Writing Advice

James Patterson on How to Write an Unputdownable Story

16 April 2014

From Fast Company:

They call it beach reading–the kind of ultra-accessible mass market paperback that nestles inside canvas bags all summer long. (And on airplanes year-round). Considering how addictive James Patterson’s books are known to be, and their inescapable popularity, the wildly prolific author is probably directly responsible for more sunburns than incidents of non-water proof sunscreen.

. . . .

Patterson recently earned the distinction of being the best-selling author since 2001. Just to be clear, one of the author’s books wasn’t merely declared “the #1 bestseller,” a blurb that pops up on front covers regularly. Rather, James Patterson is the top selling author in the worldfor the last 14 years. An estimated one out of every 17 hardcover novels purchased in the United States is his, dwarfing the sales of both Harry Potter and the sparklyTwilight vampires.

. . . .

I think what hooks people into my stories is the pace. I try to leave out the parts people skip. I used to live across the street from Alexander Haig, and if I told you a story that I went out to get the paper and Haig was laying in the driveway, and then I went on for 20 minutes describing the architecture on the street and the way the palm trees were, you’d feel like “Stop with the description–what’s going on with Haig?” I tend to write stories the way you’d tell them. I think it’d be tragic if everybody wrote that way. But that’s my style. I read books by a lot of great writers. I think I’m an okay writer, but a very good storyteller.

. . . .

I’m a big fan of these two novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell Jr. They’re both very eloquent, but they have short chapters. And then Jerzy Kosiński wrote a few books like The Painted Bird and Steps that have very short chapters and I just love that style. It’s a style I evolved to. It was actually on (his 1989 novel) Midnight Club. After I read the first 100 pages, I was planning to flesh them out more, but then I thought, “I kind of like this.” It’s that more colloquial style of storytelling where things really just move along. That became my style.

. . . .

People want to be glued to the page. They want suspense, and suspense to me is always about questions that you must have answered. I try to pretend that there’s somebody across from me and I’m telling them a story and I don’t want them to get up until I’m finished. John Grisham always plants a really powerful hook early, that question that makes you want to know what the hell is gonna happen to this guy or this woman. But part of it is, who are you talking to? What have you got for them?

Link to the rest at Fast Company

The Word Fountain

7 April 2014

From author John Walters:

Well, time has passed, and sometimes I have written and sometimes I have not, but now I realize I am not getting any younger, and if I do not use my talent, my one and only talent while I can, I will die with work unfinished. One would think that with a dozen published books and many more stories and essays that that would be enough, but it isn’t – because I am not over. As long as I am still here I need to do what I need to do.

But then the dilemma remains that I am a single parent with the responsibility to take care of not just myself but the sons that live with me, and my novels and stories and memoirs and so on don’t bring in enough to pay the bills. To make even a fraction of our expenses I work from around eight in the morning to eight or later at night, with short breaks to do household chores and take a brief nap.

Nevertheless, I knew I had to start writing again, so I contemplated my options.

. . . .

The last option was to try to write at the end of the day, after everything else was done and my son who goes to middle school was in bed. That meant starting to write around eleven and continuing until around midnight. I figured I might as well try it. After all, I have been suffering from insomnia brought on by the stress of our financial situation and other personal matters. I might as well do something worthwhile if I can’t sleep. So I tried it last week and I not only got some good prose out of it, but I slept better afterwards too. Part of it was simply staying up until I was more weary, but part of it was putting my mind at ease by letting that word fountain flow. I realized that part of the reason for the insomnia was worry that I wasn’t getting my writing done. By satisfying that itch I was able to relax and rest.

Link to the rest at John Walters

The Oxford Comma Debate

20 March 2014

How I Write: David Baldacci

19 March 2014

From The Daily Beast:

Talk us through your writing process.

