Category Archives: Craft

Writing Lessons We Can Learn From HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER

I have lost all respect for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

In eight previous stellar seasons, they’ve only awarded the CBS smash hit TV show HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER Emmys in technical categories  (cinematography, editing, makeup, etc.).

They’ve never ONCE nominated the show for a writing award. Not once.

How is this possible?

The only above-the-line (ie, creative) person who has consistently earned Emmy nominations is Neil Patrick Harris, for playing the irrepressible Barney Stinson–and even he has never won. (Seriously, people, what’s up with that?) As a die-hard HIMYM fan, I know he’s deserved to–multiple times. (It’s especially sad because he’s won Emmys for HOSTING awards shows–just not for, you know, being an actor. Unbelievable.)

So if the (cough, cough) esteemed Academy (along with lesser lights such as the Golden Globes) can’t seem to get excited about the writing of a hit show that’s run nine amazing seasons (and why do shows like that run 9 amazing seasons???)–then why am I talking about it?

Because, writers–THE WRITING IS AMAZING. For my money, it’s the best television writing today, and among the top TV writing of all time (I’d put it a half-step below I LOVE LUCY for best TV writing ever–and no, I’m not kidding.)

And I don’t need the Emmys or the Golden Globes to prove me right on this.

If no one else is giving them kudos for writing – well, okay, ALMA (whoever they are) apparently awarded ONE writing award in 2008 for a specific episode (thanks, ALMA, she says grudgingly)–then I’m awarding them the kudos. Because HIMYM is in every way an outstanding example of great series writing.

Consider the following:

1) They use flashbacks.

Flashbacks, as every screenwriter who breathes can tell you, are one of the biggest screenwriting no-nos out there. YOU DON’T FLASH BACK because it disrupts the dramatic flow of a scene, often is completely unnecessary, and almost no one knows how to use them effectively.

Well, try this: HIMYM–the entire show itself–is ONE BIG FLASHBACK. The whole series is a story told by a much older Ted Mosby to his teenage children, starting with his coming to New York in 2005. And each episode is part of the epic story of his search to find true love–along with the growing and changing relationships of his four best friends over a period of years.

Not only that, but they use flashbacks in EVERY EPISODE, multiple times–and they WORK. They flash forward in time, they flash backward, they even (this is stylish) flashed to a full epilogue recently, telling us what happens to our favorite minor (guest-starring) characters in the future – and they DIDN’T EVEN WAIT TILL THE END OF THE SHOW, or even the EPISODE, TO DO IT. You gotta love it.

2) They created their own culture.

If you watch the show, you know what The Bro Code is. What The Playbook is. Who says, “Suit up!” and why. You may even have thought about whether you’re too old for some of the items on The Murtaugh List, or whether you’ll be one of the ‘2 out of 3 times’ that the Naked Man ploy works. You know the secret of Robin’s shameful past, and the name of the bar where they hang out (don’t make me say it for you).  This comes not just from funny lines or moments, but from the repetition of said points, often in episodes far removed from the original episode where the stuff was first coined. Episodes further on refer back to episodes that have aired previously. It keeps you watching. Keeps you connected. Keeps you CARING.

In addition, there are ongoing characters who do NOT appear in every episode, but who have appeared often throughout the series. Ranjit the driver is one great example. He’s been with the gang from the beginning, through to their wild New Year’s Eve celebration several seasons back, to Ted’s first attempt to court Stella with a five-minute date (SO charming!), straight through to Ted’s touching advice to Robin in the back seat of his limo on the night his building is officially opened as part of the New York skyline.

How about Brad, Marshall’s friend from law school? He shows up to pair with Marshall when Marshall’s lonely for couples things to do, now that Lily is (temporarily) gone. He shows up again as a down-and-out guy Marshall takes pity on and gets into a job interview at his law firm. (BIG mistake!) It gives the actors a chance to do a lot of different things with the same character.

Genius.

3) Each episode has an uplifting moral.

Yes, an honest-to-goodness moral–mostly derived from two separate (but equal, of course) plot lines. Or the A story and the B story, for you TV writing purists. Since the story is, after all, directed at Ted’s two teenagers, Ted makes the point to them often about things in life they could forget, discount or overlook. So the end of each episode is not just an arc for characters in the show, but also for the teens listening to the story.

My favorite, I think, is “The Best Burger In New York City”, in which Marshall finally tracks down what he remembers as the very best burger he ever ate in his life–but as it was his first week in New York, he got lost trying to find the place where he’d eaten it. Ted at one point tells him, “Buddy, you’re going through a tough time now. I get that you want to find this burger, but Marshall, it might not be the same burger you remember–or it might really not have been that good to begin with.” Because all of us, let’s face it, when we’re in a tough situation, like to remember something as possibly more wonderful than it was, if only to lift ourselves out of the dull gray routine of now.

Know what I love about this episode? They do finally find the burger joint–and the burger IS as good as Marshall remembers. I’d have been disappointed if it hadn’t been–and I think the writers knew most of their audience would have been. So they let us know that sometimes, life really IS as good as we remembered it. That’s a lovely thing to know.

4) It has moments of being magical.

Some who read this who won’t think much of this point–but I think the idea that life can be–and often is–magical, is a great lesson to teach your kids.

