Rinehart today is known as the “American Agatha Christie.”

The other day, as I was reading an elderly, non-musty edition of her novel, K, I found myself asking why did Christie surpass her? Why is a sizable amount of Christie still in print and still selling while Rinehart molders away, largely forgotten?

Christie is probably better at crafting puzzlers. Rinehart is very much of the American school of mystery’s Golden Age. Her novel, The Yellow Room, dating from the 1940s, is as convoluted as any Chandler or Hammett work. No, I couldn’t solve it ahead of her sleuth, but the solution was so complicated that I’m still confused about some of it. And while I was willing to push my way through Hammett’s The Glass Key by watching the film innumerable times then reading the novel in an effort to understand it (and ditto for Chandler’s The Big Sleep), I’m not convinced that struggling so hard through this so-called American approach is worth the trouble.

Christie, after all, is easy to read. She doesn’t require huge effort, yet neither does she write down or patronize her audience. And while I think it’s important to read the difficult as well as the easy, the fact remains that Christie’s prose is clear and approachable. And there’s an advantage to that.

Rineharts writes beautifully. Her sentences are lyrical, lovely, almost poetic. Her style is rich, and she conveys a view of America in that period of pre-WWI through the 1920s that I love to visit. She doesn’t shy away from crime, relationships, ethical dilemmas, or moral struggles in her fiction, yet there’s nothing tawdry or coarse either. I think perhaps she fell out of favor because her style is too distinctive, too noticeable. We’ve moved away from the issues of that era. Very few of us now remember or realize a time in America when income tax didn’t exist. When people struggled to maintain a standard of living that was slowly going extinct before the Great Depression of the 1930s dealt it a death blow. Her characters, contending with recalcitrant servants, dwindling incomes, the desperate need to keep up appearances after losing all their money, etc., seem to belong to that elusive world of old black-and-white movies, evening gowns, and chauffeur-driven automobiles. Her books open a window and let us peer with curiosity into that long-ago place, but it’s hard for us to relate now.

By contrast, Christie doesn’t seem to date. Her characters lack the layers displayed by Rinehart. They are names. They move about and speak, but they are barely developed. Christie’s focus remains on the puzzle to be solved. Strangely enough–despite our modern fascination with the psychotic–we are less drawn to Rinehart’s tormented and complex people than Christie’s placeholders.

Now, my theory that her ornate style drove Rinehart out of favor may be bunk or it may be valid. All I know is that I love pouncing when I find her in vintage shops, forgotten corners, and occasional Amazon offers. She’s a treasure.

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Merry & Bright

Wishing all of you a lovely holiday 2017. Take time to sip a mug of hot something before a warm fire. May you be with friends and those you love. Let your hearts remember kindness and hope. And here’s hoping you receive books or bookstore gift cards for gifts!

My thanks to all of you for following this blog, for buying my books, for your good wishes and support, and your kind encouragement.

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FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING

I’m thrilled to announce that my new book, Fiction Formula Plotting, is now live on Amazon. It’s available in both Kindle eBook and paperback versions.

There will be a companion workbook with drills that will supplement every chapter. I hope to have that up after Christmas.

Kindle Cover

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Language Joy

A few weeks ago, I ran across this British tongue twister. I don’t remember who wrote it or where I found it, but visually it’s delightful and I had to share it with you all. Some of the words may puzzle us Americans, but that’s part of the fun.

Here goes:

I take it you already know

of tough and bough and cough and dough?

Others may stumble, but not you

on hiccough, thorough, slough and through.

 

With so many variants and idiosyncratic pronunciations, it’s small wonder the English language is considered hard to learn! (Incidentally, in the USA, we spell it hiccup instead of hiccough.) (As for slough, in England the pronunciation rhymes with our plow–which the Brits spell as plough–but in the American south, slough rhymes with you.)

Why all the confusion, you may be wondering? Because after the War of 1812, the U.S. Congress hired Daniel Webster to change as many spellings as possible to help differentiate America from Great Britain. We rely on Webster’s Dictionary, and they have the Oxford English Dictionary. Thus, we became two nations separated by the same language.

 

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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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Don’t Forget!

In November’s sporadic posts, I’ve written about character design and introduction. But all that hard work and long thought aren’t sufficient. You can build the most vivid character ever, with an outstanding dominant impression and tags galore. You can introduce Mr. Wow into the story with an explosion and a stunt, and it still isn’t enough.

At this point, are you thinking, What more do readers want? Blood?

Let’s not be quite that dramatic. What readers want is character reinforcement.

In other words, you don’t allow readers to forget a character’s dominant impression. You don’t allow them to forget Mr. Wow’s personality. You don’t allow them to forget how special and vivid Mr. Wow is. Again and again, at key points in the story progression you should reestablish, reinforce, and reiterate.

Reestablish a character that’s been off the page for a while. I do this through a miniature introduction or description. Even though readers may vaguely remember this character that’s been gone, it helps them if you can provide reminders of appearance, dominant impression, and story role. Naturally not all characters have to be reestablished. For example, if you’re writing a novel about three people stranded in a lifeboat in the Pacific, there’s no need for reestablishment. That would come across as stilted, awkward, and patronizing.