I’m not a words-per-day kind of guy. I always felt that if you have an artificial number, it probably means that you don’t want to be writing, anyway. If you say, okay I do 2000 words, but what if the next words would’ve been fantastic? You’re just going to stop and go play golf? You can also produce 2000 words that are crap. So I sit down to write when I’m ready to write, when things crystallize in my head and I know what I want to say. I work on multiple projects a day, so I might spend three or four hours on my next adult thriller, then a few hours on a screenplay. I might work for a few hours on editing, or on a young adult book. For me, three or four hours on one project, I’ve probably exhausted my energy for that. But rather than just calling it a day, and going on home, I’ll move on to some other project. I just love to write. It’s not a job, it never has been. It’s a lifestyle. If I’m not writing or plotting, I’m not a happy camper. It just keeps me going.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing beginsDo you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

I’m very much a writer who lets the story develop. I don’t plot everything out, and I have no idea how the book is going to end when I sit down to write it. I wouldn’t want to, because then it’d feel like I’m writing to an outline. It would feel like a drudge. And I don’t know what my characters are capable of until I spend a hundred pages with them. So how can I know what they’d do at the end of the book, if I don’t know them well enough to begin with? I stick my toes in the water, feel what it’s all about, and then let it flow. Sometimes I go by the seat of my pants, sometimes I have a bit of it planned out. I’m always thinking about it. I don’t use super-detailed outlines, because I feel like it’s easy to write an outline, because in an outline everything works. But when you actually execute it on the page, you look at the outline, look at the page, and think, “Well, it sounded good in the outline, but it’s not really working…”

. . . .

What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?

One of two things, hopefully both. I have to give you an interesting character who you can either root for or against. And second, something has to happen. I don’t mean that someone has to die or something has to get blown up. You just have to present some sort of conundrum, problem, or issue that this character, who you’ve hopefully begun to grow interested in over the first few pages, has to overcome. It’s much like the first act in a film. Any screenplay, movie you go to see, is three acts. The first act you have about ten minutes or ten pages to set up everything—who the characters are, the problem they face or the journey they have to take. Then the long second and the far shorter third act, and a resolution of some five pages at the end. In books I want to be descriptive, I want to put you in the moment, feel the atmosphere, to give you a character who’s interesting and who you can grow to care about for some reason, either like or hate. And give them an interesting problem they have to solve.

Link to the rest at The Daily Beast and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Nobody Said That Then!

16 March 2014

From The New Yorker:

More than ever before, the makers of movies and television shows set in the historical past take care to get period details right. What we see on the screen tends to have been conscientiously researched. Medieval peasants, Civil War-era soldiers and politicians, and Old West cowboys and Indians no longer wear obviously machine-sewn clothes made of obviously synthetic fabrics. Houses and streets contain furnishings and vehicles actually in use in the era portrayed. There is some recognition of the fact that, in days of yore, men wore hats year-round, often got dirty, and didn’t necessarily shave every day. We live in a golden age of production design—but only for what we see, not for what we hear. Script-wise, anything goes, including the lexical equivalents of a jukebox in a frontier saloon or a zip-up toga on a Roman senator.

I’ve been watching episodes of “Masters of Sex,” a dramatic series about William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the famous midcentury sex researchers. It’s a good show, every bit as entertaining and clever as Emily Nussbaum says it is. But what drives me nuts about it—and about a good many other high-end cable period pieces, such as “Deadwood” and “Downton Abbey”—is the gratuitous proliferation of verbal anachronisms.

A few examples from “Masters of Sex,” which is set in St. Louis in the early nineteen-fifties:

I’m going to pass on the bacon.” People played a lot of bridge back then, but “pass on,” as a metaphor for skipping or refusing something, was not yet in use.

This is way more than you owe me.” No. No way. No one used “way” this way in 1953, not even Valley Girls. (Valley Girls had not yet been invented.) “This is much more than you owe me” would be way more authentic.

. . . .

It’s a game-changing offer.” William Safire, the late Times columnist and conductor of the paper’s “On Language” department, nailed down the etymology of this one in 2008. “Game-changer” made its début in 1982, in the sports sections of newspapers, referring to decisive plays in particular games, not to changes in the rules or methods of play. The term made its metaphorical way into business jargon during the nineties and came to rest in politics after the turn of the century.

