Thursday, May 24, 2012

Two Ways to Immediately Improve Your Fiction

I've been ruminating on some writing advice and thinking of the best advice I could give a beginning fiction writer. Something besides "Show Don't Tell" or "Write What You Know." In reading through some recent samples on Amazon, I've found plenty of good writing, but even good writing isn't enough to hook a reader. So here's two tips that I think will improve your fiction immediately.

1.  Start your story with the moment of change, threat, or crisis. By this, I mean when the characters' lives will be forever changed by a story event. There is no going back. Here's some examples:

In Jaws, Chrissy is attacked by the shark in the first few minutes of the movie. The shark has shown up and things won't be the same for Amity until the beast is killed.

In Super 8, 14-year-old Joe has just lost his mother in an industrial accident. His world has changed forever.

In The Stand, King opens with a man frantically waking his wife. The superflu bug has been released on the military base where he is stationed. The man implores his wife to grab their daughter so they can escape before they're trapped.

In Mystic River, Dennis Lehane's opening chapter depicts Dave's abduction as a young boy, an event that will have consequences in his adult life.

It might be tempting to drop in a truckload of backstory about the character's childhood, past, etc. The first chapter isn't the place for backstory. Think of backstory like spices in cooking. Sprinkle it in here and there throughout the story. A line of dialogue here. A couple sentences there. Dumping it all in at once will ruin your dish. King shows us his characters getting ready to run. He doesn't delve into a long explanation of the superflu or explore the characters' entire history in the first scene. That can come later.

2. Write in immediate scenes

Immediate scenes show us the story as it is unfolding. I tell my writing students to imagine a movie playing in your mind. It's your job to transcribe what you see (and what the characters see, feel, hear, etc.) If you're writing paragraph after paragraph of internal monologue and the character is basically sitting around thinking about things, you're in trouble. Put them in action. Give them a goal to pursue. Show them interacting with other characters.

Don't explain the story, show it to us. For example, here's telling/explaining:

Frank Capretti needed to see Lou Giambra about a turf dispute. Lou's territory was in Brooklyn and lately he'd been trying to expand his drug business into Jersey. Frank wanted to talk to Lou and maybe beat some sense into him. Frank didn't like Lou being on his turf. Jersey belonged to the Capretti family. He would make sure Lou paid. Frank was the toughest guy in the Capretti family. He'd always like busting heads. Once, when he was a kid....

Here's a better way to do it in an immediate scene:

Frank Capretti walked into Mangia, Lou Giambra's sixty-dollar-a-steak restaurant. Through the gloom he saw Giambra sitting at the bar. He was sipping a cocktail, his fat ass spilling over a bar stool. Frank went up to him, tapped him on the shoulder.  Giambra turned around, his face twisted into a frown.

"Need to talk to you," Frank said.

"That's funny, I never seen walking, talking garbage before," Giambra said.

"You and your boys need to stay out of Jersey."

"You own it?"

"It's our turf. You know that."

"What are you going to do? Bust my skull in my own place?"

Frank looked around, hitched his thumbs in his pockets. "Nice place you got here. Be a shame if someone broke in, let loose a couple dozen rats."

Not award-winning material, but you get the idea. By letting action and dialogue carry the scene, we see the story. We see that these guys are enemies and that one of them is willing to stoop pretty low to get what he wants. If I were writing this scene, I'd expand it, ramping up the tension between the two men.

By using these techniques in your fiction, you'll stand a better chance of hooking the reader and keeping them engaged. If you're not already doing it, give it a try. I think you'll like the results.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Six Writing Prompts to Ignite Your Fiction

From time-to-time, I like to post some writing prompts. Do with them what you will.

As he was mowing the lawn, Jerry came upon an enormous hole. It hadn't been there the last time he'd cut grass.

The odd snow continued to fall, black as coal dust.

She saw him across the hotel lobby and knew he was the man she'd marry.

A character comes home to find a sticky note on his/her fridge. It's from a family member and says: Help us. No Police. Call this number.

As the Detective looked down at the corpse he thought: I've never seen that done to a human being before.

She heard the thud. Once. Twice. With a creeping fear in her belly, she was quite certain someone was in the attic.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Straying From the Map

I'm not a fan of writing detailed plot outlines, but I do like to have a list of scenes ready to go when I write. I like to know the ending and approximately how much material I will need to complete the book. I'm currently working on Plague, the second book in the Dead Land Trilogy. As the action is unfolding, I'm finding one of the main characters separated from the group. I didn't plan for this to happen, but I like the possibilities. Can he survive on his own? Will he be reunited with the group? How will it happen?