In one especially beautiful episode, “Miracles”, Ted points out that just taking a random step or two in one direction or another can be a life-changer–and that those small changes can lead to extraordinary things. What’s even better is how the seemingly random connections of early episodes will lead us–and Ted–inevitably to the moment where he meets his soul mate. The seeds for this are planted several seasons ago, and are just now coming to fruition.  And that leads to perhaps my favorite point:

5) The series has a wholeness, a continuity and a unity that most others seem to lack.

At least once or twice a season, a character asks Barney, “Really, Barney, what is it you do for a living?” Barney always answers, “Please!” and goes on to another point.

It wasn’t till a few weeks ago that we actually learned what Barney did for a living–and “Please” is an ACRONYM for it!

How can you not love this?

As a writer, realizing that these writers are thinking ahead, staying with the game plan and that each episode is part of an organic growth pattern, not just a desperate grabbing for whatever they can think of, makes the whole series so special. THEY HAD IT FIGURED OUT A LONG TIME AGO, no matter how long–or short–the series would last. That it lasted this long, IMHO, is not just about the stellar performances, the amazing cohesiveness and likeability of the cast and the great directing (along with all the other great technical stuff), but more importantly, about the underlying plan the writers had and STUCK WITH virtually to the end. (I’ll interrupt myself here to say that the opening episodes of Season Nine were, unfortunately, very disappointing. Written by writers who had not been credited on previous episodes, they DID seem stuck-on and often not very worthwhile, but fortunately for all of us, the real HIMYM came back in full force around episode 6 or 8 and hasn’t disappointed for a second since.)

This also includes the fantastic growth we’ve seen in all the characters, particularly Barney, who goes from selfish, self-centered and sleeping with any woman he can to falling deeply in love with Robin and learning to deal with committing to one woman. (In “The Bracket”, possibly my favorite episode, Barney tries to identify a woman who came up to Lily and told her to stay away from Barney, who had once dumped her. When Lily fumbles, Barney tries to help her: “Did she have dead eyes and an air of self-loathing and despair?”

“Yes!” Lily says triumphantly.

“That’s all of them,” Barney says.)

But before he does fall in love with Robin–a plotline that unfolds slowly over several seasons–we have a terrific episode where Lily, currently separated from Marshall, moves in with Barney platonically and ends up helping him drive away his one-night stands by pretending to be his wife. What she learns is that Barney is TERRIFIED of intimacy, and that’s something we need to know in order to understand his slow turn from having Robin as his ‘wingman’ when he picks up women to being the woman he proposes to oh-so-romantically at the end of last season. (Seriously, guys, I would say yes to a proposal like that.)

I’ve heard a rumor (?) that they’re actually doing a sequel–I kid you not–called HOW I MET YOUR FATHER. It’s Hollywood–why are we surprised? BUT–I’m also told the original writers will be back at the helm. If they are, I’ll watch it.

Because the lovely life lessons of HIMYM will be applicable yesterday, today and tomorrow–and when they’re written as well as this series, they’ll always be worth tuning in for.

And as writers, I can’t urge you enough to study writing like this (whether you’re a novelist, playwright, screenwriter–doesn’t matter) in order to see how beautifully good writing supports everyone else involved in a creative endeavor. Of course the great part of that kind of research is–it hardly feels like work at all. And THAT should tell you that they’ve hit on something VERY good, something well worth tucking into YOUR bag of writer’s tricks.

New Help for Writers

There’s nothing like attending a writers conference to make it clear that there’s WAY too much bad advice given to newbie writers.

Newbie writers, like newbies of all kinds, need nurturing, support and lots of encouragement. But what they need more than anything is solid, reliable information. Saying, “Atta boy! You can do it!” and pointing them in the wrong direction is the quickest way to destroy a budding talent. They use the precious time they have for writing, marketing and promotion and spend it (and often thousands of dollars as well) on plans that too often don’t take them anywhere near their goal: to publish, get known as authors and SELL BOOKS. But since they’re being given this advice by (supposedly) experienced authors and publishers, off they rush to try to fulfill all these plans, in the process exhausting themselves, alienating all their friends and often as not ending up with a product they hate.

And how can you blame them? This is all new to them. They’re told: “You need an agent, you need a great website, you need a great book cover, you need testimonials from famous people for your book, you need a presence on social media. You need to blog every week, you need to be tweeting constantly… you need… you need… you need… ” An hour or so of that and the shaky writer is questioning whether any of this is worth it–just to put out a simple book!

This past weekend, I was invited to speak at Book ‘Em North Carolina, a relatively new event that’s become a staple in Lumberton, NC and attracts large and lively crowds of aspiring authors, who are hungry for information on the nuts and bolts of writing, both the craft and the business. They come specifically to listen to successful authors and learn from them.

And how helpful is it?

Well, at last year’s event, the keynote speaker, a phenomenally successful and very talented author was speaking on “Hitting the Bestseller Lists”. Trouble was, she hadn’t picked the topic, and though the place was packed to hear her, her advice wasn’t useful for new writers. When she admitted that she actually didn’t know the secret of hitting the bestseller lists because ‘my publisher took care of promotion for me’, it was all over. She had become famous in the ’90s, when publishing was far different than it is today, and authors were essentially just expected to embark on physical book tours set up by their publishers, and somehow good things would happen. They certainly did for her–and she deserves it–but none of that is part of the paradigm for new writers confronting the writing business now.