. . . .

I’m trying to get my head around it.” More hippie slang. It’s just possible that someone might have said, “I’m trying to get my mind around it,” but even that would be a stretch.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker and thanks to Barb for the tip.

Promises to Keep

12 March 2014

From Dave Farland:

A reader wrote last week and asked, “Can you talk about the promises that authors make in a manuscript? I’m not sure that I understand what people mean.” So I hope that this article helps:

As a teen, I once read a fantasy novel that had a picture on the cover that showed a wizard fighting with some lizard men. I read the novel, and liked it pretty well, except for one thing: the mage on the cover was too old, and there weren’t any lizard men. I kept thinking, “It must come at the end!”

But the scene never did take place.

. . . .

As authors, we tend to make promises that are more subtle. I have seen stories come to me in in the Writers of the Future submissions, and on more than one occasion that author has promised, “This is the greatest story ever told.” I’ve even had authors send release forms, asking me to promise not to steal their ideas, etc. Most of us authors don’t take ourselves quite so seriously, but we do make promises. We just tend to be subtle about it.

Very often I’ll get a story in my manuscript pile that starts off being funny. It may be beautifully written. It might have an engaging conflict. But when I reach the end of the story, too often I will find that the humorous piece turned tragic.

The author promised me one thing on page one, but delivered its opposite at the end of the tale.

. . . .

There are certain inherent promises that every author makes. For example:

1) I will respect my characters. This means that at the end of the story, I won’t kill my protagonist or have him fail for no reason. I may have him die a heroic death, but if I do, there will be a purpose behind it, a deeper meaning, a compelling reason to end the tale tragically.

This is important. When a reader becomes engrossed in a tale, the reader adopts the persona of your protagonist. It’s a lot like slipping on a glove. If the protagonist is likeable, and is much like us, or is very interesting, then we might find that it is effortless to adopt the persona, and we will then virtually “live through” the protagonist’s experiences. In fact, in the best tales, we don’t slip into the persona effortlessly, we do it enthusiastically.

So when an author decides to harm a protagonist, the reader feels attacked. As a professional author, I know better than to assault my readers.

Link to the rest at David Farland

When Strong is a Stereotype

10 March 2014

From All About Romance:

I recently came across this wonderful piece by Sophia McDougall called “I hate Strong Female Characters.” McDougall is not referring to female characters with physical and emotional strength (for instance, she likes Buffy and Jane Eyre). Rather, she means the archetypal Strong Female Character, who establishes her “tough” cred through arbitrary rudeness, punching, slapping, kung fu, gunshots, etc. (McDougall calls it “behaviour that, in a male character, would rightly be seen as abusive (or outright murderous)”).

. . . .

Authors may also show Strength by having their characters endure physical, mental, emotional, or sexual torture. This is starting to happen to females as well as males (see the AAR blog post on rape survivor heroines in New Adult, but it is the rare woman who suffers like the men of paranormals.

. . . .

But maybe Strength isn’t the analogous trait in men. The Strength of Strong Female Characters is lip service to breaking stereotypes (she may know kung fu, but she still needs to be rescued). Maybe the stereotypical male character is already strong. In that case, what would be his token trait? Weakness!

I do think I’ve seen this Vulnerable Male Character. He’s Strong for four hundred pages, then justifies his jerkitude by explaining that his parents had an unhappy marriage, or his ex-wife never loved him, or his girlfriend left him, or all three.

Link to the rest at All About Romance

Baffling Dictums: On the Rules of Writing

8 March 2014

From The Millions:

Ask any writer about the rules he’s heard throughout the years, and he will be able to recite a litany as deeply embedded as the Lord’s Prayer.  Show, don’t tell.  Write what you know.  The first sentence is key.  The last sentence is key.  All writing is rewriting.  No adverbs.  No one aside from you finds your dreams interesting.  You should never write in the second person.