However, let’s say you have a character named Herman that’s been tailing Mr. Wow for half the day. Mr. Wow confronts Herman and discovers that Herman works for a man that wants Mr. Wow to lay off his investigation into a blackmailing scheme. They scuffle, and Mr. Wow knocks Herman out, leaving him in an alley. Four or five chapters later, Herman reappears in the story, this time waiting in Mr. Wow’s office for his return and armed with a .38.

Now, in those intervening four chapters, numerous plot twists, conflict, and new character introductions have occurred. Mr. Wow has barely escaped a warehouse fire, nearly been shot, and fallen in love with a blonde dame at the casino. After so much excitement, readers might dimly remember Herman, or he might be entirely forgotten. So now, with his return, there’s a need to reestablish him. We can do so through a brief description of what he’s wearing. The same tan raincoat with the torn cuff and the same dark brown fedora as before. The same small dark eyes, burning intensely in a narrow face. But let’s remind readers of that alley fight by giving Herman a black eye.

By taking the time to pause the story briefly to give him a miniature reintroduction, readers don’t have to struggle to remember. They’ll get a kick out of the black eye, remembering how Mr. Wow dealt with the little squirt. And they’ll worry about the new element of the .38 and the resentment in Herman’s face.

We reinforce characterization frequently through the usage of tags. Tags, if you recall, are little attachments of character information. We have many types at our disposal. There are tags of physical appearance, tags of behavior and mannerisms, tags of possessions/clothing, tags that show personality, tags of vocabulary or dialogue patterns, and the character’s name with all its connotations.

Why do we need so many? So that we can reinforce often without numbing readers. A rule I try to follow is to use at least one tag per character per page.

I’ll repeat that:  at least one tag per character per page.

Does this mean that I’m going to mention Mr. Wow’s steely gaze in every paragraph? No. Let’s say that Mr. Wow wears custom-made suits that are very expensive. He stands about six feet, five inches. He has thick auburn hair and gray eyes, an aristocratic nose, and a rugged jaw. He drives a Porsche Cayenne SUV–gunmetal gray with black leather interior. He speaks softly but seriously and never says anything he doesn’t mean. He’s smart, tough, successful, resourceful, cool-headed, and ruthless if he has to be.

Now, consider this:

“My boss says to lay off, see, or me and my pals will be forced to rough you up. Unnerstand? Hey, you hearin’ me?”

Mr. Wow had been sizing up the pugnacious punk during the threats and bluster. He’d also inched closer to the spokesman, who maybe came up to his shoulder and had a dished-in face with a nose broken too many times. No one so far had pulled a gun or a shiv, and despite the wooden billy-club in the punk’s hand, Mr. Wow dismissed the trio as amateurs.

He struck without warning, landing a punch that cracked lumpy cartilage and broke the punk’s nose once more. Blood spurted, and with a howl the punk reeled back, dropping his club to clutch his face.

Mr. Wow finished him with an uppercut and spun lightly to face the other two. They stared at him, wide-eyed, and ran.

Dusting off his hands, Mr. Wow checked his silk shirt cuffs for any blood splatter and pulled down the sleeves of his gray woolen suit. It was new, shipped by courier from his Savile Row tailor only yesterday. One of the individual buttonholes on the right sleeve seemed maybe an eighth of an inch out of line with the others. His tailor was getting sloppy. Mr. Wow stared down at his groaning, would-be assailant without expression, stepped over him, and walked out to the curb. Getting into his Cayenne, Mr. Wow drove away without a backward glance. It was time to deal with the punk’s boss.

Never mind that I’m having fun by using every cliched, hard-boiled trope from the golden age of crime fiction, look at how I’ve reinforced the information I want readers to remember. While all the details that I mentioned above in that one-paragraph dossier aren’t used in my italicized example, they don’t need to be because Mr. Wow would have been introduced earlier in the story. But from his name, to his height, to his dapper taste in clothes, to his physicality, and all the way down to his polished toecaps, Mr. Wow’s tags are plentiful enough to be rotated and used in different combinations.

If nothing else, adhere to the tag rule by using a character’s name instead of relying on pronouns. The name tag is the most useful of all types, yet because it’s so functional inexperienced writers sometimes forget it. Why use “he” when you can use “Mr. Wow.”

Reiterate characterization without repetition. Reiterate through utilizing new combinations and ways of showing the information to readers. Show your character’s personality through a variety of actions that all work to convey the same impression.

This is sometimes referred to as using a “tag cluster.” For example, if you want to convey the personality trait of cool-headed, think about what behaviors and reactions will show it.

From the above example, Mr. Wow demonstrates this trait through his calmness when cornered by three thugs armed with clubs. He coolly assesses them, guessing that they haven’t done time or they would be armed differently. He also determines that they are more bluff than true danger. He does not let being outnumbered concern him. He strikes a strategic blow–one as psychologically damaging as it is physically painful–and shows no emotion whatsoever.

How do we reiterate this trait? By demonstrating it in different action the next time. Let’s say that when he pays his bill at the casino that evening, his card is declined. There have been no text alerts on his phone, yet when he checks his bank he learns his account has been frozen. Again, by showing him calm, intelligent, alert, savvy, and unemotional as he deals with financial sabotage, his cool-headed trait is shown anew.

 

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