Writers: How to know when you’ve got your groove back

Some manuscripts have a meh quality to them. That’s not good. If you’re bored with it, the publisher will also be bored along with prospective readers. Take two aspirin or a double Scotch and go back to it in a few days. If it’s still meh, get rid of it, at least let it set for a while and go on to something else.

But some manuscripts sing. That’s the first clue about getting your groove back. Then more stuff begins to happen:

  • You’re reading a compelling novel like Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain and here come your characters right in the middle of it, talking the dialogue right out of the book (You got a girl? Shit no. You sound like you’ve had some bad experiences. Who aint? You fool with them and that’s the kind you’ll have.)
  • You’re watching one of the final episodes of “How to Get Away with Murder” and after Annalise Keating says, “Prayers are for the weak–I’ll stick to beating your ass in court,” one of your characters blurts out “Say which?” and you find yourself writing dialogue for your book while people on the show are getting away with murder.
  • Taylor Swift is singing “The Man” and you get it mixed up with Burl Ives’ “The Big Rock Candy Mountain because your story is pushing on your hand like the dog that’s not getting petted.
  • You’re ready for a good night’s sleep, turn out the lights, the cat snuggles in close and purs outs a lullaby, and ten minutes later you realize your seeing scenes from your story rolling through your mind’s eye like big trucks on a long-haul highway.”
  • Your spouse and/or significant other says, “Do you want sex,” and you say, “No, I’m busy, but thanks for asking.”

Storywise, you got it bad and that ain’t good because you won’t have your life back until you finish your book. The groove’s got you.

–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

 

Perhaps I’ll Write Today

You don’t stop brushing your teeth during the holidays, so don’t stop putting a few words on paper. It’s your habit. It’s your mission. Unless it’s a hobby, which in that case you only write when you feel like it. Only you know the difference. – Hope Clark

So, what do you think about this quote?

Hope Clark tries for a thousand words a day. But if something gets in the way, she tries to put as many words down as possible. Maybe it’s a hundred, maybe it’s a thousand. It’s something, though, because she’s a professional novelist and that means putting words on the page is just as important as an otherwise employed worker showing up at the office every day.

She’s the author of “The Edisto Island Mysteries” and the “Carolina Slade Mysteries.” They read well and she’s developing a platform and a lot of satisfied readers. I mention all this, not to promote Hope Clark, but to note that while many of you may not have heard of her, she’s a successful novelist.

Many of us are not successful novelists, as the industry views the phrase, because we don’t write every day. We may have a few published books out there via small presses or self-publishing, yet we write more from the perspective of hobbyists than professionals. I suppose that if a writer’s books have never made money, then s/he finds it hard to see himself/herself as a professional. If you’re not making money or slowly gaining a list of satisfied readers, there’s no incentive for writing 200 words or a thousand words a day.

So, we rely on bursts of creativity and sooner or later we finish a book or a collection of short stories and then it gets published and appears on various online bookseller sites. Sure, we wish either that Oprah would call and tell us our latest is her next book club selection or that a Hollywood studio found our latest and has put down the cash for an option on the material. But, the chances of that are slim to none, so there’s no reason to try and turn out as many novels per year as James Patterson.

Perhaps writing when we feel like it is an expensive hobby, but more exciting than collecting stamps and coins, taking photographs of every national park, or joining a quilting club. Early on, we decided we are who we are and so that’s the way we’re going to write. If you’re young, maybe you want to keep pushing. If you’re not young, maybe you don’t.

I have no regrets about being who I am. I hope you feel the same about yourself and the number of words you write per day. We need to follow our hears when it comes to who were are and how often we write.

Malcolm

Hardcover, paperback, and e-book

 

 

We’re saying goodbye to the natural world

I think many poets, myself included, are struggling with how to keep writing in the face of the environmental degradation that is looming over us and our children, the beauties and seasons that will be lost, the diversity of flowers and trees and butterflies and fish. These are in danger of vanishing before the words for them do. Poetry is extremely hardy—it was around before the alphabet and will outlast many kinds of human technology. I am robustly optimistic about poetry, but that is maybe the only thing I am optimistic about.

I think a lot about Richard Wilbur’s “Advice to a Prophet”: “Whether there shall be lofty or long-standing / When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.” So much of our language is rooted in the old seasons, and in a miraculous natural world. It is terrifying to think that the language will outlast some of these. On the other hand, I suppose there will be new metaphors, and the poets of the future will find a way forward. – A. E. Stallings

Should writers be political? I think the answer is “yes,” though in many countries being political results in a death sentence or life imprisonment. Each of us does this in our own way. We don’t write in a vacuum. It’s hard to ignore the slings and arrows of fads, bad government, and horrible business decisions. However, many of our potential readers say they’re tired of logging on to Facebook and other services, much less the news sites, and seeing a continuous flow of bad news.

I’ve been an environmentalist for a long time, so Stalling’s words resonate with me. My response in my fiction has usually been to celebrate the natural world. Perhaps this is not enough. It appears that more people want to celebrate suburbia than the world as it was created. So, how do writers approach that point of view?