At this year’s event, I did a solo talk and a panel talk, both on promotion. The panel talk was very general in nature (I think most writers attending could have heard much more detailed information), but what appalled me was when one of my fellow panel members mentioned that as a matter of course, she always sent out advance reading copies of her books BY SNAIL MAIL. This meant printing, binding, mailing and PAYING FOR a large number of her own books in order to reach reviewers and other people in a position to spotlight the books.

I haven’t sent out a hard-copy ARC for ten years, and I don’t plan to ever again. When someone wants a reading copy, I either refer him to my URL at Smashwords (and give him a coupon code for a free copy of any eBook version) or send a .pdf from my own email account, which is always ready with my bio, book blurb, book cover .jpeg and buy links, in a draft email saved in my Drafts folder. I said that when it was my turn on that question, and hope the woman who had discussed the hard-copy ARC’s wasn’t offended. But if someone else on the panel hadn’t mentioned sending them out electronically, would all those people have assumed that hard-copy ARC’s were the way to go? And (heaven forbid) would they all have done it?

For that reason–and because I find myself around writers all the time, most of whom have tons of questions about writing–I have decided to make myself available on a regular basis to work one on one with writers, to offer feedback and suggestions on all aspects of writing, publishing and promotion. I want them to get information that will help them NOW, not send them running in circles. I’m also offering personal feedback on their writing: what works, what doesn’t and HOW TO FIX IT (I’ve spent many years as a story analyst and am especially experienced with issues involving structure, plot and characterization).

I’ve added a page called Coaching for Writers to my website; if you have a question about your project or a project you’re thinking of writing, I hope you’ll check it out. I want to suggest ways you can build your writing business better, quicker and more effectively. I’d like to take you from A to Z without your getting stuck at 3 and 7.

So if you’re stuck in a creative rut where you need to brainstorm or just want to figure out how best to promote your novel–I’d love to hear from you. Email me directly at susan@susansloate.com or use the form on my site.

After years of watching writers run around like rats in a maze, I’d like to see the writing business reduced to simple straight lines, and reduce the frustration of new writers to something a lot more manageable than what I’ve seen. Writing’s hard enough, and the writing business is humbling enough. It’s time for simple, effective answers.

Best of luck on YOUR writing journey!

Cutting Down to Size

Here’s a post I wrote originally for the lovely and talented Marni Graff, who runs the Auntie M Writes Blog – don’t tell her I borrowed this, okay? It’s about a subject I loathe… cutting down your manuscript:

 

     You would think that cutting your manuscript was relatively easy. I mean, compared to getting the words down on paper in the first place, cutting what’s already there should be a snap. Didn’t Michelangelo say airily, “I just took a chisel and cut away everything that wasn’t David”?

Well, that sounds simple enough. You drop an extraneous phrase here, a flabby sentence there—and suddenly your manuscript is ten pages shorter and a million percent better, and you’re all ready for the next step.  Nothing to it, right?

Uh—wrong.

I hadn’t realized how much I needed to do it until I began a much-needed revision this summer on FORWARD TO CAMELOT, the 2003 time-travel thriller I co-authored with Kevin Finn. We had both loved the book as written, but with a 50th-anniversary edition about to be published (commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, which is the subject of our novel), we felt it was a good time to fix some of the usage and grammar errors that had slipped by us the first time, and especially to tweak a couple of small historical points that had bothered me for ten years.

That was the intention. Make sure the quotation marks are facing the right way, check the history and turn in the book to our publisher.

Then Kevin and I began to look at what we had, and we realized there were other issues we wanted to address. What started as a simple fix became a much more complex, line-by-line scrutiny, and what we were eventually looking for were the words, sentences and even paragraphs we could cut to bring down the length. Our publisher, Drake Valley Press, explained gently that a book as long as the original version (almost 500 printed pages) would cost so much that we might not see any profit on it at all in paperback, and it could affect eBook sales as well. But if we could significantly reduce the word count, we would do a lot better. And besides, the narrative really did have its flabby moments. Keep the story, by all means—just make it, you know, a lot shorter and simpler.

I began to feel as though I had an “Everything Must Go!” sign on my computer screen.

While I began the historical fixes, Kevin began streamlining the manuscript, pulling out sections he felt could safely be cut while maintaining the pace, the plot and the flavor of the original. While we both resisted cutting entire scenes—we cut only one full scene, and that one only reluctantly—there were certain scenes that we also knew we wanted to rewrite; we hadn’t got them right in 2003 and we had another chance now.

But when I finally saw Kevin’s long, meticulous, detailed (and did I mention long?) document listing all the changes—which ran about 30 pages—I almost cried. Then began the bargain-with-your-partner phone calls: “Look, we have to keep the hunt scene at the end.”

“But it’s ten pages; that’s way too long.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll cut it way down, as long as I can keep the gist of it.”

“You can have the gist. Just get rid of the gristle!”