Then there are the more baffling dictums that many of us have been treated to, equal parts arbitrary and asinine.  “We don’t do dead-father stuff,” an editor once admonished me in response to a submission.  Another time, during graduate school, a visiting novelist said, “You won’t write anything of worth until you’re at least 30.”  She announced this to a group of us, all in our 20s, while we were gathered near the table where her books were for sale after her reading.  (It’s hard to understand where that stereotype that writers aren’t the best pitchmen for their own work comes from.)  We hardly needed additional excuses to drink, but we always had room for more so we just appended that to the list when we repaired to the local dive, visiting, anti-youth author uninvited.

It’s surprising how often these bromides are dispensed, in essentially unchanged language.  It makes me long to be a doctor, because at least the one physicians hear all the time makes sense and resonates like a commandment: Do no harm.

. . . .

I was party to more than enough rules in the ensuing years.  They were not all poison, either.  “Get back on the horse,” issued affectionately from the mouth of an agent, is still my favorite.

As for the only one I really believe in, in addition to the rodeo-borne gem, it is this: Try to break them, every single one.  In the most mistrustful antiques stores the warnings read, “If you break it, you pay for it.”  Schoolmarm tone aside, the same is more or less true when it comes to writing.  But what you will lose in metaphorical dollars and cents — alienating readers, inducing the ire of editors and fellow students, listening to failing sentences — you will more than gain in what you are after, what we are all after, on the page and everywhere else: figuring out just which risks to take.

Link to the rest at The Millions

Creative writing courses are a waste of time, says Hanif Kureishi (who teaches one)

4 March 2014

From The Independent:

The author Hanif Kureishi has rubbished creative writing courses as a “waste of time”, saying that the vast majority of students taking them – including many of his own pupils – are “talentless”.

Kureishi teaches how to write novels, screenplays and plays at London’s Kingston University, which awarded him a professorship in October and made him guest of honour when its writing school launched in 2011.

Yet speaking on Sunday night, the author of The Buddha of Suburbia said of his students: “It’s probably 99.9 per cent who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent.”

He added: “A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”

. . . .

“What’s more important with teaching creative writing is that everybody gets to speak. It might not have much literary value but it might help them say something about themselves. So you’re helping them, as it were, to therapise themselves. The idea that you’re in a school for producing great writers is not the point.”

Link to the rest at The Independent

Balancing Character Agency

2 March 2014

From Mythcreants:

It’s pointless to debate whether plot or characters are more important. They are both essential, and they work together to create the story. Unfortunately, they don’t always work well together. More than a few storytellers have planned their plot to the end, only realizing once they started the story that their characters wouldn’t come quietly. Balancing character agency will help you prevent this kind of disaster, while still allowing you to mold the direction your story takes. Here’s some things to keep in mind.

Characters Must Make Their Own Choices

Most experienced roleplayers can recall a time when they felt powerless to steer the story. The corridor in the house they were exploring offered no side passages, and became a brick wall behind them. The Duke asked them to defend the walls, and offered instant death by spikes as an alternative if they didn’t want to. This is known as railroading, and any GM who does it regularly will have a rebellion on their hands.

Railroading can also happen in written works. Just stuff your characters in a body bag and toss them around without a chance to strike back. Or worse, have the hero make decisions that are out of character in order to serve the plot. Strong written characters have a will of their own, not unlike roleplayers.

Regardless of whether stories are interactive, they are infinitely more satisfying when characters make meaningful choices. A common complaint about the Hunger Games is that Katniss had no agency. The series gave her few chances to steer the story. Some of this was necessary – if given the option, she would have kept her sister safe without battling 23 other kids. But as the conflict grew wider in scope, she should have picked the role she would play. Instead, other characters made that choice without her input.

For character choices to be meaningful, they need to have a significant effect on the story. Something very important should change based on the decisions the characters make, and the audience  - players or readers – should have an idea of how the outcome would have changed with a different choice.

Link to the rest at Mythcreants

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