Don't ever be afraid to take a detour from your outline. It can take your story in new and exciting directions. And if you're surprised and delighted at the turn of events, it's a good bet the reader will be, too.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Building Your Characters (And plot, too)

Whether you're a plotter or pantster, at some point you have to create story people to do all the cool stuff you have planned in your novel. I've created a list of questions to ask yourself when working up characters. You can either do this before writing, or on the fly. I think you'll find it will also generate plot ideas and send your story galloping off in new directions.




Physical Characteristics

Manner of Dress

Political Beliefs

Hobbies (Can you make these relevant to the story?)

Childhood (How does this affect the present story?)

Skills/Talents that are relevant to the story

Religious beliefs (Could this possibly create conflicts within the story?)

What's the catalyst that changes the character's life? (Good stories start with a change or on the cusp of one. Put the character in some sort of trouble)

What does the character want more than anything?

Who is opposing the character?

What's the worst thing that could happen to the character right now?

What happened in the character's past that could affect the story?

Do they have any enemies? Why?

What are the character's flaws/weaknesses? How could someone exploit them?

What does the character value more than anything? What if it were taken away? Threatened?

What's the character's story goal? What happens if the character fails? Make the stakes big if they lose (loss of life, a loved one, emotional ruin, destruction of career, etc.)

Can you "interview" your character to learn more about them?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Random Stuff

Plague, Book Two of The Dead Land Trilogy, continues to move along. The zombie virus is spreading and things are starting to break down. Destroying the world is sort of fun. In a fictional sense. I've been getting 1000 words a day, which is a respectable pace. For those of you who don't think you have time to write, 1000 words per day (which should take about an hour) equals at least three novels per year, depending on length.

I have a number of books that I'm currently reading. I tend to switch back and forth between books, eventually finishing all of them.

The Frenzy Way by Gregory Lamberson

Under the Dome by Stephen King

Sick by Brett Battles

Throttle by Joe Hill and Stephen King

On a side note, I've been listening to Hold On by Alabama Shakes quite a bit. If you like Southern Rock, you owe it to yourself to check them out:

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Power of What If

One of the concerns I hear from beginning writers is that they will run out of ideas. When this comes up, I tell them two things:

1. It's pretty much impossible to run out of ideas. Most professional writers have more ideas than they have time to write.

2. Once you get into the daily habit of writing, ideas will start coming at you. In line at the grocery store. In the shower. Your brain will start to make connections and twist things into story ideas. Trust me, it's like opening some weird pipeline to the Muse.

But one tool I like is to ask "What if?" For some reason, going on vacations seems to spur ideas for novels. Perhaps because a new and different setting offers story possibilities. No Escape came about when we were vacationing up in the Thousand Islands. To access the island we stayed on, you had to drive over a dam. I thought: "What if something were keeping us on the island? And we had to fight our way off to survive?" Bam. Story idea. The park we stayed in became the inspiration for the setting. Once I dreamed up a threat to keep the characters on the island, I was off and running.

Let's say you're staying at a hotel. There's nothing good on TV and you don't want to order that type of movie on pay-per-view. The pool water reminds you of a swamp, and the fitness center has nothing more than a Thighmaster and some Richard Simmons exercise videos. Why not write?

Off the top of my head, here are some what ifs:

What if the hotel came under attack by zombies?

What if the hotel owner wouldn't let you leave?

What if one of the rooms was a portal to another world/dimension?

What if a group of escaped convicts used the hotel as a hideout?

What if you discovered a pile of bodies in an abandoned part of the hotel?

What if you woke up and the formerly occupied hotel was now empty?

What if you saw someone dumping a body in the pool?

What if there were a string of murders and the victims were haunting the hotel?

Those are some ideas that come to mind. Because I write horror and thrillers, most of mine have the potential to be that type of story. If you're not inclined toward the gruesome, why not try some others?

What if you fell madly in love with the person in the next room?

What if the owner told you he was leaving you the hotel in his will?

What if you saw a guest who resembled a long-lost family member?

The possibilities are endless. Sometimes it's just a matter of asking questions.

Thought I'd also give a writing update. I'm about twenty-five thousand words into writing Plague, the second book in The Dead Land Trilogy. I'm shooting for a June release. The first book, Infected, is available now for Kindle.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Sketch of The Voodoo Child

I've been playing guitar for around twenty years, and I've recently made an effort to get in more playing time. Between a full-time job, family, and writing, that usually amounts to only 15 minutes a few times a week. I decided to learn Jimi's Voodoo Child. Years ago I learned the wah-soaked intro but never got any farther. So I got the inspiration to sketch the master. When I first started playing, my guitar teacher was trying to show me "Catfish Blues", which Hendrix did on his live Radio One album. My teacher commented "he's such a snake", meaning Hendrix was all over the place and hard to figure out. He meant it as a compliment.

And the master at work:

Saw A Quiet Place II This Weekend

Jenn and I went for lunch yesterday, then saw A Quiet Place II at the Aurora Theater. The Aurora is a great little theater. One screen, and...