Thus began the slash-and-burn portion of the rewrite, where I began incorporating Kevin’s notes. (“Did you realize you write everything twice?” he asked me. “If you could cut it down to one telling, we could really cut through this manuscript.” By this time the word ‘cut’ or ‘slash’ made me queasy.)

We argued, and we both agreed to accept less than what we wanted. Kevin let me keep almost all the scenes intact, as far as intent; I swallowed a good deal of bile and pride and slashed away at anything that wasn’t strictly necessary.

Within a couple of weeks we’d brought down the 488-page original manuscript to a lean-and-mean 382 pages, cutting 100 pages (25,000 words) in the process. It was still the longest book either of us had ever written, but the word count was at least in the ballpark.

Did I enjoy the process? Losing all those threads of story, no. But on some level I did like examining each paragraph and finding a way to cut straight to the heart of what we were trying to say. It’s a process writers need to go through all the time—understand what we want to say and say it as effectively—and as simply—as we can. We can never afford to forget that part of our process, especially writers who become very successful, and whose editors then seem to somehow mysteriously evaporate (or more likely, are intimidated or overpowered by the author at that point).

I know I’ll do the same process from now on: I’ll look for stuff I’ve said twice and hack away at it, along with everything else the reader doesn’t absolutely need to know.

And maybe that snob Michelangelo was right: when you finish slashing with your machete, what you end up with looks a lot less like a flabby ‘before’ picture and a lot more like that glistening David in marble.

That alone makes it worthwhile.

Good luck with your own machete …

Feeding the Goldfish

A writer friend recently asked me to critique the first couple of chapters of her new novel. As she’s a very good up-and-coming writer, and she’s written wonderful reviews for my novels on Amazon, B&N and Goodreads, I agreed.

I was immediately interested in the subject matter–a young girl worshipping her older brother and grieving over his death–but it surprised me that the writer, whose work was usually a lightning-quick read, had written two chapters (almost 9.000 words) and I was struggling with it.

Why?

I knew before I’d finished the chapters, and I hung my head in shame, because it’s one of my own greatest faults as well:

WAY too much back story, WAY too much unnecessary detail, and not nearly enough happening in the present time.

You’d be surprised how fast that kills a reader’s interest.

This might not sound like such a sin–after all, in the opening chapters, you HAVE to tell the reader a little about your characters and describe them, and get into a little of who they are, and what they want, and where they came from, and … watch out. That’s a slippery slope.

What’s really necessary is to introduce your story in a way that’s inherently dramatic–ie, something is happening right now, and we jump right into the middle of it. How much do we need to know to understand it? How many details can you leave out?

To me, here’s the rule of thumb: TELL THE READER ONLY WHAT’S NECESSARY TO KNOW IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND WHAT’S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.

That’s it.

And then–open with a truly dramatic situation that the readers can get involved with right away. You will hook them, they will want to know more, and I promise, they will stick around even when you tuck in bits of NECESSARY exposition here and there (and be careful; only a little bit at a time–giving exposition is like feeding a goldfish–give it too much at a time and it’ll die.)

Too many writers think if they get into tons of back story, they can disguise (or in some cases not even notice) that their opening chapters have NO DRAMATIC MOVEMENT WHATSOEVER.

In the first chapter you introduce  and describe your characters (and it’s always better to describe a character through the actions they take and the words they speak, rather than giving physical description and back story). You can tell the reader REAMS about your hero if, as in a very famous instance, you show him not wanting to whitewash a fence on a Saturday morning but figuring out a clever way to get others to do it for him–and pay for the privilege. (Thanks, Mark Twain.) This is the famous school of SHOW, DON’T TELL, and one I heartily subscribe to. But that’s action, and it’s happening in the present time. We’ll like that, and we’ll stay with it.

Almost my favorite novel opening comes from Dick Francis’s THE DANGER: “There was a godawful cock-up in Bologna.”

There is NO WAY I was going to miss reading the next sentence, and paragraph, as Francis talked about the kidnapping negotiation that had gone wrong and now there were innocent lives at stake in a high-rise apartment building and the hero stood frustrated on the street. You want to talk about compelling? He did NOT get into the hero’s angst or back story, except to say that he was there as a kidnap negotiator. He saved ALL the other details (except a couple about the kidnap victim and the previous attempts at ransom) for later in the story. I devoured it, and it was grand.

I also cannot stress enough that while you will undoubtedly, as you live with your characters and your story, come up with a million different ways of showing (or telling) details about them, you need to rein in that impulse as much as you can. You might say that as long as you ‘save’ them for a later chapter, it’s okay to tell us everything you’ve ever thought of about that character.

Wrong. You NEVER need to say it (think of it as a first date–where would you be if you blurted out everything you were thinking to someone you hardly knew?) If there are 12 instances in which you intended to show your character’s greed, drop 10 of them and use the best two in the story. Your readers will appreciate it and will not feel as though they’re being bludgeoned with a heavy stick to get your point.

This summer, while Kevin Finn and I were doing the final edit on FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition, I found myself confronted with my own prose again, for the first time in 10 years, and while we did correct a few minor historical points (and I feel better for it!), the majority of the time was spent first trimming, then chopping, whole sections of the book. Kevin pointed out that I had a bad habit of saying everything twice, and I did: I realized I said something first to announce it, second, to set it up for a dramatic moment. This was obviously not necessary, and I found a lot of places to cut down–WITHOUT LOSING ANY OF THE DRAMA OR THE FLAVOR OF THE BOOK.