Many writers have focused on climate change. Yet readers seem to think such works are “over the top” and that climate change either isn’t happening, isn’t caused by humankind, or that the worst scenarios won’t play out for hundreds of years. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t say how soon the Earth’s environment will collapse. But we’ve been warned, I think. The least writers can do is celebrate the environment and have their fictional characters worry about global chaos.

The best we can do, perhaps, is allowing our characters the opportunity of expressing the kinds of fears we have. This way, we’re not beating our readers over the head with politics and activism. We’re telling stories in which folks have the same worries many of us have. I doubt that most people read stories that sound like a list of the political arguments of the day.  So, unless we have a seriously hardy theme, we need to be careful about how political we are.

Our readers want stories, not political tracts. Yet, we can inject our opinions if we are careful about how we do it.

Malcolm

Ten Questions for Xuan Juliana Wang from Poets & Writers

“What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?

“I would have to say the loneliness of falling out of step with society. When I’m out celebrating a friend who has just made a huge stride in their career, someone would ask me, “Hey how’s that book coming along?” Then having to tell them that I have a desk in an ex-FBI warehouse and I’ll be sitting there in the foreseeable future, occasionally looking out the window, trying to make imaginary people behave themselves.” 

Source: Ten Questions for Xuan Juliana Wang | Poets & Writers

Many writers and aspiring writers might easily share Wang’s answer to the challenges of writing books. You have to be able to accept a lot of prospective loneliness that comes with being out of sync with everyone else.

Personally, I don’t like the question “Hey how’s your book coming along” because most people want a quick answer. They don’t want to hear about the plot or your trials and tribulations and doubts. Chances are, they would be impressed if you told them you’d just signed a $100,000 deal with HarperCollins and that your agent is already in negotiations with Hollywood. Otherwise, the best answer is “slowly, but surely.”

Anything other than that, and people’s eyes glaze over and they find excuses to go to the bathroom, head over to the bar for another drink, or simply disappear. You have to be crazy or filled with a lot of passion to sign up for this.

If you’re a writer, do you feel that you’re not part of the hustle and bustle of “real life”?

Malcolm

 

Of Calendars and Deadlines

“Know what direction you are going instead of waking each day without defined purpose. Of course you have days off. Of course you build in a day of rest. But having missions and goals give more substance to your dreams. And the more organized you are, the more you accomplish, and the more efficient you become at reaching more dreams. The planning makes you seem oh so shrewd and wise.”

Source: Indie Spotlight on Mystery Writer C. Hope Clark – Anita Rodgers Mystery Writer

Sound advice from author Hope Clark as part of her current blog tour in support of her latest novel Newberry Sin. I’m the worst person to advise anyone about planning because I seldom do it. That’s my loss. But I see that those who keep their priorities straight tend to get more done. That certainly applies to writers. If everything else comes first, then a person really doesn’t want to be a writer.

–Malcolm

P.S. I’m currently reading and enjoying “Newberry Sin” and plan to post a review of it here soon.

 

 

Feds Nab Bad Writers Committing Crimes With Plot Generators

Washington, D.C., January 2, 2018, Star-Gazer News Service–Homeland Security Agents announced here today that a massive sting operation has resulted in the arrest of thousands of writers with low Amazon rankings committing crimes with the help of plot generator software rather than writing great American novels.

Chief of station Liberty Valance said that the writers were caught when the modus operandi of a “larger than usual” number of crimes matched the formal structure of short stories and novels.

“Over and over again, we were seeing exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution,” said Valance. “We also saw a correlation between writers who purchased plot generator software who were getting rich even though their Amazon rankings–with numerous one-star reviews–were in the toilet.”

Publishing insiders have worried for years that plot generator software was more likely to be used for planning perfect crimes rather than perfect fiction.

“If a writer’s any good, s/he doesn’t need a software package to create the plots for his or her novels,” said Bennett Surf, director of the American Association of MFA (manufactured authors) Colleges and Universities.

Analysts discovered that writers were launching their plot generator apps and typing in phrases like “knock over liquor store,” “make money via insider training,” “run over granny with a reindeer,” and “overthrow government” rather than using the software for the purpose for which it was intended.

“That purpose,” said Surf, “was bilking prospective writers out of hundreds of dollars by selling them a product that promised that a lack of imagination and writing skill need not keep their fiction off the New York Times bestseller list of the Pulitzer and Booker prize winners circles.”

Valance said that most of those caught designed first person crimes rather than third person or omniscient narrator crimes, making it easy for profilers to “pin the tales on the wannabees.”

A white paper issued by attorneys for the top ten plot generation applications said that the programs were dispensed for purposes of fun and relaxation, and that all of those “spending hard-earned cash” for the products signed terms of service agreements in which they promised not to use computer-assisted plotting for anything other than novels, novellas, novelettes, and short stories.

“We even banned the use of plot generators for poetry because sonnets and limericks are usually horrible and potentially criminal,” said Plots-R-Us CEO Bill Smith.”

“There never have been any writing shortcuts (other than sleeping with somebody in the publishing business) and now–thanks to the Homeland Security Department’s agents and analysts–crime no longer pays as well as it did,” Valance said.

The White House praised Valance for no longer being a decorative drapery. “Today, it’s curtains for wordy criminals,” President Trump tweeted.

–Story by Jock Stewart, Special Investigative Reporter