Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen

Actually a lot of people know even though they might not know that they know. The troubles I’ve seen, experienced, and caused often end up in my novels and short stories.

Naturally, I take out the names of the guilty except my own which is on the cover.

When the troubles are really bad, I call a tow truck and have them hauled into a cut-rate body shop where they (the purported experts) knock out the worst dents, fix the tail lights (so the cops have no excuse for pulling me over), and get rid of the blood. Once the trouble is dumped back in my driveway, nobody recognizes it for what it was.

People love reading about troubles because they want to vicariously experence the fear, angst, thrills, loathing, and sickness unto death without walking the walk. That’s why there’s always more bad news than good news, and why King, Grisham, and Patterson sell a lot of books. People always seem to be attracted to bad things that happen to other people and, when they can, they go on TV and say, “He seemed like such a nice kid.”

But for heaven’s sake, don’t keep a diary because long after you’re dead, dead, and gone, some Wikipedia writer will say, “Hey, you know all those murder mysteries Lucy Lake wrote about? She really killed all those people, changed their names, and laughed all the way to the bank to deposit her royalty checks.” That revelation wil increase sales after you’re dead, but the blemish to your legacy will probably delete your legacy.

So, what have we learned?

  1. Tidy up your troubles.
  2. Change the names of the guilty.
  3. Turn your troubles into riveting page turners.
  4. Destroy all diaries, letters, and Facebook entries that will haunt you and/or your heirs.
  5. Act like the kind of person who would never do the stuff you write about.

With this advice, James Patterson will be calling you soon to collaborate on a bestseller from Grand Central Publishing. No doubt, it will be a riveting page turner.

Once you’re rich and famous, feel free to list me as a mentor in your acknowledgements.

Malcolm

Sometimes, you can turn troubles into satire:

The 10 most inspiring, enjoyable books about how to write 

Most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one,” the great short story writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote. When it comes to good writing, we can tend towards a romantic vision of it being an unexplainable, inimitable act of divine intervention. It can be inspiring – and often unpalatable – to be reminded that the best writing is more often the result of hard and constant work.

Even if the last thing you are planning on doing in lockdown is writing a novel, here are some of the best guides on writing: how to do it, how it works and how to be inspired to start.

Source: From Stephen King to Anne Lamott: the 10 most inspiring, enjoyable books about how to write | Books | The Guardian

At my age, I seldom read how-to-write books any more because I tend to improve my output by just doing it.

Those who are younger than me–and that’s mostly everyone–might find both practical help and inspiration from the books on this list. Consider starting your quest with On Writing by Stephen King. It has a lot of fans–and for good reason.

One book I’d add to this list is Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. As an agent, Maass knows what sells as well as what writers are doing to submit manuscripts he and other agents will spend time reading.

Enjoy the books.

–Malcolm

Do all your characters sound like you?

When creative writing students turn in their first short story or dialogue exercise, the teacher’s response is frequently, “All of your characters sound like you.”

The writer had certain points to communicate via dialogue and distributed them amongst the characters as though their manner of speaking is interchangeable. Or, as the teacher might say, “You should be able to tell which character is talking by what they say and how they say it.”

Several student responses are likely: (1) A dozen synonyms for said. (Yes, there’s a difference between “he said,” “he yelled,” and “he whispered.”) But they don’t help if the words that are said don’t sound any different in tone, structure, word choice, accent, and focus than the three other people in the conversation. (2) The student thinks up a list of eccentric phrases and distributes these amongst the characters, rather like dealing out cards, so that EVERYONE TALKS FUNNY. The teacher is likely to say, “The people sound like they just escaped from a carnival freakshow.”

One of the hardest things for a writer to do is getting to know his/her characters so well that the way they talk arises naturally out of the person. People talk differently because they are different. The writer’s at a disadvantage here if s/he hasn’t spent any time listening to how “real people” express themselves. Some use slang, some have accents, others speak in short sentences while a few speak in paragraphs. Children sound like children and are influenced by fad words from school or (in modern times) words from texting. Older people may use terms from 40-50 years ago that young people may never have heard, as in “You ain’t got no gumption.”

One way to figure all this out is by reading the works of authors who write great dialogue. TV viewers and critics used to say “‘The West Wing’ has great dialogue.” Listen to a few of these shows and figure out what Aaron Sorkin did to make his characters’ dialogue memorable. Here again, the characters all had their issues, likes and dislikes, fears, joys, etc., so what they said fit who they were.

Resist the urge to pepper conversations with small talk. That slows down the story even if it does sound just like a conversation you heard in a store or on the subway. You are advancing the plot, not shooting the breeze. Read your words aloud. So they sound like they’re words to be read or words to be spoken?

If you look up “writing dialogue” online, you’ll find some decent advice that’s almost as good a learning by reading well-written novels.

Malcolm