Believe me, writers can be among the most self-indulgent people on earth, and it’s terrible to realize how much we love the look of our words on the page. (We can be like those awful public speakers who go on, and on, and on.) Minimize it and use the strongest examples. Say little about your characters and let their words and actions (and what others say about them) tell us who they are. That’s good storytelling.

Of course, you will always find those who insist that the ‘inner monologue’ is beautiful and is the crux of a ‘literary’ novel, in which action is not nearly as important as thought. To me, a literary novel is usually one that has pretensions to being high-blown and arty, but in reality is just a story written by an author who can’t handle simple storytelling. To me, simple storytelling–getting the hero up the tree and figuring out how to get him down–is all there is, and the hardest thing in the world to do well.  That’s what I’m always aiming it, and I hope you are, too. The world needs more good storytellers, and far fewer ‘literary’ artists.

But that is a post for another day …

Out of the Ether: A Writer’s Strange Confession

Today’s post is a combination of two posts I wrote recently for other blogs, about a strange but undeniable phenomenon that most writers don’t talk about… because it freaks us out. But I’m coming out of the ether (and the closet) to discuss it here, and invite you to share your own stories, if you dare:

Cue the creepy music …

Here’s today’s question for all you writers:

Have you ever written something as fiction that later actually happens?

I have.

So have other writer friends of mine. We can’t explain it, and we can’t control it. And when it happens, we think it’s cool… and a little scary. Believe me, this isn’t something we trying to do.

But I think I have an inkling of how it happens.

There’s a very famous example of this (I’ll tell you my own story later). A writer named Morgan Robertson published a novella titled Futility about the world’s greatest ocean liner, which on a voyage in April in the North Atlantic struck an iceberg on the starboard side and sank, 400 nautical miles from Newfoundland. There were not enough lifeboats for all the passengers, and more than half of those on board died.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s the story of the Titanic. Heck, that’s not fiction; it’s history.

Except it’s not. Futility was published in 1898, more than 14 years BEFORE the Titanic set out on its maiden voyage, and years before it was even designed, let alone built. Yet Robertson eerily forecast the name (Titan/Titanic), the iceberg, the exact spot of the sinking, the lifeboat issue, almost the exact speed at which the ship was traveling, and the fact that the voyage took place in April in the North Atlantic and the ship struck the iceberg on the starboard side.

No one’s ever figured out how he did it. As a writer, I’m sure he was just… picking the story out of the ether, as it came to him. It’s what we all do.

He picked another story out of the ether in 1914, which described a sneak attack by the Japanese in the Philippines and Hawaii that began a war in the month of December–which described exactly the attack on Pearl Harbor, which happened in December 1941. Obviously, this is a guy who was really tuned in.

Now while you’re considering that, let me tell you about mine.

When I was fifteen I began writing my first stage play. I had first seen Jerry Lewis on TV when I was about nine, and I just loved him. (Still do.) But I didn’t know he had ever been teamed with Dean Martin, and when I found out, it shocked me, because their careers had taken such divergent paths afterward. So I decided to write a play that began with the breakup of a similar comedy duo, followed them through the years and ended at a charity telethon (modeled after you-know-what). I worked on it for years, and finally wrote the last scenes in July 1976. I set the first scene onstage at a New York nightclub, where the duo did a song and dance that ended their partnership. The entire third act took place at the telethon, where the penultimate scene showed the two reuniting onstage.

Six weeks later came the Labor Day telethon, a staple of our holiday weekend. And lo and behold! There was Dean Martin, walking onstage with Frank Sinatra (who engineered the whole thing), greeting a truly stunned Jerry Lewis with a hug. It’s a beautiful moment; you can watch it on YouTube.

But… I wrote it before it happened, virtually the way it happened.

And that first scene I told you about, the nightclub scene where they ended their partnership? I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s actually the way Martin & Lewis broke up—their last engagement was at the Copacabana in New York, the most famous nightclub of its time. I had no way of knowing. But somehow, I just knew.

It’s happened to me on other writing projects, too, most recently on the novel Forward to Camelot: 50th Anniversary Edition, and I don’t consider myself psychic. But I’ve thought about this a lot. Here’s my explanation, because I don’t believe in coincidence, and I do believe in the energy connecting us all.

When writers truly get ‘plugged in’ on a project, we not only plug into our own creativity and our passion for the project; on some level we plug into the universe, too, on our own crystal-clear frequency. We pick up invisible threads of information floating out there in the ether, which we call inspiration but might also be old stories still hanging around, or new events about to unfold. When we’re in the flow with our writing, we somehow have access to all that energy, and it just comes to us, as naturally as a bee to a flower. And we think of it as inspiration, when it might be real but invisible history, or the energy of an event about to happen. I also think we can only access it at moments when we’re really plugged in, through our writing. (You could say this is related to Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious.) It won’t work if you try to access it. There’s all kinds of magic out there in the ether, but you can’t chase it or command it; you can access it only when you and the universe are truly one.

So the next time you’re writing (cue creepy music here), be careful what you’re writing about. Because it may not be just a story. Your thoughts really can become reality… and do you really want that vampire strolling down Fifth Avenue?

Think about it.

My Top Ten List of Things I Never Want to See in a Book I Read (recognize any?)

Let’s face it, I was a reader (and so were you) before we became writers. In fact, most of us became writers in part BECAUSE we were such devoted readers. At some point in that process, the thought occurred to us, ‘I can do this too, and I have a story I want to tell’. And that’s how we ended up here …

As part of my journey to a writer’s paycheck, I have for years read, analyzed and edited others writers’ work. On one hand, it’s a wonderful way to be reminded of what’s good in the writer’s life (and to read some terrific new work); it’s also enough, on my bad days, to make me want to run screaming from the written word – and part of that, I have to say, is because of the way others choose to write it. (Remember, if something bothers you, it’s never YOU – it’s always THEM.) 🙂

Today I’d like to talk about some of those no-nos on which I turn a firm thumbs down (2 thumbs, if I’m feeling especially ornery).  Here’s my Top Ten List of Things I Never Want to See in a Book I Read:

10.  The word ‘stated’. This is one of the toughest words to use well, because ‘stated’ implies that whatever you’re ‘stating’ has immense weight. About the only way I think it works is “Here are God’s Ten Commandments,” Moses stated. And even that is dicey. Whatever happened to plain old ‘said’?

9. Over-stating (or melodrama). The more overblown your prose, the more silly your words will sound. And if you then compound that error by writing metaphors and similes as old as the hills (there’s one), you have no one but yourself to blame if your readers put the book down. Do any of us really need to be exposed to stuff like “wrapped in a voluminous shimmer of white tulle, feeling as though the night will never end”? C’mon. There has to be a more original way to say this stuff.

8. Dialogue that goes on forever and says nothing. “What do you want to do?” “Oh, I don’t know. What do you want to do?” “I’m not sure.” “Well, what should we do?” Don’t laugh, but there are writers who have PAGES of this stuff, in which characters discuss their options and never quite make up their minds. This makes for a long, drawn-out and exhausting ride for the reader. I’m a big believer in dialogue, IF IT HAS A POINT AND IS ALSO SHOWING CHARACTER. Make your dialogue work to be included. Give us story information AND show us how the characters feel about it; dialogue should have at least two functions in order to make your final cut. And if you can write wonderful dialogue, feel free to lean on it heavily to tell your story; it’s easier for a reader’s eye to absorb than pages and pages of narrative.

7. Characters we’ve already seen somewhere else. I’m not suggesting here that if you want your romance hero to be, say, a blacksmith, that you have to check every romance novel ever written and give up if someone else has used that profession before. What I am saying is that sometimes characters have EXACTLY the same personal qualities that other characters you’ve written or someone else has written already has. Do we really need more romance heroes with chiseled features, staunch independence, a maverick streak and a tough-but-tender persona? (I know I have NO CHANCE of persuading you of changing this, because that’s what sells – sigh – but it gets SOOOO old after awhile.) For the record, my favorite author actually did this all the time – but he did it cleverly. Dick Francis essentially wrote the same hero over and over again — smart, strong, courageous, someone who took quick action and defended those who were weak. BUT – he mixed up their backgrounds, their professions, their interests, etc. So while the heroes all definitely had qualities in common, they were so well drawn, and seemed like such individuals, that nobody cared.

6.  Cardboard characters. This is usually a result of an author not asking enough questions to draw the character distinctly in his or her mind before writing him. Don’t go with the easy answers on character questions; usually it means you’re copying someone else, even if you can’t recall whom.  You can have two characters who are strong, brave, romantic, etc. – but one can be cardboard and the other can be breathing and real. Judith McNaught did this very well in her historical novels.  Sure, they were mid-list romance novels, but the heroes had had enough worldly experience that they had become cynical through exposure to the wrong people. Their first instinct now is to mistrust any women they meet who seem guileless and innocent, and as the twists and turns of the plot unfold, they genuinely decide at some point that they were right; the girl they love is not who she seemed to be, and they’re right in mistrusting her. (I’ll also admit that Ms. McNaught is guilty of #7 – she writes the same people over and over – but frankly, there’s so much dimension in her stories that I tend to overlook it. Shoot me.)

5. The easy ending. Easy endings aren’t satisfying endings. This one is a mistake usually made by a new writer, who either runs out of invention or decides his characters have suffered enough and throws in something ridiculous and coincidental to make things turn out okay by page 300. The point of any story is to have the hero or heroine face a challenge and have to WORK (and change internally) in order to overcome the challenge and achieve their goal. If you make it easy, you also make it unnecessary for the hero to change – and without that, there is no satisfying story. Put up a high wall, not a low one. Make your hero work.

4. The straw villain. This is related to #5–having a villain it’s easy to defeat makes life very easy for the hero, and makes the story not worth reading. C’mon, make that hero sweat! (That’s how we know he’s a hero worth rooting for.) Your bad guys – whether it’s a blizzard, a group of drunken Cossacks or the landlord about to evict – have to be formidable. They don’t all have to be wielding swords, but they absolutely have to hold a significant threat for the hero, something he’ll have to work like crazy to overcome.  You build character (in your children and your fictional characters) if you make them face real challenges. Make your bad guy REALLY bad.

3. Horrible (or no) editing. I side firmly with Stephen King here: I think if you’re a writer, part of knowing your craft is knowing how to spell and punctuate, and which usage is correct. When you turn in a draft, it should have been spell-checked and gone over meticulously (and yes, I mean every word). Every good writer I know does it, even if it means going through the same manuscript ten times during the final editing and production. Hire an editor, if you can, before your book goes out to a publisher, and know that a traditional publisher will bring in an editor as well. Be open to what they tell you, including suggestions for word changes because yours are wrong. DON’T take the attitude that you’re a creative person and therefore not bound to silly rules as lesser beings should be. If your book goes out over your name, YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE. Do you want people to notice you for being a brilliant storyteller–or put the book down because they can hardly understand what you’re saying, your usage and grammar are so atrocious? If you don’t know this stuff, pick up a style book and learn it. Authors learn what they need to know in order to put out a superior product.

Before my books go to my publisher, I’ve edited and re-edited, spell-checked and sometimes brought in my own editor. Then my publisher brings in an editor. Once I’ve dealt with their notes, the formatting and typesetting begin, and the publishers look to catch more errors. THEN I ask for the book back, to do my own final check–and I inevitably find more errors we all missed. It’s my last chance to go through it again, for which I’m always grateful. Be prepared for this; it’s not fun, but it’s part of the writing life.

2. Sloppy research. I’m treading lightly here, because I have myself made some errors of fact (fortunately just a few and most of them were totally hidden in the story). But I don’t like getting things wrong historically; it’s too easy for someone to step forward and pull the curtain on our ignorance. Unless your story has a reason for mixing up historical facts, and that’s part of the style of the story, don’t do it.  I love reading historical stuff (fiction and non) and look forward to learning when I do. So when an author says Bonnie & Clyde died in 1936 (uh, no – they were killed in 1934) or Henry VIII had 7 wives, I see red. Get your facts right, ok? (That said, Kevin Finn and I have a doozy of an error in our novel, FORWARD TO CAMELOT, which we only learned of after the original edition had been published in 2003. But because it’s an error that drives our plot, we dealt with it by keeping it and then writing an Afterword in the new version, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition. ) On the other hand, the original edition had about 6 small errors of fact that we fixed in the new edition. This pleases me; I do NOT like getting caught in an error of fact. Writers should be able to get the research right!

1. TYPOS!!!! Sorry, while I do sympathize with how hard it is to get them all, I think you should make every effort to keep typos to the absolute minimum. It’s sloppy, it’s unprofessional and it brands YOU as not a very serious writer when you let them slip through. Remember always that YOUR name is on the book; is that how you want to present yourself? (Would you go to a job interview without ironing your shirt?) For a lot of readers, the book they’re holding (or reading on an eReader) is their first introduction to you. If you sprinkle enough typos throughout the story, it will be the last time they read your stuff.

Sophisticated readers welcome good new writers and will often read and review them again and again (which is great–a built-in cheering section!) If you put them off with bad grammar and spelling, sloppy usage, awful formatting and a mass of typos, don’t count on their being in your corner again.  You’ll have branded yourself, all right — and it won’t be a brand you’ll enjoy carrying.

What are YOUR Top 10?

Look for a JFK-related post from me on Thursday, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his assassination, which I’ll be doing for the next two months.

Now back to the keyboard, and watch those typos …

The Toughest Part of Writing — and How to Overcome It

Syd Field, the great screenwriting guru, said the most difficult part about writing was knowing what to write, and all these years, I’ve agreed with him. We’ve all hit that moment in a project where we just DO NOT KNOW what to do next, what happens next, or how to even GET to what happens next. We get frustrated and discouraged, and since writers are the world’s best procrastinators, often we tell ourselves we may not know how to fix it now, but tomorrow, we surely will. We put down the project with a sigh (of relief) and tell ourselves we’ll come back and nail it.

And then we don’t. Because tomorrow the wall looks even higher and more insurmountable. So we put it off again, telling ourselves that next time, we definitely will fix the problem. And the next time the wall looks even higher—and so on and so on. Ultimately that putting off and putting off might be the #1 reason why so many writers give up on a project they really, really wanted to finish: we just can’t find a way through the forest, and each time we try to come back to it, the wall looks higher and higher. First we were frustrated; now we’re completely intimidated. And the project languishes, sometimes forever.

For me, coming back to a project where I didn’t know how to fix the insurmountable problem was the most difficult part about writing. Just dragging myself to my desk to face it was almost more than I could deal with. It would get to the point on many projects where I so dreaded trying to deal with a problem I had already put off and put off that I would tell myself I really didn’t want to write that project anymore anyway; it was probably better to go on to the next one, which would surely be much better and go way faster.

And so the cycle would start again.

Stephen King, in his book ON WRITING, provides what I believe is the best possible remedy for this problem. Leave it to someone that prolific to give you that light in the forest.

King has an inflexible rule about writing, which by its very nature forces you to confront your issue and deal with it.

He says simply that YOU WRITE EVERY DAY.

Period.

And you get a certain number of words written every day, a number you yourself decide on. No discussion.

And you don’t get up from your desk until that number is completed. No excuses.

He explains that doing this keeps the one quality in our writing that keeps us coming back to our desk. It’s MOMENTUM. The more of it you build up, the easier it is to face a mountain in your path. If you’ve got a juggernaut behind you, with all those words you’ve already written, a mountain ahead looks like an anthill. You know you’re going to get through it, over it or around it. It’s just a matter of getting the words down without stopping.

That’s the principle on which Nanowrimo is built. Writing 50,000 words in 30 days leaves precious little time to procrastinate. Got a problem? Write on the other side of it. It’s a way to get through the morass, and what King and Nano both want for you is to KEEP WRITING, because sooner or later you’ll solve that creative problem. It’s the best answer I know. And forcing myself to stay with the problem — or write on the other side of it, so I’m building up my word count even when I have no idea how certain plot points will come together — has made it possible for me to finish projects I never thought I could finish.

There’s a famous story about Richard Harding Davis, who wrote serialized magazine stories many years ago. At one point in his latest story, his hero had fallen into a well (dry) and could not get out. No ladder, no one above to help him, smooth sides all around him; nothing to climb. What to do?

Then Davis got into a contract dispute with the magazine and refused to write more until they came to terms. His editors panicked. How would the guy get out of the well? They tried other writers; no one could solve it. They had to forge a new agreement with Davis, and they waited breathlessly for his next chapter. How would he get the guy out of the well?

The new chapter arrived from Davis and they ripped open the envelope. And here were his first words: “Once out of the well … ”

There’s always a way out of the well, even if you have to finesse it as Harding did.  (That to me is the ultimate of a guy writing himself into a corner, and I try to remember it when I’ve done the same thing.) Just stay at your desk and keep pouring out the words. It’s your story, after all, and it’s a story that cries out to be finished, even when you have no idea how to get your hero out of the well.

You’ll find a way.  Believe me.  Just sitting at your desk can produce magical results.

Good luck.

 

Let The Word Go Forth — starting right now!

“Let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike,” President Kennedy said (pretty famously) in his 1961 inaugural address.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to capture the essence of President Kennedy and some other pretty famous people we associate with him, in my novel FORWARD TO CAMELOT (co-authored with Kevin Finn). So I thought that calling my blog ‘Let The Word Go Forth’ and devoting it to ruminations on the writer’s life would be the right way for me to venture into the blogosphere.

I’m kicking off this blog, then, with those immortal words, in hopes that they might lead to some immortal words of my own—whether in my blog or (fingers crossed) in my books or in other writing that I do. But I also hope that reading this blog regularly will help you, my fellow writer, to greater success in your own writing endeavors. I don’t pretend to know everything—or in some cases ANYTHING—about the million-and-one things we writers are supposed to know about living the writer’s life. What I do know is that it seems vastly more complicated than it used to be.

It used to be that writers only had to know their craft inside and out, and cultivate an individual voice, and adhere to deadlines that insure their projects are finished, and edit their work to fit the guidelines of correct spelling/grammar/usage, story consistency and character voice. And after we’d done all that, we also got to check our finished, typeset work — every single word — again for final errors and supervise the creation of the cover and write the cover copy, dedication, acknowledgements, and in the case of non-fiction writers, the bibliography and footnotes (whew!). We usually also had to produce media kits, with at the very least, a brilliant-sounding bio (some of my very best fiction is in my bio). Then we could (hah!) relax.

Now, though, it seems we are also expected to be at least conversant with promoting books via social media—Facebook and Twitter are the barest minimum—along with such staples as Amazon site promotion and a presence on sites like Goodreads and Pinterest, if you want to really show off. This does not even include the hours needed to drum up interest on virtual or local book tours (I prefer the virtual kind), local or national radio and TV shows and book reviews from ‘established’ reviewers.

I wasn’t thinking about all this stuff when I decided to be a writer. Well, in all fairness, most of it didn’t actually exist when I decided to be a writer. (I am now admitting in print for the very first time that I went off to college in the ’70’s with an Olympia manual typewriter — and felt good about it.)

But all these new outlets exist now, and not using them means possibly imperiling your career and your readership.

What’s a mother to do?

Grin, bear it and work your butt off, I think. And how to do all these things swiftly and painlessly and still have a life and write your next opus will be the subject of upcoming blogs as together we survey the writer’s life and decide how best to navigate those often-muddy waters. We’ll talk about the writer’s craft, the writing business, realistic vs. unrealistic expectations, and the spiritual side of a writing career, because all good writing–and living–has that element as well.

2013 will be, I hope, a monumental year for me, with the publication of three books: REALIZING YOU (with Ronald Doades), in the summer of 2013, STEALING FIRE (from my new publisher, Drake Valley Press) in September, and the 50th Anniversary Edition of FORWARD TO CAMELOT (also from Drake Valley Press) in November. Part of my blog will be an ongoing account of what I’m doing and how well it works out. I’ll be embarking on my first virtual book tour (looking forward to it!) and my first virtual review tour. Will certainly keep you posted!

Join me for tips, quips and maybe even a few tears as we work toward household-nameship together. (Didn’t think I could invent a word in the middle of my first blog, didja?)

Thanks for being on the journey with me – it’s so much more fun when you’re not alone.

LET THE WORD GO FORTH …